Keshia L. Harris, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Comparative Human Development
Traveling to Brazil to begin my dissertation reminded me a lot of skydiving. Before arriving here, I was anxious because I didn’t know exactly what to expect in terms of data collection. As often as I embark on these journeys, I always find it challenging to leave home for an extended period of time. As I began to reflect on how things have progressed since I arrived in Brazil, I remembered ascending into the sky on the small plane to go skydiving a few years ago. Similar to having been in Brazil before but this time starting my dissertation, I was accustomed to flying in an airplane but had never experienced jumping out of one. I was so nervous before making the jump that I was sure my heart would explode out of my chest. Then we jumped and it was the most amazing experience I’d ever had in my life. Starting my dissertation in Brazil has surpassed that experience.
Taken at a Saturday English Learning Course in Itacaranha (suburb of Salvador)
As I write this, I am in Salvador, a city with a population of approximately 3 million residents, located in Northeast Brazil. During this productive and life-inspiring 10 weeks, I’ve been fortunate to conduct research at five high schools located throughout the city of Salvador.
The goal of my dissertation is to answer the following questions: (1) how do postsecondary goals and perceptions of educational equality vary by skin color and socioeconomic status among Brazilian and Colombian adolescents, and (2) what role does perceived discrimination play in shaping postsecondary goals? To respond to these questions, I am conducting a mixed methods study in Salvador, Brazil and Cartagena, Colombia. The mixed methods approach includes quantified survey questions and qualitative interview questions. The survey responses will be analyzed by quantitative regression analyses to measure effects of factors such as perceived discrimination and skin tone differences on academic achievement and postsecondary goals. Interviews provide the opportunity to explore reasons why adolescents are choosing future educational paths and what factors have contributed to their decisions.
Why these two cities? Besides the fact that they’re absolutely beautiful places to conduct research, they have similar histories of political and economic influence within their countries and illustrate divergent conceptions of what it means to be of African descent in their nations.
Salvador is located in the poorest region of Brazil, the Northeast. The city was founded as the first capital of Brazil in 1549. The city’s location on the coast of the northeast region made it a prime port of entry for the importation of African slaves during the colonial period (1500-1822). The city flourished as the country’s economic center due to slave work on tobacco and sugar plantations in the 1800s. It was the country’s richest and most highly populated city. Salvador remained the capital of Brazil until 1763, when the nation’s wealth shifted to a new capital, Rio de Janeiro. Salvador is the present capital of the state of Bahia and is currently the third largest city in Brazil with a population of 2.9 million (2013 census). Although Salvador has the highest population of the country’s African descendants, Brazilians with European physical features make up the city’s elite population (Perry, 2013).
Cartagena is also situated in one of the nation’s poorest regions, located on the northern coast of Colombia. The city was founded on June 1, 1553. Cartagena was the first Colombian city authorized for the trade of African slaves. During its colonial era from 1533–1717, the city’s coastal location made it a primary trading port for gold, silver, and African slaves; hence, its current high population of African descendants (Telles, 2014). It is currently the fifth largest city in Colombia with a population of 988,000 (2011 Census). Cartagena is the capital of the Bolívar state of Colombia.
While Cartagena and Salvador have similar colonial pasts, present day discourses of multiculturalism are quite distinct. The political language of African descent culture is more dominant in Salvador than any other Brazilian city (Perry, 2013; Pinho 2008). Residents of Salvador associate pride with African heritage while still appreciating the country’s multiethnic national discourse (Pinho, 2015). However, many Cartagena residents who are physically representative of African-descended populations frequently identify as mulatto or mixed race despite having one of the highest African descent populations in the nation (Lasso, 2006; Streicker 1995). Thus, I explore how social inequalities and skin color stratification in education are understood differently among youth in two cities with similar histories and economic inequalities, but with divergent discourses of racial difference.
Thus far, in Salvador, I’ve administered 338 surveys and conducted 40 interviews with high school seniors attending schools in working, middle, and upper class neighborhoods in order to obtain a variety of socioeconomic experiences. My research mentor here, who is a professor of psychology at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA), connected me with some of his graduate students who have either taught or done volunteer work at high schools throughout the city. Additionally, I established contact with the principal of the private school in my sample through my host mother’s son, who is a former student. Networking has been a huge contribution to my progress. After I contact the high school principals or coordinators, I enter the schools, meet the staff, get a tour of the school, and either schedule the start date for data collection or immediately enter the classrooms to administer surveys (interviews come after I’ve spent more than one week in the schools, in order to build rapport with students). For the most part the data collection process has been a more positive experience than challenging. However, some of the challenges that I have experienced were not being allowed to collect data at a few private schools and having to reschedule data collection periods due to weekly school administrative strikes in all of the public schools in my sample.
There is absolutely no way that I could discuss the progress of my research without mentioning the current state of the country. Since I arrived, the nation has voted to impeach its first female president, multiple protests have erupted all over the country, the prices of oil and food products have drastically increased, and job loss and business closings are at an all time high. This is all occurring in the midst of economic recovery from the 2014 World Cup and preparation for the 2016 Olympics. On a positive note, I’ve been able to incorporate these topics into my interviews, which the participants have been more than willing and enthusiastic to discuss. While many Brazilians with whom I’ve spoken, including those of various ages not participating in my study, have expressed feelings of discouragement, distrust, and demoralization, a remarkable number remain hopeful that their country will improve with time. I end with an expression that I learned from one of the girls who participated in my study: “A esperança é a última que morre” (Hope is the last to die).
Taken at Two of the Five Research Sites
Perry, K-K. Y. (2013). Black women against the land grab: The fight for racial justice in brazil. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.
Pinho, P. (2015). Bahia is a closer africa: Brazilian slavery and heritage in african american roots tourism. In African Heritage and Memories of Slavery in Brazil and the South Atlantic World. Cambria Press.
Pinho, P. (2008). African-American roots tourism in brazil. Latin American Perspectives, 35(3), 70-86.
Streicker, J. (1995). Policing boundaries: Race, class, and gender in Cartagena, Colombia. American Ethologist, 22, 54-74.
Telles, E. (2014). Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.