Nadine Domingo wanted to learn a language that has special meaning in her life.
Monica Rocha Martinez wanted to explore a new region and culture in her home country.
Together the two Western students fulfilled personal and professional goals on a unique field research trip this summer to Florianopolis, Brazil with anthropology professor Pamela Block.
It wasn’t a traditional academic trip as much as a self-directed journey to experience Brazilian research and culture.
The group went to explore disability studies and activism, teaming up with Block’s longtime research associate and friend Marivete Gesser, a psychologist and professor at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC) in Florianopolis.
Gesser also works in the field of disability research and is the head of the Centre for Disability Studies at her university.
“It was so, so interesting to see all of these different perspectives come together, fighting for the same goal. While showcasing their research, I could tell they were very passionate about it,” said Martinez, who lived in Brazil until she was 15.
She jumped at the opportunity for a summer research trip investigating the intersections of disability with sexuality, gender, race and other factors. Though she was studying in a different state, Martinez said she was “still somewhat at home.”
“I was very happy to go back home, especially to an academic environment, because that’s not the experience I had in Brazil,” she said.
“I also really liked to attend classes in Brazil – it’s a cool ‘what could have been’ for me. If I had not moved, that’s what I would be doing right now. It was so interesting seeing the way Brazilian citizens and academics approach certain topics.”
Disability in Brazil
Domingo and Martinez took classes alongside Brazilian students and participated in a disability symposium hosted by Block and Gesser, following two years of virtual programming led by the two professors during the pandemic. The theme was disability visibility, based on a series of portraits created by disabled people, scholars and artists using music, podcasts and visual art.
“The symposium was wonderful. We got so many perspectives on disability through art,” Martinez said, adding the event was one of her favourite experiences in Florianopolis.
Gesser’s students – as well as Brazilian researchers from other parts of the country – were also invited to come and learn.
“One interesting thing is the opportunity students had for intercultural experiences. During the course there was rich discussion between Brazilian and Canadian students,” Gesser said.
Block and Gesser have modeled that kind of intercultural and international research relationship for years, publishing on disability research together in three languages.
Exploring language, culture and research in Florianopolis
Block said the trip was about helping the students explore their options for academic work and future career paths.
“We were introducing the students to our research interests, but also giving them opportunities to develop their own. It was a really positive experience. It was very personalized and different from a lot of international programs.” – Anthropology professor Pamela Block
This trip, with a tight-knit group and special accommodations, was almost like a cultural exchange.
The entire group stayed at Gesser’s home, even experiencing traditional Brazilian churrasco, or barbecue.
It was the first time Block offered an international field research trip. She plans to take a new group to Brazil again next summer, the culmination of a new course that will be offered during the winter term: 3382G-200 Intersectional Identities in Brazil.
Domingo, a second-year psychology student who went to Florianopolis with the specific goal of learning Portuguese, came home from the trip with invaluable exposure to help inspire her next steps and career path.
“I really want to work in psychology and I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to work in occupational or organizational (fields),” she said. “I may want to focus on physical disabilities, though I was so focused on invisible disabilities before.”
She enjoyed hearing from Brazilian researchers and activists, including on topics of disability access in the workplace and the system of quotas. Domingo was also attracted by Block and Gesser’s focus on studying how disabilities intersect with race, gender, economic status and sexuality.
“This trip showed me I need to do work I am passionate about,” she said.
But Domingo also had a specific goal for her time in Florianopolis.
“My family is from Angola. I don’t speak my mother tongue. This was an opportunity to force me to be in a place where I have to communicate in Portuguese,” she said.
Domingo had tried to learn on her own, but the immersive experience during her stay in Brazil was key. She encouraged everyone to speak to her in Portuguese and spoke little English, even with Block and Gesser. Martinez translated to help Domingo with the crucial pieces.
The Western team took time to be tourists in Brazil as well, eating at cafes and visiting artisanal fairs.
“The food was amazing. Being able to just try different things I had never tried before was incredible,” Domingo said.
“I was so scared coming into a place not knowing their language, but everyone was just so friendly. For me, the people and the culture were the highlights.”