Lessons of the Pink Dolphins

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Brazilian scholar Cleu Villafane is happy to raise her American children and wants to teach Americans the culture and traditions of her native Brazil.
Photo by Albert Fulcher

Sometimes during warm starlit evenings in Chula Vista Cleusilene Villafane can see and hear the pink dolphins of the Amazon River frolicking in the churning coffee currents of the planet’s greatest waterway. At times she answers them, but refuses their invitations to return home.

Home is now the Southern California borderlands for the poetic Brazilian scholar and idealist. Villafane, a petite woman of impish charm, left her native land as a student to study America, found love and never returned.

This is no American fairy tale, however. Like millions of immigrants before her, Villafane struggled mightily in the land of e plurbus unum. She began her American odyssey as a university researcher. She boarded a jumbo-jet and took to the skies for the eight-hour journey to Riverside, New Jersey because there she felt she could acclimate herself to the culture of the U.S. with the support of the area’s sizable Brazilian population.

“There is a very big Brazilian community in Riverside,” she said. “I thought it would be better because it was very close to New York. It was my dream to live close to New York, because there you can see people from all over the world and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Villafane’s early experiences in America were bleak. She suffered severe culture shock and was preyed upon by many of the ex-pat Brazilians she was counting on to help her. She arrived with no money, no prospects for employment and little English. Luckily, she met Ivette Szekely, a native of Hungry who faced a very similar situation. They became fast friends.

“We were the ones who tried our hardest to understand each other,” said Szekely. “Her native language is Portuguese, mine Hungarian but that didn’t matter. We had patience with each other and figured out what the other was trying to say. We just had to listen carefully.”

Villafane said she was profoundly disappointed with the other New Jersey Brazilians, who seemed to have evolved into Lusophonic versions of The Sopranos.

“They hung around speaking Portuguese, eating Brazilian food all the time,” she said. “It was like they were wasting their time. They were here in the United States and they think and live like they’re in Brazil. They just think about money, money, money all the time. I did not have that ambition. I did not want to earn money to buy things. I wanted to earn money to learn.”

Villafane recalled hitting rock bottom during a period of homesickness when she wanted to send a letter home. Unable to communicate with American postal workers, she asked a roommate for help. The woman made her pay $10.

Extortionist fees never stopped. She had to pay everybody to help her with anything. If she needed a ride, $15. Translation help, $20. Villafane grew tired of being used. She made up her mind to return to Brazil.

“I did not come here to be a rat,” she said. “I realized in that moment that everything was so difficult. I thought ‘what am I doing here?’ I didn’t come to work as a slave for another Brazilian. I thought maybe I should go back to my country. But I didn’t want to go back because I felt like that would make me a loser.”

She decided it to give it one more try. A Brazilian-American acquaintance offered to help her find a job, for a fee, of course. She decided to pay her the money to help.

At last, a glimmer of hope.

Villafane was hired to be a caregiver for an elderly woman who was recently widowed. She said she was excited because she thought she would have an opportunity to make a living and learn English at the same time.

It was a tough job because the woman was suffering from depression and Villafane could not speak to her. So she switched to non-verbal communication and sang and danced while working to lighten the mood in the somber household. Eventually the woman began to whistle along with Villafane’s uplifting antics. Then she would hum. Then came the smiles and attempts to sing and dance along.

Villafane was smiling, but not on the inside. She rarely spoke. Lacking the ability to communicate with the woman’s family, the silence made Villafane feel insignificant.

“In all of my entire life, I never felt so

stupid,” she said, “because I didn’t say anything. If they were saying something bad, I was smiling. If they were saying something sad, I was smiling. If they said something happened, I was smiling. We had no communication.”

Villafane said she decided it was time to return to Brazil.

A friend convinced her that if she was to leave America, she must say goodbye in American style at a New York City nightclub.

“I said no, I’m not going,” she said, “but I went. That was good because I met my (future) husband that night and I fell in love with him. And then all my plans changed. A year later we got married and I forgot all about my plans, I forgot about wanting to go back to Brazil. I was here.”

Soon the couple relocated to California for her husband’s job with the Department of Homeland Security. Villafane was home, but confessed she still dreamed of the sleepy Amazon tributary town of Itapirapuã, in the state of Goias, Brazil, where she felt she had status and standing in the community.

“I had all this experience in my town and in my country,” she said. “I was very close to the government. I was a teacher and I was doing what I loved. I felt I was a professional. I felt I was someone doing something good in my country. Then I came here, and I was a house cleaner, a caregiver and I realized that I didn’t know how to speak English. And that was a problem that I had to correct, and I am trying.”

She said although she has made a happy home here in the United States, she hopes one day to return to Itapirapuã with her American family and address the goals she had in mind when she made the trek in the first place, to promote equality in education for those who suffer without.

“I would like to make a better world for everybody,” she said. “Not just the ones who have the opportunities to go to college.  I would like to reach the ones who could not afford to go to private schools or to college.”

Villafane was a writer in Brazil and a Portuguese-language poet who wrote produced plays. Her creativity is struggling to blossom in the sunlight once again, this time in English. She has written a children’s book about a brave ant traveling through the Amazon rainforest as well as articles for nature journals about river tubing in Itapirapuã and the mysterious pink dolphins of the Amazon River.

Many native Brazilians believe the pink dolphins leave the river and become human gods. Villafane said she now feels she can leave the river and become human again.

“I am a teacher and I came to America so I could teach Brazilians about America,” she said. “Now I think it is my destiny to teach Americans about Brazil.”

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