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Dec 02 2011

Mestre Moraes: Capoeira without prejudice

Mestre Moraes
President and founder of GCAP – Grupo de Capoeira Angola Pelourinho
Masters’ in Social History, Federal University of Bahia

I’d like to try to pass on to you all of my concerns about the theme I’m bringing to the table regarding the issue of “bullying” in capoeira.

We know that, in the various African cultures, giving a name to a child when he or she is born is the motive for ceremonies that merge with the assuming of a particular position. The giving of a name means maintaining the relationship of ancestrality between the child and his/her predecessors.

From the African ports, the slave trade has been removing the names of Africans. It was a strategy for denying identity, denying the relationship that this child, man, or woman had – with baptism. It would be better if it was called a ceremony or any other name besides baptism, because the term “baptism” itself is a colonizer. With the arrival of these Africans in the Diasporas, this practice of name removal was continued. The objective was that they would remain unknowns in the new world, with no possibility of contacting their relatives.

What saddens me is knowing that practices that were once utilized to repress those men and women who the society of the time called the “dangerous classes” – dangerous because they didn’t accept the negation of their right to liberty – that we, capoeiristas, continue to this day the practice of giving nicknames to capoeiristas (practitioners of capoeira), justifying capoeira nicknames with tradition.

It’s an ironic mistake, because there was no tradition of giving nicknames. This tradition would not have been accepted, as it was not accepted at any time by the African descendants, by the Africans who were trafficked to this country (I want to specifically speak about Brazil). They didn’t accept this form of treatment which, however it was done, was always pejorative. I call it “pejorative” not to have your own name, the name of your origin, and having to accept a Catholic name chosen by the slave master or by the slave trader.

Contradictorily – in the face of this battle that all we Afro-descendants and other ethnic segments of this society have fought to have possibility of gaining our authority and liberty on all social levels –  unfortunately in a practice that we believe would be responsible for continuing the battle for liberty, continues having the practice of many slave masters and traders – and this practice occurs in capoeira.

What can be said about a capoeirista who, when he rises the level of capoeira mestre, he continues to accept being called Urubu (“vulture”), Rato (“rat”), Sapo (“frog”), Macaco (“monkey”) [Translator’s note: In Brazil, it is extremely offensive to call a dark-skinned person “monkey”]  – and justifies this with tradition?

And your son will train capoeira with one of these capoeira mestres, who then resolves (also justifying it in the name of tradition) to call your son – who was named after his grandfather or great-grandfather, or after a singer you really liked who reminds you of happy moments – and you name your son after this singer, and then a capoeira mestre appears and decides authoritatively that from that moment on, in the name of tradition, your son will be called “vulture.” He will be called “frog.” He will be called “spider.” He will be named after any of these animals that only fit into the mestre’s understanding of tradition.

Now, what happens in reality is that I’ve asked many capoeira mestres, capoeiristas, and capoeira beginners if their parents call them by their apelido (nickname). And they say, “No. My dad doesn’t like it. But I tell my dad that my mestre said that this apelido is for tradition. And I respect tradition, and I respect my mestre, so I want to keep the nickname, even though you don’t like it, mom and dad.”

So today, the mestre of capoeira, contradictorily – I don’t want to generalize, but I can state that 90% of capoeira mestres have continued this practice. I’ve been the victim of problems as a result of my battle against this practice in capoeira. There are capoeiristas who disown me because I want to discuss it and bring this discussion to society.

What’s interesting is the proposal of Law 10.639, a federal law that guides the inclusion of cultures of African roots in elementary, middle, and high schools, in basic education, and we know that our children are there. Capoeira is being included; it is part of the curriculum of various state and city schools. And our sons are there, at the disposition of these capoeira mestres who believe that they can no longer be Jose – that they, because they are black, can be “monkey,” “vulture,” or whatever else interests these capoeira mestres.

I’ve had the experience – the happy experience – of talking with some capoeiristas, including Urubu (“vulture”), who I mention because he is a capoeira mestre in Rio de Janeiro. He publicly stated that he no longer wanted anyone to call him Urubu because I said to him, “Your mother didn’t give birth to a vulture.” He said, “That’s true, mestre. My mother gave birth to me.” – and he said that he no longer wanted anyone to call him “vulture.”

Another, because he is tall and black, his nickname is “Chaminé” (chimney). He also decided that no one should call him Chaminé any longer. And many others have such nicknames. Logically, because we knowing that the European beauty standard reigns in this country – of course, with the globalization of capoeira, the Europeans have different nicknames. Their nicknames are less aggressive – or they are reminiscent of heroes or “beautiful” people as portrayed on TV, and that’s why they have different nicknames than African descendants. So, normally the nickname of an African descendent is pejorative, disrespectful, and no one has done anything about it.

I call attention to this, ladies and gentlemen, because if you intend to put your kids in capoeira, or if any of you yourselves practice capoeira and have a nickname, I hope that you begin to reflect on the fact that you have a name, and whoever has a name doesn’t need a nickname.

Regarding the question of “bullying”: does “bullying” exist in capoeira? Could my children and your children who train capoeira and are in school feel happy being called “monkey” or “telephone booth” or “cripple” and other such things that capoeiristas have been called?

This is the reflection that I bring to the table, and I want to give thanks for the opportunity to bring this discussion to an audience that I’m sure will contribute in some way, with me, so that this subject is shared, is talked about in the world of capoeira and throughout society, so that we can try to call the attention of the capoeiristas – that they don’t need nicknames. They need names.

So I want to give thanks and to say that I don’t practice capoeira only to throw my legs up in the air as many are doing. I believe that in capoeira we need to pay attention to the socio-political issues. Yes, we need to take capoeira all over the world; yes, we need to have capoeira in schools, but capoeira needs to be discussed within the molds that our capoeira ancestors did – battling.

Today, of course, do we need to pick up weapons? We don’t – yet. We have another weapon, which is education. And to educate is to try to elevate the capoeirista’s self-esteem, to lift our students’ self-esteem so that they are interested in living in society, discussing, questioning our society. But of course – as long as they have nicknames rather than names, they will not be citizens. And if they are not citizens, then they will not be part of this society, which has been discriminatory for a long time and is only changing its discrimination into new forms of being prejudiced against our people of African descent.

Thank you very much, and I want to thank TEDx Pelourinho for this opportunity. I want to be in other times and other places; I’m willing to take this discussion to any place. If any of you are directors of schools or if you have a space where I can share this concern of mine, I’m always willing. Thank you very much.

Have you experienced prejudice in capoeira? Do you think capoeira nicknames can be pejorative? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

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8 comments

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  1. Chupa Teta

    My apelido is Chupa Teta (“tit-sucker”) and I like it. But Mestre Moraes has his truth.

    For 90% of Capoeiristas it’s a kind of tradition, part of initiation and very effective way to teach loyalty and commitment to the group. It is also a common practice in Religious Organization, such as Christianity and minor sects.

  2. Bigodinho

    Hi,

    Even though there is no further need to have apelidos since Capoeira is no longer prohibited I think as an European of it as a good tradition as long as it is executed properly. Capoeira is for us non Brazilians and may be also for Brazilians a mystical world with other rules and a lot of secrets. For me my apelido is like training gear, like my Abada with it I show that I am doing Capoeira that I have been introduced into the world of Capoeira. Of course you may say it is not necessary to demonstrate this with an apelido , but this is the way with a lot of symbols like for example marriage which is after all also only a symbol for living together and caring for each other. You could do it without but with it is much more beautiful.

    I think that nobody deserves to have an offensive nickname as described by Mestre Moraes and I think poorly of any Mestre how needs to humiliate his students in this way even more if this done in a racist way as indicated by Mestre Moraes.
    But as long as the nickname is not offensive I agree with this tradition.

    Axe Bigodinho

    1. Shayna

      Yes, I think the key word is respect. As long as there is respect for the student and the nickname given is not derogatory, I have no problem with it.

      I also like it best when capoeira nicknames arise “naturally” like nicknames in regular life – rather than the mestre/instructor trying to think up a nickname and force it to stick.

      Various people have tried to nickname me over the years (I can think of at least 4 apelidos they’ve tried to give) but none of them have stuck, and that’s OK with me :-)

  3. Gameleira

    I understand the Mestre’s point, I would however like to point a few things.

    1. Mestre Bimba’s name wasn’t flattering either, although he received it from birth. He embraced it and gave it a new meaning. Thus he managed to rise beyond the simple meaning of a name.
    Is it your name that defines you, or you’re character?
    and…
    Isn’t your Mestre your father (or mother) in capoeira?

    2. I like the fact of being able to have a clean slate to begin with. Because that’s what a new name can mean for someone. I’d like to point out that people get discriminated on because of their name on a daily basis… Imagine being called ‘Hitler’…

    3. If it can happen with respect, I think the giving of names can be an asset. Since Mestre Bimba decided on the tradition for Regional, I am planning to honor it.

    4. The giving of nicknames is organised in capoeira, yes… but I knew allot of people who had ‘nasty’ nicknames they got outside capoeira…

    Conclusion, as with everything, there is a chance of abuse. A knife can be used to cut a sandwich, but can also be used to kill. This isn’t in my opinion reason enough to stop using knives. It is reason to educate people on the use of knives however…

    That’s isn’t to say that I don’t think the Mestre has valid points.

  4. Gerard

    I think one big problem with giving nicknames is that it creates a separation between Capoeira and the rest of your life.

    You have your real name and your Capoeira name. You have your real clothes and your Capoeira clothes.You have your real life and your Capoeira life. All of this turns Capoeira into a world that is separate from your real world.

    How can you ever truly learn the lessons of Capoeira if you always leave those lessons behind when you leave the academy and go back to your real life?

    This is especially true for non-Brazilians who seek to fit into “the world of Capoeira” by putting on an ‘exotic’ Brazilian sounding name. This is a fetishization of Capoeira, not an embracing of it.

    I believe that as Capoeiristas we should seek to live Capoeira every day and carry its teachings with us in whatever we do in the real world.

  5. Nils N. H.

    Hi there. Greetings from Norway.

    Thought provoking article.

    I very much understand Mestre Moraes point, that having apelidos can create a certain artificial divide between the life of being a capoeirista and being a responsible, world citizen. Before this article I hadn’t thought about these nicknames in this way.

    My apelido is Tatuí (Strand Crab), and I’m quite content with it. I guess it reflects my style, staying low to the ground and I “pinch” (fight back) if I’m bothered a lot. But then again what does something like your zodiac sign say about you?

    I’ve always tried to see the humor inherent in the nicknames, and often it is good humor, but nicknaming someone “Lazy” isn’t constructive. At worst it’s self-fulfilling. How to grow with such a name?

    To conclude, I guess it boils down to asking whether or not we need to create “capoeira identities” for ourselves through nicknames. Or if we should have Capoeira meld with our real name, our larger identity.

  6. Christopher mungumi zacharia

    how can i join if i want to train.

    1. Gameleira

      You should search the internet for groups in your vicinity and just go and visit when they train.

      Kind regards.

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