Issue 8.5: October/November 2005


story by Julia Steele
photos by Sergio Goes

Leonardo "Japa" Naito is
one of several capoeira
experts in the Islands.

Maybe it was Brazil Night

at this year’s Fiftieth State Fair. Maybe it was the guy walking down King Street in a capoeira T-shirt, chatting on his cell phone in Portuguese. Maybe it was the downtown screening of the Rio documentary Favela Rising, packed with Rio expats. Or, maybe it was the new Brazilian restaurant in McCully, or the just-opened Brazilian boutique in Kaimuki. Somewhere along the way, the truth became inescapable: Brazilians are turning up everywhere in the Islands. "Yeah," laughs Waimea Bay lifeguard and Brasileiro Vitor Marcal, "we’re invading." Small wonder the beach he guards has been nicknamed Ipanema West.

It wasn’t always this way. Twenty years ago, when I arrived on Oahu, the only steady reminder that Brazil even existed was Sergio Mielniczenko’s "verrrry, verrrry nice" samba show on KIPO’s world music afternoon—and even that, nationally syndicated as it was, came from elsewhere. But now: You want to hear Brazilian music, eat Brazilian food, dance Brazilian dance, study Brazilian martial arts, wear Brazilian fashions, have your very own non-stop carnaval—não tem problema. On the beaches, in the parks, in the ocean, in the city, there are Brazilians to be found. How many no one really knows, but one friend summed it up poetically when he estimated "a bazillion."

All of which begs the question: Why here, why now? Why have so many left the land of sun and samba for the land of sun and slack key? To understand the Brazilian mindset, I thought, why not ask a Brazilian psychologist? So I called Dr. Evelyne Raposo, who hails from Rio and came to the Islands sixteen years ago. We met at a fundraiser at Tudo du Bom, the aforementioned restaurant in McCully. The place is festooned with Brazilian flags and framed Brazilian soccer jerseys, and the night I was there, the women were clad in scant, sequined clothing, and there was much shaking of hips and kissing of cheeks. When I asked Evelyne why all the Brazilians, she took a deep breath and, rapid fire, rattled off ten succinct reasons:

"The mana, the aloha, the people, the spirit—that’s the first thing that calls us. Then, the nature is very similar: It’s tropical, with the same plants. The ohana sense of family is very similar to Brazil. The North Shore brings all of the surfers. Other Brazilians come because of our Portuguese roots, because there are Portuguese roots here, too. And there are many colors here—black, white, mulatto; we’re very used to hapa people because Brazil has many cultures. The weather is almost identical. Hawaiians are very respectful of spirituality, and we also have that. Brazilians are big meat eaters and this is a meat-eating state. And the local people are very forgiving and tolerant, and Brazilians are that way." She leaned back in her chair and beamed. "Most of us feel very much at home here."

Horacio Siexas, his wife Marisa
and their daughter Kaili.

There are some who would argue that how much at home you feel anywhere is a reflection of how much at peace you are with yourself. By that measure Horacio Seixas, the soul of serenity, is right at home on the North Shore—and his roots in the Islands literally run about as deep as those of any Brazilian you’re likely to find. Twenty-six years ago he arrived on the North Shore and decided he wasn’t leaving. "Twenty surf spots in four miles," he says simply to explain the decision. And then, twenty-five years ago, this former forestry engineer got an acre of land in the hills above Püpükea and started planting. Today his garden grows wild and lush, filled with the plants of the tropics. At the heart of the garden, towering over his simple house, is a massive cashew nut tree, planted twenty years ago to commemorate the birth of his daughter. It came from a seed from Bahia, in the north of Brazil.

The day I meet Horacio, the tree is in full bloom, and we pick and eat cashew fruit. It’s delicious: cloying, sweet, juicy. Horacio walks me through his green wonderland, pointing out all-spice, breadfruit and banana trees; fig, lychee and coconut trees; longan, jackfruit and avocado trees; mango, guava and cacao trees. He also has Brazilian plants: açai, which grows on the banks of the Amazon ("it has these little seeds that make this red juice, and one day everybody’s gonna know about it"); a bush of pimento peppers from Bahia ("these are hot—one little one is good for a huge pot of beans"); an herba cidrera bush ("everybody in Brazil uses this to make tea when you have a stomachache"). Horacio and his Italian wife Marisa are obviously right at home on the North Shore: Marisa works as a tropical flower arranger, Horacio as a surfboard glasser. And the love of surfing has passed to the next generation: Marisa’s and Horacio’s daughter Kaili is an avid surfer—her roots may be in the tree of her father’s homeland but they are also in the ocean down the hill.

Waimea Bay lifeguard
Vitor Marcal

A few miles from Horacio’s jungle, on the beach at Waimea Bay, I meet Vitor Marcal. Vitor’s from Curitiba in the south of Brazil, an inland city with a high elevation and harsh winters. Fifteen years ago, Vitor decided he’d had enough of that and arrived on Oahu, lured by the surf. "In Hawaii, everything is big, huge; there are more accessible channels," he says of the Islands’ waves. "In Brazil, there are more beach breaks, more rip currents, the surf is smaller, the water not so blue." The surf that drew him here kept him here, and Vitor survived the way many do when they first arrive in Hawaii: doing odd jobs, gardening, driving vehicles. But Vitor is a great athlete in the water, and ten years ago he was able to parlay that skill into a job as a city and county lifeguard. "I worked pretty much every tower on the island before winding up at Waimea," he says.

Like Horacio, he’s here to stay. "After going back to Brazil and seeing the way things are, I can’t go back. I like to be hot," he says as the sun beats down on us on Waimea’s beach. "There are still long lines to pay bills in Brazil, the supermarkets are crowded, some things are difficult to get. I wanted a laid-back lifestyle, and Hawai‘i actually brings that to you."

But laid-back lifestyle or not, he sees compatriots come and go. "Some Brazilians come here to change their lives around, some come for surfing, some come for fame, some come because Hawai‘i is still the icon. But the surf cannot feed you—and some people get homesick and find it hard to blend in to the American culture." Vitor talks about Brazil, about the poverty, crime and corruption that plague the country, and whether he’s going back or not, his concern for his homeland is palpable. When I ask him about this, he shrugs. "Brazilians are patriotic," he says. "Even if you’re away, you’re proud and you don’t want to hear bad things."

Relson Gracie and his son Rhalan.

In the industrial section of Honolulu, wedged in between auto-body shops and detailers, sits the Relson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy. Forget the place’s unassuming façade—this is the outpost of a dynasty. The Gracies are the world’s greatest fighting family, renowned for developing Brazilian jiu-jitsu and taking it all over the world. Relson, who is from the third generation of fighting Gracies, looks like a Brazilian Steve McQueen: all solid muscle and intensity, with a body as immovable as a tree trunk. At the school, he trains adults and children alike. I watch the classes one Saturday morning: The moves are controlled, strategic; it feels like the physical equivalent of a chess game is going on. Oddly enough, despite the fact that knees and elbows are being wedged into necks and backs, there is no feeling of aggression or violence in the room, more a feeling of choreography and camaraderie.

After class, in an office decorated with pictures of his famous family, Relson details an account of the history of jiu-jitsu: begun in Indian Buddhist temples by monks determined to protect themselves while out on pilgrimages, taken to China by Genghis Khan and from there to Japan, where it was embraced by the samurai. At that point, different styles emerged: judo, karate, aikido. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, says Relson, incorporates elements of all of those styles and more—it grew out of a chance meeting in 1915 between Relson’s grandfather and a Japanese visitor to Brazil.

Relson himself left Brazil in 1985 to begin teaching jiu-jitsu in America, and wound up in Hawaii in 1989. He was seduced, he says, by the fruit—guavas, pineapple, sugar cane—and the climate and started teaching at the University of Hawaii. As word of the sport grew, the numbers of his students swelled, from eighty to 600, and he opened his school in 1999. Like Vitor, he is in Hawaii to stay—and he adds another consideration to the list Evelyne provided. "Brazil is very violent, very dangerous, people kidnap kids over there," he says; Relson is the father of five children and relishes the security they have here. "They can take the bus alone," he says. "I don’t have to worry." Of course, he might not have to worry too much, anyway: All of his children who are old enough have studied jiu-jitsu—and they are, after all, Gracies.

Raul "Boca" Torres (top)
and sister Andrea Torres.

Raul "Boca" Torres and his sister Andrea, both from São Paulo, arrived in the Islands at roughly the same point: Raul came out first, in 1989, to do the Kona Ironman. It was his first Ironman; he sold his motorbike in Brazil to pay for a ticket to America, then went to Los Angeles to train. "I had a bicycle and lived in Culver City and worked on Sunset Boulevard, so I biked fifty to sixty miles a day," he remembers. When he did well in Kona, he decided to stay in Hawai‘i and train for the next Ironman. "I’ve had a passion for fitness all of my life," he says: To date he has done eleven Kona Ironmans and numerous other triathalons in Brazil, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Japan and France. In the early ’90s he got a scholarship to run cross-country for Hawai‘i Pacific University and graduated with a degree in business administration. Then he literally put his money where his mouth is: He started his own coaching business, naming it "Boca," which is Portuguese for mouth—Raul’s nickname since he was a kid.

Ten years on, Boca Hawaii is thriving. "I like to convince people to work out and do stuff and be healthy," he says; he now trains about 500 Island athletes a year. He is married to a Tahitian woman, Hina, and they have two children. "Brazilians are exotic people—they like to travel, explore, try different things," he says. "But for me, this definitely feels like home."

His sister agrees. Andrea plays the goddess of the moon her sister-in-law is named for, Hina, in the Maui stage spectacular ‘Ulalena. A classically trained ballerina, Andrea is now an aerialist; she personifies Hina dressed in silver and twirling gracefully in rings suspended above the stage.

"When I turned nineteen, I packed and left Brazil, not knowing what I was going to do," she says. "I was supposed to stay in Hawaii three months and I never left. I loved it. I couldn’t believe it had coconut trees! It reminded me of Bahia—laid-back and mellow, only here I can make money and work." Her job with ‘Ulalena, she says, "is the best thing that’s ever happened." She loves her life on Maui. And her four-year-old son Gabriel may be a harbinger of the first generation born to Brazilian immigrants on Island soil: A student in a language immersion school, he is fluent in English, Portuguese—and Hawaiian.      HH