Cultural Connections: Traditional arts have opened many doors for one Brazilian immigrant

By Julia Gaspar-Bates (View full story here on Hyattsville Life & Times)

Growing up in the Bahía region of northern Brazil presented many challenges and opportunities for Livaldi “Babajan” da Cruz. Born into a favela (ghetto) on the outskirts of the city of Salvador, da Cruz explained, “I lived in the middle of all kinds of people — from good to bad. Everybody was living together and trying to keep everybody else on the right track.” Da Cruz lived with his parents and five siblings in a small home in an alleyway. “I come from a poor family. My dad would wake all the boys at 4 a.m. to go to the open marketplace to buy fruit to put in a wheelbarrow to sell in the street to give us money. If we were lucky we would sell enough fruit to have food in the house. There were times when we didn’t have food and we would only have sugared water and dry bread to eat. But my parents always made sure that we had a lot of discipline and manners so we wouldn’t end up on the wrong path.”

At age 10, da Cruz started to do theater at a local community center that provided creative arts to underprivileged youth to equip them for a better future. He continued to study capoeira (a Brazilian martial art that incorporates elements of dance, music and acrobatics), samba and music, eventually becoming a performing arts teacher himself.

Capoeira has been significant in da Cruz’s life. “Capoeira is a tradition of [slave] resistance through building community and [changing] your life within the social structure. You’re always learning the ritual and the tradition. It’s part of Brazil’s oral history — you have to learn through doing and living it.”

Capoeira also proved to be the ticket out of Brazil for da Cruz. In 2004, he was invited to attend a conference in California held by the International Capoeira Angola Foundation (ICAF or FICA). “After the conference, I was invited to come to DC to teach. [ICAF] paid for my trip, but I had to pay them back by working construction. I did volunteer work at a charter school to teach Brazilian culture, capoeira and samba. At the same time, I was giving classes and workshops at other schools to make a living.”