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

The flag of Brazil.

BY JULIA GASPAR-BATES — 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.”

Da Cruz did not encounter major culture shock when moving to the U.S., largely because he had interacted with Americans when they visited his Salvador community. “America has been good for me because there are lots of opportunities to work here. In Brazil, jobs are only available for white people. They don’t say it, but it’s clear. There is a lot of prejudice. Rich and poor people here are able to have cars and homes in the U.S. You feel confident when you walk in the street and you drive. In Brazil, if you have a nice car and you are a black person, the police will stop you to investigate why you are driving a car.” 

Livaldi “Babajan” de Cruz. Photo courtesy of Julia Gaspar-Bates

Da Cruz misses the sense of community in Brazil most, and he has tried to replicate it through his work with capoeira and music. In 2007, da Cruz and some of his friends created Samba Trovão, a Brazilian samba-reggae group, in which he plays various types of Brazilian percussion instruments. Through his music, da Cruz has toured the U.S. playing at festivals and other venues. And through capoeira, he met his American wife, Kristen.

After the two lived in DC for several years, Kristen became pregnant, and they decided to move to Maryland. They were drawn to Hyattsville “because it is close to the Metro, we knew it was a diverse community and there was the Arts District.” Da Cruz describes Hyattsville as a perfect place to live due to the “ability to create community here because neighbors are friendly and you can talk to them.”

Indeed, creating community has been a central theme for da Cruz and inspired him to co-found the Espaço Cultural Samba Trovão with Kristen. Launched in April 2017, the center provides capoeira, samba and percussion classes and will be offering a free acupuncture clinic for refugees and immigrants. Da Cruz hopes to start an after-school program through the center soon. The goal of the center, he says, “is to create a community space to promote Brazilian culture and to help underprivileged kids to create healing as a community.”

Da Cruz continued, “One of the things the whole world needs is to keep kids away from technology so they can have the face-to-face interaction and more physical activities. Kids don’t have the same opportunity to move and be creative [that they would if they made their] own instruments and toys. I would like to bring this to the community, to unite neighbors through movement, music and creativity.”

Cultural Connections is dedicated to sharing the stories of immigrants and foreigners who have settled in Hyattsville.