The Beautiful Gift of Cantagalo

Cantagalo 2

By David Chee – Emzingo Fellow (NexGen Brazil)

I didn’t know what I expected to find in Cantagalo, but it definitely wasn’t a moment of grace that would change my outlook on Brazil. Maestre Dá had just finished explaining how Emzingo was the only group to come into the favela (the Brazilian word for slum) after dark and that it meant a great deal to him and his community that more groups from the asphalt (favela slang for those well-off and living near the beach) wanted to learn and connect with his hometown. He was a third-generation product of Cantagalo, his grandmother had moved there in 1914 and never left. At age 14, he saw his best friend gunned down in front of him while in the favela and it changed his life forever. Since then he dedicated his life to lifting up his community through youth outreach programs like Samba drumming classes, which we were able to watch during our tour and which completely mesmerized our senses.

On the tour I witnessed the beauty of the favela coming from mountainous ridges ablaze with lights compacted together from a patchwork of tin roofs and concrete building, which were completely constructed from people from the community.


I felt the moment come on as a wave of emotion in the pit of my stomach and culminated in a swelling in my heart. Knowing that my time in Hawaii and New York City was a life of privilege. My “first-world problems” that consumed my daily consciousness were petty, empty, and nothing compared to the struggles the children of Cantagalo had to endure day-in and day-out. I couldn’t help the tears from forming and clouding my vision.

I had forgotten that my life was a blessed one and at that moment listening to Maestre Dá was a call to action to help the people of Brazil’s favelas. I found myself humbled that even with limited worldly possessions the people of Cantagalo found a slice of heaven and happiness in what they did have and in the lives they lived. Watching the mostly girl ensemble of Samba drummers I was struck by how proud these people were and that Maestre Dá’s efforts to teach Brazilian culture instilled a sense of dignity and of place in them. I was struck how just having a place to be a kid for the sake of being a kid can mean so much to that age group. Some of my fellow cohorts also commented how regardless of their situation kids will continue to be kids – laughing, running, taking selfies, and hugging each other. It reminded me of how the perspective of childhood — a wonder not jaded by the sometimes harsh realities of life — can help almost anyone transcend tough times.

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The experience of Cantagalo was a gift on so many levels. I know in my heart I am a more self-aware, more socially-conscious, and humble person because of what the people of Cantagalo showed me that crisp night in Rio de Janeiro. In a short two-hours I was changed for the better and affected deeply because of the opportunity Emzingo had given me and it reaffirmed my belief that to be an agent of change, one has to intentionally approach the world with an open heart and open mind.

If you are open to grace, moments like the beautiful gift of Cantagalo can find you.

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