Letter to the Editor, by Jesse Marsden

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – I am an American teacher, who has lived in Rio for the past six years and would like to inform you and the readers about a racist experience I witnessed, which recently happened on November 20, 2018.

I get on the subway to go to Ipanema, about a 20-minute ride, to assist a student in preparation for a presentation. I shouldn’t be working on a holiday, but it’s my oldest, favorite student. The holiday has thinned the crowd but there are still no seats and several people standing.

Soon three young men with instruments arrive. They have the look of foreigners – South American neighbors. One has an Andean flute. I usually stand in the middle of the car near a set of doors and this is also where subway performers prefer to play. I am always a little uncomfortable and resentful when this happens in such close proximity.

They start their first song and a Brazilian guy standing next to me begins singing “Fools Rush In” to the woman with him. His pronunciation is not bad and he knows the lyrics. Halfway through the song, a man sitting about six seats away begins yelling at the buskers.

He is middle-aged with a lighter complexion and he is drinking from a Stella Artois bottle –one of a plastic bag 4-pack. He complains that they are upsetting his quiet ride. He tells them to go take it in the ass. He tells them to go back to Peru, Chile, Venezuela or wherever they came from.

A group of young people standing between the man and the players moves to the other end of the car. As I am right behind the musicians, in the drunk’s eyeline, I stare right at him as he continues yelling. A rather large and friendly looking (most likely Brazilian) man gets up from his seat and joins in staring at the belligerent.

They finish the song and the crowd bursts into by far the most raucous applause I have ever heard in such a setting – obviously a rebuke to the xenophobe. At the next stop the large friend gets off and shakes his head and smiles at the hermanos.

They launch into “Stand By Me” and the troll gets up to ironically sing alongside them. His accent is stronger and grasp of lyrics weaker than the previous singer. The guitarist changes position to better keep an eye on the encroacher. I move to the other side of them, determined to intervene if he makes a move.

An elderly woman sitting in the closest seat has been holding her hand up at the deranged one’s back, as if casting a spell on him (or, more likely, sending him the holy spirit). He turns to complain to her about his constitutional right to come and go and she sends calming downward hand waves his way.

It seems to work. They finish and he applauds with the rest of the car. They pass the hat and it comes back laden with dough. I even give two bucks as I get off and I never give anything!


Jesse Marsden


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