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Gustavo Furtado and Lamonte Aidoo: Two Approaches to the Language and Culture of Brazil

With two new hires, Romance Studies strengthens interest in Brazilian Studies

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series
Lamonte Aidoo and Gustavo Furtado will beef up Romance Studies' expertise in all things Brazilian.  Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography
Lamonte Aidoo and Gustavo Furtado will beef up Romance Studies' expertise in all things Brazilian. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography

At 19, Gustavo Furtado was tired of his native Brazil's incessant government corruption, urban decay and fast-rising inflation. So he moved, alone to New York City.

In doing so, he figured he could get by with what little foreign language training he'd picked up along the way.

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"I thought I spoke a lot of English," Furtado says now, 18 years later. "But as soon as I got onto the plane, I realized I didn't understand anything."

He learned English by watching American television, following the words through closed captioning. And he brought a notebook along on his travels, jotting down the words and phrases he saw in subway ads to look up later in his dictionary.

It was a hectic time, but one Furtado recalls with fondness.

"That was the most exciting student time of my life, when I was an immigrant learning 30 words a day," he says now.

This studious approach to his language deficiency put Furtado on an intellectual path. He is now a new assistant professor in the Romance Studies department, one of two new hires this summer intended to beef up Duke's expertise in all things Brazil.

He and fellow newcomer Lamonte Aidoo hope to eventually establish a new program within Romance Studies focusing on language, culture and politics of Brazil, Portugal and Portuguese-speaking Africa. It will place a heavy emphasis on Brazil, a rapidly developing player on the world stage with a profile sure to rise in the next four years as it hosts both the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

"Duke did not have a group of scholars whose main scholarship was Brazil, which has been a cultural powerhouse all along and is one of the world's emerging economies," said Roberto Dainotto, chair of Romance Studies. "With these two hires, I think Duke will be in the forefront of Brazilian studies."

Dainotto expects Furtado and Aidoo to work closely with colleagues in history, cultural anthropology and other departments whose work touches on Brazil.

"We want to really open up Brazil," says Aidoo, who, like Furtado, joined the Duke faculty this summer as an assistant professor. "The idea is to create a holistic program looking at Brazil from several vantage points and provide students with several points of entry. If you're not interested in politics, you might have an interest in film or history."


The Carpenter

Furtado was raised in Belo Horizonte, an urban area of five million in eastern Brazil just north of Rio de Janeiro.  Brazil was in some economic turmoil, and political graft was rampant. Just a teen, Furtado developed what he calls a "distrust in institutions."

So he left. Once he immigrated to New York, he worked as a carpenter, met his future wife and eventually moved to California, where he took classes at a community college. He later transferred back east to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he finished a bachelor's degree in Spanish.

He then entered a doctoral program at Cornell that gave him, for the first time, the freedom to research whatever he found interesting. He began carving out a niche studying Brazilian cinema and cultural politics. He left Cornell with a PhD in romance studies; at Duke he'll focus on Brazilian cinema and its interconnections with politics and the people of Brazil.


A Love of Language

Joining Furtado in this new Duke venture is Lamonte Aidoo -- a good guy to have around if you're in need of a translator.

Along with English, the Connecticut native speaks French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and a good bit of Haitian Creole. At Duke, his work will focus on 19th century Brazil; he's particularly interested in placing Brazil in a larger geographic context, illustrating its historic connections not only with Spanish-speaking Latin America but also with Haiti and the United States.

Aidoo grew up in Hartford, CT., a small but diverse capital city where, on a given Saturday, he might encounter an Italian-American parade, a Polish street fair or a Puerto Rican heritage march.

"I grew up hearing different languages," he says. "I always wanted to not only understand but know how to express myself in another language."

He started with French, in middle school. By high school, he'd moved on to Spanish, which he bolstered by a study abroad trip to Ecuador. As a college undergraduate at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he double majored in French and Hispanic Studies and studied abroad in France, Senegal, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, was a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia, and discovered Brazilian Samba music, which made sense to him, somehow.

"It was familiar and foreign at the same time," he says.

So he raided the library for every Portuguese language book he could find. Doing so helped him hone his scholarly interest. He focused more and more on Brazil, struck by the nation's historical paradoxes, like the myth of racial democracy -- the notion that Brazil has no racism because so much of its population is mixed race.

Aidoo received his master's and PhD in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies from Brown University. Like Furtado, he views Brazil as a historic melting pot, a country rich in both history and contemporary cultural relevance.

"There's so much to learn," he says. "I'm glad our department understands the importance of creating a dialogue around Brazil."