eyes on the U.S.

A Would-Be Future Brazilian Leader Earns His Stripes, In Washington

Lucas Santos was an illegal immigrant when he arrived with his family 13 years ago. His father eventually got a green card, and Lucas has landed in Congress with a prestigious internship where he works on immigration issues and dreams of a political caree

Washington interns (USDA)
Washington interns (USDA)
Luciana Coelho

WASHINGTON - Meet 21-year-old Brazilian Lucas Santos, the exception who proves the rule within an immigrant community uninterested in politics.

Santos works as an intern in the United States House of Representatives. When he was eight years old, he arrived in the US on with his family on a tourist visa. At 13, he obtained regular permission to stay. His own experience has driven him to focus on the issue of immigration reform, a key topic for next American elections. But in the long-term, Santos dreams of returning to Brazil to pursue a career in politics. We met up with him in Washington. Here is his story:

I came to the USA when I was 8. We come from the town of Colombo, next to Curitiba capital of the southern state of Paraná. Dad tried to run for local office there, and lost by a few votes. He was feeling frustrated and aimless when he won an airline ticket to come to the US in a gas station's contest. He thought that was a sign.

My mom was pregnant. I was her only child at the time – after me, two sisters were born. We managed to become regular immigrants because my dad worked at a restaurant whose boss helped more than 20 Brazilians get a green card.

In Brazil, I always followed dad when he was chatting with his politician friends. I thought it was boring then. But, by the end of high school, since I was good at political science classes, I decided to go for it.

I entered the University of Massachusetts, in Lowell. I met the Democrat Representative of Somerville, Massachusetts, near Boston Michael Capuano when he came for a lecture. Somerville has with a large Brazilian population, and I thought this would be a good opportunity for an internship.

I am part of the Washington Center program, which has 400 interns from inside and outside the US. I am the only Brazilian.

I think about having a career as a politician, but in Brazil. America's future is uncertain, and maybe I would have a greater chance in Brazil. Here, the Brazilian community thinks they can't change anything by voting. They are too isolated and only think about work. But if the whole legal Brazilian community of Framingham, Massachusetts voted, they would have some real power.

Lost generation

Besides that, my generation in general doesn't like politics. Young people got excited with Obama, but it would require someone like him again to make it happen again. His reelection wouldn't bring so much hope this time.

The Latino community has lost some of the faith in Obama as well. He had the majority in Congress and could have approved immigration reform, but didn't even try. If he is reelected, he must try to do it. The experts say that Latinos will be the key to these elections.

The lawmakers who represent Latino communities do a good job, but parties are a limiting factor. See the Dream Act a legislative proposal that would legalize children of irregular immigrants. I don't see a reason for even debating it – it is so obvious.

I focus on immigration topics; I go to all the hearings. As we managed to become legal, I know the whole process – I helped my dad when he needed to translate the documents and everything else, because he couldn't speak English so well.

When the Republicans voted against the reform, and called it amnesty... Latinos are not begging for amnesty. They want a chance to become legal, because the process is long and expensive. These people pay taxes and don't get the benefits from them – except for public education, which can't be denied.

I have Republican friends, and we always fall into the same discussion: they say immigrants come here illegally, and thus are breaking laws. So did I, I tell them, because my father came here and brought me with him?

Actually, with the crisis, my dad is thinking about moving back. There are lots of people going back now. In Lowell, the Brazilian community has shrunk. Among the families we are friends with, about 15 moved back to Brazil. My godfather is now in Brazil to open a business after 16 years in the US.

I want to go back some day, but with good work experience, so I'll have something to offer. I want to study public administration and learn how it works here, then try to see what would work for Brazil.

Read more from Folha de S. Paulo

photo - USDA

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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