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I had been practicing capoeira for a few months when I realized: I didn’t know my teacher’s name.

It’s not that I had forgotten his name, or that I only referred to him as “hey, you”. I knew him as Saroba, a nickname he had been given early on when he started capoeira himself. In fact, our mestre, along with most of the students I had met at that point all had nicknames. When I first asked Saroba his real name, he laughed and deflected, saying it was a secret.

Growing up in Brazil, I was used to the idea of nicknames being commonplace. In capoeira, though, they seem to hold a special importance and significance. Here we’re going to talk about nicknames, starting with their use in Brazilian daily life, and then focusing on their use in capoeira specifically, including some examples of nicknames and the stories behind them, as well as what to do about your own nickname!

NICKNAMES AND BRAZILIAN LIFE

Though he is one of the most celebrated Brazilian soccer players of all time, Edson Arantes do Nascimento isn’t exactly a household name – even though many Brazilians proudly refer to Brazil as the “country of Soccer”. Instead, he is known both nationally and internationally only by his nickname, Pelé. He isn’t the only one, as many Brazilian soccer players are known mainly by nicknames such as Garrincha, Cafu, Kaká…

The Brazilian president’s nickname

Nicknames prevail in politics as well. One former Brazilian president received the name Luiz Inácio da Silva at birth, but he was best known by the public and the media by his nickname Lula. In 1982, he went so far as to legally change his name to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, including his nickname so that his supporters would be able to easily identify him when casting their votes.

Nicknames in the Brazilian phonebook

There is no better example for the prevalence of nicknames in Brazilian society than Cláudio, a city in Minas Gerais with some 28 thousand people. Residents of Cláudio had a unique problem; they had trouble using the phonebook. This happened because everyone was so accustomed to referring to each other by their nicknames that they simply didn’t know first and last names. This prompted one woman, Erica Zanett (better known as Marcha Lenta), to develop a new phone book which included residents’ nicknames. This phonebook, named ‘Apelista’, is updated yearly.

Growing up between Brazil, the USA, and the UK, I was always struck by the apparently small differences in the way people treated and addressed each other. In the USA and the UK, teachers in school were to be referred to politely using their last names. In Brazil, that would be highly unusual. Teachers were referred to by using their given names, or often nicknames. In fact, I can recall very few situations in Brazil where people treat each other formally. This leads me to perceive Brazil as a country that somehow celebrated informality and familiarity, or at least the illusion of it, and nicknames are a part of that. The truth is, very few Brazilians go through life without any sort of nickname bestowed upon them, either by their family, their friends, or their coworkers.

NICKNAMES AND CAPOEIRA

As with many aspects of Capoeira’s history, the use of nicknames and its origin in capoeira is the subject of some debate. However, the most accepted and widely spread version of this tradition dates back to when capoeira was still an illegal practice. Practitioners would know each other only through nicknames or aliases in order to protect their identities. If any individual capoeirista was captured, they simply would not be able to identify any others by name.

Even though capoeira is perfectly legal nowadays and there is no need to hide one’s identity, the tradition of giving and receiving nicknames remains. There is no limit to what can become a nickname in capoeira. They can stem from a person’s physical characteristics or personality, or refer to anything from animals and objects to specific events or fictional characters. Nicknames are typically given in Portuguese, though exceptions do occur.

Controversy with Capoeira names

The use of nicknames isn’t without controversy. In September 2011, Mestre Moraes, a respected capoeira mestre from Bahia, participated in a TEDx talk in Salvador and criticized the use of nicknames in capoeira, particularly pejorative nicknames. He defends that the practice stems from prejudice and racism and that it contributes to bullying, especially when it relates to nicknames given to those of African descent. Mestre Moraes reflects on how this practice contributes to bullying and asks for reflection on whether nicknames still have a place in contemporary capoeira.

Politically incorrect nicknames

It isn’t unusual to dole out nicknames based on ethnicity, or perceived ethnicity. Practitioners of Asian descent in Brazil, or who at least appear to be of Asian descent, will often receive nicknames such as “Japa” (short for Japanese), “China”, or “Ninja”. It is also not unusual for black capoeiristas to have nicknames such as “Nego” (black), “Carvão” (charcoal), or “Tinta Forte” (strong ink). In Brazil these names are often embraced or simply shrugged off and eventually accepted, while abroad, many seem uncomfortable with ethnically-oriented nicknames and avoid employing them, as noted by Sarah Delamont and Claudio Campos in Embodying Brazil: An Ethnography of Diasporic Capoeira (170-1).   

Changing use of nicknames

The use of nicknames within and especially outside of Brazil is seeing some changes, as masters and teachers around the world catch on to the times and seem to shy away from giving new students pejorative, embarrassing, or possibly demeaning nicknames. Many mestres and teachers who teach young children, especially in schools, also avoid giving them nicknames at all; in part to avoid upsetting the children, and in part to avoid possible troubles with their parents.

Despite all this, nicknames are still commonplace and used in most capoeira groups and communities around the world. Some defend that nicknames are a part of capoeira tradition and culture, and symbolize one’s belonging in a group. Mestre Claudio Campos, who lives and teaches in Bristol and Cardiff in the UK, says that

When you get your nickname you are part of a new society of capoeira. People know each other in capoeira with a different name. That makes people more of a social group. That’s why we give the nickname.

To many the nickname represents a rite of passage, symbolizing one’s acceptance into the group and a sign of one’s intimacy and familiarity with their ‘capoeira family’. Most consider nicknames, even those that are embarrassing or not quite politically correct, to be some cheeky, harmless, light-hearted fun.

How to get a nickname in Capoeira

The time in which a person is assigned a nickname varies greatly. In some groups members receive their nicknames when they are baptized. Typically, a nickname is given by a master or a student’s teacher. It is also not unheard of for someone to choose their own name. For others, they receive their nicknames when they do something or express something that has to do with the name they receive. 

In my case, I received my nickname on my very first day of capoeira as a child. I arrived for my first class full of energy, loud, running around, playing with my brother, and doing cartwheels. I was immediately dubbed ‘Espoleta’, a term often used in Brazil to describe particularly rambunctious children. I stopped taking capoeira classes around a year later, but when I returned to capoeira at the age of 21, the nickname came with me.

EXAMPLES OF CAPOEIRA NICKNAMES

Sometimes nicknames can come from television, films, and comics. One example is Mestre Cebolinha’s nickname, which comes from a character in Monica’s Gang, a popular Brazilian comic book series. The character of Cebolinha is a little boy who has trouble pronouncing the letter ‘r’ in the beginning and in the middle of words, and instead replaces it for the letter ‘l’. When he first started capoeira as a young boy, Mestre Cebolinha had similar troubles – and so the nickname was born.  Historical figures are also fair game, I’ve met at least two women with the nickname ‘Maria Bonita’, in reference to a famous outlaw active in north-eastern Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s, and who is now considered a folk heroine.

Some of the more outlandish nicknames will often refer to specific events or mannerisms. A friend of mine received the nickname ‘Quinzin’, a variation on the Portuguese word for fifteen, because she was always around fifteen minutes late for class. Another woman became ‘Um Momento’, meaning ‘one moment’, because when she started out she wore glasses while training and would often have to adjust them when they would become dislodged.

Physical characteristics are usually game as well. One teenager in Brazil received the nickname ‘Chulapa’, which is commonly used to describe someone who has large hands or feet. In the UK, one teacher observed that one of his student’s bowl-shaped haircut resembled a helmet, and promptly bestowed him with the nickname ‘Capacete’.

Sometimes nicknames are elusive. Not long ago, a friend of mine in Belo Horizonte expressed some frustration that they had yet to acquire a nickname, even though they had been training for a couple years. In fact, some people never receive any nicknames at all. One example is Mestre Suassuna, founder of Cordão de Ouro, who is known by his last name. In other cases, some people will receive a nickname, or even more than one, but find that they simply never “stick”, as is the case with Mestre Cláudio.

DEALING WITH YOUR NICKNAME

So you got a nickname!

And you hate it.

Now what?

First off, know that you are not alone. Many capoeiristas find themselves saddled with nicknames they don’t really like. Mestre Folgadinha received her nickname as a teenager. ‘Folgado’ in Portuguese roughly translates to lazy, and is often used to describe people who are considered a little cocky and shameless. Naturally, she wasn’t crazy about such a nickname. With time, however, she came to accept and then even to love her nickname, considering it a big part of her identity.

Some mestres and teachers tease: the more you dislike a nickname, the more you protest it, the more likely it is to stick.

This comes down, in part, to a Brazilian sense of humour. Poking fun at friends and pushing their buttons is commonplace, especially among men, and most of the time people are expected to be ‘good sports’ about these things. Because of this culture, many capoeiristas who receive nicknames they initially dislike learn to shrug it off and eventually accept them, and in the future even appreciate the stories attached to them. When it comes to nicknames, and capoeira in general, it’s good to keep an open mind.

Which isn’t to say there is nothing that can be done if you absolutely cannot tolerate your new nickname.

If you really hate your nickname and want to make sure it doesn’t catch on, it could be worth simply talking to your mestre or teacher, or whoever gave you that nickname, and honestly express how much you hate it or feel uncomfortable with it. Despite the aforementioned Brazilian sense of humour, for most part people aren’t setting out to truly upset anyone, and would hopefully be able to recognize when to call it quits.

Another option is simply to hope it doesn’t catch on. Avoid answering to it, introduce yourself by your given name or a preferred nickname, and hope those catch on instead. 

Taking your nickname in Stride

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when thinking about nicknames is that they’re a part, not only of the culture and history of capoeira, but of Brazilian culture and history as a whole. No longer attached to a historic need for identity protection, today they serve as a light-hearted way to identify someone as a member of a community. Sometimes, learning to embrace an embarrassing nickname can be a lesson in just not taking oneself too seriously, being able to let go, and have some fun.

Do you have a nickname? What’s the story behind it? Tell us in the comments!

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