Woman looking at old photographs

Brazilian Memories of Family, Food, and Soccer

To hear about Tania Orlow’s upbringing is like tracing a line across a map of the Western Hemisphere. Tania was born in Wisconsin, then moved to California, before her family settled in Ohio. Most intriguing, however, are her travels from North America to South America many times during her childhood, to experience where her father’s family put down roots.

From early memories spent as a child in Brazil, Tania knows what it feels like to grow up in America and be from multi-cultural origins. Though she primarily resided in the United States, Brazil was a place where she could run wild with her siblings, cousins, and neighbors, not to mention with the chickens roaming freely. One of her fondest memories is climbing on board a papaya truck with her father, having not a care in the world, while they meandered through the small town, among the colorful fruit, helping sell it. Brazil represented a place where languages were a mix between Portuguese, Russian, and English. From childhood, Tania would play with her cousins and communicate through play, soccer, and a mix of languages. To meet Tania, you might not guess that she so subtly embodies this rich, diverse background. Tania and her two daughters are citizens of both the United States and Brazil.

Brazilian Roots

Looking through old family photographs. A photo of Tania’s namesake, her grandmother Tatiana, lies in the foreground.

The story of how Tania has roots in Brazil is somewhat mysterious as there is uncertainty as to where her father was born. Her grandparents left Europe in a time of unrest. They spoke Russian and are from parts of Ukraine and Poland. Tania’s grandparents courageously went to the open arms of Brazil to start up a farm. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like for a family to put all of their hopes and dreams for a better life into a farming stipend. They took a leap to the great unknown land of Brazil, leaving war-torn and poverty-stricken towns in Eastern Europe. This story of migrating for survival lives inside Tania’s heart; it is a part of who she is. She is grounded, very warm in her approach to others, and she emphasizes that family and togetherness is the most important aspect of life.

Tania’s grandparents settled on a piece of land in Goiânia in the state of Goiás, now the 10th largest city in Brazil with a population of 1.5 million people. Goiânia, though founded only in 1933 as a planned urban center and capital of Goiás, has rapidly increased in population since the 1980s, primarily due to agriculture and its tropical, wet climate. It is one of the greenest cities in the world after Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; though, due to rapid population growth, the green spaces are increasingly only found around the periphery. Tania remembers a different, more rural, and less-developed Goiânia from her childhood. Far from the comforts of her home in America, there were times she spent sleeping under nets in Brazil to ward off the mosquitos, or showers where she danced around cockroaches, attempting to ignore them; her grandparents’ home did not have screened windows, it was basically a structure to keep out rain and weather, but not the elements. Nevertheless, her grandparents’ house was filled with warmth, love, and a place of togetherness.

For Tania, there is a deep connection to her grandmother, Tatiana. They first met on Tania’s first trip to Brazil when she was two. Tania contemplates what it must have meant for her grandmother to meet her for the first time, “our first family trip to Brazil was when I was with my older brother to first meet my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins. I was named after my grandmother, Tatiana. I always think how special it must have been to first meet and hold your granddaughter named after you.”

On Tania’s next trip to Brazil, she was eight, and she remembers the flight to Brazil on a double-decker plane was a child’s dream. She and her three siblings roamed the plane during the 13-hour flight and slept across aisles. The trip was a formative part of Tania’s childhood and growing up, it strengthened her love for family, exposed her to different ways of living, and even allowed her to realize the level of poverty that exists in urban Brazil. “Before we went back to Ohio, we visited friends in Rio de Janeiro, and I have the vivid memory of driving by the favelas, or the large groups of shacks built of mud, wood, and recycled materials and generally without available public services. Right there in that moment a rush went through me and a yearning to help.” Tania is able to vividly describe how transformative it was to be a child growing up in middle-class America “with a fenced yard” and seeing “so many people living in poverty, sometimes living in cardboard boxes.“ Tania remembers being an 8-year-old child and feeling the impact of this new awareness.

Brazilian Cuisine

Tania remembers how family dinners in Brazil were long and slow, where the family relished conversation. The dinners were never rushed, they seemed to last for hours, and were filled with a joy of food and time together. One dish that sparks great memories of how food and family intersect is the feijoada: this is the national dish of Brazil, was created by Brazilian slaves, and is now served in high-end hotels. Tania laughs when remembering how it was normal to see a tongue or hoof of an animal on the counter when her family would celebrate Easter or special occasions in Ohio and prepare the feijoada.

Tania recalls not realizing why the ice cream tasted so differently in Brazil, until, on her last trip, she realized it was made from goat milk. Tania shared memories of food,

We would walk down the dirt road to the house on the corner that was a small market to buy Guarana soda and kibe, fried minced beef on a stick, from the street cart out front. Every day we would eat pão de queijo, a popular Brazilian cheese bread for snacks and, on Saturdays, the entire family would gather for feijoada, the flavorful stew of beans and lesser-used meats. I remember going with my grandmother to town to choose the meats for the feijoada, and I was amazed at seeing the full animal meats hanging and the open meat store right on the dirt road.

Pursuing the Best Life Possible

Both Tania’s grandfather and father have suffered from illnesses associated with living in rural Goiânia. Living and surviving off the land meant hard labor, long working hours, and even disease. Though the family was able to flourish, both Tania’s father and grandfather suffered from an eye disease they developed called pterygium. This disease occurs in both eyes, which is a pinkish, triangular tissue growth on the cornea of the eye. Extensive exposure to ultraviolet light can lead to these growths and occurs more often in people who live in warm climates and spend a lot of time outdoors in sunny or windy environments. Tania’s father was able to have corrective surgery to resolve his condition, but, on Tania’s trip to Brazil when she was 8, her grandfather had gone blind. She recalls how her grandfather would exclaim, “Oi Tania” as she walked into the room. He was able to recognize her footsteps, which made her believe he had superpowers. Eye disease was not the only medical problem to affect Tania’s father; on the farm, he was bitten by the kissing bug, which causes Chagas disease and can lead to cardiac issues later in life. Due to this disease, Tania’s father had a stroke and requires medication to keep him healthy.

Tania’s father ended up in the United States as he was able to attend Marquette University to pursue engineering. He lived with his grandmother in Wisconsin, Tania’s great-grandmother, who she called Babushka. Though her Babushka did not speak English, she was able to communicate her love for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She lived to be 98 years old. Her father made it to the Milwaukee airport with less than $10 and convinced a taxi to drive him to his Babushka’s house; not speaking English but holding a piece of paper with her address and the only money he had.

Tania’s grandfather drove a school bus after retiring from farming. During later travels, she has memories of playing with her cousins and friends on the school bus that her grandfather converted into a chicken coop after going blind. Tania continued to make numerous visits in her 20s and 30s, now visiting family in apartments in downtown Goiânia, attending weddings and family gatherings.

An Undying Passion for Soccer

With her passion for soccer, it’s no surprise that Tania received an athletic scholarship to Eastern Michigan University.
Her team won the MAC and went to the NCAA tournament during her senior year.

Spending time in Brazil fomented Tania’s passion for soccer. She was infected with her love of the sport while playing with siblings, her father, and their neighbors on the rural dirt roads. Picking up the fever for soccer in Brazil from her father, Tania recounts, “My dad did not know traditional American sports so, as far as I can remember, I was playing futebol, or soccer, and my dad was my coach through 8th grade.” Tania received a full ride scholarship to Eastern Michigan University to play soccer. During her senior year, she won the MAC and went to the NCAA tournament. Tania lived and breathed soccer and never wanted to leave the field. “I cry during World Cup games feeling the passion and the patriotism in my soul. Soccer is truly a universal language and you do not need to have expensive equipment to play. My dad would play barefoot with a ball of tape scoring goals between two trees. On any given day, you can walk into Amante coffee shop in Boulder and watch an English Premier game and find yourself with a group of instant friends gathered around a common table cheering and critiquing the play.”

Tania has used soccer as her language of play during her travels to many foreign countries. “I have now traveled to many countries, and I always made it a point to play soccer everywhere I have gone, making friends speaking the common language of soccer; playing with a group of 10 year olds in Sevilla, joining a team from England in a tournament on a Greek island (winning a buffet dinner), playing outside my hostel in Amsterdam, to playing beach soccer in the Dominican Republic, to name a few.”

Full Circle of Relationships and Love

Woman holding US and Brazilian passports
Tania and both her daughters hold dual citizenship in both the United States and Brazil

Traveling to Brazil, while also being raised in the middle of America, taught Tania and her siblings to appreciate the comforts of what the U.S. offers, but also to embrace the joy for life that Brazil exudes. “The Brazilian culture was a big part of my childhood. I remember going to samba gatherings that my parents were able to find and would dance all night. The Brazilian food was a constant in our house and soccer was part of our being,” Tania shared. For Tania, the differences of her two worlds taught her from a young age not to put emphasis on money or material items, but instead invest time and energy into family.

Tania closes her story with:

I am forever grateful for my travels to Brazil as a child, being raised with the Brazilian culture, and how it has shaped me as a person. I am looking forward to bringing my two daughters and husband to visit my family in the near future so they can experience the love I have for Brazil in my heart.