Words from a foreign language reveal how people from another culture think, and that can be endlessly fun. This week one word kept popping up in conversation in Rio. It’s a particularly Carioca word called “Malandro.”
The first time that “Malandro” came up I was waiting in a bookstore in Leblon, the most chi-chi part of Rio, with a new friend I had just met. We were waiting for someone I had made plans with and he texted me to say he was almost there, “one minute.” I explained this to the first guy and he reacted with some doubt and asked if I knew the word “Malandro.” No, I said. He told me “Malandro” means a guy who has more than one woman but doesn’t let any of them know, a slippery kind of person. Oh. That night I was looking at Lonely Planet Brazil and noticed the use of “Malandro” in a box of text describing Lapa, the historic center of samba in Rio. A “malandro,” according to Lonely Planet, was a “con artist.”
The next day, a young Lithuanian guy who has lived in Brazil five years and who works at the guesthouse where I am staying asked me if I knew what a “Malandro” is. Amazed, I told him the word had already come up twice in 24 hours. He proceeded to tell me that a “malandro” is like an urban surfer, a guy who doesn’t work but manages to get by somehow and that everyone wants to be a malandro. He’s the cool guy every other guy would like to be. Can a woman be a “malandra”? Oh, definitely not, according to Tita.
That night I asked a few more people about “Malandro.” My friend Roberto told me that a “malandro” was a historical character of Lapa that can now only be found in escolas de samba, samba schools–dapper men who dress all in white. My friend Marcello described a “malandro” as a clever, fast-thinking person who can talk his way out of any situation. He thought “malandras” exist, they’re just fewer in number. Josemando thought a “malandro” is someone that takes advantage of others.
No one seems to really self-identify as a “malandro.” Tita, the outsider, is the only one who really glorified them. Roberto and I joked about going malandro-spotting in a samba school–it would be fun to find some malandros and take pictures.
The word begins with “mal” so I assume that a “malandro” is a shady character but most people say that they’re more complicated than “bad.” That’s one thing I am noticing about Rio. Everything has two sides, everything has a double meaning. At times I wonder if I should be leaving and spending time in another country in order to learn more, be exposed to another culture. But spending more time in one place means that I get to learn more deeply about cultural intricacies like these. And I am still waiting to meet an official “malandro.” Stay tuned for a picture if I ever find one.