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An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America


In the mid-1990s, I stayed in an apartment on the grounds of a church in Liberdade (the J-Town section of São Paulo). On this particular afternoon, I was preparing for meetings that I planned to have later in the week.

me working at laptop

The church had an “empregada,” a native Brazilian housekeeper who came twice weekly to clean the church facility. That particular afternoon she was working in the church kitchen in another building. In the quiet of my study time, I became vaguely aware of someone yelling.

Liberdade Holiness Church sign

I left my apartment and went outside my building to an outer courtyard. The housekeeper was in the kitchen, but acting rather strangely as she was waving a towel through the louvered, jalousie windows. She was screaming something at me in the vernacular of the working class. It was a “dialect” of Portuguese that I didn’t understand well. I walked toward the kitchen asking her to repeat what she was saying. I still missed her intent as you might have described her as moderately hysterical.

As I stepped into this courtyard, I looked right and immediately understood why she was barricaded in the kitchen yelling and why she was in such a state of mind. She was now waving her arms at me through the louvers urging me to get away: Run! RUN!! RUN!!! To my right was a medium-sized, muscular pit bull—it had escaped from a neighbor’s yard and had come onto the church grounds! Its tongue wasn’t hanging out and its tail was not wagging happily. A low growl escaped from its throat!

The moment I saw it, its eyes fixed on me and it began to run toward me. I turned around and headed back to the open door of the building I had just exited. Passing a broom leaning against the building, I grabbed it. As I got to the door, I turned around to see the dog at my heels. I used the broom to push the dog away and close the door. Once the door closed, I found myself leaning with my back against the door, panting, my legs feeling like they had turned to Jell-O.

Diagram of property layout

I took stock of the situation. I was safe for the moment, but the dog was just outside the door in the enclosed courtyard of the church. The housekeeper was still trapped in the kitchen. There was no exit for the dog.

Fortunately my building had two exit doors. The other exit door led to a gate which went out to the street. Between the street gate and the courtyard, where the dog was waiting for a taste of my leg, was a thick wooden door. It was clear that getting that dog through the wooden door and out through the street gate was the solution.

Exiting the building through the door closest to the street gate, I unlocked it and swung it wide open. Then, creeping up to the courtyard door, I quietly unlocked it and swung it open as well. The dog saw me and gave chase again. Thankfully the cement of the courtyard was a little slick and the dog, unable to get its footing, stumbled a bit before coming after me.

I ran back into the building and closed the door. Then, I ran back through the building to the door which opened to the courtyard, and ran outside. Looking past the open wooden door, I saw the dog standing in the driveway area. I slammed the wooden door shut, leaving the dog with the option of staying in the driveway or going out to the street. Looking through the peephole, I watched the dog wander out through the street gate. Running down the driveway, I slammed the street gate shut!

Are you following this? I must say that I was really proud of the logic that helped me come up with a solution. Reflecting on it now, I’m also grateful for the layout and architecture of the church grounds. Needless to say, the housekeeper was very relieved having watched this entire episode from the kitchen window.

My pride lasted only a little while. Upon returning home to the States, I told my then eleven-year-old son about the incident. He asked, “Was the dog fat?” I answered, “No he was really muscular, why?” “Because,” he answered, “it had to be a fat, slow dog if he couldn’t catch up with you!”

© 2010 John Katagi

Brazil liberdade sao paulo

About this series

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.