Mauro Romualdo's students — who are more like a chosen family — call him by his capoeira name, Mestre Jamaika.
“Mestre,” which is Portuguese for teacher, is a title of respect used for capoeira masters. It's an apt title for Romualdo not only because of his 37 years practicing capoeira but also because of the respect and love he garners from those he's lifted up through capoeira.
“I’ve always had capoeira in my blood. It was just a matter of time to get to see it and activate it," he said. “Capoeira was started 100% in Brazil by my ancestors when they were forced to come to the country and become slaves. They created capoeira as a self defense disguised as a dance.”
Romualdo credits capoeira — which is a combination of dance, martial arts and acrobatic movements — for transforming himself into the man he is today. As a young boy growing up in Bahia, Brazil, he felt that people looked through him instead of really seeing him.
“I remember being a young kid in Brazil and — today I know what it is — but back then I was confused and I was like why do I feel like I’m being excluded? No matter what I did, people always saw me in a different way. People never gave me the value that I felt I deserved,” Romualdo continued. “Brazil is a very beautiful country. The diversity in that country is amazing, but we still have to deal with a lot of issues. Brazil was one of the last nations in the world to free my people and make us free. With that comes a lot of discrimination.”
That changed when he started practicing capoeira at age 7. Romualdo started to master the aerobatic moves typical of the art form.
“Of course if you flip over seven people, people in the streets would stop and give you their attention,” he said. “I would use those moments to educate people, like ‘Hey, it’s good that you guys give me this attention, but there's a lot of other people out there that deserve this attention and don't have any.’”
Those moments were the beginning of Romualdo’s lifelong journey to replicate the change capoeira has made in his own life, including founding Salt Lake Capoeira.
“I try to use capoeira as a tool to bring love into people's hearts, and that's my goal here in Salt Lake City,” he said. “I don't feel that I’m teaching, like this if my job, or this and that — I feel like this is my mission, brining love to people's lives. ... You cannot imagine, the local people here, how much capoeira has been changing people in different ways. So many students come here and sometimes they're very shy, quiet and within their own self and all of a sudden they're outgoing and talking.”
Romualdo said it felt like destiny once he landed in Utah. He initially came to teach a group of about 120 Brigham Young University students who had started a capoeira club after learning about it on missions in Brazil for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
One of the students had contacted Romualdo's former mestre, who taught them what they could but couldn't leave his business and family on the East Coast.
“They needed somebody that comes from the roots to keep sharing these vibes with them,” he said. “I feel like it was destiny that brought me to Salt Lake. As soon as I got here, it was exactly what I was looking for. Capoeira made such a difference in my life, so I wanted to teach capoeira to as many people as I could. But I wanted to teach capoeira to people that had never seen capoeira before, so Utah was the perfect place.”
Changing lives and building community
Capoeira is a reflection of life and the interconnectedness of the world, says Romualdo.
“When we get together, if you look at it, we make a circle. Two people go in the circle and keep constantly moving. Once you get out of the circle, you’re still moving, still clapping hands, still singing — we're all connected,” he said. “That's what the world is about, this whole connection.”
Allyson Jelitto, who has been with Salt Lake Capoeira for four years, fell in love with the practice after observing a class for a college assignment. But the movements were contagious and she couldn't help but join in. She says the community is a big aspect of why she's staying involved in capoeira.
“When I first began capoeira, I didn't have a ton of confidence. In the jogo, the game we play in the roda (circle), it's kind of just like go try, fail and then jump right back in,” she said. “I took that energy outside of the roda, into my real life, and I confronted some really hard situations, mostly within relationships in my life, and just being outspoken about what I really feel and not being afraid of the repercussions of that because I knew I could just go back and try again, just like I did in capoeira roda.”
Feyd Taylor, who recently received a professor title in capoeira, had a similar experience. As an 11-year-old, Taylor sought out martial arts classes in an attempt to defend himself from bullies. The closest thing his after-school program had was capoeira. Seventeen years later, Taylor said he's gained so much more than the self defense skills his 11-year-old self was looking for.
“A lot of people start out martial arts and they think of it in a very one-dimensional way, like just fighting techniques. But capoeira has so many more aspects to it that it gives you self confidence in a different way,” Taylor said. “There’s a huge cultural aspect, music, language, philosophy, there's an acrobatic aspect, there's fighting. There's so many different aspects.”
Taylor encouraged people who are interested in any of those things to come participate or observe the group's capoeira classes.
“They are always welcome to come to our classes. We're super open,” he said. “It’s one of those things that brings you a lot of joy and gives you that confidence and you feel like you're learning and you feel like you're in a big community.”
For Fernanda Santos, capoeira has been a way to stay connected to her Brazilian roots in Utah and pass on some of the culture to her children.
“Now everyone in my family here does capoeira,” she said. “I found here my Brazilian family because the energy of this group is amazing. You feel Brazil.”