Learning ‘Happy Birthday’ in Portuguese

Gabi Abrão
, 2019

Mother’s writing, ink on paper.

I was seven years old when my parents first took me to Brazil from Los Angeles to meet my whole family for the first time. One of my cousins was having a giant birthday celebration the following day, and my sister and I didn’t know the birthday song, or much Portuguese at all. I vividly remember my mother, the night before, writing out the lyrics in blue ink on a piece of scrap paper and making my sister and I recite the song over and over until we knew it by heart. We sang it proudly at the party, able to feel connected in the sacred ritual of celebration. It is still the only song we can sing in full in Portuguese, and the few times a year I get to sing it to someone, I remember my mother’s line-and-circle writing in blue ink.


This piece of paper represents so much to me - the disconnect from Brazilian culture and my Brazilian family, the incredible memory of being a child with all my cousins for that summer, the importance of birthday rituals and celebration in family dynamics, the limitations in my identity, the efforts of my loving parents. I had my mother re-write the song, creating physical evidence of an image that has existed in my memory for over 15 years.