The Expert Assimilators

The Tortolo twins manage to adapt no matter what the country

By Julia Bastos

Assimilating into a different culture is difficult to do, but twin sisters and Villanova College students, Julia and Vitoria Tortolo have had a lot of practice.

Born in Campinas, Brazil, the twins lived 13 years of their lives in the same small schools with the same group of friends in a “Campinas bubble”, said Vitoria. Their parents’ admiration for American education and desire for their children to gain a wider view of the world, moved their family to Miami. There, the twins attended a small school in Key Largo before doing their freshman year at a large high school.

After a year surrounded by American students, their family decided to move back to Campinas. The move back didn’t last long. Since their parents wanted to experience life in Europe, the Tortolo family made their way to Paris, France.

Later, the Tortola’s returned to Brazil to graduate high school with their childhood friends. Although, their mother was scared that the girls would “think that the United States was the center of the world” said the twins, they both decided to attend Villanova University, a Catholic school on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

With every move the twins had an easy time fitting into their new schools and countries, as they always made the decision to fully integrate themselves into their prospective homes. They both believe that they were able to do this because they have each other. Many students are fond of the idea of experiencing college on their own, far from family, but Julia and Vitoria wanted to go to college together because at the time, they felt like they needed each other.

Julia and Vitoria are a unity. They have been together since before birth, and don’t know life without one another. Vitoria has always seen Julia as being part of her identity.

Making friends has always been a team effort. They balance each other out, “Julia brings the fun out of people, and I am the safety net that people fall on”, said Vitoria, “ I bring rationality and a calm attitude, while Julia brings the fire and excitement to our friendships.” What one twin lacks, the other twin has, and what makes Vitoria the way she is, is the way Julia.

Julia has always seen Vitoria as another motherly figure. “Vitoria is very responsible, and because of that I am very irresponsible,” said Julia, “Vitoria figured out how to pay tuition, she took me to get a credit card, and always prints out airplane tickets for me. I just tag along”.

Their partnership made things easier when they moved to different countries. When joining a new school, they already had one friend with them; never having to eat lunch alone or feeling truly alone. “Even if I felt alone, I had her physically next to me” said Julia, “she was my safe zone”.

But since arriving at Villanova things have changed. Their freshman year of college, they lived together and made friends together but when the second semester rolled around, Julia made the decision to join a sorority.

She recalls telling her sister and being shocked when Vitoria rejected the opportunity. For the first time in their lives, they weren’t doing the same thing. Joining the sorority made making friends not as much of a team effort. Now, “I, Vitoria Tortolo, am friends with someone. Not ‘the twins’ are friends with someone,” said Vitoria.

The Campinas Skyline

Being part of a sorority pushed Julia and Vitoria to have their own lives. Vitoria will never forget the first time she went to a party by herself, “I wanted to go to a party and Julia didn’t, automatically I thought, ‘Okay, if she’s not going then I’m not going’, but Julia made me go”, said Vitoria, “after that first time, I started going alone. My life as just Vitoria Tortolo started then.”

They took an even bigger step towards their independence their sophomore year, by living separately.

To Victoria, Julia isn’t part of her personality anymore, instead Julia is now a home away from home, someone who helps Vitoria keep her Brazilian identity alive at Villanova.

Their Brazilian heritage has always been important to them and has never left them. Brazil is home to them, although they don’t feel like they fit perfectly anywhere. Leaving Brazil forever changed who they are. Previously to living in Miami and Paris, the twins lived their lives in Campinas, with friends who viewed things the same way, looked the same way, believed in the same religion, and acted the same way. When they moved to Paris, Parisians threw them for a loop.

For Vitoria, religious beliefs was one of the biggest differences she felt in Paris. Growing up with a more conservative view, she couldn’t believe that there were people who didn’t believe in God, and at times made fun of God. Religion was so ingrained in her that she didn’t let go of her faith but instead of speaking up when someone made a negative comment about God, Vitoria stayed quiet and didn’t speak about her religion.

For Julia, the behavior between French family members, was the biggest contrast from her Brazilness. In Campinas all her friends were part of a close nuclear family. When she started making friends in Paris, she noticed that the French did not hold the same familial values. She had friends who had lived alone since the age of 14, who did not have a warm relationship with their parents. Her French friends saw their parents as a bank; parents were people who fed you and gave you money, while in Brazil, family is the most important thing in the world. Julia started having the same attitude towards her parents, because that was the norm in France. When she would bring friends to her house, her parents would greet them. Julia’s friends wouldn’t respond, and Julia would say, “Mom, stop talking, leave”.

Julia picked up smoking cigarettes, as all her friends would, and both girls started dressing like the Parisians. Their French classmates, would treat every day like a fashion show. Sporting Louis Vuitton purses and red lipstick to class. Julia and Vitoria swapped their Brazilian clothes, for leather jackets and a need to wear a different article of clothing every day.

The extravagance became obvious to them when they returned to Brazil. “It was a good idea to move back to Campinas, because that’s when we were able to identify how much we had changed,” said Vitoria. Their return to Brazil, brought them to the realization that they weren’t like everyone else anymore. These differences made it difficult to fit in so they let go of their Americanness and European values to fit back into Brazil.

They reverted to the way they were during their childhood in Brazil, but were unable to shake some things off. The most “cringy thing you could do in Brazil is act American”, said Vitoria, “and I constantly put English words into my phrases when speaking Portuguese.”

Vitoria visited her boyfriend’s college in Brazil, and after meeting his friends, he pulled her aside and said “Vitoria you can’t put English words into your sentences when you’re speaking to people here, it’s embarrassing.” Even the tone in which Vitoria speaks is American, which she tries to control in order to fit into Brazil, during her visits there. Both twins feel that they have forgotten how to be social in Brazil so when the time came to choose a college, Julia was more scared to go to college in Brazil than the United States. Neither twin can “talk for five minutes without speaking English” said Julia.

The inability for Julia and fear for Vitoria of not being able to fit into their own culture led them to take different approaches to their actions at Villanova. Julia went back to the United States with a desire to be overwhelmed by Americanness. Her first step was joining her sorority. She wanted to feel like she belonged at Villanova, like her American friends. She is now what her friend Marie calls a ‘sorority dresser’. She wear leggings, hoodies, white Nike Airforce sneakers, or white high socks with sandals. She attends tailgates and formals, wearing clothes that she could never wear in Brazil, and attends fraternity parties in basements, which she claims, “her Brazilian self would never do.”

Every sorority event she attends, she thinks in the back of her mind, “Oh my God, what would my Brazilian friends think of this”, but ignores that voice as she feels she has truly assimilated into the American mindset.

Vitoria has taken a complete opposite approach. Her experience of returning to Brazil and feeling different didn’t sit well with her, and she didn’t want it to happen again. Vitoria clings on to her Brazilian self, not allowing her to assimilate further into non-Brazilian identities. And because she has become more detached from Julia, she was able to do things differently than her sister. Joining a sorority was many steps too far for Vitoria. She knew that if she joined she wouldn’t be herself. “It’s not for me. If I joined it would be me trying to be someone I’m not. It’s too American and I’m scared it would change my Brazilness” said Vitoria. Another way Vitoria clings to Brazil harder than Julia is through her romantic relationship. Vitoria’s boyfriend lives in Brazil, while Julia’s is also a Villanova student.

Although Julia feels like she has completely assimilated into American culture, her Brazilian core constantly points out differences. The differences are especially clear around values. The ease in which Americans say ‘I love you’, is not something either twin, can get behind.

“You will walk down a hallway and everyone says ‘I love you’ to each other,” said Julia, “You meet a girl once, and she says ‘I love you’ like she’s saying ‘thank you’.” In Brazil, you don’t say that unless it’s serious.

The constant change in culture has created many borders within the twins. Much like their effort to only speak the correct language in each country, the twins keep their clothing choices separated by country. They have their Brazilian clothes, their American clothes, and their Parisian clothes; which they make sure not to mix.

Cultural assimilation has always been part of their lives. They have succeeded, failed, and even changed their relationship with each other in the process. No matter how much they change to fit in, they don’t allow the difference in cultures to change who they are at their core. Both still identify themselves as Brazilian. They will continue to do so, because just like Vitoria now sees Julia as someone who “overflows her cup, and not fills it” in regards to her personality, they make sure these other identities they have only add to who they are, instead of letting them define them.

For the rest of their time at Villanova, Vitoria plans to get closer to her Brazilian roots, and Julia plans to buy a hot pink dress to attend her sorority events.

Julia Bastos is a Brazilian native who attends Bryn Mawr. Her beat focused on the immigrant experience.