Saturday, June 1, 2013

Brazil Is Not for Beginners

I have had a long interaction with Latin America in general and with Brazil specifically.  It all began in 1970, when I participated in the Civil Air Patrol’s International Air Cadet Exchange, spending a month in Costa Rica and passing through Panama and the Canal Zone both going and coming.  I went on to spend three years in Mexico City from 1977 through 1980. While there, I traveled extensively throughout Mexico and visited Guatemala frequently. My interaction with Brazil began in 1986, when I took a course on Brazil at East Tennessee State University, which resulted in a lifelong friendship with Brazilian professor, political scientist and anthropologist, Maria Lúcia Montes.  I began a master’s degree in Brazilian Studies at the University of Texas’ Institute for Latin American Studies that led to my first visiting the country during the summer of 1988, after which I then proceeded to Guatemala City to do archival research for a local organization for five weeks. I came back to Brazil in 1989 as an exchange student at the University of São Paulo, where I was to take classes for a year, do research, and return to the University of Texas to write my master’s thesis.  I did take the classes and did do the research, but, instead of returning to Austin, I remained in Brazil for another four and a half years.  The thesis, of course, fell by the wayside.  I had contracted a non-curable disease – Brazilianitis, for which I also desire no cure.  I returned to the US in 1994, with a Brazilian wife and three-year-old daughter in tow, by then having also visited Paraguay and Argentina.  The wife, like my thesis, fell by the wayside, my daughter grew up, but my fascination with Brazil remained.  Over the following 17 years, I would visit Brazil many times, using the pretext that I had to return at least every two years in order to not loose my permanent residency visa, but that was just an excuse.  I had to get my periodical Brazil fix.  During those years, I remarried (in a small city in rural Pernambuco, which is a story unto itself), had two more children and eventually retired as a public school teacher.  My wife, our two small children and I returned to Brazil to live in 2011... All three of my children speak English and Portuguese and are dual US-Brazilian citizens.

When I first visited Brazil in 1988, I began to note “differences” between this country and both the United States and others I had visited. Over the years, I have continued to do so. The idea for something called “Brazil Is Not for Beginners” first surfaced in discussions around 1990  with Maria Lúcia Montes. I hope to write a series of blog entries exploring Brazil and my experiences here. As time goes on, I do believe that you will come to believe, like my friend and I, that Brazil is not for beginners.

Perhaps the best way to begin is by giving an overview of a few things on which I will be focusing. Let us first look at identity. How do Brazilians identify themselves? In order to understand that, we need to first examine our own definition of that concept. We Americans are extremely Manichaeistic. Everything is black and white, “either-or”. There is no gray,  no “additionally”.  We tend to identify ourselves in opposition to something else. We are Native Americans, Afro-Americans, Mexican Americans and so on. Often, when we hear “American”, what is really meant is White Anglo Saxon Protestant, or someone similar. By declaring ourselves to be hyphenated Americans, we are also telling you what we are not. I am American (i.e. WASP). Therefore, I am not African American. I am not Mexican American. I am exactly what I am telling you: no more and no less – all though, the truth is obviously far more complex. In other words, Barack Obama is our first Black President, our first African American President. We conveniently forget about or simple disregard the fact his mother was not and proclaim him to be our first President of African descent. Although it is true, we do so at the expense of fully half his family tree... Our standard is, like it or not, the old “one drop of blood” rule. If you’ve got any of this, you cannot also be that.

On the other hand, identity is much more fluid in Brazil. Here, we don’t find hyphenated Brazilians. We are all Brazilians, including often those of us, like myself, who are not. Identity is far from being in opposition to something else. More often than not, it is complementary. Like the United States, Brazil is a country of immigrants from all over. The same countries that disgorged millions of their citizens who then either crossed one of the two oceans or came by land sent them here as well as to the United States. (Uruguay and Argentina also received many of those who came from Europe. From Asia, not so much.) The result is a mix that is typically, well, Brazilian, as people are also not afraid to or are ostracized for mixing. (Remember that miscegenation was still illegal in parts of the US until 1976.) Maria Akemi Nishimura da Silva is a name that would surprise no one here. People often use nationality or race as a description rather than as a classification. “Oh, he is German and she is Italian” is used here simply to say the people in question are of German and Italian descent. In fact, many are both “German” and “Italian”. This has nothing to do with their brasileiridade, their “Brazilianity”, if you will. You, quite simply, can be more than one thing. The city of São Paulo has a wonderful neighborhood, Liberdade, that is populated by many people of Japanese descent and the state of São Paulo hosts the descendants of Southerners who fled the “heel of Yankee oppression” after our Civil War.  In southern Brazil, there are cities that were founded by Germans, Italians, Russians, and others. Not infrequently, the descendants of those original immigrants speak the languages of their ancestors in addition to Portuguese and, yet, no one would even consider claiming that they are not really Brazilian or demand that they learn to speak Portuguese – apart from the fact that they already do. Some twenty years ago, I had the good fortune to meet some of those “Southerners” I just mentioned. They had learned to speak English at home and Portuguese in school. They spoke a wonderfully preserved antebellum Southern English, complete with “y’all”, a drawl and many of the folksy expressions I grew up with. Their Portuguese was also perfectly rural, reflecting the area where they were raised.

All of this means that Brazilians are far more tolerant of differences and even ambiguities than Americans. This can be seen in religion, attitudes towards sex, and, to a certain extent, in racial relations. Brazil’s history is replete with what we would see as contradictions but Brazilians take as par for the course. Here are some small examples we will later explore: It is not uncommon for people to be both practicing Catholics and to frequent a terreiro, where they openly participate in African religions brought here by slaves. Brazil, supposedly a Latin and macho country, not only hosts the world’s largest gay pride parade, São Paulo’s municipal government underwrites it to the tune of one million reais (about half a million dollars at today’s exchange rate.) The most democratic ruler Brazil has ever had – who did more to promote true republican values than any other – was Brazil’s last emperor, Dom Pedro II, who reigned for 58 years. The advent of Brazil’s republic when he was deposed in 1889 was more reactionary rather than progressive. Another head of state worth looking at is current President Dilma Rousseff, whose father immigrated here from Bulgaria. Ms. Rousseff was a guerrilla in the late 1960s. Arrested in 1970, she spent three years in prison during which time she was tortured. In 2010, she was freely elected president. To put this in perspective, we need only look at the violent criticism our own President Obama has been subjected to for merely having had contact with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, who admittedly committed but was never convicted of any crime. To close out this section on contradictions and tolerance, when Brazilians butt up against a pigheaded and unyielding bureaucracy that is so very characteristic of many Third World countries, they frequently resort to the jeitinho - a very Brazilian response to what would otherwise be an immovable object. After all, here, there is almost always a way around those rigid rules.  We will also look at the changes Brazil has undergone since the early 1990s until today – changes that include going from an economy in free fall with inflation running at forty percent per month (not year) and a nascent democracy that saw its first freely elected president in thirty years impeached and removed from office for corruption to a nation with a stable, growing economy and a more mature, functioning, though still young, democracy.

As we explore these and other aspects of Brazilian culture, I hope you enjoy it as much as I know I will. Trust me, this is going to be fun... at least for me.


  1. Dear Teacher Shelton,

    So nice to read that text. Nice to know this good opinion and vision about Brazil of one American. It's so good to me.

    Hugo Cardoso.

    1. Thank you, Hugo. Your comment means a lot to me.