I just came back from a short trip to Brazil. Prior to a conference, I spent a few days in a couple of cities visiting communities, museums, markets, and parks. I tried to check my book-learned knowledge of this country and its people with realities on the ground. I had many discussions with people about a country which I had known from the literature as home to an “ethnic democracy.” Brazil is a country approximately as large as the United States with just as diverse and beautiful landscape and people.
As a society composed of people of diverse colors, backgrounds, cultures, and religions, diversity seems natural to these people. As a “foreigner,” I never felt I was “watched” or appeared out of place. Smiles are abundant, people interact with calm and ease, and the society has a very peaceful appearance.
If I had not read about subtle discriminatory attitudes based on color and history in this former Portuguese colony, I would not have even noticed the different standings of people relative to their ethnic background and skin color. There are certainly discriminatory practices related to color and heritage but they are subtle and often only visible at the categorical level and not within individual interaction. To see it more clearly, you have to look at statistics about jobs, opportunities, geography, ethnicity, and pigmentation.
Politically speaking, people speak their mind openly and no one is scared of losing a job or risking jail by expressing views, quite a contrast to what you find in the Middle East and parts of Africa. People openly talked about the recent corruption that led to the resignation of President’s chief of staff Jose Dirceu — one of the most powerful figures in Brazil’s government.
Socially, I was stimulated by the spirit of a people who appear happy most of the time, even in the worst of conditions. I find the Brazilians I saw to be a highly sociable and charming people among whom hugging, kissing, and passionately engaging interactions are as normal as breathing air. Having grown up in a Middle Eastern culture with strong inhibitions for public expression of erotic feelings, I was impressed by people of Olinda and Recife who towards their partners openly and generously without cultural reservations.
Although Brazil is very diverse, including people descended from Africans, Europeans, Asians, and natives from all over the Western hemisphere, it remains predominantly isolated from the rest of Latin America. Portuguese is the dominant language and in non-tourist areas you do not find, at least in my brief experience, many people speaking English. I was told that even the Spanish language, which is dominant in the region, is sparsely understood here. As one moves away from tourist cities, one is hard pressed to find someone communicating in non-Portuguese languages, even in airports!
Coming from America, a country in which two-thirds of the population is considered overweight, one is surprised by how fit most people look in Brazil. Following the motto of “looking good is halfway to feeling good,” urban Brazilians I saw seem to be highly body conscious, especially women. No wonder many workout programs in the West are either originated from or named after Brazil. I found most Brazilian women I spoke with to be weight conscious, highly careful in their diet, and very physically active. Maybe this explains why Brazil has the third highest rate of plastic surgery procedures in the world (behind the US and Mexico).
What is very visible in Brazil, and very disturbing, is the wide gap between the . Sao Paulo, Brazil’s commercial magnate, with a population of some 20 million, is an economically polarized city. Other cities are not exempted from this ugly reality. Many Brazilians speak of Rio de Janeiro with a sense of its loss to poverty, crime, drug, prostitution, etc. Streets in central cities and tourists areas are full of poor people selling any manner of objects to make a living, , or begging for food and money.
As a casual observer, you cannot but be surprised by the number of selling dreams to so many customers on almost every street. In big cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, city highways and streets are crowded by people who take advantage of traffic lights to sell something to drivers in order to make a living. The number of homeless has been increasing by the day, especially in major industrial cities.
Thanks to neo-liberal policies imposed by international financial institutions, the Brazilian economy has created one of the most unequal societies, not only in Latin America, but also in the world. Today 46.7% of Brazil’s national income goes to richest 10% of the population, while the poorest 10% of people receive only 0.5% of this income! And yet Brazil has continued to remain on the list of top five indebted nations in the world! As happy as Brazilians look on the street, their share of public services (education, health, and security) is the lowest in Latin America.
This increasing economic inequality has contributed to a rise in unemployment, crime, human trafficking, child labor, and the like. Increasing crime has created a very insecure environment in a society known for its kind and peaceful people. Today, the security industry is the fastest growing business in major cities, and drug lords are becoming the major players in cities like Rio de Janeiro.
Most houses in wealthy neighborhoods have a security booth with a posted guard watching behind tinted glasses. Crime has also affected safety concerns for businesses and tourism in urban areas. It is rare to find nice houses without a guard, security system, or walls with sharp glass or on top.
you see here are selected from a large pool to demonstrate some of my impressions. They represent scenes, events, and faces from Sao Paulo, Salvador, Recife, and Olinda. I would like to thank those Brazilians who shared their time with me and helped me to better understand their society and culture: “Obrigado” (thank you).
Ali Akbar Mahdi is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Ohio Wesleyan University.