Roving thoughts and provocations

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Talking About Brazil with Lilia Schwarcz

Miguel Rio Branco/Magnum Photos
Capoeira, Brazil, 1989

On a recent trip to Brazil, I struck up a conversation with Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, one of Brazil’s finest historians and anthropologists. The talk turned to the two subjects she has studied most—racism and national identity.

I first visited Brazil in 1989, when hyperinflation had nearly paralyzed the economy, favelas erupted in shoot-outs, and Lula, a hero of the union movement but still unsure of himself as a politician, was undertaking his first campaign for the presidency. I found it all fascinating and frightening. On my second trip, a few years later, I met Lilia and her husband, Luiz Schwarcz, who was beginning to build the company he had founded, Companhia das Letras, into one of the finest publishing houses in Latin America. They treated me to a day so packed with Braziliana that I remember it as one of the happiest experiences of my life: in the morning a stroll with their children through São Paulo’s main park, where families of all shades of color were picnicking and playing in dazzling sunlight; lunch, a tour of Brazilian specialties undreamt of in my culinary philosophy (but no pig’s ears or tails, it not being feijoada day); an international soccer match (Brazil beat Venezuela, and the stands exploded with joy); then countless caipirinhas and a cabaret-concert by Caetano Veloso at his most lyrical and politically provocative.

Since then I have never stopped marveling at the energy and originality of Brazilian culture. But I don’t pretend to understand it, all the more so as it is constantly changing, and I can’t speak Portuguese. I can only ask questions in English and strain to grasp the answers. Has the myth of Brazil as a “sleeping giant” turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy? “He has awoken,” people say today. The economy is booming, health services expanding, literacy improving. There are also prophecies of doom, because Brazil’s economic history looks like cycles of boom and bust imposed on centuries of slavery and pauperization. Still, Lula is completing a second and final term as president. Whatever Brazilians may think of his newly assertive foreign policy, which includes cultivating friendly relations with Iran (most of them don’t seem to be interested in it), they generally agree that he has managed the economy well and has done a great deal to improve the lot of the poor. Lula’s term will end in October, and he has thrown his support behind Dilma Rousseff, his former chief of staff, whose chances of winning are much bolstered by Lula’s own popularity. The first debate of the new presidential campaign, which took place on August 5, was a dignified affair—an indication, I was told, that democracy is healthy and the days of military coups are over. Now foreigners are asking new questions about the character of this new great power. I directed some of the FAQs at Lilia.

Robert Darnton: Brazil’s emergence as a major world player provokes questions about its national identity, some of them hostile, such as the one you said you encountered on your last trip to the US: How can you live in a country overrun with favelas and violence? How do you answer them?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz: It is strange how nowadays Brazil has a new image coming from abroad. We used to be seen as “exotics”; a country of Capoeira (a Brazilian form of martial art), Candomblé (a syncretic African religion), Carnaval, and the “Mulatas.” Now we continue to be viewed as exotic, but the exoticism has a new ingredient: violence, even a new aesthetics of violence, mainly in the way Brazil is portrayed in contemporary films, like City of God. The fascination with favelas among many people outside Brazil is ambiguous. On the one hand, favelas are seen as violent communities, subject to violent leaders outside the authority of the state. On the other, they are just “different”—scenes of a culture outside the dominant culture, with its own special way of partying, dancing, playing soccer. We do not have favelas everywhere, but foreigners like to think so. We have developed a new kind of tourism, which features a “favela tour.” Everything is fake, but the tourists enjoy the illusion that they are experiencing another world. And what about you Bob? Are you afraid of walking in some parts of New York City? Is Harlem a kind of favela?

RD: Yes, like many New Yorkers, I have moments of fear when I get off the subway at the wrong station or wander too far from 125th Street. But when I visit Brazil, I like to think I am in a country that is coping successfully with its history of racism. Could Brazil evolve into a multi-nuanced mestizo society like the one imagined by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre?

LMS: Let me first ask you Bob, do you think of Obama as a “black President”? I am asking this question, because in Brazil the definition of color depends on the context, the moment and the temperament of the person who asks the question and responds to it.

RD: Ask any American, ask Obama himself, the answer will certainly be that he is black. In the US, despite the many varieties of skin color, we do not have a multi-nuanced notion of race. You are black or you are white or you are something not closely linked to color such as Chinese, Hispanic.

LMS: In Brazil, you are what you describe yourself to be. Officially we have five different colors—black, white, yellow, indigenous, and pardo (meaning “brown,” “brownish,” or “gray-brown”), but in reality, as research has demonstrated, we have more than 130 colors. Brazilians like to describe their spectrum of colors as a rainbow and we also think that color is a flexible way of categorizing people. For several years, I have been studying a soccer game called “Pretos X Brancos” (Blacks against whites), which takes place in a favela of São Paulo, called Heliópolis. In theory, it pits eleven white players against eleven black players. But, every year they change colors like they change socks or shirts—one year a player will choose to play for one team, the next year for the other, with the explanation that, “I feel more black,” or “I feel more white.” Also, in Brazil, if a person gets rich, he gets whiter. I recently talked with a dentist in Minas Gerais. As he is becoming old, his hair has turned white, and he is very well recognized in his little town. He started smoking cigars, joined the local Rotary Club, and said to me: “When I was black my life was really difficult.” So one can see how being white even nowadays is a powerful symbol. Here we have two sides of the same picture: on the one hand, identity is flexible; on the other hand, whiteness is ultimately what some people aspire to. But one aspect is common, the idea that you can manipulate your color and race.

RD: Does that mean you are developing a less poisonous kind of racism in Brazil?

LMS: I think all kinds of racism are equally terrible. I am just saying that the Brazilian kind is different. For example, in 2000 we completed a survey research project that consisted of three seemingly simple questions: Are you prejudiced in any way? 97 percent of those surveyed answered no. Do you know anyone who is prejudiced? 99 percent answered yes. If you had said yes to the second question, you were asked to describe the relationship you have with this person. We did not ask for names, but people often gave them, naming friends and relatives. We concluded that every Brazilian thinks he is an island of racial democracy surrounded by an ocean of racism. But things are changing: Although affirmative action did not begin until the 1980, it is now pretty effective, and we have a quota and bonus system in the universities (the system benefits mainly poor people who studied in public schools, and, consequently, black people). African history is mandatory in the schools. We are coming to understand the complexity of racial prejudice rather than denying its existence.

RD: I suppose then that foreigners cannot take Black Orpheus as a measure of racial attitudes in Brazil, but how do you deal with other elements that go into the stereotypical notion of Brazilian identity? Is Brazilian popular culture all about samba and soccer?

LMS: That is the most common image of our country, and it was, in a way, actually an artificial construct created by Getúlio Varga, the populist president, of the 1930s. He “nationalized,” so to speak, Capoeira, Candomblé, samba and soccer. He even construed “feijoada” (a food derived from slave cooking) as a symbol of Brazil. The white of the rice, he said, stood for the white population. The black of the beans represented the Africans. The red of the pepper corresponded to the indigenous people. The yellow of the manioc symbolized the Japanese and Chinese who had poured into the country in the beginning of the twentieth century. And the green of the vegetables was the forest. You could call it political marketing, but it was very clever, and today we see Brazil as a country of one culture, even though we have many different subcultures. Could you say that about the United States?

RD: We talk about the melting pot, but we don’t all believe in it; and if anything melted in it, it was not feijoada.

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard. His most recent book is The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon.

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo, is known in the United States as the author of The Spectacle of the Races: Scientists, Institutions, and the Race Question in Brazil, 1870-1930 (English edition, 1999) and The Emperor’s Beard: Dom Pedro II and the Tropical Monarchy of Brazil (2004).

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