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).
Not so long ago, whenever Brazilian professors were invited to give a lecture at a foreign university, they would be expected to say something about their country’s famously exotic national culture. There was no escaping Brazil’s reputation for samba, football, and beautiful mulatto girls, not to mention capoeira (a martial art), candomblé (a syncretic African religion) and feijoada (a traditional bean stew that has been considered, since the 1930s, the national dish). Today, the old cliché of laid-back, exotic Brazil is increasingly being supplanted by a less naive image, one dominated by violence, favelas, and drug-trafficking. But what is the meaning of this image, and how much grounding does it have in reality?
On October 31, a former bureaucrat named Dilma Rousseff became the first female president of Brazil after easily winning a runoff election with 56 percent of the vote. Yet this outcome—in which she defeated Jose Serra, the candidate of the Social Democratic Party—had very little to do with Rousseff’s appeal among the Brazilian public or any distinct political platform of her own. Instead, it reflected the overwhelming popularity of outgoing president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva.
Brazil is a country given to extremes. It’s a nation that combines rapid technological development with the continuity of popular traditions, urban growth and modernization with long-established rural culture. Such contrasts also come through in politics. On the one hand, the country is known for its huge voting population of 135 million and its secure and very fast electronic vote-counting system. On the other hand, the candidates get more bizarre by the year. This year’s novelty act was Tiririca, the stage name of Francisco Everardo Oliveira Silva—a singer, composer, comedian, and clown. Tiririca recently joined the somewhat obscure Partido da República [PR] and was promptly elected federal deputy with the largest number of votes ever recorded in the state of São Paulo.