Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brazilian Stereotypes Inside and Out

This image was bouncing around on Facebook the other day. And I've seen similar renditions depicting other nationalities and U.S. States. While I usually don't pay much attention to this type of viral social media, I've had some recent experiences that made me especially sensitive to the issue at hand. 

The images in the top row are meant to represent what foreigners associate with Brazilians.  I would bet, however, that most non-Brazilians don't know nearly enough about Brazil to associate the country with its indigenous populations. I still meet ("educated") people in New York City who think Brazilians speak Spanish! Instead, when these people think of Brazil, they think of soccer, Gisele Bündchen, beaches and bikinis. The poster could read like this:
What people think we play:
How people think we look:
What people think we wear:

These pictures could be followed by images of Ayrton Senna to represent Brazil's top notch race-car drivers, some less attractive celebrity or average-looking citizen to counter the idea that all Brazilians are top models, and maybe a photo of Avenida Paulista crowded with businesspeople in suits to show that Brazilian are professionals, not only beach bums. I admit I'm having fun with stereotypes. But, seriously, if one were to keep the images in the poster as is, I would suggest changing the title.

Instead of reading "Brazilian," the poster should read "Paraense" or "Northern Brazilian." The true culprits of the type of cultural ignorance denounced in the poster, are, in my experience, Brazilians themselves. Many people who've grown up in the world class cities of São Paulo and Rio and in other parts of Southern and Southeast Brazil, have never bothered to visit (or learn about) other state capitals like Belém, Pará or Manaus, Amazonas. 

Most of the Brazilians I meet in New York City have never been to Northern Brazil and ask me how I ended up living in Belém of all places. The answer is that I was studying environmental issues in the Amazon, of which Belém and Pará are a part. But Belém and its neighboring Manaus are major cities with all the typical characteristics of urban centers, a far cry from the remote tribal villages depicted in the poster. How could world-class DJ David Guetta play a show in Belém in a straw-thatched hut? Would Manaus have been chosen to host World Cup 2012 matches if it were going to convert a dirt patch usually used for tribal ceremonies into a soccer field?

Northern Brazilian cities' proximity to the world's most bio-diverse eco-region and some of its last remaining indigenous communities is something to be proud of, not something to deny. The Amazon has bestowed its urban centers with a culture and cuisine that is unlike any other in Brazil or the world. 

So to you "Brazilians," come on up and get to know your own country. You can experience the culture in a theater, eat local cuisine at fine restaurants, and party at bars and clubs. But of course, if you are more adventurous, you can always hop on a boat headed up the Amazon river, strip down to your skivvies, paint your face, and hunt some jaguar, since after all, stereotypes are based in some truth. 


  1. Great post, Rebecca. I completely agree. Much cultural exploration and internal promotion of Brazil's "forgotten" states is needed. I am always surprised to hear how most of my friends from Sao Paulo, who have traveled all over the world, have never explored their own backyard aside from an occasional trip to Rio or Salvador for Carnaval.

    I also wanted to point out that even a global city such as Sao Paulo still suffers from cultural ignorance by Americans.

    When I speak to my american friends about my life in Sao Paulo, they often assume I'm living in a tropical paradise by the beach. Some were even shocked to hear that I wasn't teaching beautiful women english on the beach while sipping coconut water...

    Surprise! Sao Paulo is not a coastal city and it is a huge cultural melting pot much like New York. I am amazed at the rich cultural diversity here influencing everything from restaurants to architecture, and even the Portuguese language.

    People are also shocked to hear that Sao Paulo is home to the biggest Japanese and Italian population outside of Japan and Italy. Sao Paulo is also home to many Afro-Brazilians, Germans, Lebanese, Syrian and Jewish peoples. And thanks to the Italians and Japanese, we have some of the best sushi and pizza in the world! I’m from New York and I would dare say the pizza can compete with New York style pizza.

    Moreover, I'm actually surprised that most people still assume that Brazilians are dark skinned despite the oversaturation of the "Giselle" look in global media. Google Sabrina Sato, Juliana Paes and Cris Vianna and you'll get an idea of the cultural diversity in the country present in everything from fashion to television.

    Lastly, lets not forget music. Brazilians don’t only listen to Samba! Brazil is a mega-power for music and is becoming a global exporter of not only Samba music, but also other uniquely Brazilian styles such as Funk Carioca, Forró, Axé, and Sertanejo Universitario. Michel Telo anyone?

    My hope is that the mega-publicity surrounding the country with the World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016 will help promote the "real" Brazil and counter many of these stereotypes, opening the world's eyes to Brazil’s economic might, natural beauty, diverse culture and amazing people. It's going to be quite an eye opening experience!

    1. I've had similar experiences, David. I'm frequently reminding American friends that Brazil is the size of the continental US and has a parallel history of slavery and immigration that has made the country one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse in the world.

      If you are from the East Coast, I'm sure you have friends who know just as little, even less, about parts of the US as they do about Brazil. I grew up in Boston, but went to school in St. Louis and got to know the region pretty well. Too many people think of Middle America only as the fields you fly over to get to LAX from LGA. Cultural ignorance is a reality at home and abroad and it's not going away. This image I saw on Facebook just provoked me to write about it.

      Regarding pizza, I totally agree. No pie is complete without egg, corn and peas.

  2. If I could only explain to you the Pataxó fashion show I saw in Coroa Vermelha (near Porto Seguro, Bahia, the supposed exact site where Pedro Alvares "discovered" Brazil). It was during the annual Indigenous games, and along with swimming and archery competitions, tribal dancing and tug o war, the fashion show featured couples prancing down the catwalk in full indigenous gear and armaments and jewelry. The introduction went something like this "She's 17, 5,4", 105 lbs, she likes to hunt tatu (armadillo), is fierce with a spear, and wants to be a lawyer. He's 20, 59, 170 lbs, dives to 60 feet for oysters, is a championship alligator wrestler, and is studying to be a flight attendant."

    1. Wow. I had to look up the Jogos dos Povos Indígenas just now, because I'd never heard of them before. That's so cool that you were able to attend. The idea of the games seems like a good idea initially, but what's you've described indicates the event's execution could use a little more thought.