Monday, June 21, 2010
I love Brazil! A Short Report of my Brazilian Experience
I was in Brazil for a month, from the 12th of May till the 12th of June. I visited the 3 biggest cities of the country. Sao Paulo (aka Sampa), Salvador da Bahia (aka Bahia) and Rio de Janeiro (aka Rio). It was a revelation. Although I knew that I was visiting a country with more than 500 years of interracial history, it still was a great and beautiful surprise to experience this mixed place. Brazil is the country of the Western hemisphere with the greatest African influence and the greatest black population of the West. The way this country today handles its history and diversity is inspiring.
I’ve been thinking for years about going to Brazil. It is a country in which I thought I could find a fusion of Europe, the West, Africa and much more. A country home to any race, any culture but all as one under a Brazilian flag and a Brazilian identity. But Brazil is far away from Europe, and is therefore not a place you can visit for a week (which is OK if I go to New York for instance). I needed time, money and perseverance. This year I finally took the decision and went off to Brazil. I now know that I will return, often.
I lost a piece of my heart there. It felt as if I finally arrived in my home country, although I had never been there, I haven’t any ancestors there and I don’t speak the language. But all this is not that important for Brazilians. Being Brazilian is an attitude more than a blood line, and if you’re ready to know Portuguese the rest will follow naturally.
Fortunately I have an education in linguistics and Latin languages are rather similar when you get into it. My mother tongue is French and I have a good knowledge of Spanish. This helps. Before taking off I thought myself the most important expressions in Portuguese. I could immediately start and have basic conversation with Brazilians, certainly when they had some passive knowledge of Spanish. Generally Brazilians don’t speak too much English and just speak Portuguese with you once they discover you can speak some words. So, you really have to speak Portuguese, otherwise you just get isolated. After a week I could read a newspaper without too many problems, and today I start to read books in Portuguese. Without understanding everything but still understanding what the stories are about and learning many new words while reading.
Racism and poverty
Brazil is a country with problems. There is a huge social divide between poor and rich and there are still economic problems and disparities between the poor North and the rich South. It is not true that there is full racial harmony, as some Brazilians would like to think. The great majority of poor people are African descendents and most rich people are white. But still, this is the least racist place I have ever been too. And, believe me, I have travelled all around the world. Brazil is concerning race the best you can get in the Americas (maybe Canada is better, wasn’t there yet). While in the United States poor white and poor black are two different groups, and rich blacks don’t mix too much with rich whites, Brazil is totally different.
The social divide seems to be all about money not too much about color. When you are rich and black you can (rather easily) mix with whites, when you are white and poor you mix with blacks. Still, this will not yet result in a nation where everybody is mixed and brown skinned. A history of racism and slavery still has its consequences on today’s reality in Brazil.
The whites are a minority among the poor, the blacks a minority among the rich. But Brazil is a huge country with great differences between the different states. The poverty I have seen in Bahia is nothing compared to poverty I have seen in Africa. The favelas don’t even look that bad when compared to the shanty towns of South Africa, the richest country of Africa. But then again, this doesn’t mean there are no problems in these favelas. They are often ran by crime syndicates, kids don’t go to school, drugs is everywhere, people get killed, the youth sees no future. And the first victims to this situation are the Afro Brazilians.
Change and opinion
Fortunately many things have changed in Brazil for the last 20 years. The middle class has grown tremendously, and therefore a new class of people who are much more racially mixed are gaining importance in the political and social order of Brazil. Still, beauty standards are much more geared towards whites, virtually all TV presenters, news anchors, actors and commercial ads are lily white. While more than half the population of the country is non-white. Although I have seen black actors, blacks featuring in commercials etc. the media still has a long way to go to give an image that resembles Brazilian reality or promotes a racially equal society. Generally blacks presence is limited to sports and music, sometimes humor.
I talked a lot with people, mostly black Brazilians. They have very diverse opinions and attitudes towards Brazilian reality. Most people I talked to don’t think that racism is the key to the problem. Racism is just the most visible expression of problems that run deeper: economic inequality, bad public schools, social segregation and social exclusion.
Today public universities (the best ones in Brazil) use quotas to attract more black students. But I talked with a Brazilian who told me that more than a generation of affirmative action didn’t change much to the lives of most blacks in the US. Even if the US has a black president today, most blacks are still over represented among the poorer and less educated peoples of the US. Race isn’t the issue according to him. Why would a system with quotas change anything in Brazil? There is a black upper class that will benefit, but the big black masses will stay in the favelas.
The key is according to many the state of the public primary and secondary schools. As long as the quality of these schools will not be upgraded, the teachers better prepared and remunerated, the poor and uneducated will stay poor and uneducated (except some smart and lucky ones, who will be put on the forefront as great examples, ‘Brazilian Dreams’).
Besides all that Brazil is a beautiful and fascinating country. The last ten years the government is doing a lot to upgrade the AfroBrazilian and indigenous cultures. You can see a lot of adds that show that Africans have been an important contribution to the Brazil we know today. In schools the African heritage is considered as a heritage of all Brazilians, whatever their color. History classes feature all Brazilians and show how the non-white Brazilians also played a major role in the constitution of the Brazilian nation. The rehabilitation of the Afro Brazilian contribution to Brazil is in full swing.
In a way Brazilians are also very American: you easily get in touch with people, they are very proud of their country whether they are rich or poor, and they are big fans of their own flag whatever their ancestry. There is no contradiction. The country is beautiful, and the people, black and white, express such a great confidence in the future that it is hard not to get ‘contaminated’ with their enthusiasm. Combine all this with a wonderful tropical climate, fresh fruits everywhere and a great cuisine … and yes, I might think to exchange my confused and racist home country for Brazil. Thank you Brazil, you had a dramatic and murderous history, but today you are creating something culturally inclusive and beautiful in its diversity.
While I know that if I raised my children in Brazil they could be Brazilians without having to deny or be ashamed of any part of their ancestry, I strongly doubt they will feel and be accepted as a genuine part of Belgium or Flanders while growing up here. Will it also take 5 centuries like in Brazil? Brazil is an inspiration for the future of all postcolonial nations, our European nations too!
See all Afro-Europe postings of Brazil here