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.

Affirmative Action

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


  1. Thank you for sharing this! I long to visit different Brazilian countries and have always read on Brazilian history. I am glad you enjoyed yourself and you sound (read) just in awe!


  2. Very interesting post. Especially the parallels you made with other countries.

  3. Thanks for posting this, I love Brazil and have studied there last summer and visited prior as well. What you wrote about feeling it was home is exactly how I felt about it. I have a and its my whole 2months in Brazil if you wanted any other info on Brazil or anything. I studied in Bahia and traveled to Sao Paulo. thanks again for keeping the post coming on this blog, I'm definitely a huge fan.

  4. Thanks for sharing your Brazilian experience my brother. You forgot to talk about the women, lord lord. But I digress. First, I'm in not in favor of Affirmative action whether here in the USA, Brazil or soon Europe. I feel like we as black people can easily create our own universities, hospitals, corporations, etc... instead of constantly trying to get into white institutions. Brazil with its very large African population should build Black universities like we do here in the US. They say that Racism is not a problem down there, but as you clearly noted blacks are more likely to be poor compare to whites. I rather see Afro brazilians doing their own thing on the side instead of constantly trying to fit in with whites. Self determination is the key to succeed as people because the power in brazil, is still controlled by a small minority of whites. How can explain that there have not been a black president in a country where Blacks or brown people far out number whites? Even in Bahia, a mostly black state, whites still control the allocation of resources.

  5. Yeah!

    I'm brazilian, and I live here in Brazil.

    Your text is very interest, as well your point of view about São Paulo (the most culturally mixed).

    And the language is not a big problem. Ever have someone near of you that speak english or spanish. Believe it! Maybe not speak so good, but we can understand bit a bit...

    You're welcome!

    A hug form Brazil!


  6. When you come to Brazil again, you should go to Ouro Preto , is a amazing historic city , ...... but just to see, live here is so difficult ... Sorry about my mistakes, my English is so much bad, and I loved what you write about my country , thanks

  7. I know this is an old post, but I'm new here and I can't resist commenting on a country I love so much.

    I think your point about the rising Brazilian middle class is very true. Unlike the elite, which is mostly white, the middle class tends to be much more mixed. As this class grows, people will and are already are agitating more and more to see faces that look like them in advertisements, on TV and, who knows, perhaps in government as well. Advertisers and politicians in Brazil are already noticing this growing purchase and political power and are slowly starting to cater to it.

    Black consciousness, brown consciousness, or simply the demand that Brazil’s media and government be more inclusive and representative of its highly variegated population is a phenomena that the middle class is more likely than any other to push into the forefront. It was the middle class in the United States and in Europe that drove reform in those societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries and I have hope that Brazil’s middle class will be a similar engine to change.

  8. Hello friends of the Afro - Europe.

    Let me share with you our online magazine The Menelick 2nd Act, which deals with issues related to african-Brazilian culture.

    Hope you enjoy, some texts are translated into English.



  9. Being and African Brazilian (as I am) in the South of Brazil is not as easy as most of people think...

    Nice to read about your impressions on my beloved country. Even though you visited three major cities (SP, RJ and BA), it seems you haven't had the opportunity to see the other side of Brazil. If you come to the Souther states your impressions will be different.

    I invite you, next time you come here, to meet Porto Alegre and the country-side of Rio Grande do Sul state. I can be your guide and take you to get in touch with the local culture. Another nation within the nation.

    1. I haven't seen the date of this post and thought it was very current. Anyway, if you decide to come to Brazil again, come to the South and I can give you a tour round here. Meet a Brazil that you have no idea exists.

    2. Hey Lucas, do you have an e-mail address? mine is

      thank you

  10. Hi people!
    Does anyone have good tips for a journey in Salvador de Bahia? I heard it was like a brazilian 'Harlem Renaissance' out there!
    Could you tell me where to accomodate, what to visit and who to meet with a small budget?
    Thank you

    1. Stay in the Pelourinho (historical center), great concerts, a lot of afrobrazilian music and art, great vibes, friendly people. cheap and comfortable hotel is the Solar dos Romanos, right in the center:

    2. many thanks Anonymous! I forgot to say that I don't speak portuguese or spanish...would this be ok for a solo female traveller like me?

  11. Just asking where can you find Brazilian guides.


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