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Brazil: Northeasterners Get No Respect

 Brazil: 
        Northeasterners Get No Respect

Brazilian
TV viewers may associate what is deemed as
successful attributes with urban or North American lifestyles.
Perceptions acquired from television, US movies and popular music,
affect attitudes leading to ethnic and "racial" self-doubt pertaining

to Brazil’s African and Amerindian ancestry.
by:
Alan P. Marcus

 

The
terms "ethnicity" and "race" have become widely
misunderstood and ambiguous in the realm of world political and cultural
discourse. I agree with Melissa Nobles (2000), who states that "race"
is fundamentally a political process. The geographic and regional dimensions
of Brazil, are practically inexistent and are largely overlooked in
current discussions on "race" and ethnicity. This oversight
is particularly significant given the geographical ethnic identities
and migrations (both internal and external) that forge the shaping of
complex identities outside of, but not excluding the "black-white"
paradigm (i.e.; Africa-Europe).

Although
the literature written on Brazil by both Brazilian and foreign scholars
has focused on a "black-white" ethnic axis, the regional and
geographic dimensions are more often than not disregarded. This is particularly
significant given the geographical ethnicities that predominate or dominate
in certain regions. The "backlands" of the Northeast of Brazil
(the sertões), have been the region where "racial"
miscegenation has historically developed into a particular regional
ethnicity.

Undoubtedly
African, most Europeans and North Americans would qualify the population
with an oversimplified term such as "black". For numerous
economic, social and political reasons this regional ethnicity has thus
evolved into a rich and complex identity that transcend, without excluding
the simple "black-white" axis. The complexities of such identities
are oversimplified when viewed through North American or European paradigms.

The
Northeasterners

The
Northeasterners are called: Nordestinos (literally "Northeasterners").
The connection of the plight of the Nordestino to
economic and environmental distress is one that is strongly tied
to the history of sugarcane plantations and African slavery. Amidst
historical developments, such as the abolishment of slavery, the displacement
of Amerindians, the invasions of the French and the Dutch, and, Portuguese
colonialism; the region and the population has been literally and figuratively
violated. The desolate land of sertão looks as if someone
had claimed it, chewed it and spat it out, leaving the chewed-on land
in its opiate-state of oblivious abandonment.

The
Northeast region of Brazil sends the highest number of inter-regional
migrants out to other regions. In 1987, 10 out of every 20 Latin Americans
who died of infant mortality, were Brazilian, and out of those ten,
five were from the Northeast of Brazil. That is: the Northeast of Brazil
suffered 25 percent of all Latin American infant mortality in 1987.

According
to the Brazilian 2000 (IBGE) Census, 70 percent of the Nordestino
population who migrated, headed towards the Southeast of Brazil.
The plight of the Nordestino is similar in content, but different
in form, from the plight of the blacks and Amerindians in Brazil, in
that they have long lived under historical abandonment, political oppression,
and social marginalization. And in addition, the ethnicity or "racial"
aspects of the Nordestinos are often shrouded in confusion.

The
Nordestinos, who mostly self-describe themselves as black, mulatto
or other "mixture" categories such as: cafuso, mameluco
or mestiço, (also see the Brazilian Census 2000 IBGE),
do not escape the stigma of simply being reduced to a single term: Nordestino.
They are prone to social and economic immobility due to their discriminatory
status in the Southeast regions merely by nature of being ethnically
Nordestino.

The
Nordestino has long lived in a region under severe environmental
stress, with harsh droughts, desertification, and hunger that ultimately
provoke the "push" effect in the inter-regional migrations.
They have left the sertão searching for employment opportunities
in Brazil’s industrial hubs such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro,
where they are subsequently and overtly mocked and informally segregated
because of their accent, their food, their music and their culture.
In the above-cited cities, the Nordestinos become naïve
targets of pejorative slurs such as "Baianos"( from
the state of Bahia), "Cabeça-chata" ("Flat-head")
or "Paraíba" (from the state of Paraíba).

The
Nordeste ("Northeast") and the sertão
("backlands") hold a prime sense of place, identity and significance
to the Nordestino. When the Nordestino migrates to the
big cities, he or she is brutally reduced to being a Nordestino
(or a matuto; "hillbilly"). The identity of place
transcends the identity of ancestry; and hence also transcends the
"black-white" paradigm, albeit not completely excluding it,
but simply adds another complex dimension to Brazilian social, political
and cultural dynamics.

The
Power of Telecommunications

The
political context of "racial" and ethnic semantics in Brazil
can be observed as constantly shifting. Brazil’s black populations,
maybe dwindling due to a number of reasons ranging from cultural stigmatization,
to Brazilian "Negrophobia" and high-mortality/low-fertility
rates. Nevertheless, were one to look at these figures at face value,
as misleading and deceptive as they are, the perception of Brazil is
that from 1822 to 2000 the population has shifted from a black majority
to a white majority, from a rural to an urban population, and internal
migrations have occurred from the Northeast to the Southeast regions.

The
variables attributed to causing these perpetual shifts are imbued with
complexities tied into various Brazilian identities. The advent of telecommunications
ought to be placed as a significant variable in a country such as Brazil,
which is perceived globally as a "developing" and "poor".
According to Veja magazine (2001) approximately 80 percent of
the Brazilian population possess a television set. This figure represents
a powerful form of mass communication on several dimensions, mostly
political, social and cultural. To say that the magnitude of such a
powerful form of communication in Brazil is certainly exploited and
utilized politically is an understatement.

The
advent of the television in Brazil has induced the learning of social
and cultural movements from national urban regions from within and outside
of Brazil, particularly from the USA. The exposure to telecommunications,
including access to the Internet, and the information that is thereupon
disseminated, affect notions of ethnic, cultural and social identities.

Now
Brazilian TV viewers may associate and recognize what is deemed as successful
attributes with urban or North American lifestyles, and attempt to mimic
these lifestyles, in an effort to replicate this perceived economic
and social success. This perception may affect attitudes and practices
detrimental to the environment, where particularly the Amazon region
and the Northeast regions are considered as "backward" and
"undeveloped".

These
regions are also perceived as a detriment to the fashionable and historical
notions of national "progress", globalization and industrialization.
In a poster from 1970 "Enough of Legends: Let’s Profit!" ("Chega
de Lendas! Vamos Faturar!") produced during the military dictatorship,
where the government agency overseeing Amazonian development, SUDAM,
refers to the Amazonian land that is "undeveloped yet profitable
to invest…a gold mine". Thus, urging people to invest in road
projects through a deduction in their income tax.

Clearly
suggesting financial profits were qualifiers for national "progress"
yet with absolute disregard for the local Amerindian population and
the fragile Amazonian environment. The importance or even the mere presence
of a Brazilian "identity" and a Brazilian sense of place,
hold little, if not any, value in the realm of a "modern"
world. And in this particular case, render the Nordestino valueless
once again, in regards to their sense of place, their accent, their
food, their music and their culture.

Perceptions
acquired from absorbing ideas from television programs and North American
movies and popular music, affect attitudes leading to ethnic and "racial"
self-doubt pertaining to Brazil’s undeniable African and Amerindian
cultural and genetic ancestry. The popular correlation hypothetically
follows, for example: "If the USA are an industrial and economic
success, it is precisely because they are all `lily-white’, they have
dislocated and excluded `Amerindians’, marginalized blacks; and replaced
their forests with profitable industries and urban cities; then Brazil
should do the same… and why should we not be allowed to do the
same, since it appears this is what makes Brazil different from
the USA?".

These
notions of foreign "Eco-colonialism" need to be addressed
and included in international human rights and environmental discourse
that involve cooperative efforts to protect the environment and local
cultures; and to better understand the Brazilian perspective. This Brazilian
perspective, contained in a universe of self-doubt is what propitiates
ethnic and racial stereotypes, in this case of the Nordestino,
pervasive in the national subconscious.

Brazilian
"Cordial Racism"

Traditional
Brazilian rhetoric claims that it was "class rather than prejudice"
that marked cultural separations in Brazil, and this argument is still
reiterated in popular Brazilian "white" middle-class discourse.
However, the machinery of "racial democracy" that propels
Brazilian sub-conscious cannot separate "color" from social
and economic status, which suggests that there is a deeper force behind
Brazilian "racial" and ethnic dynamics.

The
collective and individual notions of ethnic identities in and of Brazil,
and the confusing implications, only exacerbate, as some scholars would
suggest the masquerading of a national identity well known for its ubiquitous
"racial democracy", its joie-de-vivre and charismatic
docility; to a subterranean culture deep-rooted in a slavist legacy
that is violently patriarchal, racist and sexist.

A poll
research sponsored by the São Paulo newspaper Folha de S.
Paulo and Datafolha published in 1995 a report called: "Racismo
Cordial: A Mais Completa Análise sobre Preconceito de Cor no
Brasil" ("Cordial Racism: The Most Complete Analysis on
Prejudice of Color in Brazil"). The results of the poll revealed
that 89 percent of Brazilians admitted that there was prejudice of color
of blacks, only 10 percent admitted to having prejudice themselves and
87 percent revealed some form of underhanded prejudice of blacks.

The
static "color" dichotomy that is used in the US is far too
pluralistic to apply such a neat Euro-North American "racial"
pigeonhole categorizations, which have been absorbed from abroad. Therefore,
to superimpose a North American or European paradigm to analyze and
examine "racial" figures in Brazil is over simplistic and
may create misguided representations. However, the fact that superimposing
"racial" paradigms is over simplistic, certainly does not
mean that there is no correlation between "skin-color"
and disenfranchisement. There is much academic evidence to suggest the
contrary.

The
rapid and shifting contemporary transformations, given the advent of
modern tele-communications are changing the notions of ethnic and geographic
identities. A radical shift in the political realm is currently taking
place, as Brazil’s newly elect president Luis Inácio Lula da
Silva ("Lula") has taken office in January, 2003. Lula himself
a migrante and a Nordestino.

Changes
are taking place at a rapid pace. Brazil is a place where the haunting
history cannot be easily "swept under the rug", nor can it
easily fade away. However; the current waves of social, political and
cultural shifts are rapidly changing the human landscape and subsequently
of the Nordestinos in Brazil.

 

Bibliography:

Degler,
Carl N. 1971. Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations
in Brazil and the United States. The Macmillan Company, New York

Freyre,
Gilberto. 1938. Nordeste: Aspectos da Influencia da Canna Sobre
a Vida e a Paizagem do Nordeste do Brasil. Livraria José
Olympio Editora; Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

_____________.
1968. Sobrados e Mucambos: Decadência do Patriarcado Rural
e Desenvolvimento do Urbano. Livraria José Olympio Editora;
Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

_____________.
1986. The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of
Brazilian Civilization. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of
California Press. (Translation of 1933 Casa-Grande e Senzala.
Rio de Janeiro: Maia and Schmidt).

Nascimento,
Abdias do. 1978. O Genocídio do Negro Brasileiro: Processo
de Racismo Mascarado. Editora Paz e Terra, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

_____________.
1989. Brazil: Mixture or Massacre? Essays in the Genocide of a
Black People. Second Edition (Translated by Elisa Larkin Nascimento
from 1979). The Majority Press, Dover, Massachusetts.

Nobles,
Melissa. 2000. Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern
Politics. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

Scheper-Hughes,
Nancy. 1994. Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life
in Brazil. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Sheriff,
Robin E. 2001. Dreaming Equality: Color, Race and Racism in Urban
Brazil. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.

Skidmore,
Thomas E.. 1974. Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian
Thought. Oxford University Press.

Recihmann,
Rebecca. 1999. From Indifference to Inequality: Race in Contemporary
Brazil. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park,
Pennsylvania.

 

Alan
P. Marcus is pursuing a Masters of Geography at the University of
Massachusetts, Amherst. Contact E-mail: amarcus@geo.umass.edu

 

 

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