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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