The Shame of Being Brazilian

     The Shame of Being Brazilian

    If Brazil is unable
    to develop, if it was the last country in the south
    hemisphere to abolish slavery, if it became the "sleepy giant"

    celebrated in the national anthem—an image that is mocked
    daily conversation among Brazilians—it is because Brazil
    not know who it is, it is because we do not know who we are.

    by: Renato
    Janine Ribeiro

    In the last years, Brazil has intensely discussed its national
    identity. This question had not been important under the last
    dictatorship, but as the latter came to an end it gained momentum.
    At the same time we could see the emergence of a new series
    of intellectual essays on Brazil, a genre that had been more
    and less despised since the 1940s or 1950s, when academia and
    most of all the University of São Paulo imposed a technical
    pattern of quality on human and social sciences as a whole.

    Essays had been responsible
    for some important attempts to define Brazil, as witness the
    still respected Roots of Brazil, by Sergio Buarque de
    Holanda; the again respected, after a long eclipse, Masters
    and Slaves, by Gilberto Freyre, and the now almost forgotten
    Portrait of Brazil, by Paulo Prado, all published around
    the 1930s.

    But, when academe
    imposed its pattern of quality centered in scientific research,
    those books were heavily criticized, with the only exception
    of Buarque’s Roots. However, in the end of the 80s, Brazil
    went back to debate its national identity. It is possible to
    link this renewed demand to a renewed supply of essays that
    tried to discuss it.

    Actually this is
    a demand that exceeds academia, and Luis Fernando Verissimo,
    a sophisticated but popular writer in Brazil, has been instrumental
    in shaping a style of newspaper chronicles variously and ironically
    answering the question of national identity. Here we intend
    to discuss the issues around national identity focusing some
    points that can help us to understand Brazilian imaginaries.

    We shall begin by
    José de Alencar’s important novel Iracema (1865).
    Iracema is a name that sounds genuinely Tupi-Guarani, that is,
    Amerindian, but was created by Alencar himself—even though
    this fact was only discovered around 1930, by the literary critic
    Afrânio Coutinho, who also seems to have been the first
    to notice that Iracema is an anagram of America.

    This means that the
    character Iracema would be a metaphor for the continent—or
    at least for Brazil. Iracema is also a Brazilian adaptation
    of Bellini’s Norma (1831), a popular opera in our country
    at the time. In 1844, when theatres reopened after the troubles
    of the Regência period, it was the first opera to be shown
    in Rio de Janeiro.

    As in Norma,
    Alencar’s main female character, Iracema, is a native priestess
    who becomes the lover of the enemy (either Roman or Portuguese)
    commander. As in Norma, Iracema has a tragic or at least
    sad end but her son (or her children, for Norma) survives her.

    There also are important
    differences. The first one is that native people are divided
    in Iracema: some, the good ones, favor the Portuguese, while
    their enemies (the bad guys) fight them. Norma’s Gauls were
    united against their foreign foe. This implies that Portuguese
    can be the allied of the original Brazilians, while Romans could
    never ally themselves to Gauls.

    The most important
    difference, however, is that Iracema’s Portuguese lover survives
    her, and as the father of her son legitimizes himself as the
    owner of the newly-discovered country. (Norma’s lover, Pollione,
    dies with her at the stake). Allegorically this means that Ceará,
    Alencar’s and Iracema’s state, which also works as a metaphor
    for Brazil (or for America), is born as the little orphan Moacir,
    "son of the grief", as the author translates his name.

    What was formerly
    native, or nature, is now dead. We now belong to the Portuguese,
    or at least to Portuguese language and culture—which may
    be a little ironic, since Alencar was one of the first Brazilian
    authors to hold systematically that we do not write as our forefathers1.
    If there is a Brazilian identity, this is the identity of orphans
    that belong to foreign fathers. Nature, as a female principle,
    is presently dead—and maybe it died because Power (her
    lover’s name, Martim, derives from Marte, Mars, the ancient
    god of war), the foreign male principle, ceased to love her.

    This means that our
    relationship to nature, to our history, to femininity will be
    quite difficult. They all smell of death. And conversely life
    means power, war, the male principle—and, to sum it all,
    everything that is alien and foreign to us. We will probably
    always miss our lost mother Iracema, that died when we were
    so young that we can scarcely remember her.

    Our relationship
    to our origins will then be much more difficult than the one
    that the Italian public of Bellini’s would have with their country.
    (Norma’s Gaulese were easily deciphered by 19th century public
    as present-day Italians). It is true that Brazil was unified
    at the time, while Italy was still divided in several separate
    states, but Italy could conceive of itself in a historical continuum
    across two or more millennia, while Brazil would feel that at
    its birth there was a mother’s death, an unmistakable loss,
    something that could never be repaired.

    Ashamed of
    Our History

    Let us now discuss
    another Brazilian representation of nature. Our present currency,
    real, dates from 1994, when it replaced the last one of a series
    of names that in the preceding eight years had been identified
    in our experience to an inflation with no precedents: cruzeiro
    (1942-67 and 1970-86), cruzado (1986-9), cruzado novo (1989-90),
    cruzeiro (1990-3) and cruzeiro real (1993-4).

    Real has been widely
    discussed from the economic point of view, but I think I was
    the only one to discuss its iconography2. Brazilian
    banknotes traditionally showed the images of heroes of our history—statesmen
    and soldiers—or allegories of some activities—industry,
    agriculture, and trade. But in 1994, for the first time in Brazilian
    history, the iconography of the five banknotes of real consisted
    only of animals. Men and women were forgotten. Nature replaced

    This downsizing of
    Brazilian history in our 1994 banknotes is not surprising. It
    is a commonplace in Brazil to say that our history is little
    known; it is such a commonplace that we should look for a better
    explanation for this phenomenon.

    In the 1990s several
    Brazilian economists thought that our history had been a series
    of errors. Industrialization might have been one of them: since
    1955, it would have been our major cause of inflation. I dare
    say that for some economists our recent history could be equated
    with inflation, and that this is the idea underlying, consciously
    or unconsciously, the iconography of real. Most of what man
    did in Brazil would have been faulty. (Curiously this pessimistic
    belief is shared by many more Brazilians, from the Right to
    the Left). We could then forget our whole history—and replace
    it by nature.

    If I seem to exaggerate,
    we could remember the moment when the economists who had devised
    the Plano Cruzado (1986)—the first of several plans which
    intended to put an end to inflation—went to President José
    Sarney to tell him the great lines of the plan. It was reported
    they suggested cruzado as the name for the new currency, explaining
    it as a synthesis of the words cruzeiro and desindexado
    (= no more indexed).

    Then the President
    reminded—or rather told—them that cruzado had already
    been the name of a Portuguese, ergo Brazilian, currency in the
    16th century. This story can be read as the mere perception
    that some economists in power usually know little history, but
    this seems to me to be a rather superficial reading of it. We
    would rather say: they do not care about history. And the iconography
    of the real allows us to go even further: they are against our

    We should now dwell
    a little on the name of our present currency, after having discussed
    its images. Real had already been the name of a Brazilian currency.
    It’s derived from rei, king, and was a common name for
    national currencies across all the Hispanic world. (There is
    a line in the Padilla and Montesinos’ hit La Violetera: "que
    no vale más que un real…").

    The choice of this
    name had historic precedents even stronger than the name cruzado,
    since real (or its plural form mil réis) had been
    the national currency for centuries, until 1942. But the 1994
    real derives from reality, not from king. The ancient real had
    as its plural réis, the new real has as its plural

    The memory of the
    ancient name is completely obliterated. This explains why the
    1994 real could be presented as something absolutely new. Only
    historians would remember it was the recovery of an ancient

    If in the span of
    only eight years (1986 and 1994) two currency names in Brazil
    repeated ancient names of the national currency, and both times
    this was done by economists unconscious of that repetition,
    we should consider this as more than a coincidence. Economists
    in power may antagonize history, or at least Brazilian history.
    They may have an idea of reality that excludes history (this
    is why they overvalue nature as a synonym of reality).

    Lastly, the name
    real, when it derives from reality, is a curious name for a
    currency. Even if a foreign public ignores that in Portuguese
    the word moeda (as moneda in Spanish) means at
    the same time money, currency and coins, the fact is that money
    is not considered in economic theory as something real. It represents
    a value. Its ontological characteristics are not those of a
    being, but those of representation and values.

    To say that money
    is real, to call a currency real can only be explained as a
    strong reaction against the devaluation of money. Monetary values
    had come to value almost nothing in Brazil. We had had inflation
    rates of 85 percent in a month, in the beginning of 1990. This
    implied that banknotes could lose more than 95 percent of their
    face value in less than a year.

    It also happens that
    in those years, for the only time in our history, writers appeared
    in banknotes; and there was talk that the family of a writer
    had not been happy with what in other times would have been
    an important sign of reverence4.

    To give currency
    the name of unidade real de valor (real value unit) and
    later of real would then help to stabilize what was undervalued
    or devaluated, to give a smell of reality to what had lost nearly
    all value. This explains the ontology of real. It also helps
    to understand its iconography. And last but not least it allows
    us to understand the strategy of equating history, past and
    inflation, on one side, and on the other side reality (in the
    name), nature (in the images) and future.

    Time for

    The first reference
    to the name of the future currency as real was heard in a TV
    Globo soap opera of 1993-4, Fera ferida (Wounded beast),
    which did discuss extensively corruption in Brazil. Corruption
    was so widespread in that telenovela that the small town
    of Tubiacanga was eventually destroyed by a storm, which could
    (literally) be called in English "an act of God."
    History (in the sense of human action, especially human political
    action) was so bad that nature finished by judging and condemning
    it. But in the last chapter we could see that in a couple of
    years the stormed town had been able to recover itself; it was
    even in a better shape than before. Tubiacanga was now a prosper
    place, and this was due to the action of small entrepreneurs
    and, we could maybe add, of some informal NGOs. Politicians
    never did any good to the town, which of course allegorized
    the country, as it usually happens in Brazilian soap operas,
    but the independent action of the small ones did.

    That could be the
    good news in the telenovela’s morale. But we also had bad news:
    the same corrupt politicians remained in power. The mayor and
    the speaker of the local council had switched places, but they
    were still in power. What could that mean? One or two things.
    First, that Brazil can redress itself and is tired of waiting
    for the actions of politicians.

    One of the worse
    traits in our political culture—to condemn the government
    for everything bad that happens in the country because we hold
    it responsible for those things we could but do not do—is
    losing ground. More and more people are organizing themselves
    in order to act. This is an important change in Brazil. But,
    second, institutional power has not changed. It remains in the
    same traditional hands. This explains why our politicians are
    held in something close to contempt. Brazilians elect them but
    also despise them.

    A few months after
    Ayrton Senna’s death in Imola (on May 1, 1994), a reader wrote
    to daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo expressing his
    disapproval that the dead F-1 race driver had been mourned at
    the State Assembly. How could someone so respected as Senna
    be associated with politicians? He was the real public person,
    not the (elected) representatives of the people.

    with the Past

    Discussing Iracema
    we suggested that our history begins as an act of mourning and
    that we feel orphans. Nature, that was good and belonged to
    us, had been replaced by a foreign power, which brought us history,
    but a history that killed our nature (Martim let Iracema die
    because he did not love her anymore).

    Action, political
    action, creative action would be difficult because our history
    is not exactly ours. Nature is good but it is lost to us. History—prospective
    history, future history—is frightening and maybe bad. Then,
    discussing the name and the images of real, we have seen that
    nature and history have changed their meanings.

    history, past history—was bad and faulty. Future history
    could be good, but only if we could break with our past and
    have a brand new start. Many people could agree with this, maybe
    even most people in Brazil, but what is far from obvious is
    that nature and reality could represent that start.

    The equation nature-reality
    underlying the 1994 real implied that, instead of a rational
    project of political creative action, we had a mythical iconography.
    Finally, discussing the first soap opera that attempted to make
    an inventory of the Fernando Collor presidential experience
    we suggested that many people were—and are—skeptical
    about politicians and political action.

    Political field would
    always be subject to corruption and mismanagement. But some
    light could be seen at the end of the tunnel: independent organized
    action of common people starts to become important in Brazil.
    Of course political power would remain in the same hands. Of
    course small enterprise was more important than NGOs in Tubiacanga.

    But new political
    actors could enter the public field and begin to change it.
    Action—political creative action—could become a possibility.
    This is different from Iracema and real stories. In Alencar’s
    novel action was blockaded since we could not stop to mourn
    our origins. In the real story action was linked to a myth,
    the myth of reality. Here we have something less ambitious but
    more promising: the action of independent people.

    And in Tubiacanga
    story nature is not even mentioned. Brazilian auto-image gives
    much importance to nature. Our flag represents our nature (the
    green color mean our forests, the yellow our gold, and so on).
    It is true that the stars in the center of the flag originally
    represented the sky over Rio de Janeiro on the night of November
    15, 1889, when we became a Republic5_ and this means
    that a sort of history, even if it is a naturalized astronomic
    history, stays in the center of one of our national symbols.

    For a long time,
    Brazilians were very proud of their nature, much more than of
    their history. So it is interesting that in a soap opera that
    discusses Brazil (something some soap operas do, but only some)
    politics and society come to be more important than nature.
    Today when we discuss nature we mean ecology, which is completely
    different from the former ufanismo (from the book Porque
    me ufano do meu país, "Why I am so proud of
    my country", by Affonso Celso6, the epitome
    of the celebration of Brazil for its natural riches). Ecology
    is a political issue that requires human action, while ufanismo
    meant all action was unnecessary and even unwelcome since it
    would compromise our riches.

    without Politicians

    Natural riches did
    not need to be exploited. Their richness consisted exactly in
    being an ontological stock, something that would become more
    and more valuable precisely by not being exploited. Human action
    could not be positively valued. It was either impossible or
    unwelcome. We stayed in the world of nature, while our European
    cousins were in the battlefield of history.

    And of course if
    we now enter consciously the historical arena this change will
    only keep its promises if the history we make is different from
    what was history in the preceding times. Our history will not
    be European or North Atlantic history. Our political action
    will not be the same as theirs. Even if to have "a politics
    without politicians", as many Brazilians seem to desire,
    can be an illusion, it opens some interesting possibilities.

    And this verb—to
    open—may be the synthesis of what we have been saying.
    For a long time, Brazil prided itself on its nature, I mean,
    on something that is closed and deemed to be perfect. But at
    the same time Brazil was appreciated as a country able to receive
    different people, different practices, even different theories.

    Brazilian modernist
    writer Oswald de Andrade called anthropophagy this ability to
    incorporate different and even incompatible traditions into
    a new body. Anthropophagy is the contrary of a static nature.
    It means an openness to the other. It means creative action.

    Maybe the sometimes
    sad belief of many Brazilians that we do not have an identity
    could be deciphered as a melancholic perception of something
    that in its core is nevertheless an asset rather than a liability:
    not to have an identity (or not to have an essence, a nature)
    is to be open to new opportunities.

    In a world that now
    gives more importance to culture and creative action than to
    nature and stability, to human action more than to natural stocks,
    openness can be an interesting positive trait. Maybe ufanismo
    was only a bad, very conservative perception of ourselves.

    Writer Machado de
    Assis (1839-1908) already knew that when he showed his discontent
    with a foreigner whom he entertained in Rio de Janeiro. This
    man told him that, much more admirable than the work of man,
    was the landscape of Guanabara bay—the work of God.

    Action and nature
    often come at odds. To appreciate action we must downsize nature,
    and vice-versa. This also implies that in order to upsize human
    action it is necessary to be open to new identities. Maybe the
    inexistence of a Brazilian ethnic identity will help us in the
    new world that is coming to light. The emptiness of our identity,
    the vacuity of our nature could then be positive things.

    We could continue
    for a while, and remember that in philosophy the words nature
    and essence can be used in a certain sense as synonyms if we
    leave aside the meaning of nature as, say, the green world7.
    One important presupposition of many debates that have raged
    in Brazil about the reasons why it is so difficult to act politically
    in our country is that, if we do not know who we are, how can
    we know what we can do?

    We then compare ourselves
    to other people who have a clear perception of their identities—Norma
    Gaulese, for instance or should we say Italians? They know who
    they are, so they can rebel against the Romans (or the Austrians).
    But who are we? If we return to Iracema, we are neither pure
    Indians nor pure Portuguese. If we were either, it would be
    much easier to know how to act, to understand which acts would
    be the correct ones.

    Action would then
    rely on identity, politics on nature, ethics on a sort of national
    essence. When they endeavored either to discover the roots of
    Brazil or to portray it, Sérgio Buarque and Paulo Prado
    both defended the idea that we must understand its essence,
    in order to seize the reasons of what is bad in our country.

    If Brazil is unable
    to develop, if it was the last country in our hemisphere to
    abolish slavery, if it became the "sleepy giant" celebrated
    in the national anthem (an image that is mocked in common conversation),
    it is because Brazil does not know who it is, it is because
    we do not know who we are.

    All the problem lies,
    however, in this main idea. It is wrong. It engenders exactly
    what it is supposed to challenge. Those who debated and still
    debate national identity as something stable think they are
    trying to free action from its addiction on foreign models.
    But they establish an unjustifiable distinction between actions
    good and bad: positive actions would be those conforming themselves
    to Brazilian essence. Brazilian essence should then precede
    Brazilian actions.

    In other words, Brazilian
    nature (both green and Thomist) should precede Brazilian history
    and politics. Philosophically this is the precise opposite of
    existentialism, that says that in human world existence comes
    before essence. We can then hint that Brazilian debate about
    itself is rather essentialist. It hangs on a priority of essence
    on existence, of nature on action, of ontology on politics and

    These converging
    priorities are probably of Thomist origin, which would not surprise,
    since most of Portuguese culture during the colonial centuries
    came from scholasticism and until recently most philosophical
    curricula here were focused on Aquinas. This means, to sum it
    up, that the question of action is posed exactly in the terms
    that forbid to answer it.

    We should break with
    what we can call the Aquinas question. If we do not act, it
    is not because we do not know who we are. It is precisely because
    we keep asking who we are. Action will be creative only if it
    does not depend on predetermining the nature of the agent.

    This article
    was originally presented as a paper to the Globo Conference
    at the Centre for Brazilian Studies –
    – at University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

    Renato Janine Ribeiro teaches Ethics and Political Philosophy
    at USP (Universidade de São Paulo) and is a visiting
    professor at the Center of Brazilian Studies from University
    of Columbia in New York. Ribeiro is also the author of several
    books, including A sociedade contra o social: o alto custo
    da vida pública no Brasil" (2000, Jabuti Award
    from 2001) and A universidade e a vida atual – Fellini
    não via filmes (2003).He has his own website –
    – and can be reached at

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