In the 112 years since the Proclamation of the Republic,
Brazil has had scores of new economic
plans and currencies.
Throughout all the changes, however, something has remained
untouched: the face
of the Virgin Mary printed on the paper currency.
Luis Fernando Oliveira
On January 6th, 1984 my uncle Fábio gave me an economy lesson. It was my birthday and for a present I got two
notes. One was a 100 cruzeiros note with a male (Duke of Caxias, 1802-1880) printed on it and the other was a Cr$ 200 note with
a female (Princess Isabel, 1846-1921) printed on it.
As far as I knew, the two notes together were simply good to buy an ice cream down the street, but for uncle Fábio
they represented the principle by which money could reproduce. Interesting enough, I never questioned about the
personalities printed on the money, I only wondered about the options I had for the female figure, and for this, my uncle mentioned
the emblem of the republic, but he said she was not an option for reproduction purposes, giving no further explanation, as if
he did not know it himself.
Eighteen years later the Brazilian currency has changed five times. From the many faces and images printed on the
currency, only one has remained over time, the emblem of the republic. Additionally, it is the only face printed on the new
currency called real, introduced in 1994. Thus, my uncle’s economy lesson no longer functions, because there are no males, and
besides the emblem does not serve the reproduction purpose as he said then in 1984!
In view of that, I finally begin to comprehend the emblem of the republic, and its pureness. From here, this essay
departs, questioning how the image of the Virgin Mary got to become the symbol of a nation, surviving through every
governmental failure since the proclamation of the republic and now, being used to encourage nationalism, passing from hand to hand
all through Brazil on "print-language" or printed currency (Anderson, 1983).
In order to explain the emblem’s advent and usage throughout time, I will discuss the emergence of nations and
nationalism as a contemporary phenomenon in relation to an economical reality that is based upon Gellner’s discussion on
nationalism alongside the "imagined communities" and "invented traditions" by Anderson and Hobsbawm. Consecutively, I want to
relate historical facts to the usage of the emblem, and how it ultimately represents the return to a traditional and yet innovative
Brazil entering the new millennium.
Nationalism as a modern phenomenon
According to modernist scholars such as Gellner, Hobsbawm and Anderson, nationalism is a product of
modernization that has no "deep roots in the human psyche" (Gellner, 1983) but is at its roots a result of improved means of
communication and contact between previously fragmented groups of people.
Following industrialization, radical changes in the culture of Western World occurred. Absolutist political systems
were replaced by central governments, standardized languages, access to the printing press and the establishment of
standardized educational systems made people start to perceive themselves as belonging to larger communities, what Anderson
calls "imagined communities" (Anderson, 1983).
With the contribution of "intellectuals", the notion of the ‘nation’ as the true basis for the state was cultivated for
the citizens of the emerging nation-states through the new modes of communication. Nationalism became the legitimate
"binding force" (Thiesse, 1999) that helped sustain the political and economic systems of the eighteenth and nineteenth century;
it became "… a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent" (Gellner in Hobsbawm).
Invoking nationalist sentiments was a convenient way of uniting previously fragmented societies, and also simply necessary in
the building of a coherent capitalist economy. Being a homogenous nation-state with a stable government and stable fiscal
policies was "essentially economic" (Molinari in Hobsbawm).
In the modernist view therefore, nations and nationalism did
not evolve directly from pre-existing cultures.
Nationalism in the Western world is essentially a recent invention. However, nationalist artifacts, myths and territorial ties stemming
from the pre-nationalist world may be used in the fabrication of nationalism, but it does not arise of them.
Hobsbawm, Anderson and Gellner agree that nationalism could only emerge as a consequence of the presence of
certain social conditions significant to modern society: "homogeneity, literacy, anonymity." (Gellner, 1983). Acquiring the
ability to reproduce people’s awareness of themselves as a community is key; "standard national languages, spoken or written,
cannot emerge as such before printing, mass literacy and hence, mass schooling" (Hobsbawm).
Nationalism is a reaction to change and a
movement that signals economic and political change in the structure of
society; it is an "external adjustment in the relationship between polity and culture" (Gellner, 1983). Because of the structure of
modern society, with the state as the political unit, it is
bound to become nationalist. But the nation in itself cannot and will not
survive without its "political shell", which is the state (Gellner, 1983).
Nation Identity Is Born
The proclamation of the Brazilian republic marks a new beginning for the nation. The availability of printing press,
and other forms of mass communication as pointed above, provided the means by which the new state did and does foster a
national identity that is vital for the existence of the state and the nation as a homogenous entity.
Whilst most colonies in the New World declared their independence as new republics, Brazil became an
independent monarchy that lasted for part of the nineteenth century, until November
15th, 1889, when Marshall Deodoro da Fonseca
(1827-1892) declared the Brazilian republic. Don Pedro II, the ruling king, was forced to leave the throne, and forget any hopes
of maintaining the monarchy. Yet, according to some international examiners and neighboring nations, "confidence in the
future of Brazil" as a new republic "was based upon its respect for the former monarchy" (Freyre, 1970). This was also
accompanied by the rise of the military that became highly praised for its influence on the peaceful transference from monarchy to
republic. They emerged as "non-partisan in the nation’s affair" (Freyre 1970).
With the monarchy in charge, the Catholic Church had no difficulties in spreading its belief. However, during the
period of transition between monarchy and republic, the Brazilian Positivist Church became aware that in order to survive under
the new system, it would have to change and adapt to it. So as it may be, they began a mass propaganda based on the
"appeal to the Marian cult" (Freyre, 1970) that turned out to be also useful for the new republicans.
Consequently, the symbol of the new republic came to be the one of a "Perfect Woman" based upon the idea that
"the children of fervent idolaters of the Virgin" should "respond with strongest sympathy" to a religion, which would
"establish the cult of the woman and proclaim the supremacy of love" within the nation and its citizen (Freyre, 1970).
This is an example of what Hobsbawm (1983) writes about as the "invention of tradition." He argues that it "occurs
more frequently when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social pattern for which old tradition had
been design, producing new ones " In the case of Brazil, there is the change from monarchy to republic. The church and the
state although separated, set the symbol for the new nation that embodies old religious traditions with modern "invented
traditions." It pleases both sides of the spectrum.
Nevertheless, the republic could not sustain itself without fostering its existence as a nation. Quickly intellectuals
started to promote "the republican mystique" and "its identification with the concept of the Perfect Woman." Verses titled "The
Republic" written by Junior, Mallet, and Filhorepublican intellectuals who, during the early republic, opposed the leadership of
Floriano Peixoto"exalted the republic in the image of the blessed Virgin" (Freyre, 1970).
Mother-protector of peoples
in her ruby lips
The pure nectar of the heavens,
Mother-protector of peoples,
Beautiful daughter of God.
Statue fashioned of bronze
That repulsed Louis XI
Embrace and kiss Saint-Just;
Lady of seductive glance,
In whose benevolent shadow,
Flourish the lily and the rose.
Later, in a crescendo of mystical exaltation of the feminine image of the ideal republic:
Shethe constant victim
Of hatred and perversion
Has for the sada smile,
Has for the blinda light.
Ever grand, gracious, and good,
She suffers, suffers but pardons
The Judases, as did Jesus.
She too was betrayed,
She too was sold,
She too has her Calvary, her Cross.
tone of fervent mysticism
Let us in our hearts
Build an altar to this goddess,
With our gift of reason
Make secure her throne.
When from the heights of mountains
The guiding light sparkles
On the pure spring water
May we in the public square
Shout: Long live the republic
In the land of the Blessed Cross!
In spite of the mass propaganda spread during the early days of the republic, the emblem did not seem to reach the
masses as intellectuals assumed it would. The problem was that the new Brazilian government based their concepts of how to
run the country on the past monarchy. In addition, the size of the country, and difficulties of access due to extensive areas
covered by the Brazilian tropical forest, prevented the government from spreading its ideas the way it had planned.
By 1942 there were around 56 different types of money circulating in Brazil. In order to standardize the money used
in the nation, the government finally instituted the first change in the monetary scheme of the country. The old
réis was replaced by the
cruzeiro. This was only possible because modernization was finally reaching different regions of the nation.
Despite this, little had changed in the mentality of the Brazilian republic. A clear example of this could be observed
on the new currency named cruzeiro. Printed in the USA, the notes displayed notables such as old monarchs and recent
politicians. The money looked almost like an American dollar. The text printed on the note read, República dos Estados
Unidos do Brasil (Republic of the United States of Brazil). On the front there was the image of Dom Pedro II, last king of the
Brazilian kingdom. The emblem of the Brazilian republic was used on the back of the note.
Observing the juxtaposition of the two figures, the dominant is obviously the monarch. The emblem is on the back,
as if there is a relationship between the two. However, the only link between the two is that the monarch had to step down
in order for the otherthe republicto step in. Dom Pedro II was forced to give up his throne so the republic could be
The presence of both identities on the same note demonstrates what was previously perceived by other nations at
the time of the transition: the Brazilian republic would respect the monarchy
way. Hence, the emblem of the republic existed
merely as an intellectual ideal distant from the real achievements people expected from it.
In 1967, because of the cruzeiro devaluation, the government introduced the
cruzeiro novo (new cruzeiro _ 1
cruzeiro novo was worth 1000
cruzeiros). The new currency lasted until 1970, when once again, due to unbridled inflation, the
Central Bank of Brazil had to change the currency back to
cruzeiro. This is a time of great importance for the Brazilian republic
as a whole, because of an intensifying nationalistic movement.
It is important to remark that 12 years before the
cruzeiro was substituted by the cruzeiro
novo, Juscelino Kubitschekpopularly elected President of Brazil governed from 1955 to 1960had assumed the power under the watchful eye of the
military, on October 3rd, 1955.
During his presidency, JK, as he was called, decided to move the capital of Brazil (Rio de Janeiro) away from the
Atlantic coast and proceeded to build Brasília, the new capital. In 1960, still during Kubitschek’s tenure, the seat of government
was finally transferred to Brasília. It was a very concrete symbol of the growing nationalistic movement. The capital was built
in the interior of the country forcing people to look inward and realize Brazilian’s "untapped potential."
Brasília intended "to break the ‘colonial’ mentality of the Brazilian people and to reduce their traditional dependence
upon the world overseas" and the monarchy (Bello, 1966).
This was followed by gradual changes in the habits of the Brazilian people and the mentality of the government. The
emblem of the republic finally got to be printed on the front of the Cr$1 note, which circulated from 1970 to 1984. The emblem
exalted the republic whilst holding on to the holy image of the Virgin.
Nevertheless, despite all changes, and the desire for a better republicfree of the ghosts left by the monarchythe
problems continued. "Economic progress was both uncertain and disorganized" (Bello), chronic ups and downs of the economy
and an absurd level of government corruption led the military to take charge after a coup, on March 31, 1964.
For years the military had closely watched every Brazilian government, always maintaining some form of control,
because there was a failure of representative democracy. Since the instauration of the republic until recently, the alternative has
tended to be either military rule or anarchy. The generals’ hope was to keep the order, but they rarely succeeded. As a result, in
the late sixties and early seventies, the military openly oppressed people by the use of direct force.
From a certain perspective, this oppression had its virtuous outcome, because it made people more aware of their
own situation. It questioned the main factor that perpetuated over the history of Brazil, the acceptance of change, which
facilitated "the continuation of practices that are contrary" (Fausto) to the principle of real changes.
When Brazil declared its independence, there was no conflict, it was a peaceful transition. When the country became
a republic once again there was a peaceful transition. There was never resistance or some form of struggle against the
government tyranny. This shows why even after several changes in the nation, problems that were present at the time of the
monarchy remained the same: corruption, poverty, and high illiteracy.
Even though people started to be more active, it was still visible in the year of 1986 that more radical changes had to
occur in order for Brazil to move away from its haunting past. The military peacefully stepped down, allowing an elected
president to take office. Tancredo Neves the new president-elect, days before his inauguration. Vice-President José Sarney went
on to become the new President and quickly attacked the increasing inflation with the Cruzado plan. A new currency was
created, the cruzado, which was worth 1000
cruzeiros. But the government corruption remained the same, and the plan was not
able to end the sad state of affairs. A combination of economic stagnation and inflation, the so-called stagflation, became the
order of the day.
The framework promoted by the positivist motto Order and Progress, at the beginning of the republic, was still far
from the reality of the nation in the 1980’s. Yet, there were those who believed in the nation, and wanted to find a solution. In
1989, President Sarney introduced again a new currency named
cruzado novo and again three zeros were cut
out (1000 cruzados equal 1 cruzado
The emblem of the Brazilian republic was printed on the NCz$ 200 note’s front this time. On the back, a family was
depicted embroidering the national flag. This was the first time, the emblem was linked with a more universal idea shared by the
Brazilian people: the family. It symbolized how everyone had finally the possibility to be involved in the
‘progress and order’ of
Yet, there was a "generalized feeling of disillusion and mistrust" in the government and the economy that haunted
the Brazilian people following the changes of 1989. In 1990, still another currency was introduced and the
cruzado novo became overnight cruzeiro
again. And it didn’t stop there. 1993 saw the
cruzeiro metamorphosing into cruzeiro
real. The most recent change is still an eight-year child. Born in 1994, one
real was initially worth a little over one dollar, but today if fell to
less than 40 cents.
The most interesting factor of this shift is that for the first time, the printed currency carried no historical
personalities, but only the emblem of the Brazilian republic, presented as a sculpture. The emblem is repeated from note to note, which
have on the back different drawings of the rich Brazilian fauna and flora.
President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has brought new hope to the Brazilian people with his economical planthe
Real Plan, naturally. His admnistration has been forcefully attacking corruption and people increasingly have a say on the
future of the nation.
The real note shows a new Brazil that is still the old Brazil, always under the boson of the Virgin. Nobody stands
above the republic. The nation is the sanctuary of a rich fauna for which Brazilians should be thankful. And even though the
emblem is the image of a white woman, it is seen as something of ambiguous human nature. Barthes (1973) says that "the ethnic
reality" is often "reduced to a vast classical ballet" that is made of "typology to mask the real spectacle of conditions, classes,
Indeed, the emblem may be used to cover the oppressed, by placing all under the same nation, which is also what
Anderson argued about "imagined communities" that people imagined to live under the same nation with a spirit of comradeship,
where no classes or racial differences exist. Nonetheless, it does not take away the merit of the emblem of the republic in finally
becoming what it was intend to be at the proclamation of the Brazilian republic.
The republic’s emblem conveys the idea of incessant innovation while maintaining the ideal of the beginning of the
republic: order and progress. It symbolizes not only the traditional principle upon which the republic was declared, but also the
innovative manner in which it is presently used. The image of the ‘Perfect Woman,’ finally found its way from the Catholic
cradle to the altar of the nation known as Brazil. She is the absolute mediator "between heaven and earth, for in her glorified
body she belongs in both realms" (Warner, 1985).
Anderson, B. Imagined Communities. Verso Editions and NLB. (London, 1983)
Brett, R. L. Imaging the Community from subject to citizen, state to nation?
Master Philosophy Thesis, University of Kent at
Canterbury (Canterbury, 1997)
Barthes, R. Mythologies. Granada Publishing (Great Britain, 1973)
Bello, J. M. A History of Modern Brazil,
1889-1964. Stanford University Press. (Stanford, 1966)
Fausto, B. A Concise History of Brazil. Cambridge University Press. (Cambridge, 1999)
Freyre, G. Order and Progress, Brazil from Monarchy to Republic.
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (New York, 1970)
Gellner, E. Nation and Nationalism. Blackwell. (Oxford, 1988)
Hobsbawn, E. J. Nations and Nationalism Since
1780. University Press. (Cambridge, 1992)
Hobsbawn, E. J. "Introduction: Inventing Traditions" in
The Invention of Tradition. Eds. Hobsbawn E. J. and Ranger
T. Cambridge University Press. (Cambridge, 1983)
Thiese, A. M. Inventing National Identity.
Le Monde Diplomatique. (June, 1999)
Warner, M. Alone of All Her Sex: Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary.
Pan Books Ltd. (London, 1985)
The author, Luis Fernando Oliveira, has received his BA in Communication from Slippery Rock University, PA. He later moved to Canterbury, England, for his MA in Image Studies at University of Kent. Today, he resides in Copenhagen, Denmark, with his wife.
You may contact the author at
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