The Real Fight for Independence


On May 8th, 2013, Bahian Independence Day, which falls on July 2nd, was officially recognized by the Senate as a date of national importance in Brazil. The recognition doesn’t mean it will become a national holiday but the date does hold an important place in the hearts of Bahians.

While Dom Pedro I was shouting “Independence or death!” on the banks of the Ipiranga river in São Paulo, the war for the independence of Bahia against the Portuguese military was in full swing. In actuality, it not only ended after Brazil was declared independent but it begun before the fight for Brazilian independence had started. The Bahian efforts, in the end, were what sent the Portuguese packing. In fact, Bahian people are proud of July 2nd because it symbolizes the real fight for independence (and not just a mere proclamation of it), where they not only shed a lot of blood and tears, but where slaves and those of native indian descent (caboclos) came together to aid in the fight. It is also where they found themselves outnumbered, by three-thousand Portuguese soldiers versus one-thousand five-hundred on the Brazilian side, and still ended up victorious.

In 1822, the royal courts in Lisbon ordered Portuguese commander Madeira de Melo to take control of Bahia in light of Dom João VI’s return to Europe almost a year prior. The rumors, and later knowledge, that his son, Dom Pedro I,  would not return to Portugal brought about Madeira de Melo’s appointment. With the start of 1823, Portuguese reinforcements arrived in Salvador, dominating the city. Dom Pedro I, then, sent in Brazilian troops, who eventually had to fall back into the Recôncavo region outside the capital city. (Important to note that “Brazilian” here means fighting for Brazil, since almost all the troops actually doing so were Portuguese-born).

Surrounded and with food and ammunition running out, Madeira de Melo requested more Portuguese troops from Europe. It was then that Dom Pedro I sent in the French general and mercenary, Pedro Labatut, to expel the enemies. Labatut had previously participated in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as alongside Simon Bolivar in Colombia. It’s somewhat ironic that a Frenchman would push the Portuguese out of Brazil since it was due to the French invasion that the Portuguese went to Brazil in the first place.

In the Battle of Pirajá, which was a defining moment in the fight for Bahian independence (and, ultimately, that of Brazil), Madeira de Melo took the offense and ended up getting injured. One account of the battle relates the story of a soldier who, while being Portuguese but fighting for the Brazilians, confused the Portuguese troops by giving the sound for them to advance according to a specific battlefield scenario. The only problem was the scenario wasn’t actually happening so instead of advancing, they fell back, at which point the Brazilian troops attacked, winning the battle.

The Portuguese retreated to the city center and soon found themselves weakened, tired, low on firepower, and with a Brazilian fleet (with an Englishman at the command) all but surrounding them seaside. Madeira de Melo and the remaining troops finally fled the country, returning to Portugal while being chased all the way back to Lisbon.

The day that Labatut and his men took back the city was July 2nd, 1823.

The Added Benefit of Being Employed

There’s a Brazilian ditado (saying) that says, “Vamos em frente que atrás vem gente”, which translates roughly to “if you stay still too long, others will pass you by”. It can perhaps be best applied to the work environment and with Brazil being a country fast approaching 200 million people it’s best if all those people have work. Many Brazilians have a lot of pride in being employed, even if for those who have a basic-level job in the service industry. The other day, though, I found out that it’s not just in the citizen’s own personal interest to have work but it also happens be to illegal to be unemployed in Brazil. It’s even technically punishable by a short jail term of between 15 days and 3 months.

The reason behind it is likely found in social security benefits. While in the US, you effectively pay your own future benefits out of each paycheck, I hear that it’s possible for the elderly to get a social security check in Brazil, regardless of one’s prior employment history, or lack thereof.

Before the idea of going to jail starts to worry you, read on.


Does this law explain why most retail shops have many employees? Not quite, that’s more about stringent labor laws regarding wages and firing. If each employee has a pre-arranged wage, there’s not much of an added benefit to send them home during down-time (especially in case there’s a sudden surge of customers). Firing is also made difficult due to current laws regarding employment contracts.


The fact that someone may be committing a crime without knowing it is not at all specific to Brazil. For proof, there’s a somewhat recently-published book called “Three Felonies A Day” on Amazon which discusses how the average American commits up to 3 felonies per day, that is, according to the Feds.

Getting back to Brazil, here’s the actual legal standing (specifically, Legal Decree 3.688, Article 59, from October, 1941) on the criminal misdemeanor of vagrancy, in laymen’s terms: “Being unemployed, while able to work, and without receiving other income, is the same as committing vagrancy.” What it means is, if you’re Brazilian who was stopped on the streets and your “carteira de trabalho” (employment card*) wasn’t signed (meaning testified to, by your current employer), you could have gone to jail. There’s no need to get too worried because the reality is, no one goes to jail these days for being out of work. It just doesn’t happen.

* The official name is “Carteira Nacional de Trabalho e Previdencia Social” (National Card of Employment and Social Security).

Give freely, or else

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 5.11.43 PMMy day shift at the hostel in Ipanema had ended and, as usual, I stuck around chatting with the friendly manager and some of the guests. Upon noticing it was already dark out, I said goodbye, then ran a quick errand before heading to the nearest Zona Sul supermarket, kiddie corner to General Osório square, to pick up some spaghetti for later. With the errands completed, I went a few blocks towards the beach to catch a public transport van back to Rocinha. Numbered according to their trajectory, I was hoping to catch the less frequent of the two lines that went through Gávea because it would leave me closer to my apartment.

I waited there like on any of the other hundreds of times I had caught a van back home, aware of my surroundings, even though this was Ipanema and I was dressed in the usual shirt, shorts and flip-flops. As I held my grocery bag with its one item inside, I thought about the dinner I’d soon share with friends, accompanied by a beer from the bar across from my front door.

Right then a lone young man (reminiscent of those I saw daily in the favelas) appeared on the median strip, shouting out to someone on the sidewalk where I was.

Rio wasn’t a stranger to me and I had always kept my wits about me while living there. Even though I had never found myself in any kind of unwanted situation before, this guy didn’t immediately make me think twice, but he made me want to think twice. “Calma, just be cool”, I thought to myself, “I’ve got nothing visible he can steal,” knowing full well that prior to the supermarket, I had made a stop at the bank to take out R$60 for the next week. Luckily, while still in the bank, I had folded the bills up and stuck them, along with my bank card, under the waistband of my underwear.

He shouted again, across the sparse lanes of traffic, which prompted me to take a quick look around me to see whose attention he was trying to get. It was mine. I was alone and it was dark. That’s when he went for my bag, with his eyes.

Tem comida aí? Me dá alguma coisa,” he suddely mumurred.
(You got food there? Give me some.)

É macarrão, tem que ser cozido,” I reluctantly responded.
(It’s spaghetti, it has to be cooked.)

E daí, dou um jeito, cara.
(So what, I’ll find a way to cook it, man.)

Não posso, é pra janta.
(I can’t, it’s for dinner.)

I didn’t want him to think I was an easy target, and by that I mean gringo. I considered playing the sympathy card, telling him I was a resident of the morro, the comunidade (favela), without specifying which, but that might lead to more talking, and more talking might reveal I’m a foreigner. Two or three more times he asked for food but as many times as he asked, I denied him. That’s when he changed tatics.

Então, me dá um real aí.
(So give me R$1.)

Tem, não, cara. Preciso pro transporte.
(I don’t have it, man. I need what I got for transport.)

Ô, me dá um real!“, he repeated, a little more directly.
(Hey, give me R$1!)

Não posso“, I said.
(I can’t.)

I realized this was going to continue for a while unless I either gave him money or food, which meant getting close to him physically, or I would have to go back to General Osório and walk down ‘Visconde’ (a main street in Ipanema) all the way to Leblon where I could also catch the same van. Just as I was about to offer up R$1 to get it over with, I heard another person shouting at me. It was the cobrador (fare collector) of the van I had been waiting for. Giving him a quick wave to stop the van, it blocked out the view of the lone peddler and I got on and went home.

To this day, I don’t know what would have happened if I let him approach me. At the most, I suppose I could have lost a simple bag of spaghetti or maybe the bus fare. In the least, I would have helped someone in need. He was the one breathing thing that could have stood in the way of my belief that, crime-wise, Brazil isn’t as bad as others say it is.

The Disappearing Dolphin


The Amazon river dolphin is one of four families of river dolphins around the world, principally occupying rivers throughout Asia and South America. They come in a variety of colors and, in the Amazon, they come mainly in pink. A few things that differentiate them from other dolphins are their poor vision and their ability to turn their heads 180 degrees, which aids in maneuvering around in the muddied waters. Unfortunately, yet another difference is that they’ve been disappearing from the rivers of the Amazon in recent years.

The Amazon dolphin’s nature is to be friendly and that has led to fishermen killing them in order to use their meat to catch large catfish which populate the rivers. There’s been an annual drop in their population of 7% per year, according to the Institute of Amazonian Research who has been studying the dolphins for close to 20 years. The other river dolphin families are also either being wiped out or have already been declared extinct in recent years.

One side effect from their gradual disappearance is the lenda do boto, or Amazon dolphin legend, might disappear along with it. Among native inhabitants of the region, it is said that during the nights of the Festa Junina, these dolphins become charming young men who seduce unsuspecting young women and end up impregnating them. The next morning, they turn back into dolphins and disappear into the water. When a young woman turns up pregnant, others will speculate that it was a dolphin’s fault. And when a child doesn’t know their father, the response is…you guessed it, the dolphin did it.

You can watch a short cartoon about the tale below.


Over Half a Year Away


Screen Shot 2013-08-07 at 11.10.27 AMI’ve been away from Brazilian life for over half a year now. Every time I have been away from Brazil for a short period, it seems like my last trip was a hundred years ago. I think this is because Brazil is a place that has to be lived and felt in order to be understood. Once you’re away from it, it’s like having woken up from a dream and only remembering bits and pieces.

One thing that’s pretty constant is what happens when I hear Brazilian Portuguese or encounter Brazilians in my day-to-day. There’s that instant familiarity and a strange sense that they’re somehow “my people”. As I’ve related here several times before, I grew up in many cities across the US and so I never saw myself as having a particular “people”, at least locally-speaking. That’s what’s weird, I suppose. Having lived all over Brazil, it usually doesn’t matter where a Brazilian is from because I can safely say, “oh, I’ve lived there (or near there),” and we can start talking. And because I’ve intentionally studied Brazil’s regional cultures, while never having really studied the intricacies of my own country’s culture, there’s that familiarity with Brazil that I kind of lack with the US. I’ve spent over half my life entrenched in the study of foreign cultures, and thus I’ve experienced the US from a mental distance.

Now that I’m back in a country where everyone speaks Portuguese, it’s pretty clear to everyone when I speak their language that I’m most likely a Brazilian. Before I’ve spoken, however, there’s the assumption that I’m an English-speaker because, with a neverending number of tourists here in Lisbon, most shop employees start off with English (this happens to my Brazilian girlfriend, too). That’s one of the other major differences between Brazil and Portugal, by the way, as here it seems most Portuguese people speak fluent English…and they have no problem with speaking it. In Brazil, I knew lots of people that even knew English but were too ashamed to speak it. I don’t know where that stems from. Danielle in Brazil touched upon this on her blog.

I’ve mentioned this talk before on my blog, but as the famous Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta once said (although, he was responding to an audience member’s question on the subject of patriotism), there are basically two Brazils, that of the State and that of Society [1]. Like in a Venn diagram, the two must overlap a little, rather than be separate, in order to have patriotism. Their actual separation parallels my feelings about Brazil having been more than six months away from it. Because of the State (ie, bureaucracy, politics and the effects of both), I’m totally fine being away from Brazil now. Because of the Society (culture, rhythm of life, way of living, etc), I long to embrace it once more. After all, underneath it all, I’m basically Brazilian.

[1] – video (for the anthropologists out there, in PT)

Wines of the Brazilian Sertão

vinicola-ouro-verde-da-miolo-localizada-no-municipio-de-casa-nova-na-bahia-1367854476183_956x500The Juazeiro/Petrolina wine grape-growing belt has close to 25,000 acres of vineyards. It’s one of the only regions in the world with 2 to 3 harvests per year (as opposed to the usual, single harvest). The grape economy generates more than 30,000 direct jobs in the Sertão, where 50% of the rural workers union leadership of Petrolina (Pernambuco) are women. In certain functions they make up 70% of the manual labor workforce. The principal jobs given to them are the “raleio” and the “pinicado”, two techniques used in the thinning of the grape bunches during their development. The most delicate activities rely upon them, women that are helping to transform the lives of their families.

The São Francisco valley is leading the way in the cultivation of grapes in tropical conditions. It’s the only wine ever to be grown in a hot, semi-arid, tropical climate where there’s sunlight for 300 days per year and no winter. All the water needed comes from the São Francisco river, thanks to irrigation technology. And the research related to wine-making being done in the region in the last decade is being led by Brazilians, who themselves are becoming worldwide experts in this emerging field.


While part of the Brazilian northeast goes through the largest dry spell in four decades, vineyards from the Sertão are able to produce up to 10 million liters of wine per year, close to 15% of the Brazilian market. Wine production started in the 1980s and has been gaining visibility in Brazil and abroad. Aside from conquering the European market, wine from the Northeastern region of Brazil goes to the US, Canada, China and also to Africa. The main wines grown in the region are: red (Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Nacional, Alicante, Bouschet, Ruby Cabernet, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Tannat, and Syrah) and white (Chenin, Blanc, Moscato Canelli, Moscato Itália, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Verdejo).

The big players took notice years ago and positioned themselves firmly with strategic local partnerships. The situation then becomes a win-win because the market, both in Brazil and abroad, improves and expands while the workers of the Sertão get consistent work, and women bring in a secondary income. All that’s missing now is a Sommelier school on the banks of the São Francisco.

Watch the full report, in Portuguese only, which was also the main source for this article.

LIBRAS – Brazilian Sign Language

In late May, I linked to an article I wrote about LIBRAS. Here it is, sans link.

url(4)Growing up with a handicapped brother, I learned at a young age all the basics of ASL (American Sign Language). His handicap was such that he was free to do what he wanted at home which usually consisted of looking at magazines, dancing, saying mostly unintelligible things while talking to himself and, every so often, pinching people. My other brothers and I not only used basic ASL with him but also with each other when we were in public. The most usual case was when we were bored in the presence of others and wanted to leave, we’d make the sign for “let’s go” (which consists of both index fingers circling around each other).

My brother eventually went to live in a group home but I always thought it’d be kind of cool to one day learn more advanced sign language, only there was no longer an everyday reason to. Fast-forward about 15 years, and with fluency acheived in a whole other language (Brazilian Portuguese), I started to think about what it’d be like to learn sign language. In the very least, I could then learn the basics with my girlfriend and we could use it in public. The only problem is, much to my surprise (because I never truly considered it), each country has its own signs and even regionalisms within their own sign language. Luckily, my girlfriend is Brazilian and the type I’m looking to learn is the Brazilian kind.

In Brazil, it’s called LIBRAS, or Língua Brasileira dos Sinais and it actually constitutes as its own language, with its own grammar, syntax, morphology, etc. With an estimated 5 million deaf people in Brazil, it can be reasoned that most, if not all, use LIBRAS to communicate. Even with each country’s system being different, LIBRAS (along with ASL) has been considered to be a creole of 18th century French Sign Language. For this reason, there are quite a few similarities between them all (modern FSL, too).

To show some of the complexities of signing a language, I’ll explain 5 basic parameters. They consist of the following: hand configuration, articulation points (where you are signing, ie over your forehead or the neutral space in front of your body), orientation (directionality), movement (if the sign requires movement or is static), and expression of the face and body (seen the ASL of Lydia Callis yet?). In addition, another factor that plays into it all is the speed that the person signs in, whether it be fast (among those who have been deaf their whole life) or slow (fingerspelling, for kids, those who acquired the language later, or for spelling things that don’t have a standard sign).

There is lots of material out there, both online and offline on LIBRAS. On the web, there are some Brazilian websites you can check out which can teach you specific signs. I recommend Acesso Brasil’s online visual dictionary (keep in mind that verbs in LIBRAS are in their infinitive and, when written, in all capital letters, ie VOCÊ GOSTAR CARRO? = Você gosta do carro?). Just as cool as the other dictionary I mentioned is this collaborative dictionary. If you’re interested in more, just put “libras sinais” into Youtube and you’re sure to find a lot of content.

Sidenote: The sign for “Let’s go” I mentioned is actually considered “Signed English”, not ASL.

The Brazilian Spice Trade


(exotic fruits, etc, from the Amazon)

In the 15th century, Europeans were trying to find a route to India in order to take part in the valuable spice trade. By the 16th century, though, the Americas had already been discovered and, with it, a way to secure other kinds of exotic items. The Portuguese exploration of the mighty Amazon region opened up a whole new area of trade with what became known as “drogas do sertão”, only they weren’t necessarily drugs and they weren’t exactly from the sertão (used today to refer to the semi-arid region of Northeastern Brazil).

In the time of Brazilian exploration and expansion, any rugged inland areas were referred to as the “sertão”, and this included the forested parts such as the current state of Amazonas (which is more than twice the size of Texas) and parts of Pará. With incursion by the Jesuits and Bandeirantes (using Amerindian slaves), and the Portuguese explorers, new curative herbs and plants, in addition to exotic fruits, seeds and roots were discovered.

Screen%20Shot%202013-05-01%20at%2010_47_57%20AMUpon being brought back to Europe, the “drugs” were hailed as a possible alternative to the Indian spice trade. Due to those items that were medicinal in nature, they were given the collective name “drogas”. In reality, the “drugs” consisted mostly of plants, herbs, cocoa, cinammon, vanilla, cloves, pepper, Brazil nuts and guaraná. Nonetheless, they were highly valued on the European market.

By the early 1600s, many explorers of different nationalities were trying to collect and sell the contraband, and thus a Portuguese fort was built at the mouth of the Amazon. The fort did its job and the area around it eventually became the capital city of Belém do Pará. While the Portuguese were defending their new territory, the Amerindians started to resist the Jesuits and others who needed them to locate and extract the exotic items. Nonetheless, the “drugs” ended up playing a large part in the expansion of the Brazilian territory, beyond the preordained limits decided by the Treaty of Tordesillas. If not for the Brazilian “spice” trade, the country would surely be a lot smaller in size.

The Good Example Award


Since 2010, a group in Minas Gerais made up of foundations, media outlets and business people has been handing out an annual award to people who act to improve the communities they live in. It’s called Prêmio Bom Exemplo de Cidadania (Good Example of Citizenship Award).

A committee selects people across eight categories who have been nominated for the award and lets the public nominate people for the ninth category of citizenship, then they narrow the final category down to 5 finalists. The citizenship finalists for 2013 have already been chosen and the winner (the 87-yr ld José Pio who donated food to the needy) was announced on May 14th.

The other eight categories include science, culture, economy and development of Minas, education, sports, innovation, environment and personality of the year. The objective being to highlight the efforts, research and work of people and organizations in the categories mentioned, all within Minas Gerais. It’s not hard to see this project being brought to other states, as surely there’s a lot more good deeds being done everyday all over the country.

Like Imagina Na Copa, which I reported on in the beginning of March, the Bom Exemplo award is all about good-hearted Brazilians making a real difference in the lives of those around them. The work they do already exists whether they win or not, so the award acts as an added bonus to the true reward of helping those less fortunate.

By going to the Bom Exemplo website during voting time (already closed for 2013 edition), you can watch the short news reports on each of the five finalists (it seems they took them down) and it was even possible vote for one of them (one vote per computer). There’s no sign-up required and you don’t have to be Brazilian to participate in the voting for the citizenship category. If you’d like to see reports on the other categories, go here.

Doing Time in Brazil


Discussing prison politics and policies can be a rather depressing topic, but I was looking to find a way to do it. Below, you’ll find three interesting facts about Brazil’s prison system.

The 30-Year Limit

The Brazilian Constitution (article 5° XLVII, b), says that “there will be no penalties of a perpetual character” (“não haverá penas de caráter perpétuo”). That means that in Brazil, no one gets “life” in prison, nor anything resembling it. Why? Well, if someone is 25 years old and commits a crime and that crime gets them 120 years in prison, then that’s no different than getting life. If it’s long enough to be considered life then that makes it “of a perpetual character”.

The Brazilian Penal Code (article 75) says, in gist, “the maximum prison sentence can’t be longer than 30 years and, if so, the sentences should be combined and made no longer than 30 years.” The Penal Code was created in 1940 by then-President Getúlio Vargas and, at that time, the average life span of a Brazilian was about 43 years. Creating a 30-year maximum sentence was, with twisted irony (considering the Constitution), basically enprisonment for life at the time. Today, despite the actual expectancy being over 70 years of age, the original law was never updated.

Cultured Convicts

As of mid-June last year, in all four Brazilian federal prisons, selected inmates can choose to read one book per month and write a review of it in order to get 4 days shaved off their sentence. That makes the total time diminished per year to a possible 48 days. The reviews must be grammatically correct and with readable handwriting. The warden of each prison would then have a committee read the review and decide if the prisoner should get the 4 days taken off.

Available to those prisoners would be works that are either literary, classic, scientific or philisophical in nature. The idea behind the program called “Redemption through Reading” (“Remição pela Leitura”) is to have more enlightened prisoners leaving their time behind bars, well, behind them.

Brazil’s Foreign Jail

São Paulo has 152 state prisons but one of them, in particular, stands out. Over 180 miles outside of the state’s capital, in a city called Itaí, there’s the prison that gringos built…ok, so they didn’t actually spend their time making it, but they happen to do their time within it. There’s close to 1,500 foreigners inside, representing a whopping 89 nationalities.

In the last several years, the prison population has almost doubled, and it’s mainly due to the reason most of them are there in the first place. Eight out of every ten inmates got caught for trafficking drugs. Of the highest populations by nationality, the top three are Nigerians, Bolivians and Peruvians. Inside, though, one can hear anything from Hebrew to Polish being spoken. It sounds like someone should be tasked with translating the phrase “Just Say No” and then spreading the message.