A Holiday-like Soul

After an extended weekend, I heard a carioca friend say that someone famous once said, “o Brasil é um feriado”. I looked it up and translated it for you.

“My friend, Brazilians have a holiday-like soul. I imagine the irritation of the idiots of objectivity. They will say: “it does not exist, and it never existed.” The reader, even without being a idiot of objectivity, may want an explanation. Let’s get to it.

Two or three years ago, there was an extended holiday weekend. It started on Friday, continued on through Saturday and Sunday and ended on Monday. Such a barrage of days off is the great utopia of our brother, the Brazilian. Never did the charming souls on the street corners and in the pubs have such joie de vivre. On the streets, as the poet says, men were divine and human and women, fresh as roses. According, however, to my fat and playful neighbor, “there is no good that lasts forever, nor evil that never ends.” On Tuesday, the so-called business days resumed. (A volta ao batente é, para o brasileiro, uma dessas melancolias, só comparáveis às de Jó. – Not entirely sure how to translate this line in the best manner.)

But I thought to myself, “we had four days off.” At ten in the morning, I’m on the sidewalk. An interesting thing, indeed. Suddenly I was hit with remorse or shame because, for four long and dilated days, I had forgotten Brazil. But as I was saying, I hailed a taxi and went around town. And now I expected to see the beach had become a desert. Yes, a desert of navels. When the taxi turned onto the street along the beach, I suffered, in the flesh and soul, the greatest astonishment of my life.

The beach was awash with Brazilians. Never seen so many idle navels. After four days off, more people than ever were sunbathing. To myself, I asked the alarming question: “if  Brazilians do not leave the beach, how does Brazil keep functioning?”. Before turning onto Princesa Isabel Avenue, I discovered this final and eternal truth: – BRAZILIANS HAVE A HOLIDAY-LIKE SOUL. Or rather: – a Sunday-like one. We are like Sunday, par excellence.”

Nelson Rodrigues
O Globo, 2/5/1975
(em português)

Tabletop for 3, Please

Surely, you have heard of Iguazu Falls in Southern Brazil and how it borders Argentina, but did you know Brazil shares another behemoth creation with its neighbors? Mount Roraima spans three countries (bordering Venezuela and Guyana), is said to be around 2 billion years old and, if that’s not impressive enough, has cliffs that stand a quarter-mile high.

Much like its Australian cousin, Uluru, Mount Roraima is central to the local indigenous population’s spiritual beliefs. They gave the name of Roraima (roroi + ma), which is also the name of the Brazilian state that borders it, because in their native tongue, it means the “great blue-green”.

The vistas which the plateau affords may resemble something straight out of Jurrasic Park, and for good reason. Steven Spielberg’s 1993 hit film was inspired by Sir Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which in turn was inspired by botanical drawings done by one of the first people to scale the mountain. Much like the dinosaur fossils that must abound in the rock formations, the plateau itself seems equally stuck in time.

For a Brazilian video web-series on Mount Roraima, click through to Vimeo.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil

Keep Calm and Stay Brazilian

Being around people who don’t speak your language can be one of the most frustrating experiences, especially when you feel the need to be specific or just to express yourself. When there’s just one or two words between you and what you want (to say), it can make you reach for the Rogaine (…because you’ll probably want to pull your hair out). The blow to my normal state of calm was a simple supermarket item that, for the life of me, I couldn’t explain to the clerk behind the register.

It all happened in 2005, in a small supermarket in a removed suburb of Rio de Janeiro. All I wanted was a razor for shaving but I didn’t see any after taking a tour of the aisles and picking up some good ol’ Nescau chocolate cereal. Since I didn’t know the word for razor, blade (lâmina), beard (barba) or even the verb ‘to shave’ (fazer a barba), I was not only stuck, but people were lining up behind me. The best I could come up with was that I wanted to cut my face (“quero cortar a minha cara, assim” as I tried to explain calmly) while I pointed to where my beard would normally be, which I didn’t have at that particular moment to act as a visual aid.

You see, my game plan for that 6-month trip to Rio was to blend in, thus I kept the chit-chat to a miminum (so as not to give away my origin), bought some basic clothes from a nearby mall, watched how Brazilians acted with each other (to see if I could glean anything from them), and steered clear of the tourist traps (it took me 4 months to check out Cristo). I wouldn’t say I kept to the plan the entire time, as I did make a friend or two, but the majority of my tactics didn’t stray too far from my mind, either. As you can imagine, the challenge of pretending to be a local, even while having an acceptable general vocabulary, proved to be too much when my cover was blown and I found myself at a loss for a single simple word.

I ended up leaving the line in the market to search the aisles one more time so I could point to the item that escaped me. After scouring the market, I found what I needed and once I reached the register again, I showed the lady the razor and she looked at me and laughed as she told me the “Portuguese” word for it….Gillette.

The lesson of the day? Keep calm and stay Brazilian.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil

Brazilians Are More European Than African

Most of us know that Brazil is one big melting pot, but what kind of percentages are we talking about? How do Brazilians define themselves and do their genes “betray” that self-portrait? Does the discrepancy, if any, between the two even matter?

Sérgio Danilo Pena, a well-known geneticist from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, has been quoted as saying, “Only a few genes are responsible for someone’s skin colour, which is a very poor indication of ancestry.” A new study coordinated by Dr. Pena shows just that.

Despite the significant presence of “African genes” in the Brazilian population, Brazilians are more European than African. The percentage of European ancestry found in Brazilians varies from 60% in the Northeast to 77% in the South, according to a recently-published article in O Globo on the findings of the study.

In a 2009 census by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), 6.9% of Brazilians self-identified as negro (black), as opposed to other options such as branco (white), pardo (multiracial, brown), amarelo (yellow, East Asian) and indígena (Amerindian). In the face of such a low percentage of self-identified blacks, the recent study shows that Afro-Brazilians in Bahia actually have over 50% European roots.

One also must consider that, between 1500 and 1900, 12 million Africans traversed the Atlantic under slavery. Of the 10 million that survived the journey, an enormous 35% of them were brought to Brazil, compared to 6% that were brought to the United States. Given such statistics, the belief that Brazilians would, in fact, be more African than anything else wouldn’t seem too far-fetched.

In terms of Europeans, within roughly the same period (though with more migrating towards the latter half), over 5 million Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, German and Polish immigrants came to Brazil. If by the time the majority of Europeans settled in Brazil, a large portion of the African population had given way to pardos, this would explain the diluted presence of a genetic make-up reflecting African DNA.

The newest study is based on paternal ancestry and during the period of European migration, more men than women likely made their way to Brazil, especially since men were to replace the need for labor that the abolition of slavery left open. Previous studies by Dr. Pena have shown that, on the maternal side, things are more ‘democratic’ with results that show a more or less equal lineage of Amerindian, African and European ancestry.

Somehow, I doubt that any such DNA studies will change the ‘average’ Brazilian’s self-portrait. It is not as if those who first considered themselves as pardo would start considering themselves negro, or even branco. Genetics aside, it is evident that culture, tradition and upbringing in general all play a large role in who one becomes…to say nothing of economics.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil

Milking Brazil

As we begin the “golden decade” (as the next 10 years have been called, at least in Rio de Janeiro), full of such events as the Military Games, Rock in Rio, the World Cup, the Olympics and others that are sure to come, I wonder how well Brazil is protecting itself (the Buy Brazil Act aside) against the onslaught of foreign companies which have all surely been slipped their permanent green cards. Sure, there’s tycoons such as Eike Batista at the forefront, but can he do enough (and more importantly, will he, since he seems to be quite cozy with China)?

To express my point, I feel the need to bring up a real example of my fears, which happens to have taken place in Jamaica. The Jamaican dairy industry was going very well, even 10 years after the country’s anti-IMF government ended up needing a loan from the IMF in the late-70’s. With the loan, of course, eventually came terms and conditions. In the early-90’s, however, the IMF required that Jamaica lower its tariffs on imported (and heavily subsidized) dairy products, particularly that of powdered milk. Of course, doing so would completely ruin the national dairy industry but as the government saw no alternative, they accepted the terms of the IMF. What resulted was that Jamaicans, already strapped for cash, preferred to purchase the cheaper powdered milk instead of supporting their own people and industry, though at a higher price.

What does the above example have to do with Brazil? Well, providing foreign solutions for everyday products and services creates reliability on them, which in turn takes business away from national companies. One argument could be made, from the point of view of the multinationals, that they are merely filling a void left in the market. Another argument can be made that work is being given to Brazilians in the kinds of companies in the picture at the top of this post. While both might have some truth to them, I still don’t see the current situation in Brazil as a positive one, even in the face of a booming economy.

The logos above weren’t randomly thrown together, I selected them myself and all, save the bottom three, reflect foreign companies that operate in Brazil (the bottom three are either scheduled or rumored to begin operations in Brazil in the future). In my experience living in Brazil twice, I saw time and time again, Brazilians choosing the “chique” companies over the national ones and it almost seemed that the marketing power of the multinationals could somehow improve the taste of the food and the look and feel of other products. In some cases, yes, Brazil needs to build up its own industries but before that, a line needs to be drawn, one that shows what Brazil is doing on its own and what Brazil could be doing on its own.

I just hope that the “golden decade” will not follow long-established patterns of foreigners fattening their pockets on the riches of others. The problem is companies with unlimited funds can easily divide and conquer. With economics, the promise of status or even friends and the ability to enter the home and more, many people are left rather defenseless to their tactics. Even in the face of what I would deem soft war techniques, I would hope the Brazilian people will learn to say “no” more often. Perhaps the rise of Brazil will lead to looking inwards to the talents and qualities that Brazil already has.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil

Roosters in Recife Sing Frevo

The largest Carnival bloco in the world is said to be in Recife and you can find it on Saturday during the week of Carnival in the central neighborhood of São José. It goes by the name of the Galo da Madrugada (The Early Morning Rooster) and it’s pretty hard to miss, just find the giant shiny rooster towering above thousands of people. If you’re more of an observer, perhaps you can find a seafaring local to let you board their boat to watch from the sidelines on the Capibaribe River. However, it’s wise to be aware of what you’ll be missing out on.

The passo is the dance of the frevo, an accelerated polka-like dance best associated with Recife’s Carnival. While there’s no fighting involved in the modern-day frevo-de-rua, its origins point back to the time when knife-carrying capoeiristas traded fighting for dancing and knives for umbrellas. The frevo then spent an entire century marinating under the Pernambucan sun and eventually amalgamating with other styles such as the maxixe, the marcha and elements of capoeira.

If you find luck on your side and end up in Recife during Carnival this year, welcome the weekend with a different kind of rooster and let the frevo give you fervor…which should be easy enough since the two words are related.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

Losing One’s Mind in the Amazon

Imagine getting an infection and having your mind taken over, at which point you find yourself in an unknown location, only to die just before a fungus that looks like a plant or a tree grows out of your head for 4-10 days.

Sound far-fetched? Not if you’re an ant or other small insect and happen to call the Brazilian rainforest your home. A few weeks back, scientists announced a new fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani has been found in Brazil, though a very similar fungus has been known about since 1865 and believed to have existed some 48 million years ago, according to fossil research.

(more photos at National Geographic)

The mind control aspect is actually the parasitic fungus changing the ant’s perception of pheromones which makes the ant climb a nearby tree or plant in order that the fungus spores can best pollinate. According to David Hughes, a professor and scientist that has led research teams to study the fungi, “whole graveyards with 20 or 30 ants in a square metre” can be found in certain areas where the fungus grows.

Paving The Way for People Who Matter

The picture above is of Cidade de Deus in Rio de Janeiro where municipal workers are working quickly to fill potholes in the community. Ideally, this scene would be about the local government’s intention to normalize road and safety conditions for its own citizens. The reality is that such an act effectively ‘kills two rabbits with one stick’, as the Brazilian-Portuguese saying goes, since the betterment of the roads only started so that it may prevent discomfort and unsightliness for foreigners visitors.

Could it be that foreign tourists wish to get up close and personal with residents of the namesake of the hit-film Cidade de Deus? Perhaps the purpose is for foreigners to take pictures of ‘poor people’ in their native habitat, as some favela tours invite one to do. No, no. the reason has to do with an important foreign visitor’s mother who enjoyed another famous Brazilian film, Orfeu Negro, which also was (partially) filmed in Cidade de Deus. That important visitor happens to be Barack Obama, who will be in Brazil for two days on March 19th and 20th…along with several hundred heavily armed police and military.

So, readers, get ready for two things. First, for the media to get tired of Japan and look towards the next newsworthy item. Second, to see a microcosm of public works being built for 2014 and 2016. As the picture above demonstrates, improving the lives of Brazilians is easiest when precipitated by a foreign catalyst.

Bruna Surfistinha: A Review of Sorts

I read a piece in Folha today which basically said the sky is blue a prostitute’s life is far from the glamor of the big screen. With such a statement, they are giving a nod to the recent film Bruna Surfistinha (trailer), based on the best-selling book by Raquel Pacheco (aka Bruna), who was a prostitute from 17 to 21 years of age. Over one million people have already gone to see the film and as you can see from the most voted comment on the trailer page, prostitution is a dignified profession, apparently.

A few weeks ago, I saw the film and while the cinematography wasn’t bad enough to the point where I turned it off, the story imitates BBB life. When we live in a performance culture where we must post the smartest tweet or the sexiest photo to Facebook, a chicken-or-the-egg cycle is created where no one cares knows who is selling what to whom.

Traditionally, the male gaze is at play where media is concerned and when it is consumed. That is to say that the audience is shown the perspective of a heterosexual man towards the object of desire, typically a curvaceous woman. The cycle occurs when the woman has grown up with a male gaze and acts as if she were that object of desire. While there’s nothing wrong with being desired, media shows us that positive images of women should strictly be confined to that of eye-candy (Snoop Dogg’s latest music video, anyone?). In the case the image is that of a strong woman, then she must “know what she wants and how to get it”…like Bruna Surfistinha.

In one particular scene, Bruna’s character gets caught drugged out and in the car with her prostitute friends, who have all been drinking. They get pulled over and Bruna decides to show the police officer who is really in charge as she proceeds to give him oral sex. We then see her walk of shame proud strut back to her friend’s car while they applaud and cheer her abilities.

While I waited for the film’s climax, I was ultimately left without. In the end, the film is about a girl with a rather normal upbringing who decides to prostitute herself instead of deal with how she feels inside. It says you, too, can be moderately successful, physically adored and adorned…all it takes is a little bravado.

“Luckily”, Folhateen is there to parent young readers on the realities of becoming a harlot. Folha’s article (given that a teen these days can actually read the entire piece without multitasking or stopping after one paragraph) tells readers that life on the streets isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (duh!). What do you think an impressionable young woman will be more likely to enjoy, a “long” article in a newspaper or a trending film about a famous prostitute played by a hot actress?

When Capoeira Would Land You In Prison

(Source, click to see more visual references)

Between 1890, after the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil, and the final years of the 1920’s, capoeira references could be found, not in cultural literature of the time, but in the Penal Code of the Republic. The name capoeira itself became a pejorative term applied to vagrants, thieves and undesirables, but let’s return to this theme later while we take a look at the possible etymologies of the word.


The word capoeira was registered for the first time in 1712 by Rafael Bluteau in a dictionary he made called “Portuguese and Latin Vocabulary”, though its exact etymology is unknown. Several theories exist, the first of which was proposed by Brazilian author José de Alencar in his novel Iracema when he suggested that “capoeira” is Tupi for “caa-apuam-era” (a small, virgin forest). Another Brazilian lexicographer’s theory was that the word was connected to the name of a small partridge bird and the distinct way the male would defend his territory.

Yet another theory comes from author Brasil Gerson who believed capoeira referred to large baskets for saving wood and carrying chickens which slaves would transport to the marketplace. During their breaks, they would enjoy themselves by “jogando capoeira” (jogar meaning both play and throw). In much the way that the –eiro in brasileiro is associated with a profession (those who transported brasil-wood), the name of the big baskets may have been passed onto those who transported them.

While all these possible explanations are good and interesting, the most likely scenario for the origin of the word is that it’s simply a mixture of these theories. In the same way we use familiar, yet opposing phrases for just about any situation that requires a solution (“two heads are better than one”, but also, “there are too many cooks in the kitchen”), each possible explanation for the etymology of capoeira could very well have been popularly believed notions among different social groups. We have to remember, though, that these were tumultuous times for slaves in Brazil and just like the “-eiro in brasileiro” example, perhaps the slaves sought freedom upon escape in the small forested areas the Amerindians called capoeiras, and thus the slaves took the name of the areas they typically hid in.

Road to Criminalization

The resistance of the maroon communities along the northeastern coast of Brazil in the 18th century showed just how important capoeira was. As the Dutch invaded, thousands of slaves took advantage of the confusion and escaped their masters. They formed groups called “maltas” in order to defend themselves and their territory with capoeira.

Rio de Janeiro also played an important role in capoeira’s history as most slaves in Brazil resided either there or in Bahia. The Calabouço prison, located in a military installation at the bottom of the Castelo hill in front of Guanabara bay, was the landing place for any slave that misbehaved or was thought to have misbehaved. As per an agreement between the State and the slave owners, any slave could be brought there to receive a “corrective whipping” of 100 lashes for the price of 160 réis. Prison records from 1857, for example, show that 80 slaves were jailed that year for “capoeira” while only 30 were jailed for running away. A few years later, in 1862, the capoeira-related arrests totaled 404. Eventually, what may have been considered a suspicious reason for arrest became a nationwide law signed by Brazilian president Deodoro da Fonseca.

The 18th chapter of the Brazilian Penal Code of 1890 deals with the subject of “Vagabonds and Capoeiras”. Under the 487th Decree (Article 402), one can find the following:

“Decrees of the Provisional Government
Art. 402. Performing, on the streets and in public plazas, exercises of agility and bodily skill known by the denomination capoeiragem: to attack quickly, with weapons or instruments capable of producing bodily lesions, provoking commotions or disorder, threatening a specific or unspecific person, or instilling fear of harm: Penalty — sentencing to a jail cell for two to six months.”

(Art. 403. states that if a foreigner is caught doing capoeira, they will be deported after serving jail term.)

Something that may have contributed to the criminalization of capoeira is the “malandragem“, which refers to trickery, malice or deceit. As a martial art, being able to trick one’s opponent can be a matter of life and death, so if a slave could make a fight seem like a dance, that could have been quite advantageous when viewed by, or enacted against, their masters. In a way, it was the darker sense of malandragem, as seen by those in power, that led to capoeira being criminalized. The lighter malandragem that existed within the game, among players, was just one of the intrinsic values that eventually helped in giving capoeira a better name.


In the late 1920’s, times were changing and one man took notice. His name was Manuel dos Reis Machado (better known as Mestre Bimba) and by making capoeira a sport that offered all of the training and discipline that any other athletic endeavor required, he uplifted the game and gave those who played it something to be proud of.

Mestre Bimba succeeded in getting the ban lifted after he performed for the governor of Bahia and he went on to open the first capoeira school in 1932 in Salvador da Bahia where he taught Capoeira Regional. In making students wear white and earn their skill level, in the form of a belt, Mestre Bima gave capoeira a wider appeal with the public and thereby demarginalized its practice. Today, he is still spoken about with a mix of respect and emotion by the many students he taught. It could be said that our modern concept of capoeira, and the fact that it is practiced in over 150 countries on 5 continents, is because of him.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.