Forgive me avid viewers of Big Brother Brazil

Not that I wish to go against my new plan of just publishing my own articles, but someone sent me a good write-up from last year by Luiz Fernando Veríssimo (oops) an anonymous writer about Big Brother Brazil and I thought I’d translate it and make it an exception.


Forgive me avid viewers of Big Brother Brazil (BBB), produced and organized by our distinguished Rede Globo, but we managed to sink to the bottom … The eleventh (it keeps going!) edition of BBB is a summary of the worst in Brazilian television. It is rather difficult to find adequate words to describe the size of such an attack on our modest intelligence.

They say that Rome, one of the largest empires the world has known, saw its end marked by the depravity of the moral values of its people, especially the trivialization of sex. BBB 11 is the pure and ultimate trivialization of sex. Impossible to watch, to see this program alongside one’s children. Gays, lesbians, straight people … all in the same house, the house of “heroes” as they are called by Pedro Bial. I have nothing against gays, I think each one does for a living what they want, but I am against live depravity on TV, whether gay or heterosexual. BBB 11 is reality in search of IBOPE…

See how Pedro Bial treated the participants of the BBB 11. He promised a “human zoo of fun.” I do not know if it will be fun, but it seems quite varied in its mix of cliches and typical figures.

If I understand the presentations correctly, there are 15 “animals” in the “zoo”: the Jewish pervert, the effeminate gay, the sexy dentist, the swinging black guy, the shy nerd, the hottie with a big butt, the “I’m not a bitch but I’m not holy ” girl, the model Mr. Maringa, the confident lesbian, the intellectual DJ, the cocky carioca, the makeup artist drag-queen and the female MP who likes to get beat up.

I wonder, for example, as a journalist, documentary maker and writer, how Pedro Bial, to do him justice, covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, bows to be host of a program of that level. In an e-mail I received recently, Bial writes wonderfully well about the loss of comedian Bussunda referring to the pain of dying so young. I would like to ask him if he thinks his program is the death of culture, values and principles, morals, ethics and dignity.

The other day, during a break in Globo programming, another brainless BBB reporter said that, to win the prize of one and a half million dollars, a Big Brother member has an arduous road ahead, calling them heroes. Arduous? Heroes?

Are these examples of our heroes?

An arduous road to me is one that is traversed by millions of Brazilians, health professionals, public school teachers (indeed, all teachers), postmen, garbage collectors and many other tireless workers who, daily, spend hours exercising their duties with dedication, competence and love, almost always underpaid…

Heroes, are thousands of Brazilians who don’t even have a single meal a day and a decent bed to sleep on and can survive on that, every single day. Heroes are children and adults who struggle with very complicated diseases because they never had a chance to have a healthier and more dignified life.

Heroes are countless people, social organizations and charities, NGOs, volunteers, churches and hospitals that are dedicated to the care of the sick and needy (let’s remember our eternal heroine, Zilda Arns). Heroes are those who, despite earning a minimum wage, pay their bills, leaving only sixteen Reals for feeding themselves, as shown in another report submitted months ago by Globo itself.

Big Brother Brazil is not a cultural or educational program, neither does it spread information and knowledge to its viewers or participants, and there is no other incentive, for example, encouraging sports, music, or creativity, nor teaching concepts such as values, ethics, work and morals.

And then comes the vanguard psychologist and tells me that BBB helps us to “understand human behavior.” Oh, have pity! Look at what’s really behind BBB ($$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$): José Neuman from Radio Jovem Pan, calculated that if twenty-nine million people call each time someone is voted off, with the cost of thirty cents per vote, Globo and Telefonica make eight million, seven hundred thousand dollars. I’ll repeat: eight million, seven hundred thousand dollars each time someone gets kicked off the show.

Can you imagine how much could be done with that amount if it were dedicated to programs of social inclusion, housing, food, education and the health of many Brazilians? (More than 520 housing units could be created, or more than 5,000 computers could be bought!) These words are not for riot or protest, but with shame and indignation at seeing that such a freak show has millions of viewers.

Instead of watching BBB, how about reading a book, a poem by Mario Quintana or Neruda or anything else, go to the movies, study, listen to good music, plant flowers and work on a garden, call a friend, visit grandparents, go fishing, play with the kids, date or just sleep.

Watching BBB just helps Globo make lots of money and destroy what remains of the values on which our society was built.

Brazil Marks the Spot – Two Barons of Industry

(Baron of Mauá & Eike Batista)

Brazil has seen its share of dreams built upon dreams. Some, whether foreign or Brazilian-born, have proven too good to be true while others have found varying degrees of success (often depending on who you ask).

One of the failures that comes to mind is the prefabricated town of Fordlândia, which was to be used to generate latex, replacing Henry Ford’s dependency on Malaysian rubber. Situated near the northern city of Santarém, in Pará, it was a flop before it even begun as the land on which the rubber trees were planted was infertile and none of the Ford people had experience in equatorial agriculture.

Among the successes, one might think of the Capital city of Brasília or perhaps even the Curitiba of Jaime Lerner. Such accomplishments, though, aren’t solely feats of architectural prowess, backed by billions in investment. Sometimes, a mix of perfect timing, economic conditions and strategic positioning brew up the best opportunities. Below, you’ll learn about two men who came upon such a scenario.

Mauá Era

In the midst of the 19th century, when developed capitalist countries were experiencing the second Industrial Revolution, Brazil was having some advancements of its own as it went from a monarchy to a republic. The abolitionist process and the growth of urban activities made the monarchist regime less and less important. Coffee, Brazil’s economic saviour, on one hand preserved parts of the colonial past (masters and slaves), but on the other hand its profits stimulated the construction of railways and ports as well as helped the growth of banks and internal trade.

One of the most important business leaders of this growth period was the Baron of Mauá, who was heavily involved in the industrialization of Brazil. He built shipyards, foundries and railroads, heading 17 companies at one point. The baron also founded the Banco do Brasil, in its second incarnation (the previous one was ultimately a failure after it was sacked by the royal family on their return to Portugal), and offered lower lending rates to stimulate more national growth. Among other endeavors, he created a company whose goal was to keep the US from internationalizing the Amazon and he brought electricity to Rio de Janeiro.

The baron found good fortune in two acts of legislation of the time. The first was known as the Alves Branco tariff which increased taxes on imported materials, thereby favoring Brazilian businesses. The second was the Eusébio de Queirós law which abolished the trafficking of slaves (but not the use of them). Both acts allowed the liberal and abolitionist baron to be successful, if only for a while.

Despite all the good he did, the old guard wasn’t too happy with him seizing so much of their power and wealth and thus he encountered a barrage of obstacles at almost every turn. Most of his problems were directly or indirectly British in nature as the British were highly favored trade partners with Brazil yet were being pushed out by the baron’s businesses and their patriotic leanings. The enemies he made in the Brazilian government and with British businessmen soon led him to cave in and sell his companies at reduced prices, thus the Mauá era came to a quick end.

Eike Era

Brazilian billionaire Eike Batista, founder of grupo EBX, may just be the next ‘Baron of Mauá’. While the times have changed, the idea that Brazil needs powerful people to look after Brazilian interests is just as important as it ever was. Enter: Cidade X (X City), one of Batista’s big ideas.

The self-made magnate wants to build Cidade X in São João da Barra, a city in the north of Rio where his other project, Porto do Açu (Açu Super-port), is scheduled to be built, starting in 2012. The undertaking looks to bring a real estate boom to the city and generate 50 thousand jobs.

Eike chose the famous architect and urban planner Jaime Lerner to plan Cidade X, which will be able to house 250 thousand people, quite a bit more than São João da Barra’s current population of 30 thousand. According to Eike, the idea is to build an ecologically correct city to take advantage of the migration that should occur once the Açu Super-port is operational.

The complex where the future city will reside is one of the ventures of LLX, the logistics company within grupo EBX. The new city will help develop the pre-salt industry with suppliers setting up shop along the 19,275 acres set for construction. The super-port, said to be on par with that of Shanghai, will boost commerce with Brazil’s main trading partners, mainly China. As of last year, 66 companies signed memorandums showing interest in having a presence at the port.

Will the Eike Era be as short-lived as that of the Baron of Mauá or is he operating under more favorable conditions? Do his big ideas hold as much weight as investing in education or other initiatives that might improve Brazil’s poorest regions? The next decade will be telling and many will be watching Brazil’s progress. Of course, I’ll be watching, too, but I’ll also be looking at how progress is being defined, and according to whom.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

A Juxtaposition of Traditions – Christmas in Brazil

This post is a bit oddly placed since it’s obviously past X-mas. I guess I’ll re-reference it in 10 months!

(Daily Rio Life – photo from her post on X-mas in Brazil)

With Christmas almost upon us and the arrival of colder days already here, we might be wondering how such a famous holiday is celebrated in warmer climes. Brazil, being mostly Catholic, is a country that has celebrated Christmas since its inception and many of its traditions are the same as those in the U.S. There’s midnight mass (called “Missa do Galo“, literally “rooster mass”, in English), carols, nativity scenes, mini Christmas trees and gift-giving, among other things.

There are also a few ways in which Christmas differs, such as one Brazilian legend which says Santa comes from Greenland and wears a silk suit (due to all the heat) upon arrival. Often on the 24th and the 25th of December you will hear or see fireworks, with larger displays in larger cities. Assuming you’ll be in Brazil over the holidays, something tells me there aren’t a lack of teenagers to gladly take care of the smaller and seemingly neverending fireworks displays on a street near you.

One of the larger differences is that on Christmas Eve, just before midnight mass, everyone gathers to exchange presents and sit down for the “ceia de Natal” (Christmas dinner). In the US, of course, these events occur on the 25th. In case you might have ever wondered why the meals are so large, I can shed some light on the matter. It turns out that Christmas dinner is an old European custom in which people would leave their front doors open to receive travelers and pilgrims. While not even our neighbors to the south eat with random passers-by, Brazilians aren’t strangers to leftovers from such large meals. A typical dinner consists of plates of turkey, fish, rice, farofa, nuts, tropical salads, regional fruits, cod-fish cakes, wine and champagne. It’s also important to mention a certain sweet, the Italian fruitcake called “panetone“, which has been popular in Brazil since Italians brought it over after WWII.

Despite the dissimilarities, Christmas in Brazil is still quite “American”, at least in the sense of seeing shops carrying a wide array of trinkets and using a variety of gimmicks to get you to buy things. Both São Paulo and Rio have fake gigantic trees that light up for your viewing pleasure and can take over six weeks to set up. Brazil hasn’t always accepted the adoption of American holiday traditions, though. There was a failed attempt to “Brazilianize” the holiday back in the 1930’s. It all happened when a few “Integralists” (politicians and intellectual nationalists) tried to make Christmas more Brazilian by creating “Vovó Índio” (Indian Grandpa) to substitute Santa Claus, but it didn’t really catch on. Researchers believe it was either the writer Monteiro Lobato or politician Plínio Salgado who invented this Brazilian Santa but since most documents from the time of Integralism (inspired by Italian Fascism) were burned, the mystery remains.

Whether American or Brazilian, Christmas is fundamentally Pagan. As such, it was celebrated as a way to praise the return of the sun after it stays at its lowest point in the sky for three days, only to rise on the 25th. Lighting candles and hanging wreaths are also pagan in origin. The modern custom of erecting a Christmas tree in one’s house can be traced back to Martin Luther and his wish to oppose the Catholic Nativity scene by offering up a Protestant alternative (a tree symbolizing the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden). Even the act of giving presents is attributed to an erroneous date, as legend says it was on December 6th that Nicolau (later known as Saint Nick) would secretly leave presents in the homes of good children. It is interesting that a once historical Dutch figure of legend known as Sinterklass somehow became Saint Nick and later, the Santa Claus that we all know today (whose famous outfit and appearance, I might add, we can thank the 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast for creating).

When we look past the confusing amalgamation of customs, both real and invented, what’s important is to share good moments with friends and family and let the rest be the rest. As Christmas approaches, I know I should be “dreaming of a white Christmas” and all, but I’m really wishing I were on a beach with some água de coco in hand, though I somehow doubt I’m going to find that under a pine tree.

In case anyone wishes to see the “modern” Santa, have a gander at the very first depiction of him in Harper’s Weekly, 1863. Feel free to enlarge it, too. Before Nast remade the famous character, he was depicted in a robe, as a tall and thin man and without a beard.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

Living & Learning (Portuguese)

(some of the books I went through)

I read technology news every morning and this morning I read about why Google wanted to buy local coupon site GroupOn. The woman interviewed said, for Google, it’s much easier to buy into a market than to build up from nothing because with the former, you get a team of people who know what they’re doing and they already understand the market. In effect, paying for something saves time. It got me thinking about some of the things I wish I had not done alone and it turns out that learning Portuguese is one of those things. Sure, some people are impressed when they hear that I learned it on my own but I wonder if that is worth the fact that I probably added on a few years to my goal of reaching fluency by doing it the way I did.

I’m not a believer in the notion that one language can be easy to learn while another can be hard. Some folks even say one romance language can be learned more quickly than another. I beg to differ. All major languages require learning vocabulary and grammar rules, sounds and accents as well as formal and informal speech. On top of that, one needs to have determination, an ability to memorize and the will to be consitent. For these reasons, most of us know how hard it can be to learn Portuguese but also how satisfying every small victory feels, whether it is achieved alone or through someone who is able to give you a well-rounded learning experience.

The road I chose was lop-sided and lengthy since my teacher was myself, nudged along by a stubbornness to really be able to understand Brazil, its people and its culture. Several years ago, I didn’t want to just be a linguistic tourist in the land of the Portuguese language, I wanted to live there. Despite the fact that my first two attempts to actually reside (and more importantly, remain) in Brazil were not successful, I still will myself to live in a world of cedilhas and diphthongs, of half-eaten words and tricky verbs. Even when there’s no one to share a spare interjection with, I end up thinking it anyways.

While I fear I cannot come close to the charm of Olavo Bilac’s poetic description of Portuguese (a última flor do Lácio, inculta e bela: the last flower of Latium, wild and beautiful), I do have my own take on its allure. To me, Portuguese has always been a language of rounded words, the kind that should feel at home in the mouth of the one who speaks it. Being as sonorous and full-bodied as it is, I find myself wanting to always know more and be better.

Seven years passed before I considered myself to be fluent and for at least half of the time, I was hitting the books daily, even when I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. Part of me would think, “I’ll do it tomorrow” but the other part replied, “No, you do it now!” Needless to say, the latter part won out and I soon found myself able to read magazines, newspapers and novels with an ever-higher degree of difficulty.

The price of admission for finally learning written Portuguese was that I had let my spoken Portuguese remain pretty much non-existent on account of not having a real teacher. I would listen in on conversations while I hung out with Brazilian expats but their unforced Portuguese sounded to me like one long word. Not being confident enough in my ability to carry on a conversation, even though the foundation was there in my head, I resigned myself to trying to pick out individual words. As the months continued, I started to be able to catch on to the moment when one word would end and another would begin, but by that time, the current conversation I was listening to was either over or on another subject.

There were times when I’d join in, ready to take a linguistic beating if need be. The results were limited but necessary. Pushing boundaries in language-learning is an important part of the process, even if you sometimes push too far. Of course, no one will ever hear me confirm this, but there may have possibly been a few forced laughs and nods of the head when in fact I didn’t get the joke or the idea at hand. Yes, there may have been an “é, né“, an “ah, tá” or a “…tendi” when perhaps I should have said I didn’t understand. It’s hard to know which choice would have been best but I just chalked it up to growing pains.

One choice I’ve always been happy with is when, around 2002, I first picked up a Portuguese-language learning book. All the time in between didn’t turn me into Euclides da Cunha because I still make small intermediate-level mistakes. There’s also more to learn on the advanced side but I’m generally satisfied with how much I’ve learned and to what degree I can navigate a conversation. The one thing that hasn’t changed in all these years is the fact that I still have the same desire for the language. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t either listen to, read, write or speak Portuguese. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

“Olha o Globo!” – Brothers, Biscuits & Beaches

(with Two Brothers in the background)

Ask any beach-going Brazilian that has been to Rio de Janeiro what images come to mind when they think of Rio and I’d bet Biscoito Globo is one of them. The famous doughnut-shaped powder biscuits are as common a sight as the sunbathers in Ipanema applauding the beautiful sunsets, silhouetted by Two Brothers hill. Speaking of brothers, three from São Paulo deserve some applause, too, as they are responsible for another pleasing sight, one that can be sweet, like catching some rays, or salty, like the sea itself.

The brothers’ success lies in the simplicity of their product. Let’s take a closer look:

  • Two flavors – Sweet or salty
  • Easy to recognize – Always the same packaging
  • Easy to open – Good for kids (though bad for those who want to close it, meaning you should eat them all)
  • Strictly word of mouth – No advertising costs and savings passed on to the customer
  • Great with another favorite – Often sold with soft-drink Matte-Leão (and vendors wear Matte-Leão shirts)
  • Easy to remember – Globo is a name everyone knows

The rest is history (or, at least the next part is)…


According to the Biscoito Globo site, it all started in 1953 when, after their parents separated, the three Ponce brothers went to live with their cousin who had a bakery in Ipiranga, in São Paulo. It was there that they learned to make powder biscuits with their cousin, which were sold on the streets of downtown São Paulo.

In 1954, taking advantage of a large religious conference in Rio de Janeiro, the brothers decided to sell their biscuits in the carioca capital. With their recipe for success, the Ponce brothers foresaw that, given the biscuits characteristics, Rio de Janeiro would be the ideal market for what they were selling.

The powder biscuit was given the name Globo in honor of the bakery contracted to make them in Botafogo. The year was 1955 and the biscuits were sold in the Globo bakery and in seven others, owned by the same people. Realizing the large demand for them, the Ponce brothers started to sell them to other bakery chains and in 1963, they formed a partnership with a Portuguese baker, an expert in breads.


There are other positive aspects that accompany a bag of Biscoito Globo, such as the fact that it’s perfect for making one’s stomach believe it’s fuller than it is. After all, who wants to swim on a full stomach? Other associated benefits mean the customer receives something that is low in calories, low in fat, without neither coloring nor preservatives.

The biscuit vendors are called ‘ambulantes‘ and they can buy a package for 60 cents then turn around and sell it for an average price of R$1 on the beach. A pretty good deal where everyone walks away happy. Since the famous snacks don’t contain the aforementioned preservatives, they aren’t sold to the supermarkets, meaning the customers must seek out the individual vendors if they want to get their hands on the biscuits. On the beaches of Rio, that’s not a hard thing to do because the vendors are omnipresent, the packaging is unique (save for a few imitators), and the holler is the same…”Olha o Globo!”

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

The Great Grape Festival of Caxias do Sul

The Festa da Uva (or, Grape Festival) is a Brazilian celebration of Italian heritage which takes place every two years in the town of Caxias do Sul, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. For close to 80 years, the residents have put on the celebration which usually falls around mid-February, lasting two weeks. As part of the festivities, local producers of food and wine present their best products to the public in an effort to both spread knowledge of their Italian roots and, of course, make a few sales.

The festival started not as a festival, but as an agroindustrial fair back in 1881, which brought together local farmers and producers so they could share ideas and showcase new methods to improve the harvesting of their crops. The fair was created as a means to centralize, even if just for a few days, those that normally worked scattered about in different locations within the region. It wasn’t until June 1st, 1910, that the first train began to run through Caxias do Sul, connecting the city (it was elevated to city status on the very same day) to nearby Montenegro and the state capital, Porto Alegre. The prosperous little city only became more prosperous with the new train since from Porto Alegre, a ship could take salesmen, along with wines, cheeses and other products, to São Paulo.

The new train didn’t just take people to far away places, it allowed others to come to the region such as traders and relatives who instead of just visiting, decided to move there and look for work. With the growth of the local industries and of the city, a Caxias do Sul resident named Joaquim Pedro Lisboa suggested in 1931 that a festival be created to celebrate the grape harvest. The press from the capital called it the “Little Grape Exposition” and though it only lasted one day, it was highly popular and even included airplanes doing fancy moves in the sky. The next year, they decided to do another Festa da Uva and in 1933, they added a new twist, the election of a Grape Festival Queen. In addition, the 3rd offering of the festival included the participation of three neighboring towns, Flores da Cunha, Bento Gonçalves and Garibaldi. The festival didn’t just reach other towns, its message of solidarity spread much further.

Brazil’s own president, Getúlio Vargas, said such bastions of cultural pride were nothing more than “social cysts” because to him they represented a fragmented society. Nonetheless, in Fascist Italy, there was an increasing interest in reconstructing the history of the emigrants. By doing so, such a history could be interpreted as a shining example of how the “Latin race” could contribute to the civilization of the New World, while also urging the Italians abroad to take pride in their ethnic origin. And take pride, they did.

Cleodes Ribeiro, a professor and researcher of Brazilian-Italian culture, describes the festival in the following way…

“If the celebration of the Grape Festival ritual served to proclaim the identity of the celebrants, display the result of their work over more than half a century and claim the status of being Brazilians, their defining characteristics were explained by the vocabulary employed in the symbolic ritual. The speeches, the exhibition and the distribution of grapes, the triumphal procession, the shopkeeper in their costumes, songs, banquets, congress and flags lining the streets, all reflected the efforts of the festival hosts in the process of self-representation.”

It is also important to note that these immigrant clusters in Brazil were not just refined to Italian descendants, nor was Caxias do Sul the only place Italians settled into upon moving to Brazil. These were people who created and sustained models of success that essentially came to replace the master-slave dynamic (of Portuguese descendants and their African slaves) that had encompassed Brazil for so long. To me, these often historical concentrations of once-separate nationalities that all landed in one country and eventually became one people, so to speak, are what makes Brazil so infinitely interesting. Even more so, each concentration retains either strong markers or, to a lesser extent, noticable vestiges of a more cohesive community-based identity. How many other nations can truly say the same of their people?

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

The Killer Beauty of the Alamoa

(Pico rock in the distance)

The inmates of the old prison on the island of Fernando de Noronha used to say that on the night just before a big storm would come through, right at about midnight, an extremely beautiful woman would appear. She was tall with long blonde hair and completely unclothed, dancing to the sound of the crashing waves. It was only when the lightening flashed would her presence be seen. Her feet looked as if they floating in mid-air, above the sandy shore. According to popular belief, a blonde woman like that could only be German and so she was called an alamoa, a corruption of alemã (German).

Her story always differs but some versions of the legend say she was once the queen of the island and was angered by the fact that humans had begun to live there. Other versions point towards a religious allegory that shows her as the first woman to be betrayed by her husband and from there, she somehow turned into the alamoa, punishing any married men that might come her way. For the men she would attract and seduce, they fell under her spell, seeing her become a skeleton before their eyes. For others, she was just a lost soul, looking for a strong man to help her dig up a hidden treasure.

It is said that she still lives in a place on the island known as Pico rock. On Friday nights, the rock sometimes splits open, revealing a door from which a light emanates. From there, the beautiful alamoa can be seen, dancing to attract her victim. Those that enter would believe they had entered Venusberg, the palace from a German legend of a mountain where the goddess Venus resided. When the men entered the opening in Pico rock, they would soon be horrified by her transformation. Her beautiful and bright eyes would become two dark holes and her head would become a ghastly skull. Right then, the rock opening would slam shut and the poor soul inside would never be seen again, though his screams could be faintly heard for the next few days.

Some researchers say the story goes back to the Dutch occupation in the early 1600’s and that her story is a convergence of various mermaid legends. The idea of a supernatural woman that attracts and seduces men, transforming herself soon after, is common and recurring in popular folklore throughout the world, thus, the true origin is virtually impossible to determine. Origins aside, I’m not entirely sure I’d want to be caught lurking around at midnight on the eve of a storm. After all, where storms brew, so does trouble.

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

Picanha – The Brazilian Brand of Meat

The rear of the steer (or heifer) is the most sought-after piece of meat in Brazil. In fact, I’d bet that Brazilian scientists have dreamed of one day creating an animal that only produces such meat.

One might not know it by its name in English, a cut of beef whose technical denomination alternates between the ‘rump cover’ and ‘rump cap’, but in Portuguese it’s called picanha. The reason Americans might not know about it is due to the fact that American butchers generally divide up that region into other cuts like the rump, the round and the loin. That being said, there isn’t much of a point in discussing what picanha is and isn’t because there’s a very slim chance of finding a single American cut in your local supermarket to define it.

For such a great piece of meat, it has an unusual name. One story behind the name speaks of a once important Brazilian industrialist, named Francisco “Baby” Pignatari, who used to eat at a churrascaria called “Bambu” in São Paulo and his favorite type of meat was the top sirloin. On one occasion, the restaurant served him another kind of meat by mistake. Not initially noticing the difference, he ate it and loved it, at which point he asked the Argentine server about the region of the animal that the meat came from. The Argentine said it came from the part “donde se pica la aña“, which is apparently Argentine Spanish for “where one brands (the cow with the hot iron)”. From there, it is said the name picanha is derived (pica + aña).

A more simple, yet slightly-related explanation comes from veterinarian Pedro Eduardo de Felício, at a university in São Paulo who says that in the south of Brazil, the branding iron is called a picanha. Over time, the area of the animal that received the branding was called by the name of the instrument that did the branding.


No matter where the name comes from, the main thing is that you enjoy every single piece! There are a few tips for doing just that. When buying picanha, experts say it should weigh less than two and a half pounds. Anything more and it is most likely you will be paying for part of the “coxão duro” (silverside), which is a tougher meat located next to the picanha cut. The layer of fat on the bottom of the piece of picanha should be about one centimeter thick, otherwise the bovine was raised and fed in an unfit manner. Also, the color of the fat should be either white or light yellow, if it’s yellower than that, it means the animal was most likely old and the meat will be tougher than normal.

As for the actual cooking part, picanha is cooked over high heat, so if you are a fan of black pepper and don’t want it to burn up in the process, add it afterwards. All the picanha I’ve ever had was well-salted while it cooked but it’s important to use rock salt instead of sea salt because the latter will most likely ruin your picanha. The best tip of all, though, is to watch a Brazilian do it!

Below is a video (in Portuguese) that you can watch with a Brazilian and learn how to choose the right piece. By browsing Youtube you can watch a variety of videos on all aspects of picanha, although if you’d rather just eat it, many major cities have churrascarias where you are able to eat until the cows come home!

Another one in English

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

The Saint-Makers, Past & Present

The year was 1985 when Dias Gomes, an important Brazilian playwright, was finally allowed to air his telenovela Roque Santeiro (Saint-Maker). Brazil had just been freed from a military dictatorship that lasted 21 years. The Institutional Act Number 5, known as the AI-5 (*see comments), which was supposedly the military’s response to a fifty-thousand strong march in Rio de Janeiro to protest the murder of a student by a member of the military, had been in effect back in 1975, when Roque Santeiro was originally supposed to air.

Among the consequences of the AI-5 was the censorship of music, film, theater and television, as long as they were thought to be subverting political and moral values. The telenovela Roque Santeiro was based on a theatrical piece, also by Dias Gomes, called O Berço do Heroí (The Hero’s Cradle), which had been censured and prohibited under the AI-5. The telenovela would have been shown in 1975 on the Globo network and already had several episodes recorded, in addition to having already been announced on TV. However, on the day of its premiere, Globo received a government notice censuring the telenovela.

The reason behind the censorship? Apparently, a conversation was secretly recorded in which Dias Gomes assured the person on the other end of the line that Roque Santeiro was just a way to deceive the military, adapting O Berço do Herói for television audiences, with slight changes that would make the military think they weren’t so similar.

The story of Roque Santeiro takes place in the fictitious impoverished town of Asa Branca in the Brazilian Northeast, where the main character, also the namesake of the series, was worshiped as a saint. As an altar boy, he was allegedly killed 18 years prior defending the church, meanwhile a large landowner and the mayor of the town had been profiting off the poor residents from the popularity of the saint and the myth that surrounds him. One day, Roque returns alive and with the mission of saving his people.

WIth a basic understanding of the storyline, one can understand why the military would not want the millions of viewers of Globo’s nightly telenovelas to see the underlying meaning behind a local hero that fights for his people. The interesting thing for me is seeing that when under overt influence of a military decree such as the AI-5, the government saw telenovelas as able to influence the viewers. Fast-forward to present day, to a Brazil that is democratically run and very little mention is ever made of how modern telenovelas, made by powerful people, are influencing the average viewers’s thoughts and beliefs. I wonder if Brazil is in need of a real-life Roque Santeiro to save the viewers…

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

There’s No Need to Fish For Compliments Here

Update: I expanded this article from 2011 to twice the size. Enjoy!


Midway up the coast of Pernambuco, less than 40 miles south of Recife, lies Porto de Galinhas (literally, Chicken Port), one of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches. Since 2001, the Brazilian magazine Viagem & Turismo has held an annual contest for its readers to elect the best Brazilian travel options and Porto de Galinhas dominated in the beach category for the first ten years straight, making it the paragon of paradise.

Aside from being located on the Northeast’s serene coastline, with its abundance of beaches, Porto de Galinhas isn’t just pretty to look at. When the high tide pulls out, natural tidal pools are created around the reefs that are both warm and transparent, making them perfect for catching an eyeful of tropical fish. Other activities include either sunbathing or riding dune buggies on the white sands of any of the 10 local beaches, and taking canoe rides through the mangroves.


The founding of the tourism hotspot is perhaps as interesting as the destination is beautiful. It starts with the fact that the largest Brazilian tract of massapê soil (which is very fertile and rich with a reddish-brown color) can be found in the Ipojuca municipality of Pernambuco, within Brazil’s tropical, coastal region. One of the neighborhoods that makes up Ipojuca happens to be Porto de Galinhas. It’s the unique soil, as well as the region’s port, that made Ipojuca the perfect place for the European colonizers to start cultivating and selling sugarcane. In fact, the previous name of Porto de Galinas was Porto Rico, not only due to the wealth it made the local sugarcane barons but also to the large amounts of brazilwood that left the country from its shores, en route to Europe.

So, how did such a pretty place receive such a strange name as “Chicken Port”? Well, there are two theories [1]. The most oft-repeated one says that with slavery in Brazil being abolished in the late 1800s, some slave traders saw a big part of their livelihood being taken away thus they continued importing slaves, albeit in secret. The port soon served as the main point of arrival for illegal slaves in the northeast of Brazil. It is said that the slaves were frequently hidden below the crates of chickens (more specifically, helmeted guinea-fowl, known as galinhas d’Angola, or Angolan chickens, in Portuguese), which were favored for consumption by the Pernambucan upper-class. Upon the arrival of new “merchandise”, one would hear the phrase “tem galinha nova no porto!” (“there’s new chicken at the port!”). This was code for announcing a new shipment of slaves and, with time, the name of the beach eventually changed. The second theory says many of the first African slaves brought to the region were of the Fula people, also known as Pheul, which in French sounds like Poule (chicken).


These Days

Today, the chickens are hand-painted, made of coconut shells and tree trunks, by local artisans to later be bought by the purchasing power and for the viewing pleasure of the many tourists to the region. This wasn’t always so, though, as it was only a few years ago that the local artists decided to find a marketable image that would serve as their golden egg, so to speak.

Chickens are definitely not the only thing being sold in Porto de Galinhas. Aside from the endless beauty of the barrier reefs and the natural pools, there are now resorts, nightclubs and refined restaurants that have moved in and exist side by side with the rustic charm that helped to make this old fishing village so popular in the 1990′s. With all the “development” and changes, I can’t help but wonder where the locals go to “get away from it all”.