Camelô – Etymology

Camelô – Traveling Merchant

The origin of the word is the Arabic khamlat, a name that was given to the rustic commercialized fabrics sold in open-air markets and touted loudly by the merchants, the camelôs of the previous century. At this point, the verb cameloter (to sell trinkets) was popularized in France by the street sellers who chose high-traffic areas to sell their wares. It is the street salesman that sells his kitsch to bemused audiences. With their power of persuasion, many times these true artists, when victorious in their craft, become rich and turn into the owners of their empires. The Brazilian media magnant Sílvio Santos has said he will never forget the teeming Largo da Carioca in Rio de Janeiro where he began his vivid career. – Source (translated by me)

It is important to note that camelôs differ from ambulantes in that the former has a fixed location while the latter is ambulatory.

Camelôs – Sidewalk Shopping

A camelô is a common sight on the sidewalks, beaches and even buses of Brazil. They are street vendors (both fixed and mobile) providing an array of goods, mostly cheaply-made and/or illegal. Want a pair of sunglasses? A sarong for the beach? Artisan crafts? Japanese peanuts? Books & magazines? Dvds of new movies and concerts? You name it, you’ll find it…just don’t ask questions and act under the assumption that most of it isn’t top quality or long-lasting.

The camelôs can be a nuisance for the simple fact that they make bad use of public space and for the reason that they don’t pay any taxes unlike the stores which sell the same items legally. They are also considered a sign of the times, in that unemployment has generally been high in Brazil, although they aren’t seen as unemployed but rather sub-employed. The word camelô is Galician (which in turn is probably from the French “camelot” meaning ‘seller of cheap things’).

The question of legality is usually left unspoken both by the buyer and the seller. As far as the policing of such activities, camelôs are mostly left alone unless the police are doing a raid due to recent negative news coverage or public outrage. The reality is, almost everyone has bought one thing or another from a camelô at some point.

In the Media

For the first time in Brazilian history in 2007, a large-production Brazilian film (Tropa de Elite) was pirated and sold on the streets months before it was to premere in the theaters. So many people had seen it and liked it that ticket sales didn’t seem to suffer.

On the other hand, there are certain camelôs that work in conjunction with music labels and groups. Such an example can be seen with the Electro-Forró band Calcinha Preta, which sent representatives into the cities where their next concerts were to be held, in order to either sell cheaply or freely give away their next album. Their gamble payed off and helped shoot them to stardom.