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.

There’s No Need to Fish For Compliments Here

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

(source: portodegalinhas.com.br)

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).

(source: emcasacomsofia.com)

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”.

Why Is Twitter So Popular in Brazil?

Time Magazine can tell you. But so can I. (Was that 140 characters or less?)

There are two reasons Twitter is popular in Brazil. One is that as more and more people in up-and-coming countries get online, the Internet becomes democratic, giving everyone access to the same content. Said content can be extremely interesting or, as in most cases, it can leave you like a dog chasing its tail, filling your mind with one-thousand bytes of useless information (at which point you may wish to ask yourself what conclusions about life would you be coming to had you not spent that hour reading nonsense).

Reason two is that Brazil has a celebrity culture, much like the U.S. and Twitter gives ‘normal’ people the chance to connect with ‘special’ people who are one of the following: beautiful, powerful, young, or rich. In fact, this is a huge turn-off for getting me to take the service seriously because for every interesting news article on Brazil listed on Twitter, there are hundreds upon hundreds of Brazilian teen girls tweeting to and about Justin Bieber, Kaká, Beyonce, you-name-it.

Interesting what happens when you look into the etymology of the word ‘tweet’, as individual messages on Twitter are called. The word ‘tweet’ originated in the year 1845 and is imitative of the sound made by a small or young bird. If you were to follow that logic, that means users are either small (unimportant) or young (not mature), enjoy imitating non-original ideas in 140 characters (linguistic minimalism, no way to convey things in depth) and like to ‘follow’ people on stages/altars (actors, politicians or clergy…not that there are clergymen on Twitter).

Just a thought. Here are a few more by Time.

What’s in a word? Americanos vs. Estadunidenses

Gene at Expat Brazil posted a link to an article where the Argentine President called Americans by the term “americanos” instead of by the more formal term “estadunidenses” (something like “United-Statesian”). Interestingly enough, I was having this conversation on a forum elsewhere just yesterday so I thought I’d chime in ‘officially’ on my own site. Personally, I use both terms when I see fit (ie, depending on who I’m talking to) but I don’t go out of my way to make sure someone knows I’m not of the opinion that I rule the world.

All of Latin America (now there’s another famous discussion, are Brazilians ‘latinos’?) uses both terms although the use of “americano” is way more widely used by all while “estadunidense” is used by two kinds of people. The first kind is the intellectual wishing to be as correct and specific as possible and the second kind is the average person who believes that Americans believe we own the world (while we all know it is the “United-Statesian” government that really wishes to own the world). Let’s stop being silly then, shall we?

The only counter-argument used tries to say that anyone from the Americas is an American. True to a point, but nobody south of the United States really calls themselves “americano” so let’s make that clear (and yes, I’m pretending to know every citizen south of the US). If the intellectual wishes to make the distinction, then he/she must be of the intellect to know that we don’t call ourselves Americans for any other reason than that is just how we are known around the world. The argument is then moot because we certainly won’t start calling ourselves (or being called by others) “United-Statesians” any time soon.


Since I have an interest in etymology, that is, the study of words and their origins, I’m going to be choosing words at random or merely that are to my liking.

Lets get right into it, shall we?

Cotidiano – day to day, daily, everyday, quotidian. It comes from the Latin quotus (how many) and dies (days).

Embora – although, even, in good time (em boa hora), and when combined with the verb IR, it takes on the act of leaving, of going away. Ex. Vá embora! – Go away!

Outrora – formerly, of old, long ago, in former times. Probably from outra hora (another hour).

Folga – pause, temporary inturuption of work, leisure, rest. From Latin follicare and in Spanish, it is holgar which means to be idle and also, albeit historically, to fornicate. Ex. Este é o meu dia de folga. – This is my day off.

Cadê – meaning “Onde está”. Cadê comes from “que é feito de” (that is made of) which became “quedê” which then became “cadê”. I’ve read that in Santa Catarina, they also say “quedele” or “what is made of him” which can be understood as “what happened to him?” Don’t ask me how or why, but thats how it seems to have evolved. Cadê is only used in Brazilian Portuguese and it is informal. Another point to note is that it doesn’t change based on the noun that follows (be it singular or plural). On the internet, it’s written ‘kd.’ 

Cadê seu amigo? Cadê seus amigos? (Where is your friend? Where are your friends?)

Veado/Viado/24 – Well, Veado means deer. Viado is a derogatory term for homosexual and an obvious twist on the word deer. The number 24 is connected to both, as its the number in the Jogo do Bicho (future post), or the Animal Game which is an illegal lottery in which numbers are connected to animals. I’ve read that Viado comes from the fact that a deer is an efeminate animal, such as in the Disney movie Bambi, but this would mean that the term is rather recent (something I don’t think can be confirmed). 

Fôlego – In following with the last post on Etymology, where I mentioned folga, the word fôlego is related, meaning breath, rest, respiration, repose. Boa forma means to be in good shape, both on the outside and inside but fôlego is a way to talk about the latter. 

Eu corri sem fôlego (I ran without taking a break/rest)

Fofo/a – Soft, cuddly, sweet but it can also mean a little pudgy…so be careful how you use it. I recommend using only with children, teddy bears and the like.

State Etymologies

In conjunction with learning about Brazil’s different regions and states, I am going to add something that is rarely talked about, state etymologies. What I find interesting is the division between states named upon Spanish or Portuguese “discovery” versus the states named in the native languages of the time (mainly Tupí and Guaraní).

  • Acre – from a misspelling of Aquiri, a local river (documented); not from acre (a unit for territorial measurement).
  • Alagoas – plural of alagoa, a flooded field or swamp.
  • Amapá – from Aruak amapá, “the land in the end” (documented in Sir Walter Raleigh’s account of Guyana as Land of Amapaia).
  • Amazonas – after the Amazon river, which by its turn was baptized such by Spanish explorers who heard rumors that Amazons (female breastless mounted warriors; from Greek a- mastos, with no breasts) guarded the legendary city of Eldorado in the middle of the forest.
  • Bahia – from bahia, the ancient Portuguese spelling of baía, that is, bay or harbor. The actual name of the colonial province was Bahia de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay), for it was discovered in November 1, All Saints Day.
  • Ceará – from Tupi sy ara (mother of the day) because it is a sunny land with sparse vegetation (therefore, few shadows).
  • Espírito Santo – literally, Portuguese for “Holy Spirit”. The Iberian colonists were used to dedicate their colonies to Catholic entities.
  • Goiás – from the name of a long-extinct but once famous native people.
  • Maranhão – from the Spanish spelling of Marañón, another name for the Amazon River; from 1621 to 1709, the north of Brazil was styled the State of Maranhão, with its capital in São Luís.
  • Mato Grosso – literally, Portuguese for “thick grass”, or else “dense woods”, “dense jungle”.
  • Mato Grosso do Sul – seceded from the former in 1975, as its Southern (and wealthiest) portion.
  • Minas Gerais – literally “General Mines” (meaning of “state-owned mines” in early modern Portuguese). The province was originally part of São Paulo, but from the early 18th century on, colonists found out gold, diamond, and gems on its territory. Therefore, in 1709 the Portuguese Crown strategically separated the mining territory and placed it under its direct control (Captaincy of São Paulo and the Mines), as an immense mining district of several products (then, “general mines”).
  • Pará – from Tupi-Guarani pará (river). Probably called such because of the estuary of the Amazon river.
  • Paraíba – from Tupi pará (river) + aíba (rough, bad), probably meaning “rough river”.
  • Paraná – from Guarani paraná, “wide river” (the words for “river”, “large river”, “lagoon”, “sea” and “lake” have different meanings in Tupi, thus leading to the confusion that Paraná meant sea).
  • Pernambuco – from Tupi paranã (sea) mbuka (hollow), referring to the reefs that lie off the coast (hence also the state capital name, Recife, Portuguese for reef).
  • Piauí – from the Tupi word piau (a type of river fish) and y (river), so Piau/Fish River.
  • Rio de Janeiro – literally, Portuguese for “River of January”. The harbor where the city was founded was discovered in January 1, 1502, and taken for the mouth of a river (such as the Tagus estuary which forms a bay in Lisbon). The state was named after the city, now its capital and formerly capital of the nation.
  • Rio Grande do Norte – literally, Portuguese for “Great River of the North”.
  • Rio Grande do Sul – literally, Portuguese for “Great River of the South”. The first important settlement there, the town of Rio Grande, was probably called such because of the Patos Lagoon, mistaken for a river for its long and narrow shape.
  • Rondônia – after Marshal Cândido Rondon, explorer of the region. The old name for the state was Guaporé, Tupi for “pathway to the lake”.
  • Roraima – from Yanomami roro imã, which means, according to some sources, “thundering mountain”. The old name for the state was Rio Branco, Portuguese for “white river”.
  • Santa Catarina – after St. Catherine, a saint praised by both Portuguese and Spanish, who held the land for nearly 200 years.
  • São Paulo – after the Jesuit monastery called São Paulo de Piratininga (St. Paul of Piratininga), built to Christianize native peoples. The state was named after the city, its capital.
  • Sergipe – after the name of an Indian chief, Serijipe. Another possible origin comes from Tupi siri jibe, a “brook with crabs”.
  • Tocantins – from Tupi tukan (toucan, a South American bird) tin (nose), or nose of toucan. This is due to the confluence of Araguaia and Tocantins rivers, shaped in a curve which resembles a bird’s beak; the region is also named “Bico do Papagaio” (Parrot Beak). However, the river had this name long before maps revealed the shape of the confluence.
  • Distrito Federal – literally, “Federal District”. Until 1934, the municipal territory of the national capital was called either Município Neutro (Neutral Municipality, from 1834 to 1889), Corte Imperial (Imperial Court, from 1822 to 1834) or Capital Federal (Federal Capital, from 1889 to 1934).