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Brazzil - Nation - July 2003

Brazil? Which Brazil?

Brazil has several ethnicities and they are as complex,
contradictory, and creative as Brazilians themselves. Brazil
received influence from West Africa as well as from Amerindian
and European cultures that have converged and adapted
into a unique ethnic, religious and cultural syncretism.

Alan P. Marcus


The subject of Brazilian ethnicity, more often than not, translates into the dichotomous "black-white" discussions without allowing room for other multi-dimensional models of geographic ethnic variances. The ethnic variances are multifold and ambiguous by nature, however they are significant to better understand Brazilian "racial," social, and cultural politics.

Brazil's Strong and Long-Standing Connection to Africa

The African influence and presence cannot be overstated in Brazilian culture. It is ubiquitous within the Brazilian nation, since the Afro-descendants within the Brazilian population represented in the past, and many scholars claim they still represent, an overall majority of the total Brazilian population. It is widely held that there were more African slaves brought to Brazil than any other country in the world.

Aspects of Brazilian music, food, words, and religions are as much a part of Brazilian culture as they are a part of West African culture. The origins of the African connection to Brazil, may be traced to the slaves who were brought from regions now known as the following countries: Ivory Coast, Angola, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sudan, and Congo.

And certain words comprise part of the common Brazilian-Portuguese vocabulary, and mostly, but not exclusively, originate from the West African Yoruba linguistic and ethnic group, words such as: acarajé, axé, ayé, óleo de dendê, Ogum, orixás, babalaô, Exu, macumba, Iemanjá, capoeira, samba, batuque and bunda.

The highly influential West African heritage may also be observed in Brazilian samba music, in the West African-style of drumbeat syncopation, and in a Brazilian style of soccer, that seems to incorporate movements from a samba-capoeira-type of footwork when dribbling the football and dazzling opponents.

Furthermore, West African influence can also be seen in Brazilian styles of dances, for example, in Carnaval with the Ala das Baianas ("Aisle of the Baianas", "Baianas" as in: "from the state of Bahia"; dressed in traditional religious West African white clothing and head-dress) in a escola de samba ("samba school" in Carnaval) or also West African-type clothing styles as seen on a street-vendor, dressed in typical Baiana-dress selling doce-de-coco ("coconut sweet"). The elements of Afro-Brazilian religions such as Macumba, Umbanda, and Candomblé are also conspicuously West African in substance and in form, and, yet they appear to be so vividly "Brazilian" at the same time.

The Brazilian connection to West Africa is formidable, however the existing stereotypes of Brazilians abroad, do not allow for this strong connection, particularly stereotypes of the "homogenous-Latin American-Spanish-Amerindian-type".

It is highly probable that Brazilians would feel more "at home" in West Africa than they would feel in Puerto Rico or Mexico. Historically, Brazilians themselves have purposely denied, downplayed, dismissed, and forgotten about the strong connection to the West African cultural, musical, and ethnic components in Brazil.

Brazil has a deep connection with West Africa, that is not only human (i.e.; cultural, linguistic, and ethnic), but also geographic, since the West coast of Africa and the Eastern coast of Brazil were once attached over 225 million years ago to the "supercontinent" Pangea (meaning "all lands" in Greek). This helps explain why the physical landscapes, that is; the fauna, the coastal beaches, the coconut trees, the sand, the formation and the colors of rocks, and the geography in general of West Africa, are so strikingly similar to those geographical landscapes of the Brazilian Eastern coast.

Nevertheless, Brazilian culture has, of course, also received influence from Amerindian and European cultures that have converged and adapted into an ethnic, religious and cultural syncretism, unique to Brazil. The progeny of such ethnic syncretism exemplifies Brazilian creativity and contradiction to describe persons of various colors, and of different geographic and ethnic outcomes. The contradiction in Brazil lies in the seemingly "caring" and "affectionate" terms Brazilians may use, such as neguinho ("little Negro kid"), however, still maintaining a subtext of racist insult and a form of "putdown", albeit Brazilians will insist it is not so.

Geographic Ethnic Variances

 The Brazilian ethnic variances have ambiguous ancestral ties, such as caboclo, cafuso, mameluco, caiçara, mulato, pardo, and mestiço. Note that mestiço is not spelled nor does it mean the same as mestizo, used in Spanish Latin America. Mestiço has a connotation of a subjective "mixture" of several backgrounds including African, Amerindian or European; and not merely the progeny of exclusively Amerindian and European.

The term caiçara refers to populations from coastal fishing villages, particularly in the Southeastern coastal regions. Their ancestry is ambiguous, a combination of Amerindian, European and African ancestries.

The term caboclo(a), used to describe persons mostly of Amerindian and European ancestry, carries a figurative "noble" and romanticized connotation, particularly emphasizing the aspect of Brazilian Amerindian ancestry, much influenced by the concept of Rousseau's "noble savage". Caboclo(a)s are cited in countless Brazilian literary works and in song lyrics referring to mostly populations of the North and Northeast of Brazil.

The terms mameluco and cafuso, may include some African ancestry as well as Amerindian and European ancestry, but do not represent the same "romanticized" and "noble" image as the caboclo(a), albeit they all refer to relatively the same regions of the Northeast, North, and Center-West of Brazil, and also to the ambiguous combinations of Amerindian, African and European ancestries. The term pardo, a formal term used mostly for the Brazilian censuses, refers to people who are neither black nor white; a subjective and generic term for "gray", "mixture", "brown", or mulatto.

The regional geography and its respective popular connotation help to illustrate the ethnic variances in a different context that is uniquely Brazilian. Foreign paradigms will not validate nor suffice to further examine these subtle and significant ethnic variances.

The North American model of "race" is clear-cut, that is, notions of "black" and "white" are clear and distinct. In Brazil, "black" and "white" are not as clear-cut and much less distinct. The ethnic mixtures in Brazil and the large influx of Middle Easterners, Italians and Portuguese, in addition to Amerindians and Africans, altogether produced a "darker-skin" make-up, or cor (color), relative to North American populations.

A Brazilian research poll in 1976 developed by the PNAD (Brazilian "National Research of Domiciles"), revealed 136 "Colors" given by respondents as their own self-described "color", since it is the word "color", and not "race", that is used for ethnic identity. These self-described colors epitomize Brazil, as they are as creative, contradictory, and complex as Brazilians themselves.

These colors illustrate the ever-changing "realities" that shift within Brazilian ethnic and political dynamics. The color identities in Brazil seem to be in perpetual motion. The semantics involved in these self-described "colors" also reflect contradictions. That is, the semantics reflect Brazilian creativity, informality, spontaneity and vivacity as well as Brazilian elitism, racism, and misogyny, and a Brazilian patriarchal slavist-legacy.

But more importantly and most of all, the semantics of ethnic identities and "colors" reflect Brazilian lightheartedness, which is such an embedded characteristic of the Brazilian national subconscious.


Freyre, Gilberto. 1938. Nordeste: Aspectos da Influencia da Canna Sobre a Vida e a Paizagem do Nordeste do Brasil. Livraria José Olympio Editora; Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

Nascimento, Abdias do. 1978. O Genocídio do Negro Brasileiro: Processo de Racismo Mascarado. Editora Paz e Terra, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

Nobles, Melissa. 2000. Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

 Ramos, Artur. 1933. O Negro Brasileiro. Editora Massangana, Recife, Brasil

Other relevant articles written by this author on Brazilian ethnicity in Brazzil Magazine::

 "Brazil: Northeasterners Get No Respect": http://www.brazzil.com/p105jun03.htm

"Out of Africa: Race in Brazil and in the USA":  http://www.brazzil.com/2003/html/news/articles/june03/p123jun03.htm

"Paulistas and Caiçaras: Parallel Lives in Brazil": http://www.brazzil.com/2003/html/news/articles/jun03/p129jun03.htm


Alan P. Marcus (Master's of Science in Geography, in progress) is a Brazilian living in the USA. He has also written other articles on Brazilian identity, "race" and ethnicity, and animal ethics for Brazzil magazine. E-mail contact: amarcus@geo.umass.edu





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