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Brazzil - People - February 2004

Brazil's Northeast: A Violated Land

The Brazilian Nordestino has long lived in a region under severe
environmental stress, with harsh droughts, desertification,
and hunger that ultimately provoke the "push" effect in the
inter-regional migrations. The desolate land of sertão looks
as if someone had claimed it, chewed it and spat it out.

Alan P. Marcus

Throughout the 1980s, I visited the Northeast of Brazil on several occasions. I lived and worked as a young intern in a fruit juice factory in Aracati, in the state of Ceará in the late 1980s. The coast was fairly close and I visited the many villages and beaches of the area, including Canoa Quebrada and Marjorlândia, every weekend.

The village of Jericoacoara was most intriguing and delightful and one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. From the big-city perspective of a São Paulo resident, like myself, visiting these beautiful fishing villages where asphalt, hotels, and electricity were still not available, was truly a unique experience.

However, far away from these idyllic villages and calm beaches, there was another aspect and sub-region of the Northeast, often forgotten in popular imagery, which I also visited: the interior of the Northeast. These areas were the agreste and the sertão, considered the poorest in Brazil, and in some locations, one of the poorest areas in Latin America. The Northeast of Brazil left a permanent imprint in my soul and so did the people of the region: the Nordestinos.

The Northeastern people are the Nordestinos (literally: "Northeasterners"). The connection between the plight of the Nordestino and the economic and environmental distress of Brazil is one that is strongly tied to the history of Amerindian ancestry, Europeans invasions, sugarcane plantations and African slavery.

Amidst historical developments, such as the abolishment of slavery, the displacement of Amerindians, the invasions of the French, the Dutch, and the English, and Portuguese colonialism, the region and the population has been literally and figuratively violated. The desolate land of sertão looks as if someone had claimed it, chewed it and spat it out, leaving the chewed-on land in its opiate-state of oblivious abandonment.

The Northeast region of Brazil sends the highest number of inter-regional migrants out to other regions in Brazil. In 1987, ten out of every twenty Latin Americans that suffered infant mortality were Brazilian and out of those ten, five were from the Northeast, that is, the Northeast of Brazil suffered 25 percent of all Latin American infant mortality in 1987. According to the Brazilian Census 2000, 70 percent of the Nordestino population that migrated, headed towards the Southeast of Brazil.

The Nordestino has long lived in a region under severe environmental stress, with harsh droughts, desertification, and hunger that ultimately provoke the "push" effect in the inter-regional migrations. They have left the sertão searching for employment opportunities in Brazil's industrial hubs such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Comparing to Africa

If we were to compare the Northeast of Brazil to Egypt, Africa, we might notice similar notions of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Comparing the Northeast of Brazil and Egypt, one may note similar connections, as Egypt actually is in the African continent and has long been in the historic, ethnic and geographic crossroads between African, Arab, Jewish, Asian and European cultures.

Brazil has also been a "racial" crossroads between Europeans, Amerindians and Africans (and later Middle Easterners and Asians). The phenotypic "racial" outcome between the two countries is strikingly similar. Egypt is physically embedded in Africa, while Brazil is figuratively embedded with Africa and both nations share a colonial past.

Like Egypt, Brazil's national consciousness shares a plethora of complexities that it is hard, if not impossible to discern the level of ethnic admixture and the outcome of syncretism. The dynamics behind many ethnic, "racial", national, religious, and cultural identities are syncretic and convoluted between both these countries.

However, unlike Egypt, Brazil has a soul that is Amerindian and "African" as much as it is Portuguese. The combination of the influences of Portuguese, Africans, Amerindians, and later, Middle Easterners, Asians, and other Europeans, is exceptionally a "Brazilian" phenomenon. The progeny of miscegenation is a Brazilian complexity that is misunderstood by foreigners and Brazilians alike. The fact that miscegenation occurred in Brazil need not mean that "color" discrimination does not exist in Brazil, in fact; there is much evidence to indicate the contrary.

Although the literature written on Brazil by both Brazilian and foreign scholars, has focused on a "black-white" axis, the regional and geographic dimensions are more often than not disregarded. This is particularly significant given the geographical ethnicities that predominate or dominate in certain regions.

The "backlands" of the Northeast of Brazil (the sertão), have been the region where "racial" miscegenation has historically developed into a particular regional ethnicity which most Europeans and North Americans often "racially" qualify simply as "black". However, this regional ethnicity has thus evolved into notions of an identity that transcend the simple "black-white" axis.

The Nordestinos are prone to social and economic immobility due to their discriminatory status in the Southeast regions merely by nature of being ethnically Nordestino. Nordestinos are called by derogatory names in the Southeast, varying from cabeça chata (flat head), Bahiano (from the state of Bahia), or Paraíba (from the state of Paraíba).

To be a Nordestino carries a cultural stigma that is not simply the residue of "color" but also a residue from the elites of the Southeast regions and the industrial hub of Brazil. The "color" of Nordestinos goes hand in hand with the accent, the geographic identity, and the cultural identity, but it is not a monolithic identity. In Brazil, identities are multi-dimensional and not binary (i.e.; black and white).

The Nordeste, the backlands, the sertão, hold the sense of place, identity and significance to the Nordestino. The subtext of Brazilian "color" context is much deeper than the North American binary paradigm used to examine Brazilian "race" and ethnicity. When the Nordestino migrates to the big cities, the identity as a Nordestino (a matuto or hillbilly) becomes magnified.

The identity of place transcends the identity of ancestry and hence also transcends the "black-white" paradigm, albeit not completely excluding it, but simply adds another dimension to Brazilian social, political and cultural dynamics.

The Nordeste is a fascinating place with a multi-dimensional aspect that is unparalleled in Brazil. The places I had visited in the past might have changed with the advent of new roads, tourism, the Internet, and electricity, but the people I met and the "experience" of the Northeast of Brazil will always hold a special place in my memory, as it should also have a special place in the memory of Brazil's history.

Alan P. Marcus has written other articles on ethnicity, "race", animal rights, and geography for Brazzil Magazine. These articles are available online: www.brazzil.com.
E-mail contact: amarcus@geo.umass.edu

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