Brazil: Portrait of a Paulista Family

Brazil: Portrait of a Paulista Family

What I can imagine is the terror of living in a country where
you can’t trust the police, for whom
the laws are even more a
function of individual whim as of enforcement. From the predatory

policemen to the city officials to the school that won’t pay
salaries on time, an individual just can’t fight.


Terry Caesar


"Is Brazil in South America?" asked the cabbie when my wife and I told him as he drove us to Kennedy Airport
where we were going. The cabbie was from Ecuador. He thought Brazilians speak Spanish. What to say? Brazil is one of those
vast countries doomed to be vastly unrecognized if recognized at all. The following account is written, first of all, to try to
put Brazil on the map. It’s not a portrait of the whole of Brazil. For better or worse, that portrait has already been painted. A
recent excellent collection of essays in the Traveler’s Tales series, for example, follows the usual lines. Brazil largely has to do
with two areas and one city: the Amazon, the Northeast, and Rio de Janeiro. There is only one piece on the whole south of
Brazil—about the state capital of Curitiba.

Recently I returned from a trip to Brazil. Nothing unusual about this, except for three things. First, I didn’t go to Rio.
Second, over the course of thirty days—including sixty-nine hours worth of bus trips—I visited four southern states. Third, I
accompanied my wife, who is Brazilian. Eva has a mother and a father, four children, two sisters and four brothers, and
nineteen nieces and nephews who live in Brazil. Our purpose was to see every single one of these people. We almost did.

In the process, we saw much in excess of its occasion. The following account is designed to represent some of the
excess. Although there is a narrative embedded here, I have instead tried to produce a series of verbal snapshots that emphasize
the impressionistic, reflective character of travel writing. Each one in the series is designed to read complete in itself, like
an essay. Each is three paragraphs, as a principle both of formal restraint and of release, like a sonnet sequence.

A final word of introduction. Brazil is not my country. I don’t live there. I can only respond to it in American terms.
And yet I have lived there—for the first time, eleven years ago—and emotionally I remain there. So for me the relation of
Brazil to the United States is Brazil to me, but only to the exact measure that the relation of the United States to Brazil is the
United States. I don’t live between two worlds. I live inside them. For a month, it was good to experience how little each has in
common with the other.

São Paulo

May 10. How is it different? How is it different? Over and over again, as Eva’s niece and her husband drive us home
from the airport, I stare out at the city as if stunned, as if I’ve never been to Brazil before. Walter and Nara’s car becomes a
ship. The city is an ocean. The people—walking alongside the roads, sitting at
confeitarias and lanchonetes—are so many fish.

Suddenly Brazil’s difference from the United States strikes me: life is
outside here. Whether kids playing soccer in a
field or just a group of people standing around in a street, not even a quarter of these people could been seen on a Sunday
morning in any American city, including New York. In America, what you want is a self. In Brazil, what you have is a society.

Today features the state football championship between two of the premier teams, Corinthians and São Paulo. It
doesn’t matter to me who wins. It matters passionately to these
Paulistas. Firecrackers begin to explode in earnest by game’s
end. It might appear that the city is under attack. It fact it’s merely once more under construction. The firecrackers are more
comparable to depth charges, only set by the fish, excited all over again to be in their element.

"Just like what you have in the US," assures Noel, the new boyfriend of Valéria, another of Eva’s nieces. He’s
speaking of something I’ve never seen before at a Brazilian football match: cheerleaders! True enough, these
animadoras de torcidas indeed resemble American cheerleaders. Yet as they bounce about waving their pom-poms, the television camera
ignores them.

Noel tells me that these girls are part of an attempt by Brazilian authorities to curb violence at football games.
Trouble is, nobody pays much attention to the girls, except perhaps for halftime, when there’s a lottery—another
violence-preventive measure. I want to tell him that the purpose of cheerleaders in the United States is not to curb violence at football games.

Or is it? What then is the purpose of cheerleaders? To eroticize violence? Maybe at American games, cheerleaders
are just empty signifiers of absent femininity, and at Brazilian games cheerleaders are empty signifiers of absent
Americanness; in each case, you can make of the cheerleaders whatever you like. One thing I’d like to make is this: let them be the sign
of how blissfully meaningless your own country becomes—perhaps ironically in this instance—when you confront
evidence of it in another.

Five years ago it was Walter and Nara doing the same thing that Noel and Valéria are doing now: cooing and kissing
and lying in each other’s arms—in the home of the girl, right before her parents, every day and evening. Once more, Eva
cautions me not to think of sex; if Noel marries Valéria, he will marry a virgin, just as Walter did when he married Nara, who
was twenty-four, the same age Valéria is now. Everybody understands about the importance of virginity.

The irony with respect to the United States is exquisite. As bourgeois Americans, Noel and Valéria would not be
permitted to express their affection for each other so explicitly in her home; yet, most likely, away from home they would be
fucking like rabbits, for all anybody knew or cared. But what precisely is it that would not be cared about? It’s not virginity.

Some of the cultural difference can be explained, I think, not only by contrasting attitudes toward sex in each society
but, more important, family. If Noel marries Valéria, he will marry her family; he will eat with them and share their lives just
as Walter does now. Therefore, what he’s doing now is courting the family. He expects them to trust him, just as they
expect him to trust them.

The open displays of affection are signs of trust all round.

For Mother’s Day, Noel and Valéria came up with a money-making idea: baskets lavishly decorated with ribbons,
cellophane, and dried flowers. They contain materials for a special breakfast consisting of cup and saucer, milk, crackers,
cheese, juice, tea, honey, and butter. Some forty baskets were priced at thirty-five, fifty, and eighty
reais, including delivery. They sold out!

Set aside the energy to work; it took three days to make these baskets (involving the whole family). Consider only
the sheer imagination of these people! And there are
millions of lower-middle class people from São Paulo alone who work
as hard to survive. Valéria’s whole life astounds me. She works from 8-5 each day as a clerk/receptionist in an office that
deals in legal documents. Then she takes courses from a private law school from 7-11 each night. On Saturday she takes a
course in English from 2-5.

Sunday is the only day Valéria has entirely free to try to expand this business of festive baskets, as well as a
telephone message service (run out of the office Walter and Nara rent for their computer training school). She’s 100 percent
Brazilian and she lives a 100 percent Brazilian life. Yet sometimes she looks so tired that I can only justify an aesthetic response,
and compare Valéria with her raven hair and sallow skin to a sad Madonna. Only she should be framed in one of those
Italian Renaissance paintings, rather than caught in a basket.

Families sit around and talk. At one point Noel makes some disparaging remark about Indians, while everybody is
celebrating (as Brazilians love to do) their European heritage, in this case, Italian. Eva cries out: "You are in a family that
comes from Indians." Even Eva’s brother, Elson, and his wife, Terezinha, look surprised. Eva recounts once again the story of
how one of their Spanish ancestors took a fiery young Indian as a bride; as a child this woman bit his finger off.

"I didn’t know you had a foot in the kitchen," exclaims Noel to Valéria. Eva exclaims back: "We all have a foot in
the kitchen. In fact, we have both feet." She would not have emphasized this—I know—had she not lived in the United
States for the past ten years. And yet, since she has, her emphasis has the force of a rebuke, delivered from abroad, as well as
one delivered right from inside the kitchen.

Brazilian racism is different from American racism. Ours might be deeper. But their surface seems to me far more
shallow and unreflective. Brazilians simply don’t see what they’re doing when they luxuriate over their European roots at the
unstated expense of their Indian or Negro blood, much less when they give voice to the privilege. So late in the twentieth century,
their social contract remains constructed so they don’t have to see racism, not even in the kitchen.

If Eva were writing, she would write about Guilherme, Walter & Nara’s son. He’s the quintessence of
one-and-a-half-year-oldness. He’s all smiles, he churns his chubby legs, he can almost talk. If he does something, he likes to come up to
you so he can extend his hand and you can give him a "high five." He’s onto or into everything—the tops of tables he can
reach, steps he can climb, corners he can hide. In honor of his father’s Portuguese background, Eva calls Guilherme, "Vasco
da Gama."

Since it’s me writing, I can’t see Guilherme quite this way. I don’t have any children myself, so I’ve never raised a
boy. Implicit in Eva’s response to this one is her experience that he’s a boy rather than a girl, unlike the one she raised until
she was ten or the twins until they were five. Just as implicit is the knowledge that Guilherme is part of her blood, and she of
his. She "reads" him in terms of who in the family he resembles, and she confidently presents herself to him as his aunt, his

By contrast, lacking any intimate experience as well as any clear relation, to me Guilherme appears as something
quite different: a Brazilian subject. Every bit his family’s, he’s equally every bit his culture’s. Though he can’t yet speak,
when he does it will be Portuguese; already the difficulties he has pronouncing my first name are the difficulties of a
Portuguese speaker. Moreover, the strongest word that he can utter now is the announcer’s periodic cry of
goalgoaaaaaaalllll—in imitation of the never-ending football game on television; he pronounces it more lucidly than either
pai or mãe, "father"
or "mother."

Elson, at 59, is Eva’s eldest brother. He has a fourth grade education. For most of his life he’s been an electrician,
although he’s got a quick temper and has had trouble holding jobs. For the past six years Elson has had a most unusual one.
Basically, what he does is walk all over São Paulo every day, carrying large amounts of money.

São Paulo is a dangerous city, with lots of muggings. Elson works for a company that offers to businesses and banks
the means for the safe transportation of money (as well as important documents). The company only employs older men,
who are told to look as nondescript as possible. Elson has carried as much as $130,000 (though with this much another
man accompanied him, and they took cabs).

He works off the books, so has no medical insurance from the company. In a country where the minimum salary is
110 reais per month (about $100), it’s not clear what Elson makes—anywhere from 500 to 1,000
reais. But business all round is bad now. There might be a million unemployed in São Paulo alone. For the moment, Elson’s company has offered the
men a 30 percent pay cut rather than immediate layoffs. He gave us each a knee brace that he uses to carry money, and he
seems as proud to show it as he is to demonstrate the special gadget he uses on the weekends to catch a certain fish called a
corrupto that lives in discarded inner tubes of the city’s rivers.

One day awhile ago Walter and Nara were driving. He stopped at a red light. A police car was behind them. A cop
got out, and was outraged. He proceeded to berate Walter for stopping and threatened him with a fine. "Can you imagine,"
Eva says, "how humiliating this would be for a Brazilian man especially?"

I can’t. Try as I might, I just can’t. What I can imagine instead is the terror of living in a country where you can’t
trust the police, for whom the laws are even more a function of individual whim as of enforcement. Would Walter say that
it’s not really terrifying to live in Brazil as much as just horrifying to live in São Paulo? No matter. From the predatory
policemen to the city officials who change the tax rate on his computer programming business almost weekly or the administrators
at the private high school where he works who won’t pay him on time, an individual just can’t fight, and he wants

Indeed, the surprise to us this time is that the whole family would leave São Paulo if they could, even Elson, for
whom the completion of his new home—a brick-and-concrete rectangle built up in the forecourt of the old home by the whole
family over the course of some ten years—is the dream of a lifetime. Elson was advised not to finish the outside of the house,
lest it attract thieves. Nobody has to tell him that the thieves would as likely be policemen as anybody else.

Does understanding a country begin when you give up the notion that any portion of it is any more "real" than any
other? Undoubtedly. So the vast and vastly infamous industrial and commercial metropolis of São Paulo, with some fourteen
million people, is no more real than the obscure city of Maringá—some six hundred and fifty kilometers southeast—where Eva
was raised, where she and I lived five years ago, and where her parents still live (along with three hundred thousand or so others).

Trouble is, some places are ceaselessly represented as more effectively real than others. To Brazilians, for example,
the celebrated musical culture of Salvador, to the Northeast, makes this city more vibrantly real. To the rest of the world,
the sheer physical beauty of Rio de Janeiro, if nothing else (Brazilians would emphasize more the violence) makes it
more wondrously real. In these terms, Maringá scarcely exists.

Add to this the fact that the people of Maringá (and southerners generally) speak a slower, more measured
Portuguese coded as provincial, or caipira, in contrast to the sexy, sophisticated
Carioca Portuguese of Rio, preeminently. So what
to say? What Eva says is emphatic. After Walter and Nara take an hour weaving through downtown streets to get to Barra
Funda, the main bus station, as soon as we take our seats on the bus, Eva exclaims: "I can’t wait to get out of here to the real Brazil."

To be continued. Next: "Maringá"


This text is part of an essay called

South of the Border, South of Brazil: Reflections on Another Life.

Terry Caesar is the author of, most recently, a collection of essays on academic life,
Traveling Through the Boondocks. He has been traveling to Brazil for some eighteen years, ever since he first arrived in Rio de Janeiro on a Fulbright. He
welcomes your comments at


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