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Brazil: History and Emotion


Brazil: History and Emotion

Pittsburgh on the day of a Steelers Super Bowl can’t compare.
Nothing in the U.S. can compare,
either to the totality of the response
to soccer all over the country or its intensity, even on the part of

people who purport not to care. For the World Cup, Brazilians are
reborn as a people, and then they
recreate themselves as a nation.

by:
Terry
Caesar

 

São Paulo

June 6. To be back in São Paulo is to see or hear more stories than I can focus upon. For example, Walter points out
a car wash on the other side of a roadway. It became fashionable. The owner built a small restaurant next door. The poor,
seeing this, proceeded to build a series of food stands on the median grass strip of the roadway. The spot became popular.
Lately, it seems, drug dealers have been moving in. What will happen next? The city has a life of its own.

And what about the woman who bought one of those harness straps for walking your child when she was on a visit to
the United States? The first time she went out walking in public there was such a scandal that the woman was eventually
arrested for some sort of child abuse! Culture, it seems, also has a life of its own, quite apart from other cultures, thank you.

I’m tired after another fifteen-hour bus trip. Plus, too many people, too many good-byes, too many emotions. Just as
much, though, too many stories. It’s not that I can’t make something of them. I can make too much. And where there’s nothing
to see, I’ll just make up something, as I did last night on the bus, musing about the guy in the back just playing his
mournful harmonica. Yet finally how not to feel myself dispersed, if not just silenced? It’s been wonderful to live another life. But
now I want just one again, even if it has to be the same one.

How could Noel be so stupid? This Saturday night he takes his future mother-in-law along with me, Eva, and
Valéria, his future wife, to the local "street of the transvestites, " a dingy side street in Santo André, which adjoins Vila
Industrial. We all just think the visit will be a lark—some "girls" strutting their stuff, ha, ha. But anything about sex is serious
business in Brazil, no matter how lightly characterized or explicitly presented.

In fact, many of the boys turn out to be girls. A few of them are almost completely naked. Most are eager to prove it,
whether silicone or no. As we cruise by, several girls leer at us obscenely and shake their breasts. Others bump and grind,
without so much as a g-string. Noel tries to laugh. I try to join in. Like the speechless women in the back, though, I’m shocked.
Noel might as well have taken us to a whore house!

I think Noel could be so stupid because he’s demonstrating—however superfluously or vainly—his masculinity. A
Brazilian man should "know these things." Part of knowing them is showing them to women—respectable women, that is, who
can thereby be assured that he himself is, well, not exactly above whores (for this might compromise his virility) but
removed from them (lest they compromise his fitness as a husband). I’m not going to check with Noel about this explanation. It
makes a good story.

Elson comes along when his son, Elsinho, kindly offers to take us to the Museu Paulista on our last Sunday. Elson
has never been to a museum in his life. This one features a history of the city. The structure surprises, every inch an edifice
in the European mold, a handsome chalky gold affair of arches and columns, with stone steps climbing to the central
entrance and wings fanning out from either side. You don’t see such buildings often in Brazil. This one, though, has something
you can’t see anywhere else: the original painting of the Portuguese emperor-to-be, Dom Pedro I, uttering his famous 1822
cry to the Portuguese at the Ipiranga River. Every Brazilian schoolchild knows the words: "Independence or death!" They
were uttered on September 7, which is Brazilian Independence Day.

Historically, the Portuguese had come to arrest Dom Pedro and to force him back to Portugal (where his father had
returned, after fleeing from Napoleon to Portugal’s largest colony). Aesthetically, the soldiers, although their swords are
brandished, appear to be sinking back into the river on their horses, while Pedro & consort sit erect in their saddles and on high
ground. But this is not the most interesting thing. The artist, Pedro Américo, has included to one side a yeoman farmer heading
down to the river, his oxen trailing behind him. The farmer has momentarily stopped, and is looking over his shoulder at the
whole spectacle of all these men.

Of course he doesn’t understand the significance of the spectacle. Who understands history at the moment of its
making? More than this, though, I’d like to think that the farmer is not even comprehended within this particular history. Granted,
the man may represent what the struggle between the South American nation-to-be and the European nation is all about. Yet
he’s not at this moment part of any nation. So how to locate him? As someone beneath nation? This day I prefer to locate
him in the person of Elson. Eva and I stand rapt before the picture. Elson just shrugs, turns away, and goes off in search of
more urban bric-a-brac under glass. "I’m no patriot," he says.

At the top right of Pedro Américo’s famous painting, "Independence or Death," is a small house, which has come to
be known in Brazil as the Casa do Grito, "house of the scream," because Dom Pedro seems to be directing his words
toward it. But the house is not just in the painting. It exists! Or at least it has been felt to exist, ever since the painting, which
some believe was painted right on the very spot. In fact, we’re close to this spot. Elsinho wants to take us there, down past the
fountain, the sculpted bushes, and the dirt paths—just like Lisbon or Paris.

By God, there really is a house that looks just like the house of the painting. No furniture. Just the abode and brick
structure, with lots of information about the various attempts at reconstruction, including one that followed a protest that,
ironically, the house looked too much like the house of the painting! Nobody is able to explain to me what all the fuss is in
the first place about the house, not to mention trying to get it so historically faithful. It strikes me as futile as trying to
reconstruct the boat in which Washington crossed the Delaware.

But this just means I’m not Brazilian. To me, the house prompts the question: does art serve history, or vice versa?
But this is too abstract. To Brazilians, I believe, for the past century and a half the house has simply been "good to
think"—about art and history, as well as about any number of things, ranging from national origin to the best materials to build houses.
It’s not that they want to resolve any of these questions. The questions can’t really be resolved, or sometimes even focused.
They can only be built, and rebuilt, which is, after all, one definition of a nation, if not its history.

It happens all by itself. Some of Elson’s neighbors begin to string green and yellow stands of ribbon and paper
across rope, hung over the street from telephone wires. A few more people begin painting slogans on the street with chalk and
drawing cartoons of players. The street is blocked off with somebody’s car. At one point police come by and threaten to arrest
everybody. "Arrest the crooks, not us," the people chorus. The police retire. More ribbon, more chalk, more elaborate
drawings. Day after tomorrow, the World Cup will begin. Brazil is favored to win its fifth championship.

From the outside, perhaps this outpouring seems manipulated by business and the media. Certainly, to an American,
the tearful, careful news conference of Romário, the star of the last Cup (which Brazil won) is familiar stuff, although the
nerve injury to his leg is real enough. Yet even the corniest TV spots—my favorite is the one where truck drivers are urged to
speculate on the score and the scorers in Brazil’s first game vs. Scotland, and then one of the named players delivers a salute to
truck drivers—seem to me to be driven by deep popular emotion. At this level, no matter how fake, you can’t fake it.

Pittsburgh on the day of a Steelers Super Bowl can’t compare. Nothing in the U.S. can compare, either to the totality
of the response to soccer all over the country or its intensity, even on the part of people who purport not to care. The very
word for "fan" in Portuguese,
torcedor, expresses something more hot and passionate than the cool, spectatorial English
word. For the World Cup, Brazilians are reborn as a people, and then these people recreate themselves as a nation, as they
decorate their neighborhoods, watch television reports, and buy T-shirts. The celebrations after each victory will be
better—more spontaneous, more ecstatic—than Carnaval.

We have to go, but I wish I could stay.

 

This text is the final piece of the six-part 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 caesar@clarion.edu

 

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