By Francesco Neves
Brazilian mood has swayed from the "we are the best and need no one" from the
times the country was ruled by the military during the ’60s and ’70s to the "we can’t
do anything right" in more recent times. The nation has been very much in the latter
mode these days, with the national and international media focusing to the point of
exhaustion on the myriad of problems of a Third World country: continuous corruption
scandals, street kids, armies of dispossessed, the huge gap between the rich and the poor,
lack of educational and job opportunities as well as health concerns.
People and the media are sometimes so wrapped up in their problems and the celebration
of what they see as the excellence of the First World that they overlook much of the
cultural wealth the country possesses. They fail to notice the richness of the nation’s
soul, the warmth of its inhabitants toward each other and foreigners, the "joie de
vivre" and laid-back style that is the envy of many people.
Look at Brazilian informality, for example. Here’s a trait that is patent in the way
people address each other. Instead of the respectful and sometimes solemn surname that the
US and many countries use, Brazilians call each other by the first name. And this goes for
your neighbor, your teacher, your boss, your priest, the person you just met and the
President of the Nation. As if the nation was a one big family and everybody had blood
links with everybody else.
In Brazil, the population shift from rural to urban areas is a recent phenomenon that
started in the 1940s and increased considerably into the 1950s. Until 1900 Brazil did not
have any city with more than 1 million people. The largest of was Rio, the federal
capital, with 811,000 inhabitants. Who would imagine that São Paulo, then with less than
250,000 people, would grow to over 15 million people today?
By 1920 Rio already had more than 1 million people and São Paulo had almost 600,000.
Still, at the time, both populations combined were roughly the same as the number of
people from all other state capitals put together. In five decades, while the country’s
population tripled, the number of people living in cities rose by a factor of 10.
While today in the bigger Brazilian cities you will find all the amenities and troubles
of any industrialized country in the world, there are still many places where time seems
to stand still. They are places across the country where people have no idea what the
Internet is and have never seen an Automatic Teller Machine. These are places where old
family traditions are kept alive, where a fiancée is still expected to sew and embroider
her own trousseau and new fresh mothers keep the practice of "guardar resguardo"
_ a time when a woman who has just given birth stays at home resting where she is pampered
by family and friends.
These are places where everybody knows everybody, where not saying good morning would
be considered rude and where the local grocer sells you whatever you need, doesn’t get any
money but writes down your bills in a notebook hoping you will pay him at the end of the
month or when you get some cash. These are places where people make their coffee the old
way, using a cloth percolator, which can be washed and reused.
As noted by sociologist Heleieth Saffioti, from São Paulo PUC (Pontifícia
Universidade CatólicaPontifical Catholic University) in an interview with daily
newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, these habits help people maintain their effective
links and improve their quality of life. "People feel unique and part of a whole at
the same time. I myself prefer using a cloth percolator to make my coffee, and fast food
does not come inside my house," says Saffioti.
O Estado dedicated several articles recently to the preservation of traditional
habits in the interior of São Paulo state. In Tavieira, for example, a neighborhood in
Araçatuba, a city with around 200,000 residents, people only need a notebook to buy
groceries at Cidinhas’s Mercado. Strangely enough, Aparecida Barbosa (Cidinha) does not
even keep a second notebook in her business to compare with that of the customer. "I
trust them," she says. "They are all poor and poor people for the most part are
more honest than rich ones." Cidinha (as do many other merchants like her) knows all
her regular customers by name.
There are many families in the interior, in addition to others who have moved to big
cities, that follow the tradition of children kissing the hand of parents, grandparents,
uncles and aunts and asking for their blessing. While some kids rebel against such
old-fashioned and submissive behavior others like Reila da Silva, 18, from Ribeirão Preto
is proud to keep the tradition. "I think it’s cool to do this since today people
barely acknowledge each other."
With these customs some superstitions are also passed from generation to generation.
One such myth that persists even in big cities is one that forbids people to mix milk and
mango since it would be a deadly combination. There are also many who believe that eating
a banana at night can kill you. There is even a poem that speaks of this poisonous
property of a banana: "De manhã, ela é ouro; de tarde, é prata; e à noite,
mata." (In the morning it is gold; in the afternoon it is silver; and at night it
Another custom in some areas is not to allow anyone to see your babies before they are
seven days, not even the closest relatives. To do otherwise might attract bad luck or
worse. Also widespread in the country is the habit of hiding everything containing metal
in the house and turning off the radio, TV and other appliances when there is a storm.
Knives, hammers, cutlery, and even needles and pins are put away inside drawers so they
will not attract lightning. As for bigger objects like stoves and refrigerators they are
covered with cloth. Another way to protect yourself against lightning is to get close to
the image of a saint. Old favorites are the Virgin Mary and Saint Barbara, who is the
saint protector against storms. Burning palm branches that were blessed in church on Palm
Sunday is also believed to be very effective.
Alto Alegre, a village of 4,000, also in the interior of São Paulo, is stuck in the
past. People there walk in the middle of the streets. There are few cars and you really
don’t need one anyway since you can easily go on foot to the market, the club, the school,
and the church. According to Priest John Braumn, who has been the town’s Vicar for
decades, everyone knows each other’s virtues and sins. Nothing too grave, probably,
nothing more than drinking a little too much beer. By the way, on any weekday or weekend
it’s common to see people sitting on the sidewalk, shooting the breeze, playing cards,
drinking beer or simply loafing around.
In Caramuru, some 400 miles from São Paulo, the young girls learn how to cook and to
sew and embroider in preparation for their marriages. Sandra Fernandes, 19, interviewed by
O Estado, revealed that she is happy learning all of these matters after
having finished high school. "My plans," she says, "are to live with my
husband and start a family. I think I was influence by my parents, but his does not make
Sandra has been very busy these days preparing her trousseau for what she calls her
"matrimonial union." Embroidered towels, serviettes, linens and even a little
cover for the gas tanks are some of the items she is making with the help of her mother,
who is teaching her everything she learned herself before marrying.
What some folks lack in technology they make up for in ingenuity. They might not have a
doctor close by, but will have a parteira (midwife) and a benzedeira (faith
healer), a woman who is similar to a shaman conjures the diseases away with prayers and
sometimes holy water. They might not have a meteorologist but they will trust their own
weathermen, who instead of satellite pictures use the wind directions, the song of birds,
the behavior of the ants or even manifestations of arthritis to make their forecasts.
Agronomist José Azevedo, who works for Catia governmental service of technical
assistancein Rio Preto, São Paulo, believes these natural meteorologists have a
special gift. "They learned how to decipher nature’s codes and this knowledge is
transmitted from generation to generation," says Azevedo. "They predicted
abundant rain in the area of Rio Preto and those who believed them planted and harvested a
super crop. There were almost 200 mm of rain, the biggest rainfall since 1972."
Church and Idiosyncrasies
A Vida Cotidiana em São Paulo no Século 19 (The Day to Day Life in São Paulo
in the 19th Century), a book just released by the Editora da Unesp, sheds light
on how some customs started and gives a narrative account of life in São Paulo some two
centuries ago. The work by sociologist and former USP (Universidade de São Paulo)
professor, Carlos Eugênio Marcondes de Moura, tells about whole families and their slaves
going out on the town for nightly strolls.
There are still many places in Brazil where Sunday is sacred with time reserved to go
to mass _ dressed in the best clothes _ to get together with the family and not to work at
all. For many people, mostly in the interior, "guardar os domingos e dias santos"
(to observe Sundays and holidays) is something very important. Mass clothes can be serious
business. Those more traditional separate some of their best clothes just to go to church
and go back home and change them as soon as mass is over.
For Catholics _ the vast majority of Brazilians _ the preparation for the first
communion after months of Catechism and the ceremony itself are a big affair. It is not
very different from a wedding. For girls, the use of a white dress is obligatory and there
is always a big family party following the first-communion celebration in the church.
Brazilians also have some traditional ways to respond to situations. If two Brazilians
inadvertently say the same thing at the same time, whoever is the quickest will say,
"Vem daí" meaning it’s coming from there, that is, the other person is
going to have a child and it will become a godson or god-daughter of the person who
uttered the vem daí. Another common way of expressing the same idea is to say,
"Ainda havemos de ser comadres, compadres" (You are still going to be my
child’s godmother or godfather).
Also traditional are the funny rhymes children learn to greet the new moon:
A bença [sic], minha madrinha
Me dá pão com farinha
Pra dar à minha galinha
Que está presa na cozinha
Your blessings, my godmother
Give me bread with flour
To give it to my chicken
That is locked in the kitchen
Brazilian kids also learn that pointing to a star with a finger is bad for you. It will
make warts grow on your finger. But they also learn to make a wish when they see the first
star in the sky by saying: "Primeira estrela que eu vejo. Dai-me, Deus, o que
desejo." (First star that I see. Give me, God what I wish.)
Children who lose their first teeth don’t get any gift from the tooth fairy or any
other supernatural entity. Instead they are supposed to throw the tooth over the roof of
the house to guarantee good luck.
Despite all the tragic stories and reports of child abuse, children and family have a
very special place among Brazilians be they rich or poor. Travel reports by foreigners in
the 18th and 19th century relatesometimes with a critical
approachthe way Brazilians used to treat their children to the point of spoiling
In colonial Brazil education was a privilege and teaching was done by the Jesuits
before they opposed economic reforms introduced by Portugal’s Chief Minister Marquis of
Pombal (he ruled from 1750 to 1777), who expelled them from the country in 1770. Public
schools, in a very limited way, only started toward the end of the 18th
century. In the 19th century the children of the rich had private tutors while
the poor learned that the best thing was to prepare their kids to work in the fields and
teach them to make a living.
The idea that work is a great school for kids as young as six is still prevalent across
the country even though legislation forbids children from working before they are 16.
Teachers and parents themselves encourage child-work arguing that if the kids don’t do
this they might start "inventing all sorts of bad things."
The Festa do Peão de Boiadeiro, an annual celebration held in Barretos (270 miles from
São Paulo, 100,000 inhabitants), although a somewhat influenced these days by Yankee
cowboys, for decades has been promoting the caipira (hillbilly) way of life.
Barretos is gearing up for its 45th festival in August while still enjoying the
success of the last one. It’s the oldest and biggest festival celebrating cowboy
Every year people come from far away to experience the life of a boiadeiro
(cowboy) and play one. The extravaganza lasts 11 days for the delight of the local
business people and sertanejo (country) music stars. Since 1992, the festivities
include a tournament for cowboys from all over the world.
During this time around 1.5 million visitors drop by for a short or longer stay.
Thousands of youngsters parade through the streets dressed in old west outfits as to give
the impression that you went back in time or that the city has become a huge back lot for
another wild west Hollywood production. At night the city explodes in music and dances in
the streets, the sidewalk and wherever there is a little caipira sound coming from
a house, a store or a car.
It was Os Independentes, a youth club, that created the Festa do Peão in 1955. The
same club is still the main force behind the celebration. One of the main events for many
years was the cavalhada, a staging of the medieval fight between Moors and
Christians. While the traditional cavalhada is still going strong in several other
interior towns, the event is no longer part of the Barretos celebration.
One of the most cherished and widespread Brazilian folk traditions is the Festas
Juninas. These are several celebrations held during the month of June to honor three
saints dear to the Brazilian people. They are Saint Anthony, the saint the Brazilians
believe has a special gift to arrange marriages and whose day is June 13; Saint John,
Christ’s favorite apostle, celebrated on June 24; and Saint Peter, another apostle who
became the first Pope and the man who send rains and holds in his hands the keys to
heaven. June 29 is the day reserved for this saint.
The Festas Juninas are big family gatherings at night when people get together around a
bonfire to eat several specialties of the season, most of them sweets, drink quentão
(hot sugar cane liquor with ginger and sugar) and hot wine, dance the quadrilha
(square dance), and play different games like the wedding, the jail or correio elegante
(elegant post office).
In the jail game, sheriffs can imprison anyone for no reason and he or she will only be
freed after performing some specific action such as buying a ticket for some entertainment
or activity. In the correio elegante game, boys and girls are encouraged to send
signed or anonymous messages to someone he or she is interested in. A mail carrier works
as the messenger.
Among the delicacies consumed at these parties are peanut brittle, yam and pumpkin
sweets, paçoca (roasted and crushed peanuts with sugar and manioc flour), roasted
pine nuts and popcorn. In some cities of the interior the party is preceded by a
procession carrying the flags of Saints Anthony, John and Peter. People pray, sing
religious songs and carry lighted candles while others join the procession on its way to
the place of celebration. At the end of the walk, the saints’ images are placed on the top
of a tall pole. Before raising the pole people kiss the images and ask for favors.
The Festas Juninas is also the season of colorful hot-air balloons that continue to dot
the skies despite annual campaigns to end the practice. Those devices _ sometimes the size
of a car _ made of tissue paper and glue, are responsible for several fires every year.
They take to the skies thanks to wads on fire, which are placed into the balloon through
one or more holes made of wire. The rise and fall of a balloon is cause for celebration or
sometimes for fights when too many or unfriendly people try to get hold of a fallen
Proud of It
To keep alive the caipira (hillbilly) way of life, a group of artists,
businessmen and white collar workers from São José dos Campos (450,000 residents, 60 km
from São Paulo) is in the middle of a movement to promote everything related to caipirismo.
Instead of being ashamed of their accent and distinct jargon these people don’t miss a
chance to show pride about their origin and traditions.
In this campaign to exalt the rural lifestyle everything is being used: TV and radio
interviews, articles in newspapers, recordings, books and Internet sites. In one such
place, called Viola e Violeiro, system analyst Mauro Romero is joining forces with
researchers in the area to celebrate caipira music and traditions. Among the
renowned contributors are Roberto Correa, Paulo Freire and Ivan Vilela.
You can visit them at http://www.violaevioleiros.com.br. Thousands of people have
visited the site since it first appeared in February, 1999. The success of the site
inspired Correa to launch a magazine with information on caipira culture, folk
tales and glossary plus a CD with caipira music.
All these people belong to a different race of caipiras. Many of these
latter-day hillbillies weren’t born in a little town or have left their hometown a long
time ago. For them spreading the word about caipirismo is a way of returning to
their roots and searching for themselves. They are people like Gilberto Rodrigues, a
psychologist who spent his childhood on his parents’ farm, moved away to the big city and
now is searching for past trying to catch up on what he thinks he missed.
Rodrigues started to write caipira poetry and learned how to play the viola
(a six-string guitar). Now he is one of the members of the São José dos Campos’
Orchestra of Violeiros. Rodrigues even wrote several books on the subject. Carreando
História, one of his works is online at the Viola e Violeiro site. Says the
author: "Despite being a urban person, living in an apartment, and working in a
hospital, I won’t break this bond for anything."
Commenting on the dark view Brazilians have about themselves and the gloom and doom
"All these visions err by their narrow-mindedness, by their partiality and
"First of all, the Brazilian routine is possessed by vitality. In Brazilian life
"The central role that soccer and Carnaval play is an answer to the playful spirit
"Joie de vivre and the playful spirit merge to form a third characteristic of the
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