Brazil’s Paradox: Embracing and Hiding Its African Roots

Brazilians have a hard time dealing with racism Brazil’s President Lula was probably not aware that his US counterpart’s surname has a sexual connotation when he suggested on Friday working together to find the "g-spot" in their negotiations. President Bush also seems to have missed the joke, due to a faulty translation, although his Spanish is good enough for him to have understood the explicitly sexual references to his mother that tens of thousands of Brazilian protesters were chanting during his recent visit.

Brazil is the largest Catholic nation in the world, yet Brazilians are remarkably open when they talk about sex.

A few days before Bush arrived in the country Lula gave a speech at an international women’s day event in which he said: "Sex is something everybody likes. You can’t just stamp on a teen’s forehead when it is time to start making sex. Sex is an organic necessity for the human species and for the animal species. Therefore, since we don’t have control over this, what we need to do is to educate, at the right time, while they are still children."
 
It is difficult to imagine Bush or Blair using such language, still less President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa or Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India – countries to which Brazil is often compared. Yet it is remarkable how natural such words seem in Brazil. Indeed, next to football and music, sex is one of the things that makes Brazil famous.
 
This is not just about the bikini-floss on the beaches or the stunningly scantily-clad Carnaval queens; although wearing a one-piece bathing suit in Rio would probably feel as uncomfortable for a woman as dressing in a Burka in Jack Straw’s constituency office.
 
Sex permeates Brazilian society and plays a part in defining Brazil’s national character. In 1933, the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre published a seminal work, The Master and the Slaves, which argued that the intimate sexual relations between the two had created a society quite different from the slave-owning southern states of Protestant North America or, indeed, other parts of Latin America.
 
Freyre’s book caused a sensation at the time. It helped create
a sense of Brazilians "belonging together," which is still very powerful today.
 
Brazil contains a remarkable mixture of races: African, Arab, European and Asian. There are, for example, more Japanese people living in Brazil than anywhere outside of Japan. Yet the country has never suffered from ethnic or communally-based violence and the different racial groups have inter-mingled with a surprising amount of harmony. According to Freyre, this was largely due to the frequency with which they had sex with each other.
 
What separates Brazilian society is class. Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery and it remains today one of the world’s most unequal societies. It tends to be the case that the darker the colour of someone’s skin, the lower down the social strata he or she is likely to be.

Brazil also suffers the most extraordinary levels of violence. There are, on average, 4,000 homicides a year in Rio, and a study last week showed that in one town of 300,000 inhabitants, over 300 people had been killed in the previous year. The violence is concentrated in poor communities where the victims and perpetrators are very often black.
 
This is one of Brazil’s paradoxes, although it takes some time for an outsider to notice. Light-skinned Brazilians tend to be of European origin, often from quite socially-conservative backgrounds, but the culture that they celebrate draws heavily on African roots.

Middle-class Brazilians seem to want to simultaneously embrace this affirmation of self-identity while doing their utmost to insulate themselves from it. This makes for a strange, fascinating and often frustrating society to live in, but maybe that is what makes being in Brazil an affair of the heart.

Conor Foley is a humanitarian aid worker. He currently lives and works in Brazil, and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. Conor’s books include Combating Torture: a Manual for Judges and Prosecutors (2003), which was published by the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and A Guide to Property Law in Afghanistan (2005), which was published by the Norwegian Refugee Council and UNHCR.

This article appeared originally in The Guardian – http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/conor_foley/2007/03/sexy_brazil.html

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