June 2003

Brazil: Northeasterners Get No Respect

Brazilian TV viewers may associate what is deemed as
successful attributes with urban or North American lifestyles.
Perceptions acquired from television, US movies and popular music,
affect attitudes leading to ethnic and "racial" self-doubt pertaining
to Brazil's African and Amerindian ancestry.

Alan P. Marcus

The terms "ethnicity" and "race" have become widely misunderstood and ambiguous in the realm of world political and cultural discourse. I agree with Melissa Nobles (2000), who states that "race" is fundamentally a political process. The geographic and regional dimensions of Brazil, are practically inexistent and are largely overlooked in current discussions on "race" and ethnicity. This oversight is particularly significant given the geographical ethnic identities and migrations (both internal and external) that forge the shaping of complex identities outside of, but not excluding the "black-white" paradigm (i.e.; Africa-Europe).

Although the literature written on Brazil by both Brazilian and foreign scholars has focused on a "black-white" ethnic 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 sertões), have been the region where "racial" miscegenation has historically developed into a particular regional ethnicity.

Undoubtedly African, most Europeans and North Americans would qualify the population with an oversimplified term such as "black". For numerous economic, social and political reasons this regional ethnicity has thus evolved into a rich and complex identity that transcend, without excluding the simple "black-white" axis. The complexities of such identities are oversimplified when viewed through North American or European paradigms.

The Northeasterners

The Northeasterners are called: Nordestinos (literally "Northeasterners"). The connection of the plight of the Nordestino to economic and environmental distress is one that is strongly tied to the history of sugarcane plantations and African slavery. Amidst historical developments, such as the abolishment of slavery, the displacement of Amerindians, the invasions of the French and the Dutch, 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 1987, 10 out of every 20 Latin Americans who died of infant mortality, were Brazilian, and out of those ten, five were from the Northeast of Brazil. That is: the Northeast of Brazil suffered 25 percent of all Latin American infant mortality in 1987.

According to the Brazilian 2000 (IBGE) Census, 70 percent of the Nordestino population who migrated, headed towards the Southeast of Brazil. The plight of the Nordestino is similar in content, but different in form, from the plight of the blacks and Amerindians in Brazil, in that they have long lived under historical abandonment, political oppression, and social marginalization. And in addition, the ethnicity or "racial" aspects of the Nordestinos are often shrouded in confusion.

The Nordestinos, who mostly self-describe themselves as black, mulatto or other "mixture" categories such as: cafuso, mameluco or mestiço, (also see the Brazilian Census 2000 IBGE), do not escape the stigma of simply being reduced to a single term: Nordestino. They are prone to social and economic immobility due to their discriminatory status in the Southeast regions merely by nature of being ethnically Nordestino.

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, where they are subsequently and overtly mocked and informally segregated because of their accent, their food, their music and their culture. In the above-cited cities, the Nordestinos become naïve targets of pejorative slurs such as "Baianos"( from the state of Bahia), "Cabeça-chata" ("Flat-head") or "Paraíba" (from the state of Paraíba).

The Nordeste ("Northeast") and the sertão ("backlands") hold a prime sense of place, identity and significance to the Nordestino. When the Nordestino migrates to the big cities, he or she is brutally reduced to being a Nordestino (or a matuto; "hillbilly"). 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 complex dimension to Brazilian social, political and cultural dynamics.

The Power of Telecommunications

The political context of "racial" and ethnic semantics in Brazil can be observed as constantly shifting. Brazil's black populations, maybe dwindling due to a number of reasons ranging from cultural stigmatization, to Brazilian "Negrophobia" and high-mortality/low-fertility rates. Nevertheless, were one to look at these figures at face value, as misleading and deceptive as they are, the perception of Brazil is that from 1822 to 2000 the population has shifted from a black majority to a white majority, from a rural to an urban population, and internal migrations have occurred from the Northeast to the Southeast regions.

The variables attributed to causing these perpetual shifts are imbued with complexities tied into various Brazilian identities. The advent of telecommunications ought to be placed as a significant variable in a country such as Brazil, which is perceived globally as a "developing" and "poor". According to Veja magazine (2001) approximately 80 percent of the Brazilian population possess a television set. This figure represents a powerful form of mass communication on several dimensions, mostly political, social and cultural. To say that the magnitude of such a powerful form of communication in Brazil is certainly exploited and utilized politically is an understatement.

The advent of the television in Brazil has induced the learning of social and cultural movements from national urban regions from within and outside of Brazil, particularly from the USA. The exposure to telecommunications, including access to the Internet, and the information that is thereupon disseminated, affect notions of ethnic, cultural and social identities.

Now Brazilian TV viewers may associate and recognize what is deemed as successful attributes with urban or North American lifestyles, and attempt to mimic these lifestyles, in an effort to replicate this perceived economic and social success. This perception may affect attitudes and practices detrimental to the environment, where particularly the Amazon region and the Northeast regions are considered as "backward" and "undeveloped".

These regions are also perceived as a detriment to the fashionable and historical notions of national "progress", globalization and industrialization. In a poster from 1970 "Enough of Legends: Let's Profit!" ("Chega de Lendas! Vamos Faturar!") produced during the military dictatorship, where the government agency overseeing Amazonian development, SUDAM, refers to the Amazonian land that is "undeveloped yet profitable to invest...a gold mine". Thus, urging people to invest in road projects through a deduction in their income tax.

Clearly suggesting financial profits were qualifiers for national "progress" yet with absolute disregard for the local Amerindian population and the fragile Amazonian environment. The importance or even the mere presence of a Brazilian "identity" and a Brazilian sense of place, hold little, if not any, value in the realm of a "modern" world. And in this particular case, render the Nordestino valueless once again, in regards to their sense of place, their accent, their food, their music and their culture.

Perceptions acquired from absorbing ideas from television programs and North American movies and popular music, affect attitudes leading to ethnic and "racial" self-doubt pertaining to Brazil's undeniable African and Amerindian cultural and genetic ancestry. The popular correlation hypothetically follows, for example: "If the USA are an industrial and economic success, it is precisely because they are all `lily-white', they have dislocated and excluded `Amerindians', marginalized blacks; and replaced their forests with profitable industries and urban cities; then Brazil should do the same… and why should we not be allowed to do the same, since it appears this is what makes Brazil different from the USA?".

These notions of foreign "Eco-colonialism" need to be addressed and included in international human rights and environmental discourse that involve cooperative efforts to protect the environment and local cultures; and to better understand the Brazilian perspective. This Brazilian perspective, contained in a universe of self-doubt is what propitiates ethnic and racial stereotypes, in this case of the Nordestino, pervasive in the national subconscious.

Brazilian "Cordial Racism"

Traditional Brazilian rhetoric claims that it was "class rather than prejudice" that marked cultural separations in Brazil, and this argument is still reiterated in popular Brazilian "white" middle-class discourse. However, the machinery of "racial democracy" that propels Brazilian sub-conscious cannot separate "color" from social and economic status, which suggests that there is a deeper force behind Brazilian "racial" and ethnic dynamics.

The collective and individual notions of ethnic identities in and of Brazil, and the confusing implications, only exacerbate, as some scholars would suggest the masquerading of a national identity well known for its ubiquitous "racial democracy", its joie-de-vivre and charismatic docility; to a subterranean culture deep-rooted in a slavist legacy that is violently patriarchal, racist and sexist.

A poll research sponsored by the São Paulo newspaper Folha de S. Paulo and Datafolha published in 1995 a report called: "Racismo Cordial: A Mais Completa Análise sobre Preconceito de Cor no Brasil" ("Cordial Racism: The Most Complete Analysis on Prejudice of Color in Brazil"). The results of the poll revealed that 89 percent of Brazilians admitted that there was prejudice of color of blacks, only 10 percent admitted to having prejudice themselves and 87 percent revealed some form of underhanded prejudice of blacks.

The static "color" dichotomy that is used in the US is far too pluralistic to apply such a neat Euro-North American "racial" pigeonhole categorizations, which have been absorbed from abroad. Therefore, to superimpose a North American or European paradigm to analyze and examine "racial" figures in Brazil is over simplistic and may create misguided representations. However, the fact that superimposing "racial" paradigms is over simplistic, certainly does not mean that there is no correlation between "skin-color" and disenfranchisement. There is much academic evidence to suggest the contrary.

The rapid and shifting contemporary transformations, given the advent of modern tele-communications are changing the notions of ethnic and geographic identities. A radical shift in the political realm is currently taking place, as Brazil's newly elect president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva ("Lula") has taken office in January, 2003. Lula himself a migrante and a Nordestino.

Changes are taking place at a rapid pace. Brazil is a place where the haunting history cannot be easily "swept under the rug", nor can it easily fade away. However; the current waves of social, political and cultural shifts are rapidly changing the human landscape and subsequently of the Nordestinos in Brazil.


Degler, Carl N. 1971. Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. The Macmillan Company, New York

Freyre, Gilberto. 1938. Nordeste: Aspectos da Influencia da Canna Sobre a Vida e a Paizagem do Nordeste do Brasil. Livraria José Olympio Editora; Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

_____________. 1968. Sobrados e Mucambos: Decadência do Patriarcado Rural e Desenvolvimento do Urbano. Livraria José Olympio Editora; Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

_____________. 1986. The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. (Translation of 1933 Casa-Grande e Senzala. Rio de Janeiro: Maia and Schmidt).

Nascimento, Abdias do. 1978. O Genocídio do Negro Brasileiro: Processo de Racismo Mascarado. Editora Paz e Terra, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

_____________. 1989. Brazil: Mixture or Massacre? Essays in the Genocide of a Black People. Second Edition (Translated by Elisa Larkin Nascimento from 1979). The Majority Press, Dover, Massachusetts.

Nobles, Melissa. 2000. Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1994. Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Sheriff, Robin E. 2001. Dreaming Equality: Color, Race and Racism in Urban Brazil. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.

Skidmore, Thomas E.. 1974. Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. Oxford University Press.

Recihmann, Rebecca. 1999. From Indifference to Inequality: Race in Contemporary Brazil. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pennsylvania.

Alan P. Marcus is pursuing a Masters of Geography at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Contact E-mail:

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