Brazil is a republic of the South American continent, a major industrial country, producing aircraft, armaments, automobiles, nuclear power, and steel as well as many consumer commodities. In addition, Brazil is mineral rich in gold, iron ore, aluminum, bauxite, manganese, mica, and other minerals, including precious stones. Brazilian agrocorporations export bananas, coffee, cotton, oranges, sugar, tea, tobacco, and beef products, among other things.
Having 3,286,426 square miles of territory, Brazil is located between 40.5 degrees to 70.5 degrees longitude. The latitude from the equator (traveling north) reaches 10.5 degrees from the equator (traveling south) to 50.25 degrees latitude. The North Atlantic Ocean comprises most of Brazil’s northern border, stretching (west to east) from the state of Amapa to the state of Paraiba. Traveling west from Amapa, Brazil’s northern border touches French Guiana, Surinam, Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru.
On the western border (from north to south), Brazil touches Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay. From the southernmost tip of Brazil (the state of Santa Cruz) traveling north to the state of Pernambuco, Brazil is again bordered by the South Atlantic, giving Brazil one of the longest seacoasts (4,600 miles) in the world.
Briefly, the major topographical features include the hot and humid Amazon River Valley lowlands, which occupy a third of Brazil, and La Plata (an elevated tableland), which is semiarid and temperate (woodland and prairie watered by the La Plata River system and its tributaries). In the northeast is a mountainous region, part forest and part desert. Coastal plains are hot and humid, having two seasons: winter (wet) and summer (dry). In general, temperatures decrease in Brazil as one travels from the north to the south of the country. Occasionally in July and August, there is frost and snow in the three southernmost states.
Archaeologists find evidence that the first humans to arrive (in what was later to become Brazil the political entity) came via the Isthmus of Panama. Anomalous data are attributed to Asian and African contacts as well. Some disputed data may indicate human presence in Brazil as long ago as 50,000 years. However, some archaeological sites date from the end of the last glacial age, approximately 10,000 years ago. This early population of Brazil practiced swidden agriculture perhaps 1,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. When the Portuguese first colonized the eastern half of South America, it was inhabited by indigenous tribes, such as Tupinamba-Guarani, Ge, Carib, and Arawak. Certain of these Native cultures practiced hunting, gathering, and horticulture. Others were simple agriculturalists, using slash-and-burn techniques. All of them were seminomadic.
The demographics of Brazil today include the Native American tribes of Brazil, descendants of European immigrants from Portugal (who claimed Brazil in the 1500s as their own), as well as immigrants from the United States of America, Japan, Syria, Lebanon, Greece, Saudi Arabia, the Czech and Slovak republics, Italy, Poland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain and Africans from the present countries of Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon, among others who were imported by the Europeans to work as slaves on plantations. These three major populations amalgamated to form the unique cultural climate of Brazil. Most of Brazil’s 178 million citizens live in or near cities, such as Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Recife. The rest of the country is populated sparsely, immense tracts belonging to a few wealthy families and their employees.
Expansion of the Euro-American majority into the Brazilian interior poses a deadly threat not only to the many medicinal and rare plants and animals of the Amazon rain forest but also to the indigenous populations. Between 1900 and 1967, 98 indigenous tribes “ceased to exist.” In 1912 alone 40,000 Indians were massacred. Today, ranchers, loggers, and other businessmen expropriate indigenous land and hire gunmen to murder those who protest. Most recently, the president of Brazil, Luis Inacio (Lula) da Silva, sent 4,000 troops into the Amazon region following the murder of several unionists and human rights activists, including American Roman Catholic nun Sister Dorothy Stang, who was gunned down on February 12,2005.
Brazil has an extreme economic imbalance based upon social inequity and traditional hierarchies of church and state. According to a World Bank study, it has the highest concentration of wealth in the world for 10% of the citizens, who control 50.6% of the country’s income. Only 5% of the population owns 80% of the land. Brazil ranks at 105th place in per capita income worldwide. Pockets of affluence exist that are surrounded by the vast majority (two thirds) who live in abject poverty. An extreme distance exists between the Brazilian elite that is small in number and the Brazilian hundreds of millions of poor.
Many millions live in favelas, communities of shacks without electricity or running water. Untold millions are totally destitute, begging and eating the offerings left on the ground at crossroads by worshipers of Macumba gods. Many survive through criminal activities, their sole means of support. Favela dwellers and the entirely homeless are not only subject to the diseases, infirmity, and suffering that poverty causes, but periodically they are targeted by government for elimination. In the late 1990s, police and military invaded favelas of Rio de Janeiro to search for drugs and gangs, murdering totally innocent persons who happened to be poor with impunity. The wealthy and politically powerful also finance off-duty police manhunts of homeless children, who when found are shot as though they are noxious vermin rather than human beings.
This economic imbalance coupled with government repression aimed at the poverty-stricken masses does not make for either a healthy economy or society. The quality of life for all Brazilians deteriorates as a consequence. Violence, social unrest, and widespread resentment engendered by social inequity causes the radical action of class warfare. The middle class and elite must barricade themselves behind high walls and hire bodyguards for fear of kidnappings, thefts, and murder. Western business executives who travel to Brazil in search of private and government contracts are not exempt from such attacks, necessitating the hiring of limousines with bulletproof glass, driven by armed guards.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, President Collor’s policy “to modernize,” by the “privatization” of “deficit-ridden state enterprises” and a promise “to reform social security,” only exacerbated the already-ailing economy. Collor’s administration ended in 1992 amidst charges of corruption, for the sale of utilities and other government-owned developments had resulted in kickbacks to the wealthy few, who thus benefited twice at the expense of Brazilian taxpayers. The present government of Brazil is struggling to correct this legacy of gross economic mismanagement, but the trouble is compounded by the existence of monied elitist opponents who are backed by paramilitary.
Focusing upon Brazil’s economic ills alone, however, will prevent one from grasping the sheer vibrancy, creativity, and deep spirituality of Brazilians. Ninety percent of Brazilians identify themselves as Roman Catholic, while 1 in 3 also take part in Afro-Brazilian Macumba, Umbanda, and Quimbanda ceremonies. These religions blend elements of Roman Catholicism with those of Native American and traditional African religions. All three of the African-Brazilian traditions are animistic, adherents believing in magic, trance, the forces of nature, and divination. Most Brazilians exhibit either a fervent belief in magic or cautious neutrality that nonetheless bespeaks not only tolerance of such belief systems, but perhaps even a certain fear and respect for them. Brazilians (either believers or nonbelievers) will politely interrupt a person who speaks with derision of either the saints or the Orixas (African gods), gently changing the subject. Gazing up into the trees of a park, one suddenly notices dolls hanging in the branches. Such dolls symbolize living persons who are the objects of all magic spells. Tourists strolling to Copa Cabana beach will see plates of beans and rice accompanied by candles, incense, and glasses of water that are placed upon the ground beneath traffic lights. These are offerings made to the African gods in supplication or in return for favors rendered. Residents of Rio de Janeiro walk past these objects as though they were quite unremarkable, yet strange occurrences that relate to the Orixas are often the topic of dinner conversation in otherwise orthodox Roman Catholic households.
Mainstream Protestant sects such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians have also imported their faiths to Brazil. There are also Muslim and Jewish urban communities that attract little attention. In contrast to the understated presence of the above-mentioned minority religionists, the Pentecostal Protestant movement is converting thousands who are incited to open hostility against the Afro-Brazilian sects. It has been documented that some Evangelicals have even physically attacked members of Afro-Brazilian churches as being in league with Satan. Most Brazilians who convert to Evangelical Christianity are drawn from the ranks of those who cannot afford medical care and thus hope to obtain miracle cures by attending revival meetings. Some of the poor convert because they are promised material success in return for “accepting Jesus” as a “personal savior.” It remains to be seen, however, if the majority of Brazilians will succumb to the intolerance exhibited by some Christian Evangelical leaders. From the early 1800s, when the first Protestants (German Lutherans) arrived in numbers, Brazilians have seemed remarkably resistant to conversion to Protestantism, though recent economic conditions that particularly impact the poor have caused sweeping gains for the Pentecostal movement.
Many European and North American anthropologists and sociologists have focused upon the cultures and societies of Brazil. Two early social scientists to do so were anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963) and sociologist Roger Bastide (1898-1974). Since then, anthropological studies multiply yearly, many of them positing the existence of “two Brazils,” in the classic linguistic oppositional theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss.
One Brazil, according to this theory, is composed of the urban and rural poor, who allegedly conserve traditional culture; and the other Brazil is that of the upper classes subscribing to and promoting something called “modernity” in the urban centers. Brazil is thusly dichotomized into social classes that are either modern or traditional, Western or non-Western, egalitarian or hierarchical, individualistic or communal. This method of analysis prevailed until anthropologist Roberto A. DaMatta (b. 1936), of the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), inspired by postmodern projects, began to deconstruct the classic oppositions using Victor Turner’s (1920-1983) stance of regarding history, rituals, and social practice as meaningful action.
Rather than separating the hierarchical and communal from the egalitarian and individualistic, DaMatta proposes that the two behaviors operate simultaneously within both sectors of Brazilian society. In other words, DaMatta describes modernization as a dynamic process by which “social dramas” (from Carnival to everyday social interaction) provide the opportunities to negotiate between a modern, egalitarian “code” and a traditional one.
Another key concept of DaMatta’s anthropology is that of “encompassment.” Originally developed by Louis Dumont (1911-1998), encompassment refers to hierarchical relationships that include the opposite. One example of this dynamic at work in Brazil would be the ways in which Afro-Brazilian religions have absorbed (or encompassed) the rituals and ideology of the Roman Catholic Church, so that both Christianity and its (supposed) opposite, Paganism, operate together to form a unique and integrated belief system. In the words of DaMatta, “a non-modern Brazilian ethic encompasses the modern alternative.”
DaMatta’s theory influences many contemporary anthropologists, such as Livia Neves de H. Barbosa and Roberto Kant de Lima (associate professors at the Instituto de Ciencias Humana e Filosofia at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Niteroi). Barbosa analyzes Brazilian behavior patterns, such as that of jeitinho. De Lima compares the Brazilian justice system with that of the United States. Martha de Ulhoa Carvalho (adjunct professor at the Universidade Federal de Uberlandia, Uberlandia in Minas Gerais) examines popular music and identity in Brazil according to DaMatta’s interpretational device. Others who have been influenced by DaMatta include David J. Hess (associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), who examines religious therapies, and Jeffrey Jarrad (Trinity College in Burlington, Vermont), who studied the importation and “Brazilianization” of Alcoholics Anonymous, originally a Protestant North American abstinence program. Conrad P. Kottak (the University of Michigan) writes of the impact of nationwide commercial television on traditional Brazilian culture. Rosane Prado (the Universidade Estadual de Rio de Janeiro) studies social relations in small-town Brazil. Cynthia A. Sarti (PhD candidate at the University of Sao Paulo) is interested in how the Brazilian poor define moral persons. Leni Silverstein (Museum Nacional of the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) studies the relations between state, church, and Afro-Brazilian Spiritism in Bahia.
There are other anthropologists who do not necessarily utilize DaMatta’s schema, having their own perspectives. American anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes is noted for her study of Brazilian poor women who practice selective infanticide. Tobias Hecht’s ethnographic fieldwork brought him among homeless children in the city of Recife. Claudia Milito and Helio R. S. Silva have also written ethnographic accounts of Brazilian “street children.” John H. Bodley has concerned himself with the struggle of indigenous peoples to resist the impoverishment that globalization imposes in Brazil, among other countries. The above list of anthropologists is not intended as exhaustive.
- Hess, D. J., &. DaMatta, R. A. (Eds.). (1995). The Brazilian puzzle: Culture on the borderlands of the Western world. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Levine, R. M., & Crocitti, J. J. (Eds.). (1999). The Brazil reader: History, culture, politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Page, J. A. (1995). The Brazilians. New York: Addison-Wesley.
- Ribeiro, D. (2000). The Brazilian people: The formation and meaning of Brazil (G. Rabassa, Trans.). Gainesville: University Press of Florida.