What do Brazilians look like?

I recently came across an article that has sparked all kinds of responses online and the time has come to add one of my own. Titled Future Humans Will All Look Brazilian, Researcher Says it naturally caught my eye! Without even reading it, my first question was, which Brazilians, from where? 

Xuxa and Pelé

Xuxa and Pelé when they were dating

While I was brunching in Paris with a fellow Brit earlier this year, two women asked to share our table and started speaking Spanish. I initially assumed they were from Spain, since we were in Europe. Also, one was “Mediterranean” looking and the other was a blue-eyed blonde, which is entirely possible in Iberia. When we eventually joined in the conversation (in English), it turned out that the “Mediterranean” woman was from Argentina and the blonde was…wait for it…from Brazil! My British companion was surprised, and said she didn’t look Brazilian. I explained that they come in all shapes and sizes.

The reason for that is immigration – and a policy of “whitening” that began in the 19th century. There is a large population of German descent in southern Brazil whose best-known representative nowadays is Gisele Bundschen (note the German-sounding surname!). It comes as a surprise to some that long before the influx of Nazis on the run after Hitler’s defeat in the mid-1940s, a much bigger wave of migrants arrived in what is now the state of Santa Catarina in the 1800s from the region now called Germany. There is even a city called Blumenau, founded in 1850, that holds an annual Oktoberfest.

Many Italians settled in the Central South, and there is a large population of Italian descent in São Paulo. A popular soap opera, Terra Nostra (1999-2000), portrayed the stories of white immigrants from Italy who replaced black slave labour on coffee farms in São Paulo State at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries.

Centuries of racial mixture and  immigration, not only from Europe but from Asia and other parts of South America, as well as more recent arrivals from Africa (particularly former Portuguese colonies) have resulted in Brazilians of all colours on a wide spectrum ranging from Pelé to Gisele and even paler and blonder than she (like TV children’s presenter Xuxa Meneghel, also Pelé’s former girlfriend). However, there is an image of what Brazilians should look like, formed among Brazilians themselves.

The original “three sad races” of Brazil are Amerindians, Europeans and Africans, in order of arrival, and the population that resulted from that mixture is considered “typically” Brazilian. For that reason, people of Asian descent, for example, may never be considered 100% Brazilian. A third-generation Sansei will find him or herself referred to as “Japa” because of their appearance. I have read of cases where Nipo-Brazilian workers in Japan – dekasseguis – feel more Brazilian outside their country than they do at home.

For more information on race relations in Brazil today, see my entry on that subject in the Brazil Today encyclopaedia

A new fable: the blind men and Brazil

It often happens that people from different backgrounds come to Brazil, visit one or two parts of the country, and reach general conclusions based on their own specific experience. It is like the Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant, each of whom concludes that the creature is a  rope, spear, wall or tree trunk based on the part they have been able to touch – a slender tail, a sharp ivory tusk, a broad flank, or a a stout, round leg. Well, Brazil is just like that elephant – the sum of its very different parts.  Not only that, but the response a visitor will get depends on several factors: national origin, skin colour, and above all, money – or lack thereof.

A wealthy white woman who can afford assistants, nannies, tour guides and the best hotels, will find herself showered with love. If her baby scatters food all over the table and crawls on the floor of a restaurant, the waiters and cleaners will grit their teeth and only speak up when the tyke gets too close to the stairs. If the visitor is a woman of colour with a small baby, she might get some sympathy. Then again, people might assume she is the nanny. If she finds herself in the wrong neighbourhood, she could get caught up in the sweep of “undesirables” leading up to the World Cup. And if the woman of colour has money, she had better show it – appearances are everything.

An African American clad in Gucci or Prada will never feel the sting of racial discrimination, but woe betide a member of that community who turns up in an old T-shirt, flip-flops and bermuda shorts. Until they open their mouths and display their accents – or complete lack of Portuguese – they could find themselves lined up with the usual suspects, or worse. Younger African American women will be considered sex objects in Brazil. If they stay at a fancy hotel, they could find themselves treated like hookers and refused service at the restaurant. Unless they’re wearing Gucci or Prada…