Brazilian identity and politics

Brazilian identity and politics

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

The building of a Brazilian national identity began with the country’s independence from Portugal in 1822. Since then, it has taken different forms that accompanied the evolution of Brazilian society throughout history. Among the various scholars who described the Brazilian national identity, Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) is the most outstanding. Although he was only 33 years old when he published  Casa grande e senzala (The Masters and the Slaves)[1], this book remains unsurpassed as a comprehensive and penetrating analysis of Brazilian society, based on history, geography, literature, folklore, and art. The thesis Freyre developed in this book is that the Brazilian society was shaped around the sugar cane industry, where the Portuguese colonizers and the Brazilians – peasants, native indians and black slaves –, maintained a peaceful relationship, and as a result of which, the Brazilian society emerged as a nation of mixed-blood population that evaded the scourge of racism.

Freyre was well acquainted with the two major literary movements of the twenty century in Brazil,  “Modernism”, which took off in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and ‘Regionalism’, which was based in the Brazilian Northeast. He wrote:

These two movements will probably stand as the most significant in revolutionizing the letters and the life of Brazil in the direction of intellectual or cultural spontaneity, creativeness, and self-confidence set against the tradition of colonial subordination to Europe or the United States.[2]

About the Modernist movement, Freyre cites the writer Mario de Andrade (1893-1945), who had expressed regret that the movement “did not go far enough in developing its social implications”.[3] This note by Freyre is a testimony of his genius with which he distilled the essence of the Brazilian society. However, there are plenty of social implications in the character Macunaíma that Andrade introduced in an eponymous novel that appeared in 1928.

Macunaíma: the proverbial Brazilian scoundrel

Most critics recognises Macunaíma, a character created by Mario de Andrade[4], as the proverbial Brazilian scoundrel. Macunaíma is the son of a native indian woman, born black, with an adult body but a child’s mind, which would explain some of his vices. He is hyper-sexualised, lazy, glutton, and as if that wasn’t enough, a megalomaniac who believed he could manipulate monsters and deities, and control the universe.

As the novel unfolds, Macunaíma lived a simple life in his village near forest, but one day he heard about a big city called São Paulo, and decided that he wanted to go there. While he is toying with the idea of going to São Paulo, his mother dies. In grief, Macunaíma wanders inside the forest, when he discovers a magic fountain, bathes in it, and when he comes out of it he has become white. Macunaíma arrives in São Paulo as a white man, although his whiteness is not genuine, and he will be found out. His lover, a white guerrillera, gives birth to a black baby. When Macunaíma becomes homesick for his village he writes to the “Icamiabas”, the legendary Amazons. His letter is in a formal European Portuguese style, a strong contrast with the colloquial Brazilian Portuguese style of the novel itself, typical of the Realism style, of which Mario de Andrade was a pioneer. The formal style in Macunaíma’s letter is the symbol of his new persona as a respectable city dweller. It is also  a way the author devised mock Romanticism.

Macunaíma is described by his ethnicity and by his personality. He has all three races of Brazil, since he was born black, his mother was a native indian, and by the force of destiny he became white. He is a hero without principles – um herói sem-caráter. There is an obvious cognitive dissonance in this description, since the idea of a hero implies having principles. Could it be that Macunaíma’s lack of principles resulted from his mixed-race condition?  Statistics shows that correlation is not necessarily causation, but the nineteen century scholars who were ignorant of statistics believed that the high level of interracial breeding in Brazil was creating a descent of undesirables.

The Anthropophagous Manifest

In 1928, the writer Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), brother of the aforementioned Mário de Andrade, published his Anthropophagous Manifest (Manifesto antropófago), in poetic prose, proposing that Brazilians should ‘cannibalize’ the European cultural legacy, and digest it, in order to create an art that is typically Brazilian[5]. The example given is how Shakespeare’s phrase “To be or not to be” can become “Tupy or not Tupy”[6]. As others have pointed out, the Manifest’s objective was not to oppose European culture but to oppose the mind-set that only things that come from abroad are good. Brazilians should value its indigenous culture, and draw inspiration from it.

The metaphor of the cordial man

The ‘cordial man’ is a metaphor for the Brazilian personality or temperament, introduced by the Brazilian historian and sociologist Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902-1982), in his 1936 book Raízes do Brasil (Roots of Brasil)[7]. In this book, Buarque de Holanda traces the Brazilian mind-set to the time when Brazil was a colony of Portugal, when its social structure was unstable and the order precarious and the only thing that appeared as permanent and certain was the sugar industry of sugar. It was a time marked by many sources of conflicts, including the uncertainties regarding slavery, when patriarchy offered protection from the constant threat of violence. Colonial patriarchy is the root of the Brazilian patrimonialist State, where private interests trump the common good. Patriarchy continued to after Brazil gained its independence from Portugal, and even after the abolition of monarchy and the republic regime was introduced.

The metaphor of the cordial man created to depict the Brazilian mind-set is misleading, because the word ‘cordial’, which comes from the Latin cordis, meaning ‘of the heart’, has other meanings such as ‘amiable’ and ‘polite’, whilst Buarque de Holanda used ‘cordial’ in the strict sence. Thus, the metaphor of the cordial man depicts Brazilians as individuals fixated in delimiting friends and foes, and who use emotion rather than reason to separate the two. Although one could argue that the trumping of emotion over reason happens in every country in the world, there is a twist in the Brazilian fixation with ‘friends close to the chest’ (amigos do peito) and the others. This twist has to do with the peculiar way in which Brazilians define their circle of trust. The sentences below are examples I found in the internet:

 “So and so is very snobbish, for he remains working at his desk instead of having a coffee with us!”

“That individual is well qualified but is not fun to be with, he will never be promoted in the company.”

“My boss is so good, he treats me as if I was part of the family!”

“So and so got a promotion at the company, but he misses more than he works.”

“I can’t foresee any problem in him,  he is one of us .”

Judging from those examples above, one can infer that Brazilians have a very limited circle of trust.

The Friend of the Beast – O Amigo da Onça

The metaphor of the ‘cordial man’ points to the Brazilian fixation with ‘friends of the chest’ and his suspicion of all others. The typical ‘other’ could be described as the individual who would find pleasure in one’s misfortune, and who could very well be close by, posing as a friend. A popular cartoon character called ‘o amigo da onça[8] or ‘the friend of the beast’, that appeared in Brazil in the 1940s and lasted for many decades, is the best depiction of this ‘other’, and could very well be the cordial man’s alter ego.

 

Figure 1. Cartoon of the ‘friend of the beast’ and his ‘beast’ friend, a Brazilian jaguar (onça).

Although the Brazilian national identity is a work in progress, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and  the Andrade brothers pointed to the Brazilian self-doubt and lack of trust in the things that typify Brazilian-ness. When Buarque de Holanda created the metaphor of ‘the cordial man’ to depict the typical Brazilian, the concept of low trust and high trust societies was not yet described in sociology. Since then, the social scientists have shown that interpersonal trust is a key defining factor of society and that societies where people tend to trust each other (high trust societies) have stronger democracies, richer economies, better health, and less crime and corruption.

Brazilian national identity. A work in progress, stalled

The Brazilian national identity is a work in progress and this can be seen through the way it oscillates between excessive optimism and pessimism. An example of the excessive optimism is the depiction of Brazil as the country that is blessed by God or even the phrase ‘God is Brazilian’. Another example is how Brazilian-ness is described through the love of football, carnival, beach volleyball, etc., and Brazil through a litany of things in which it is the greatest in the world. Last but not least, Brazilian school children are taught that Santos Dumond, and not the brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, invented the airplane.

But Brazilian identity also has phases of excessive pessimism and lack of confidence. During such phases, Brazilians hear in their head the murmur of a familiar phrase attributed to Charles de Gaulle: “Brésil n’est pas un pays sérieux” – “Brazil is not a serious country”.

One could say that the Brazilian identity is bipolar, and that this could be traced to the first sociological depictions of the country, some very unfavourable and some very favourable. A common concern of the nineteenth century sociologists and ethnographers was with miscegenation and what it could bring. A French diplomat called Joseph Arthur Gobineau (1816-1882), who spent one year in Brazil in 1869, believed that Brazil was condemned to perpetual misery and chaos due to its miscegenation. In the twenty century, the optimist account of Brazilian society by Gilberto Freyre showed the formative years of Brazil, including its racial miscegenation, under a positive light.

The polarization of Brazilian society in 2018

The year 2018 became marked as the year when Brazilian society became polarized between the political right and the political left. The reason this polarization happened now and not before is that it is only now that Brazil has a significant ‘right’, in the sense of conservatism, to oppose the ‘left’, in the sense of socialism[9].

The presidential election of 2018 was to have a candidate of the right[10] with a good chance of winning: Mr. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, of Partido Social Liberal (Liberal Social Party) or PSL. The candidate of the left with equal chances of winning was Mr. Fernando Haddad, of Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party) or PT. The supporters of Bolsonaro and Haddad confronted each other on the streets, and smeared one another in social media[11], including with the use of derogatory words.

A derogatory name used for the ‘left-wingers’ supporters of PT was ‘petralha’, where  the prefix ‘pet’ is another way of saying ‘PT’, and the suffix ‘ralha’ comes from ‘Irmãos Metralha’, the Portuguese name for the infamous Disney characters Beagle Boys, who are known bandits. A derogatory name used for the ‘right-wingers’ was ‘coxinha’ (little drumstick), originally a chicken pasty on the shape of a drumstick, which came to designate the Brazilian petit bourgeois, or Brazilian of lower middle class. The new meaning from some students from the University of São Paulo who used the word to refer to the police officers called to solve conflicts on campus, who had the habit of eating ‘coxinha’ for lunch Just like the tea party in the United States was associated with the working class, the word ‘coxinha’ linked supporters of  Mr. Bolsonaro to the lower classes.

Conclusion

It is commonly recognised that national identity, but not nationalism, is beneficial to people for it gives meaning and a unifying sense of belonging. Just like happened with the other Western nations, Brazil began to build its national identity in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was well into the twenty century when the first positive Brazilian national identity appeared, in the works Gilberto Freyre, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, and the Andrade brothers. The Brazilian national identity was still a work in progress when it was derailed by the sweeping idea of group identity politics.

It is a curious coincidence that 2018, a year that was marked by the left-right polarization of Brazilian society, also marked the 96th  anniversary of the publication of Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma, and the 90th anniversary of  Oswald de Andrade’s paper ‘Manifesto antropófafo’, two poignant depictions of the  Brazilian mind-set, as well as the 78th anniversary of the publication of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s book The Cordial Man. In the 1920s and 1930s, when they described the Brazilian mind-set by its low regard for Brazilian-ness and the obsession with ‘friends close to the chest’ and ‘friends of the beast’, the concept of low trust and high trust societies was not yet described in sociology. Since then, the social scientists have shown that interpersonal trust is a key defining factor of society and that societies where people tend to trust each other (high trust societies) have stronger democracies, richer economies, better health, and less crime and corruption.

The left-right polarization of Brazilian society observed during the presidential election of 2018 is a split of world views that could be mended with dialogue. The observed polarization camouflages the more serious problem of identity politics groups, whose identity-based claims and reckoning of past mistakes prevent a unifying vision of society to come through.


Joaquina Pires-O’Brien is a Brazilian who lives in the UK, and the editor of the magazine PortVitoria, for speakers of Portuguese, Spanish and English.

Notes

[1] FREYRE, G. (1946). The Masters and the Slaves. New York, Alfred A Knopf, 1946. 537 pp+. First published 1933. Guttenberg.

[2] FREYRE, G. (1945). Brazil: An Interpretation. New York, Alfred A Knopf. 212p. Avail. Guttenberg. p. 176.

[3] Idem – p. 179.

[4] ANDRADE, M. (1928). Macunaíma. Edição Projeto Livro Alicia M. Dercole, São Paulo, 2016. 134 pp.

[5] ANDRADE, O. de Manifesto antropófafo e Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil. Revista de Antropofagia, Ano I, No. I, maio de 1928.

[6] Tupy. A reference to the Tupi language family, interrelated languages spoken by the indigenous peoples who lived along the coast of Brazil. It includes the Guarani language that is still spoken in Paraguay.

[7] BUARQUE DE HOLANDA, S. Raízes do Brazil. J. Rio de Janeiro, Olímpio Editora. 18ª ed., comemorativa do jubileu de ouro do livro. Open Library.

[8] It was created by Péricles de Andrade Maranhão (1924-1961), from Pernambuco, for the weekly magazine O Cruzeiro  and was so successful that even after the death of Maranhão it continued to be produced. According to Wikepedia, the editor of O Cruzeiro asked Maranhão to create a character inspired on the ‘Enemies of Man’ cartoons that appeared on the Esquire Magazine and on the character ‘El enemigo del Hombre’ created by Guillermo Divito for the Argentinian magazine Patoruzú. https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_Amigo_da_On%C3%A7a. Maranhão died by suicide in 1961, on the last day of the year, when he shut himself I his home and turned on the gas. There are very little published material about him.  https://designices.com/o-amigo-da-onca-1943-1961-por-pericles/

[9] The reestablishment of the Brazilian right started in 1983 with the creation of Instituto Liberal (IL) by Donald Steward Jr., in Rio de Janeiro. Initially IL concentrated its efforts in the translation and publishing of books and pamphlets on liberalism, and eventually began to promote talks. One of IL most dedicated collaborator  was Professor Og Leme, who was on the staff until September 2003.  There are analogous IL in almost every capital of Brazil. Other similar institutes were created in Brazil, such as Instituto Mises Brasil, the Institutos de Formação de Líderes, the Instituto Millennium, the  Instituto Liberal do Nordeste, the Instituto Ordem Livre and the o Estudantes pela Liberdade, all of which being institutional partners of IL. Brazil has many conservative and classical liberal blogs. Among those which are not linked to a newspaper or magazine is the Direitas Já was launched in 2012 by Renan Felipe dos Santos and his friends, with many interesting and well researched postings covering the most important liberal thinkers and their ideas.

[10] The Brazilian right, or what is referred as right in Brazil, is conservatism or centrism, and not far-right in the sense of certain parties in Europe.

[11] The arrival of social media opened the way for the citizen journalist and opinion leaders. Many Brazilians were already users of Orkut, a social media owned and operated by Google, when Facebook was launched worldwide, in February 2004, For that reason, Brazilian took some time before embracing Facebook. Only after the closure of Orkut, in September 2014, Brazil’s participation in Facebook became significant. However, by 2018, Brazil had become the third largest user of Facebook, along with Indonesia, after India and the United States. Brazilians also become great users of Twitter, blogs and YouTube.