Brazilian Portuguese and culture for American Colleges

Norman Berdichevsky

Book Review of Brasil! Língua e cultura by Thomas A. Lathrop and Eduardo Mayone Dias. Lingua Text, Newark, Delaware USA, 1992 (reprints to 2006). ISBN 0-924-453-8695; $21.85

Language textbooks often try to present cultural aspects of the homeland as well as formal training in the various learning skills of speaking, listening comprehension, reading and writing. Obviously, where English, French, Spanish, or Portuguese are spoken in many different lands with quite distinct literatures, dialects, social relations and a wide range of national idiomatic expressions, the textbooks often provide clarifying footnotes to varying usage. When the language is spoken only in a single nation, such as the case with Danish or Hungarian, there may be more space to help the student understand the history of the linguistic homelands, their national traditions, music, and culinary specialties. Most language textbooks previously served for many decades without any national content of the cultural, social, economic and physical landscape linked to the particular homeland of the spoken vernacular. This, however, is a book that stands on two solid foundations of language instruction blended with an informative cultural guide, a task that is rarely performed so well, imaginatively and entertainingly. I admit that I initially skimmed the book, already having a good reading knowledge of Portuguese, but nevertheless managed to learn an enormous amount of useful and interesting practical hands-on information about Brazil.

Brasil! Lingua e cultura by Thomas A. Lathrop and Eduardo Mayone Dias is a first year college level textbook on the national language of Brasil, its history, culture and folklore. The book has a unique format presenting 75 interviews with Brazilian university students who present different aspects of Brazilian culture and society from their own particular viewpoint. These are termed Vozes Brasilieiras, all of which are accompanied by cute and clever line drawings, some of them inserted into actual photographs. Each of the twenty chapters (Lições) includes a dialogue (Diálogo) and a reading (Leitura) segment. There are also additional notas culturais in English and Portuguese that expand on the background cultural information essential for the first time visitor.

The result is a fascinating and entertaining introduction to knowing our great southern neighbor on its own terms. Each dialogue features the adventures of a fictional American character, Scott Davis from San Francisco, who has enrolled in a program for foreign students at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP). We follow Scott around the university, making new friends, taking in the sights, learning practical information about daily routines, visiting other regions and pursuing Nelly, a lovely Brazilian girl.

The country’s geography is made vivid by comparisons such as that all of Brazilian territory lies east of New York and that the southernmost town in Brazil, Chuí, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, is only as far south as Atlanta is north. Foreigners quickly get acquainted with the social geography of the country and readily pick up the many local nicknames for residents of many of the major states of Brazil’s federal union like our own Hoosiers or Buckeyes or Sooners. Through their journeys and adventures, the reader gets a good sense of the regional characteristics of the country that are distinguished not only by racial and ethnic origins but the localisms that are more numerous and stronger than our own Southerners, New Englanders, New Yorkers and Mid-Westerners.

Many may already know that residents of the city of Rio de Janeiro are called cariocas, whereas those who reside in the State of Rio de Janeiro but live outside the city’s limits are proud to call themselves fluminenses. However, not many people know that the name Carioca signifies white man’s house, as it came from cari, meaning white man, and oca, meaning house, in the indigenous Tupi language, while the name Fluminense, which is also the name of one of Rio’s premier soccer clubs, is derived from the Latin flumen, meaning river. The many shanty-towns on the slopes of Rio are called favelas, and their dwellers are called favelados.

A paulistano is not a national of one of countries north of Pakistan but a native of São Paulo, whereas a mineiro comes from the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines – the state that had an early boom in the mining of gold and diamonds). A gaúcho in Brazil is not a cowboy of the Argentine pampa but a native of the state of Rio Grande do Sul; a catarinense is from Santa Catarina (one of the three southernmost states) and a baiano (without the “h”) is, of course, from Bahia. A pernambucano comes from Pernambuco and a mato-grossense from Mato Grosso; an alagoano from Alagoas; a goiano from Goiás and an amazonense (of whatever gender) comes from Amazonas; a paraense from Paraná and a sergipano from Sergipe but can you guess the origin of a capixaba? He or she is from Espírito Santo, a state south of Rio de Janeiro. What about the new federal capital city of Brasília – can they be brasilianos? No, that would be too confusing, so they are candangos!

In explaining the meaning of the verb conhecer (to know in the sense to be familiar with), the examples given are… “Raquel conhece Os Lusiadas de Camões (Raquel knows Os Lusiadas by Camões)… she has read some of them but doesn’t know any by heart”; “Roberto conhece os romances de Clarice Lispector (Roberto knows the romances of Clarice Lispector)… but can’t recite any passages from memory” and “Eu conheço as Bachianas Brasileiras de Villa-Lobos (I know Villa-Lobos’ Brazilian Bacchianas)… especially the one with the eight cellos and soprano voice”. Likewise, social relations are intimately tied to the grammatical examples as demonstrated in the book’s advice explaining that males are much more ready and quicker to address their potential sweethearts to ask “What is your name?” when first meeting with the familiar possessive form of your (teu) than the ladies who persist in the more correct polite seu. Among good friends, the pronoun você is quickly shortened to cê.

We follow Scott around São Paulo at the University and the chic cafés, fast food joints and parks of São Paulo and the beach resorts of Gualala and Ubatuba, along the coast of that state, as well as the more famous ones in Rio as he attempts to strike up a friendship and possible courtship with the pretty Nelly who has visited New York and is keen on American customs and fads. If you don’t know the differences between Ipanema, Flamengo, Botafogo, Leblon and Copacabana, read all about them in Lesson Nine, the Brazilian beach culture, so you know where the best places are to play beach volleyball. Scott is apprehensive and afraid that Nelly is putting him off with the standard excuse that she might not be free to go out on a first date because she is expecting a visit of her aunt from Minas Gerais. Fortunately for Scott, the aunt (real or invented?) never shows up.

In getting to know his new surroundings, São Paulo even outdoes Rio for ethnic restaurants (see Chapter Ten) with French, Italian, German, Chinese and Japanese specialties. Scott gets help from Nelly and his friends to become familiar with the enormous variety of Brazilian and foreign cuisine available at ethnic restaurants, fast food joints and in home prepared meals. For African specialties, there is no place like Bahia and the Brazilian Northeast but the national dish is still the feijoada, black or white beans with jerked beef, cured pork and sausage. Often, among the slaves, it meant pork products that no one else wanted, the tongue, ears, lips and feet. Usually the preferred beverage to accompany this meal is caipirinha and the combination will usually put you to sleep. Caipirinhas are Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça (a type of sugar cane rum), sugar (preferably raw) and lime. A slightly more elegant meal is the popular churrasco (barbecued steak) served with a buffet table filled with side dishes. A lot quicker is a simple but tasty sandwich – bauru but it remains to be seen now if this traditional fast meal will fall victim to the competition of McDonald’s Big Mac (the latter has been given the more authentic Brazilian-Portuguese name cariocão so it doesn’t sound so foreign).

Like Scott, you will discover that Brazilians are the third or fourth largest per capita consumers of beer – or the variety known as chopp or chope (draft beer), always served very cold, with a lot more foam and a higher alcohol content than most American beers. So when in the mood for a real summertime quencher, you have got to say Me dá um chope (Give me a draft beer).

Brazil’s romance with carnival, soccer and popular music from the samba to the bossa nova, and achievements in cinema, dance and literature, are recounted in several chapters that involve Scott and Nelly in their free time and enjoyment of hobbies and entertainment with their friends. This includes a survey of Brazilian television’s soap operas. We are always given real advice about real places to go; even real menus of real restaurants. Good advice on how to use public transport, the post office and telephone provide additional situations to expand Scott’s and our knowledge of living, studying and working in Brazil. Carnival (carnaval in Portuguese) is the theme of Chapter 13, and subsequent chapters present a panorama of Brazil’s history and rampant inflation explaining how to cope with it. Chapters 19-20 present a more detailed look at the new federal capital of Brasília as a model of urban planning, the old colonial cities of the Northeast and the development of the Amazon Valley, the fate of its indigenous population and the history of VARIG, which at the time the book was written was still Brazil’s national airline.

Among the historical segments, one that will undoubtedly surprise many Americans, is that Brazil was the only South American country to send troops to fight in the Second World War. The Brazilian Expeditionary Force (Força Expedicionária Brasileira, or FEB) was a force of some 25,700 men and women from all three services that fought in Italy from September 1944 to May 1945. In addition to the efforts of FEB, the Brazilian Navy and Air Force also acted in the Atlantic Ocean, from the middle of 1942 until the end of war. During the eight months of the Italian campaign, Brazil’s FEB managed to take 20,573 Axis prisoners, consisting of two generals, 892 officers and 19,679 other ranks. During the War, Brazil lost 948 soldiers, sailors and airmen.

This is a brilliant book that integrates language instruction with a cultural guide book to the country for anyone who desires to spend more than a few days in Brazil and cares to fully appreciate the individuality of the country that has often been lumped together as part of Latin America, a nation that can truly be called our friend and ally.

Dr Norman Berdichevsky is an American specialist in human geography with a strong interest in Hispanic and Portuguese cultures. He is a frequent contributor to PortVitoria and is part of its Board of Editors.

LARHROP, A. and MAYONE DIAS, E. Brasil! Língua e cultura. Newark, Delaware USA, Lingua Text, 1992 (reprints to 2006). ISBN 0-924-453-8695. Review by: BERDICHEVSKY, N. (2012). Brazilian Portuguese and Culture for American Colleges. PortVitoria, UK, v. 5, Jul-Dec, 2012. ISSN 2044-8236