-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.
-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.
-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.
-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.
-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.
-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.
-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”
-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.
-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]
Recently, an image had been making its way around on social media. The image showed Chief Raoni, an indigenous leader in traditional dress, crying, purportedly weeping at the Brazilian government’s decision to proceed with the Belo Monte dam. However, that simplistic narrative, while employed for the causes of indigenous rights and environmentalism does a disservice to the actual culture, life, and story of the indigenous man and his people, as Angela Kristin Vandenbroek reported:
The picture is not of Chief Raoni crying and grieving about the Belo Monte Dam. The picture is not a picture of grief at all. His tears were tears of joy after being reunited with a family member, behavior which is customary among the Kayapó. Chief Raoni is not a powerless man fighting an impossible battle. In the fight to protect the Amazon and its people, he is a leader who has been working with local, national and international communities since 1978, when he appeared in a documentary named Raoni on the deforestation of the Amazon. Since then, he has befriended Sting and the President of France, has written a memoir, has traveled around the world, has facebook, twitterand a website, and although he has not yet stopped the building of the dam he and those he has collaborated with have managed to delay, hold up and tie up the project with court battles, controversy and petitions for thirty-eight years. He has also managed to rally the support of 438,707 (and counting) people worldwide using an online petition.
As Vendenbroek points out, the image alone suggests a powerless indigenous man overcome by an all-powerful state; as his actual biography reveals, he is anything but powerless.
Nor is that the only problem. Though Vandenbroek does not extend the analysis this far, the image also reinforces stereotypes that are ensconced in Latin American history dating back to the first colonial contacts with Europeans. The early decades of contact spurred a whole series of narratives and portrayals of indigenous peoples as backwards, uncivilized, and uncouth. Sometimes, these narratives were “positive,” viewing indigenous peoples as living in virtually Edenic existence; more often, they were derogatory, used to cast an “uncivilized” other that stood in contrast to the “civilized” European (a status not all Europeans were convinced applied to Europe). In these narratives, the indigenous peoples were destined (or doomed) to surrender to European notions of civilization and “progress,” be it through extermination or through conversion. Certainly, such tasks were easier said than done, but early in the colonial era, at least, Europeans imagined a world in which the “noble” or “uncivilized” native gave way to European domination of the Americas.
Though the contexts and centuries have changed, the image of Chief Raoni accomplishes a similar task; instead of colonialism or Europeanness, however, “modernity” and technology are the new unstoppable forces, but the indigenous culture defeated and forced to surrender to these new understandings of “progress” is still present. Yes, the tale is now cast as tragic, but the portrayal still draws on stereotypical notions of indigenous cultures as less technological or more “traditional,” and thus, noble, but doomed to fail in the face of “progress” (now defined in terms of “modernity” and technology, but once upon a time defined in terms of “civilization” and Europeanness). Indeed, it is fair to ask: would the image have resonated quite as strongly with people on social media had Raoni dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, or even a business suit? Perhaps it’s cynical, but it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest the answer very well could be “no.”
To be clear, the impacts of the Belo Monte dam will be devastating to indigenous groups and environment alike, and it seems likely that tears have already been shed over its impact on indigenous communities and others who are already being direclty affected by its construction. But that is not what this meme is ultimately about – it’s about a mis-representation of indigenous cultures in order to advance a cause. One can agree with the cause, but it would be better if it did not rely on such stereotypical memes and narratives to bring home its point.
When I was in Brazil, I’d occasionally encounter people who repeated the Freyrean idea that Brazil isn’t racist in the ways the US was due to the greater variation in skin-color in Brazil and the absence of Jim Crow-style laws. Of course, this is a red herring that presumes racism only takes one form, and throughout the twentieth century, something against which people like Abdias do Nascimento actively fought. And of course, then, this week provided three ugly and disgusting reminders of how far the myth of a racial democracy is from the reality of modern forms of racism in Brazil.
First, at a São Paulo fashion show, Brazilian models “celebrated” black women by wearing brillo pads on their heads in an attempt (misguided at best, intentionally racist at worst) to “emulate” Afro-Brazilian hair. And the “homage” is even worse than it sounds, given that the Portuguese word for brillo, bombril, is also a negative term for kinky hair. Of course, this “fashion” show isn’t an isolated case; the Brazilian fashion industry is notoriously racist, regularly seeking white woman models with blonde hair, blue eyes, and European features to serve as the paradigm of true “beauty.”
Sadly, racism can and take on even more violent tones than the discursive violence of bigotry on the catwalk, and we got another reminder of that fact this week in Brasília, where four girls murdered a 12-year-old girl simply because she was black.
And to be clear, racism isn’t limited to those of African descent. Indigenous peoples who had tried to protect their home in a buiding near Maracanã stadium, where the 2014 World Cup final will be held, were forcibly and violently removed yesterday, with over 200 police officers using tear gas and pepper spray against urban indigenous peoples and protestors [some images NSFW] who had made the building their homes. Of course, the removal was part of broader efforts to forcibly relocate Brazil’s marginalized populations, including the poor, as it attempts to “renovate” the city for the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Nonetheless, yesterday’s eviction of native peoples was particularly ugly; as one comment on Twitter put it, “It’s been 500 years that white men have been exploiting the indigenous people of this continent (Brazil).”
To be clear, it’s not like Brazil is the only country with its own problems of race – such bigotry, hatred, and racism exist throughout the world. Nonetheless, the past week has provided a very brutal reminder of just how wide the gap between the rhetoric of a “racial democracy” and actual social relations in Brazil still are.
Recently, the image below made the rounds on Brazilian Facebook pages. The four billboards have stirred a lot of controversy; their messages are a direct attempt to inflame anti-indigenous sentiment in Brazil. They do so by trying to frame indigenous peoples as opposed to the class-based interests of workers by claiming that indigenous groups in Brazil and the governmental Fundação Nacional do Índio (National Foundation of the Indian; FUNAI) are standing in the way of workers’ rights, national development, and “progress” for the country.
As the caption makes clear, these aren’t exactly subtle messages. One billboard directly frames indigenous people opposite “progress,” thereby recreating ideas of modernity in which indigenous peoples are not only “backwards,” but obstacles to development. Two billboards also directly and explicitly try to stoke tensions between the class-based identities of workers on the one hand, and the ethnic and cultural identities of indigenous peoples on the other. And of course, one cannot help but make clear the company’s real concerns, as it proclaims that indigenous efforts to protect their lands “affects our companies also,” thus implicitly staking capitalism (as represented by the companies) as being impeded by indigenous peoples. Additionally, the implication that indigenous peoples have success thanks only to government protection denies any autonomy or power among indigenous activists themselves independent of the government, even while disregarding and ignoring the very long struggles indigenous peoples have had against government inaction and disregard for their rights in Brazil.
In making the rounds on Facebook recently, I’ve seen some individuals who have commented on this believing it to refer to the conflict over the construction of the controversial Belo Monte dam, which will flood indigenous lands and which indigenous people and environmentalists have been protesting. However, the actual billboards date back to 2006-2007, when indigenous peoples protested against the Aracruz-Celulose company, one of Brazil’s larger paper producers (since having merged with VCP to form Fibria, a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange).
While not directly tied to Belo Monte itself, the image does tap into some of the broader issues regarding indigenous peoples’ struggles in Brazil then and now. Although the billboards claim to speak for the workers’ interests, such claims gloss over the fact that the struggle was more an issue of industry versus indigenous people. Historically, efforts towards “progress,” as one of the billboards puts it, have often harmed workers as well, leading to labor mobilizations throughout the 20th century in an attempt to improve the working and living conditions of workers through safety measures, wages, better representation, and other labor matters. These struggles continue up to the present, demonstrating that, while companies may try to represent workers in their efforts to counter indigenous claims to land and resources, workers themselves are not always treated well within those companies. Indeed, this past spring, workers on the Belo Monte construction site shut operations down themselves when they went on strike to demand better pay.
The ads also reveal the ongoing discursive forms of racism against Brazil’s indigenous peoples that exist into the present. As I said above, these billboards tap into a centuries-old discourse on race that views indigenous peoples and modernity as antithetical and oppositional. Yet the billboards also reveal a particularly neo-liberal mindset. Aracruz was not only critical of indigenous peoples, but of the government, represented by FUNAI. As one of the billboards says, the government, through FUNAI, protects natives, but who will protect the companies? The suggestion seems to be that the free market has been eroded, and that market systems are victims of government intervention. And it’s not like the government has been a historical defender of indigenous peoples. Yes, FUNAI has attempted to represent their interests in recent decades in many regards, but this is in the face of centuries of both colonial and national governments’ forced removal, relocation, enslavement, cultural assimilation, marginalization, and disregard for Brazil’s indigenous peoples. It’s not like there’s some long history of indigenous peoples in Brazil (or anywhere else in North or South America) having undue influence in national government and politics.
Again, the dissonance between the actual context of the billboards (the invasion of indigenous lands and the struggle for production of pulp and paper in 2006-2007) and what people assumed the billboards referred to (the current construction on the Belo Monte dam, which indigenous people continue to oppose due to the loss of lands) is striking, not so much because of the erroneous ties, but because of the actual ongoing issues regarding indigenous peoples, race, and citizenship in Brazil. Indeed, if Belo Monte and Aracruz were different instances, the ongoing uphill struggle indigenous peoples face to protect their lands and have their rights respected is telling. It continues to be clear that, in framing national development and infrastructure versus indigenous rights, the latter definitely continue to fall to the wayside in favor of the former.
With the story of a blonde girl begging in Mexico (and the attention it raised) this past weekend, I commented that the story tapped into some of the broader forms of racial prejudice that exist throughout much of both North and South America:
Racial stereotypes of poverty and street children exist throughout North and South America, and too often, the plights of children in the street are ignored, thanks in no small part to these stereotypes. A blonde child goes missing or is begging for food, and it’s a national crisis, even while, on a daily basis, many more children suffer from poverty, homelessness, and neglect.
This racial stereotyping in which blonde-haired and blue-eyed beggars gain attention for their “uniqueness” even while countries overlook the broader problems of urban poverty of thousands of citizens is rearing its (fair-haired) head in Brazil as well:
Tall, blue-eyed and wrapped in a blanket while roaming the streets of Curitiba in the south of Brazil, Rafael Nunes, a former Brazilian model (now known as the photogenic beggar of Curitiba) has gained international attention after his picture and story went viral on Facebook and Twitter.
Rafael, aged 30, ended up on the streets because of crack cocaine addiction and his story was only revealed after Indy Zanardo, a tourist, was approached by Rafael and asked if his picture could be taken. [...]
Besides the general reaction to his good looks and his sad drug addiction story, the debate on Rafael’s case has grown into a racism-oriented discussion about how Brazilian society only reacts with indignation to situations of social exclusion when those affected are white and ‘European-looking’.
Although Brazilians are one of the most racially diversesocieties in the world, the top of the country’s social economic pyramid is still widely occupied by white Brazilians and most social indicators connected to education, access to health-care and employment overwhelmingly privilege this group.
As with the case of the young girl in Mexico, the discussion around this young man’s plight is providing some powerful insights into the subtle ways in which racial stereotyping in Brazil (and much of the Americas) works. People wonder why his plight is so horrible, how he is not involved in modeling anymore, etc., without considering the broader social and structural issues of urban poverty and homelessness in Brazil. Again, this isn’t the place to judge his own position, or the tragic impact of addiction on this individual, or social customs that blame the victims of addiction rather than attempting to address the issue. Rather, it is to serve as yet another example, alongside of that from Mexico, of the ways in which racial stereotypes and poverty continue to operate in the Americas. The fact that his story became a national (and now international) headline due to his looks, while the plight of Brazil’s millions of homeless citizens who do not look like him goes unreported (in spite of the efforts of groups like the Homeless Workers’ Movement tries to bring attention to the issue) is a powerful reminder that homelessness and urban poverty continue to be all-too-easily overlooked in much of the hemisphere and the world.
This week, Brazil passed a new version of affirmative action for higher education. The Senate authorized a bill that, for the next ten years, half of all university admissions go to students from public high schools. Additionally, the bill establishes a new quota system that requires each state reserve openings for students of Afro-descendant, indigenous, and mixed-race students, based on the percentage of each group’s overall population in a given state. For example: if Rio de Janeiro state is 40% “white,” 40% Afro-descendants, and 20% indigenous [and, to be clear, these are just made-up numbers to illustrate the point], then public universities in Rio de Janeiro must have 40% of their admissions be white, 40% Afro-descendants, and 20% indigenous. If another state has different percentages, then public universities in that state must reflect its own demographic makeup. After that ten-year period, the quotas will be discontinued, presumably in the hopes that ten years will be enough time to create a social, cultural, and institutional shift in education in Brazil that undoes centuries of inequalities in Brazilian education.
Overall, I think this law is a really important step and a good law. The focus is falling on the racial quotas component, but just as important I think is the requirement that at least half of all entrants to universities come from public high schools. This matters because in no small measure it is through the secondary schools that racial and socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil have persisted. In Brazil, public universities are free; however, in order to enter them, you have to pass a rigorous set of exams in all areas. These exams are difficult enough that they often take extra training in high school, training that one can either receive in a private (i.e., paid-for, and usually expensive) high school, or through special night classes that also cost money. In this way, Brazil’s poorer populations, who historically are often “darker” than the elites for any number of reasons dating back to Brazil’s colonial era and the establishment of slavery, are shut out from these private schools and classes, because of the financial cost of such an education, because they also have to work to make ends meet, or any number of reasons. These poorer sectors often end up in the public schooling system in high school, which is free but which does not have the time or resources for intensive preparations that focus solely on the entrance exams to universities. Thus, students, usually whiter, whose families can afford private high schools are given the resources and means to enter into a free public university, while students, often from a poorer and “darker” background (given the ways in which class and race in Brazil coincide) who have to rely on free public schooling end up having to enroll in expensive and less-discriminatory private universities, where they are often unable to finish their degrees due to the costs of education. Without a college degree, they return to less-prestigious jobs that do not pay as well, ensuring the obstacles to an education that will help them improve their socio-economic status will continue on to their children and onward. For this reason, I think making it so that at least half of the students entering a public university in the next 10 years came from a public high school is an important step in opening up Brazil’s universities and addressing the social, economic, and racial inequalities in Brazil.
Although perhaps complex, these explanations and the new law also reveal just how complicated the racial question in Brazil is. Of course, this isn’t Brazil’s first instance of affirmative action laws. Toward the end of his administration (1994-2002), neoliberal president Fernando Henrique Cardoso passed a law that created a system of quotas in universities in Brazil, in an attempt to address the structural racism that all too often shut out Afro-descendants based on socioeconomic factors, thereby perpetuating racial inequalities in Brazil. The law came after decades of struggles, led by figures such as Abdias do Nascimento, who argued that Brazil’s myth of racial democracy and constant comparisons to racism in the US covered up very real forms of racism in Brazil, and that only through reforms and policies like affirmative action could the country begin to confront and address its own racist past. The early-2000s law implemented a racial quota system that a variety of studies in both the US and Brazil from well-known and respected historians, political scientists, sociologists, economists, and others all suggested that Brazil’s policies were effective, even if they should not be the endpoint in addressing racial inequality. Indeed, in comparing Brazil and the US, I’m inclined to agree with Micol Siegel that, rather than Brazil learning from the US’s past, it is now the US who could and should learn from the Brazilian model of affirmative action.
Of course, the law was not without opposition. Some scholars in Brazil, including generally respected antropologists like Yvonne Maggie and Peter Fry, lobbied heavily against affirmative action. Their basic reasoning, with its roots in Gilberto Freyre’s work, was that there was no racism in Brazil; by creating quotas based along racial categories, the government would create racism. Though their arguments have become more nuanced in recent years, they still hinge on comparisons of racism in the US and Brazil, arguing that the US’s racism was “different” (and implicitly “worse” than Brazil’s), pointing to Jim Crow laws and legal segregation in the US to argue that affirmative action is a good model for the US, but irrelevant to Brazil. Of course, this is a highly-problematic argument, starting from a fair point (racial relations in Brazil and the US historically are different in important ways) and taking that to an absurd conclusion (therefore Brazil doesn’t have its own structural forms of racism that affirmative action policies could help overcome). Maggie in particular is a fierce proponent of this viewpoint, as one can read in a debate on race in Brazil among respected scholars this past March. Peter Fry’s Freyrean argument that race in Brazil is “Too Hard to Identify” is a slightly different variation on this theme: because the history of racial categorization in Brazil is different than in the US, affirmative action hurts more than it helps.
Nor are Fry and Maggie lone voices in the wilderness. I certainly heard these arguments, both for and against affirmative action, in my time in Brazil, and was often asked what I thought as a US citizen; indeed, it was not infrequent that I even heard why my country needed affirmative action but Brazil most certainly did not. Nor was my experience unique; these debates take place regularly in classrooms in universities in Brazil, as seen in Henry Louis Gates’ documentary on race in Brazil. Politicians were not exempt from this opposition. The Democrats Party (Democratas, previously known as the Liberal Front Party until 2007), were particularly opposed to policies of affirmative action, arguing that policies of addressing past injustices based on racial categories was the equivalent of “reviving Nazi ideas.” Ultimately, the Democratas took their case before the Supreme Court, which this past April, unanimously ruled that the quota system was indeed legal, allowing the government to try to address centuries of social, cultural, and economic inequalities in Brazil.
That said, I think it is unquestionably a good thing that the Supreme Court has ruled the way it has, and that Brazil’s Congress has acted to further strengthen the affirmative action laws that came before. While these new policies may not solve all of the problems of inequality in Brazil, they are an important step. There are reasons to be cautious, particularly regarding the 10-year limit; what will happen after the quotas expire? That said, at least for the next ten years, Brazil will attempt to address centuries of inequalities via access to education, and that is nothing but a good thing.
This week’s entry in the Get to Know a Brazilian series focuses on Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011), a politician, poet, and activist who became one of the leading intellectuals and spokespersons for Afro-Brazilians in the twentieth century. Nascimento’s own activism, writings, and words provide a marked contrast to the rosier picture of race in Brazil that Gilberto Freyre offered.
Originally born in 1914 to parents of humble means and ex-slave grandparents, Abdias do Nascimento grew up in the coffee-producing interior of the state of São Paulo. In his own recollections, Nascimento’s childhood played an important part in his eventual activism, as he recalled Italian immigrant workers as well as middle- and upper-class Brazilians using racial epithets towards him as a child. In his teenage years, he joined the Frente Negra Brasileira, Brazil’s first black political party, which existed from 1931 until 1937, when Getúlio Vargas abolished all political parties and ushered in his dictatorial Estado Novo from 1937 to 1945. Nascimento earned a BA in economics from the Universidade do Brasil (today known as the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) in 1938.
By his own admission, Nascimento had an epiphany in 1943 while in Buenos Aires. While there, he saw a performance by the Teatro del Pueblo that incorporated audience participation and used theater as a means of popular mobilization and education. Inspired, Nascimento returned to Brazil and began working with other Afro-Brazilians to create the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater). Contrary to the more politically-oriented activists of São Paulo, the activists of the Teatro Experimental, based in Rio de Janeiro, incoprorated Afro-Brazilian cultural elements like samba, Candomblé, and other cultural forms with their roots in the African and slave cultures of black Brazilians. Beyond the theater performances, the Teatro also published its own newspaper, Quilombo, a direct reference to the communities of self-liberated slaves in Brazil’s hinterlands during the colonial era. In this period, Nascimento and many of his contemporaries pointed to the idea of racial democracy, which had its roots (but not its original expression) in Gilberto Freyre’s work. These activists suggested that Brazil was a racial democracy, but in order to maintain that democracy, the country had to make sure it was inclusive of Afro-Brazilians. As Nascimento would write at the beginning of the twenty-first century, “The appeal to the principle of democracy constituted, at that point, the most powerful weapon for social demands and political struggles. The motto of racial democracy fit into that context, and the leadership of the black movements brandished it like the banner of Ogum.”
By the 1960s, however, Nascimento’s message and tone had changed considerably. In the context of a military dictatorship that paid lip service to the idea of “racial democracy” even as it exacerbated social and economic inequalities, Nascimento’s work became harshly critical of both the military dictatorship and the rhetoric of racial democracy. He criticized the government’s failure to actually include any Afro-Brazilians in its diplomatic and cultural relations with African nations and intensified his attacks on what he now called the “myth” of racial democracy that glossed over the very real structural and social racism that continued to plague Brazil. Spending much of the dictatorship in exile, Nascimento became both one of the harshest critics of racism in Brazil as well as one of the harshest critics of the military regime on racial grounds. Upon his return to Brazil in the early-1980s, these stances made Nascimento one of the key public figures (though not the sole one) in a new phase of black activism that increasingly fought against systematic attempts to ignore or eliminate Afro-Brazilian culture and politics in Brazil. In this vein, Nascimento spoke out against interracial marriage, the cooptation of Afro-Brazilian cultural practices (like samba and Carnaval) by white Brazilian, and ongoing racial inequalities in education at all levels (including higher education) in Brazil. Although his attitude towards his past stances in the 1940s and 1950s shifted over time, Nascimento continued to be highly active one of the harshest and most direct critics of racial inequalities in Brazil up until his death in 2011 at age 97; indeed, can get a very strong and concise understanding of his views in Henry Louis Gates’ PBS special “Brazil: A Racial Paradise?”, which includes an interview with Nascimento before he died.
While Abdias do Nascimento was not the sole intellectual or activist to shape racial thought and (increasingly) challenge Gilberto Freyre’s model of racial relations in Brazil, he was undoubtedly one of the key figures in Afro-Brazilian politics, culture, and thought in the twentieth century, and his efforts played and continue to play no small part in Brazil trying to understand the racial injustices of its past and to shape a better, more equal and just society going forward.
 Quoted in Paulina L. Alberto, Terms of Inclusion: Black Intellectuals in Twentieth-Century Brazil, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), p. 194.
Much of the information in this post comes from two excellent books on Afro-Brazilian activism and thought. For more on Afro-Brazilian intellectuals, including Abdias do Nascimento, see Paulina L. Alberto’s excellent and prize-winning Terms of Inclusion: Black Intellectuals in Twentieth-Century Brazil. For more on the history of Afro-Brazilian activism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, see Kim Butler’s Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolution São Paulo and Salvador. For more on the Brazilian dictatorship’s appeals to ideas of racial democracy and its problematic emphasis on cultural ties to Africa, see Jerry Dávila’s Hotel Trópico: Brazil and the Challenge of African Decolonization, 1950-1980. I cannot recommend strongly enough these three books to anybody interested in Brazil, Afro-descendant activism in the Americas, black thought in the hemisphere, or 20th-century ties between Africa and the Americas.
As I restart this series, I want to turn to Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, one of the more important writers on race and ethnicity in Brazil in the twentieth century, both for better and for worse.
Freyre was born in the northeastern state of Pernambuco to one of the older Portuguese families in Brazil. As a child, he spent time both in Recife (one of the most important ports of colonial Brazil) and in the Pernambucan countryside, where his time spent on old sugar plantations would come to play a major role in his future academic development. As a young adult, Freyre traveled to the United States, where he obtained his bachelors degree at Baylor University. At the age of twenty, he relocated to New York City, where he studied anthropology at Columbia University under the famed anthropologist Franz Boas, whose ideas on cultural anthropology and criticisms of evolutionary models and racial determinants would play a key role in Freyre’s later writings. While in the United States, Freyre began to combine his US anthropological training with his childhood in Brazil, focusing on racial identity, culture, and history in Brazil, beginning with a tentative foray into these topics with his article “Social Life in Brazil in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century,” which appeared in an early volume of the Hispanic American Historical Review in 1922.
Although Freyre had begun to make a name for himself as a Brazilian intellectual, it was with his 1933 work Casa-grande e senzala (translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves) that he became best-known. Challenging positivist philosophical narratives that portrayed Brazilians as inherently “inferior” due to their mixture between indigenous, African, and Portuguese people dating back to the colonial era, Freyre argued that it was this exact mixture through sexual relations (relations whose violence Freyre glossed over) that made Brazilians free from any source of racism. According to Freyre, through this history of mixture, Brazilians had acquired the best traits of three races, while the physical markers had blurred beyond the point of easy identification, making Brazil a land where racism could not exist. In making this argument, Freyre contrasted Brazil to the United States, where he pointed to the racism that emerged from strict racial dichotomies that he saw in his time spent there, particularly in the Deep South. Contrasting Brazil with the United States, scholars would later describe what they imagined to be a racially harmonious Brazil as a “racial democracy,” a term that is all too often incorrectly attributed to Freyre; although he himself later adopted the term, it appeared nowhere in Casa-grande e senzala.
This argument would have a profound impact on how scholars in both Brazil and the United States thought and talked about race for generations to come, setting up an often-frustrating narrative debate over “whose racism was worse” that failed to address the complex racial relations of either country. Ironically, though, in declaring Brazil to be free of the types of racism found in the US, he almost completely overlooked indigenous peoples in his first version of Casa-grande e senzala, focusing instead on Afro-descendants and Europeans and thereby reifying the idea of the “disappeared” indigenous person as a historical character with no relevance to the present (a conceptualization that recent ethnographic work shows continues to the present, with detrimental impacts on Brazil’s indigenous peoples). Additionally, according to Freyre in Casa-grande e senzala (and taking a page from his education with Boas), any shortcomings of Brazilian society were not due to race, but to cultural and historical obstacles.
Freyre certainly was not the first Brazilian intellectual who wrestled with narratives of Brazil’s racial past. Euclides da Cunha’s classic Os Sertões (in English, Rebellion in the Backlands), showed an ambivalent approach to the idea of racial mixing, one that did not necessarily embrace Brazil’s mixed history but that was also increasingly hesitant to condemn it. Other Brazilian intellectuals throughout the 1910s and 1920s also had begun to challenge past narratives of race and celebrate Brazil’s diverse background. In this regard, Freyre was not the first to make such claims (in spite of many erroneous claims otherwise after the publication of Casa-grande e senzala). However, Casa-grande e senzala came out at a time when a new sense of Brazilian nationalism was beginning to emerge, making his work particularly useful to politicians, bureaucrats, and intellectuals who wanted to push a new identity of a unified Brazil. His message particularly fit well with the nationalist and centralizing messages of president Getúlio Vargas, who sought to recreate Brazilian government and society after the deterioration of Brazil’s federative First Republic (1889-1930). Additionally, Freyre’s argument was in many ways conservative, celebrating what Freyre imagined to be a hierarchical and patriarchal past, in which order and privilege among the agrarian elites (like those on the sugar plantation he spent time on as a child); this argument was appealing to a number of conservative elites throughout Brazil, giving his book a unique heft that his forbears had not necessarily had. In the transnational context, Casa-grande e senzala also came at a time of broader re-evaluations of ethnicity and race in other parts of Latin America, including works such as José Vasconcelos’s La Raza Cosmica (The Cosmic Race) and writings on race by Cuban writers Fernando Ortíz and, at the end of the nineteenth century, José Martí.
With the fame and respect garnered from Casa-grande e senzala, Freyre published several more works, including Sobrados e Mucambos (in English, The Mansions and the Shanties) in 1936, which focused on the decline of Brazilian slavery and the Brazilian aristocratic class in the 19th century, and Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progres) in 1957, which analyzed the late-nineteenth transition from an empire to a republic. In these works, Freyre revealed an increasingly conservative tendencies, as evidenced by his support of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, tendencies that became even clearer in 1964, when he quickly came out in support of the military dictatorship that overthrew President João Goulart.
By the latter part of the twentieth century, Freyre’s arguments regarding Brazil’s patriarchal past and a society free of racial tensions increasingly came under attack. A new wave of social scientists and Afro-Brazilian activists began not only to criticize Freyre’s arguments regarding an absence of racism in Brazil, but to even fault the popularity of the idea of Brazil as a “racial democracy” as a myth that hid very real racial differences and prejudices within Brazilian society. With Freyre’s support for and ties to a military dictatorship that did little to address real socio-economic or racial divisions in the country, Afro-Brazilian intellectuals and social scientists in both Brazil and the United States suggested that the “myth of racial democracy” had done much greater harm to Brazil by allowing Brazilians to deny any sense of racism even when it still existed. As they argued, it was even more difficult to undo a problem that many people refused to acknowledge existed, a refusal that drew in no small part on Freyre’s arguments in Casa-grande e senzala.
In spite of these criticisms and the emergence of new questions and methods of analysis of race and ethnicity in Brazil, Freyre remained celebrated up until his death in 1987. In 1983 in particular, as Casa-grande e senzala turned 50, Freyre was the subject of a variety of homages and celebrations throughout Brazil. At his death at 87, he was still a vaunted figure, celebrated for his contributions to Brazilian thought, writing, and national identity in many quarters. It is only in the last couple of decades that scholars and intellectuals have fully begun to more critically analyze and consider Freyre’s role in Brazilian writing and thinking. in an attempt to move beyond the questions and arguments Freyre offered and to provide new and more nuanced analyses. Indeed, the fact that Freyre still looms large in the scholarship, even in works on Brazil that are critical of the Freyrean model and narrative, shows just how far Gilberto Freyre’s writings and ideas on race and Brazilian history reached, in Brazil and beyond.
-In a process that continues to go through fits and starts, Brazil’s Congress has begun investigating human rights abuses that the military committed during its 1964-1985 dictatorship. Though President Dilma Rousseff authorized the creation of a Truth Commission late last year, it has yet to get off the ground, and earlier this year, a judge declared that torturers could not face prosecution after federal prosecutors tried to treat the “disappearances” of dozens of people as “ongoing” crimes in order to try to get around the amnesty law of 1979.
-After escape attempts, gun battles, and irreparable structural decline, Venezuela has begun relocating prisoners from the La Planta prison in Caracas. However, the Venezuelan NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad (A Window to Freedom), which focuses on prisoners’ rights, has expressed concerns about transfers from the prison (where a fire killed 25 prisoners in 1996), claiming it will only add to the already-overcrowded prisons in other parts of the country.
-Fourteen people have died in a fire at a rehab center in Peru after they were unable to escape from behind locked doors. The fire is the second of its kind to take place in the last four and a half months. In late-January, a similar fire took the lives of 29 people seeking treatment. The fires are yet another reminder of the very real challenges and limitations facing private drug treatment centers, which make up an overwhelming majority of the country’s rehabilitation centers.
-Brazil’s Supreme Court has approved the use of racial quotas in university admissions. The decision is designed to address the gross inequalities between Afro-Brazilian descendants and “white” Brazilians, inequalities that Henry Louis Gates explored in a PBS series and that I discussed (including the issue of affirmative action and the tensions over it) here.
-A new report claims IKEA relied on the labor of Cuban prisoners to produce its furniture in the 1980s.
-After announcing Venezuela may leave the IACHR, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Madura called on Latin American countries to create their own human rights organization that would operate independently of the United States’ influence.
-Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina is staying true to his campaign pledge to be tough on crime, but the new strongarm tactics have some wondering about the fate of human rights in Guatemala.
-Let the “Hugo Chávez’s successor” speculation begin again in the wake of his recent appointment of 10 members to the Council of State
-Massive floods in the Brazilian state of Amazônas are threatening the homes of thousands, even while the Northeastern part of the country continues to suffer from major drought.
-Argentine President Cristina Kirchner has named Miguel Galuccio as the new head of YPF, finalizing the reappropriation of the oil-producing company.
-Peruvian authorities are cautioning people to stay away from beaches after hundreds of pelicans have washed up dead. The pelicans only add to the mystery of dead animals on beaches; in the last few months, 877 dolphins and porpoises have also been found dead on Peru’s beaches.
On Wednesday, I briefly discussed the need for Brazil to address social and economic inequalities not just for Haitian immigrants, but for all Brazilians. While economic inequalities in Brazil are very real, they cannot be separated from racial inequalities, something I discuss periodically and that Teresa also brought up in her excellent post on the Federal University of Lusophonian Afro-Brazilian Integration in Ceará. Even while a majority of Brazilians self-identified as having at least one Afro-descendant in their family tree last year, Afro-Brazilians still face very real social obstacles to equality in the job market, in the economy, in education, and in society generally. In this context, there is no easy fix that will suddenly make Brazil something resembling the “racial democracy” that many have claimed it to be throughout the 20th century.
In this context, Paulo Rogério’s recent post on Afro-Brazilian entrepreneurs is illuminating. He does a great job tracing the structural and social issues that lead to a dearth of Afro-Brazilians in the entrepreneurial sector (according to Rogério, only 3.8% of all Afro-Brazilians self-identify as entrepreneurs, and only 0.5% of all corporate executives of Brazil’s 500 largest companies are Afro-Brazilians). Reasons for this enormous disparity include
a lack of societal encouragement to become entrepreneurs; family members without any history in creating their own enterprises; and, above all, the persistent difficulty of accessing capital. Brazil also has never had a public policy that sought to specifically promote black-managed enterprises.
Rogério has some interesting solutions to addressing these problems, including a policy similar to South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment program, greater emphasis on and support for entrepreneurial activities in the federal government, and the use of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics to promote joint ventures that include Afro-Brazilians. I think these are good steps, but in no way solve all of the problems, which as I initially said, are diverse and manifest throughout society. I would argue that emphasis on better educational opportunities for Afro-descendants is perhaps even more important than these initiatives (though that’s not to say one should be substituted for the other; rather, both need to co-exist), and while Brazil’s affirmative action program is a good start, the governments, both federal and state, need to do a better job addressing inequalities in primary and secondary schools, where many of Brazil’s poorer sectors (including many Afro-descendants) attend public schools and cannot afford the private universities, even while the middle- and upper-classes attend private primary and secondary schools that help them enter into the elite (and free) public university system. Combatting the stigmatization of the poor and of the racially- and socially-marginalized in the media is important, too, whether it be through advertisements, journalism’s portrayal of favela residents, or the subtle images implanted through novelas and films. That said, I think Rogério’s suggestions are also important, and it’s worth reading his (brief) article in its entirety.