The Brazilian Way

Brazil Table of Contents

Despite regional and social class variations, the Brazilian way of life has common traits that distinguish it from the customary ways of dealing with people and situations in North America and Europe and even in other Latin American countries. Its uniqueness seems to result from the peculiar blend of Portuguese, African, and Amerindian cultural influences in a setting in which central authority attempted, without great success, to exploit the people and resources and to enforce religious norms. Under these circumstances, it was preferable to appear to obey than actually to obey.

Many attempts have been made to explain what makes Brazilians different from their neighbors in the Americas, both North and South. In the late nineteenth century, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, one of Brazil's greatest writers, explored the subtleties of the Brazilian character, focusing on the attempts of the urban middle class to emulate European lifestyles and aspirations. In the 1920s, the writer Mário de Andrade, a leader of the modernist movement that broke with tradition and attempted to find an authentic Brazilian identity, created the archetypal Brazilian character, Macunaíma, a lazy but ingenious black-turned-white Amazonian who migrated to São Paulo and was a "man with no character." In the following decade, in books such as The Masters and the Slaves (Casa Grande e Senzala) and The Mansions and the Shanties (Sobrados e Mocambos), Gilberto Freyre emphasized the flexibility of the Portuguese, as well as the African roots of the Northeasterners. Other authors characterized the Brazilian as homem cordial (cordial man). In his novels and stories, João Guimarães Rosa, Brazil's greatest writer of the twentieth century, found universal themes in the contradictory characters and peculiar language of men and women deep in the sertão backlands. Novelist Jorge Amado focused on social conflict, local color, and sensuality in his native Bahia State. More recently, the Brazilian anthropologist Roberto da Matta explored tensions between the private and public spheres, spontaneity, and authority, as well as sentiment and order to which Brazilians have found their own characteristic solutions.

At the level of interpersonal relations, in contrast to what is usually found in Spanish-speaking Latin America, where behavior tends to be more formal and rigid, there are in Brazil strong cultural values in favor of conciliation, tolerance, and cordiality. To the extent possible, direct personal confrontation is avoided. This Brazilian style of behavior may be derived from an Iberian and colonial heritage of diverse ethnic groups living together, weaker central authority exercised by the Portuguese crown, and day-to-day practical forms of resistance to exploitation. It may also have an element of popular emulation of the genteel behavior of the elites. Whatever its origins, Brazilians are known for their informality, good nature, and charm (simpatia ), as well as their desire not to be thought unpleasant or boorish (chato ). They place high value on warmth, spontaneity, and lack of pomp and ceremony.

Though they are cordial and magnanimous at the interpersonal level, Brazilians as a whole are exploitative with regard to the environment. This attitude has been explained in terms of the bandeirante or conquistador mentality by authors such as Viana Moog and Jorge Wilheim. According to this interpretation, the general spirit of the colonizer of yesteryear or today is to accumulate as much wealth as possible as quickly as possible and then move on. Whatever its roots, the result of this kind of behavior is individualism, transience, and disregard for others and for nature as opposed to stability, solidarity, equilibrium, and equity. It has led to both human and environmental degradation.

In a similar fashion, Brazilians tend not to think in terms of the common good. Discourse invoking mutual benefit for all concerned is often mistrusted as a disguised justification for colonialism or exploitation. The result of widespread evasion of rules imposed by the central authority is a vicious circle involving crackdowns and inspections (fiscalização ) to enforce ever-tougher rules and ever more sophisticated and ingenious ways of evading the rules (burla ). This tendency often blocks the efforts of those who are well-intentioned, without creating major obstacles but rather making their work easier for the truly dishonest.

This nonconformity with illegitimate authority is probably an origin of one of Brazil's most characteristic and original concepts, summarized in the word jeito . The word is practically untranslatable but refers to ways of "cutting red tape," "bending the rules," "looking the other way," or an alternative "way out." In its worst form, it amounts to corruption. At its best, it means finding pragmatic solutions to difficult problems without making waves.

Many Brazilians regard soccer and Carnaval, for which Brazil is famous, as outlets for the frustrations of everyday life. Brazil's three world soccer championships led to great national pride until 1970; subsequent losses caused twenty-four years of frustration until the fourth World Cup was brought home in 1994. The yearly Carnaval festivities provide for short-lived release and relaxation.

Another form of release is through imported and native music, widely disseminated by modern communications. The bossa nova of the 1960s was replaced by the lively Brazilian rhythms and dance movement of forró , lambada , and pagode .

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress