“Make a Sixth”

June 16, 2010

The madness has begun!  Brazil defeated North Korea yesterday 2-1 in their first game of the World Cup tournament.  The biggest sporting event in the world, every four years 32 national teams spend a month competing for the coveted Jules Rimet trophy and bragging rights for the title of best football nation on Earth.  The Brazilians are the only country to have competed in every World Cup tournament since 1930, and the Brazilians are five time champions.  In fact, they have won five of the last thirteen tournaments (and they were in the championship game in one other, losing to France in Paris in 1998). [See my blog of October 10, 2009 about futebol in Brazil.]  Brazil, win or lose this World Cup, has bragging rights like no other country.  (The Italians have won four times, and they are reigning champions having won in 2006.)  There are posters everywhere here proclaiming, “Win a Sixth” (Faz um hexa).

World Cup fever

The World Cup in Brazil is something like the Super Bowl in the U.S., but stretched out over a month (especially when the Brazilians win).  During yesterday’s afternoon game, the country came to a virtual standstill.  Government offices and many stores closed.  Several hundred thousand (including me) flocked to Copacabana beach to huge television screens and grandstands set up for the tournament.

Watching the game on Copacabana beach

The city yesterday was covered with green and gold.  Street vendors are doing a booming business in funny hats, large eyeglasses, flags, banners, and noisemakers.  Brazilian flags are everywhere.  The World Cup, in fact, is one of the most powerful examples of the formation of national identity—the topic of the book I am writing.  No matter one’s class, color, region, or local football team, when the World Cup begins, everyone is Brazilian.  Everyone is unified and galvanized cheering for their team, their country.

The multitudes watching the game at Copacabana beach

The team itself is an advertisement for the central myth of Brazilian identity—that all Brazilians, regardless of color or class, are forged out of the collision of three peoples, Africans, Portuguese, and Native Americans.  The rainbow of colors on the Brazilian team—from the pale skinned star Kaká to the dark skinned Ramires—reflects the spectrum of skin tones in Brazil as a whole.  No other team in the World Cup has the ethnic and phenotypical range of the Brazilians.  The power of television and the World Cup reinforce visually this central myth of Brazilian identity, and the team provides one of the most potent forces in the reinforcement of national identity.

Even the great poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade was dressed for the game!


The “Beautiful Age” Theatre

June 7, 2010

Last week the city of Rio de Janeiro reopened the stunningly beautiful Theatro Municipal after more than two years of renovation work.  Built between 1906 and 1909, the theatre is one of the landmarks of downtown Rio.  It faces across the extensive Cinelândia plaza looking out at Guanabara Bay and the Sugarloaf Mountain.  On the west side of the plaza sits the stately City Council Chamber and on the east side is the broad Rio Branco Avenue with the National Library and National Museum of Fine Arts just across the street from the theatre.  Both were also built in the first decade of the twentieth century in the same architectural style, symbols of the “new” Rio de Janeiro.

Sugarloaf and Cinelândia Plaza seen from Theatro balcony

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Rio was the political, economic, and cultural capital of the nation.  The Brazilian elites consciously strived to emulate Europe, especially England and France.  During this so called belle époque (beautiful age) the elites physically transformed Rio de Janeiro much the way the Parisian elite had transformed Paris a half-century earlier.  Mayor Francisco Pereira Passos leveled sections of the city center to open wide boulevards, in particular, what today is the massive Avenida Getúlio Vargas and the street that runs perpendicular to it, the Avenida Rio Branco (known as the Avenida Central in the early twentieth century).  Many of the areas that Pereira Passos destroyed were tenements and slums in the central parts of the city and some of the displaced inhabitants migrated into the earliest favelas on Rio hillsides.

Cinelândia Plaza with Theatro Muncipal

The Theatro Municipal was built in the style of European opera houses complete with marble, chandeliers, frescoes, and gold leaf.  French and Italian designers and artisans completed much of the art work.  The restored building lacks a few finishing touches, but it is a jewel.  New gold leaf, completely reconstructed chandeliers, and restored frescoes shine and sparkle.  This belle époque opera house (with 2100 seats) also has the intimacy that is missing in so many modern facilities.  Even in the upper galleries (of the four levels), one can still feel reasonably close to the performers and the acoustics are excellent.

Exterior of the Theatro

On Friday night I attended Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore (I love Italian opera!).  As I wandered through the building admiring the renovations I wondered how different the crowd and atmosphere must have been a century earlier when the theatre opened.  Surely, the casually dressed crowd of middle-class and upper-class Brazilians looked very different than the elegantly dressed and (largely) upper-class patrons who must have attended performances in 1910.  The streets would have been filled with horses and carriages, and electric streetcars, rather than the automobiles and busses that circled the building (and the metro that runs under it).

Interior of the Theatro

I loved the performance despite the sparseness of the sets. (The director opted for striking costumes and clever placement of a large cast rather than the traditional sets.)  For me, opera is about the power of the human voice to move us emotionally, viscerally.  The performers were very good, and I went home moved.  As I stepped out of the theatre near midnight into the cool night air, the doorways of the Avenida Rio Branco and side streets had already begun to fill up with those who would spend the night sleeping under cardboard and blankets just a short distance from the gold leaf and opulence of this architectural jewel.  After three hours of the exquisite beauty of Verdi and Italian opera I was reminded that despite a century of economic growth and urbanization the social structure of Rio still looked very much as it did when the Theatro Municipal opened in 1909.

Our Lady of Peace

May 4, 2010

Every day I pass the Church of Our Lady of Peace (Nossa Senhora da Paz) located just a few blocks east of my apartment.  It was one of the first substantial buildings in Ipanema when it was completed in 1918.  A lovely cathedral with beautiful vaulting and a soaring altar, the church seems to have a steady stream of parishioners and masses.  It sits across the street from a luxuriant, one-square block park by the same name.

Nossa Senhora da Paz Church

Just outside the church, tucked away in a corner off the sidewalk, behind a wrought iron fence, is a small grotto with the image of Nossa Senhora.  On the street side of the fence is a concrete table rimmed around the top edge by a stone border.  Inside this border, the faithful place lighted candles.  I often see parishioners placing votive candles on the table and then they usually pray and, sometimes, speak to the Virgin.

The scenes bring to the fore my intense exposure to evangelical Southern Baptist worship in my youth and adolescence in East Texas.  In that hellfire and brimstone, revivalist culture I learned to believe that there was but one way to Heaven, through the acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Savior, and that salvation came through direct communication with God.  I was taught that Catholics were evil and, at best, seriously misguided.  At worst, they were hard drinking, uncouth heathens who prayed before idols, in particular, of the Virgin Mary.

When I see these devout Catholics lighting candles and praying to this image of the Virgin Mary, it instantly brings out my old prejudices, even though I long ago left behind the Christianity of my youth.  My years of anthropological training have made me a bit of a cultural relativist willing to entertain the notion that no one has a monopoly on truth, at least, no one can prove to my satisfaction they do.  I say “a bit” because I do not accept the extreme cultural relativist position that all beliefs are equally valid.  As Voltaire said long ago, “understanding is not toleration”.  I may be willing to empathize and try to understand the logic of others’ religious beliefs, but I do not automatically then accept their validity.

The devotion of Brazilians (and all Catholics) to the Virgin speaks volumes about the importance of Catholic values as the fundamental basis of Brazilian culture, a cultural logic for centuries constructed on patriarchy, hierarchy, and a deep sense of collectivity.  It is a world apart from the intensely individualistic and egalitarian ethos of evangelical Protestantism.  I was taught that every man is his own priest, and that salvation ultimately hinges on a direct and personal relationship with God.  There is no need for intermediaries such as priests, bishops, and popes.  Yet this deeply individualistic worldview also produces a mechanistic “community” of individuals rather than an organic community of the collectivity.

Ultimately, the Protestantism of my youth was radical individualism embedded in an atomized community.  Despite the inequalities and hierarchy, the Catholic worldview that has created and shaped Brazilian civilization created a community in which all were bound together, albeit in bonds that were reciprocal, but not equal.  As a child, I may have been speaking to my God directly in a personal relationship, but I was ultimately on my own.  Brazilian Catholics speak to the Virgin Mary, and other intermediaries, rather than directly to God, but they are bound together in ties of solidarity.  They may light candles to the Virgin and carry the burdens of hierarchy and inequality, but all those Protestants nurtured in my religious tradition–who speak directly to their God–do so alone.

Rain, Floods, and Favelas

April 20, 2010

Last week the rains descended on Rio.  On Monday and Tuesday, April 5-6 two months of normal rainfall (nearly 12 inches) cascaded down on the city in a period of 36 hours.  For a city located just above sea level and with hundreds of thousands of people living precariously on the stunningly beautiful hillsides, the rain created havoc and death.

Streets adjacent to Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas

As cariocas attempted to go home from work on Monday night they found themselves surrounded by rising waters that flooded major thoroughfares bringing traffic to a standstill.  The two Rebouças tunnels that connect downtown Rio with Ipanema, Leblon and the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas became parking lots for the hundreds of cars unable to exit the tunnels into the low lying intersections.  Waters sweeping down from the hillsides around the lake lifted the level of the lake over the shores and into the neighboring streets.  Many had to sleep in their cars waiting 8-10 hours before they could leave.  The main bus terminal was isolated by rising waters.  The city simply could not absorb the massive rains.  For two days, Rio de Janeiro came to a virtual standstill as the mayor urged everyone to stay home.

Flooded streets in the Jardim Botanico neighborhood

The traffic and transit problems, however, were bothersome and temporary compared to the catastrophes on the hills around the city of Rio and Niterói across Guanabara Bay.  By Wednesday evening most traffic had returned to normal as the rains ended and the flood waters slowly drained into the Atlantic Ocean.   As emergency crews struggled to reach areas affected by landslides a growing tragedy became clearer and sobering.

Mudslide in Mangueira neighborhood

It has long been a great irony of Rio that the poorest people live precariously on the hillsides with the most spectacular views of the city.  For decades the poor have built their homes up the slopes of the dozens of hills that give Rio its trademark geography.  The process accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s as local governments and populist politicians gave up on trying to remove the slums (favelas) and did little to stop their growth.  Hundreds of thousands live on these hillsides around this city of millions.  Although the constructions are solid—of brick and mortar—they are built on steep hillsides with no planning, permits, or thought given to geological stability.

Mudslide in Morro dos Prazeres

In one strikingly disastrous location in Niterói, people built a street, stores, homes, and a church on top of what had been a landfill.  With the rains last week, the entire landfill beneath these homes on the Morro do Bumba came crashing down taking everything down the hillside and killing dozens.

Where there once was a thriving street in Morro do Bumba

Although last week’s rainfall was the worst in forty years, the flooding and mudslides make it clear that the city has a herculean task ahead, not only to spend hundreds of millions on infrastructure, but also to take a long, hard look at the hillside favelas.  Thousands—if  not tens of thousands—now live on unstable ground that will continue to come crashing down after future rains.  Removing large numbers of poor people from Rio’s hills will be a very difficult political move—and one that most politicians (especially in an election year) will seek to avoid.  Finding adequate housing for the poor has never been very high on Rio’s list of priorities.  The lack of political will today, however, will only mean more tragic deaths in the future.

Nationalism, Identity, Music

March 5, 2010

Nationalism, identity, music—these are the issues I am grappling with right now as I write the third chapter of my book on the formation of Brazilian national identity since the 1930s.  How these themes were driven home to me today!

This afternoon, as I was on my usual daily schedule—sitting in a coffee shop reading before I headed to my apartment to write some more—a song came on that yanked me back into the past and forced me to consider my own national identity.  As I sat there reading about Brazilian popular music in the mid-twentieth century, Cat Stevens (who evolved into Yusuf Islam) began to sing “Father and Son”.  A flood of emotions came over me as was transported back to another time and place.

In the fall of 1971, as a freshman at the University of Kansas I discovered this song on the Tea for the Tillerman album (a spectacularly brilliant group of songs).  As an 18-year-old who had just left home (in Houston) for good, the song resonated powerfully with me.  It is one of those songs that mark one’s youth (full of existential angst, anti-authoritarianism, and the desire to strike out on one’s own) the way the same song would never affect someone hearing it for the first time at, say, age 57!  As I sat there awash in emotions associated with my undergraduate life, the tumult of America in the late sixties and early seventies, and setting out on one’s own, the suddenness of the emotions compelled me to reflect on my own sense of national identity.

It reminded me of an even more vivid musical memory—in early 1974 in San José, Costa Rica.  In February 1973 I went off to Costa Rica as an exchange student at the Universidad de Costa Rica.  In December, when the rest of the group went back to the U.S., I decided to stay for another semester, until June 1974.  In the early months of 1974 (the break between the end of one academic year in Costa Rica and the beginning of the next in March), I was living with a Costa Rican family, traveling around the country, and writing what would become a senior thesis.  I often took long walks on the streets of downtown San José exploring the city.  Late one night as I wandered through the heart of the city I heard compelling familiar music and began to gravitate towards it.  As I got closer to the source (a fairly raucous party), I realized I was hearing the Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick belt out “White Rabbit”.  Mesmerized, I stood in the street as my mind raced through the powerful images and emotions of a 21-year-old remembering a tumultuous decade of drugs, hippies, race riots, civil rights, assassinations, and the War in Vietnam.  For me, perhaps no other song from the sixties can quite compare with “White Rabbit” for conveying the hallucinatory craziness of the decade.

After living in Costa Rica for nearly a year, reaching a very high level of fluency in Spanish, coming to empathize with and understand Spanish American culture as well as I probably ever will, and growing ever more frustrated with the incredibly destructive actions of the United States in Latin America . . . that song brought me up short and reminded me that no matter how much I traveled, learned other languages, or deplored some of the actions of my own government, I was deeply, profoundly an American.  Like the vast majority of the people in the world, I have been shaped powerfully by the influences of my youth, influences one can never–should never—escape.  (Rarely, can one ever completely transform oneself and “go native” in another culture, never to return to one’s roots.)

I have been coming to Brazil for thirty years now, and my moments in Brazil have been marked by the popular music of the moment.  The incredibly rich music of Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, and Elis Regina (to name a few examples) helped define my first experience in Brazil in 1979-80 just as much as the political transition from dictatorship to democracy and the rising economic crisis.  Just as Cat Stevens and Grace Slick (among others) mark my coming of age in the U.S. in the late sixties and early seventies, these Brazilian artists defined my coming of age as a Brazilianist in the late seventies and early eighties.

Cat Stevens, Grace Slick, and the incomparable Elis Regina remind me of how powerfully popular music can convey the essence of historical moments and national identity—whether the 1960s in the United States, or the 1970s in Brazil.  We associate music with moments and moods that often stay with us for the rest of our lives.  Popular music both shapes and is shaped by the historical moment.  It helps create and convey the essence of national identity.  In my case, it reminds me that I am an American, and at the same time, that I am a Brazilianist, and not a Brazilian.

Happy Birthday, Rio de Janeiro!

March 2, 2010

Rio de Janeiro celebrated a birthday yesterday.  The city was officially founded on March 1, 1565. St. Sebastian is the patron of the city of the “River of January” (first seen by Europeans on January 1, 1502).

Yesterday’s celebration included a 10 meter long birthday cake and free concerts, a big change from the first birthday in 1566 when the Portuguese were engaged in a series of bloody fights with the local indigenous peoples and the French.  Estácio de Sá, recognized as the official founder of the city, was killed in these battles.  The original site of the settlement (what today is the Aterro do Flamengo) was moved inside the Bay of Guanabara for great safety from the Indians and the French.

Monument to Estácio de Sá with Sugarloaf in background

The French had tried to establish a settlement in the mid-1550s.  They were so afraid of the locals that they settled on a small island in Guanabara Bay, one without fresh water.  (Today the island is the site of the Naval School.)  We know a great deal about this failed colony on Villegagnon Island.  Two of its participants later wrote books about their experiences in “Antarctic France”.  One of them, Jean de Léry left us with the greatest account of European-Amerindian relations from Brazil in the sixteenth century.  His History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, trans. Janet Whately (Berkeley, 1993) is a classic.  Léry spent months with the indigenous peoples because he feared his fellow Frenchmen who were bitterly divided between contentious Protestants and Catholics.  The religious feuding eventually did in the colony and opened the door for the Portuguese to establish a permanent settlement in the 1560s.  The French attacked and invaded the city on several occasions in the following centuries.

Villegagnon Island, 16th century

Those sixteenth-century French and Portuguese colonizers would, no doubt, be astonished if the were to return today.  The setting of the Bay of Guanabara and the Atlantic are still spectacular. The few hundred (thousands of?) Indians have been replaced by ten million inhabitants (including a lot of French who continue to invade the city on a regular basis).

Villegagnon Island today

St. Sebastian is known for his martyrdom at the hands of the Romans in the 3rd century A.D. when he was shot full of arrows and then beaten to death at the orders of the Emperor Diocletian.  In the colonial period in Brazil, the Brazilian masses gradually came to identify St. Sebastian with the Afro-Brazilian orixá (spirit or deity) Oxossi, the hunter and archer.  There are some dozen or so orixás in the various Afro-Brazilian religions (such as candomblé and macumba).  These African-influenced beliefs have permeated all Brazilian culture, even among the vast majority of the population who do not consider themselves adherents of the Afro-Brazilian religions.  According to these beliefs, all of us are protected by/connected to one of these orixás.  (It is somewhat like North Americans’ beliefs in astrological signs.)

St. Sebastian

So celebrate Rio de Janeiro, land of Indians, invading Europeans, and protected by a European saint (riddled with arrows) and an African hunter spirit.  What a city!

Happy Birthday, Rio de Janeiro!


Carnaval is Coming!

February 8, 2010

Carnaval is upon us!  In the last week, the street bands, beer drinking, and sales of paraphernalia have ramped up in anticipation of the onset of Carnaval this coming weekend.  For the uninitiated, Carnaval is (ostensibly) a Christian tradition of celebration and excess before the onset of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday.  From Ash Wednesday to Good Friday (about six weeks) observant Christians are supposed to emulate the wanderings of Jesus in the wilderness prior to his entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion and resurrection.  At least, that is the official rationale.  I am not sure the millions of Brazilians, and others around the world, are thinking a whole lot about religion when they take to the streets and parties in the days prior to Ash Wednesday!

Block party in Leblon/Ipanema yesterday

Pre-Carnaval block party in Leblon yesterday (7 February)

In the United States, our version of Carnaval is Mardi Gras in New Orleans (Fat Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, get it?).  Imagine the images you have of Mardi Gras, magnify the party and then extend it across the country.  That is Carnaval in Brazil.  The festivities differ significantly across the diverse regions of Brazil.  I have spent a lot of time living in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais over the last thirty years.  For all intents and purposes, in Belo Horizonte (population 4 million) there are no parades comparable to Rio de Janeiro or Salvador.  The landlocked mineiros (those from Minas Gerais) are famous for heading to the coast during this time of year.  Salvador da Bahia is famous for taking the party to the streets with large trucks loaded with bands (trios elétricos) moving through the streets following by the dancing and drinking masses of the bahianos (the locals).

Carnaval in the streets of Salvador da Bahia

The most famous version of Carnaval is Rio’s extravaganza.  In the early twentieth century, samba emerged as the music and dance of the slums (favelas) and of street parades during Carnaval.  In the 1930s and 1940s, the government (Rio was, at that time, the national capital) formalized the process and marketed the images of Carnaval to the world.  By the 1960s, the large samba organizations (known as schools) had developed a highly ritualized process of parades, judging, and the crowning of a champion.  In the 1970s and 1980s, money from the jogo do bicho (see earlier posting), then television rights, and then funding from the cocaine traffickers ramped up the glitz and professionalism of these samba schools located in the favelas.  (Several thousand people participate in the 90-minute parade of each school.)  The city built the sambodrome downtown—a structure that looks like a football stadium with its grandstands and luxury boxes extending for several blocks, and open at each end.

Rio's Sambodrome

Carnaval Sambodrome

The samba schools are judged and scored, and there are two divisions (like futebol).  Those who fall at the low end sometimes fall back into the second division, and those at the top of the second division can move up to the big leagues.  The judging process is incredibly complex, highly contentious, and always incredibly close.  The top schools parade on the Monday and Tuesday nights from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.  In theory, the holiday is over at midday on Wednesday.  Few people report to work that day, needless to say.

Mangueira Samba School

Carnaval dancers

As many cultural critics have pointed out, Carnaval is the “world turned upside down” for a few brief days.  All—or nearly all—is pardoned.  Men dress as women, the poor dress as royalty, the rich sport costumes of  Indians, the people take to the streets, and the wealthy retreat to their exclusive masked balls.  Everyone understands that this moment, when all rules are off, is just . . . momentary.  (What happens in Carnaval stays in Carnaval?)  One of the more striking features of Brazilian Carnaval, especially in Rio in recent decades, has been the increasing prominence of female nudity.  First, there were the very scanty string bikini like costumes, then topless, and finally, full nudity with the only body paint as a “costume”.  There has been a strong reaction to this shift, and in recent years, levels of female nudity decreased.  The traditionalists, quite rightly, complained that the focus should be on the extraordinary music, dance, and costumes and not nudity.

Luma de Oliveira

Although the samba schools originated in the favelas and, therefore, were predominantly Afro-Brazilian, by the 1980s it became increasingly common to have celebrities featured on the floats and in the parades.  (It turned out that some of them did not samba very well!)  At the same time, more and more lighter-skinned, middle-class Brazilians began to join the schools and parades.  These shifts in the 1980s are wonderfully chronicled by the great journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto, in her book, Samba.  She spent a year in Rio, joined the classic Mangueira samba school, lived in the favela, and then paraded with them.

At this time of year, so much is put on hold.  One of the favorite phrases at this time of year is, “after Carnaval”.  My next post will be . . . after Carnaval!

Without a Roof/Sem-Teto

February 3, 2010

For the past two days I have been reading through student journals commenting on a panel session that they attended on homelessness.  Three presenters spoke directly and eloquently to these Vanderbilt students about life on the streets of Nashville, how they came to live there, and how they survive and strive to get off—and stay off—the streets.  The students were deeply moved and impressed with the testimonials of these three people, and forced to confront their own views of the homeless, and how to deal with homelessness.

Although these reflections dealt with homelessness in Nashville, Tennessee, they pushed me to think about the homeless here in Rio de Janeiro (known in Portuguese as “those without a roof”—sem-teto).  In a city like Nashville, with some 600,000 inhabitants, the number of homeless is generally estimated at somewhere around 1,800.  In Rio de Janeiro, a metropolis of 10 million, probably a third of the inhabitants live in slums (favelas), that is, several million people.  The roughly one thousand favelas in Rio range from those constructed over decades that have gradually been “urbanized” to include some paved streets, access to water, electricity and other services, to those of more recent origin.  The latter are closest to the shanty towns and tent cities we see in the U.S.  Built more recently with scrap construction materials, cardboard, and tarps, these favelas are home to hundreds of thousands of the truly abject poor—those living on less than $2 a day income.

A small section of the Rocinha favela

No one really knows how many Brazilians live on the streets.  In Rio, it must be in the thousands, if not tens of thousands.  There is very little here in the way of the infrastructure that has emerged in the U.S. in the last thirty years—soup kitchens, Room in the Inn programs, and extensive municipal services aimed specifically at the homeless.  Historically, so much of services and assistance in Latin America have been provided by the government or the Catholic Church.  Civil society—the numerous private, voluntary organizations so common in the United States—has historically been weak in Brazil.

One striking feature of homelessness in Brazil is the number of children and adolescents living on the streets.  An anthropologist, Tobias Hecht, has written a poignant and eye opening ethnographic account of these children in the cities of Recife and Olinda in his At Home on the Street:  Street Children in Northeast Brazil (Cambridge University Press, 1998).  These children, like many adults, move back and forth between life on the street, and at times, the homes of their families or friends.

My students’ reflections on their personal experiences in interacting with the homeless in the U.S. forced me to reflect on my own direct experience here in Rio.  In particular, they made me think about one homeless man (I will call him Pedro) I have been seeing on my street for the past five months.  In those months, I have seen him sleeping in the doorways in different spots in an area of about four blocks along the Rua Visconde de Pirajá, the very busy commercial avenue where I live that runs the length of Ipanema.  His pattern seems to be to sleep and rest during the days at different spots along the street, and then stay up most of the night.  Most days, he has a small suitcase or bag of belongings.  He also seems to get food from different restaurants up and down the street.  In the evenings, he is usually in my block, most nights sitting near the entrance to the local supermarket, Zona Sul.  He usually has a small box of candies and nuts that he sells.  Starting back in late September, when I first noticed him, I began a daily ritual of stopping by the Zona Sul each evening to buy soft drinks for the next day.  As I leave the store, I stop and buy a small bag of peanuts from Pedro for one real (about fifty cents).  It does not appear he gets many takers.

Zona Sul supermarket on my street

Zona Sul supermarket on my street

After a while, he began to recognize me, and I got up the courage to try to talk with him.  Although I am highly fluent in Brazilian Portuguese, I can barely understand him.  Partly it is his speech patterns, but I think it is also partly because he has mental problems.  I was going to say that he is an “older man”, but he is probably only in his forties and just looks much older due to his hard life.  By Brazilian standards, he is black (that is, he is very dark skinned).  For about the past two weeks, he has been sleeping right in front of my apartment building so I see him in the morning as I come and go.  He recognizes me, but always seem a little confused when we greet each other and I try to speak with him.

Pedro’s plight personalizes homelessness and poverty in Brazil in ways that books and even having poverty around me everywhere in Rio cannot.  Pedro forces me to think hard about what to do about poverty in a very specific and concrete way.  He brings home the stark contrast between his life living on the street and my life in the comfortable apartment building looming above him.  (See my earlier blog entry, A Lucky Man.)   Even though some of us on this street may see him daily and provide Pedro with small amounts of money, food, or other help, that does not get him off the street.  In the U.S., I might be able to help him get into a shelter, at least at night.  Here, the number of people like Pedro on the streets makes that very unlikely.  The scale of the challenge here is so much larger than a place like Nashville or even New York City.  I am also not sure what Pedro wants.  I will keep trying to talk with him, and hope that we can begin to understand each other so that I can find out more about him.  Just maybe, he will help me understand the situation of those like him here in Rio and, just maybe, I can do something to help him.

The sidewalk in front of my apartment building.

Seismic Waves from Haiti to Brazil

January 23, 2010

The earthquake in Haiti on January 12 also sent shock waves through Brazil.  The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)—operating since 2004—is commanded by a Brazilian general, and more than 1,200 Brazilians form the single largest contingent in the force.  The second ranking official in the UN mission in Port-au-Prince was a Brazilian diplomat, Luís Carlos da Costa (60), with four decades of service including some danger zones (Liberia and Kosovo).  He died, buried in the ruins of the mission headquarters.  Most poignantly, Zilda Arns, a physician and the founder of a non-profit to protect children, Pastoral da Criança (Pastoral Care for Children), had just finished speaking in a church in downtown Port-au-Prince when the massive seismic waves rippled through the city, and brought down the cathedral on Dr. Arns and the priests and parishioners around her.

Video shot by Brazilian soldier outside the Sacré Coeur de Tugeau Church moments after the earthquake. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1bCwioJaJI

Seventeen Brazilian members of the peacekeeping force died in the ruins in Haiti, most in the MINUSTAH headquarters.  The Brazilian government has pledged to send more troops to Haiti and some $200 million in aid and assistance.  The peacekeeping force should rise to more than 12,000 with the addition of more Brazilian, French, and Chilean troops.  The coverage of the disaster has been prominent in the Brazilian media with a significant number of Brazilian journalists, both print and television, reporting daily.  The Brazilian government is anxious to show a leadership role in this crisis that has caught the attention of the world.  It is striking to see this in depth coverage in the media, especially since the poverty and despair in Haiti rivals even the worst that can be found in the infamous interior of the Brazilian northeast.  These pockets of extreme poverty in the Brazilian interior, however, must seem less daunting when juxtaposed with the scale of Haiti’s misery—more than 80 percent of its nearly 10 million people living on less than $2 a day income.

The death of Zilda Arns brings to a close a long and incredible life.  The thirteenth child of a German-Brazilian family, Arns was born in 1934 in southern Brazil.  At a time when there were almost no female physicians in Brazil, she persuaded her father to let her study medicine and become a doctor.  Her older brother, Paulo Evaristo, helped convince her father.  Now 88, the retired archbishop of São Paulo, Dom Paulo Evaristo, is one of the towering figures of the opposition to military rule in Brazil in the 1970s.  He spearheaded the “Torture, Never Again” project that published the landmark book, Brazil:  Never Again in 1985, documenting the extent of torture in Brazil with the military’s own court records, secretly photocopied and microfilmed over years by cooperating lawyers.

Zilda Arns Neumann, M.D.

In the 1980s, at her brother’s suggestion, Zilda Arns led the Pastoral da Criança.  The organization is simple and direct—it recruits and trains hundreds of thousands of women in the poorest regions of Brazil to give their children a simple mix of sugar, salt, and water to stop diarrhea–and save lives.  The infant mortality rate in these poor areas dropped from more than 120 per 1,000 live births to less than 25 in a very brief period.  The Pastoral, under her leadership, has been a major factor in the steady reduction of infant mortality in Brazil over the past generation.   After the success in Brazil, she took her work around the world in the last two decades, from East Timor to Haiti.  Her work in Haiti in the past few years has helped cut the infant mortality rate drastically.

On her last visit, she arrived in Port-au-Prince on January 11.  On January 12 she spoke to more than 100 priests on the third floor of the Sacré Coeur de Tugeau Church.  She finished her talk at 4:45 p.m. and was speaking with some of the priests who remained in the room.  Within minutes the tremors struck, and the building collapsed–killing Dona Zilda and most of those around her.  At a wake for her on January 15 in Curitiba, President Lula da Silva, the governor of the state of Paraná, the two leading contenders in the upcoming presidential election, and many other dignitaries paid their respects to an exceptional woman who forged an exemplary life helping children around the globe.

President Lula and other dignitaries at Zilda Arns wake

Happy Birthday/Parabens para Marshall

December 27, 2009

Yesterday I celebrated my 57th birthday.  There is something about celebrating anniversaries—especially anniversaries of the day of our birth—that moves us to reflect on where we have been and where we are going.   The opportunity to spend this year in Brazil has led me to think a great deal about how much this country has been a part of my life–and for so long.  I got started in Latin American studies by doing public health work in the highlands of Guatemala during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school (1970).  While an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, I went off to the Universidad de Costa Rica as an exchange student for three semesters (1973-74).  Only after I had spent a good deal of time in Central America, and after I had learned to speak Spanish, did I eventually develop my focus on Brazil and begin to learn Portuguese–the most beautiful language in the world.

Marshall trying to play soccer in Turrialba, Costa Rica (1973)

I first began to study Brazil with some purpose and direction when I was in my first year in graduate school, at the age of 21.  As I mentioned in an earlier post many weeks ago, I first arrived in Brazil just over thirty years ago, in August 1979.  A few months later, I celebrated my 27th birthday.  I have now been studying and writing about this amazing country for nearly all of my adult life—for nearly four decades.

Although I have traveled across nearly all of North, Central, and South America, and parts of the Caribbean, most of my travels and serious study, and certainly the majority of my writing, have been about Brazil.  Although I know more about Brazilian history than most Brazilians, I will never be Brazilian.  I have written and reflected systematically on Brazilian culture for close to forty years, but I will never have the intimate knowledge and feel for Brazilian culture that a Brazilian has by virtue of his/her place of birth and upbringing.  Even if I spend another couple of decades observing and writing about this country, I will always remain an outsider (although a very well informed one, I hope).

By accident of birth, I spent nearly all of the first 18 years of my life in East Texas, on the western fringe of the U.S. South.  I have lived in the U.S. South for most of my life—for the first 18 years, and for the last 27, or some 45 of my 57 years on this planet.  For as much as I have always felt out of place and out of sync in my own society, it is the one place in the world that I feel least out of place.  Although I have not lived in Texas for nearly fifty years, I still deeply identify with my home state, and I have an insider’s feel for the place that a Brazilian could never achieve, even if s/he studied Texas for as long as I have studied Brazil.  I will always be a Texan, and a Southerner, just as the visiting Brazilian scholar would always remain an outsider in Texas (and the South), even if an exceptionally informed and astute one.

All this is to say, that when I write about Brazil I have to face my limitations—as someone who was not born and reared here, and as an outsider with a very deep and thorough (but ultimately limited) knowledge of Brazilian culture and society.  I write with a certain authority, but also with humility—the authority of the knowledgeable observer and the humility of the outsider.  Ultimately, I hope that Brazilians who read my work about their country appreciate my love and appreciation for Brazil, and understand that I do not seek to claim insider omniscience, but rather the informed sensitivity of the participant observer.  I am a sort of anthropologist and I periodically live among my “people”–the Brazilians.  I can never go completely native, but then, when I go back to my own people, I can never be just a Texan or a Southerner.  I am richer for having lived in both worlds, and having been out of place in each.

Marshall and his older daughter, Lee, on Corcovado