Archive for September, 2009

A Lucky Man

September 28, 2009

I am a lucky man—and I try to remind myself of this every day.  I am especially aware of my good fortune as I walk around Rio.  Here I am in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in one of the great cities of the world for a year—and my only obligation is to read, research, and write about Brazil.  If all goes well, and I maintain enough self-discipline to follow my research and writing plan, I hope to have the manuscript of a book on the formation of Brazilian national identity written by the time I start back to work at Vanderbilt next August.  Nice.

I think it is incredibly important for those of us in the “stratosphere” of academia (read, in a wealthy, private research university in the United States) to acknowledge our privileged position and use it for something other than just our own self-gratification.  Much of the time, that self-gratification comes in the form of a higher salary, more research funding, more graduate students, more travel, and publishing more articles and books.  From time to time, we need to step back from this “ivory tower” and remind ourselves of how lucky we are.

First, and most important, we live and work in the most powerful country on the face of the planet.  Despite the havoc the U.S. has wreaked on the world (especially of late), living in the richest and largest economy in the world has its privileges (my apologies to American Express).  Second, our graduate education and salaries (especially for full professors) put us among the top five percent in the world in socio-economic terms.  Third, we work in conditions that are enviable:  we are well paid, have an incredible amount of personal autonomy (how often do we really have to be held accountable to a “supervisor”?), and we spend much of our time reading, writing, researching, and talking about the topics that are most dear to us.

As if this were not enough, every few years, our university and grant agencies pay us to spend some time away from our “normal” work so we can read and write even more!  Do I know of any other profession that has such an incredibly rewarding lifestyle?  In the annual polls about job satisfaction, university professors always finish near the top (although we have been edged out in the last few years by those computer programmers who can work from anywhere in the world at any time of their choosing.)  And those polls include all university professors, not just those of us in the stratosphere.   In most jobs, people are constantly trying to find ways to minimize the amount of “work” time, and maximize the amount of time off the job.  We are constantly trying to find ways to “work” more!

favelasHere in Rio, I am even more acutely aware of my privilege—as a well paid university professor from the United States.  One of the most striking and characteristic features of Brazil is the enormous chasm between rich and poor.  Brazil is a rich country with millions of poor people.  In the 1990s, a World Bank study revealed that Brazil had the most unequal distribution of income in the world!  Even more striking is one finds this massive inequality in the tenth largest economy on the planet.  Over the last decade, the percent of Brazilians living in “abject” poverty (less than $150 month income) has been cut in half—from 20 to 9 percent, an enormous leap forward.  Nevertheless, the top 10 percent of income earners in Brazil control more than 40 percent of national income and the bottom 40 percent control less than 10 percent.  In a study released this week by Brazil’s leading government institute for economic analysis (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada), the richest Brazilians—those with per capita incomes above U$2500 per month—spend in three days what a poor Brazilian spends in a year.  Although illiteracy has been dramatically reduced in Brazil in recent decades to about 10 percent of the population over the age of 5, that means the country has some 14 million illiterates, or roughly the population of Guatemala.

Rocinha looking toward Ipanema

Rocinha looking toward Ipanema

To be more concrete, I am confronted by the poor on a daily basis.  I always say that in the U.S. we can avoid poverty, by and large, by circulating in areas that are not “poor”.  Unless one spends much time in the inner city of metropolitan areas in the U.S., poverty is usually the occasional homeless person or “panhandler” on the street.  Here in Rio, the “poor are always with us” (my apologies to St. Matthew).  From any beach on the Zona Sul one can look up at the surrounding hillsides to see the shantytowns (favelas).  Rochina, reputedly the largest favela in Latin America with some 300,000 inhabitants, has grown up on the on the mountainside (Dois Irmãos) that sits between Leblon/Ipanema and Barra da Tijuca, the two wealthiest areas in Rio de Janeiro.

On any street, even in the affluent Zona Sul, street vendors, paper collectors, beggars, and service workers move side by side with the middle and upper classes.  The vast majority of the middle and upper classes employ the poor as maids, cooks, gardeners, watchmen . . .  To be even more concrete, as I come home in the evenings from dinner, it is normal to see people sleeping on the sidewalk at the entrance to closed up shops and stores on my street, one of the most affluent shopping districts in Rio.homeless

While my privileges may be more obvious and stark in the socio-economic terrain of an “emerging” economy, they are also striking in the U.S. (even if not as immediately apparent).

So what is my point?  As I have said many times before to my students engaged in community service, the realization of one’s own privilege should not provoke guilt (or worse yet, indifference), but rather compassion for the less fortunate, and action to do something about the differences.  That action need not be radical, what might be called the “Franciscan option”, i.e. emulating the life of Christ, giving up all worldly goods, and seeking to aid the poor while depending on the kindness of strangers (although this is certainly the right option for the most committed).  Action can be anything from giving of one’s own resources, to volunteering, to spending a substantial part of one’s life in community service.

(One of the attractions of becoming the director of the Ingram Scholars Program was the opportunity to work with an incredible group of students, many of whom have already committed a major part of their lives to community service.  Some of them will go on to truly amazing lives committed to raising consciousness and doing something about social injustice.)

In the end, I believe that privilege comes with responsibilities, and one of the most important of those responsibilities is to give back to one’s communities.  Although I am not religious, nor a believer (what Brazilians would call a crente), perhaps my East Texas Southern Baptist upbringing did instill something in me!  Although I have strayed very far from the fold, I did learn my Scripture and I do know that the Bible also tells us, “You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)  So each of us privileged ones, in our own way, should seek ways to give back and open our hands.  I personally try to do this through giving, volunteering, and a commitment to sustained community service.  This is also why, over the years, I have worked systematically to make service and service-learning part of my teaching mission at Vanderbilt.  I hope that by mobilizing my students to engagement in service, and critical analysis of injustice, I will help multiply in my own small way the number of people helping others to help themselves.

So while I am here reading, researching, and writing about this incredibly fascinating country, I am always working—in my own small ways—to give back to this community, as well as my own back in the U.S.  It is not much, but I am lucky to be in a position to open my own hand.


The “Brazil Cost”

September 24, 2009

Okay, okay, this is a great and wonderful country, but it can be a bit frustrating at times.  Brazil can be a very strange combination of cutting edge world culture and capitalism, while at the same time it retains some of the more bizarre practices that make the country notorious among the business world for the added “cost” of doing business in Brazil.

Aeroporto Internacional Antônio Carlos Jobim (Galeão)

Aeroporto Internacional Antônio Carlos Jobim (Galeão)

I spent today, nearly all of today, at the Federal Police office in the international airport.  What fun.  Fortunately, I was forewarned about all the headaches, I knew it would be a long process, and I came not only to get my paperwork processed, but also simply to observe the Brazilian bureaucracy in action (and read about 200 pages of a very good book on Brazilian social theory).

As the proud holder of “Temporary Visa 1” that allows me to stay in the country for up to a year doing research, I have to register with the Federal Police within thirty days of my arrival.  Fortunately, the Fulbright liaison person in São Paulo sent me a very detailed set of instructions about what I needed to do to complete this process.  Lucky for me since the Federal Police have this information nowhere on their website.  Pity the poor foreigner without some institutional support to help them through this process.

So here is what one needs to register as a legal foreigner:  (1) passport, (2) copy of visa papers from the Brazilian consulate in the U.S. that issued your visa, (3) “authenticated” copies of the pages in the passport with the visa and entry stamps, (4) two photos [with very specific size requirements], and, (5) two registration forms filled out on line.  For the latter, I could only know where to find these forms because of the Fulbright office.  In fact, they are on a website that a standard computer (like the one I was using in an internet café) warns the user not to use—and you have to click on the hypertext that says “we advise you not to use this website” because most computers do not have a security certificate for the site.  After filling out and printing the forms, the applicant has to go to a branch of the Bank of Brazil and pay a fee for each form (total of about US$50).  You need the receipts showing payment to deliver with your forms to the Federal Police.  Oh, yes, you then have to go to a notary (cartório in Portuguese) to get the pages of your passport authenticated.  This consisted of standing in line for about 90 minutes yesterday to get the pages stamped.  (Cost, about US$15).

Armed with all my paperwork, I caught a taxi (US$60 round trip) at 6:00 a.m. this morning and was at the Aeroporto Internacional Antônio Carlos Jobim (Galeão) by 6:25 a.m.  (Where else—other than New Orleans is there an airport named after a great composer/musician?)  The Federal Police (PF) office opens at 7 a.m., they hand out numbers, and they (supposedly) begin processing foreigners like me at 8 a.m.  Forewarned, I parked myself close to the door.  By 7 a.m. there was a line of about 40 people.  Turns out some of them had been there yesterday.  The PF computer system was down all day, so after waiting for six hours, they were told to come back today.  They did, at least, get priority, keeping their numbers from the day before.  There were about ten of these people in the group.

Although I managed to get the fourth number handed out (341) the number on the prompter above the entry to the “inner sanctum” of PF bureaucrats was set at 291!?  When I received my number, the very cranky functionary gave me a form to fill out that required fingerprints and the two photos.  My informants had told me that I could get the photos done down the hall in the airport.  Knowing it would be some time before my number would be called, I headed to the other end of the terminal and was waiting for the photo clerk to open his kiosk at 8 a.m.  When he showed up, he took my picture with a digital camera, downloaded the photo to a computer printer, cut them to the right size (about 1 inch square) and charged me US$15.  No need to hurry back to the PF waiting room—as it turned out.

When I returned and sat observing the process I began to realize that a clerk was in one corner of the waiting room doing fingerprinting.  (Again, no instructions about this.)  So I went up to him, he put my fingerprints on the registration form, and he even gave me some glue to put my two photos on the form!  Then began the long wait.

One considerate move of the PF is to give seniors and the handicapped priority in processing.  For the rest of this it meant waiting to start until about a half dozen senior citizens went ahead of the rest of us.  I could not tell what was going on once each person entered into the “inner sanctum” but they would come back after a brief period, and then sometimes be called back in again.  The first one of the seniors to exit with a complete registration left around 9:30 a.m.

From what I could tell, the number counter did not move from 291 to 292 until 9 a.m.  Then it began to dawn on some of us that the first person in line today had 337.  He was a very impatient French speaker with a shaved head and an aggressive attitude.  After some time, he impatiently began to query those in the room about anyone with a number under 337.  (He was asking in very basic Portuguese and I think a lot of people had no idea what he was doing.)  Turns out about ten people had returned from the previous day and held various numbers between 292 and 336.  As the counter slowly moved from 291 to 296 (over about 45 minutes with no one appearing with any of those numbers), he urged a young man with the lowest number (326) to go ahead and go into the PF office for processing.  After a few minutes, he reappeared, along with a tenacious looking female PF agent who announced to everyone in the room that no one needed to organize a process for numbers, there was one already in place, thank you very much.

You get the picture.  Slowly, very slowly, for hours the counter finally worked through the ten people who had returned from the previous day.  At 1:30 p.m. the counter finally reached 337 . . . and the shiny headed Frenchman went into the inner sanctum.  In about 5 minutes he was back out in the waiting room shaking his head.  “Seven hours,” he muttered, “to sit at a desk for 5 minutes of paperwork!”  Over the next half hour the counter finally reached my magic number of 341.  I went into the office, sat down at a desk in front of a very surly and irritable PF agent who sorted through my paperwork, then repeatedly barked at me about spaces on the form that still needed to be filled in.  Of course, they were sections with headings in Portuguese, and no explanations, so I had not filled them in fearing I might put down the wrong thing and have to start over again!  After a few minutes, he instructed me to return to the waiting room.  Around 2:45 p.m. he came out into the waiting room with a handful of passports, and began to pass them out.  Fortunately, mine was among them (along with the Frenchman’s).

My passport was stamped and included a piece of the registration form with my picture, a bar code, and a stamp.  Apparently, (this was never explained, I overhead it in a conversation) this slip is temporary.  The PF produces a “permanent” identification card that will be ready . . . in about nine months.  How do I get that card?  I have to come back out to the PF office and pick it up.  How do I know when it is ready?  No way to know.  Just have to come back and hope it is there.

In true Latin American fashion, one of the reasons the process took so long was the constant appearance of other applicants and their “handlers” (what the Brazilians would call despachantes).  These professional handlers can be found in all government agencies and offices “facilitating” the processes for their clients.  In this case, they would show up, have their clients sit down, walk back into the inner sanctum, reappear after a while, and then wait until the papers were ready.  Sometimes they would simply go back into the office, reappear and wave their clients to follow them back out into the hallway, obviously having finished the paperwork.  Others would wait until the PF agents appeared in the waiting room with the stamped passports.  I lost count of how many of these handlers and applicants passed through between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

So there you have it.  What a process!  To be fair, let me say that the U.S. has its own maddening bureaucratic processes (especially for foreigners after 9/11).  Imagine a recently arrived Brazilian going down to the department of motor vehicles to register a car and get a driver’s license.  Or, think of what a Brazilian would go through trying to get a social security card.  Can’t be simple.  The difference is that these processes are still all too common in Brazil, hence the infamous “Brazil cost” (custo Brasil).  Any business has to calculate into their operating expenses the time and effort to deal with multiple taxes, unexpected surcharges, bureaucracy, and lost time.  As many Brazilian business people and economists have long pointed out, Brazil will not have a world-class economy until these processes have been drastically reduced.  Lucky for me that I had been carefully instructed, that I had all my paperwork in order, and I was in a mind set to observe the process, even if it took all day.  And it did.

The Boy from Ipanema

September 21, 2009

My first weekend in Rio.  Time to explore Ipanema.

Map of Rio de Janeiro

Map of Rio de Janeiro

When the Portuguese first came upon Guanabara Bay in the mid-sixteenth century, they thought it was an enormous river . . . and it was January . . . so they named the small village they founded—Rio de Janeiro.  From the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, the settlement was a small village located just inside the western side of the bay (Centro on the map), to better protect it from storms, and foreign attacks.  (There are still forts on each side of the entrance to the bay.)  With the gold rush in the mountains of Minas Gerais (250 miles north) in the first half of the eighteenth century, Rio became the principal way into and out of the mining zone.  In 1763, the Portuguese made Rio the capital of their American colony, and it would remain the political capital of Brazil until the inauguration of Brasília in 1960.  By 1900, the city had a million inhabitants, it was Brazil’s political, cultural, and economic capital (but São Paulo would overtake it in size and importance by the Second World War).

The stunningly beautiful solid rock mountains that come right up to the coastline provide Rio with its trademark image.  Until the early twentieth century, they also blocked the expansion of the city southward to its Atlantic coastline.  After the government bored tunnels through the mountains—first to Copacabana, then to Ipanema—locals could begin to build beach houses in what became known as the Zona Sul (Southern Zone).  By the mid-twentieth century, this had become the most exclusive real estate in Rio with the expansion of high-rise hotels in Copacabana, and high-rise apartment buildings in both Copacabana and Ipanema.  Although Copacabana is still thriving, and is virtually one long string of tourist hotels along the beachfront, it has lost it chic ambience.  The area has seen its better days.  (I will get in trouble for saying that in print.)  Ipanema is now the more fashionable address, and Leblon, just to the west of Ipanema, is the most expensive real estate in the city.

A divided six-lane thoroughfare runs the length of both Copacabana and Ipanema filled with traffic zooming along on most days.  On Sundays, the city closes the three lanes closest to the beach, and the street becomes a mall packed with tens of thousands of walkers, runners, bicycles, and baby strollers.  Along the beach from Copacabana to Leblon are numbered lifeguard stations.  I am located at Posto 10.  Supposedly, Posto 9 is where the truly chic people congregate!  This morning, I left my apartment, walked the two blocks to Posto 10 and ran eastward down to the end of the beach (about a mile or so).  The point, known as Arpoador (Harpooner), is a rocky promontory where tourists mug for photos (with the beach in the background), and the locals check out the tourists (and sometimes free careless ones of their valuables).

As I walked back up the beach toward Posto 10 I marveled at the masses of people.  Brazilians come in all colors and shades (mainly deeply bronzed in Ipanema), and they do wear very small bathing suits.  Although the locals (known as cariocas) are famous for an obsession with looking good, everyone wears small swimsuits, regardless of the physique.

Posto 9

Posto 9

The men wear speedo swim trunks (something that would raise eyebrows in the U.S. unless the person is in a competitive swim meet), and the women wear the world’s smallest bikinis, known in Portuguese as tangas (or sometimes, as dental floss bikinis!).  Sorry, no photos of me in my speedo allowed. . . .

I just love that Brazilians are so uninhibited with their bodies, from the young and lean bodies to the overweight men and women of all ages.  Young and lean may be desirable, but any body type is accepted.

Some of the more amazing sights on the beach are the volleyball games, including footvolley (volleyball played like soccer, with no hands).  But more on that another time . . . .

Return of the Non-Native

September 18, 2009


Ipanema Beach looking west to "Two Brothers" mountains


In late August 1979,  I arrived in Brazil for the first time—very anxious, unsure of what my reaction would be to this enormous country, and speaking a crude form of Portuguese most Brazilians would call portuñol (because of the heavy influence of my Costa Rican Spanish).  This morning, I flew into Rio de Janeiro again, thirty years later—a little anxious, very sure of how glad I was to be back, and speaking a much more fluent Portuguese (although still with some traces of my Central American Spanish).

I owe a great deal to the Senator J. William Fulbright (1905-95) and the international fellowship program he helped create in 1946.  (Nearly 300,000 “Fulbrighters” from more than 150 countries have benefitted from this legislation.)  In 1979-80 I spent a year in Brazil funded through a Fulbright Dissertation Fellowship, a grant that made it possible for me to become a full-fledged brasilianista (foreign scholar of things Brazilian).  In the intervening thirty years I have returned to Brazil many, many times from periods of a week to a year in length.  Although I spent most of my time for the first twenty-five years in the state of Minas Gerais, I have made a point of traveling to every region of Brazil.  In the last few years, more and more of my visits have been to São Paulo, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro.  For 2009-2010 a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Award will allow me to live in Rio and research and write a book on the formation of Brazilian national identity, Becoming Brazilians:  Making a Nation and a People, 1930-1992.  Thank you, Senator Fulbright and the Comissão Fulbright do Brasil!

One of my objectives in going to Minas Gerais in 1979 was to study one of the three most important states of Brazil, a region much less studied than Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, and São Paulo.  My loyalty to Minas and its capital city, Belo Horizonte (4.5 million inhabitants), is strong and enduring.  For decades I have been complaining that Rio and São Paulo are overstudied (relative to the rest of Brazil), and that Brazilians and brasilianistas need to spend more time outside those two cities studying the rest of the country.  Now, here I am, in Rio for the year!  I too have been enchanted by this great city and lured away from my beloved Minas, but for my old friends in Minas, let me say that it is only for a brief spell, and then I will return to the mountains and the Minas I love.

Over the years, Rio has seduced me (along with many others) and I am looking forward to a year in this most stunning setting for a world city.  I must confess that for a child of the Texas Gulf Coast, the lure of the ocean has been difficult to resist.  Of all the places I could live in Rio, I made a point of finding an apartment in Ipanema, two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.  Located in the long fashionable “Southern Zone” (Zona Sul) of the city, Ipanema is sort of Georgetown (DC) or Westwood (L.A.) by the sea—with the population density and high rise buildings one would find in Manhattan.  Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Morais made the place world famous when they wrote the (1962) classic, “Girl from Ipanema”, one of the ten most recorded songs of all time.

This afternoon I unpacked in my small, but cozy, apartment on one of the busiest avenues in the city.  After a long walk along the beach, I had dinner at a nice little café in one of the best bookstores in Ipanema.  Ah, the good life!  More tomorrow.