Archive for October, 2009

The End of the World

October 31, 2009

I arrived this afternoon at the “end of the world”, or it at least that is what it says on the signs in the Ushuaia airport.  Ushuaia (oo-schwhy-ya), Argentina, is on the southern shore of Tierra del Fuego, and claims to be the southernmost city in the Southern Hemisphere.  The jumping off point for expeditions to Antarctica (for those going south) and to Patagonia (for those going north), Ushuaia is a boom town that has grown from 7,000 to 70,000 inhabitants in just thirty years.  Tourism has fueled this growth.  Constructed in the style of a lodge, the new airport has one runway and two gates.

I have come here as the faculty “lecturer” on a Vanderbilt Alumni tour.  Tomorrow evening we board the Via Australis to spend three days cruising through the Straits of Magellan and the Beagle Channel.  We will then dock in Puntarenas, Chile and head overland to the north to Torres del Paine National Park, a spectacularly beautiful terrain with mountains, glaciers, and herds of guanacos (cousins of the llama).  I was here in Patagonia once before on an earlier Vanderbilt tour and we also visited Torres del Paine.  Next Friday, we will fly to Santiago, Chile, and on Sunday I will fly back to Rio.

Ushuaia mtns3


Patagonia is rugged and the weather is always challenging—normally cold, windy, and rainy.  We were lucky today.  The sun was out, and although it was snowing, the temperature was in the mid-thirties.  The surrounding mountains are covered with snow, but the city itself is dry and snow free.  The surrounding mountains form a spectacular setting with their snow capped peaks rising up alongside the Beagle Channel.  The lower slopes of the mountains are covered with hardy beech trees, lots of lichens and mosses, and peat bogs.  Incredibly, the Yamana people who occupied this territory before the arrival of the Europeans, lived in the climate with no clothes!  They built simple teepees out of trees and brush.  Much of their life revolved around hunting sea lions and gathering mussels.  When Anglican missionaries arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, they clothed the Yamana and congregated them.  Within two generations they had all died from European diseases and abuse from settlers.

Yamana Family

Yamana Family 1880s

When Fernando Magalhães (Magellan) passed along what today are the southern shores of Argentina in 1520, the native peoples were so tall and impressive they seemed to be giants.  His on board chronicler, the Italian Antonio Pigafetta, called them Patagones, a reference to a monster in a Spanish novel (hence, Patagonia, land of the Patagones).   Supposedly, the fires of the Yamana lit up the night sky as Magellan passed through the Strait now named for him, and he gave the area the name Tierra del Fuego.

On board the ship over the next three days I will be retracing the voyage of Magellan and of the Beagle, the ship that carried the young Charles Darwin around the world in the 1830s.  The channel running in front of Ushuaia is now named after that ship which on an earlier voyage had successfully established the route as an alternate passage to the Straits of Magellan from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  In my next blog, I will tell you what this voyage was like.  Although I grew up fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, I have never spent much time on the open sea, and certainly not in a body of water with such notoriously difficult weather.  Although summer is beginning here, we will face ice, snow, and rain, sometimes within a few hours.  Time to head for the ship and to disengage from the global electronic village . . . .Beagle Channel



October 24, 2009

For the past three days I have been in Salvador da Bahia, the old colonial capital of Brazil, and the birthplace of the slave and sugar plantation complex that spread across tropical and subtropical America from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.  It was here in Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos (The Savior of the Bay of All Saints) that the Portuguese transplanted cane sugar from their tiny island possessions off the African coast (Madeira in particular) in the late sixteenth century and began to transport black Africans to work on the expanding plantations on the Brazilian coast.  From the 1570s to the 1660s, the northeastern coast of Brazil became the first great sugar plantation of the world driving the rise of the modern transatlantic slave trade, and making sugar a standard part of the diet of the European world.  After 1650, the Dutch, then the British and the French, all anxious to profit from this lucrative enterprise, constructed their own plantations in the islands of the Caribbean accelerating the Atlantic slave trade.  Even after the rise of a gold boom in southeastern Brazil in the eighteen century shifted the flow of enslaved Africans to the previously tiny port village of Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of thousands of Africans continued to flow into the sugar plantations of the region around Salvador.Brazil map

As best we can estimate, about 12 million Africans arrived in chains in the Americas from the early 1500s to the 1870s.  Africans and their descendents eventually could be found working in all the European colonies in the Americas in nearly every sector of the labor force, although the vast majority toiled in the countryside in agriculture.  About one-third of these Africans (3.5-4 million) came to Brazil, about 40 percent to the Caribbean basin (5 million), and only 6-7 percent into what became the states of the U.S. South (about 750,000).  All of these societies were built on the sweat and blood of enslaved Africans and their descendents.  In the cases of Brazil and most of the islands in the Caribbean, the societies had slave majorities, and after emancipation in the nineteenth century, non-white majorities.  (In what is now the United States, only South Carolina had a black/slave majority for a brief period in the eighteenth century.)  Nowhere else in Brazil is the imprint of Africa as pronounced and enduring as Salvador.  According to one traditional Brazilian saying, “If Brazil’s land is American, its façade is European, and its soul is African.”

Slave Routes

Slave Routes

In Salvador, more than 80 percent of the population has African ancestry.  Whether in the faces of the people, the music, food, or religion, the influence of Africa pervades all of Bahian society and culture.  Black women wearing the traditional flowing white dresses and turbans sell traditional sweets and fritters (acarajé) on the streets of the old city center.  Hundreds of terreiros (houses of worship) carry on the centuries of religious rituals and beliefs that are a fusion of African religions and Catholicism known as candomblé.  The vibrant music scene has produced some of the greatest artists in modern Brazil from the popular music of Caetano Veloso and his sister Maria Bethânia to the samba-reggae of Daniela Mercury and Carlitos Brown.  Capoeira, a sort of combination of martial arts and dance moves, has developed over centuries in Salvador supposedly from its origins as staged fights between slaves.  Today, capoeira is practiced nearly everywhere on the globe (including Nashville).



Each time I come to Salvador I am reminded of the incredible diversity of Brazil.  Moving down the coast to Southeastern Brazil, a large part of the population has African heritage, but Rio de Janeiro, Espirito Santo, Minas Gerais and São Paulo form a sort of transition zone from the largely black Northeast to the almost entirely white South.  The three southernmost Brazilian states (Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and Paraná) were settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by European immigrants and their inhabitants today are more than 80 percent white.  Northern Brazil and the Center-West region are made up primarily of whites or peoples of mixed European and Indian descent.  This enormous country is continuum of colors and peoples spread out across an area larger than Europe.  All across this vast terrain one can find Brazilians of African descent, but it is in Salvador that they are most concentrated and most visible.  Today, the influence of this epicenter of Afro-Brazil continues to exert enormous influence on music, dance, on all of Brazilian culture.  Salvador remains the soul of

Violence and Tragedy

October 18, 2009

Violence:  a theme I have avoided writing about—until now.  At the risk of scaring my wife and daughters, and maybe a few others, I will finally turn to this key feature of contemporary Brazilian society.  More than a decade ago, I wrote a book that I hoped would serve as a general introduction to Brazil for the uninitiated (Brazil:  The Once and Future Country, 1997).  I made a very conscious decision not to overplay violence in Brazilian society, even though it is part of the fabric of everyday life.  I also did not want to take the approach another, similar book had taken (a better selling one, unfortunately).  The first third of that (other) introduction to Brazil is filled with tales of violence, not exactly the first impression I want others to take away when they first discover Brazil!

In a society that has been constructed and maintained for centuries by elites who control most of the wealth, and with historically huge numbers of people with very little, violence as a part of everyday life should not be surprising.  For centuries, the primary focus of this violence was against slaves and the poor peasants in the countryside.  With the massive shift of millions of people from the countryside to the cities in the decades after World War II, that violence is primarily urban today.  About 85% of all Brazilians live in urban areas, and roughly a third of them live in slums (favelas).  The long running violence in the countryside—of powerful landowners against poor peasants—continues, but affects an increasingly smaller percentage of Brazilians.  With millions of city dwellers living in abject poverty, massive unemployment and underemployment, it is not surprising many turn to crime.  The rise of cocaine trafficking over the last generation, especially in Rio, has fueled much of the violence.  (I would still like someone to explain to me why the cocaine and crime problem is so much worse in Rio than anywhere else in Brazil.)  Like many major U.S. cities, most of this violence is poor people hurting other poor people.  In Brazil, as in the U.S., those who are not poor, tend not to pay much attention to this violence—until it affects them.

October 5 issue

October 5 issue

Although urban violence characterizes all major world cities, the levels in Brazil are very high.  In Rio de Janeiro the levels of violence are probably only matched by Colombia.  As in most modern societies, the most visible and measurable indicator is homicides.  As in the case of Colombia, much of the violence and homicides is drug related.  Rio’s police counted close to 5,000 homicides last year, half of those drug related.  Complicating matters, the Brazilian police have long been known to shoot first and ask questions later—if they ask at all.  In a country where few have faith in the court system, police have often become the purveyors of summary judgments.  The Rio police killed nearly 1200 people last year who were “resisting arrest”, more than 3 deaths per day.  For a sense of comparison, all the police forces in the United States in 2008, killed 371 people.  If you are a glutton for punishment, read Jon Lee Anderson’s recent article, “Gangland,” in the New Yorker (October 5).  Anderson, a brilliant reporter with long experience in Latin America (read his outstanding biography of Che Guevara) researched this story months ago, and it appeared in the week of the final selection of Rio as the host of the 2016 Olympic Games.  The Brazilian press, in general, reacted furiously claiming some sort of conspiracy to scare the International Olympic Committee away from Rio.  Anderson even wrote a long op-ed piece in Rio’s major paper, O Globo, explaining that he had nothing to do with the timing of the publication—but that what he wrote remains true, crime in Rio is out of control and something must be done to contain it.

In the latest episode, this week rival gangs are battling for control of one favela (with the wonderful name of Morro dos Macacos, Monkey Hill) on the west side of the city.  So far, 15 people have died, including 2 police officers killed when the gangs managed to shoot down the police helicopter they were flying over the battle zone!

What brought these statistics home to me was a recent botched robbery-kidnapping in Rio that ended with the killing of the robber-kidnapper.  Sérgio Ferreira Nunes Junior, 24, and three other men tried to hold up a postal service van.  The van sped off, the police converged on the neighborhood, Sérgio fled the scene, was spotted by police, and he ducked into a pharmacy, grabbed a woman, and then dragged her out into the street threatening to kill her if the police did not let him get away.  Sérgio quickly found himself surrounded by 50 police officers and the elite Special Operations Battalion (Bope) with trained snipers, and . . . local television crews carrying the drama live (ao vivo as it says on the television screen in Portuguese).  While two police officers stood within a few feet of Sérgio and his hostage (Ana Cristina Garcia, 48), Major João Jacques Soares Busnello stood some 40 meters away with his rifle trained on Sérgio’s head.  On a signal from his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Fernando Príncipe, Major Busnello pulled the trigger, Sérgio’s head snapped back, his baseball cap flew off, and he fell dead to the pavement.

(The video is not for the faint of heart.  It is in very clear tv announcer Portuguese.)

The incident immediately reminded Brazilians of another, even more tragic episode on October 22, 2000.   On that afternoon, the 21-year-old Sandro Nascimento tried to hold up passengers on a bus and ended up surrounded by the same Special Operations Battalion.   Gradually, he allowed passengers off the bus until just ten remained.  After four hours, he stepped out of the bus with a female hostage as a human shield (a young school teacher, Geisa Firmo Gonçalves).  On cue, and out of the shadows, a Bope officer stepped forward to shoot Sandro in the head.  Reacting to the sudden movement, Sandro jerked back pulling Geisa down with him.  One of the officer’s bullets struck her in the face, and Sandro began firing his gun.  Three of his bullets struck Geisa in the back.  She died on the scene.  Sandro died on the way to the police station in the back of police van of “asphyxiation”.  Televised live for hours across Brazil (indeed, I watched the crisis unfold on television from my apartment 250 miles away in Belo Horizonte), this was something equivalent to the infamous O.J. Simpson police chase in Los Angeles in 1994.

Bus 174

Bus 174

This tragic incident became the basis of a brilliant documentary film by director José Padilha with the title “Bus 174”.  Padilha tracked down everyone involved in the incident, and the film became the story of how Sandro arrived at this deadly denouement.  As it turns out, Sandro had witnessed one of the most infamous episodes of police violence against children in Brazil.  Late on the night of July 23, 1993, policemen killed eight street children on the steps of the Candelária Church in the heart of downtown Rio.  (Reportedly, the young men had been harassing local merchants and defying the police earlier that day.)  There are no winners in this film.  Everyone comes out badly.  Young people like Sandro turn to drugs and crime, social service agencies are ineffective at best, and elite police botch their hostage operation.

What is striking for an outsider in this episode is not the violence, but how intimately it is woven within the fabric of life in Rio.  Another day, another hostage situation, more dead.  This time, at least, the hostage escaped unscathed.  As it turns out, Lt. Col. Príncipe who gave Major Busnello the signal to fire, was one of the police negotiators with Sandro Nascimento as he stepped down from Bus 174 nine years ago.  Major Busnello, a highly trained and expert marksman, was interviewed after the shooting.  In discussing his successful shot, he also analyzed the failed attempt on Sandro by referring to one of the most infamous misses in Brazilian World Cup history.  “Sandro,” he said, “ended up shooting and killing his hostage.  Didn’t Brazil lose the World Cup because Zico shot and missed the penalty kick?  The police shot and missed [in the Bus 174 incident].  We lost.”

In Search of Brazilian Identity

October 13, 2009

“I live in a tropical country, blessed by God, and naturally beautiful.”

Jorge Benjor (1969)

The Federal Police officer in the Rio de Janeiro airport looked up at from his desk and asked me with an air of fatigue and boredom, “business or pleasure?”  Somehow, I had once again forgotten to mark the box on my immigration entry form, no doubt because I can never decide which it is—business or pleasure.  That early morning, as I disembarked from my overnight flight from Miami, marked nearly thirty years to the month after my first arrival in Brazil, in the same airport, in August 1979.  In the countless times I had entered Brazil over those three decades I had frequently pondered how to mark that entry form:  business or pleasure?  As a historian who has spent nearly his entire adult life studying Brazil it has always been a combination of both—it is my “business” but it is also an incredibly rewarding life filled with the pleasures of experiencing and learning about one of the most complex, fascinating, and dynamic nations on the planet.  “Business,” I quickly responded, but only because I was traveling on a visa that would allow me to stay in Brazil for an entire year—with the sole purpose of researching, reading, and writing about this country I have come to love and appreciate so well.

I came to Brazil this time with a quest.  I am in search of Brazilian identity.  What has it been?  What is it now?  Does it really exist?  Can any nation truly have “an” identity, especially one with nearly two hundred million inhabitants spread across more than three million square miles?  Am I in search of something purely ephemeral and quixotic?  Perhaps there are really many Brazils and I am pursuing the hopeless task of trying to distill the many and diverse characteristics of these two hundred million souls into some simplistic and unrealistic identity that will do no more than play on old stereotypes about Brazilians—samba, carnaval, futbol, and uninhibited sexuality?  Am I chasing a mythical chimera?

Casa-grande e senzalaMy search for Brazil is both an academic endeavor and a personal quest.  Although I set out to write a book that will be directed primarily at scholars in the United States, after visiting Brazil regularly for three decades this year has become a quest for answers to the key questions that brought me to the study of Brazil as a young man in his early twenties.  The first book I ever read about Brazil was Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves.  I vividly remember reading the book one scorching summer (1972) in a tiny one-room apartment in Lawrence, Kansas.   I was nineteen and working three jobs between my freshman and sophomore years at the University of Kansas, trying to stay afloat financially and put myself through college.  Freyre originally published his book, Casa-grande e senzala (“the big house and the slave quarters”) in 1933.   Little did I realize that summer that this thick volume was one of the two most important books about Brazil written in the twentieth century.  Enthralled, during those torrid Kansas summer days I slowly sweated my way through this brilliant, eccentric essay of some five hundred pages as Freyre spun a tale the collision and mixing of Africans, Portuguese, and Native Americans in the American tropics.  A powerful and rambling rumination on sex, food, and culture, Freyre’s book turned upside down Brazilians’ perception of themselves.  Before the 1930s, intellectuals, politicians, and writers had for decades bemoaned the fate of Brazil, a country most of them concluded was severely flawed—and perhaps doomed—primarily due to its inescapable African racial heritage blended with what had long been a white minority.  Freyre acknowledged this racial and cultural mixing (mestiçagem), rejected previous racial pessimism, and exalted Brazil’s blended races and cultures.  For Freyre, this mestiçagem was not only to be glorified as the key to Brazilian national identity, it made Brazil superior to all other peoples!

Looking back, I realize now that I barely understood what Freyre was saying.  My lack of comprehension was countered by the enthusiasm the book generated in me for this “new world in the tropics” (the title of another of Freyre’s books).  Although I would take a very indirect path (through Central America), over the next decade I became a historian of Brazil.  For nearly twenty years—the 1980s and 1990s—I studied the economic history of Brazil.  Although I periodically returned to my ruminations about Freyre and Brazilian culture, it was not until recently that I returned to where I began.  Over the years, as I taught and lectured about Brazil, I became convinced that the ideas and work of Gilberto Freyre provided the central mythology that propelled the formation of Brazilian national identity in the twentieth century.  In many ways, the rise and fall of Brazilian national identity, from the 1930s to the 1990s, is the story of the rise and fall of Freyre’s notion of Brazil as a “luso-tropical civilization”—a people forged out of the collision in the tropics of peoples from three continents that produces a new people—racially and culturally mixed brasileiros.

Gilberto Freyre

Gilberto Freyre

The  book I am now writing is a tale of the creation, success, and demise of a national mythology.  All nations have their mythologies, and I do not use this term lightly.  Nations and peoples are forged over decades and centuries through the combined forces of the powerful and the weak.  The powerful leaders who construct nations seek consciously to create a sense of national identity, solidarity, and allegiance to an articulated set of rituals, symbols, and beliefs.  Despite their best efforts, and their power, often the plans of the nation builders fail, either in part or whole.  The less powerful, quite often without setting out to do so, create and shape their own rituals, symbols, and beliefs that reach a wide audience resonating with hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people they have never met nor seen.  A generation ago, the anthropologist Benedict Anderson brilliantly described this process as the creation of “imagined communities”.  A set of beliefs—myths to use the anthropological terminology—undergird these rituals and symbols.  To say they are myths does not imply that they are not true.  Rather they are beliefs that all citizens, at some level, see as defining of the nation and its people.

In the United States, for example, the belief in liberty, equality, and opportunity for all is one of the most cherished national myths.  Although most firmly adhere to this belief, we all know, that not all are free, nor treated equally, and opportunity does not come for everyone.  Yet, these beliefs remain at the core of what it means to be an American.  In this sense, myths are not only our beliefs, but also our dreams.  In Brazil, I believe, the most important national myth has become the Freyrian vision of mestiçagem—that all Brazilians come from a racially and culturally mixed past.  Before the publication of The Masters and the Slaves in 1933, few Brazilians (other than Gilberto Freyre) held to this notion of Brazilian identity.  By the 1970s and 1980s, nearly all Brazilians, at some level, shared this belief.  My task over the next year is to go in search of Brazilian identity and then to distill my findings in a book that  I envision as the story of the emergence, maturation, and then the decline of this Freyrian vision, this imagined community of racial mixture and cultural harmony, from the 1930s to the 1990s.   Let us hope that my quest is not quixotic!

The Beautiful Game

October 10, 2009

What a joy to find a great new book!  I went across the street about two hours ago to browse in my favorite local bookstore and then have a cup of coffee.  My lucky day.  I almost immediately came across a recent book on Brazilian soccer (futbol) by José Miguel Wisnik, an incredibly insightful professor of literature and a talented musician/composer who teaches at the Universidade de São Paulo.  Titled Veneno remédio (more or less, Poison Medicine), it is a fascinating rumination of Brazilian futbol and society.  I plan to have a chapter in my own book on how futbol was crucial to the rise of national identity in the twentieth century, so this is perfect!

Kaka & Ronaldinho

Kaka & Ronaldinho

Brazil, as everyone should know, is the great futbol power in the world.  The only country to compete in every World Cup tournament since its inception in 1930, Brazil has won an unprecedented five times.  (Italy has won four times, but two of those were in the 1930s when the tournament was a small club.)  Even more impressive is that Brazil has won five of the last thirteen tournaments (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002).  Wisnik cites one French writer’s wonderful observation that futbol completely inverts the world geopolitical map.  The United States and Asia are peripheral mini-powers.  Europe and South America are superpowers, and Africa is an emerging power.  Contrary to military empires, the empire of futbol was conquered peacefully with the full support of the conquered, and Brazil is the only superpower, far superior to the minor powers:  Germany, Italy, England, France, and Argentina.

Futbol is perhaps the most global of all institutions, played everywhere by nearly everyone.  It is both globalizing and still distinctly nationalist.  Players from all over the world play everywhere, although the best are drawn to the Europe leagues (for the prestige and pay).  Yet, every four years, the greatest players in the world return to their home country teams and become the very essence of national pride and identity.  Much ink has been spent discussing the national styles of different countries.  The famous Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, noted many years ago that the Europeans play in prose while the Brazilians play like poetry.  In the words of the greatest player of all time, Pelé, the Brazilians play the jogo bonito (the beautiful game).  From my untutored outsider perspective, watching the Brazilians play is like jazz put into motion on the playing field—incredible improvisational genius.

2002 World Cup Victory

2002 World Cup Victory

One of my great pleasures in the coming months will be living in Brazil while watching the national team (the seleção) make its way through the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Most Americans can little imagine the power and importance of this competition, especially for the Brazilians.  In the United States we have a series of major sports.  As a lifelong baseball fan, it pains me to admit that baseball is no longer the “national pastime”.  American football has probably taken on that role.  Baseball, football, and basketball all compete for our attention, along with hockey, NASCAR racing (and now Major League Soccer and women’s basketball).  Nowhere else in the world do so many major sports compete for national attention.  In most countries there is one sport that reigns supreme, and in Brazil that sport is futbol.  Imagine the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, and the Olympics combined and you have a feel for the importance of the World Cup.  As the futbol superpower, the Brazilians enter each World Cup tournament expecting to win, and nothing short of the title will do.

I spent an hour sitting in the Livraria da Travessa reading and relishing Wisnik’s penetrating and fascinating introduction to his book.  I am so pleased to find a great book on Brazilian futbol, and I can’t wait to read and learn.  I am also hoping that a sixth World Cup triumph in July 2010 will be a great finish to my year in Brazil.

Note:  Futbol is pronounced in Portuguese something like footchy-bowl.

Experiencing Joy Unambiguously

October 5, 2009

On Friday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics to  Rio de Janeiro, an announcement that set off an enormous party in the city.  Government officials constructed a special stage on Copacabana Beach with enormous video screens to televise live the IOC deliberations in Copenhagen.  The IOC selection process had narrowed down the finalists to four cities (Rio, Chicago, Madrid, and Tokyo) some time ago.  For the last few weeks, as the October 2 day of decision drew near, the Brazilian media spent a lot of ink and video on Rio’s hopes and chances.

Pelé sheds tears of joy

Pelé sheds tears of joy

Brazilian President Luis Inácio (Lula) da Silva flew to Copenhagen in a brand new Brazilian made Embraer 190 jet to make the final pitch (along with Barack Obama, the Spanish prime minister, and the Japanese prime minister).  While Brazilians in Rio exploded into a massive beach party with the announcement, Lula cried tears of joy.  The 2016 Olympic Games will be the first held in South America.  (The only other Latin American host to the Olympics is Mexico which held the 1968 summer games in Mexico City—on the North American continent.)  This was one of the selling points to the IOC delegates from countries outside of Europe, North America and East Asia.

What struck me most about the celebration, however, was not the symbolic importance of hosting the games, or that this is yet one more sign of Brazil’s arrival as a major actor in world culture, economics, and politics.  The festivities impressed upon me, once again, the ability of Brazilians to experience and express joy.  For most U.S. citizens, all the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean tend to be seen as one, and we often contrast the way peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean are so outgoing and expressive, and how uptight and inhibited Americans (read the average U.S. citizen) seem in comparison.

I first went to Latin America at the age of seventeen—to do public health work one summer (1970)  in Guatemala.  Three years later, I arrived in Costa Rica and spent three semesters in the Universidad de Costa Rica as an exchange student.  In many ways, Costa Ricans (ticos) are culturally Caribbean, in particular, in their musical culture.  Ticos will start dancing at the drop of a hat.  Three ticos and access to a juke box, and you have baile (dance).  Costa Ricans love to dance cumbia.

When I first arrived in Brazil at the age of 26, I thought I knew something about Latin America.  In fact, what I knew was Hispanic America.  Brazil is another universe entirely, and arguably, it is not part of Latin America (which often really means Hispanic America).  In my view, Brazilians make Hispanic Americans seem uptight and inhibited.  The Brazilian style (jeito) has a completely different feel from Hispanic America.

Celebrating on Copacabana Beach

Celebrating on Copacabana Beach

Ultimately, what is most striking to me is the ability of Brazilian to express and experience joy.  Brazil and Brazilians have some enormous problems—extreme income inequalities, enormous pockets of poverty, high levels of violence and repression.  Yet, despite these problems, the average Brazilian seems to be able at times to forget all problems and truly, totally experience the joy of the moment.  The most famous examples are during Carnaval and the celebrations of World Cup championships (five of them in the last fifty years).  On a daily basis, I find Brazilians to be some of the most joyous and expressive people I have ever met, even more so than Hispanic Americans.  The closest equivalent I have found is among some peoples of the Caribbean basin who also have an amazing ability to experience joy completely.  In the end, the great journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto, herself of Mexican descent, sums it up in her book, Samba.  Brazilians, she tells us, unlike anyone else, are able to “experience joy unambiguously”.  I agree unambiguously.

Rio 2016 video promo: