Archive for December, 2009

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


The Animal Game

December 17, 2009

One of the key characters on my street is the man who sells tickets for the “animal game”.  He is one of thousands of men and women who sit each day along the sidewalks of Rio de Janeiro at pontos (points of sale) selling tickets for the oldest lottery in Brazil, the jogo do bicho (or animal game).  This is an illegal, but widely respected, lottery that the authorities (usually) choose not to bother.  Rio, like all Brazilian cities, has many legal lotteries that are very popular.  The jogo do bicho, however, has a longer history than most of the legal lotteries.

My local lottery guy

It began in the late nineteenth century, as a way for the Baron João Batista Viana Drummond to raise funds and publicity for the zoo he had created.  To make the lottery more easily understood, he used animals (ostrich, dog, alligator . . . .) instead of numbers.  Over the years, the lottery became widely played by the locals, and by the late twentieth century, it was in the hands of the so called bicheiros, or numbers bankers.  There are twenty-five different animals each assigned a set of four numbers between 1 and 100.  A bettor can place money on combinations of numbers of two, three, or four digits and one of the animals (the last two digits have to be associated with that animal).

Animals & Numbers

Today, the jogo do bicho is played by tens of thousands of cariocas (natives of Rio) on a daily basis.  (The game is played elsewhere in the country as well.)  The man in the pictures at the beginning and end of this blog entry is a vendedor (dealer) who sits in a broken chair in front of my building most days with a set of note pads and a shoebox. At times, he has someone else with him, and at other times, someone substitutes for him.  People come up, buy an animal ticket and number, and then wait for the results to be announced in the afternoon.  (The drawing is usually at 2 p.m.)  You find out the winning numbers/animals at particular locations in each neighborhood where you can redeem your ticket and receive you winnings.  I have seen these numbers posted at different locations up and down my street.  In the age of the internet, the jogo do bicho now has its own webpage, if you want to check it out, go to:

Printing up the winners

Over the last 120 years, the government has sometimes tried to suppress the game, in particular, because it is a convenient way to launder money, and because it has often attracted high powered criminals to run it.  There has been an ongoing discussion about legalizing the game.  In the 1980s and 1990s some of the richest bicheiros began to put their money into some of the famous samba schools in Rio.  In recent years, a number of the directors of the samba schools have been murdered in what were apparently struggles over control of the game.  Reputedly, about a dozen powerful “bankers” control the operation.  When one local judge in the mid-1990s cracked down on the bicheiros and finally managed to jail some of them, her life was threatened.  None of them served much time.  The recent president of the samba schools association is reputedly the most powerful of all the bankers.

In a survey I saw in the 1990s, this “illegal” lottery had the highest confidence rating of nearly any institution in Brazil.  It easily beat out the police, the courts, and the utilities companies.  I would imagine the Baron Drummond had no idea that he was creating what has become one of the quintessential Rio institutions!

Penny capitalism at work

The Multiplier Effect

December 12, 2009

Before I go on with my description of the cast of characters in my neighborhood I want to pause and write about an incredible community service project a friend of mine, Chris “Sparky” Sparks, has been working on for the past two years.

Chris is an amazing guy.  A Marine pilot with experience flying missions in the Middle East, he was an ROTC instructor at Vanderbilt, and a student in the Owen Graduate School of Management.  He decided he wanted eventually to pursue a career in international business.  He studied Portuguese at Vanderbilt and decided the best way to gain true fluency was to move to Brazil.  When he went into the Reserves last year, he came down to Rio and, on his own savings, began to build a non-profit (NGO, non-governmental organization) in the largest slum (favela) in Rio–Rocinha.  With some 350,000 inhabitants, Rocinha is a small city that has grown up on the western slopes of the Dois Irmãos mountains that separate Ipanema/Leblon from Barra da Tijuca, the highest priced neighborhoods in the city.

Rocinha with peaks of Dois Irmãos to the upper right, and Ipanema and Leblon in the distance

After encountering a series of frustrations trying to work with some existing NGOs in Rio, Chris eventually moved into Rocinha to live with a family and started Crossfit, a “strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists.”  The idea is simple:  teach people how to get into shape, do with some martial arts, and then teach them how to teach others.  The multiplier effect.  Through his own extraordinary efforts, he has raised donations (cash and equipment), rented a location in Rochinha, and trained locals to run the operation.  With some luck, and all his hard work, he may be able to secure the sponsorship of some athletic companies, especially with the World Cup and Olympic Games coming to Rio in the next few years.  If you would like to see something about Crossfit, check out the website at To see his blog go to

Crossfit loction in Rocinha

Recently, Chris took a job in Brasília and this will make his work here in Rio more dependent on those he has trained to run the operation in Rocinha.  If you would like to help Chris out, he is in always in need of volunteers to help with fundraising, doing the paperwork to register Crossfit as a U.S. non-profit, or to secure donations of equipment.  Chris has done an incredible amount of work to get this project off the ground, and it is on the verge of sustainability.  I hope some of you reading this will help him out with this amazing project.

The Gatekeepers

December 8, 2009

Now, where was I when I left off . . . .

Oh, yes, the cast of characters in my neighborhood.  This will take a few segments in the coming weeks so I can talk about the porteiro, the newsman, the bicheiro, and the trumpeter—for starters.

One of the most important people in my life in Rio is the guy who sits at a desk in the lobby at the entrance to the building, the porteiro (loosely, doorman, or what is often called the super or supervisor in New York apartment buildings).  Every apartment building in Rio has its porteiros.  In the really expensive real estate around me, these men sit in glass booths, at the entrances to their buildings, normally with some sort of gated courtyard in front of them.   They are, quite literally, the gatekeepers to life in the building.  No one goes in or out without passing by them.  Underneath most of the tall buildings around here are subterranean parking garages so the porteiros are also the gatekeepers for cars coming in and going out.  (Not the case for my building.)

Entrance to my building to left of the graffiti filled wall; apartments are on the floors above

The porteiros also serve a vital security function that has become increasingly important in Rio with its increasing crime problem.  The experienced porteiro comes to know all the inhabitants of a building, as well as their daily habits.  Anyone who is not recognizable has to identify him/herself to gain access—first to the gated courtyard or entrance, then to the building itself, usually via the elevators.  The job must be incredibly complicated socially for the porteiro in the high-rent district.  They cannot afford to offend the friends and relatives of the wealthy tenants, but they also cannot err and let someone in the building who might cause problems.  In the last decade, increasingly bolder thieves have sometimes talked their way into the porteiros and then seized them to gain access to apartments to shake down the tenants before heading off with jewels, cash, and valuables.

My building is clearly of the more modest variety with an undistinguished entrance and no gates.  One walks directly into the lobby and up to the porteiro who sits next to the elevators and stairs.  The job here must be more complicated than normal with the constant changeover of tenants.  Probably half the apartments in my eight-story building have temporary tenants, largely tourists, who come for a few days to a few months and then move on.  In short, it must be next to impossible to know with any real certainty who belongs and in the building and who does not.

After observing them for close to three months now, I have realized there are four porteiros who rotate through shifts.  One of them is a young fellow, probably in his early twenties who will barely speak to me.  Two are men probably in their forties who are friendly enough to acknowledge my coming and going with the polite “bom dia” and “boa noite”.  I have been unable to engage either of them in more than the most minimal conversation.  The fourth porteiro, Fernando, is another matter.  He is clearly the senior member of the crew and puts in the most hours.  He is also the friendliest.  More so than the others, he chats with what appear to be the long-term residents (generally an older crowd), and the tourists.

Fernando is a nordestino, that is, from the Northeastern states, the poorest region of Brazil (roughly the equivalent of our Appalachia).  He is from the tiny state of Paraíba on the Northeastern coast.  Like hundreds of thousands of others from the region, he migrated to Rio with his family forty years ago.  I am guessing he is probably in his mid-fifties.  He is very friendly and it took him a while to convince him that I was American and not English.  Go figure.

Fernando on duty

A good relationship with the porteiro is crucial to living in Brazil.  Not only does he know everything going on in the building, he knows who to talk with or where to go to fix any problems you might have.  Where can I find a good store for this or that?  How do I fix my clogged up sink?  What do I do with my plastic bottles and newspapers?  What was all that screaming and shouting in the apartment above mine last night?  Fernando is the man with all the answers.  I have probably been here longer than most of the transient tenants, but not that long yet.  I will keep working on getting to know him in the coming months.  After all, he is the gateway to so much of daily life in the neighborhood and Rio.