Archive for the ‘Identity & Culture’ Category

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.


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!

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:

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.