Archive for the ‘Marshall's Quest’ Category

Nationalism, Identity, Music

March 5, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday/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

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!

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.

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.