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The Brazilian People: The Formation And Meaning Of Brazil


In this article our guest writer, Helen Nunes whom is a Phd candidate at FGV in Rio de Janeiro has written a review on The book “The Brazilian People: The Formation and Meaning of Brazil” by the brazilain author Darcy Ribeiro.

A review of “The Brazilian People” by Darcy Ribeiro

Written by Helen Nunes

“In exile, I could feel how difficult it was to be a Brazilian outside Brazil”

In times of crisis, it is crucial to remember the idea of people. In this context, Brazil is a very special case. The History of Brazil is not simple. The nation-building process was violent and multifaceted. We can only understand what Brazil is today if we go back to our history.
The origin of the Brazilian people came from “mestiçagem”, what we call the mixing of individuals from different ethnic groups. Darcy Ribeiro, an important Brazilian anthropologist and politician, wrote a book named “The Brazilian people: The formation and the sense of Brazil” about this crucial topic. This article reflects my view on Ribeiros legacy and this book in particular.

Basically, the Brazilian people have three matrices: Natives who had already been here before the European invasion, African/black and European/white people, in particular, the Portuguese. The one who was neither African nor European nor Native was  simply “none” (“zé ninguém” or what Ribeiro called “ninguendade”). As a result, the “nobody” had to search for a new group in which he/she could be identified. The result was the Brazilian.

According to Darcy Ribeiro, usually the name “Brazil” is associated with “Pau-Brasil” (a tree that contains red ink). In fact, the use of the name Brazil began to differentiate the first “Neo-Brazilians”, which were formed by the fusion of Native-Brazilians, Afro-Brazilians and the Portuguese. It was a new society opposed to the Native, the Portuguese and the black world.  A crucial point for Ribeiro was that  Brazil was forming a new civilization.

Brazilians came from Tupinambás’ natives, from “mamelucos” (the son of a Native with a European); from “cafusos” (the son of a Native with a African); and from “mulatos” (the son of a black and white parents). Thus, we were able to mix different cultures, faiths, Gods and languages. We became something else.

However, this process was not peaceful. Ethnocide, wars, slavery and diseases are part of our dark past. For Ribeiro, the development of the Brazilian people, made by the clash between Native, black and white, was highly conflicting. The fighting forces were unequal. On the one hand, tribal societies were based on kinship ties and other forms of sociability and twinned by friendly lifestyle. On the other hand, a state structure founded on conquest and domination of territory where inhabitants were divided into opposing classes but united by economic goals.

In Brazil, racism origins from a situation where miscegenation has never been officially punished. In fact, interracial marriages have never been a crime or a sin (like in the US and South Africa). According to Ribeiro Brazils population did not depend on European families to be formed. We arose from a  the mix of a few European men with crowds of Native and black women. This situation, however, is not enough to set up a “racial democracy” as thought Gilberto Freyre (another important author that wrote about the origin of Brazil). In Ribeiros view, “or there is social democracy for everyone or there is none”. The particular characteristic here is that neither “racial democracy” happened nor an apartheid regime.

The abolition of slavery did not solve Brazil’s social problems. Even though the blacks were ascending to the free worker condition before or after the abolition of slavery (1889), they were submitted to new forms of exploitation. Although in a situation better than slavery, Afro-Brazilians have integrated into the society as a sub-proletariat compelled to exercise his former role, which has remained in the heaviest work of society.

The color prejudice of Brazilians according to skin color tends to identify the white as a white mulatto, which results in an expectation of miscegenation. That expectation is still discriminatory. It expects that blacks turn into white. More than color prejudice, Brazilians have class prejudice. The huge social distances between poor and rich oppose more than black and white, which is the opposite from what happened in the USA, for instance.

As in the case of slavery’s abolition, industrialization did not break the concentration of wealth and power, which has been monopolized by white majority. There are historical reasons to explain it: the recent emergence of black slave to free worker; the oppressive treatment that black people suffered for centuries without any compensation; and the maintenance of discriminatory criteria. Illiteracy, criminality and mortality rates among black people are still higher than other Brazilian groups. This reflects the failure of Brazil as a “racial democracy”.

The negligence with popular education and health is explained by the smooth succession by the same ruling class since the Colony through Independence and since the Empire to the Republic. Without a new leadership, the same oligarchic and patriarchal group had perpetuated the old social order (RIBEIRO, 2002, p. 403). In my opinion, this social structure had changed somewhat with President Getulio Vargas  in power (1930 –1945), but still failed to include everyone. Brazil’s industrialization aimed to grow economically without distribution of wealthy and without popular participation. The result was a development based on authoritarian rules.

Business prosperity and misery always coexisted in Brazil. The society was a conglomeration of multi-ethnic people activated by an intense miscegenation, the most brutal genocide against tribal people and cultural ethnocide. The consequence was the mischaracterization of indigenous and African contingents. Paradoxically these same social conditions created the ideal field for ethnic transfiguration. Mulattos and “caboclos”, by the Portuguese language, constituted the Brazilian ethnic in the form of modern State. The immigration of Italians, Germans, Poles, Japanese, for example, have not changed Brazilian’s structure. Instead, these nationalities were assimilated into the condition of Brazilians.

The Brazilian population will homogenize even more. Brazilians will have a common genetic heritage multiracial. Brazilians are able to have children with the faces of humankind. There is no Native group today that threats the state of Brazil. Afro-Brazilians do not want ethnic autonomy. There is no group that claims for independence. And the white is becoming even more mixed and is proud of that according to Ribeiro.

Therefore, our challenge is to reinvent humankind. Brazilians are today one of the most linguistically and culturally homogeneous people and one of the most integrated in their territory. Brazilians speak the same language, without dialects. We are young people to invent a new human race that has never existed before. This task is difficult, but also beautiful and challenging. We are building a new tropical civilization, with miscegenation and openness to all cultures is what Ribeiro states.

We have more similarities than differences. Although we have regional characteristics, such as “crioulos”, “sertanejos”, “caipiras”, “cablocos” and “sulinos”, we are all Brazilians. That is the point. The crucial legacy of Darcy Ribeiro is that we need to reinvent Brazil because we were born a new thing. In my view, there is a constant pessimist vision about Brazil, especially in political and economic crises. We have problems. Every country has its problems and its history. At the same time, we also have positive characteristics which are expressed in the richness of our people as Darcy Ribeiro once showed us. That is why I recommend you to read “O povo brasileiro” as the title is in portuguese. Everybody who has interest at knowing Brazil and the history of the Brazilian people shall read this book.