Growing up, I had two images of Brazil: one with godlike athletic ability, the other with a fruit salad on her head.
As different as they were, both soccer legend Pele and entertainer Carmen Miranda projected an image of Brazil that, on the surface, was what everyone wanted—a harmonious mingling of European, African and Native American cultures into a purely American form. It was known as “racial democracy” and became the official established cultural ethos of South America’s largest country.
That combination of athleticism, musical prowess, and outright joy seemed so normal back then. Too bad that they mask severe economic, political and social problems that still weigh heavy with racial overtones.
This, of course, is taking place in a country that, like Cuba, has no “official” racism.
Black in Latin America recently explored Brazil, a country that imported more slaves than any other colony in the New World. It has the second largest African population on the planet, after Nigeria. Slavery was even more brutal here than in North America and the Caribbean, and ended even later.
Like in other places, Brazil’s acceptance of its African heritage was, at least officially, a top-down affair. Being a hotbed of intellectual thought, Brazil also became a center for an academic blossoming of Afro-centric and Afro-Brazilian cultural study and self-identity. From the universities of Bahia, Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro came a new amalgamated understanding of what it means to be Brazilian. This intellectual ferment gets some much-needed light through this series.
Unfortunately, the façade of “racial democracy” was just that. Once you scratch the surface of carnival floats and samba music, the racial divide becomes much clearer. The elites, as in so many countries, tend towards the lighter shades. Those at the bottom rung have little, if any, opportunity to rise above their desperate condition.
It’s an old saw, but one that’s sharpened to a razor’s edge when seen against the stark realities of Brazilian life.
Gates does a pretty fair job covering the racial history of Brazil and the intellectual development of “racial democracy.” Yet as in the other episodes, one hour is simply insufficient to adequately cover the realities, and possible solutions, of Brazil’s very real racial divide.
Two areas in particular fall noticeably short: one a simplification, the other an outright omission.
Brazil’s experiment with affirmative action was not explored sufficiently. Towards the end of the episode, Gates sat in on a college discussion about the recent move by universities in Rio to establish affirmative action policies in college enrollment and faculty placement. The debate took a familiar tone: proponents pointed out the large disparity in income and enrollment between black and white, while opponents lamented decreased standards for the sake of racial equality.
Yet there was no indication that Gates would explore if Brazil would work with such quotas any further than the college classroom. Even without official racism, would Brazil’s government, social services, and especially its mushrooming industries tinker with affirmative action as well? Have similar programs been attempted before? What is the official government response to the university’s quota policy?
More importantly, how willing would the Brazilian economy—now a white-hot engine of progress—react to policies that may threaten their levels of production and profitability? Gates’ lack of exploration into how race played a role in Brazil’s economic boom is a gross omission.
Furthermore, Gates omits the growing racial divide in an area that once saw promise for Brazilians of color—sports.
Brazil’s greatest ambassador in history, by far, is its national soccer team, arguably the most successful national team on the planet. 5 World Cups, numerous awards and trophies, players that populate the top leagues in Europe and South America: Brazilian soccer has stood as a model to all the world.
Even more importantly, soccer was a way for Brazilians of color to really shine. Brazil’s national team first integrated in the early 1950s. Ever since, the style, culture and success of Brazilian soccer had the distinct flavor of the favelas, the slum areas around every Brazilian city populated largely by blacks. Pele, Tostao, Jarzinho and others rose from the slum streets to create the uber-successful and exciting Brazilian game.
From 1958 to 1970, the face of Brazilian soccer was black. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, was the smiling ebony face of Brazil and its powerhouse squad.
Today, Brazil’s face is markedly different.
Looking at recent Brazilian squads, one notices a distinctly whiter group than those generations ago. The faces of the team, players like Kaka and Pato, are as white as the driven snow. Black players like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano, Rivaldo and Emerson are either retiring or on their way out.
Much of this change has to do, clearly, with money. European soccer is big business, and scouting has largely moved away from the tumble-down alleys of the favelas to state-of-the-art football academies. These academies are large, expensive, and difficult for poor applicants to enter. Thus, the talent pool reflects those who can afford to send prospective candidates to these schools.
European soccer, furthermore, has taken many Brazilian players and adapted them to more “European” methods. The flash and dash of the favelas is largely frowned upon, even though most Brazilian players rely on them for their occasional flashes of brilliance. In fact, the street style is today largely confined to the national Brazilian league itself, where local players cut, dash and dribble in the hope that a scout from Arsenal or Real Madrid picks them up.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this development. Nor is there any shortage of black players to grace Brazil’s squads in the future. Yet it seems odd that the pride and joy of Brazil looks less and less like the country itself, even as the country struggles for more cohesion and equality.
Once again, Gates missed a huge opportunity. To research Brazil’s racial history and not mention the influence of soccer deserves a huge red card.
Three episodes into the series, “Black in Latin America” is getting into a familiar pattern. While it highlights information that may seem illuminating to the average viewer, it doesn’t have the time or concentration to really look at race problems in depth.
With a theme—and a country—as vast as Brazil, this approach offers very little and discovers even less.
Review of PBS’ “Black in Latin America”: Mexico/Peru
An 18th Century Casta Painting from Mexico, showing different racial combinations.
In my mother’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a province that is unlike any other.
Where the majority of the population is of either pure indigenous or mestizo (mixed white-indigenous) extraction, Esmeraldas appears as a stark contrast to the norm. The province, located on the northern coast abutting Colombia, appears better suited to the Caribbean than to an Andean country. Even with large white and native populations, Esmeraldas is dominated by Africans imported during the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century. Its culture and traditions point farther east than the Andes, towards the coasts of West Africa from which their ancestors were taken.
Athletes from Esmeraldas are especially successful. A glance at Ecuador’s soccer team would have one think they were from Cuba, Trinidad or Jamaica—anything but a South American mountain republic.
There are enclaves like Esmeraldas in many countries in Central and South America. In the last chapter of PBS’ Black in Latin America, Henry Louis Gates looks at two such areas: the black peoples of Veracruz and the Costa Chica in Mexico and the enclave outside Lima, Peru.
Unlike the Caribbean, Central and South America’s native population was too vast and too concentrated to be wiped out. The cultures of these areas, thus, carried a more Amerindian hue. The exception is the Southern Cone, where marginal native populations, as well as Africans, were absorbed into large European immigrant communities.
Yet according to Gates, the African influence is much larger than we realize—especially as African influences were absorbed or subsumed into the larger Hispano-Amerindian community.
More Africans were imported into Mexico and Peru than the United States. Almost half of all enslaved Africans imported to Spanish America came to Mexico. Cities such as Lima and Veracruz contained a distinct African hue, in contrast to the Spanish-native hybrid culture that surrounds them. Many Mexicans and Peruvians contain some African blood, even those that look mestizo. Furthermore, cultural aspects such as music, dance, and food contained as much African influence as from Europe and the Americas.
So apart from a few enclaves, where did all the Africans go?
In Mexico, the slave boom was early and brief, through the 17th century, and emancipation came sooner (in 1829). Blacks intermarried earlier and more vigorously, and by the 1920s it was difficult to even tell who was of African descent. Officially, scholars and politicians extolled the multi-racial “brownness” of Mexico’s people—a homogenization of all cultures that pushed black identity into the background.
A similar pattern occurred in Peru and other South American nations. Although emancipation was more gradual in South America, the overwhelming native and mestizo populations mixed just as vigorously into African families, creating a similar “brownness” to the Mexican experience.
The most dramatic—and tragic—example is on the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where black populations were almost entirely integrated into either mestizo or, more commonly, European immigrant populations. In effect, this did in fact wipe out the African influence on the Southern Cone, with the exception of Uruguay, where blacks and mulattos from neighboring Brazil buttress their own communities.
So in looking at these groups, and the series in a whole, I’m left with one question: Is racial intermingling and color-blindness necessarily a good thing?
A common theme in this chapter, and in the series, is the mistaken benevolence of color-blindness. For many in Latin America, especially places like the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, it was thought that the mixing of races would create a new pan-racial harmony that transcended labels and heritage. Gates himself points out that this benevolent “openness” is in itself a form of racism, in that it refuses to deal with the realities of culture and especially domestic social problems.
To be honest, Gates has a point. People are not ingredients in a soup, where different flavors and textures get blended together to make one uniform concoction. There will always be shades of color among us, and whenever there is difference, there is usually some form of discrimination be it overt or subtle. Otherwise, the enclaves of Afro-Latin Americans in Esmeraldas, Veracruz, Lima and the Costa Chica would not exist.
Yet I also get a sense—and I think Gates feels it also—that even though it may be merely a pipe dream, “racial democracy” is something worth striving for. There is hope that in the future there can be a time where all people are treated equally and fairly—while at the same time acknowledging and celebrating the different cultures that have shaped the American continent.
That hope was seen in the universities in Brazil, among young people in the Dominican Republic, in the activists striving in the Costa Chica in Mexico, and even the underground rappers and artists in Cuba that fight for their identity even when official policy condemns them as treasonous.
Whatever the future holds, this much is certain: the cultures of Latin America would not be the same if it weren’t for the millions of Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores. They gave far more than they ever got in return.
In acknowledging their contributions, it goes a small way to repaying that debt.
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