We have all, no doubt, heard of Brazil and the very famous Rio de Janeiro. Exotic images come to mind when we recall pictures of thousands of bronzed sun worshipers lazing on Ipanema or Copacabana Beaches or the amazing view of Rio from Christ the Redeemer. Yet few of us have visited this corner of the world. Canadians seem to, more frequently, travel east and west to such places as Europe or south but only as far as the northern hemisphere sun destinations. The more adventurous traveller may venture to Australia and New Zealand but Brazil is somehow overlooked or avoided.
Our evasion of this vast country seems illogical, however, as Brazil’s various exports are world class. The World Cup of Football was recently held in Brazil and Rio will soon host the 2016 Summer Olympics. It is also difficult to overlook as Brazil is the largest country in South America, occupying almost half the continent, and the fifth largest country in the world both by area and population with close to 200 million people. It is also the largest Portuguese speaking country in the world and the only one in the Americas. It is home to the famous Amazon River Basin and if that is not enough to entice visitors, Brazil fathered Pele and the girl from Ipanema.
Brazil’s problems, however, are enormous. The contrast between wealth and poverty is extreme. In Rio, a third of the population live in the favelas (shantytowns) on the hillsides above the city. At Leblon, Ipanema or Copacabana people can be seen driving Range Rovers, BMWs, and the occasional Rolls Royce. Apartments at the end of Ipanema Beach in Leblon sell for millions of U.S. dollars. In contrast the favelas, a few blocks away, have no schools, jobs, or doctors. The average income of a favela dweller is about $350 Reals per month or about $120 Canadian dollars. Drug abuse and violence are endemic. Police brutality and corruption are commonplace. Their poverty tends to seep into the wealthy areas with criminal acts committed flagrantly throughout much of Brazil.
The country’s problems are very visibly but their rich culture and particular history makes it very unique in the world and, possibly, worth the risk. The Samba, for example is their native dance. For those who have not heard of the Samba, it is a musical dance style originating in Brazil with roots in Africa via the West African slave trade and African religious traditions. The Samba has become a symbol of the Brazilian culture with any Brazilian worth his/her salt unable to avoid breaking into a dance whenever Samba music is played. The Samba permeates most Brazilian lives.
Brazil also exports soccer players and mixed martial artists like Canada exports hockey players. Pele, Ronaldo, and numerous other famous soccer players were born in Brazil. Anderson Silva and the Gracie Clan have dominated American Mixed Martial Arts for many years. The people love their sports, music, politics and family. Even in the favelas everything ends with the samba, soccer, romance, weddings, politics, talk, and a day at the beach. Whatever their social status, Brazilians have a lust for life.
Rio de Janeiro is probably the most familiar city to the rest of the world. Although no longer the capital, this beautiful city is called the Cidade Maravilhosa (marvelous city) by the Brazilians. Seven million Cariocas, as the locals are called, are crammed between the ocean and the mountains in one of the world’s truly beautiful settings. Because of the limitations inflicted by the city’s geography, Rio is one of the most densely populated metropolises in the world.
So, how did this unique culture evolve with wealth and beauty living side by side to poverty and crime? It would seem that their Portuguese origins had its influences that date back to the 1500s. The language certainly originated with this beginning as they are the only Portuguese speaking country in the Americas. The language has shown its longevity as there are few other languages spoken in Brazil with Rio far behind most other tourist destinations in being able to communicate with its tourists.
Politics is at the forefront of the people’s minds. They have struggled for centuries with the Portuguese originally establishing a colony, then a kingdom, then an empire and finally becoming the Republic of Brazil in 1889. It remained a republic until 1965 when a brutal military junta assumed control of the country as a dictatorship that ruled with severe repression of the people until 1988 when it became a parliamentary republic. This repression appears to continue to have its impact on the people with endemic violence and a distrust of government. These factors seem to permeate the culture causing a general dissatisfaction with any government.
In 2011 the country’s first woman president, Dilma Rouseff, was democratically elected and is, therefore, one of the most powerful women in the world. She has attempted to help the poor but many Brazilians are very unhappy with the government and believe she is a puppet of the former president who operated a repressive and corrupt regime. Consequently, in June 2013 hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in several cities to protest, sparking the excessive use of force by state police and turning the conflict into a series of huge demonstrations. The people were angry about a range of issues and continue to be so. This is a significant factor in Brazil with the poor feeling abandoned by the government as the rich appear to be getting richer. There are indications, however, that the current government has made some efforts to help the favela dwellers.
The demographics of Brazil has further been a significant factor in the evolution of Brazil. When the Portuguese landed on their shores in the 1500s, there was a native population of about 2.5 million Amerindians, as they are called. These people were frequently enslaved by the Portuguese but, eventually, African slaves were imported to work in the sugar cane and mining industries. It is estimated that approximately 5 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa between 1500 and 1888 when slavery was abolished in Brazil. There was always a strong European influence in Brazil, initially with the Portuguese, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries new groups arrived, mainly of Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and German origins. To a lesser extent, immigrants also arrived from Japan, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Today the Amerindians (original natives) make up less than .5% of the population or 700,000 people, the blacks, or former African slaves, make up about 8% of the population, with white Brazilians (mostly of European descent) making up 48%, and a mixed race at 43%, which are a combination of Amerindians, blacks and Europeans. Consequently the combination of these varying races has influenced their language, religion, music, and general attitude towards life. Football came with the European influence, Samba was the black slaves, and the predominant religion, Christianity and Carnival, from the Europeans. Brazil is predominantly Catholic but other religions have also survived in Brazil coming from Africa and Asia with the slaves and later migrants.
One cannot mention Brazil without discussing Carnival. The Brazilians love to party and Carnival is the longest, loudest party in the world. Carnival is an annual festival held between Friday afternoon (51 days before Easter) and Ash Wednesday at noon, which marks the beginning of Lent, the forty-day period before Easter. On certain days of Lent, Roman Catholics traditionally abstained from the consumption of meat and poultry, hence the term “carnival,” from carnelevare, meaning “to remove meat”. Rhythm, participation, and costumes vary from one region of Brazil to another. In the southeastern cities of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Vitoria, huge organized parades are led by samba schools. Those official parades are meant to be watched by the public, while minor parades (“blocos”) allow public participation. The northeastern cities have organized groups parading through streets, and the public interacts directly with them. It is a six-day party where crowds follow floats through the city streets, dancing and singing. The typical music genres of Brazilian Carnival are the varying forms of Samba.
Carnival is the most famous holiday in Brazil and has become an event of huge proportions. Except for industrial production, retail establishments such as malls, and carnival-related businesses, the country stops completely for almost a week and festivities are intense, day and night, mainly in coastal cities. Rio de Janeiro’s carnival alone drew 4.9 million people in 2011, with 400,000 being foreigners.
The Brazil of today is a combination of these many factors. It is a rich culture that is influenced by the many influences of Brazil’s past and present. At this time the dissatisfaction of the people towards the government and the significant inequity between the wealthy and poor causes conflict that disfigures this beautiful country. However, somehow the people, whether rich or poor, hold their values in what is around them. Their very being is epitomized in the Samba, talk, Carnival, sports heroes, caipirinha (sugar cane rum) and cerveja (beer), family, and fathering a new generation with the hope for a better future. It would seem one must heed the warnings of visiting Brazil but the potential experience of, even briefly, being a part of this rich and vibrant culture, may outweigh the risks.