Ethnicity and Nation Building in Brazilian Social Thought

I – The Idea of a Brazilian Civilization[1] />


This article argues that the building of a redemptive civilization is the distinctive line running through Brazilian social thought and the most important feature of Brazilian national identity. The cornerstone of Brazilian thought is the idea of the inevitable arrival of the new Métis, an original civilization. This is its nexus, and has always verged very clearly on obsession since the nineteenth century and perhaps much earlier. Today’s crisis is the crisis of this idea, which has always worked as the driving force of the Brazilian national project and of the hopes of the people. The idea of this arrival appears as an argument on behalf of the country’s existence as a nation some day. Later, this possibility becomes a certainty, made evident by economic development and, at a given moment, by the promise of a socialist society in Brazil/>/>. The building of Brasilia/>/> was another instance of something new and different, even something better, feeding a growing national megalomania. The armed forces later appropriated this idea and reinterpreted it in their own way. />

The idea of an entirely new and good Brazilian social being has been shared by intellectuals and by ordinary people. For the latter, it has a deeply religious stamp, based on a past of Iberian and indigenous messianism. The idea of an original Brazilian civilization, “where race, class and creed barriers will be overcome” is central to Brazilian religions. Alternative sects – which in Brazil/> do not hide their African inspiration – would raise the country to a new status as the “land of the gospel” and prophesy that “Brasilia/>/> will be the Capital of the Third Millennium”. On the Catholic side, the eighteenth-century Italian saint D. Bosco saw in a dream the birth of a new civilization between parallels 15 and 20 where “milk and honey will flow”. The prophecy was confirmed because Brasilia/>/> was built at parallel 16. Brasilia/>/> is surrounded by a complex of religious orders and esoteric sects, with whole towns organized to prepare for the arrival of the millennium, for communication with flying saucers and to help the nation’s leaders move the nation on to the “astral” level. Success and failure are understood as true battles fought on that level, which is not exactly “supernatural” because it has a concrete and natural existence for the adherents of those sects. />

The Patron Saint of Brazil, Our Lady Aparecida, the Black Madonna who came out of the waters, co-exists with legions of African and indigenous Indian deities, phalanxes of guardian angels, and several million priests and housewives who take part in African-Brazilian cults and pray in “terreiros” [2] and neighborhood churches. Not forgetting regional Brazilian saints like Our Lady of Abadia, in the Mid-West, the “menino do pastoreio” (A Black slave martyr) in the South and Father Cícero, in the Northeast. And today’s Brazilian Catholic Church that promises a better world, a religious utopia, heir to the Paraguayan and Southern Brazilian Jesuits, who stated that there would be no “creed, race and class barriers”. />

And so, with all this apparatus it is difficult to understand why life has taken so long to improve, as can be seen in the Brazil/>/> of recent decades. Daily life is getting progressively farther from that “vision of paradise” which has outlined Brazilian identity over the last century. The consequences of that failure are unforeseeable and much more serious than an economic crisis alone. />

The ideas for a new society on Brazilian soil were not, simply, created by intellectuals and reinterpreted by the people. They were the result of a permanent process of exchange between the Brazilian people and their elite. Elite members took their education from North-American and European science. They were “cultural intermediaries” operating the exchange between the two worlds, as the late Guillermo Bonfil put it, between “profound Brazil/>” and “superficial Brazil/>/>”. Considering the historical characteristics of Brazilian messianism, that vision of a revealed paradise is probably very old and very strong in the national tradition. At the beginning, it was filtered from traditional culture to elite culture. In support of this hypothesis we have the Brazilian past, which features several messianic movements associated with attempts to establish egalitarian sacred societies. />

II _ The Idea of Race in the Construction of Brazil or “Who knows, Brazil/>/> may exist?” />

At the end of the XIX century the remote settlement of Canudos rebelled against the Brazilian state. The description of the war was the theme of the masterpiece Os Sertões (translated to English with the title Rebellion in the Backlands) by Euclides da Cunha, The inhabitants of the town of Canudos/>/> [3], ex-prostitutes, cowboys, gunmen, thieves and the poor in general, wholly affirmed their humanity as members of that mystical community. They were still poor, but not destitute, because they had achieved a house, food, respect and participation in public life. A good word to use here might be “citizenship”. That explains their desperate resistance, battling and winning formidable military forays and, in the end, choosing death in combat. The war was between the isolated outpost and Brazil/>/>, which mobilized troops from all over the country, from Amazonian infantry to southern Gaucho lancers. At the last moment two adult men, an old man and a boy faced five thousand soldiers who “roared in front of them”, as Euclides da Cunha described in a moving passage. />

It is not only the beauty of the narrative that makes Euclides da Cunha’s book the most important Brazilian literary epic, but also its capacity to express the great Brazilian questions through the description of a real historical drama. The first of these questions is ethnicity [4]. “The inhabitant of the backlands (the “sertanejo” or “jagunço“) is “above all a strong man”, says Euclides da Cunha, impressed by his value in war. This was heresy, because only White Europeans were strong in the eyes of the racist anthropology of the late nineteenth century. That phrase defined the challenge of Brazilian intellectuals: to “prove” that it was possible to build national states with mixed populations. Euclides da Cunha considers the inhabitant of the Brazilian backlands a type of racial mix that, once stabilized, could originate a future “Brazilian race” – a repetition of the São Paulo “Bandeirantes” [5], who were also the result of the inter-breeding of Whites and Indians. This racial type would be different from the “neurasthenic coastal Mulattoes”, because da Cunha constructs Brazilian ethnicity from backlands settlers, sacrificing the mulatto. Sometimes it seems he will take it a step further, incorporating Brazilians of African descent within this new race, as in the episode in which he describes the heroic death of a Black Canudos defender. However he does not go this far. />

Euclides da Cunha tries to demonstrate that Brazil/>/> is viable. Nations were imagined by an ethnic criterion. He finds, in a “scientific” way, a mixed brown Brazilian type, the “sertanejo“, who becomes a metaphor for the idea of nation. When he values the half-breed and describes the “sertanejos” as “tamed Tapuia Indians”, he emphasizes the indigenous past and contributes to solve the dilemma announced by Simon Bolivar in the Angostura Congress: />

“We do not know exactly who we are. What we are not, are Whites, or Indians, or Blacks, but rather a new synthesis of all them”. />

The same dilemma reappears in the works of classic Latin-American thinkers like Vasconcelos, Ingenieros, Sarmiento, Andres Bello, Rodó, Marti, Dario and others. />

Euclides da Cunha explored some wide-ranging problems shared by these other Latin-American intellectuals [6]. He also emphasized the role of the poor, simple people as the main historical actors rather than the “great men”, as was the rule in the sociology of the early twentieth century [7]. He stresses the greater liberty and the more egalitarian ways among the sertanejos, in contrast with the inhabitants of the littoral. He explores other aspects that even today are of concern to those who study Brazilian culture. This is the case of his analysis of the prevalence of interpersonal relations over the law and institutions. Buarque de Holanda and others, much later, would explore this same question. Thus, his description of how the sertanejo cowboy wrote his letters, rendering accounts and honestly separating his share from that of the absentee landlord. Thus, his portrait on how the Brazilian soldier fought with one eye on the battle and the other on his commander. If the leader fell back, all the soldiers fell back; if he attacked, all attacked. Eventually the fight was around the commanders: the guerrilla defenders of Canudos trying to kill them and the desperate soldiers protecting them because they knew that once they were lost, all were lost. This incursion into a concept that would later be called “cordial man” or “relational society” expresses the most important aspect in the work of Euclides da Cunha: the beautiful description of the fantastic events in the Canudos region; in the drama of the battle, nationality expressing itself through ethnography of the first water. />

Os Sertões (you said this a little earlier) was written in 1902, fourteen years after Silvio Romero’s book História da Literatura Brasileira (History of Brazilian Literature). Although Romero frequently changed his stance throughout his books and articles, Romero’s final conclusions preceded da Cunha’s, in terms of a possible future Brazilian mixed race. The most important difference is that it would include Indian, White and also Black mixed breeds. />

Many other Brazilian authors have written about race and ethnicity [8]. An ample overview may be found in Skidmore (1974), which is a thorough but not very well used bibliography, as we shall see in the next chapters. />

Another important development in the ideas about ethnicity in Brazil/>/> happened with Oliveira Vianna. Vianna was a mulatto who, along with another mulatto, Nina Rodrigues, is considered the paradigm of racism in Brazil/>/>. The reader is sometimes astonished when encountering statements such as the following: />

“Aryans are those who by controlling the disciplinary and educational apparatus have power over this formless and pullulating crowd of inferior mixed breeds, keeping it, by social and juridical compression, within the norms of Aryan morals, and slowly they will feel inclined towards the White race mentality” (1982, 127, first publication in 1939). />

But, in order for Brazil/>/> to exist, the nationalist Oliveira Vianna needs to compromise. After all, the great race theorist Count Gobineau developed his thesis about the racial inferiority of Blacks and mixed breeds when working as a French diplomat in Rio de Janeiro/>/>. Vianna’s concept of race is different from Gobineau’s, as shown in the following passage: />

“In general, what we call “mulatto” is the inferior mulatto, unable to rise, degraded in the lowest social layers, originating from the crossing of Whites with Blacks of the inferior type. There are also superior mulattoes, closer to the White, Aryans by character.” (op.cit.:121). />

In Oliveira Vianna’s “Brown Aryan” concept, the Brazilian racial metaphor becomes evident. In the same way that Euclides da Cunha foresees a “stabilized” Brazilian race, Vianna creates this fantastical conceptual kitsch to make Brazil/>/> viable and to ensure its future glory. Thus, this “Aryan molded by the Tropics” is born, with a darker skin than the other Aryans, nobody knows exactly why… “Whitening” and “Browning” are synonyms in this Brazilian-style racism. Vianna presents statistical tables with the distribution of Whites, Blacks and Mixed Breeds to demonstrate a “negative growth of the Black race”. Brazilian authors used similar tables on two other occasions. The first was when Batista de Lacerda tried in 1912 to demonstrate that the Brazilian Black population would drop to zero by the year 2012. The second opportunity was when Darcy Ribeiro who, despite criticizing the “whitening” thesis (in 1970), simply repeats its ideological intentions: as the idea of “whitening” is a subterfuge for the crossing of races, Ribeiro explicitly assumes that this possibility is desirable, without any subterfuge. He foresees a “nation of Métis” without hiding it under the “whitening” metaphor. />

Batista de Lacerda, Oliveira Vianna, and Darcy Ribeiro’s tables confer an objective reality that it does not in fact possess on the concept of race. “Blacks” and “Whites” are race categories invented by ethnic groups to make distinctions between themselves, in the same way that they use other cultural constructions like food, clothes, or any emblems. />

Notwithstanding his racism, Oliveira Vianna creates some convincing sociological explanations. His book Southern Populations of Brazil aims to “establish the social characterization of our people…in such way as to show how much we are distinct from other peoples”. Therefore he intentionally constructs Brazilian national identity itself. He sees the great estates (latifundia) as the root of Brazilian social and economic formations. This view would, paradoxically, be repeated in Marxist analyses in the 1960s to justify the land reform that never came. For Vianna, the economic self-sufficiency of the great estates simplified the country’s economic structure. Trade and cities were not necessary. The isolation of the estates killed neighborliness but reinforced family life. However, such analytical elegance disappears when he compares the landowning family with the old Roman family, idealizing its moral virtues. He makes a contrast between that landowning family and the rural mixed-breed populace (“plebe rural”), where he sees concubinage as the main principle. Thus, he digresses about the “dissolution of paternal authority” [9] and the “moral failures of the low people of our countryside”. />

The pompous and self-deceiving discourse of the moral excellence of the Aryan landowning family suddenly disappears to give rise to a brilliant explanation of the conquest of Brazilian territory by the expansion of the latifundium. Besides the Indian slave hunting expeditions (“bandeiras“) there were expeditions to colonize further the backlands. Entire estates were transplanted, including their old people, Black slaves and womenfolk. The expansion of Brazilian territory is explained by the polygamous family – which led to a high birth rate -, by the vast expanses of land needed to support the latifundiary social structure and by the need for great tracts of pasture for cattle raising. The open grasslands in the interior (created by the genocide of Indians) were another stimulus to territorial expansion. />

His description of the social formation associated with the latifundium is also convincing. He called this the “clans”. The simplest would be the “feudal clan”. The landowner offered protection to “his” peasants and, in exchange, expected their total loyalty. As Vianna states, “the lord is never alone: he always had partners, friends, comrades, and gunmen”. Therefore, family feuds recur in our history. In the Farrapos war the combatants did not know the reason for the conflict, but only the name of the commander to whom they owed loyalty. Personal loyalty was considered the supreme value, as in the description by Euclides da Cunha of the soldier fighting with one eye on the combat and the other on his commander. This feudal clan was identified with a single estate, comprising its owner, slaves and peasants. />

These units featured a strong ethnic reference. Indian and White mixed breeds were the enemies of Blacks and mulattos. The former were used to capture runaway Black slaves. Ethnicity explains the development of the Brazilian army, considered a mixed-breed class. In clan warfare, Blacks and Indians were also combatants. />

For Oliveira Vianna, while local oligarchies had modeled their “family-based clan”, “the lower layers do not have class or family-based solidarity. They link themselves only to the local landowner.” (1982 a: 156). Even today, oligarchic connections through kinship and the fragmentation of the poor represent an essential nexus for understanding the Brazilian social class system. />

It is also interesting to note his understanding of the state as an ally of the common people. He anticipates the issue of the bureaucratic state which, later, would be the theme of Raymundo Faoro’s book Os Donos do Poder (The Owners of Power) [10]. />

III – The Ideas of Culture, Society and Ethnicity in Nation/> Building/> or “Brazil/>/> already exists, in spite of everything.” />

The sociology of Manuel Bomfim, another Brazilian author from the early twentieth century, is humane and generous. His criticism of the concept of race is appropriate even for today’s anthropology. Those who read Bomfim nowadays feel as if his work is outside of its place and time, although this is counterbalanced by dated information and his literary style, which takes one back to the early twentieth century. At the same time that his contemporaries performed intellectual acrobatics to discover a viable Brazilian “racial type”, in 1905 he denounced the concepts of race and race-mixing as simple oppression ideologies between peoples and social classes. He values miscegenation and emphasizes political and cultural aspects in the explanation. At a certain moment, in his 1931 book “O Brasil Nação” (Nation Brazil/>/>) he attacks migration policies, which supported European immigration, and he argues for governmental support for Blacks, Indians and mixed-breed Brazilians. />

His explanation for the end of slavery is original and remarkable; this he considers to be a consequence of the action of Brazilian poets. He dedicates his book “O Brasil Nação” to the poet Castro Alves, whom he calls “the emotional voice of the revolution”. Poetry had brought Brazilians together and expressed the great national problems. He believed that “all nationality affirms itself by poetic chantsand he argues very convincingly that poetry had mobilized the population against slavery. He does not forget the determining role of the slaves themselves, who ran away and founded rebel communities all over Brazil/>/>. Thus, he gets close to Euclides da Cunha, who saw ordinary people as those who make history. He makes special mention of the Cubatão “quilombo” (runaway slaves’ community) close to the São Paulo/>/> coast; nor does he forget the army that refused to destroy it and the judges who decided against the pusuit of fugitive slaves. />

He reverses the traditional thesis of attraction of Portuguese and Brazilian men by mulatto women. He states that sexual intercourse between master and slave women also happened between mistress and house-boys (“moleques”). Thus, he attacks the elite through the elite morals that Oliveira Vianna believed to be superior and justifying class and race structure. He hits the elite in its major taboo: the honor of its women. Later Gilberto Freyre disagrees in an enlightening debate. He believes that sex between the lady and the house-boys would be impossible because the other women of the house watched her, permanently, from behind the copper bowls. For Freyre, the lady of the house had sex with other women in the house, not with the boys. The segregation of women in the Brazilian harems would create such opportunities [11]. />

This criticism of Oliveira Vianna’s landowner family morals was a blow against one of the pillars of the traditional social class system, that of the moral superiority of the rich. />

Bomfim’s methodology places history as “social construct” within a power system. He assumes that his own version of history does not answer to “objective reality”, diverging from Marx, for example, who calls history written by others “ideology”, while the history that he writes is science, absolute truth. Departing from the premise that history was in a way “stolen” by the powerful, Bomfim proposes to rewrite it. He does not separate economic nationalism and cultural nationalism. He does not “dismantle” the nation through the alienation of its symbols and its past to remake it someday – a formula followed by some Brazilian Marxists. This was an obvious mistake made by the political left when in the 1985 campaign for immediate direct elections and against the dictatorship, the population transformed the streets into a sea of yellow and green flags (the Brazilian national colors). On the contrary, he proposes that the nation be understood through the concept of tradition. He believes that “in Brazil/>/> was established the first local American civilization”, but he considers the Brazilian elite the “worst in the world” – a parasitic layer that had “conciliation” and “order” as its principles. “Conciliation” denotes political corruption through sharing positions and privileges [12]. “Order” expresses the suspicion towards any new idea. For Bomfim, Brazil is not this elite with Portuguese origins, but the crossbred people that he considers to be “pacific and adaptable”, “peaceful” and the possessors of a “calm goodness” [13]. />

Bomfim regrets the isolation of the slave-owning Brazilian empire among the American republics. He even proposes replacing the national armies by a popular militia created for the joint defense of all Latin American countries. For him, the Brazil/> of the Brazilian people, not of the elite, had protected America/>/> from the Dutch, French and English invasions. In the thirties, when nationalism was a measure of the truculence of nations, he was the first to publicly denounce the Paraguayan war, as an “evil crime against humanity and against America/>/>”. He was ashamed of the genocide carried out on the Paraguayan population. />

The almost forgotten Bomfin is now being rediscovered. His work did not produce so many repercussions as that of authors like Silvio Romero, Euclides da Cunha, Oliveira Vianna or Gilberto Freyre. Perhaps the best explanation was Vamireh Chacon’s that “Bomfim was too far ahead of his time” [14]. The present day reader of Manuel Bomfim remembers the same words that he once used for Castro Alves: “the emotional voice of the revolution”. />

The publication of Gilberto Freyre’s Casa Grande e Senzala (translated as The Masters and the Slaves) meant a radical change in the way that Brazilians saw themselves. The book would soon become a major classic of our social literature. Freyre replaced the concept of “race” by the concept of “culture” in the construction of the Brazilian self-image. The main thread running through Brazilian social thinking up to that point had been the idea of the specificness of a new tropical civilization, and this was not only maintained, but emphasized. Abandoning the concept of race made it easier to build the “nation of métis”. Thus, states Freyre: />

…it is right that the Portuguese triumphed where other Europeans failed: the first modern society in the tropics with national characteristics and the quality of permanence is of Portuguese formation” (1943,95). />

Despite opting for the concept of “culture”, Freyre occasionally uses expressions such as “advanced race” to talk about the Portuguese or “backward race” referring to the Indians. He denominates the Indians as “almost bands of grown-up children” endowed with an “exalted sexuality”, He wrongly believes that the indigenous contribution almost disappeared in Brazilian culture, with the exception of what remains in eating habits and in religion. He sees Negroes as “superior” to the Portuguese in some aspects, but he prefers them as slaves. He avoids genetics but he gets close to the “social racism” of the Brazilian culture that he studies. At a given moment he regrets the end of slavery [15]. Among the Black contributions to Brazilian culture, he stresses the cliché of “tenderness” (op.cit, 441). His explanation for ethnic influences on the Portuguese formation is also contaminated by stereotypes about the Portuguese “national character” and the Arab and Jewish influences it inherited. />

Freyre considers the Portuguese “less cruel” than other colonizers. He compares the Portuguese policy of using Indian women to “form a family” with the extermination practices applied by the English and Spaniards. The latter do not share this view [16]. He perceives mitigating circumstances in Brazilian slavery, because of the baptism of slaves, their incorporation in religious life and miscegenation. This viewpoint would be taken up by authors such as Frank Tannembaum (1946). />

Positions such as these, however, do not jeopardize the revolutionary impact of Casa Grande e Senzala. After all, in the same decade, Oliveira Vianna talked about the “Aryan race”. Besides renewing key concepts, some of Freyre’s insights come close to genius. He isolates two fundamental factors conditioning “race relations” in Brazil/>/>: the plantation system and the scarcity of white women (1943, 19). The intermediary position of Portugal/> between Europe and Africa/>, which resulted in its experience of interaction with Africans and Arabs, led to miscegenation and diminished the distance between Whites, Blacks and Indians. Another important Freyre idea is the similarity between the plantation in the Americas/>/> and the related social formations. Thus, the Brazilian Northeast was not very different from the Southern United States/>, in several aspects. />

The role of the patriarchal family as the basic unit of Brazilian social organization is Freyre’s well known central thesis [17]. Anthropology cannot discuss Brazil/>/> without discussing family, and it cannot discuss family without considering Gilberto Freyre. Some of his ideas, like the “sadomasochism” associated with slavery and the patriarchal family, are very interesting for our understanding of class relationships, and of male-female relationships even in today’s Brazil/>/>. In this context we have his description of Brazilian women “yelling orders”; we also recall his view on the strong sensuality associated with slavery and with the patriarchal family, leading to intense miscegenation, among other consequences. He cites the concern of Brazilian intellectuals from the previous century about the upbringing of Brazilians being “….impaired by slavery. White children interacted with grown-up and small slaves and learned lax sexual morals (1943, 560)”. This association between licentiousness and slavery, as was seen, demystifies Oliveira Vianna’s ideal of the sacrosanct rural aristocratic family [18]. />

Gilberto Freyre is an innovator in terms of methodology. The ”big house” as the microcosm of society represents a new sociological model. The liberty he felt to write creatively, without too many “scientific” concerns, makes him a remarkably up-to-date author. His work always leads back to the specificness of a Brazilian civilization in the tropics. Two of his books, Casa Grande e Senzala and Sobrados e Mocambos, would mark Brazilian social thought forever. />

Nineteenth-century romantic poets found an idealized Indian to represent Brazil/>/>. Silvio Romero and Gilberto Freyre diminish Indian influence and emphasize the joint Portuguese and Black heritage. Euclides da Cunha and Manuel Bomfim choose the Indian to mark Brazilian identity. Oliveira Vianna stresses the Portuguese influence adapted to a new social and geographical environment. Buarque de Holanda also understands Brazil/>/> as an attempt to plant European Culture in a tropical region. He considers the Iberians highly individualistic. They value autonomy and independence, free choice and individual personality, resulting in the need for strong governments to control their blind individualism. Therefore, the need for a Franco in Spain/>, a Salazar in Portugal/> or for the “Estado Novo” (New/> State/>) dictatorship in Brazil/>/>. From the same source would arise the Iberian reluctance to work and the Portuguese “spirit of adventure”. Those lists of traits in the “national character” repeat and add new elements to stereotypes found in Freyre and in Bomfim. />

Buarque de Holanda repeats Freyre’s [19] viewpoint that the Portuguese arrived in Brazil/>/> already miscegenated. He recalls that in 1541, one fifth of the population of Lisbon/>/> was Black. In Portugal/>/> the discrimination against manual work would be stronger than against race. He therefore believes that racial mixing represented the fundamental factor for the foundation of a “new homeland”, an endeavor where the Dutch failed. Brazilian culture, however, is essentially Iberian. After identifying the traits common to all Iberians, he separates the Portuguese from the Spaniards. He associates the Spaniard with the tiler, because of the carefully planned straight streets of his American cities. The Portuguese would be more relaxed – the sower – with his American cities growing in accordance with geography and historical chance. />

He also accepts the thesis of the centrality of the patriarchal family, but does not consider it to be a result of the plantation. For him, the family of old Roman law had survived in the Iberian Peninsula/>, associated with slavery and the undisputed authority of the “pater familiae”. Family in colonial Brazil/>/> – a country settled by anarchical Iberians – would be the sole institution where there could be found “a more normal idea of power, respectability, obedience and social cohesion”. Iberian individualism would be the cause of the incapacity for permanent organization that Oliveira Vianna had, already, related inversely to the strength of kinship ties. The importance of family ties explains the “invasion of the public by the private”, that is, the transference of family relationships to the state level. Thus, the use of Weberian concepts such as “bureaucrat” and “patrimonial public servant”, which Wiilems (1975), Faoro (1987) and others would adopt [20]. Those concepts are today a basic reference for studying the state in Brazil/>/>. They are consistent with Buarque de Holanda’s brilliantly appropriate idea of “cordial man”: internal family relationships and patterns of rural intimacy would be transferred to the urban environment. The personal and affective relationship leading to intimacy and informality would be the only one known in Brazilian culture [21]. This explains the ubiquitous use of affectionate diminutives or nicknames for all one’s friends; it illuminates the intimacy shown even to the saints within the chapel of the house. The prevalence of the personal relationship over impersonal law represents, even today, a central problem in Brazilian anthropology, especially if one considers Roberto da Mata’s concept of “relational society”. />

Buarque de Holanda has not the literary genius of Euclides da Cunha or the brilliance of Gilberto Freyre, but he is the most intellectually sophisticated among the authors of the beginning of the twentieth century who built Brazilian identity. Without the coarseness of Oliveira Vianna’s race thesis, he considers White European ethnicity to be essential in building Brazilian identity. Later, in other more empirical works, he also seeks to emphasize the role of the Indian in the formation of Brazilian nationality (1986). He explores the idea that miscegenation of Indians and Portuguese led to Brazilian territorial expansion in the Brazilian West. Such mixing would give Brazilians a very high capacity to adapt (22) to the geographical environment. />

IV – The Transformation of Reality and (Almost) the Arrival of the Millennium />

A new stage in the development of the idea of Brazil/>/> appeared in 1933 with Caio Prado’s book Political Evolution of Brazil, the first great Marxist study of the country as a whole. Prado abandons the concepts of race and culture, but keeps “nation building” as his analytical aim. He does not entirely escape from some of the generalizations which were typical of the time he was writing and that would routinely become a part of discourse about Brazil/>/>. Like Buarque de Holanda he distinguishes the North-American pioneer who settled with his family in the New World/> from the Portuguese “adventurers”. Like Gilberto Freyre he states that in Brazil/>/> an “entirely original society in the tropics” was formed (1933, 93). His analysis of the expansion of cattle-raising latifundia and of the colonization process curiously recalls the view of Oliveira Vianna, placed at the other extreme of the political spectrum. He perceives, like Manuel Bomfim, a “latent spirit of revolt in the slave mass.” His Marxist analysis is not a radical criticism of the Brazilian past or of Brazil/>/> within “its traditions”. />

From the decade of the fifties onwards, a new phase in Brazilian intellectual life began, based on different versions of and approaches to Marxism. Sociology and economics offered the basis for a new nationalism, which was no longer framed by the concepts of race or culture. The central challenge was no longer to demonstrate Brazil/>/>’s viability by manipulating the concept of race. No longer was it “Brazil/>/> exists in spite of everything”, an original cultural formation adapted to a hostile environment. The new challenge is “yes, it exists and we will make it great and just”. For some, it should be great to face imperialism and for others because of sheer megalomania. In both cases it was necessary to act or in the words of the time “to transform reality”. The new identity was built upon the notion of the imminent arrival of the political millennium. It represents a rupture, but one that occurs within a larger process of continuity derived from the fundamental belief in the construction of an original society in Brazil/>/>. Therefore, at a more general level there is a logical succession from the first doctrines of the beginning of twentieth century to the economic and political theories of the middle of the century. />

There begins a new stage in the national identity associated with architecture, especially under the impact of the construction of Brasilia/>/>. The city is a monument, concrete evidence of the truth of the promises in popular lore and in the beliefs of intellectuals. There appear new movements with different nuances emphasizing economic and political nationalism, such as the economics or the “sociological theory of dependence” of CEPAL (Comissão Econômica Para a América Latina – Economic Commission for Latin America/> – a UN agency). />

Through such movements, Brazil/> builds itself again as “Latin America/>”. One of the most important intellectuals, a symbol of this time, is Celso Furtado, who came from CEPAL. In his book Economic Formation of Brazil Furtado successfully merges economic history, sociology and economics as analytical tools and guides for political action. In Rio de Janeiro there appears ISEB (Instituto Superior de Estudos Brasileiros – the Higher Institute for Brazilian Studies), a nationalistic sociological school, and in São Paulo/>/> the sociological school led by Florestan Fernandes, which develops through the study of “race relations”. This was a strategic issue because “racial democracy“ supports Brazilian civilization as it was conceived during that period. For authors like Gilberto Freyre, more humane social relations more than compensate for our economic poverty. Those studies by the São Paulo/>/> sociologists had shown the existence of strong attitudes against Blacks and that such attitudes remained dormant as a consequence of “patriarchal relationships” still in operation within the class system (Fernandes, 1965). This is also a good explanation for the stronger prejudice in the South of the country, where capitalism was more developed. The analytical resort to patriarchalism demonstrates that there is no direct opposition, but a gray zone of ambiguities, intermediary positions and agreement among authors as politically opposed as Fernandes and Freyre. />

Dante Moreira Leite (1965) locates in the work of Caio Prado the dividing line between the authors who work with the “ideology of the national character” and those who overcome ideology, now finding “reality”. Marxism supplies the bases – no longer “ideological” – but “theoretical” for this new nationalism. Moreira Leite’s work integrates him with this new movement, in which cultural explanations are replaced by sociological and economic ones. He criticizes ethnic studies as yielding a new form of racism. In fact, Gilberto Freyre and Buarque de Holanda both use eternal and stigmatizing stereotypes associated with national character, like, for example, references to “our laziness” or to “the Portuguese spirit of adventure”. However, some aspects that those authors identified, such as the importance of kinship and the prevalence of the personal relationship, are still essential for the understanding of Brazil/>/>. Like language, some elements of culture may reach a remarkable permanence in time, measured by centuries or millennia. />

After the last contributions of the “São Paulo/> school”, the sociological contributions that aimed to understand Brazil/>/> as whole disappear. The social sciences, since then, have participated in the construction of fragmented identities of Blacks, Indians, women, workers and other groups. No one works on the idea of Brazil/>/> any more, with a few exceptions. A problem, for which the answer is not political militancy alone, was abandoned. And that empty space was invaded: together with the military dictatorship there came geopolitics, the attempt to associate the idea of nation with the power of the state over the individual and over other states. Economic science, the other face of the authoritarian state, took on an unknown role in most countries of the world. In today’s Brazil/>/> it is even the great legitimizing tool of social inequality and even of violence, under the aseptic cover of “technical efficiency”. Reviews of Brazilian culture appeared, while “ideology”, as seen in Carlos Guilherme Mota’s book, can absolve or condemn, as a political judgment, anything from popular music to theater, passing over all the country’s social literature. />

The next chapter is about the Brazilianists. Much political criticism, welcomed at the time of the military dictatorship, but frequently mixed with the destruction of the central values of Brazilian culture: an attack on the viability of the nation, itself, or as the essayists of the early twentieth century would have said, an attack on the “soul of the nation”. Innumerable foreign researchers made an important contribution to Brazil/>/>, especially those who succeeded in relativizing, by methodology, their own values and attitudes. There are those, however, who by exaggerating the exotic, the folkloric and the violent, or by their sheer incapacity to understand Brazil/>/>, attacked central Brazilian values to enhance the superiority of their own country. For these reasons it is of crucial importance that recent versions of Brazilian history have been produced in foreign countries and that some Brazilian scholars perceive Brazilianists as something akin to “cultural heroes” [23,24]. But here we are not talking about “Brazilian Social Thinking” but about “Thinking about Brazil/>/>”. />

Brazilian social thinking over the centuries has used increasingly appropriate and efficient concepts for the ideological construction of the nation, supported in a project of the future: from the difficulties of the concept of race to pride in the idea of a Brazilian culture, and finally the political action associated with “economic and social” concepts. There was a rupture with the military dictatorship, but by the appropriation of the idea of economic development there was some sort of continuity with previous thinking. />

The Brazilian notion of a necessary utopia contrasts with other countries, such as Mexico/>/>, where the idea of nation is associated with the indigenous past and present, or the European countries, where the construction of a common historical past defines national identity. It also different from the United States, distinguished from other countries by the “manifest destiny” doctrine, expressed in the present American belief in its own grandeur. />

The problem with a promised utopia is that it must present continuous evidence that this bright future it is getting closer, even if it never comes. For a time, economic development could keep the idea alive that people would have better food, houses, schools and hospitals, and that a new civilization would be founded in Brazil, where the “the barriers of class, race and creed would be overcome”, like in the prophecies of the mystics and in the thoughts of intellectuals. However this dream seems ever farther from people’s lives. Another bitter decade of impoverishment and disorganization of the political body is coming to an end. />

It may be time to ally the concept of culture to political and economical aspects in order to demonstrate (again) the viability of Brazil/>/>. Not by drawing a unique identity this time, but by the invention of a society which acknowledges the current way of life. Perhaps the way is shown by Manuel Bomfim, when he separates “Brazil/> in History” from “Nation Brazil/>/>”. The nation belongs to the Brazilian people, its poets, its art, its values of solidarity and joy. The history was stolen by the elite. The people will have it back some day. />


Bomfim, Manuel

1931- O Brazil na História. Livraria Francisco Alves: Rio de Janeiro

1931b- O Brazil Nação: Realidade da Soberania Brazileira. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves.

1984- História e Dependência: Cultura e Sociedade em Manoel Bomfim. Flora Sussekind e Roberto Ventura, eds.São Paulo: Editora Moderna.

Bonfil Batalla, Guillermo

1987- México Profundo . México. SEP/CIESAS

Brandão, Adelino

1982-A Antropologia de Os Sertões. São Paulo:

Buarque de Holanda, Sérgio

1986-O Extremo Oeste. São Paulo: Brasiliense.

1988-Raízes do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, editora. primeira edição: 1936

Faoro, Raimundo

1987-Os Donos do Poder: Formação do Patronato Político Brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Globo

Fernandes, Florestan

1965-A Integração do Negro Na Sociedade de Classes. São Paulo: EDUSP.

Freyre, Gilberto

1943 Casa-Grande e Senzala: Formação da Família Brasileira sob o Regime de Economia Patriarcal. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio

Harris, Marvin

1956-Town and Country in Brazil. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mata, Roberto –

1985- A Casa e a Rua. São Paulo, Brasiliense.

Moreira Leite, Dante

1969-O Caráter Nacional Brasileiro. São Paulo: Pioneira.

Ribeiro, Darcy

1970- As Américas e a Civilização. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira.

Skidmore, Thomas

1974-Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thougth. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tannembaum, Frank

1946-Slave and Citizen. New York: Vintage Books

Vargas Llosa,

1990- “Entre Palabras y Ideas” in La Interminable Conquista: Emancipacion y Identidad de America Latina, 1492-1992, Dieterich, Heinz, ed. Mexico: Mortiz y Planeta


1982-Populações Meridionais do Brasil . Brasília: Câmara dos Deputados.

1982b-Instituições Políticas Brasileiras. Brasília: Câmara dos Deputados.

1991-Ensaios Inéditos. Editora da Unicamp. Campinas. São Paulo.

Wagley, Charles

1952-Race and Class in Rural Brazil. Paris: UNESCO

1959-“On the Concept of Social Races in the Americas.”Actas del XXXIII Congresso Internacional de Americanistas. San Jose, Costa Rica.

Willems, Emilio

1975- Latin American Culture: An Anthropological Synthesis New York: Harper and Row.

Zarur, George

1984-Os Pescadores do Golfo: Antropologia Econômica de Uma Comunidade Norte-Americana. São Paulo: Achiamé.

1990-“Família e Mérito”. Interciência. Caracas. Julho, 1990.

1991-“A Contribuição de Charles Wagley Para a Antropologia Brasileira e para a Idéia de Brasil. Anuário Antropológico

Zea, Leopoldo

1988-Discurso Desde de La Marginalizacion y La Barbarie.

Barcelona. Anthropos


(1) I would like to thank you Susan Casement Moreira for her competent revision of the English version of this paper. />A first version of this article was published in 1996 in/> Etnia e Nação na América Latina/>/> (George Zarur, ed.) The final version, here translated, is the first chapter of the book A Utopia Brasileira. [2] The ritual space of African Brazilian cults />

[3]- In 1899, there was huge religious armed insurrection in the Brazilian backlands. Gathered in the town of Canudos/>/>, the insurgents resisted three different forays of the Brazilian Army and were defeated by the fourth. This major event in Brazilian history was described in the masterpiece Os Sertões by Euclides da Cunha. There is an English translation, entitled Rebellion in the Backlands. />

[4] In Canudos there was a neighborhood where the Kariri Indians lived; they have settled what is today the town of Mirandela/>/>, which I visited in 1976. Like their Canudos ancestors, these Indians were monarchists and they believed that D. Pedro II, the last emperor of Brazil/>, still ruled, but now in Brasilia/>/>. />

[5] – The “Bandeirantes”, from the word “bandeira” (flag) were a mixture of Portuguese and Indian. The word “bandeira” refers to their expeditions in search of gold and Indian slaves. Those expeditions were extremely important for the expansion of Brazilian territory over previously Spanish colonies. />

[6]- In his book Facundo, Sarmiento, for example, works out the opposition interior-coastline, also exploited by Euclides da Cunha, which is still very important today. />

[7] – See Brandão (1982) />

[8] – This article will discuss only those authors who effectively influenced Brazilian national thought and whose ideas were widely accepted and transferred to society. It does not aim to produce an exhaustive study of the issue. />

[9] – The idea of the “dissolution of paternal authority” was used several years later by American Senator Patrick Moynihan to explain the poverty of North-American Blacks. />

[10] – “… the principal means invariably followed by the builders of our central power… weaken, in all ways possible, the territorial aristocracy “ (1982a, 209) />

[11] -Freyre, 1943, 542. />

[12] -“shameless, bestial…the oligarchs formed a federation to exercise the most blatant and overweening dominion. The state is theirs, it is of their sons, of their sons in law, of their brothers in law and of their cousins (1931, 268). />

[13] -” They can’t understand that order can prevail, that is, social discipline in free activities…How to expect that in such an ideology there would a place for the legitimacy of mutations, which they call disorder” (1931b, 214). It is incredible how those two ideological principals have remained central to the understanding of Brazilian national politics. />

[14] – Susskind and Ventura/>/> (in Bomfim, 1984) state that the reason that few people know the work of Bomfim is because he did not move on from the metaphor (parasitism) to the “model”. Chacon’s explanation makes more sense (in Bomfim, op.cit., 21) />

[15] – “Patriarchalism, dismantled in 1888, until then had supported the slaves, fed them with some plenty, helped them in old age and in illness, and offered their children the possibility of social access. The slave was replaced by the Usina (sugar cane processing plant) pariah; the senzala (slave quarters in the plantation) by the mocambo (urban slums); the plantation owner by the absentee capitalist (1943, 43)”. />

[16] – The Spaniards, while contrasting their colonization in America/>/> with the English colonization, also considered themselves as paradigms of goodness (see Zea, 1998, 13).; />

17 – The idea of Brazilian patriarchalism came before Freyre. Let’s take, for example, Taunay, in his book The Laguna Withdrawal (A Retirada da Laguna), where he describes the dramatic withdrawal of an isolated Brazilian column from Paraguay/>/>, in the Paraguayan War. The heroic guide of the expedition, Lopes, knows that his father has taken the wrong direction. However, he does not correct him, because it would be lack of respect for his father. Inocência, written by the same Taunay, is a beautiful novel about patriarchalism and violence. But Gilberto Freyre was the author who placed patriarchalism in the sociological construction of Brazil/>/>. />

18 – Sobrados e Mocambos, Freyre’s other masterpiece, studies the patriarchal family in the urban environment, the opposition between the house and the street, the public and the private, as well as the role of the great national rituals, like carnival, integrating society, its different classes and social sectors – an idea that other authors would explore in the future. In this book, he changes his viewpoint about univocal association between the plantation system and the patriarchal family: he finds the patriarchal family spread around all Brazilian territory, in the wide cattle-raising regions of the interior, even reaching Rio Grande/>/> do Sul. In those regions there was no sugar cane monoculture supported by slave labor. />

[19] – He does not cite Freyre. It is remarkable that Freyre, Vianna and Buarque de Holanda, who wrote on the same subject during the same decade – the thirties – do not cite one another. Buarque de Holanda published his Raízes do Brazil in a collection coordinated by Freyre. />

[20] – I have, myself, used this concept to analyze Brazilian bureaucracy, much in the line of Buarque de Holanda (Zarur, 1990). />

[21] – See the notion of “relational society” by Roberto da Mata (1985). />

[22] – It would not have been a deliberate policy of the Portuguese state. The reasons were Brazilian miscegenation and the lack of interest of the Spanish crown in the poor lands of today’s Brazilian west. />

[23] – The creation of heroes in juvenile literature comes to mind. Thus, “Great Men”, “The Scientists”, “The Navigators”, “The Explorers”, and recently, “The Brazilianists”. />

[24] – When I worked on my Ph.D in the US, finished in 1975, under the supervision of Charles Wagley, this type of literature was already in fashion. In order not to participate in this movement, I wrote my doctoral thesis about a North American Community. My book, Os Pescadores do Golfo, was published in 1984, in/> Brazil/>/>. />