Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the month “June, 2013”

Lost Samba Chapter 04 – Part 03 – Rio’s Beauty.

Rio

Photo by Custodio Coimbra

To paraphrase a verse from Gilberto Gil’s hit “Aquele Abraço”, when Mum and Dad arrived, Rio de Janeiro continued beautiful. There was no doubt that this was one of the best places to live in the world; apart from its generous coastal line with exuberant beaches, the Cidade Maravilhosa – the marvellous city – boasted the largest urban forest in the world – the Tijuca National Park, a place so vast that helicopters would sometimes spend days searching for lost hikers. With my parents’ British habit of going on walks and not much patience for spending the entire weekend sun bathing on crowded beaches – nor any friends to do this with them- they got to know the park very well. As soon as my sister and I were able to follow them, they took us along regularly. Exciting as they were, the outings were never dangerous. Sure, the forest was home to venomous snakes, but we never came across any and, as far as wild beasts were concerned, the city’s growing population had hunted them to extinction long ago. Nevertheless, a magical feeling always infected us in the silence of the dense, primeval forest, only broken by the noises of insects, by bird calls and by the crystal-clear water cascading down small streams.

Every trail eventually led up to a massive rock that was usually hard to climb. It took some effort to reach their summits, but these exertions – that very few cariocas undertook – were always worthwhile. From up there we could marvel at the breathtaking views of the city, of the bay and of the coast, a reminder to my parents of what it was that first attracted them to Rio. Mum would unpack the picnic and serve her egg mayonnaise sandwiches, which rather than leaving it to Maria, she always made a point in making herself.

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On one of our many walks, I heard a rattling coming from the trees above us. I looked up and saw the foliage moving in a strange choreography: there was a monkey jumping around the branches as if playing in a funfair. The monkey was not alone – he was followed by at least twenty others, including babies clinging onto their mothers’ backs. They stopped for a while and stared at us with curiosity. Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared back into the timeless forest.

Mico2Photo by P&C pictures

The city that stood in our – and the monkeys’ – background spread out along the coast beneath us resembling one of the forest’s butterflies’ enormous pair of wings. From our vantage point, we could see the huge Guanabara Bay opening out to the Atlantic ocean. On the opposite shore was Niterói, an important city in its own right, and behind it there was a never ending sea of hills and beaches. To the north was the Ilha do Governador (Governor’s Island), the location of the airport; my parents’ introduction to Brazil.

On our side of the Bay was the ocean-facing Zona Sul with its picture-postcard places: Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and the Sugar Loaf Mountain. Following the coast we could see the – then deserted – beaches of São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca which were only visible from the highest points in the forest. Closer to us stood the church spires and office buildings in the city centre and the seemingly endless sprawl of industrial buildings, low-rise housing of the Zona Norte. This was where the poor and the lower middle class lived and in our snobbishness, we considered those two thirds of the city as being on the “wrong side” of the forest, somewhere unworthy of our attention. The only recognizable feature there was the Maracanã Stadium: the supreme temple of Brazilian football.

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At the feet of the forest’s hills there were favelas marking the boundaries between the city and the thick bush. This was where the poor lived. Some of them had originated as small quilombos – hiding places set up by fugitive slaves who chose these precipitous mountainsides as they provided the perfect shelter from patrols in search of escaped “property”. The favelas had developed into agglomerations that looked like anthills, where chickens, pigs and dogs roamed in the mud alleyways around the inhabitants’ wooden huts. Crooked electricity posts, television antennae and clothes drying on strings added extra layers to the seeming chaos.

Their inhabitants wore torn clothes and old Havaianas flip-flops and had curly hair, dark skin, loud voices and open laughs. Children ran around barefoot, their mums trudging up and down the steep alleys that curled along the hills balancing tins of water, or sacks of dirty laundry, on their heads. Although many of the favelados were white, this was a Brazil derived directly from Africa.

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Brazil vs Spain: a football showdown.

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Tomorrow’s game is an important showdown for many football lovers. For some if Spain beats Brazil in the epicenter of Brazilian football passion, the Maracana, it be like the passing of the  crown of world football dominance from Brazil to Spain. For others, if Brazil wins the match it will signify  the coming of age of the Neymar generation where they will stop being a promise for the future and will become part of the Brazilian pantheon of football legends.

For the coach Felipao, or Big Phill, who has been in charge of this Brazil team for a little more than a month this will not be the ultimate test. He is a pragmatic man who is still building the team, his aim is winning the World Cup next year, not the Confederations Cup. When he won the World Cup in 2002 with Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo et Cie, his team had been appalling in the qualifying stages and he attracted a lot of enmity by not calling up Romario, the country’s top scorer at the time.

For the Spaniards the game will mean a lot, it is the jewel that is missing in this amazing team’s crown, They have won the European Cup, the World Cup but not the Confederations one, and more importantly they have never beaten Brazil especially, and doing this in a world class final in the Maracana will be something that they hunger for. They want to brush off the questions regarding Brazil’s football superiority,

Despite Big Phill’s pragmatism, the Brazilians will also want to win, loosing a final in Brazil’s major football temple in front of a gigantic crowd would be a disgrace they would not want to live with, neither the players nor the coach. With players who are still seeking international consecration there is the added stimulus of ranking upgrade.

As for the game, Brazil and Spain have shown themselves similar in one aspect, they have “on” and “off” modes. When they are “off” they are vulnerable, nervous and make mistakes like any other team but when they are “on” they are unstoppable. The Spanish team has been playing together for longer and technically they are superior:  more disciplined, more uniform in their talent and more seasoned in big competitions. But they have the disadvantage of coming from an exhausting game against Italy and many of the players will have the fear of facing the Brazilian yellow top in a competition.

As for our predictions; we think that Brazil’s “on” mode is wilder, less predictable and more creative which allied with the unique atmosphere of the Maracana will give Brazil the advantage. Brazil will win.

Brazilian protests – reflections on a confusion

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The past weeks have been very revealing about where Brazilian politics stand. Although the rallies were not as big in size and in impact compared to decisive ones such as the Diretas Ja and the Fora Collor they showed what a large and influential portion of Brazilians are feeling about their politicians and their Government. President Dilma Roussef‘s camp now knows that before trying to project their country as an international power broker, there is still a lot of homework to be done.

The biggest novelty is that mixed with the denunciation of maneuvers that corrupt politicians have done to make themselves immune from public prosecution, discontent with overspending in the construction of Stadiums for the world cup and a plethora of other complaints that have accumulated over 10 years of Lula’s PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) in power, there has been a strong right wing agenda of overthrowing the government lurking in the shadows. This anti-socialist sentiment has not been so strong since the days preceding Brazil’s military coup in 1964 and it is in the private comments and in postings in the social media that the true colors of what is happening have revealed themselves.

The fear of a government seeking to improve the conditions of its most destitute citizens, or worse representing them, is deeply entrenched among the Brazilian privileged who only five generations ago owned slaves. After the humiliation of having a working class president doing a better job than one of them in power by reducing social inequalities, by growing the country’s economy, by receiving international recognition and by indeed bringing the Olympics and the Fifa World Cup to Brazil; understating the achievements of the PT is no novelty in Brazilian wealthier circles. But now, as growth slows down it has become easier to rally public opinion from other classes and make up a critical mass to cause something significant and, who knows, bring the country back to its traditional class system while being subserviently attached to the “developed world”.

After years of relative tranquility, the left has also woken up and now in the social media and in the streets the debate is heated. So far the attacks, verbal and written only, have been against politicians and current and governments and we hope that the animosity will not escalate into hostilities between individuals or between organizations. Brazil has no history of civil war and its independence was granted by Portugal’s King in exile, so fighting to the bitter end for ideals is very rare. There have been internal armed conflicts in the past but they were either of militias against militias or, mainly, of the disorganized mass against government troops or in the sixties of paramilitary left wing cells against the armed forces.

Both the dangerous and the tranquillizing factors in this internal struggle lie in Brazil’s political immaturity. On the one hand, unlike the middle east, the demonstrations are almost a political continuation of the cathartic spirit of the football stadiums and of the carnivals. They are not angry despite the very rare cases of vandalism which are next to nothing when compared to what went on recently in London and a few years ago in Paris. The rallies happen in a good humored and family friendly environment, it is the educated middle class that frequents them after all. The danger lies in the naifness of protesting for one thing, against corruption, but being used for something else, topple the government.

On this topic we see a worrying tendency of wanting to overthrow the political class as a whole and install some kind of moral rule, which can only be compared to fascism or an Iranian style religious/moral autocracy. There are no political parties heading the protests only very suspicious “Anonymous” calls for actions, which makes us wonder who is ultimately behind these protests not only in Brazil but all over the world. These kind of world wide generic, internet based protests, that have caused political tragedies in the majority of the countries where they happened, are a new fact in Brazilian politics. We believe and hope that the young and far from perfect Brazilian democracy is solid enough to take the blow and will come out of this incident strengthened.

Lost Samba – Chapter 04/02 – Brazilian History in a Flash.

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About two centuries later, after populating the Northeastern coast of Brazil with profitable sugar plantations, the white colonizers finally found the gold that they had always believed to exist. Rather than being hidden away in the mythical El Dorado, it was lying on riverbeds beneath crystalline waters, far beyond the coastal mountain range. A flood of adventurers, some alone and others accompanied by militias and enslaved African descendants plunged into the region to claim the nuggets that the natives had simply perceived as being beautiful offerings of Mother Nature. The prospectors were afraid of Indians, wild beasts, bandits and runaway slaves, but nevertheless they dipped their rusty metal equipment into the water. The riches that they found there and carried back to the coast, made Brazil one of the world’s most prosperous colonial possessions.

Because its port was closer to the mines than Salvador, the then capital of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro began its ascension to become the country’s most important city. However, Rio only really started to develop its flamboyant personality in 1808, with the arrival of the Portuguese royal family. Accompanied by thousands of courtiers, the king had fled Lisbon on the very eve of the city being occupied Napoleon’s advancing army after they had already seized the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Just as with my dad, the Portuguese refugees crammed into any sailing vessels they could find to take them to safety, and crossed the ocean under the protection of the British navy.

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The arrival of House of Bragança marked the first time European royalty had set foot in the Americas. The experience of a European royal family ruling over a global empire from the New Continent was completely unique. With them came debauchery and abuse of power but the noble families also brought with them scholars who would open the first schools in Brazil, as well as artists, intellectuals and concepts of an evolved legal system and administration.

The royal court had one thing in common with Brazil’s indigenous people: whether by contract or by slavery, labour was taboo. The difference between the two, was that the Portuguese women also took it easy and the males had other people to go to war for them. It is not that there were no colonizers labouring on the land. During the course of the Portuguese colonization, there were numerous agricultural settlement schemes based on European immigrants, much like the experience of pioneer settlers in North America. But in general, the question of who was going to do the hard physical labour – especially in the mines, in the sugar plantations and later in the coffee plantations – worried the colonizers. Initially they tried to employ the indigenous inhabitants but these fled, died from the white men’s diseases or, in the ultimate act of resistance, committed suicide. The answer was to turn to Africa. In total, some four million enslaved Africans were transported across the South Atlantic to Brazil and they would become the third leg of the country’s genetic pool. Brazil would champion the world in slave imports and from the late nineteenth century, the African descended population would constitute the majority of the nation, and would transform Brazil into the largest black country outside the African Continent.

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There was another question: as Portugal’s military had been completely defeated by the French invaders in Europe, how could they possibly defend Brazil’s long shoreline? Britain came to the rescue. The result would be that although Brazil was never to belong to the British Empire, the country was to be part of its zone of economic and political influence.

Anyway, because of the gold trade and the arrival of the royal court, Rio de Janeiro developed into Brazil’s prosperous and cosmopolitan capital where its small but influential merchant community shared power with the ruling nobles. In general, foreigners ended up doing intellectual tasks, such as engineering, medicine, commerce and industry. The authorities granted the British the major contracts to modernize the country– developing ports, railways, electricity systems and other key infrastructural elements – while immigrants from Portugal and from elsewhere fulfilled the role of a middle class.

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Diretas Ja, Fora Collor and the Brazilian Spring.

Anonymous

It was Karl Marx who said that when history repeats itself, it repeats itself as a farce.

As a politically conscious person, this is the third protest en masse against the Brazilian government that I have witness. The first one was the Diretas Ja, in the early eighties. This was a movement demanding the vote for president from the military regime. Slumping into economic hard times and after enduring fifteen years of dictatorship, the country was hungry for democracy and for regime change. Many of the politicians who the current protesters hate were the voices of freedom of those rallies, in particular the ex-president Lula who at the time a true working class hero who had defied the military by stopping the powerful foreign based automotive industry in Sao Paulo. Still a central figure in Brazilian politics he would disappoint the country when in power for refusing to prosecute corrupt allies. Much of the current discontent falls back on him, although one must never loose sight that the success of his left wing party’s governments may guarantee them a fourth term, they are the favorites.

The second wave of protests my generation witnessed was the Fora Collor! (Out Collor!) one, where the country united to oust its corrupt president. Fernando Collor had confiscated the population’s savings accounts in order to end hyperinflation while he himself was constructing mansions with public funds. The Brazilian nation was again in the streets throwing huge pressure for his impeachment and was finally successful, despite the many questions that remain unanswered. During the campaign, the first presidential race in 25 years, he was the young, good looking and energetic candidate who was brought in to hold the left’s certain victory after a series of catastrophic old school and right wing, military sponsored governments. His opponents were Lula and the late Leonel Brizola, two heavyweight champions in the struggle against the Brazilian privileged. After his victory, when Collor started to change things and excluded traditional power brokers from important deals, his former allies turned against him and opened the doors for the popular will to be fulfilled, generously supplying the press with all possible incriminating details and not moving a finger to save him. The final step in this episode was the very badly explained assassination of his treasurer, PC Farias, when he seemed disposed to talk to the press.

This year, once again, protesters flooded Brazil’s streets. The underlying theme was the same as always: impunity, corruption and injustice; plagues that time, new parties and new governments seem unable to eradicate, not only in Brazil but all over the world. The reasons are clear and need addressing and young people are the best to do the job.  It is very healthy that they are alert to what is happening and that they are renewing the country’s political blood. However there are questions, the biggest one is that we know what they are against but what are they proposing? what do they want?

Before there were clear issues: we wanted to vote for president, we wanted a corrupt leader who confiscated our savings out, but now what is it about? Trials? That suspect politicians should be tried and put into jail? That money should go to hospitals and schools instead to the construction of stadiums? A moralization of the country?

OK, Brazil is far from perfect; there are thousands of reasons to protests and a population has the obligation to stand against the wrong doings of their authorities, no one would ever question this, but it seems weird to us that a tropical “anonymous”  uprising should erupt in the wake of the failed Arab springs. OK, there are people being dislodged from their houses to build new stadiums. OK there is A LOT of money going into the wrong pockets at the moment, OK politicians have gone too far by voting laws that make them immune to public investigations. This is wrong and it is right to protest against this.

However there are other aspects to take into consideration. The first one is that, under the two previous administrations, apart from having paid out there gigantic external debt and having growth rates that popped the world’s eyes, Brazil has been derailing out of the American sphere of influence and is becoming an independent world power with ever closer ties to China, who is challenging the western formulas of economic administration . The second point to consider is that although the Dilma administration is being considered by Brazilians as too open to foreign pressure the truth is quite the opposite and that other parties would facilitate even further the intervention of foreign big money. Whoever has tried to do business with Brazil, or even tried to get working permits in Brazil, knows how protective its regulations are and one has to be very naive not to consider that there are powerful forces wanting to “open Brazil up” who would be very happy if the current ruling party changed or, even better, if the democratic regime that the Brazilian people managed to obtain though many sacrifices disappeared.

The fact that these movements, similar to the tragedy of the Syrian “spring”, do not have a defined leadership nor a defined goal other than destabilization, leads us to pose the following question: are they just spontaneous and innocent initiatives of nerdy kids wanting to change the world? We would like to believe that the answer is yes..

Brazil and the worst of capitalism

With big investments pouring into the country for the 2016 Olympics and the next FIFA World Cup, Brazil is facing a new and dangerous cycle as the one begun with the construction of Brasilia around sixty years ago. This is not a pattern exclusive to Brazil and we have seen it in European, African and Asian countries before.

What happens is that big money pours into a country that is “tagged” as promising and to maximize profits, the astronomical funds are dealt by their worst citizens, corrupt politicians and businessmen with no scruples or responsibility, who make fortunes and leave the rest of the country’s population with unpayable debts after the show is over.

We only need to take a look at what happened recently with the European Union, which only twenty years ago was labeled as the greatest business opportunity ever, or with what happened in Brazil several times before. We could not fail to mention Greece, who also hosted the Olympic games and now is in brink of total disruption. We  wish the Brazilian protesters success and worry about the aftermath of Brazil’s current “Golden Days”.

Lost Samba – Chapter 04/01- The birth of Brazil

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Photo by Custodio Coimbra

It has been a common pattern for people to set off across the oceans in pursuit of an imagined destination – an idealised shelter where all their dreams would come true. In this, my parents were no exception. Like so many other adventurers arriving in Brazil or in any other “tropical paradise”, they were to discover that the “jungle” behind the gorgeous beach could be a carnivorous soul-devouring morass. In an attempt to restructure their lives and fearing that a nuclear conflict between the West and the Soviet Union would follow the Korean War, the couple had sought refuge in the remoteness and the neutrality of Brazil. However, if one were to take away the safety aspect, as well as the colourful exotic one, what they saw in their new country was a land without a past, where their war-scarred selves could start over again and re-discover happiness.
In this light they considered Brazil as a place rather than a country and their emotional and cultural compasses never stopped pointing towards Europe. As far as they were concerned, the old continent was – for good and for bad – the undisputed centre of world history. Therefore, they never truly understood Brazil and never managed to connect to its deeper layers, rather they saw their new home as something close to a canvass upon which to paint their fantasies. In this they were wrong, in reality the canvass was not blank, Brazil was also like an artist that painted upon its newcomers.
While I do not have any intention to write a history book and acknowledge it is impossible to be accurate in condensing a country’s history into one chapter, in an attempt to give the reader a clearer picture of the background to these pages, I will try to describe what was there before my family arrived in Rio de Janeiro.
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This story begins with the indigenous peoples who lived around Guanabara Bay spotting strange vessels far-off on the horizon. Those ships, with their huge sails bearing incomprehensible signs and intricate woodcraft, were nothing short of UFO’s sightings, and when the first apprehensive low rank sailors rowed out to meet them, the face-to-face encounters were like coming close to aliens.
The natives may have seemed primitive to the arriving Europeans, but the feeling was surely mutual. Stepping ashore in bizarre garments were a group of strangely clad, pale and hairy men sickened by weeks of appalling conditions at sea. Wherever they came from, it was clearly a world with no knowledge of basic hygiene. As time went by and more and more of them arrived, the “Indians”, as the Europeans insisted on calling the native peoples, would never really understand why they had travelled so far nor what was wrong with their world to do so, perhaps it was the intolerance that they would end up experiencing first hand.

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It is not certain who those naked people at the beach were, nor where they came from, some argue that they were offshoots of complex societies encountered in the Andes and in the Northern part of the Amazon forest, we may never know.  What we do know is that the relationship between the hundreds of different tribes spread along the Brazilian coast was complex and that they were in the midst of a civilizational process of their own. By looking at their descendants closer we also know that they were connected to the environment in ways that the world transported on those caravels could barely understand, let alone appreciate. The natives bathed daily, were extremely healthy both in body and in spirit and had no notion of the meaning of social inequality. The indigenous inhabitants of Pindorama, as they called the world, not Brazil, experienced their existence in a way that was incomprehensible for a civilization that was leaving religious obscurantism and beginning to embark in an era where economic ties would become an impersonal God presiding over almost all aspects of life.

The so-called Indians did not need to strive for a heavenly after-life in the Garden of Eden, they were already living as one with the landscape. The integration with their surroundings was so intimate that they could sense, for example, the presence of an animal or of a person approaching from a considerable distance without having to see them. Only now, do outsiders appreciate and take seriously their knowledge, with big pharmaceutical corporations beginning to investigate their understanding of their forests’ varied medicinal properties.

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Women were responsible for agriculture while men hunted and fished. It was also a male responsibility to deal with the demanding preparations for their religious festivals: to complete the shaman’s – or Pagé’s – headdress, they would roam the forest for days on end to find a specific feather from a specific bird that only lived on a specific mountain. On their way back to their settlement, they would collect herbs and roots to produce potent hallucinogenic drugs that they ingested to learn the secrets of the jungle. Our rational western knowledge system is still to explain the precision and the mystery of these visions.

The natives’ world floated above good and evil. Every year, alongside nine months of carefree living and not much work to do, they dedicated three months to war. This was fundamental to their very being. They needed to be good at fighting because they and their enemies kept no prisoners: they ate them.

On the shore and hinterland of Guanabara Bay, including what now we call Rio de Janeiro, the Tamoios, Tupinambas and Puríi peoples believed that the flesh of a brave man was imbued with his physical and spiritual strength, which could be acquired by its ingestion. Brutal though they certainly were themselves, the Portuguese had a hard time coming to grips with this local custom and there are accounts of missionaries breaking down in floods of tears as they waited to become a meal. Disgusted at this cowardice, the natives released these useless beings. One such surplus prisoner had the appropriate name of Bispo Sardinha (Bishop Sardine), the first dignitary from the Vatican to set foot in Brazil, and it is easy to imagine his mixed feelings of relief and shame he would have had walking back to his mission, had he been released. In this case they ate the man, which bought an even worse P.R. upon the native non-Christians.

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Despite the barbarity of cannibalism, such practices would compare favourably with the destiny that the “civilized” Europeans had in store for them. According to one of the country’s greatest intellectuals, Darcy Ribeiro, following the arrival of the white men, their population dropped from an estimated four million to a meagre forty thousand. As in the rest of the Americas, the Caraibas, or white men, spread deadly diseases and imposed the rule of either adapting and becoming second-class citizens or vanishing. Very little of their culture was to be absorbed into the mainstream culture, at least as far as increasingly urbanized Brazil is concerned. However, despite the concrete and the asphalt carpeting the land, the pollution of the rivers and of the air and other forms of harm to the environment that the indigenous peoples considered themselves as being guardians, their memory remains in the Brazilian genetic pool and not far below the surface of the nation’s subconscious. The Brazilians’ easy-going mannerisms, their love of the outdoors, their ease to empathise and their informality are a part of the natives’ legacy. Perhaps this dormant mindset will one day be the country’s gift to the world; a formula for achieving harmony through openness and for acquiring completeness through seeing nature as greater than man.

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On the Portuguese side, the Sagres Academy, an official navigators’ guild and syndicate, led the country’s enterprise for global discovery. For this, they used technology that the Arabs had left behind in the Iberian Peninsula. This institution was the most advanced navigation centre of its time and had refused to sponsor the travels of the Genovese mariner Christopher Columbus because its members already knew that there was a great mass of land, perhaps a continent, that lay to the west of Europe and that was not Asia. Their great hope – and the reason why patrons as important as the King, Infante Dom Henrique supported them – was to discover a passage around, or through, this uncharted territory to shorten the journey to the Orient instead of having to go all around Africa to get there. If they were to locate this route, it would facilitate the valuable trade of spices and the revenues would fund not only the colony but also the Portuguese kingdom, which was almost bankrupt following its wars of liberation against the Moors.

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The rivalry with Spain ended up forcing the Portuguese to admit their knowledge of the western land. In 1494 – six years before the official discovery of Brazil, the two countries signed the Tordesilhas Treaty. In this agreement authored by Pope Alexander VI, Portugal and Spain divided the possession of the new continent along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands (off the west coast of Africa).

Unlike with the Spanish, the Portuguese possession did not fragment into small countries, it remained as one big colony and for small Portugal the size of their new territory was a problem. They had to control and to inhabit the wilderness before a stronger power might seize it. In addition, how could Portugal make its new possession economically viable? The “Indians” had no notion of commerce and there was no evidence of gold or of the coveted spices that drove the world’s economy. There was of course plenty of timber in the impenetrable forests but this would not justify the resources required for a colonial adventure.

After the official discovery in 1500 the quest to find an opening to the Pacific Ocean continued but proved to be frustrating. Brazil’s coast showed itself to be regular. Parallel to the shore and its dense vegetation ran a mountain range that seemed impenetrable. On New Year’s Day of 1502, a group of Portuguese vessels surveying the coast came across two massive promontories covered by tropical vegetation guarding an enormous maritime entrance. This could be the passage to “the Indias” or perhaps a route connecting the seas to legendary kingdoms with vast, untapped, gold resources. They rushed to name it River of January – Rio de Janeiro, a name filled with hope and poetically referring to an endless beginning.

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Racism in Brazil

ImageThe issue of racism in Brazil goes deep into the country’s DNA and is controversial. In a land where slave labour was at the root of its economic existence until a little more than a century ago, the tension and the coexistence between its ethnic groups is complicated and can be perceived in several different ways and each of these ways can have different readings.

The picture above where a pretty and young slave cuddles an equally pretty blond baby is meant to be cute but at the same time to communicate the viewers about the social status of the person who paid to have the photo taken, a quite expensive purchase at the time. It would have been kept dearly by the family and probably the girl would have dear memories of that sweet time too and even, who knows?, be proud about it. All of this points to one fact: race relations in Brazil are marked by ambiguity, and to clarify this point we’ll highlight the two pillars that sustain race relationships in Brazil.

First lets take a look at the Brazilian racial demographics: The almost extinct Amerindians make up for 0.4% of the population, the orientals, mainly Japanese, make up for 1.1%, Afro Brazilians make up for 7.61%, Pardos (mixed race) make up for 43.13% while the whites make up for 47.73%.

Even without considering that most “white” people interviewed by the census would have tried as hard as they could to hide any trace of darker ancestry, the Pardos and the Blacks together make up for the majority of the population. In addition to being a majority, although I do not know the numbers, the mixed race population in Brazil is proportionally bigger than in the U.S. and Great Britain at least, and probably better accepted too. Both these undeniable truths and the fact that there is nothing to indicate civil or institutionalized segregation would lead us to believe that black people and their descendants are well-integrated into the country’s human fabric, and that Brazil is not a racist country.

On the other hand, if one looks into more detailed censuses and studies the percentage of Blacks in Favelas, in prison, in low paid jobs and compares these numbers with the percentage of people of color in leadership positions both in the private and in the public sectors, or with a university degree, or living in the wealthier neighbourhoods of the bigger urban centers; one realizes that there is a problem.

One can also not forget that Brazil was the last western country to abolish slavery, in 1888. When this happened the rulers of the time sent emissaries all over the world to attract pale skinned immigrants to populate the land in order to keep the country white. This initiative was institutionalized racism at the highest degree. In addition to the above one must not lose sight the “institution” of the domesticas, or house maids, used throughout the 20th century by the middle class upwards; there is not one flat in Brazil that does not have the “service” quarters, and not one respectable building that does not have the “service” elevator where servants, mostly afro-brazilians and pardos, work but transit in segregated areas, in out of the sights of the mostly white home owners.

These two contradictory forces, i.e. a powerful white minority on one side and a powerless colored majority on the other are still present. On one hand there is an elite trying to look as European as possible, as one could notice in the right wing overtones of the recent wave of protests carried out mainly by the discontent middle class, while on the other hand, this effort is contradicted by what happens “on the ground”; the mixture of races, the discovery of a new inter-racial identity by the children born out of this mixture. This tension is deeply rooted in the Brazilian DNA and explains millions about the country’s social mechanics.

The result is a society of racial ambiguity. Brazil is a country where, more than any other in the world, skin color or cultural origins do not define a person’s perception of who they are or what they stand for.  You will never see a black Brazilian seeing himself an Afro-Brazilian and, looking further, you will never see people defining themselves as Italian-Brazilian, or native-Brazilian. Everyone sees themselves as children of the country and full stop. Brazilians will probably take more pride in the black Pele, than in the slightly Pardo Alberto Santos Dumont who constructed and flew a plane before the Wright brothers.

However, this does not prevent racism from happening. Both the elite and the people below it expect classes and races to “know their place” be it at work, at school or at leisure time. Although racism is a punishable crime in Brazil there are deep cultural barriers that will die hard. True racism happens at the individual level and we hope that given the trends of increasing the mixture of races one day, the Eurocentrism elites will finally dilute into life’s Samba.

Lost Samba – Chapter 03/03 – The Marvelous City

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Later in the morning, like schools of little fish emerging from the mouths of rivers, children flowed onto their street’s section of the beach. The morning began with our nannies or our mums planting an oversized parasol into the sand with circular motions until the tip was deeply and firmly embedded. If they were hopeless, there were always plenty of ice cream vendors, chair-renters and lifeguards around to lend a hand. After they completed the process, they could open up their cloth shade and allow them to become part of a landscape of colourful dots on the golden sand. Next came the time-to-stretch-out-the-towel phase, then the unfolding-the-chair phase and then, finally, releasing the body boards, the balls and the buckets for us to play with our friends.

The beach was like a funfair set beneath the baking sun. We would play in the shallow water, chase schools of tiny fish, bury ourselves in the sand, construct barriers against the waves, dig tunnels, sculpt castles, have sand wars, and watch the constant flow of people walking by. In the intervals, the grown-ups would ask us to clean off the sand and then they would call one of the strong men who walked the beach with boxes of Kibon ice cream or Matte Leão iced tea, and buy some for us, their sweet iciness soothing the scorching heat.

The ocean signified complete freedom. The salt-water felt a million times better and more refreshing than any shower or any swimming pool ever did. Beyond the breaking waves, seagulls plunged to catch their prey, which would struggle to escape the beak as the bird flew away. Sometimes dolphins leapt out of the water and harmless shark-like fish showed their fins causing excitement and concern on the beach. As we grew more confident, we discovered waves and learned how to dive under and through them as well as racing the white foam and allowing the sea’s natural force to crash on us.

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On windy afternoons, kids came down from the favelas to fly kites. Their fun was to have air battles with their colourful hand-made toys, some of those moleques glued broken glass powder on to their strings to make them more effective. A swirling and uncontrolled kite was a sign that another group had seized their flying coat of arms and the kids ran in the dozens to collect it as it crashed onto the sands below.

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As the sun descended, the beach seemed to relax. The heat grew less intense and the buildings began to throw shadows on the sand. The sun’s golden colours reflected on the water creating a special light that made people and everything else on the beach and around it, look special. Sometimes groups from the favelas enjoyed the sunset playing samba and gave that time of the day a special musical flavour, like the sound track to a film.
My usual beach companion was Pilar, a pretty Portuguese nanny in her late twenties. The only clear memory I retain is of her naked body when we showered together after we returned home. In the bathtub, I could examine everything my friends had talked about but which we could not figure out how they worked. Pilar would eventually end up marrying my barber, the friendly Senhor Ribeiro, who was also Portuguese but was short, had a moustache and curly blond hair and who always reserved for me the latest football magazines and the best sweets.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 03/02 – Settling in Rio

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Before moving to Brazil, Raphael and Renée met Paulo through a mutual friend in their house in north London. Paulo lived in far-off place that everybody had heard about, to which many were attracted, but where few had actually been: Rio de Janeiro. He had moved there from Germany before the war and the colourful stories that he told about his new country, its people, its beauty and its customs convinced my parents to come over for a visit. When they did in 1955, it was love at first sight and they decided to make the move. Brazil was an uncommon destination for a young Jewish couple: after the war they were supposed to move to Israel by ideology, or to North America, South Africa or Australia, which were more familiar in terms of culture and as promising in terms of opportunities.

Apart from his exotic address, Paulo had another peculiarity: he was a member of the Communist Party, a huge statement at the height of the Cold War. After my father came over to live in Brazil, they became best friends. Dad was far from being left-wing but their long conversations reignited memories of the political discussions in Yiddish that had been at the heart of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. During one such debate, Paulo showed off a watch made in communist East Germany, the GDR. Although it was unimpressive, Dad spotted what he felt was an amazing business opportunity. In the popular mind, “German” was synonymous with “reliable” and, coming from a communist country, the prices of the watches would be extremely competitive. They would surely sell like water to the emerging Brazilian lower middle class.

Dad soon opened an importation business in Rio. For an outsider, at first thought it might have seemed strange for someone who had two thirds of his family slaughtered by the Nazis to make a living through selling German products. Nevertheless, Dad was at ease with the no-nonsense approach so typical of Germans and he pragmatically tried to apply this state of mind to his own business decisions. In this, he was little different to most of his Jewish friends; despite all they and their close ones had gone through during the war they sill maintained their respect for Teutonic pragmatism and straightforwardness. As most eastern Europeans they continued to see Germany as an incorruptible and innate leader. While they may have physically left Europe, the old continent had never left them.

With a business up and running, a rented flat facing the beach and furnished in the best British style, the comfort of a live in maid and promising prospects ahead, the next step was to start a family. Sarah arrived in 1958 and, five years later, my time came.

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Thirty centimetres taller than the average local female, a strong gringo accent and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes tailored in London, for Brazilians, Mum came across as a powerful, adventurous and open-minded woman who was ahead of her time. This was easy in a place where respectable housewives were never seen out at night, not even in restaurants with their husbands. Her bikinis – in vogue in post-war Europe – showed her belly button. This display of nudity shocked many people at the beach and, more than once, lifeguards asked her to leave.

Mum was also one of the first women drivers in Rio, which attracted many comments, some rude and some in admiration. Neither of these two approaches disturbed her, as in Renée’s opinion Brazilians transformed into uncivilized cowboys as soon as they were behind a steering wheel. In the country that was to provide the world with Formula One racing champions such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, she took upon herself the mission of teaching the natives by example how to respect speed limits. Her car always ended up slowing down the fast lane, which put her on the receiving end of a constant flow of hooting and swearing from the drivers she had forced to overtake on the wrong side.

The attitude behind her driving was revealing. At home, she banned any novelty that suggested being more advanced or more forward than the image she had of herself. Because of this, our domestic life was stoic, almost puritan, with the occasional verbal and physical abuse when she lost control of things. There was no television, no comic magazines and no Brazilian or international popular music, be it jazz, bossa nova or rock ‘n’ roll. She also forbade sweets, chocolates, fizzy-drinks and pastries, insisting on a diet of generally tasteless, health-food.

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Mum and my sister.

Dad was born in 1900 in the Polish town of Krosno, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Eastern European Jews considered the  Galitzers  as the peasants of their world while their fellow Austro-Hungarians looked down upon Jews from that region as being the peasants’ peasants. Therefore, in Dad’s mind it was a great social leap to marry into my mum’s well-established Golders Green family. Perhaps because of this, Dad went along with her rules. For him, his young wife – 20 years his junior – symbolized the highest expression of London’s refinement, a world that he wanted to belong to. However, he never really achieved this goal as, in so many ways, his thoughts and attitudes were lost in a time warp. He occasionally would let his world slip out in stories from his past: of the rabbi whose beard he had glued to the table while he was sleeping; the barn where he had managed to fool a Polish policeman searching for illegal alcohol; his grandfather, a wealthy anti-Zionist, who everyone came to seek advice; and a plethora of jokes, sayings and religious teachings from that vanished space-time that only lived on in his memories and in precious photographs.

For my Old Man, Brazil was an attempt at reinvention, but in his new life he could hardly have been more of an outsider. Not only was he a foreigner to Brazil, he was also foreigner to a life of middle class urban comfort and a foreigner by age and by experience to most of his social circle. The relative innocence and the joyousness in his new country contrasted with his hidden solitude and the disappearance of his former world, of which the last remaining thread of contact were his business links in East Germany, a Soviet satellite born of the country that had caused him so much pain.

Perhaps to maintain his sanity, whenever the weather permitted Dad reconnected to his universe on solitary dawn-walks along Copacabana’s oceanfront. At that time of the day, with no eyes on him, he was free to be himself. On his way to the beach, he shared the streets with the occasional maid sent out to buy the early-morning bread, with zealous porters cleaning the entrances to their precious buildings, and with packs of stray dogs chasing newspaper and milk delivery trucks.

Sometimes he took me with him and I enjoyed it. At that time of the day the early-morning mist covered the beach and the ground was still moistened by the dew that had settled during the night. We would walk at the water’s edge and talk mostly about existential issues where I would ask questions and he would answer them as easily to understand as he could. As the conversations became deeper and more interesting the haze dissipated while we left our footprints behind on the smooth wet sand.

We always went until the fishermen’s colony at the far end of Copacabana. Their base was one of the first constructions in the neighbourhood: an old wooden depot where they sold their catches to local restaurateurs and residents. Next to it, dozens of small fishing boats rested on the sand surrounded by nets where seagulls fought over the remains with skinny dogs, observed by sleepy donkeys and tied up goats. Around them were swarms of flies and a strong smell of salt and decaying fish permeating the air.

In groups of five or six, the fishermen would set out before sunrise while a small party would coordinate the activity from the beach, shouting and sending signals. By the time we reached the colony, the boats would already be on their way back. To haul them in, the men would lay tree trunks in front of their wooden vessels and then push those heavy wooden crafts until they came to rest on the beach close to the avenue. The daily act of catching and landing the fish was like a mini-festival. The fishermen always needed more people to help pull in the nets, and a gigantic human circle would form, trapping the hundreds of sea creatures leaping in all directions out of the water, gasping for air. Once the bosses separated the prize catches, they allowed anyone who had participated to take whatever they wanted. Sometimes I too made a point of claiming my own, but they always ended up in the rubbish bin as they were either too small or not good enough for our pretentious dinners.

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