The big question in our childhood in the seventies was, what will you be when you grow up? There was no doubt that whatever we chose as a career, no matter how far fetched the dream was, we were bound to make it big. We were the children of the country of the economic miracle, with two figure growth rates for consecutive years, three time world champion in football (or soccer). Brazil and the Brazilians were predestined to glory, this was a nation that had built its capital in the middle of nowhere and that was now constructing the Transamazonian highway which would open further opportunities for growth. The road towards development and wealth was unstoppable and the saying was that God was Brazilian.
I remember vividly a conversation with Marcio, a guy who would commit suicide five years later after several internments in mental institutions, where we discussed our future and had no doubt about the satisfaction of our kids of living in flats by the sea. As the bus passed a fun fair that had been constructed in Sao Conrado, night fell as our prophesies went from strength to strength.
As school started preparing us for university, and adulthood started showing itself up in the horizon, the economic conditions started changing and the unstoppable optimism was replaced by uneasiness and by a growing politization. This was the time of the “abertura”; the military were restoring civil freedoms, freeing political prisoners and allowing exiled politicians back into the country. The result was that the middle class shifted from raving about their future to indulging in an era of cultural enlightenment and personal flourishment.
The novelty of freedom and of open political discussions created what can be described as the “Brazilian spring”. As youngsters we were hit in full by this illusion and believed that our obligation was to question everything and to oppose any restriction to our rights and to other peoples rights. In the immediate spheres the greatest hurdle for our freedom were parents and the police and we took them on like puppies take on their owners.
Reality took some three or four years to bite in. These weren’t the sixties but by nineteen eighty three or four that dream by the Brazilian coast, of a free country with a free and sustainable future hosting suntanned and fulfilled citizens was over. The truth was that these golden years were provided by the military in order to create a smoke screen to cover up the economic disaster that was happening in the background.
Being a huge country with a politically naive population ruled by corrupt leaders who were protected by a military apparatus, Brazil was the perfect ground for economic hit men. These guys come representing big conglomerates with a case full of money and offer it to authorities in exchange for massive projects that benefit everyone except the population. These operations generate gigantic debts which are one of the most efficient ways for the money owners to suck in the riches created in the “real world”.
The results of this time bomb took by surprise an entire generation, and their parents too. Economic strife and personal hardship were not inscribed in the country’s DNA and until the mid eighties this was never in anyone’s radar. As the situation deteriorated so did the country’s mental health, crime and violence rocketed, cocaine abuse became endemic while the people and their government did not know how to deal with what was going on. The international community’s response could not have been worse, they sent in inspectors of the International Monetary Fund to tell the Brazilians that they had to undergo austerity measures to remedy the pains that their economic hitmen had caused.
This unexpected outcome of our formative years poisoned the air and affected personal relationships. People said sod it to who they were in order to climb out of the hole. Now they did not live for the dream anymore; they substituted that for pursuing the false promises that the system offered. A stamp of serfdom was put on their foreheads and the samba was lost.
It is sad to see this pattern happening again in countries that joined the European Union, and there is no doubt that the cycle has restarted in the Olympic and World Cup Brazil. Yes.. History repeats itself, and we ask until when will we allow people to steal our samba.
My parents emigrated from the UK to Rio de Janeiro in the late 50’s. If the countries are different now imagine back then; it was a completely different world. A good illustration of this was their first purchase of a chicken on Brazilian soil:
In those days they were sold alive. The way it worked was that you chose one and it was delivered to your home a few hours later. It was adventurous enough for Mum to go to such a shop and it was a given that she would not take it home herself. No one would ever expect an elegant “madame” to walk around with a freshly killed chicken in the stylish Copacabana streets.
It was the maid who received the poultry packed in newspaper pages at the back door of the flat. After bringing the future meal in and lying it on her bathroom floor, she went to my mum to try to explain something that seemed urgent. In her very poor Portuguese, Mum understood that there was a problem in cutting the head off. The bulk of their cutlery had not been cleared by customs yet and only knives they had at home were butter ones. This was unexpected because she assumed that the chicken would come from the shop plucked gutted and ready for stuffing.
Without thinking much about it, and delighted to have a maid to boss around the logical orders were to pour boiling water on its neck to soften the meat and then re-trying with a bit more strength. That would have certainly worked had the chicken not been alive. The shrieks coming from the maid’s quarters made her realize that there was something wrong. When she got there to check out what was happening she understood the morbidity of the situation. The bird was in agony and being dealt by an equally horrified maid, who must have thought that the “gringa” was mad but that orders were orders.
After disposing of the poor chicken, and without the option of buying a ready-made meal in a take away by the corner, they were obliged to eat out in a restaurant . The recently arrived couple must have laughed a lot about the event during their enjoyable evening out by the sea. I never thought of asking about the destiny of the was-to-be meal and would like to think that the maid took it home and provided a feast to her children in the favela.
In 1982 at the end of my first semester my University (the U.F.R.J) organized a holiday trip to the historical town of Ouro Preto, in the state of Minas Gerais as part of their peer bonding policy. The town was about seven hours by car from Rio and had been constructed by the Portuguese in the 1700’s when the region was one of the world’s biggest suppliers of gold.
It was listed as a heritage for humanity by UNESCO and still retained the elegant and prosperous colonial architecture, and had churches literally covered in gold. The streets were still of cobble stone and despite the cars and electric cables it must not have been much different to what it was 400 years ago at the time of its splendor. In the early 1908’s the mines had dried up long ago and it had become a university town which translated into a lot of young people having fun away from home in student hostels which they called republics.
Not only the town was very special but the surrounding too. The more temperate climate accounted for beautiful and pleasant forests, the now gold-less soil main element was the “pedra-sabao”, or soap stone, which the rain and rivers had sculpted into creating strange caves with natural pools and waterfalls. These natural showers were about a half an hour’s on foot from our republic and were perfect to sober up the hangovers and just the walk itself through the countryside was worthwhile.
Besides the magical settings and the numbers of young people, there was another other cool aspects of Ouro Preto; the free student’s refectory was the best one I had ever been to.
The winter weather wasn’t always great and the students would stay indoors getting bored and drunk. As soon as they found out that there was a guitar player/singer around they started to organize parties where my un-amplified nylon string guitar and my voice on top of the dining table was the music box. The success was so big that people from other “republics” started showing up. I was enjoying myself so much that I decided to stay on for another two weeks after my class mates left.
Six months after joys of that holiday the good life would be overshadowed by the harsh realities of hyper-inflation, recession, joblessness and other illnesses brought by bad economic administration.
It is common knowledge that the Portuguese already knew about Brazil long before its discovery. Who commanded the venture was the Academia de Sagres, Portugal’s maritime agency, the NASA of its time, who was obliged to make the discovery official as they could not hold the secret any longer.
Any way this is not what this article is about, its aim is to look into what went on in the head of the first europeans who arrived there and how this would impact in the new country. Manuel I, the King, his court as well as his predecessors had an extraodinary open mind and a huge curiosity about the world. Because of their contact with the Arabs they were the first europeans to acknowledge that the world was round, something that was considered a sin by the catholic church and wanted to discover what lay beyond the horizon.
On the other hand there were legends circulating, not only in their kingdom but throughout Europe, of a far away promised land, a paradise on earth: Bra Zil. A Scottish friend told me that Bra Zil figured in celtic mythology long before the church decreted that Earth was a plain at the center of the Universe.
To put these two trends together the Portuguese leaders had a vision of something close to a third revelation. It is not that they broke away from the Vatican but they were on the verge of doing so by saying that the discovery of Brazil was something close to finding paradise on earth.
The feeling on the street was something close to that, and the description of a land generous in vegetation, in beauty and in weather with inocent inhabitants living naked in harmony with nature did not contradict the popular imagination. It seemed to be inviting the world to go there and be happy on its beaches.
This vision of Brazil has not died entirely, at least ouside Brazil, and we hope that one day it will become the country’s mission.