It wasn’t long after I started learning Portuguese in the fall of 2013 that I first spoke with my parents about my intention to spend some time in Brazil. I could tell that my mom was a bit nervous about my going, despite her knowledge that an essentially free trip sponsored by a Foreign Language and Area Studies grant was not something I could turn down. At the time, Brazil had been getting a lot of negative coverage in the U.S., with all of the last-minute (read: Brazilian) preparations for the 2014 World Cup, a poor economy, and, of course, the largest anti-government protests in decades, which had taken place over the previous summer. The New York Times had run an article painting both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo as textbook cases of the harmful effects of rampant inequality.
Having come to the conclusion of my six-week long trip to Rio de Janeiro a few days ago, I would agree that Brazil indeed does have tremendous sociological problems that require resolution. It hit home when I found out that my host family’s empregada (maid) had never learned to read or write, because she’d grown up in a poor family in the state of Maranhão and had therefore never had access to any sort of education. My host family’s previous maid had stopped working for them because of the 3-hour-each-way commute to Copacabana from her home in the Zona Norte. At least she, along with the 22% of cariocas who live in favelas (slums), has somewhere to live—the homeless population in Rio is quite sizeable.
Unfortunately, we Americans have a tendency to put ourselves on a pedestal when discussing these types of class-cutting social problems. We look down on Brazil and other highly unequal or undeveloped countries for being part of the “third-world”, or for failing to alleviate the pains of absolute poverty amongst their poor, and yet we ourselves are far from perfect. And only we would practically yell our order for a bottle of water to the Brazilian waitress in English, because clearly that will help her understand and, more importantly, because everyone else in the world has a responsibility to learn English so that we can enjoy our vacations to those places. Yes, that happened. A lot.
On the contrary, Brazil is more similar to the United States than many of us take the time to recognize. For one, both the United States and Brazil are enormously large and tremendously diverse demographically. The região gaúcha (south) of Brazil is known for its large Italian population, and the city of São Paulo is home to the largest population of individuals of Japanese heritage outside of Japan. The country is also, like the United States, crawling with people of German descent, while large pockets of Jews, Syrians, and other historically Middle Eastern peoples reside in different areas like Copacabana and Leblon, for instance, in Rio. And we both have our cultural insensitivities about this diversity. In Brazil, it doesn’t matter if you’re Turkish or not; if you’re from somewhere in the Middle East, everyone is going to call you “turco” (Turkish).
Brazil and the United States also share a federalist form of government, which is to say that they are each comprised of a number of different states—twenty-seven in the case of Brazil—that are subordinate to a national government. In Brazil, much like in the United States, individuals tend to self-identify very strongly with the state they’re from, and they also tend to be identified, at least on the regional level, based on the way they talk. Portuguese from the Northeast of the country is noteworthy for its soft, more traditional sound, and its use, in general, of the ‘tu’ form instead of ‘você.’ Most cariocas tend to say that in the South, particularly in Rio Grande do Sul, people always sound like they are singing when they talk, due to the influence of the large Italian population in that part of the country on the language. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo also each have their own distinctive sotaques (accents), with the carioca accent probably being the most well-known for the abundance of harsh ‘sh’ sounds.
Because of how diverse culturally and linguistically the different parts of the country are, questions of what Brazilian national identity means are always in vogue, much like questions of what it means to be an American are in the United States. The difference? Unlike the United States, Brazil has beaten its identity crisis in at least one profound way: football. O país de futebol (the country of soccer) sure lived up to its name during this year’s World Cup, from the fireworks launched after every Brazil goal, to the oceans of yellow camisas do Brasil (Brazil soccer jersey) every game day, and eventually to the heartbroken silence across the country as Germany scored its fifth goal in just the first half of the fateful semifinal match. The unity among Brazilians in this great moment in the country’s history was palpable and completely thrilling.
It seems to me that the United States has a great deal to learn from Brazil. We often point to moments of national tragedy, like 9/11, as times when we come together and unite as a country. In truth, though, this sporadic national unity is based more on a common enemy than on any common identity. As a result of this lack of positive identity, even in the aftermath of national tragedies that purportedly unified the country, like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, we ended up inflicting great tragedies and hatred on our own. George Takei recently gave a fascinating interview on the Daily Show about his family’s life as prisoners in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, and we are all very familiar with the outpouring of hatred that occurred when some of our fellow Americans—people just like you or me—wanted to open a place of worship for themselves in downtown Manhattan a few years ago.
We, like Brazil, need a positive identity. For our own sake, I hope that we too can find our own “national religion.” And also that developing countries can be not just sources of problems, but also sources of inspiration.