Brazil Beyond Samba

Letter to the Editor, by Tamara Ramos

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – I am the daughter of a multicultural and contradictory country called Brazil. There are Spaniards, Africans, Portuguese, indigenous Indians and Italians in my genealogy. Among my facebook friends, there are there are English, Norwegians, Japanese, Korean, Swiss, Portuguese, Italians, Germans, Canadians, Americans, Africans, French and Italians, most of them born or now residents in Brazil. Immigration to Brazil began in 1530, only thirty years after the discovery of the country.

We have therefore been mongrels from the beginning of our history. The Brazilian population is a mix of many cultures. A colorful and rich mosaic united by a common language, but not exactly by the same cultural taste.

I am a Brazilian who does not listen to forró, never goes to the samba schools, who is not crazy about beaches and hot summers, who hates corruption and is terrified of violence. When traveling in Europe I hear strange comments from officials at customs. When they open my passport and look at my photo, they say, “Are you sure that you’re Brazilian? You don’t look like one.”

But these comments make me cringe. What would the face of a Brazilian citizen look like? Distrust of customs officials makes me reflect on an important issue: how much longer will Brazilians be victims of stereotyping? If they think I don’t look Brazilian, is surely because they have a well-defined idea of our identity and physical appearance.

I decided to search on the internet about Brazilian culture in the world. In a few minutes, everything became clear. Unfortunately, foreigners are coming into contact with only a part of our culture. I checked the schedules of Brazilian cultural events abroad, and don’t feel that I am represented. Brazil is not just made up of samba, football, favelas, Indian tribes, naked woman and coconut water.

Here in Brazil we also produce good popular and classical music, fine arts of the highest quality, great food, modern and smart literature on the same level of the greatest international writers. But when I visited libraries in Europe, I couldn’t find our beautiful works featured there. The only Brazilian author who actually sells abroad is Paulo Coelho, who has – by coincidence or irony – never used the national scenario to tell his stories.

A French friend tells me that I am not a typical Brazilian. I’m trying to understand what she means by that. I am a well-educated woman who travels a lot, reads a lot, enjoys good food and impressionist art, visits museums, listens to opera and speaks fluent English. But all these characteristics were acquired right here, in Brazil. I’m not rich, I was not educated in Switzerland and encountered Europe only at the age of thirty-three. Therefore, all that I am, I owe to Brazil.

But which ‘Brazil’? The Brazil responsible for my scholarship does not appear on foreign websites. This is a Brazil that the world ignores because it is not sufficiently ethnic or exotic enough to appeal to tourists and investors hungry for a big attraction.

My education is globalized because I was born and grew up in a gigantic and rich culture full of diversity. Here in Brazil, I frequent Italian restaurants, I shop in Japanese neighborhoods, visit exhibitions of Spanish art, watch American music shows, go to bookstores and also appreciate a good feijoada from Bahia. My Brazilianness is genuine, for I am the great-granddaughter of indigenous Indian mixed with Portuguese, which allows me to talk with real ownership about this Brazil that foreigners are unaware of.

Brazil is not a perfect country. We have very serious problems such as socio-economic inequality, corruption, lack of public security, deficits in education, neglected health services, hunger and misery. But this is not the complete picture. In Brazil there are a lot of educated people who well informed about world events, responsible and committed to doing a good job.

It is time for foreign countries to get closer to this other Brazil. My Brazil. The Brazil where thousands of people like me who do not listen to funk, do not take their clothes off at carnival, do not play barefoot football, do not traffic drugs on the street, who do not steal from people or prostitute themselves, as our national cinema insists on caricaturing. It’s time the world knew another kind of authentic Brazilian, proud of the country that gave them a good education, opportunities and a great culture.

The next time I visit Europe, I would like to hear the following phrase from officials at Customs, “Brazilian? I thought so!”

According to Tamara Ramos, she is one of the most innovative Brazilian writers of the contemporary literary scene. She is the author of many books, including “A Neurotic on the Couch”, “A Tango for Alice”, “Irina Bloom”, “Fiona and the Secret Garden” and “Artist’s Head – An Essay”. Ramos represented Brazil at the Geneva Book Fair in 2013. Her work has received various local awards, and one of her books had the rights acquired by a major Brazilian film production company.

6 Responses to "Brazil Beyond Samba"

  1. Mattias  February 5, 2014 at 3:00 PM

    Every once in a while I get similar conversation, mostly from upper-middle class or rich Brazilians. Mind you, I live here for 4 years and I encounter through work or during off time Brazilians from walks of life. I don’t and never understood this concern about the “image” of Brazil and that Brazilians have about their country and themselves.

    After all, every country is famous for one or two things and any one sentence generalization of countries of the size of Brazil, USA or Russia are just that: generalizations. That’s why most people outside of the US who never traveled there have this image: Americans are fat, everybody has a gun and they’re ok with invading another countries. Russia: communism, Putin as a dictator and billionaire oligarchs. Brazil equals Rio for most foreigners, samba, beaches and beautiful people. Those are generalizations and are called as such. As little effort as opening a Wikipedia page of Brazil or other countries gives more deep and accurate portrait for anyone who wishes to really learn something about those places.

    Now, your concern why Brazil is not famous for other things is another issue completely. Regarding great food, fine arts, classical music and opera or high culture in general, Brazil simply doesn’t favorably compare with other places in the world. That’s because comparing to other large places in the US, Europe or Japan, the quality is not yet on the level in those categories. After all, there is a reason why Tokyo has most Michelin stars for best restaurants in the world (the quality is just that much better). Berlin (and New York in close 2nd) has the best opera companies and classical symphony orchestras (no comparison with any in Rio or Sao Paulo). And Paris and NYC have some of the world’s most incredible museums, which are also on the all different level in terms of curatorial quality and size than those in Brazil. In terms of writing, my abilities of reading fiction in Portuguese are perhaps inadequate to truly judge, yet regarding the journalism, the same stories in New York Times or Guardian seem better researched and more neutral in tone than those in Folha de SP or Globo, Brazil is not famous for those things because, well, they are better elsewhere in the world. Culture here is diverse, of course it’s part of history and geographical size of the country. But is this diversity cherished like in other multi-racial, immigrants countries like the US? Closing of the Indian museum near Maracana to build a parking makes me think it is not always the case.

    I look at Brazil through the prism of Western Europe born and raised and US- university level educated liberal person. For me, the “image” of Brazil shouldn’t really concern Brazilians. It’s really a funny thing being worried about PR of Brazil comparing to REAL problems that Brazil have. Lack of good education and lack of infrastructure being biggest that I see stopping Brazil from catching up with other industrial countries. Most puzzling though is that most Brazilians I encountered complain a lot about Brazil, but don’t like to receive some constructive criticism. And since Brazil is a democratic country with democratically elected local, state and federal politicians, it would seem like a good idea to vote for politicians representing one’s ideas, yet most Brazilians know or care little about politicians they’re voting for and after electing them, they don’t hold them accountable to the promises they made.

    So in the end, in a country where poverty, corruption, crime, poor health services, lack of quality education and crumbling infrastructure I think samba, carnaval, beaches and beautiful people doesn’t seem to me like the bad image at all. After all, those are the best things in Brazil. And if Brazil wants to become the world’s best destination for high culture or for that matter any other field like technology, engineering etc, then it should invest in it, work hard, become the best in a field and reputation and imagine will change. As famous author Oscar Wilde once said: “I have the simplest of the taste. I am always satisfied with the best.” And this “best” is what people, companies and countries are famous for.

  2. James  February 9, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    Every country has its stereotypes. I’m looking forwards to encountering Brazil, without any preconceptions!

  3. Catarina  February 10, 2014 at 4:21 PM

    You are Brazilian, absolutely. But typical? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. You identify as “a well-educated woman who travels a lot, reads a lot, enjoys good food and impressionist art, visits museums, listens to opera and speaks fluent English.” As you may know, here in Brazil, only 16% of the population has a university education, and the opportunities to get a good university education are limited by the poor quality of public education for children. Brazilians are traveling more as incomes rise, but most people don’t yet have the means to travel “a lot.”

    According to Retratos da Leitura no Brasil, 53% of women and 43% of men read books (on average, four per year). However, the 2010 census showed that one in four Brazilians are functionally illiterate, the 8th highest rate of illiteracy in the world, according to UNESCO. And according to research by the British Council in Brazil, only 5% of Brazilians speak fluent English. As for good food, impressionist art, museums, and opera — I have no data on that, but for example in São Paulo, where the majority of the population does not live in the center, the travel time and cost to get to any of the above listed things is prohibitive for most people.

    Clearly, you are Brazilian and no one should argue with that. But your own description of yourself marks you as a very privileged Brazilian (not an accusation, I too am privileged in most of the same ways), and in this country privilege is not typical. I think it’s important to keep that in mind when defending your Brazilian-ness.

  4. gringa brazilien  February 10, 2014 at 9:29 PM

    Tamara,
    Let the tourists and foreigners who will visit Brazil be pleasantly surprised.
    I too, sadly, am not a phenomenal samba dancer – but I understand how the myths and cultural references were created, it is an organic process, that happens in every culture, and whether YOU like it or not, it does represent a certain truth about our people, one perhaps, you no longer feel connected with:
    popular working class culture, as in samba, beach and football.
    That is part of life of the majority of Brazilians – and must be not only respected, but treasured.
    And, remember, the real smart people already know that we just don’t do samba on the beach, we’re too busy building the 7th economy in the world!
    ps -> in your favour I’d say, that I too would like to see more articles that represent Brazil in a more realistic, less sensationalist way.
    It is a crude misconception that we are either drug-dealers from a favela, or billionaire models jumping off helicopters:
    the bulk of the population in Brazil are neither, they’re middle and working-class people, and very hard working too – but I guess pictures of people having a work-lunch does not make the news.
    Let’s make sure, with the World Cup upon us, we make the most of opportunity to share a lot more about our extraordinaire country, culture and its people: from samba-queens, to high-tech geeks. we got them all!

  5. gringa brazilien  February 12, 2014 at 4:14 PM

    Tamara,
    Let me add something I did forget: I wanted to mention that your article was possibly one of the most refreshing and interesting words I’ve seen on Brazil in the past few months, even if I, in part, disagreed with.
    We must also brace ourselves, as we get closer to the World Cup, for the inevitable sensationalist scaremongering, as in:
    “Brazil has trouble with ________, raising concerns for the WorldCup.” –
    Be strong.

  6. Tamara  February 16, 2014 at 10:56 PM

    Hello there! First of all, I want to thank you all for the comments. I was surprised (in a god way!) to see the polemic created by my article “Brazil Beyond Samba”. Im a writer, so I know all the problems we have here in Brazil about education. I know that only 50% of brazilian people can be consider reader, this is a 2012 statistic.

    In Brazil, most of people reads only 4 books a year! Which makes me travel a lot, inside of Brazil, trying to change this scenario by giving lectures and inspiring young people, kids and also grown ups to read more. As a writer, this is the best I can do.

    What I wanted to express, is that we have many great artists, great musicians, great writers, great everything made in Brazil, but this things almost disapear in the News abroad. Yes, I am a very educated women, but my education came from here, not from Europe or North América, and that’s what I was trying to share with foreigners who maybe sees samba, violence, sexuality, poverty and corruption as the only thing we have here, or if not the only, the biggest or the most famous.

    Of course samba and football are part of our culture, but there’s is more in our Big Picture, that’s all.
    I wish the great brazilians artists had also a voice outside Brazil. I really believe that education and art can improve the world. So if we can show a different side of our Brazil, not only to foreigners, but also to brazilians, we could create a new country.

    My article was published as “Letter to the editor”, so is only a personal point of view. I do not want to convince people of anything, my intention was only to open a space for discussion and reflexion.

    Thanks for reading the article and giving a feedback. ;)
    Tamara Ramos

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