Brazilian Melting Pot: The Meeting of Races in Portuguese America



BRAZIL is an American extension of Portugal. For those who know their history, this is such an obvious fact that sometimes it is forgotten. And yet it is the most important thing to remember about Brazil: it explains not only why Brazilians today speak Portuguese and carry on many of the institutions and ethnic traditions of the mother country, but also why modern Brazil is a thoroughly unified and integrated nation even though the original Portuguese stock is a small part of the total population.

The Portuguese colonists found in tropical America an ideal place for the expansion and development of their ethnically democratic but culturally aristocratic civilization. It was a civilization which had already begun to flourish in the tropics of Asia and Africa. The Portuguese were extraordinarily successful colonists, perhaps more successful than any of the other European nations who set out to conquer the world in the sixteenth century. 1 hat is, they established colonies which lived and became politically and culturally mature, whereas the colonies established by other European powers often remained nothing more than troublesome administrative outposts. \\ by was this so.'' It is difficult now to reconstruct all the factors, but certainly one of them was the mysterious Portuguese talent for assimilating local institutions and native populations into their Christian, Latin, European culture. Perhaps it was something they learned from the Moors. In any case, whether the local people were yellow, as in Macao, brown, as in Portuguese East India, or black, as in Portuguese Africa, they adopted the civilization of Portugal with practically no trouble at all; they became in fact Portuguese.

’Idle story is even more spectacular in Brazil. In 450 years, the Portuguese have assimilated not only the vast population of Amerindians—there was remarkably little bloodshed between the colonists and the natives — but also large numbers of Africans who were imported to work as slaves on the plantations. Some of these millions of Negroes imported to Brazilian plantations were obtained from areas of the most advanced Negro culture. They were men of Mohammedan faith and intellectual training, who were culturally superior to some of 1 heir European, w hite, Catholic masters. Perhaps no other American colony had, among its Africans imported for labor, so large a number of these intelligent Islamized people.

Negroes are now rapidly disappearing in Brazil, merging into the white stock; in some areas the tendency seems to be toward the stabilization of mixed-bloods in a new ethnic type, similar to the Polynesian. Social distance between the different groups of the population today is the result of class consciousness, rather than of race or color prejudice.

The settlers — Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, and Polish—through unions with colored women, made up for the extremely small number of whites available for the task of colonization. Through intercourse with the Indian or the Negro woman the colonizers propagated a vigorous and ductile mestiço population that was still more adaptable to the tropical climate. The lack of manpower from which he suffered more than any other colonist and which compelled him to immediate miscegenation — against which he had no racial scruples and but few religious prejudices—was for the Portuguese an advantage in the conquest and colonization of the tropics. An advantage so far as his better social, if not his biological, adaptation was concerned.

And today Brazil is a genuinely unified country, although some of the newest groups of immigrants are still in the first stages of assimilation.

Naturally the question arises, do the national and ethnic groups of non-Portuguese origin play separate roles in modern Brazilian society and polities? Yes and no. Each of them, it is true, has contributed significantly to life in Brazil, which today is no longer narrowly Iberian, but is instead an independent and distinctive culture made up of many elements. But in politics, racial or ethnic separatism does not exist. Unlike his colleague in the United States, the Brazilian politician does not have to worry about the “Italian vote” or the “German vote,”much less the “Negro vote.”

The absence of such sub-national expressions of exclusiveness in Brazilian politics seems to indicate that the tendency for ethnic groups to remain apart has been much less pronounced than in the United States. Instead, the tendency toward fusion — ethnic and cultural-has been the decisive factor in Brazilian history. In the case of the Amerindian, for instance, most ol the other American republics have had an “Indian problem,”and sometimes it has been an important political issue. But this problem has never troubled Brazil.

This is not to say that Brazil is, or has been, a paradise in comparison with her sister republics or with any other country where the national structure is heterogeneous but dominated by one cultural tradition. But it does mean that Brazilian politics have been regional, not ethnical. Brazil’s sharpest crises, as a nation, have been caused by conflicts between regional groups, conflicts which have been greatly aggravated by the isolation and economic disorganization which have caused some regions to remain tragically archaic while others have achieved technological, economic, and intelectual supremacy. Brazil does not have race conflicts, but she has powerful class antagonisms, and these have glown out of her acute interregional maladjustments. Geographically, Brazil is an immense and very diversified country, and she lacks a dynamic economic balance between industry and agriculture, between urban and rural populations.

The fact is, the nearest thing to a civil war Brazil has known-she has never experienced anything like the Civil War in the United States or the Mexican Revolution, both of which were at least influenced by racial conflicts — was the Canudos War (1897), the subject of Euclides da Cunha’s famous book, Os Sertões. The sedanejos, a vigorous minority led by the mystic, Antonio C.’onselheiro, were not. a clearly different iated ethnic group, but on the contrary a thoroughly heterogeneous company whose unity of purpose came solely from their depressed regional status and historical backwardness. The sertanejos inhabited an area in Brazil’s distant interior, and they retained in the nineteenth century the customs and cultural patterns which had prevailed among them in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They fought to establish their status against the “superior” culture of the urban centers.

There have been other conflicts, of course—the so-called Malê Revolt in Bahia, for instance. It was a local slave uprising against the politically, economically, and culturally dominant Catholic whites. But even in this case, the Malês, who were Mohammedans, fought because they felt they were being unjustly treated in comparison with the other, “inferior" slaves who still professed the tribal religions of Africa. The revolt, in other words, arose from economic and cultural, rather than racial grievances.

This lack of a systematic and continuous African opposition to European dominance in Brazil seems to be due to the fact that the European dominance never became sharply exclusive, as it did in the areas of Anglo-Saxon colonization or even in some parts of Spanish and French America. The European dominance is there undeniably, and Brazil, in spite of its large non-European population, is still characterized by a European and Christian civilization. But that civilization has never been reserved in any way for people of European descent.

Eric Fischer, in The Passing of the European Age, has advanced the theory that cultural as well as political dominance is shifting from European to non-European centers and especially to America. Brazil is a case in point. The center of Portuguese literature, for instance, is now Brazil, not Portugal. Furthermore, Brazil offers a positive denial of the theory, held by many white South Africans, that a European and Christian civilization cannot survive in a country of mixed racial and ethnic strains. Brazil has its own national culture, of course, but its decisive characteristics are European and Christian, even though the non-European elements of its population have been large ever since the sixteenth century. In recent decades, the vitality of Catholic culture has been put to a severe test by the admission of many Jewish, Mohammedan, and Buddhist immigrants, and so far no serious conflict has appeared.


THIS does not mean that Brazilians today are slavishly preserving a pure European culture. The climate alone would prohibit anything like that. Brazil is a tropical and semitropical country, and the demands of the climate cannot be ignored. They have affected Brazilian dress, cookery, architecture, and hundreds of other aspects of Brazilian life. In addition, the impact of other culturesespecially the Indian and Negro, but also other European and Asiatic ways of life has considerably modified the pure Portuguese heritage. Italians, Germans, Poles, Japanese, English, French, and Jews have all been able to introduce many of their customs and traditions. Some of them have even established regional hegemonies: German culture is strong in Santa Catarina and part of Rio Grande do Sul: Italian in Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo; Polish in Paraná Japanese in Sao Paulo and in parts of the Amazonian region; Syrian also in São Paulo.

In other words, Brazilian culture, like that of any growing nation, is dynamic and creative. It is also independent and vigorous. But like any creative process, it must proceed within a recognizable context if it is to avoid falling into confusion and disunity. In the case of Brazil, this context is provided by the dominant heritageof Portugal.

For this reason, among others, I have coined the term “Luso-tropical" (Portuguese-tropical) to describe the civilization of all the Portuguese colonies, whether African, Indian, Malayan, or American. It is a useful term because these societies do share certain characteristics and because it gives the historian an integrated field for study. When one sees Brazil as the leading member of the Lusotropical community, one understands better her cultural vitality and her capacity to resist the attempts of such sub-national groups as the German element in Santa Catarina to remain apart from the national culture. If these sub-groups had been successful, Brazilians today would not only eat different foods, speak different languages, and worship different gods; they would lack the common will and the psychological unity which today give them a genuine political life. Attempts by German, Japanese, or Polish sub-groups to lead a separate life in Brazil and to establish themselves on the basis of a mystique of superiority to the Brazilian community have all failed. And, generally speaking, such attempts have always failed in all the societies of the Luso-tropical community.

Most colonial societies are of two types: either they achieve uniformity by means of oligarchical oppression, or they suffer from a plurality of unrelated cultural and national elements. The Portuguese colonists avoided both extremes. Clearly they did this by bringing with them a powerful European civilization, and then by just relaxing. They did not force the natives to conform; they did not establish castes based on racial or cultural differences. They gave the natives as little cause as possible for resentment or racial self-consciousness. The result was that the natives soon adopted the politically and economically superior culture of the Portuguese and set about transforming it into a viable tropical civilization. The colonies became mixed societies, in which the various racial groups share equally in the same civilization, in spite of differences of pigmentation and the shape of the nose.

One only has to look at South Africa or the Belgian Congo or Indonesia today to see what happened when other nations failed to take advantage of the example set by the Portuguese colonists.

In Brazil, both before and after the break with the Empire, ethnic problems have been easily solved. The abolition of slavery in 1888 was achieved peacefully and with little political disturbance. The “Indian problem, which has been so prominent in Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, and other LatinAmerican republics, has scarcely existed. The average Brazilian is unaware of the possibility of political, cultural, or social conflict among the races.


IT WOULD be foolish to maintain that Brazil, as a mixed society, has never had any political experience of ethnic conflict. During World War II, for instance, there were Nazi and para-Nazi attempts to stir up subversive feeling among the German and Japanese minorities. They were not successful, but among a few elements they did create a display of disaffection which received more attention than it warranted. Most of the people who composed these minorities were no more attracted by such propaganda than their cousins were in the United States.

The political activities of German and Italian voters in southern Brazil before 1930 were somewhat more serious. These sub-groups were organized into articulate political factions by the parties and political leaders who were willing to capitalize on separatist feelings. They had a few representatives in the national government, and although they almost always supported the current, administration, they were vociferous in their demands for certain cultural privileges which were contrary to the well-established traditions of Brazil. For instance, they demanded the right to have their own schools, where all teaching should be conducted in their own languages. But these cases of separatist activity were never really important on a national scale.

It is interesting to note that when the Vargas regime of 1937 was established, it followed a nationalistic policy which was certainly excessive, but which nevertheless served to strengthen the Portuguese heritage in modern Brazil. Getúlio Vargas may not have been a fascist, as some of his critics have claimed, but he was undeniably an authoritarian. His policy toward the minorities was enforced, often enough, with the collaboration of the Brazilian Army. But he succeeded in uprooting many of the organized activities, including the schools, which the minorities had instituted to preserve their maternal cultures. These activities would have died out sooner or laler anyway, but this violent suppression of them hastened the processes of assimilation.

At the same time, if the Vargas policies had become permanent, there is no doubt that they would have ended in the cultoral obliteration of many nonPortuguese elements in Brazil, and this would have been exactly contrary to the climate of tolerance which has characterized Luso-tropical civilizations. Even today some critics and observers in Brazil think that the cultural stability of the country is jeopardized by the freedom granted to the “foreign" elements, and they advocate various methods of control. But anyone who has studied the development of Luso-tropical civilizations will see that the situation in Brazil is today healthy and normal. It is simply the latest phase of the particularly happy adaptation of plastic European civilization to the tropics which has characterized the growth of the Luso-tropical centers for more than four hundred years.

A case in point is the Italian minority. The Italians are particularly concentrated in the States of São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, and they have many local customs which have obviously derived from their traditional culture. Yet they speak Portuguese, though some of them retain Italian as the language of the home; their children attend Brazilian schools; and in their dress and their manners they are scarcely distinguishable from Brazilians of Portuguese descent. In politics, the Italians have scattered themselves among so many different political parties that it is impossible to speak of an “Italian vote" or even of a particularly Italian point of view.

In the early days of the republican regime, Lauro Müller, who had been born in Santa Catarina in a family of German colonists, became one of the most astute and influential politicians in Brazil, just as successful as any Bahia-born Brazilian. (The State of Bahia is known as the “Brazilian Virginia because so many statesmen and diplomats have been born there.) For years Müller was a presidential possibility, as was David Campista, the Brazilian son of a German Jew and a member of Parliament who became the Minister of Finance. Both men came close to being the President of the Brazilian Republic, and in neither case did their failure have anything to do with the fact that they were sons of non-Portuguese colonists.

Some of the second-generation newcomers are less stable. But it is likely that these transitional figures in Brazilian politics are simply part of the whole pattern of class antagonism and economic unrest which afflicts Brazil today. The rapid industrialization of Brazil has created many disturbances and upset the old balances; it has weakened the social barriers even while it has emphasized class differences. The transitional figure is just as common among Brazilians of Portuguese origin as among those of non-Portuguese origin. Their transition has been from the agrarian North to the industrial South, from country to city, and sometimes from positions of weakness and poverty to positions of power and wealth. In such circumstances, moral controls break down, and the influence of one’s ancestral environment, whether it was a farm in Brazil or a farm in Italy, no longer affects one’s behavior. This is a condition of society which accompanies any period of rapid change in the economic structure, and it cannot be overcome by putting the blame on any particular element of the population.


PERHAPS the most important point to emphasize is that there really are second-generation Brazilians who are politicians. Even if they are not good politicians — and many of them are — they have at least entered an occupation which, in many societies, is closed to newcomers. Sociologists have pointed out, for instance, that earlier in this century the machine-dominated politics of the United States excluded the sons of Italian immigrants, thereby denying them one of the principal avenues to social and economic status. No such thing has occurred in Brazil. The sons of non-Portuguese immigrants have broad opportunities to rise to positions of authority and leadership, not only through a regular political career, but through equally regular careers in the ecclesiastical, military, technical, and commercial professions.

This explains the increasing number of nonPortuguese family names in the society columns of Brazilian newspapers, in Parliament, the diplomatic service, and even in the armed forces and the church.

Sons and grandsons of modest immigrants are rapidly rising in Brazil to positions of leadership in business, industry, politics, religion, and the press. In medicine there are men like Mario Pinotti; in science, Cesar Lattes; in art, Cândido Portinari; in architecture, Henrique Mindlin; in music, Francisco Mignone. Even in literature, where the vested cultural interests of the aristocracy are likely to be most firmly entrenched, the newcomers are surpassing the descendants of the old Portuguese families. In the last century, Machado de Assis, who was Brazil’s greatest writer of fiction, was of Portuguese ancestry, although his novels sometimes derived from African and plebeian sources. But today many non-Portuguese Brazilians are contributing to contemporary literature — for example, Augusto Meyer, the scholarly and enthusiastic analyst of Portuguese classics; Viana Moog, the novelist and essayist; Menotti del Picchia, the nationalist poet; Augusto Fredcrico Schmidt, another poet whose works are very popular; Sergio Milliet, the literary critic; Marcos Konder, a young poet,; Gastão Cruls, a novelist who has specialized in the dramatic conflicts between the elemental valuesof the Amazonian region and the bourgeois values of Rio society; Raúl Bopp, a poet who has written excellent lyrics based on Amazonian themes; and many others.

When the processes of assimilation go far enough to include literature of the most lyrical and introspective kinds, it means that in Brazil people of European non-Portuguese origin are really becoming a new force in the life and culture of the nation. They are joining the descendants of Portuguese, Amerindian, and Negro to work creatively with the old instruments of expression — the Portuguese language and the Portuguese lyrical tradition. Yet they speak in a modern idiom, and what they have to say is new. They symbolize the whole Brazilian melting pot, the dynamic and creative tropical culture which nevertheless derives across the centuries directly from the European Renaissance.