Saturday, 14 August 2010


Every Brazilian, even the most lilywhite and golden haired, carries in his soul, if not his soul and his body...the colour, or at least a hint of the colour, of the indigenous people of the country or the negro. Along the coast, from Maranhão to Rio Grande Do Sul, and in Minas Gerais, principally the negro. The influence, whether direct or distant, of the African. So writes Gilberto Freyre in his masterpiece of Brazilian social anthropolgy, Casa Grande e Senzala, or The Big House and The Slave Quarters (or The Masters and The Slaves in its English language edition).

Such a declaration horrified many Brazilians when the book was published in the 1930s, and there are even some today who would be affronted at the idea of even a spot of black blood flowing through their veins. A Disney (more of this later) loving acquaintance once stared, appalled, at a gringo produced text book that showed black and brown Brazilian children playing in a park. What, do they think we´re all like that in Brazil? came the cry. It´s not entirely her fault – there are very few black or brown people in As Republicas Independentes (where everyone is eggshell or off eggshell, or at least believes themselves to be) or in Brazilian soap operas. When they do appear on the novela das oito they are either sultry damsels or poor but ‘appy. Go out to Ibura or Jordão, on the other hand, and there is hardly a white face to be seen. But then said acquaintance, being a good burgher of As Republicas Independentes, wouldn´t have much call to go out to Ibura or Jordão.

In truth its hard to count just who is what in Brazil – I once sat around a table at the Bears´ house, the table littered with beer and cachaça bottles, and asked each person to say what they thought number the other people around the table would be on the Dulux colour chart. Well he´s black, Lighter Skinned Bear said, pointing at Papa Bear. Am I fuck, said Papa Bear, I´m moreno. Are you bollocks, said Lighter Skinned Bear, I´m moreno, so how can you be moreno? You´re moreno claro, dipshit, came the reply.

An open ended survey question on colour in the 1970s produced 135 different colour categories, though pity the poor soul who described himself as purple. Numbers change according to the vocabulary – no-one really wants to say they´re pardo, but change it to moreno and the numbers skyrocket. Races move in and out of fashion, so look out for a big jump in black and brown in this year´s census – there are positive discrimination university places at stake. Interestingly, the most commonly used term in ordinary conversation, moreno, has never appeared on the census forms. Its day to day popularity might be because it allows people to play down racial differences (I´m moreno, he´s moreno, she´s moreno, everybody´s moreno!) and so allows the continuation of the great Brazilian myth of the country as a non-racially divided society.

What would put the browny-white cat amongst the slightly darker shade of brown leaning towards black pigeons would be if the census takers adopted the terminology of the Afro-Brazilian movement, which asks people to simply decide if they are black or white. But even though wily old FHC was a fan, it probably wouldn´t work in Brazil – black and white is the system of racial classification in North America, where protestant settlers thought mucky-touching their slaves would mean burning in the hellfires of eternal damnation, hence no morenos in sight. Down in Brazil however, whites, slaves and indians were all at it like rabbits, resulting in the heady racial brew described by the Bears above. And for all that it can appear otherwise, Brazilians are a conciliatory bunch, who generally prefer intermediate to extremist terms – all well and good when it comes to a quiet life, but not so good when it comes to addressing the fact that blacks earn about half as much as whites and get around five years of education to their counterparts´eight.

All this is wandering off the point (to the extent that there ever is a point, of course). Casa Grande E Senzala is a beautiful and fascinating book, as well as being a very nordestino one. It´s the kind of book you don´t even need to read in order to love – instead you can hold it close to your face, and smell it, and weigh it´s heft in your hands. And slightly nerdy Gilberto Freyre was a very clever boy indeed. Reading the book, I can´t help but wish he was alive today to hold a mirror up to modern Brazil, particularly the Brazil of As Republicas. He isn´t, of course, so it is up to Your Life Is An Impossibility, another epic anthropological work, to carry his torch from the past to the present, from The Big House and The Slave Quarters to The Apartment On Avenida Boa Viagem and The Area De Servicio.

The modern day engenhos (sugar cane plantations) are much smaller than their ancestors, though no less luxurious. Most will boast three or four bedrooms, a sala or two, at least two bathrooms, and a large kitchen. Estate agent literature will also list the number of vagas, or car parking spaces, the apartment owner is entitled to in the big parking garage downstairs – essential information for any three or four car family. There will probably be a swimming pool downstairs, and a mini football or basketball court where the children of Mr Casa Grande might frolic. There will be a balcony too, with perhaps a view of the milky green Atlantic stretching (ironically enough) towards Africa. There will also the infamous area de servicio, which may be as simple as a space with a sink and somewhere to hang clothes, or might be grand enough to also boast a shower and a bedroom for one´s, ahem, maid, to sleep (disappointingly for would be Donos e Donas da Casa Grande such splendour is hard to find these days). Of course the area de servicio isn´t necessarily for one´s maid – one might very well wash one´s smalls oneself. But Mrs Casa Grande wouldn´t, on the whole, dream of such a thing.

It is an odd thing for one to get used to, coming from a country where the market in servitude is a disappointingly pale shadow of its former self – the fleets of muted figures who hang around apartments and company foyers, obviously in the employ of someone though no-one seems to know who. They are the maids and the cooks and the cleaners and the nannys and the drivers of the more affluent chunks of Brazilian society – occasionally smiling, generally silent, always deferent, always brown or black. Many is the gringo who when dining in the house of such a well to do Brazilian family as the Casa Grandes has asked the host and is she your cousin/sister?, referring to the silent figure lurking in the kitchen. No, comes the answer, accompanied by hoots of laughter, she´s our maid.

Though of course the life of the pampered (one might say spoilt) modern day maid is nothing like the slavery of Gilberto´s book. She will be permitted, a few times a day, to nip downstairs for a quick fag, if she feels like it, where she might even chat with the other maids. She will be allowed home at the weekends to see her own family, and will even be paid a small salary. When the Casa Grandes sit down to dinner, she will be allowed to eat the same food, though of course she must eat it in her own quarters, or perhaps in the kitchen, where she might be permitted to sit on a bucket. Other than that, hers are the normal workaday tasks – washing Mr Casa Grande´s socks, preparing Junior Casa Grande´s morning juice, making lunch for all the Casa Grandes, cleaning the Casa Grande´s bog, taking the Casa Grande´s poodle for a walk. And at night, when she gets her few hours of rest and settles down to watch the evening soaps on a little TV in her room, it´s a pity she doesn´t have a copy of Gilberto´s book, because if she wasn´t so knackered and had the energy to flick through it, she might recognise a few things.

Finally, a quick note of thanks to The Argument for spending most of her monthly salary on Casa Grande, and for thrusting it into my sweaty hands as a undeserved birthday present, so condemning me to six or so months of trying to wade through its 700 or so pages before giving up and going back to Parsons.

2 comments:

pedro said...

I'm really impressed by your view on Brazilian society. It's not always that we see any passionate foreigner dissecting every detail of Brazilian urban culture this critically.
Have you seen "Um lugar ao sol"? It's a documentary by fellow Recife filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro in which he interviews a number of people who live in penthouses in Recife, Rio and São Paulo. It's the kind of social analysis I think you'd like a lot.
There's also Mascaro's new film coming out soon, called "Avenida Brasília Formosa", about the neighbourhood of Brasília Teimosa. Sounds really interesting as well.

Congratulations for the blog, been reading for months and, as an architect, I just couldn't resist commenting on a blog post showing the obvious relation of the área de serviço and the senzala.

James Young said...

Thanks Pedro for your comments - it´s always nice to get feedback but particularly when its from a Brazilian - I get worried that anyone reading the blog might think "what is this gringo doing criticising our country" etc when really that´s what the opposite of what I want to do. Really it´s about my observations of Brazil, good and bad, and there´s a lot more good than bad.

I haven´t seen the films but I will look out for them, and I´ll be reading your blog too...

All the best

James