Impeachment, culture wars and the politics of identity in Brazil

Impeachment, culture wars and the politics of identity in Brazil

The Conversation

Marshall Eakin, Professor of History
Vanderbilt University

Brazil is in the midst of its worst political crisis since the 1960s and possibly its most severe economic downturn in the last 100 years.

The economy will not – and cannot – improve until the country emerges from the political chaos of the moment and puts into place strong and legitimate leadership.

Most of the commentary on Brazil’s current crisis has focused on politics and economics. I believe that a more profound threat generated by this crisis will be to Brazilians’ sense of self – to their very identity as Brazilians.

In my 40 years studying Brazilian history and culture, I have never seen the country more polarized. Over the past decade, I have spent extended periods in Brazil researching and writing “Becoming Brazilians: Race and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Brazil,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. More so than many countries, Brazil has had a powerful and dominant narrative of national identity for decades…

Race and national identity

For much of the 20th century Brazilians of all social groups collectively forged a rich and vibrant cultural nationalism around the notion of mestiçagem — racial and cultural mixing.

The iconic intellectual Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) produced the most influential version of this narrative. According to Freyre,

Every Brazilian, even the light-skinned fair-haired one, carries with him in his soul, when not in body and soul … the shadow, or at least the birthmark, of the Indian or the Negro.

Many diverse political regimes from the 1930s to the 1980s placed an official seal of government approval on this narrative of mestiçagem. They hoped to publicize Brazil’s supposed “racial democracy” to the world. As I argue in my book, the lived realities of the great masses of Brazilians seemed to provide abundant evidence of the creative power of mestiçagem. Carnaval and Brazilian music like samba and bossa nova arose out of this dynamic mixing. The jazz on the playing pitch of Pelé and other great players produced the world’s most beautiful soccer…

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