Brazil is a nation of astounding diversity, forged from African, European and indigenous influences, along with the tens of millions of immigrants who flooded into the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Brazilians of today represent a complicated portrait of colors and creeds and hail from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. The lifestyle is no less diverse – not surprising for a country that's home to both age-old indigenous cultures and modern metropolises.
Constructing a portrait of the typical Brazilian is a complicated task, given the wide mix of social, cultural and economic factors in play. One thing that everyone agrees on is the huge chasm separating the rich from the poor.
The country’s middle and upper class live in comfortable apartments or houses, with all the trappings of the developed world, including good health care in private clinics, cars, vacation homes and easy access to the latest gadgets and trends (though prices for luxury goods are much higher here, eg an iPhone 7 without a plan costs R$3900). The wealthiest send their children to private schools and abroad to university. Maids are common – even among middle-class Brazilians – and some families have chauffeurs and cooks. Depending on where one lives in the country, crime is likely to be of high concern. Those who can take extra precautions, opting for high-security buildings or even hiring bodyguards.
Somewhere below the elite are working-class folks struggling to put food on the table and pay the rent; the children tend to live at home until they are married. Couples tend to marry younger.
At the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are favelados (residents of the favelas), who live in self-constructed housing (usually boxy concrete or brick dwellings) in crowded makeshift communities. Ranging in size from a few thousand inhabitants to over 70,000, favelas are found in nearly every urban area in Brazil. Most residents have electricity and running water, though open sewers run through many favelas. Access to education, adequate health care, transportation and other essential infrastructure can often be limited, though this is slowly changing under government-funded favela improvement schemes.
In the countryside, conditions for the poor can be even worse. Unequal land distribution dating back to the colonial era means that thousands of homeless rural families are left to squat on vacant land or work long hours as itinerant laborers for low wages.
Regardless of socio-economic background, most Brazilians have a healthy appreciation for a good party (Carnaval is but one manifestation). This joie de vivre can be seen in football matches, on the beaches, in the samba clubs and on the streets. The flip side of this trait is saudade, that woeful manifestation of longing or deep regret, given much play on old bossa nova records.
Brazil is the world’s fifth most populous country, but it also has one of the smallest population densities, with around 24 people per sq km. Most of Brazil’s population lives along the coast, particularly in the South and Southeast, home to 75% of the country’s inhabitants. Until the mid-20th century, Brazil was largely a rural country – today its population is more than 80% urban. The population in cities has exploded in the last half-century, though growth is slowing.
The Northeast has the highest concentration of Afro-Brazilians, with Salvador as its cultural capital. In the Amazon live Caboclos (literally ‘copper-colored’), the descendants of indigenous peoples and the Portuguese. In the South is the most European of the Brazilian population, descendants of Italian and German immigrants.
While there is much more mixing between races, Brazil is a long way from being a color-blind society. Afro-Brazilians make up the bulk of low-paid workers, and are far more likely to live in favelas than in middle-class neighborhoods. More than 40% of Afro-Brazilians live in poverty (twice the rate of whites). Afro-Brazilians die younger than whites, earn less and have a greater risk of going to prison. Barely 2% of Afro-Brazilians attend university, though a quota system approved by the supreme court in 2012 aims to address the longstanding racial imbalance. Black political representatives and even high-ranking black employees are rarities – clear examples of the lack of opportunities for black people in Brazil.
The indigenous population today numbers more than 900,000, comprising 240 tribes. Although this is a fraction of the estimated two million or more in Brazil at the time of European arrival, the indigenous population has shown a remarkable resurgence in recent years: the population has tripled since 1970. Customs and beliefs vary widely from tribe to tribe – as do the strengths of these traditions in the face of expulsion from traditional lands, declining numbers, missionary activity and other influences.
After centuries of genocidal attacks, slavery, dispossession and death from imported diseases, Brazil’s indigenous population is growing again but still faces a host of problems. Most of them live in the Amazon rainforest, and therefore the threats that the rainforest faces – logging, mining, ranching, farming, roads, settlements, dams, hydroelectric schemes – also threaten the indigenous whose way of life depends on it.
Brazilian identity has been shaped not only by the Portuguese, who provided its language and main religion, but also by the indigenous population, Africans and the many immigrants who arrived over the years from Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Indigenous culture, though often ignored or denigrated by urban Brazilians, has helped shape modern Brazil and its legends, dance and music. Many indigenous foods and beverages, such as tapioca, manioc (cassava), potatoes, maté and guaraná (a shrub whose berry is a stimulant; also a popular soft drink) have become staples.
The influence of African culture is also evident, especially in the Northeast. The slaves imported by the Portuguese brought with them their religion, music and cuisine, all of which have become a part of Brazilian identity.
Brazil had several waves of voluntary immigration. After the end of slavery in 1888, millions of Europeans were recruited to work in the coffee fields. The largest contingent was from Italy (some one million arrived between 1890 and 1920), but there were also many Portuguese and Spaniards, and smaller groups of Germans and Russians.
Immigration is only part of the picture when considering Brazil’s diversity. Brazilians are just as likely to mention regional types, often accompanied by their own colorful stereotypes. Caboclos, who are descendants of local indigenous groups, live along the rivers in the Amazon region and keep alive the traditions and stories of their ancestors. Gaúchos populate Rio Grande do Sul, speak a Spanish-inflected Portuguese and can’t quite shake the reputation for being rough-edged cowboys. By contrast, baianos, descendants of the first Africans in Brazil, are stereotyped for being the most extroverted and celebratory of Brazilians. Mineiros (residents of Minas Gerais state) are considered more serious and reserved than Brazil’s coastal dwellers, while sertanejos (residents of the backlands – called sertão – of the Northeast) are dubbed tough-skinned individuals with strong folk traditions. Cariocas (residents of Rio city) are superficial beach bums according to paulistanos (residents of São Paulo city), who are often denigrated as being workaholics with no zeal for life – a rivalry that anyone who’s lived in LA or New York can understand.
Today there are dozens of terms to describe thee various racial compositions of Brazilians, and it is not uncommon for apparently white Brazilians to have a mix of European, African and indigenous ancestors. Yet, despite appearances of integration and racial harmony, underneath is a brutal reality. Although black and multi-racial people account for 45% of the population, they are sorely underrepresented in government and business, and often see little hope of rising out of poverty. Indigenous people are even more openly discriminated against, continuing a cycle that began with the genocidal policies of the first Europeans.
Brazil has a vigorous media, and anything vaguely controversial – whether political or social in nature – will garner serious attention by the Brazilian press. There is substantial press freedom today, although the nation does have some antiquated press laws left over from the military dictatorship (for instance, ‘crimes of opinion,’ ie published articles that besmirch the names of government officials, are criminal offences).
Today Brazil’s most successful media conglomerate is Rede Globo, the world’s third-largest TV network (behind NBC and CBS) and watched by more than 90 million Brazilian viewers daily. TV is by far the biggest form of media in Brazil, though radio is also popular (with thousands of radio stations nationwide), and there are hundreds of dailies across the country.
Until the 1990s, the media and political demagogues worked hand in hand. Shortly after radio arrived in Brazil in the 1930s, President Getúlio Vargas initiated weekday transmissions of the Voice of Brazil as a means of distilling government propaganda to the people. The rise of Brazil’s great media mogul Roberto Marinho – who went on to found Globo – was largely assisted by his decision not to criticize the fascistic regimes of the military government from 1964 to 1984. Other newspapers simply foundered if anything remotely critical of the government was published.
Women in Brazil
Brazil had one of the earliest feminist movements in Latin America, and women were among the first in the region to gain the right to vote, in 1932. Today there is a growing number of feminist NGOs, dedicated to educating women about their legal rights and family planning, while also training police how to handle cases of domestic violence. In Brasília there’s even a feminist lobby.
Dilma Rousseff, who became Brazil's first female president in 2011, served as a major icon for breaking down barriers for women. Sadly, her tenure ended abruptly when she was impeached and removed from office in 2016 for budgetary violations. Some of her supporters feel that she was the victim of an anti-feminist backlash; her fall from power was particularly stinging given that many of the parliamentarians who voted to remove her from office were under investigation for far more serious offenses than Rousseff.
Regardless of advances, many machista (chauvinist) stereotypes persist, and women are still sorely underrepresented in positions of power. Women occupy only around 11% of seats in the National Congress. As of 2018 this makes Brazil the lowest ranked in all of Latin America (where women on average make up around 29% of the legislature).
In other spheres, women represent around 43% of the workforce – a big leap from decades past but still below the average in Latin America (where women comprise 54% of the workforce). Unfortunately, the wage gap remains high. Depending on the industry, men earn anywhere from 22% to 36% more than women of the same age and income level.
Instances of domestic abuse are frighteningly common, and Brazil has the seventh-highest rate of femicide in the world, with 4.4 murders per 100,000 women (more than double that of the US). In response, the first women’s police station opened in 1990 specifically to handle violence against women. Today there are more than 300 women’s police stations, largely staffed by female police officers.
Women receive 120 days of paid maternity leave (men receive five days of paternity leave). Abortions are still illegal in Brazil (except in cases of rape and maternal health risks), and an estimated one million are performed each year, often with substantial health risks. More than 250,000 women each year are hospitalized from clandestine abortions. In 2018, the Supreme Court was considering a plan to decriminalize abortion, and the issue was a hot topic in the presidential election that year.