To see Brazil for the first time is to see the New World for the first time.
That’s not a travel brochure cliché. If you’re in Rio de Janeiro, standing atop the Pão de Açúcar and surveying the Baía de Guanabara, it’s easy to recall what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the way any European must have felt upon arriving in the Americas five centuries ago: “…face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity to wonder.”
It’s just as easy to understand why Brazilians have always felt torn between, on the one hand, just lying back in their Eden of beaches and bossa nova, and on the other, stepping up and building what is now the world’s sixth largest economy and one of its richest cultures.
While the planet is focused on the World Cup right now – and in turn on Brazil, the host country – this seems as good a moment as any to consider how genuinely unfamiliar Americans are with South America’s giant, its warts as well as its wonders.
We think we know Brazil – soccer and samba and the Amazon. But even here in Florida, which has the largest Brazilian community in the United States, a lot of people still think Brazilians speak Spanish.
Falam Português, cara. They speak Portuguese, man.
So we set out to hear from Brazilians in South Florida how they define themselves – and how they don’t want to be defined. We started at home with Julia Duba, a WLRN reporter who is Brazilian-American and co-authored this report.
“The Brazilian way is always, 'Are you happy?' ” she says. “'Are you living life the way you want to live it?' That’s not to be mistaken with just blowing things off, but rather: Relax, assess and then do it.”
Julia’s father, Bill Duba, was born in Rio de Janeiro and came to South Florida in 1987. He’s a psychotherapist – but he might be just a tad more passionate about his band, Clube do Choro de Miami, which plays Brazil’s most traditional music, chorinho.
“Chorinho is classical music with swing,” Bill says. Early Brazilians “incorporated the classical music from Europe into the rhythms from Africa and the Indians in Brazil.”
Like chorinho (pronounced shor-EE-nyo), Bill says being Brazilian means reconciling two distinct personalities.
“We are very lively, very fun to be around,” he says. "But we are also considered some of the hardest workers in the world.” He adds with typically sly and dry Brazilian humor: “We could say even our corrupt politicians are working a lot now, because some of them have been arrested lately.”
In Florida, one of the new symbols of Brazilian enterprise is a cartoon giraffe – the logo of the São Paulo-based restaurant chain, Giraffas. It’s built nine locations in South Florida in just three years with a fast casual menu of burgers and Brazilian fare.
According to João Barbosa, who heads the chain in the U.S., Giraffas’ success and that of myriad other Brazilian companies is due in no small part to that mix of whimsy and work that Bill Duba describes.
“We’re a creative country,” says Barbosa. “In Brazil we’re a fast food chain. When we arrived in the U.S. we said, 'We’re gonna compete with, what, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s?' So we adjusted our concept to the fast casual.”
Still, the Brazilian self-image isn’t all a Girl-From-Ipanema video – as if the anti-government protests that erupted in Brazil last year aren’t reminder enough.
Debora Rosenn, a Palmetto Bay photographer by way of São Paulo, appreciates the less stressful Brazilian approach to life as much as anyone. “We Brazilians work to live and the Americans live to work,” she says.
SOCCER AND SAMBA
But Rosenn has grown tired of the resulting stereotypes – sexy women in thong bikinis, constant festas flowing with caipirinhas. “That’s definitely not the reality for most Brazilians,” she insists, and Barbosa and Bill Duba agree.
“I don’t like it,” says Barbosa, “but this is something we created. It’s in every campaign the Brazilian tourism department has sold to the world for years and years.”
Says Bill Duba: “Actually, I have seen more topless women in the beaches here, like South Beach, than I have in [Brazilian beaches like] Ipanema and Copacabana in my entire life.”
Perhaps more important, Rosenn believes Brazilians themselves have perpetuated those stereotypes “to hide what we’re not so proud to show.”
She’s talking about the problems Brazilians are demonstrating against these days – the astonishing World Cup cost overruns, but also chronic defects like the nation’s bloated, dysfunctional bureaucracy, lame public services and violent crime.
“[Brazilian] institutions usually don’t work,” Rosenn argues. “For people to realize that Brazil is not all about samba and soccer will be a good thing. I think it will be the first step toward change.”
Starting, says Barbosa, with U.S. advertising agencies, many of whom don’t seem to realize that Brazil is a world leader in areas like agriculture and regional jet manufacturing – or that it makes great hamburgers too.
“We once hired an agency in New York and we said, 'OK, bring us five different campaigns,' ” he recalls. “Four of the five used samba and half-naked women. I said, ‘Man, forget this.’ ”
But if Brazilians keep moving here – and keep buying real estate here at their current clip – South Floridians, at least, are bound to know them better.
And maybe even learn a little Português, cara.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.