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The people of Brazil | Insight Guides Blog

The people of Brazil

With the Olympics 2016 in full swing, never has Brazil quite captured the world's attention. Learn about the different people who call this great nation home
Multiethnic group of five Brazil male and female
Multiethnic group of five Brazil male and female

Brazilians are currently celebrating the 2016 Olympics. Photo: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock


Brazil is sometimes referred to as a melting pot, but this implies that people from many different backgrounds have blended together. They are, in fact, proudly different, but also proud to be Brazilians


Brazil is a diverse nation. Its people share only a common language and a vague notion of Brazil’s cultural shape. They worship a dozen gods, and their ancestors came from all over the globe. This is a legacy of Brazil’s colonial past. Among the countries of the New World, it is unique. Whereas the Spanish-American colonies were ruled by rigid bureaucracies, and the future United States by a negligent Britain, Brazil’s colonial society followed a flexible middle course. The Portuguese colonists were not outcasts from their native land like the Puritans of New England. Nor were they like the grasping Spanish courtiers fulfilling a brief colonial service before returning home. They were men – and for decades, only men – who retained an allegiance to the old country but quickly identified with their new home.

In his classic work on Brazil’s origins Raízes do Brasil (Roots of Brazil), historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (father of songwriter Chico Buarque) writes: ‘He [the Brazilian male] is free to take on entire repertoires of new ideas, outlooks and forms, assimilating them without difficulty.’

Racial mixing

The Spanish grandees hated the New World, the Puritans were stuck with it, but the Portuguese liked Brazil – particularly its native women – and the colonizers’ desire married with the beauty of the indigenous females to begin a new race. The first members of that race – the first Brazilians – were mamelucos, the progeny of Portuguese white men and native Amerindian women. Later, other races emerged – the cafusos, of Amerindian and African blood, and the mulatos, of African and European.

The fusion of race is more complete in Brazil than in many Latin American countries. Pedro Alvares Cabral is honored by all Brazilians as the country’s ‘discoverer,’ yet the Amerindian past is not disdained. Diplomat William Schurz, in his 1961 book Brazil, notes that numerous Amerindian family names have been preserved. He lists Ypiranga, Araripe, Peryassu, and many others, some of which belong to distinguished families in Pernambuco and Bahia.

But in contemporary Brazil, Schurz might have pointed out, the Amerindian is only a shadow of the other races. Historians believe that as many as 5 million Amerindians lived in the area at the time of the European discovery in 1500. According to Amerindian leader Ailton Krenak, approximately 700 tribes have disappeared since that time, victim of disease, extermination, or gradual absorption through miscegenation. About 180 tribes have survived, as have a similar number of languages or dialects. They comprise about 900,000 people, mostly living on government reservations in Mato Grosso and Goiás, or in villages deep in the Amazon.

Brazil’s mestiço (mestizo) population, meanwhile, has tended to melt into the white category. Only about 2 to 3 percent of Brazilians, mostly in the Amazon or its borders, consider themselves mestiços, but in reality, throughout the north and northeast, many nominal Caucasians are in fact mestiços.


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Indian tribe ritual in Amazon, Brazil. Photo: Frazao Production / ShutterstockIndian tribe ritual in Amazon, Brazil. Photo: Frazao Production / Shutterstock


African culture

The history of African and the associated mixed-race people in Brazil has been complex. Despite now having the largest black population outside of Africa, Brazilians are known for being ambivalent about their black heritage. In the past, racism existed but was simply denied. In recent years, however, there has emerged an awareness of both Brazilian racism and the rich legacy that Africans have introduced to Brazil.

Pernambucan sociologist Gilberto Freyre wrote, in his 1936 volume CasaGrande e Senzala: ‘Every Brazilian, even the light-skinned and fair-haired one, carries about with him in his soul, when not in soul and body alike, the shadow, or even the birthmark, of the aborigine or the negro. The influence of the African, either direct or remote, is everything that is a sincere reflection of our lives. We, almost all of us, bear the mark of that influence.’

Starting in colonial days, entire portions of African culture were incorporated wholesale into Brazilian life. Today, they are reflected in the rhythmic music of samba, the varied and spicy cuisine of Bahia, and the growth of African-origin spiritist religions, even in urban centers. And the mark of that influence, as Freyre said, goes far beyond mere religious and culinary conventions.

Change in racial views

Recent years have seen the rediscovery and redefinition of Brazil’s African past, including the revision of racist views of history. Brazilian history books at the turn of the century often contained racist passages. One text noted that ‘negroes of the worst quality, generally those from the Congo, were sent to the fields and the mines.’ The preamble of an early 20th-century immigration law said, ‘It is necessary to preserve and develop the ethnic composition of our population by giving preference to its most desirable European elements.’

Modern social scientists, starting with Freyre, have catalogued the real achievements of Brazil’s early black residents. For example, the Africans often possessed highly developed manual skills in carpentry, masonry and mining. Much of the best Baroque carving that graces Bahia’s colonial churches was done by Africans.

In Minas Gerais, the illegitimate son of a Portuguese builder and a black slave woman led Brazilian sculpture and architecture into the high Baroque. Antônio Francisco Lisboa, called Aleijadinho (‘The Little Cripple,’ because of a deformation some have attributed to arthritis, others to leprosy), started late in the 18th century with his elegant São Francisco church in Ouro Preto and the larger, more elaborate São Francisco in São João del Rei. He also created 78 sinuous and lifelike soapstone and cedar carvings at the Basílica do Senhor Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, in Congonhas do Campo.

Aleijadinho’s miracle is that he created an informed yet innovative artistic idiom at the edge of Western civilization. During his remarkable 80-year lifetime he never studied art and never saw the ocean. Yet his Congonhas statues are numbered among the greatest collections of Baroque art in the world (see page 214).

In addition to their artistic attributes and manual skills, many Africans, especially the Yorubás of West Africa who dominated in Bahia, brought sophisticated political and religious practices to Brazil. Historians noted that they practiced the Islamic religion and were literate in Arabic. Their culture was rich in music, dance, art, and unwritten but majestic literature. Writes Freyre, ‘In Bahia, many … were, in every respect but political and social status, the equal or superior of their masters.’


Pretty brazilian girl  holding brazilian flag smiling. Photo: wavebreakmedia/ShutterstockBrazilian girl holds the Brazilian flag. Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock


Rebellion against slavery

These proud Africans did not simply accept their bondage. Brazil’s previous view of its African slavery as ‘less rigorous than that practiced by the French, English or North Americans’ has been revised by historians, who note that nine violent slave rebellions rocked the province of Bahia between 1807 and 1835.

A German visitor to a Bahian plantation in the 19th century, Prince Adalbert of Prussia, reported that ‘the loaded guns and pistols hanging up in the plantation owner’s bedroom showed that he had no confidence in his slaves and had more than once been obliged to face them with his loaded gun.’

The story of Brazilian slavery is inevitably harrowing. Historians believe that 12 million Africans were captured and shipped to Brazil between 1549 and the outlawing of the Brazilian slave trade in 1853. Of that number, about 2 million people died on the slave boats before reaching Brazilian shores.

Once in Brazil, white masters treated their slaves as a cheap investment. An African youth enslaved by the owner of a sugar plantation or gold mine could expect to live eight years. It was cheaper to buy new slaves than preserve the health of existing ones. Enslaved Africans in the northeast were often in flight. Historians know of at least 10 large-scale quilombos, or slave retreats, formed during colonial days in the interior of the northeast. The largest of these, Palmares, had a population of 30,000 at its peak, and flourished for 67 years before being crushed in 1694. Palmares, like the other great quilombos of the 17th and 18th centuries, was run along the lines of an African tribal monarchy, with a king, a royal council, community and private property, a tribal army, and a priestly class.

In some respects, however, Brazilian slavery was more liberal than its equivalents elsewhere. Owners were prohibited by law from separating slave families, and were required to grant slaves their freedom if they could pay a fair market price. A surprising number of slaves were able to achieve manumission. Freed slaves often went on to form religious brotherhoods, with the support of the Catholic Church, particularly Jesuit missionaries. The brotherhoods raised money to buy the freedom of more slaves, and some of them became quite wealthy.

In Ouro Preto, one such brotherhood built one of the most beautiful colonial churches in Brazil, the Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos. In a backlash against slavery, Rosário dos Pretos discriminated against whites.

Brazilian slavery finally came to an end in 1888, when Princess Regent Isabel de Orléans e Bragança signed the Lei Aurea (Golden Law) abolishing the institution. This law immediately freed an estimated 800,000 slaves.


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Cute Brazilian indians paying in Amazon, Brazil. Photo:  Frazao Production/ShutterstockAmazonian tribes, Brazil. Photo: Frazao Production/Shutterstock


Socioeconomic development

Brazil’s history of racism and slavery left its non-white population unprepared for the 21st century. Today, Afro-Brazilians lag behind in socioeconomic terms, creating a vicious circle that has resulted in persistent discrimination.

According to São Paulo human-rights attorney Dalmo Dallari, ‘We have, in our Constitution and laws, the explicit prohibition of racial discrimination. But, it is equally clear that such laws are merely an expression of intentions with little practical effect.’ Dallari and others point to persistent, widespread discrimination. Blacks being barred at the doors of restaurants and told to ‘go to the service entrance’ by apartment-building doormen is among many examples.

There is also a more subtle face to Brazilian racial discrimination. São Paulo’s ex-State Government Afro-Brazilian Affairs Coordinator, Percy da Silva, said: ‘While it may be true that blacks are no longer slaves, it is also a fact blacks do not have the same opportunities as whites. We are, to a great extent, stigmatized, seen as inferior. We must show a double capacity, both intellectual and personal, to be accepted in many places, especially the workplace.’

Thankfully, this began to change with the appointment, by President Lula in 2002, of the first black cabinet officials, though there still remain very few black diplomats, corporate leaders, or legislators.

The economic condition of Afro-Brazilians was amply documented in a 2006 report published by the Brazilian Census Bureau (IBGE). The report showed that, while whites formed 49.9 percent of the total population, 88.4 percent of the richest 1 percent of Brazilians were white. Over half of whites in the 18 to 24 age bracket – 51.6 percent – attended college. On the other hand, when it came to the 48 percent of Brazil’s population categorized as Afro-Brazilian or mixed-race, only 19 percent in the same age bracket attended college. Of Brazil’s richest 1 percent, only 11.6 percent were black or brown, but of the poorest 10 percent, almost two-thirds were black or brown.

In 2004, the richest 10 percent of Brazilian society still controlled 45 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the poorest 50 percent had to divide a mere 14 percent of the nation’s riches. Fully one quarter of Brazil’s population lived below what officials stunningly dubbed ‘the misery line,’ defined as personal income of about US$50 per month or less, but these numbers are falling thanks to new social programmes, such as Bolsa Famîlia, which have seen the real earnings of the poorest 10 percent of the Brazilian population increase by nearly 30 percent since 2009.

But social inequalities are an old story in Brazil. In his classic study contrasting US and Brazilian development, Bandeirantes e Pioneiros, author Vianna Moog writes, ‘Right from the start, there was a fundamental difference of motivation between the colonization of North America and that of Brazil. In the former case, the initial sentiments were spiritual, organic and constructive, while in the latter, they were predatory and selfish, with religious influences only secondary.’ The foundations were laid for a lasting pattern of social inequalities.


Brazil's President Dilma Vana Rousseff. Photo: Valentina Petrov/ShutterstockBrazil's President Dilma Vana Rousseff. Photo: Valentina Petrov/Shutterstock


Women’s role

Historically, the treatment afforded to women in Brazil has not been much better than that extended to blacks or the poor. Mrs Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz, wife of the famed Swiss-born naturalist, Louis Agassiz, noted that, during their 1865 visit to Brazil, special permission was needed from Emperor Dom Pedro II for her to attend one of her husband’s lectures. ‘Ordinarily, no women were allowed,’ she wrote later. ‘Having one on hand was evidently too great an innovation of national habits.’

But the position of women in Brazilian society has changed greatly. In 2010, two of the three candidates for the presidency of the country were women, and, on October 31, 2010 Dilma Rousseff was duly elected as the first female president of Brazil. She took office on January 1, 2011.

As part of Rousseff’s plan to stimulate the presence of women in business and leadership, 26 percent of her cabinet were female in 2013, and the number of female CEOs in the private sector has also risen sharply.

But while welcome progress has been made, women still lag behind in terms of most economic indicators. According to the IGBE, as of 2004, women members of the workforce were still disproportionately represented in the lowest income brackets, with 71 percent of women earning US$200 a month or less, against only 55 percent of men. Overall, women’s earnings in 2005 were estimated to be only 70 percent of men’s. A 2006 study by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) was even more telling, finding that among professionals and managers, women with exactly the same qualifications and experience as men earned only 91 percent of what their male colleagues earned. According to a report published by the United Nations in 2010, income inequality between races in Brazil has narrowed over the past decade, but a black woman still earns only half of what a white man makes. The difference in income between blacks and whites in Brazil narrowed by 31 percent between 1995 and 2005, according to the study.


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Young People Jumping at Beach. Photo: William Perugini/ShutterstockA group of young people celebrate at the beach. Photo: William Perugini/Shutterstock


A nation of immigrants

Like the United States, Brazil is a nation of immigrants, and not just from Portugal, the original colonizing country. Rodrigues, Fernandes, de Souza and other Latin names dominate the phone book in some Brazilian cities. But, in others, names such as Alaby or Geisel, Tolentino, or Kobayashi appear more than once.

The presence of many ethnic groups in Brazil dates from the 1850s, when the imperial government encouraged European immigration to help rebuild the labor force as the slave trade declined. The first incomers were German and Swiss farmers who settled mainly in the three southern states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and Paraná, where the soil and climate were most similar to those in Europe.

For decades, some communities, such as Novo Hamburgo in Rio Grande do Sul and Blumenau in Santa Catarina, were more German than Brazilian. Protestant religious services were as common as Roman Catholic ones, and German rather than Portuguese was the first language of most residents. Such towns still bear the distinctive mark of their Teutonic heritage, with Alpine-style architecture dominating the landscape and restaurant menus offering more knackwurst and eisbein than feijoada.

By the turn of the century, Brazil was hosting immigrants from around the globe. According to records held by the foreign ministry, a total of 5 million immigrants arrived on Brazilian shores between 1884 and 1973, when restrictive legislation was adopted. Italy sent the greatest number, 1.4 million; Portugal sent 1.2 million people; Spain sent 580,000; Germany 200,000; and Russia 110,000, including many Jews who settled in São Paulo and Rio.

The call for immigrants reached beyond the borders of Europe. Starting in 1908, with the arrival in Santos harbor of the Kasato Maru, 250,000 Japanese left their homeland to live in Brazil. The descendants of these people, who were fleeing crop failures and earthquakes in their native islands, still live in metropolitan São Paulo, most visibly in the Japanese Liberdade district (see page 191). By the millennium it was estimated that around 1.5 million people of Japanese descent were living in Brazil – the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.

The Middle East sent 700,000 immigrants, mostly from Syria and Lebanon, during the early 20th century. Sprawling commercial districts in two cities – around Rua do Ouvidor in Rio and Rua 25 de Março in São Paulo – feature shops owned by people of Middle Eastern origin.

Despite the impact of mass communications and the trend toward political centralization, the process of molding diverse populations into one is far from complete. One reason is the strength of regionalism: when this comes to the fore, all shades of the racial and religious spectrum blend together, and regional solidarity becomes the defining factor. 


Want to find out more about Brazil? Insight Guides Brazil covers the entire country and is packed with inspirational photography, destination highlights, cultural features, and more. Available as an eBook or printed copy.


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