In “Pedro Mico,” a raunchy Brazilian movie that you may not really want to see, Pele plays the title role with considerably less finesse than he once displayed playing soccer. Still, Pele’s Pedro Mico comes across as a recognizable example of the Brazilian species.
Mico is sensuous, open-minded, resourceful and flexible. He wears his only suit, a double-breasted white one, with panache. He lives carefree in a cliff-top shack with a breathtaking view of Rio.
In one scene, Mico tries to talk his way out of a fight but ends up proving his winning skill at capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that is a dance as well. He also demonstrates competence in burgling the jewels of a visiting Arab oil sheik. When the police lay siege to his shack, Mico lets out a long scream and vanishes. The cops assume he has jumped to his death from the shack’s back window over the cliff, but after they leave, he emerges from under the floorboards, his white suit torn but his characteristic smile intact.
Latins With a Difference
The figure of the likable scoundrel and wily survivor also thrives in other Latin lands, but picaresque Pedro Mico has a special style of his own. What makes him different is part of what makes Brazilians different from other Latin Americans.
And different they are. Brazilians have a different language, food, music and culture. This is the only country in Latin America that was colonized by Portugal. And African cultural heritage is richer here than anywhere in the region except perhaps the Caribbean. With a population of 144 million and a territory larger than the United States without Alaska, Brazil is by far the biggest Latin country. It has the most highly developed industry in Latin America, the biggest gross national product and the greatest variety of nationally produced consumer goods.
Parallel With Texans
Like no other Latin Americans, Brazilians have a big-country mentality, an almost Texanesque sense of superior size. O maior do mundo, they are famous for saying of their rivers, forests, dams and coffee crops. The biggest in the world.
Brazilians also are famous in the rest of Latin America for their sensuality and geniality. Jeitinho, a resourceful little way of getting around rules and other obstacles, is a Brazilian trademark. So is casual informality.
A Chilean executive for a multinational company who has worked in several Latin American countries was grousing the other night about how much more difficult it is to manage a business operation in Brazil.
At dinner with friends, the Chilean raised his voice in frustration as he listed what he said were a few of the things that set Brazil apart from other Latin countries: The bureaucracy is slower, officials are more brazenly corrupt, employees are less interested in their work, punctuality is rarer, promises are more breakable.
“There is no such thing as a deadline, no such thing as a commitment to anything,” he complained.
The Chilean may have been exaggerating the faults of Brazil, as unadapted expatriates tend to do in any country, or he may have been reflecting his own failure to figure out what makes Brazilians tick. But few Spanish-speaking residents in this Portuguese-speaking country would deny that Brazilians are a special breed.
“You feel you are in a different culture, a completely different culture,” said Paula Gobbi, an Argentine resident of Rio who likes the difference. “In a way, they are not as traditional as other Latin Americans,” she said. “They are very open-minded.”
Religious tolerance is almost limitless, for example. Nudity is common on Brazilian television, and gays are more “out of the closet” in Rio and Sao Paulo than in other Latin American cities.
“It is a country of tolerant people,” said Homero Sanchez, a Panamanian-born specialist in public opinion who has lived in Brazil for 30 years. He said Brazilians are more inclined than Hispanic Americans to favor flexibility, to seek the middle ground between extremes.
“I have a saying,” he said. “The Brazilian does not go from white to black without spending a lot of time on gray.”
Jorge Mederos, a Uruguayan journalist, said that Brazilians are less formal than other South Americans.
“Compared to Uruguayans, I find them much more cheerful, more extroverted,” Mederos said. “We are very correct, too formal. That’s why we like to visit Brazil, because it gives us a chance to loosen up.”
Brazilian dress codes are more relaxed than those in most other Latin countries. Shorts and rubber sandals are preferred street attire even in big Brazilian cities, and it is not unusual to see jeans and T-shirts in executive offices or string bikinis in city parks. Janio Quadros, the somewhat straight-laced mayor of Sao Paulo, recently caused an outcry of protests by banning skimpy bathing suits in central Ibirapuera Park.
Brazil’s distinct cuisine varies widely, ranging from vatapa, an African-style dish cooked with peanut oil, to the rodizio, different cuts of charcoal-broiled beef sliced to order from big spits. Like most Latin Americans, Brazilians devour beans and rice, but the national meal known as feijoada is a unique combination of black beans, white rice, pork pieces, shredded kale, sliced orange and dry manioc meal, or farofa.
Other Latins, used to eating their manioc fried or boiled, sometimes refer derisively to farofa as sawdust.
Great Sense of Rhythm
Brazilian music, especially the samba with its rich African rhythms, is widely played in other Latin countries but rarely imitated successfully. “A great admiration we have for Brazilians is in their sense of rhythm,” said Carlos Lopez, a Mexican-born insurance man who lives here.
The African heritage also stands out in Brazil’s candomble, umbanda and macumba faiths. No Spanish-speaking society is so deeply laced with religions of African origin.
People of African origin have outnumbered whites in Brazil since the 18th Century, and slavery endured here until 1888, more than half a century longer than elsewhere in Latin America. Another basic historical difference between Brazil and the rest of the region is this country’s late emergence as a republic. After the throne of Portugal was transferred temporarily to Rio early in the 19th Century, Brazil was ruled by monarchy until 1889.
Slavery and Monarchy
Gilberto Velho, a Brazilian anthropologist, said that the institutions of slavery and monarchy continue to mark Brazilian society today with a strong and pervasive notion of inequality and hierarchy.
“Equality in this country rises with great difficulty,” Velho said in an interview.
And yet, a Brazilian will take seemingly familiar liberties with someone presumed to be his social superior, patting him on the shoulder and using his first name. Such familiarity is taboo in more formal Spanish-speaking societies, but Velho said it is meant more as a sign of respectful cordiality than an assumption of equality.
“There is a certain type of informality that only reinforces hierarchy,” he said.
Such gestures are typical of the ambiguity that often distinguishes Brazilian attitudes from the more black-and-white mentality of Hispanics. Roberto DaMatta, a Brazilian anthropologist who teaches at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said that the formality of Spanish-speaking Latin Americans makes them more inflexible in their point of view.
Not Just One Version
“They are much more oriented to only one version for everything, and we are likely to have two versions or three,” DaMatta said in a telephone interview.
In a book titled “What Makes Brazil Brazil,” DaMatta wrote that Brazilian society is marked by a blurring of opposites. “Brazil is not a dual country where one operates only with a logic of inside or outside, right or wrong, woman or man, married or separated, God or Devil, black or white,” he wrote. What makes Brazil tick is “the Brazilian capacity to take the ambiguous and make it work.”
Umbanda, a blend of Catholic, African and spiritist beliefs without a codified structure, is a fittingly ambiguous religion for Brazil. Capoeira, the martial art-cum-dance developed by slaves, also is typical in its ambiguity.
“No strict purpose commands the game, nor is there a radical division between the fighting and playful forms, or between attack and defense,” said Brazilian scholar Muniz Sodre in another book on Brazilian culture.
The culture’s emphasis on ambiguity and flexibility makes Brazilians more open to compromise than Spanish-speakers, said American political scientist David Fleischer, who teaches at the University of Brasilia.
“The big difference that has always struck me is the Brazilian tendency for conciliation,” Fleischer said.
Christopher Welna, an American political economist who works for the Ford Foundation in Rio, agreed. Welna recalled seeing a furious quarrel between two men at a sidewalk bar here, a kind of row that he said would end with blood in Mexico, where he lived previously. But in the Rio brawl, friends on both sides defused the anger with a flood of conciliatory words.
“It never came to blows, not even close,” Welna said. In Brazilian personal relations and politics, he said, accommodation is more important than Hispanic concepts of principle.
That may be the key to the success of the jeitinho, which Brazilians cultivate almost as an art. There seems to be no rule that cannot be bent, no problem that cannot be solved by jeitinho.
“There is always a way to a solution,” said Father Hugo Ara, a Bolivian priest who has lived in Brazil.
Ara sees Brazilian flexibility and openness as powerful creative forces. “Brazil is the thrust in Latin America for a new society,” he said. “On the other hand, we others are more attached to our ancestral ways.”