PRONUNCIATION: AH-frow brah-ZILL-yuhns
POPULATION: About 16 million
LANGUAGE: Portuguese with some African terms
RELIGION: Afro-Brazilian sects such as Condomble; spiritualist sects
Brazilians of African origin comprise nearly 10 percent of the total population of Brazil. As in the United States, their arrival can be traced back to the slave trade of the mid-1500s. It is estimated that nearly 4 million slaves were shipped to Brazil from Africa. This is higher than the estimated 600,000 slaves that were transported to the United States. Consequently, their cultural heritage is pervasive: Afro-Brazilian cooking customs and religion, for example, are practiced by Brazilians of all races and ethnic backgrounds.
Brazilian law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race. There is little open tension between people of different races in Brazil. However, there is subtle racial discrimination. For example, few Afro-Brazilians attend college and they have more difficulty finding good-paying jobs.
The population of Brazil is 162 million. There are indigenous Indians in the Amazon River region; immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and Japan; and Afro-Brazilians. These ethnic groups have intermarried. As a result, the percentage of the population that considers itself to be Afro-Brazilian or black in the national census has declined, while the percentage of those who consider themselves brown has increased. This has been called the "bleaching" of Brazil.
Both sugar and cacao (plant whose seeds are used to make chocolate) were produced in Bahia, a state in northeastern Brazil. Bahia became the port of arrival for many slaves, and the center of Afro-Brazilian culture. In fact, most Bahia Brazilians are Afro-Brazilians. As of the late 1990s, Afro-Brazilians lived throughout the country. Many live in the major cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.
The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. Afro-Brazilians also speak Portuguese. They learned it to communicate with European Brazilians and with other Afro-Brazilians. Some words, such as samba (a Brazilian dance), have their roots in African languages. In Afro-Brazilian religion, the original African names of deities (gods), ceremonies, and dances are still used.
One of the most revered historical figures is Zumbi, a rebel slave leader. Many Afro-Brazilians celebrate November 20, the date on which Zumbi jumped off a cliff to avoid being captured by government forces.
Afro-Brazilian religions are popular with blacks and whites alike in Brazil. Some groups follow traditional African religious practices. An example is Condomble, a religion brought by the Yoruba people of Nigeria when they came to Brazil as slaves. Based in the state of Bahia, Condomble followers worship many different gods and goddesses of nature. One is Iemanja, the goddess of the sea. Condomble services, conducted late at night, feature pulsating drums and rhythmic music that encourage followers to reach a trancelike state.
Umbanda is a religion that combines African and non-African religious influences. It is common for the services to be led by a priestess. Followers of Umbanda invite spirits into their bodies as part of the services. Umbanda has many members in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Salvador.
In the state of Bahia, Afro-Brazilian festivals are celebrated. On February 2, people in the city of Salvador celebrate the Condomble goddess of the sea, Iemanja. Gifts and offerings are made to Iemanja and are floated out to sea in small, handmade sailboats. These offerings are usually sent by fishermen's wives in the hope that the goddess will protect the fishermen and ensure calm waters. Condomble rhythmic music accompanies the ceremonies.
An annual Afro-Brazilian festival to celebrate the liberation of slaves is held in the city of Cachoeira in the center of the country. Dancing, music, and prayer remind Afro-Brazilians of their slave ancestors.
All Brazilians celebrate Carnival during the week before the Christian observance of Lent begins.
Major life transitions, such as birth, puberty, and death, are marked by ceremonies appropriate to each Afro-Brazilian's religious tradition.
Afro-Brazilians are outgoing and gregarious. They speak animatedly and use a variety of hand gestures for emphasis. Afro-Brazilians are also accustomed to close personal contact. Women often walk hand-in-hand down the street. Male friends greet each other with a hug.
Music has been incorporated into many aspects of Afro-Brazilian life. Samba clubs that rehearse for Carnival are an important form of social organization. In addition, music is incorporated into their traditional sports, capoeira (a martial art), and into religious services. Most Afro-Brazilians are deeply religious and these beliefs pervade every aspect of their lives. It is common, for example, for food and candles to be left on street corners as offerings to spirits.
Many Afro-Brazilians live in poverty in the urban slums that surround the major cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Many of these slums, called favelas, are on steep hillsides. The first people to settle in these areas chose homes at the base of the hillside, which is more accessible and is likely to have electricity and running water. Further up the hillside are newer, less accessible communities. Pathways between houses are narrow and cramped. Often, large families live in a one-room dwelling. The lack of running water and accumulation of sewage in these crowded areas create health problems for residents. Clinics and other health care facilities, when they exist, are overcrowded and poorly equipped. The favelas surrounding Rio de Janeiro are also likely to flood. Heavy rains carry garbage down the hillsides and create landslides that wash away flimsy housing.
Not everyone goes through a formal wedding in Brazil. Long-term relationships between couples who live together are common and socially accepted. This practice, known as amasiado, is also common among Afro-Brazilians. Couples in amasiado are viewed as married by the community. They may have children together without fear of being shunned.
Adapted from Cusick, Heidi Haughy. Soul and Spice: African Cooking in the Americas. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995.
The extended family provides assistance and support. Godparents, appointed when a child is christened, take their role and responsibilities seriously.
There are regional differences in dress in Brazil. In the largely Afro-Brazilian region of Bahia, black women known as Baianas dress in clothing inspired by eighteenth century attire. Colorful, full-length skirts are worn with delicately embroidered white blouses, sometimes worn off the shoulder. Baianas also wear scarves or turbans wrapped tightly around their heads.
Brightly colored beads are worn by both men and women. These beads have religious symbolic meaning. The color of the beads reflects the African Condomble god that is special to the wearer, known as the person's orixa.
Afro-Brazilian food combines African, Portuguese, and indigenous (native) ingredients and cooking traditions. African peppers and spices are now grown in the tropical northeastern state of Bahia. They are widely used in Afro-Brazilian cooking. Dende oil is extracted from an African palm grown in Brazil. Dende is used to make moqueca, a spicy mix of sautéed shrimp, tomato, and coconut milk.
The most distinctive Afro-Brazilian dish is feijoada, a black bean and pork stew, traditionally cooked in an African-style earthenware pot. Feijoada is considered the national dish of Brazil. Brazilian slaves created feijoada using the discarded pieces of pork (such as the tail, snout, and feet) they were given by their owners. These were stewed slowly with spices and beans. This dish was so tasty that it was soon copied by the slave owners. Feijoada is now made with prime cuts of pork and beef.
Brazil has a serious problem of illiteracy (people unable to read or write). Approximately 20 percent of the Brazilian population is illiterate. Many others have only a rudimentary ability to read. The schools in the poorer neighborhoods where many Afro-Brazilians live have limited resources, and the quality of education is poor. Many Afro-Brazilian children don't attend school because they must begin work at a young age to help the family make ends meet. The low level of education most Afro-Brazilian children receive makes it difficult for them to find employment as young adults.
Most of the slaves brought to Brazil from Africa were illiterate. Slave owners preferred to keep it that way. As a result, an oral tradition of storytelling and history became very important in Afro-Brazilian culture. Family histories, stories, and myths continue to be passed down through successive generations.
Brazil's music traditions draw heavily from traditional African instruments, rhythm, and dance. Samba music, now popular around the world, is a direct descendant of African music. Afro-Brazilian music accompanies afoxes, dance groups that perform to music of the Condomble religion.
Brazil is the fourth-largest country in the world. Work varies by region. In the northeast, cattle-raising and ranching are important activities. In the southeast, sugarcane, cotton, and coffee are grown and exported. Many Afro-Brazilians work as field hands on ranches and large plantations. This is hard work and does not pay very well. In addition, many field workers must live away from their families at harvest time.
Brazil also has industry and manufacturing. Autos, shoes, textiles, and electronic equipment are all made in Brazil. The manufacturing sector does not generate enough employment for the millions of urban favela (slum) dwellers. Many favela residents work as self-employed street vendors or develop home-based enterprises. Many women, for example, work as seamstresses or hairstylists in their homes.
One of the most famous soccer players in the world is Pele (1940–), an Afro-Brazilian. (Pele's full name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento.) Pele led the Brazil national team to World Cup championships in 1958, 1962, and 1970. He is so popular that some people think he should run for president of Brazil. Everyone in Brazil plays and watches soccer. The soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro seats 200,000 people and is the largest stadium in the world.
A more distinctive Afro-Brazilian activity is capoeira, a martial art that is more like dancing than fighting. Brought over by slaves from Angola, this form of foot-fighting was banned by slave owners. In order to disguise this practice, slaves transformed foot-fighting into a rhythmic gymnastic dance form. Accompanied by music, capoeira dancers gracefully use arm and leg motions, designed to barely miss the opponent. Well-aimed high kicks skim over the head of the other fighter.
Most entertainment revolves around music and dancing. Preparations for Carnival can begin up to six months in advance of the festival. Samba schools are popular in the favelas (slums). They provide an outlet and form of recreation for many Afro-Brazilian young people.
The other central form of recreation for Afro-Brazilian youths is practicing the national sport—soccer. Brazil is probably the country most enthusiastic about soccer in the world. Both in urban and rural areas, playing soccer is the preferred after-school activity.
In Bahia, the African tradition of cooking in ceramic pots is followed. As a consequence, functional clay pots can be found in many markets. Intricately handcarved rosewood and handmade lace are art forms passed down from generation to generation. Banana leaf fibers are sometime used in place of thread for lacemaking.
In January in Bahia, colorful ribbons are sold that are believed to be good luck. These ribbons must be received as gifts—a person should never buy one for himself or herself. The ribbons are tied around the wrist with multiple knots. The wearer makes a wish as each knot is tied. When the ribbons fall off from daily wear, it is believed that the wishes will be granted.
Many Afro-Brazilian arts and crafts are closely linked to African religious traditions. Many objects used in Condomble rituals are produced by skilled goldsmiths in Bahia. Charms and other forms of jewelry traditionally once worn around the waist by slave women in Brazil are still popular today.
Drug trafficking and related violence are serious problems that are on the rise in favelas (slums). Organized gangs sell drugs and engage in other types of crime. In part, this is the result of high unemployment among youths.
Teenagers in the favelas probably did not finish high school, and their employment prospects are bleak. The lure of easy money by selling drugs has drawn many young people into this dangerous activity. Conflicts between competing gangs often lead to violence.
Cusick, Heidi Haughy. Soul and Spice: African Cooking in the Americas. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995.
Devine, Elizabeth, and Nancy L. Briganti. The Travelers' Guide to Latin American Customs and Manners. New York: St. Martins Press, 1988.
Page, Joseph A. The Brazilians. New York: Addison Wesley, 1995.
Reynolds, Edward. Stand the Storm: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade. London: Allison and Busby, 1985.
Rojas-Lombardi, Felipe. The Art of South American Cooking. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Taylor, Edwin. Insight Guides: Brazil. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.