POPULATION: Over 162 million

LANGUAGE: Portuguese

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Afro-Brazilian religions; indigenous beliefs


Brazil was colonized (occupied and ruled) by the Portuguese. From the 1500s to the 1800s, Brazil provided nearly 75 percent of the world's supply of coffee. After independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil expanded its production of rubber, sugar, and gold. Brazil also created manufacturing industries. As of the late 1990s, Brazil was the world's tenth-largest economy. However, not all Brazilians have prospered along with the economy; some Brazilians live in poverty.


Brazil is the fourth-largest country in the world in area. Its land mass is equal to the United States without Alaska and Hawaii. Nearly one-third of Brazil's land mass is taken up by the Amazon River basin. Most of the lowland areas in the north and west of Brazil are populated by native Amazonian tribes. The Amazon rain forest in Brazil is under threat as a result of extensive logging and deforestation. Many of the people who live in the rain forest are facing extinction.

Most Brazilians live in the densely populated south and southeast regions. The population (numbering more than 162 million) includes immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, and Japan; Afro-Brazilian descendants of slaves; and native groups. Blacks have the same legal rights as whites, but most blacks live in poverty in the favelas (urban slums) of Brazil.


The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. Some examples of Portuguese greetings and the English equivalents appear in the table on the next page.


Each of the various ethnic groups in Brazil has its own tradition of folktales and myths.


The beliefs of many Brazilians reflect elements from African, European, and indigenous religions. A wide range of religious traditions and practices coexists in Brazil. These include the European religions of Catholicism and Protestantism as well as a multitude of spiritual sects of African origin.

Common Phrases
Common Phrases

English Portuguese Pronunciation
Good morning Bom dia bone JEE-ah
Good afternoon Boa tarde BOH-ah TAHR-day
Please Por favor pore fah-VORE
Thank you (masculine) Obrigado oh-bree-GAH-doo
Thank you (feminine) Obrigada oh-bree-GAH-dah
1 um OOng
2 dois dOYs
3 trés tRAce
4 quatro KWAH-troo
5 cinco SEEN-koo
6 seis SAY-ees
7 sete SEH-the
8 oito OY-too
9 nove NOH-veh
10 dez dEHz

While many Brazilians claim to be Roman Catholic, these beliefs are often infused by traditional practices. Offerings and gifts are made to saints and protective spirits for favors in this life. Self-sacrifice plays an important role in convincing saints to grant requests. To demonstrate their faith, fervent believers may crawl on their knees to sites of spiritual significance.

After Catholicism, Afro-Brazilian religions are the most important in Brazilian society. Umbanda is one of the most rapidly growing sects. It attracts both African and non-African Brazilians. Umbanda sects use music, dancing, and sometimes alcohol to reach a trancelike state that enables believers to communicate with spirits. Also significant is Condomble of African origin. Condomble priestesses also seek to communicate with African spirits. Their ceremonies sometimes include the sacrifice of goats and chickens.


Carnival in Brazil is one of the world's most famous festivals. It is celebrated for the five days preceding Ash Wednesday (the start of the Christian period of Lent). Carnival virtually brings the country to a halt as Brazilians take off work to join street festivals, dance contests, and other activities. The major Carnival parade takes place in Rio de Janeiro. Elaborate costumes and floats are the result of many months' preparation. During Carnival, dance balls and samba contests are held. The festivities last well into the morning hours. Other Latin American countries also celebrate Carnival. However, only in Brazil is it done on such a grand scale.


Major life transitions (such as birth, marriage, and death) are marked by ceremonies appropriate to each Brazilian's religious tradition.


Brazilians speak animatedly and use a variety of hand gestures for emphasis. For example, when a Brazilian speaker moves his or her fingers under the chin, this means "I don't know." Placing the thumb between the index and middle fingers is a sign of good luck.

Brazilians are accustomed to late-night dinners and parties. Many restaurants in the major cities do not open for dinner until 8:00 or 9:00 PM . People make up for lost sleep during the afternoon siesta. Stores and many businesses close for three or four hours during lunch. Many Brazilians go home to have lunch and a short nap before returning to work.

Not surprisingly, Brazilians are also heavy coffee drinkers. In many city plazas, there are roving street vendors selling sweet espresso to passersby.


Brazil is a land of contrasts. Its cities combine modern skyscrapers, suburban houses, and impoverished slums. Known as favelas, Brazil's urban slums have been estimated to be home to as many as twenty-five million people. The inhabitants of favelas live in desperate poverty. Poor sanitation causes serious health problems. There is no garbage collection or sewer access. A life of crime is often the only alternative for unemployed youth with no economic opportunities.

In contrast, the upper and middle classes have a high standard of living. Brazil's major cities are very modern, with large shopping malls, restaurants, and superhigh-ways. Luxury high-rise apartment buildings and large houses have all the amenities one would expect in the United States. Most middle-and upper-class families have servants to assist with housework.

There is a diverse range of housing and living conditions in rural areas. The type of housing depends largely on the weather. Adobe, stone, and wood are all used as housing materials. In the Amazon, reeds and palm are used to construct houses.


A family in Brazil generally consists of parents and five to seven children. Some families continue to have as many as fifteen children. Both the nuclear families (parents and children) and extended families (a wider circle of relatives) play an important social role. Most socializing (drinking, dining, gambling, and so forth) is conducted with members of the extended family. Godparents remain extremely important in rural areas, but their importance may be declining in urban areas.

Gender differences are clearly marked in Brazilian society. Sexism is an ingrained feature of the culture. Limited educational opportunities, especially for lower-class women, keep females tied to traditional roles. Few middle-and upper-class women work outside the home, although in recent times this number has begun to increase.

Brazilian society has clearly defined roles for both women and men. Female beauty is highly valued, and young women commonly wear short skirts or shorts in an attempt to attract the attention of men. Machismo (an exaggerated show of manliness) is customary among Brazilian men. Interactions between the sexes typically have a flirtatious quality.

Marital infidelity is a serious social problem in Brazil. It is very common for men to take a mistress on a long-term or permanent basis. While this behavior is not completely sanctioned in Brazilian society, it is widespread and is tolerated.


Brazilian dress in urban areas is very modern. Young people wear jeans and skirts. Among women short skirts and dresses are also very common. Business attire is very similar to that worn in the United States.

Dress varies more widely outside of urban areas. In the south plains regions near the border with Argentina, the gaucho (cowboy) style is still worn. This includes ponchos, wide straw hats, baggy pants known as bombachas, and boots. In the Amazon, native Amerindians wear face paint and traditional tunics. In the predominantly Afro-Brazilian region of Bahia, women wear bright, colorful skirts and head scarves.

12 • FOOD

Brazil's cuisine is a unique melting pot of influences. It combines cooking styles and ingredients from the rain forest and the Portuguese and African cultures. African influences are particularly pronounced in the southeastern region of Bahia. Spicy seafood dishes in that region may be flavored with peanuts, coconut, lime, or other tropical ingredients.


Copacabana Collards


  • 2 pounds collard greens, tough stems removed and leaves rinsed well
  • 4 ounces bacon, cut into ¼-inch cubes
  • 1 Tablespoon minced garlic
  • Salt and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup canned chicken broth


  1. Stack 4 to 6 collard leaves, one on top of the other, and roll them up on the diagonal. Thinly slice on the diagonal. Set aside.
  2. Place the bacon in a large, heavy pot and cook, stirring, over low heat to render the fat, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic to the bacon and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.
  3. Add the collard greens, in batches if necessary, until they all fit. Combine well and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Drizzle the greens with the chicken broth. Cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-low heat until just tender but still slightly crunchy, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve immediately.

Adapted from Lukins, Sheila. Sheila Lukins All Around the World Cookbook. New York: Workman, 1994.

In Brazil it is a longstanding tradition to have feijoada for lunch on Saturday afternoons. Considered the national dish, feijoada is a stew of black beans with different types of pork—such as sausage, bacon, and salt pork—and an occasional piece of dried beef. (A recipe is included in the Afro-Brazilians profile in this chapter.) This dish was common among the slaves in Brazil who used discarded cuts of pork, such as the snout, tail, and feet to make the dish. These cuts are often still used. Feijoada is often accompanied by rice and/or vegetables such as collards or kale.

A recipe for a typical Brazilian collards dish accompanies this entry.


Brazilian children are required to attend school for a minimum of eight years. In reality, however, a large percentage of the population fail to receive an adequate education. The national literacy rate (percentage able to read and write) is 83 percent for men and 80 percent for women, although these rates are much lower in some regions. School attendance at the secondary level is low. Brazilian schools are generally underfinanced and overcrowded. In order to cope with the large number of students, children attend classes either in the evening or in the morning.

Higher-level institutions of education are mostly attended by middle-and upper-class students. Places are limited and entrance exams are very difficult.


Brazil has a wide variety of folk and modern music. Samba is perhaps the most popular and well-known internationally. However, samba is but one of Brazil's many rhythms and musical traditions. In the northeast, Portuguese guitar, introduced during colonial times, is still popular. African dances and percussion endure in Afro-Brazilian culture and are used in religious ceremonies. African influences are strongly felt in modern music as well.

Brazil has been the birthplace of musical forms that have become popular worldwide. In the 1950s, for example, a fusion of American jazz and samba rhythms known as bossa nova made international stars of singers such as Sergio Mendes. More recently, the Lambada topped the charts in the United States and Europe. The Lambada is in fact a version of carimbo, a musical tradition of the northern regions, with strong Caribbean influences.


Brazil's economy is diverse. It has both an extensive raw material and agricultural sector as well as heavy industry and manufacturing. Brazil continues to be the largest coffee exporter in the world. It also produces sugar, soybeans, and corn for the export market. Many people in the northeast work in the sugar plantations and mills, while coffee laborers are found in the south. In addition, harvesting rubber, timber, and nuts provides a way of life for many inhabitants of the Amazon regions. Of all the South American countries, Brazil has been the most successful in exporting its manufactured products.

A significant proportion of urban Brazilians rely on small-scale, informal economic activities to survive. Women, for example, might become seamstresses or street vendors. A great many young women from the favelas (urban slums) find employment as servants in middle-class homes.


Soccer, popular throughout Latin America, is close to a national obsession in Brazil. The soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro seats 200,000 people and is the largest stadium in the world. It is more than one mile (1.6 kilometers) in diameter, and has a nine-foot (three-meter) moat to keep the fans from running onto the field to disturb the soccer players or the officials. Brazil has won more World Cups than any other country. Its most famous soccer player, Pele, is a popular and highly regarded figure. It has been suggested that he might run for president of Brazil.

Volleyball is also very popular. The Brazilian men's volleyball team won the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, defeating the Netherlands.


In Rio de Janeiro and other seaside cities, the primary form of recreation is beach-going, including sunbathing. Brazil is the nation with the largest coastline in the world. People from all social and economic backgrounds flock to the beaches in the summer.

Samba schools are an important source of recreation in the favelas (urban slums). Similar to a community or neighborhood club, samba schools work all year long to prepare for Carnival festivities. They teach dancing, create costumes, and write songs for the annual Carnival song competition.

Televised soap operas are extremely popular with Brazilians of all social classes. Telenovelas, as they are called, are broadcast in the evenings and attract a huge following. Brazilian soap operas are so popular that they are successfully exported to other Latin American countries.


A rich tradition of folk art and handicrafts arises from different regions in Brazil. In the mining region of Minas Gerais, goldsmithing and jewelry are the local art forms. Gemstones such as diamonds, opals, sapphires, and rubies are produced in Brazil. A popular piece of jewelry throughout Brazil is the figa. It is a pendant of a hand with the thumb between the first and index fingers—the symbol of good luck.

A unique traditional art form originates from the San Francisco River. This river was once believed to hold evil spirits. Nineteenth-century boaters took to carving fierce-looking figureheads, called carrancas, on their boats. These carvings were thought to provide protection from spirits and ward off bad luck. While most boaters no longer believe in these superstitions, many boaters still carry carrancas.


A serious social problem in Brazil is the number of homeless children living on the streets. It has been estimated that as many as eight to twelve million street children live in desperate poverty. Street children as young as seven and eight years old have been abandoned by parents who are too poor to provide for them. Drug abuse and glue-sniffing are serious problems among this group of young people. Street children are forced to resort to stealing, pickpocketing, and prostitution to survive. Although children have full protection under the law, thousands of street children have been murdered by Brazilian police. Many "death squads" were hired by shop owners who believed that the problem of street children could only be solved by eliminating them. In response, many community groups and the children themselves have organized to raise awareness of children's rights.


Devine, Elizabeth, and Nancy L. Braganti. The Traveler's Guide to Latin American Customs and Manners. New York: St. Martins Press, 1988.

Lukins, Sheila. Sheila Lukins All Around the World Cookbook. New York: Workman, 1994.

Rojas-Lombardi, Felipe. The Traveler's Guide to Latin American Customs and Manners. New York: St. Martins Press, 1991.

Taylor, Edwin. Insight Guides: Brazil. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.

Weel, Thomas E. Area Handbook for Brazil. Washington, D.C.: American University: 1975.


Brazilian Embassy, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available , 1998.

Interknowledge Corporation. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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Mar 7, 2009 @ 9:09 am
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Jun 21, 2009 @ 4:16 pm
Brazilian families do not have 5 to 7 child. Average is arround 2,15. Please check IBGE for details.
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Feb 11, 2011 @ 5:17 pm
some data of brazil has changed in the last years,these changes has begun in Fernando henrique cardoso government;but mainly in Lulas's goverment this process continued, several economic policies adopted worked as:high inflation rate come down. public policies for homeless,health,education...

Carlos Roberto de C. Rosa
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Nov 28, 2011 @ 3:15 pm
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Nov 12, 2014 @ 3:15 pm
what is the ethnic groups in carnival? If you now please respond to this questions
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Dec 17, 2015 @ 8:08 am
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