When Portuguese traders arrived in the 1500's, they found certain trees with wood the color of live coals--brasa in Portuguese. They called the trees brazilwoods and named their country after them. Brazilwood yields red and purple dyes, which were highly prized in Europe for coloring cloth.
Brazil was ruled by Portugal for over 300 years before gaining its independence peacefully in 1822. Following the reign of two emperors, Brazil dissolved the monarchy in 1889. Today it is a federal republic, made up of a number of states, territories, and the federal district of Brasília, the national capital.
Brazil is a land of great variety and contrast. Vast jungles and tropical rain forests, great rivers, and mountains cover much of the interior of Brazil, while rapidly growing modern cities crowd the long coastline of the Atlantic Ocean.
Brazil's population is unevenly distributed. Most of its people are concentrated on the eastern edge of the country along the Atlantic coast between the Amazon River and the border with Uruguay and Argentina.
Most Brazilians are of mixed European, African, and Indian ancestry, although many people have come from Japan, the Middle East, and Europe, especially Portugal. People of mixed racial ancestry, called mestizos, are found mostly in the small towns and rural areas of the interior, although in recent decades, thousands have migrated to the cities in search of work and a better way of life. A small number of Indians still live in remote areas of the tropical rain forest.
Language. The Spanish greeting "Buenos días" is the way to say "good morning," "hello," or "good day" in every South American country except Brazil. In Brazil, people say "Bom dia," which is Portuguese for the same greetings. Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere. But because there are many Brazilians, Portuguese has become a major world language. Brazilian Portuguese is much like the language spoken in Portugal except that it is spoken with a different accent and intonation. A visitor from Portugal would also have to learn new words that have been added to the language by Africans and Indians.
Many educated Brazilians also speak Spanish, and many are fluent in English and French. German and Italian are spoken by several million in the southern states.
Religion. Most Brazilians are Roman Catholics. This gives Brazil the distinction of having the largest Catholic population of any nation in the world. There are also many Protestants in Brazil. In fact, Evangelical Protestants represent the country's fastest-growing religious group. Smaller numbers of Buddhists and Jews make their homes in Brazil. An unusual mixture of African religions and Roman Catholicism known as candomblé is practiced by many Brazilians of African descent in the cities and the Northeast.
Education. Brazilian law requires all children to attend elementary school for at least three years. Elementary school pupils can be recognized easily by their uniforms. Boys wear khaki or white shirts and navy-blue shorts. Girls wear navy-blue skirts and white blouses. They study Brazilian history, arithmetic, science, social studies, and Portuguese. English and French are taught as second languages in the higher grades.
Secondary school consists of four years of junior high school, called ginásio, and three years of senior high school, called colégio. Most secondary schools are privately run, and only affluent Brazilians can afford to send their children to them.
Advanced education is available at technical schools, state colleges, and at national and Catholic universities. State and federal universities charge no tuition, and admission is based on results of a nationwide competitive examination, the vestibulário. Students often take a year off after graduating high school to prepare for this entrance examination. Once admitted to the university, students specialize at once, choosing among schools of architecture, business, law, medicine, engineering, and humanities. Some students enter military academies; others prepare to be diplomats in Brazil's highly regarded Foreign Ministry school.
There are still not enough schools for the fast-growing population. The number of people who are able to read and write has been increased greatly through a massive government program of school construction and teacher training. In addition, adult education courses are being given in some of the larger cities. There are also mobile schools that bring teachers, books, and school supplies to remote villages. However, because many of the people of Brazil are under 18 years of age, more schools are needed every year.
Food and Drink. The national dish of Brazil is called feijoada. It contains black beans, pork sausage, tripe (stomach of cow or other cud-chewing animal), spices, and greens, and is served with rice. Brazilians also use farinha as a condiment. This is made from the root of cassava, or manioc, a tropical plant that is native to Brazil. When it is cooked and dried, people sprinkle it on soups, meat, and stews and use it as flour in bread and puddings.
Every region of Brazil has its own special foods. Charque (dried and salted beef) is traditional in southern Brazil. In the Northeast and along the Amazon River, fish dishes are popular. The cowboys (gaúchos) of the southern grasslands eat a form of barbecued beef. Oranges, pineapples, bananas, papayas, mangos, and other varieties of tropical fruit are plentiful and popular.
Coffee is Brazil's main beverage. Brazilians like to drink cafezinhos, tiny cups of sweet, steaming hot coffee several times a day. Another beverage is maté, an herbal tea. It is sometimes served in a hollowed-out gourd and drunk with a straw.
Holidays and Other Special Events. Brazilians share in the many Catholic holidays, such as saints'days, when festivals, pageants, and dances are held. The most famous of these holidays is Carnival--the four-day festival that occurs just before Lent. Carnival is celebrated in all Brazilian towns and cities. The best-known festival is held in Rio de Janeiro. Schools and businesses close, and the whole city is given over to parades, street dances, and masked balls. Strolling musicians play music such as samba, marcha, and frevo. Confetti and streamers fill the air. Cariocas, as the people of Rio are called, and tourists join in this huge citywide celebration during which no one sleeps and nearly everyone dances to the throbbing samba rhythms.
Sports. Nearly all Brazilians are sports fans. Boating, sailing, and swimming are popular activities, but Brazilians delight in a good futebol ("soccer") match. Futebol is the national sport, and every school and town has its own team. Professional soccer players are national figures in Brazil, just as baseball players are in the United States. In recent years, however, the biggest stars have left to play in Europe, although every four years they return to form the Seleção Brasileira, the all-star Brazilian World Cup team. Brazilians have also excelled internationally in automobile racing and yachting, as well as in basketball and volleyball.
Libraries, Museums, and the Arts. Brazil has very few public lending libraries although large cities have libraries that house both books and archives of documents. Of the country's museums, São Paulo's Museum of Modern Art has a fine collection, as does the Museum of Contemporary Art. In Rio are the National Historical Museum and National Museum of Fine Arts. The National Museum in Brasília displays historical artifacts. In Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon, the Goeldi Museum displays anthropological artifacts. Rio's Municipal Theater features opera, ballet, and concerts. Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon Basin, has an opera house that was built in the late 1800's and has been restored as a tourist site.
Urban and Rural Life. Approximately three-quarters of the people live in urban areas. Affluent Brazilians live in luxurious high-rise apartments or houses surrounded by high walls. They can afford to buy a variety of goods and almost always have maids and servants. For other city dwellers, however, the problem of poverty is severe.
Rural areas, which are mostly poor, consist of small, sleepy towns surrounded by farmland on which people live in huts or tiny houses.
Although the family remains the center of everyday life in Brazil, widespread poverty has changed the ways many families are organized. Many families, especially in the favelas, or slums, are headed by single mothers. The pressures of crime, drugs, and economic hardship has forced thousands of children to live on the streets.
Poor families tend to have many children. The older children are given the responsibility of taking care of the smaller ones. Because of a housing shortage, many families--including cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren--often live together under one roof. Middle- and upper-income families are usually smaller. Legal adoption is not widely practiced but families will sometimes take in children of relatives or neighbors whose parents cannot raise them. Fathers are traditionally heads of Brazilian households, but women are assuming increasingly important economic roles.
Reviewed by Robert M. Levine
University of Miami
Author, Brazilian Legacies