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Brazil Race and Ethnicity

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Brazil Race and Ethnicity

Race and Ethnicity

The first European immigrants to Brazil were of Iberian origin, primarily Portuguese. Some Portuguese settlers were of Jewish or Moorish origin but most of them had converted to Christianity. There were also some Dutch immigrants to the Northeast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Portuguese intermarried with the Amerindian population, which was decimated by conflict and disease.

During the colonial period, after Indian slavery proved difficult to enforce, the colonists imported hundreds of thousands of slaves from Africa for labor on the sugar plantations, in the mines, and later on coffee plantations. At first, slaves outnumbered the white settlers in many areas, but the balance eventually changed because of their high mortality and low fertility. However, as slavery became economically and politically less feasible after 1850 and the British blocked the slave trade, Italian immigrants began replacing the slaves on coffee plantations in São Paulo. During the same period, settlers from Europe, primarily Germany, Italy, and Poland, established farming colonies in parts of the South.

Brazil's racial mix was made more diverse with the arrival of Japanese and Middle Eastern immigrants in the early twentieth century. At first, the Japanese worked in agriculture in São Paulo and the Amazon, while the Lebanese, Turks, and Syrians became involved in commerce in many parts of the country. During the 1900s, the Japanese descendants, who constitute the largest community of Japanese outside of Japan, except for Hawaii, became primarily urban residents, especially in São Paulo. In the 1970s, intermarriage with non-Japanese became common.

As emphasized by anthropologists such as Gilberto Freyre and Darcy Ribeiro, all the racial and ethnic groups that arrived in Brazil intermingled and intermarried, with few exceptions. This led to increasing mixtures of all possible combinations and degrees. Many individuals are, therefore, difficult to classify in racial terms. Questions on color were included in the demographic censuses of 1940, 1950, 1980, and 1991. Although the answers involved self-classification and may not have been objective, it was clear that the proportion of blacks decreased while that of mulattoes increased. There was a simultaneous process of "whitening." The self-declared proportions in 1991 were 55.3 percent white, 39.3 percent mulatto, 4.9 percent black, and 0.6 percent Asian.

Because of the lack of a clear color distinction and a strong cultural tradition of tolerance and cordiality, as well as longstanding explicit laws against racial discrimination, Brazil has been touted as a "racial democracy." However, "racial democracy" is a myth. There is a very strong correlation between light color and higher income, education, and social status. Few blacks reach positions of wealth, prestige, and power, except in the arts and sports. Although discrimination is usually not explicit, it appears in subtle forms: unwritten rules, unspoken attitudes, references to "good appearance" rather than color, or simply placing higher value on individuals who are white or nearly white.

In the 1960s, black consciousness began to grow, although the very lack of a clear color line in biological or social terms weakened racial solidarity of the nonwhite population. The prevailing notion that Brazil was a "racial democracy" also made it easy to dismiss black movements as un-Brazilian. For the most part, the movements did not press for changes in government policy, which was already officially against racial discrimination. Instead, they emphasized racial pride and the struggle against subtle forms of discrimination and the often covert violence to which blacks were subject.


Estimates of the original Amerindian population of Brazil range from 2 to 5 million at the time of first contact with Europeans in the early sixteenth century. There were hundreds of tribes and languages. Now there are 230 tribes that speak more than ninety languages and 300 dialects.

Because of violence and disease, the original Amerindian population was reduced to about 150,000 by the early twentieth century. In 1910 the Indian Protection Service (Serviço de Proteção aos Indios--SPI) was established. Its leader, Marechal Cândido Rondon, was famous for stating that "one should die, if necessary, but never kill an Indian." In 1968 the National Indian Foundation (Fundação Nacional do índio--Funai) replaced SPI, which was charged with corruption. The Indian Statute went into effect in 1973. The 1988 constitution provides that Indians are entitled to the lands that they traditionally occupy.

Despite the difficulties it faced, the Amerindian population began to recover its numbers and increased to 330,000 by the mid-1990s. In genetic terms, millions of Brazilians have some Amerindian ancestry, usually on the side of their grandmothers or great-grandmothers. The ancestry is especially strong in the Amazon region, where the inhabitants of mixed Indian and white descent are called caboclos . Because of such widespread miscegenation and acculturation, objective definitions of "Indian" are practically impossible in Brazil. The most useful definition, also used for official purposes, is subjective but pragmatic: Indians are those who consider themselves Indians and are considered by others as such. They include groups that are officially classified as isolated, in the process of integration, or integrated (although "integration" involves entry into the lowest ranks of Brazilian society).

Most of the Amerindian population is in the Amazon region, where Amerindian lands account for about 15 percent of the territory. Some of the largest areas were set aside during the Collor administration in 1992. The best known and largest of these is the 9.6-million-hectare Yanomami Indigenous Park, located in the northern states of Amazonas and Roraima, along Brazil's border with Venezuela. Gold miners and their diseases have had an adverse impact on the Yanomami. The Caiapó in southeastern Pará became widely known both for their traditional environmental management and their controversial concessions to gold miners and lumber companies. Other indigenous areas include the Xingu Indigenous Park and other parts of Amazônia, including the western section of the Amazon along the Rio Solimões, Roraima, northern Amazonas, Rondônia, Acre, Amapá, and northern and southeastern Pará. The Northeast (Maranhão) and Center-West (western Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, and Goiás) regions also have large indigenous areas.

Data as of April 1997




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