Afro-Brazilian, African-American Ties

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There are growing ties between Brazilians of African descent and African-Americans. Discussing the trend is Kimberly Butler, chair of the Africana Studies Department at Rutgers University, Maxine Margolis, professor of anthropology at the University of Florida at Gainesville, and Farai Chideya.

ED GORDON, host:

NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with two women who study Brazil, the U.S., and the relationship between these nations.

Kimberly Butler is chair of the Africana Studies Department at Rutgers University. And Maxine Margolis is a professor of anthropology at the.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So, Maxine, let me start with you. And you're an expert on Brazilians in the U.S. and we just heard a report about Boston's Brazilian community which said most Brazilians came there illegally.

Professor MAXINE MARGOLIS (Professor of Anthropology, University of Florida at Gainesville): Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: And who is the typical Brazilian immigrant in the U.S.?

Prof. MARGOLIS: The typical immigrant is middle to lower middle class. The sex ratio is about equal now. Ten years ago, it was more male then female.

Generally, Brazilians immigrants in the U.S. are more highly educated on average than their fellow country people. They tend to be more urban than rural. They tend to be whiter than the general Brazilian population.

CHIDEYA: Let's expand on that last point - whiter. Why is it important that the Brazilians coming to the U.S. tend to be whiter or lighter skinned?

Prof. MARGOLIS: In Brazil, race and class are linked. And since the Brazilian immigration is a more heavily middle class phenomenon and there are relatively fewer percentage-wise people of color who are middle class, I think that's one of the reasons why the migration is lighter than the country as a whole.

CHIDEYA: Kim, you've devoted time to studying black Americans' ties to Brazil. So do black Americans feel a kinship with Brazilians? And what about Afro-Brazilians and their relationship to American blacks?

Ms. KIMBERLY BUTLER (Chair of Africana Studies Program, Rutgers University): Well, that link has been very strong for a long time. Over the last 10 to 15 years, there's really been a big upturn in African-American travel to Brazil.

More commonly now you just have regular folk going on cultural tourism vacations, and they really discovered the African cultural center of cities like Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, which is famous as being one of the most rich cities in African cultural heritage in the Americas.

CHIDEYA: In some countries, young people really seek to emulate American culture. What about young Afro-Brazilians, do they aspire to be Americanized or are - you know, since Brazil has such a rich culture heritage, do they keep their distance from the black American tradition?

Ms. BUTLER: There is a real international sensibility with young people in Brazil. So I'll just give an example. I was just in Brazil in June, and there were a lot of street parties after the World Cup Games. And on the street that I was staying, they were playing mostly Jay-Z and all kinds of hip-hop, the stuff that you would hear on the radio here.

But it's not something where they're doing it to copy black American culture. It's really something that they have incorporated as part of the larger cultural vocabulary that is Brazil.

CHIDEYA: Maxine, getting back to Brazilians who come to the U.S., are they generally clustering in certain communities or are they dispersing across the country?

Prof. MARGOLIS: No, they definitely are clustering mainly in large cities - New York, Boston, south Florida, L.A. But there are also smaller Brazilian communities like Framingham, Massachusetts or Danbury, Connecticut. And recently, Brazilians have been moving into the Southeast. It's estimated, for example, there may be as many as 15,000 Brazilians in Atlanta.

CHIDEYA: In a country where we are still dealing with the ramifications of the one-drop rule, which says that if you have one drop of black blood, you're black, how are Brazilians of many different hues kind of lining up with our ideas of what is black, what is white, what is Latino? Maxine first, and then Kim.

Prof. MARGOLIS: Yeah. Well, Brazilians have a terrible time with that issue. I can tell you that. To begin with, they absolutely reject the term Hispanic because they say Hispanics speak Spanish, and we do not speak Spanish, we speak Portuguese. And many Americans don't make that distinction, and it's of great concern and annoyance to Brazilians.

On the second issue, color: a lot of Brazilians say and some have had said to me, I don't know what I am when I arrive here. You know, in Brazil I was white, but here I'm considered sort of non white. That's particularly, I think, difficult for people who are of mixed backgrounds.


Ms. BUTLER: For years there's been a black consciousness movement since the 1970s working to help people appreciate the richness and, you know, stop denigrating their own culture. That's been a strong force. And people have been gradually embracing the term black, you know, in different Portuguese ways of saying it, as opposed to using these euphemisms for blackness.

But what's interesting now is that there's a political movement for affirmative action where black Brazilians are demanding representation space allocated to Afro-Brazilians in universities and in other areas where, you know, it represents economic advance.

Because of that, now there's a lot of backlash and there are people who are starting to say, well, I might have to just declare myself black just so that I can get a space on some of these reserve spots for those universities that are beginning to institute the quota system. And so it's creating this whole alternate way of having the one-drop rule because now people want to be classified as black.

CHIDEYA: I guess finally, how do the changes that are going on in Brazil right now - this Black consciousness movement, the affirmative action-style policies coming into effect - how will that affect Brazilian immigration to the U.S.? Kim first, and then Maxine.

Ms. BUTLER: Well, actually, I'm going to let Maxine speak to the immigration. But I will say this: that, you know, when we're talking about the relationship between African-Americans and Afro-Brazilians, a lot of things that I think we don't often appreciate is that African-American presence in Brazil can have even a greater impact.

If we come as tourists and say, where are the black people? Why are they not working on this flight? Why are they not working at this hotel desk? That will make a difference. As a matter of fact, it was because of discrimination against a black dancer, Catherine Dunham, that created one of the first anti-discrimination laws from a case that she had in Rio.

CHIDEYA: Maxine?

Prof. MARGOLIS: Frankly, the whole issue of immigration, whether black or white Brazilians, is being tremendously hindered because of steps that have been put in place since 9/11. And so more and more you have Brazilians coming into the U.S. via Mexico. So I really think that the issue is going to be what happens in the U.S. in terms of immigration policy more than anything that happens particularly in Brazil which is going to impact the flow of Brazilians to the U.S.

CHIDEYA: Maxine, Kim, thank you.

Ms. BUTLER: Thank you.

Prof. MARGOLIS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Maxine Margolis is professor of anthropology at the University of Florida Gainesville. And Kim Butler heads the Africana Studies Department at Rutgers University.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Coming up, Dems looking for a little more color, and drugs in sports. Is that just the way of the world? We'll discuss these topics and more on our Roundtable.

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