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People and Society, Way of Life

feijoada completa, cafezinho, vatapa, parentela, sambadrome

Historically Brazilian society has been patriarchal, with a strong tradition of male social dominance. This has weakened with immigration, urbanization, and the decline of the rural sector. Also, independence for women has grown under the influence of feminism and the expansion of urban employment opportunities for women. The family is still a crucial social unit, and there is some survival, even in the cities, of parentela, a kind of kinship system. This extended network involves close family and distant relatives, godparents and godchildren, and even family servants. Such linkages are generally stronger among the middle and upper classes.

There are significant differences in housing standards between social classes in Brazil. Striking contrasts exist in the cities between the luxurious mansions and apartments of the affluent and the favelas (shantytowns) of the poor. In the countryside the casa grande (big house) of the rancher or plantation owner and the simple shacks of rural laborers also illustrate the disparities. In the cities there is a social spectrum of rich, middle class, working class, and poor, but in the countryside distinctions tend to be more polarized between the rich and the poor, with few working-class or middle-class individuals.

Clothing in Brazil is not very distinctive, and formality has diminished over the past 30 years. Although high society is very fashion-conscious, only senior managers and public servants wear suits and ties to work in the cities; office workers wear casual clothes. In the countryside, jeans, shirts, and dresses of inexpensive cotton are typical. The cowboys of Rio Grande do Sul, known as gauchos, still wear distinctive clothing consisting of ponchos and baggy trousers, while the cowboys of the Northeast, known as vaqueiros, wear hats, coats, and chaps made of leather. In Bahia some women maintain traditional African clothing consisting of long, full skirts, colored shawls, and turbanlike head scarves. Native Americans may wear few clothes and make use of beads and other decorations for personal adornment. They may also use body paint and have distinctive hairstyles. However, except on ceremonial occasions, many Native Americans who are in contact with mainstream Brazilian society have exchanged traditional dress for more contemporary clothing.

Important staples in the Brazilian diet include beans, rice, wheat, and manioc, a plant grown in tropical areas and also known as cassava. These are consumed throughout the country, although manioc is an especially important element in the diet of the poor in the Northeast. Meat, particularly beef, is also widely consumed, although only occasionally by the poor. Despite the extensive coastline and river system, levels of fish consumption are low, except along the Northeast coast and in the Amazon region. Traditional dishes include feijoada completa, a combination of pork, black beans, and rice, and churrasco, barbecued meat that is common in the South. In the Northeast there is an important African legacy in spicy dishes such as vatapa, a fish stew made with onion, tomato, coconut, and spices. Coffee is the most popular beverage, often drunk as cafezinho, a small cup of strong and very sweet black coffee. A potent alcoholic beverage, known as cachaca, is distilled from sugarcane, and light beer is widely consumed. More affluent Brazilians may drink wine produced in Rio Grande do Sul. International brand soft drinks are also popular.

Soccer is the most popular sport, played in the massive stadiums of the big cities and as recreation. The game was introduced in the 19th century and was established as a professional sport in 1933. Although there is great rivalry between local teams, there is strong popular support for the national team, which has won the World Cup, soccer’s major international competition, four times. Pele, one of the world’s legendary soccer players, led the Brazilian team to three of those victories, in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Motor racing is also very popular, and Brazil has produced a number of championship winners, including Emerson Fittipaldi and Ayrton Senna. Major participant sports include swimming, tennis, sailing, and golf.

The festival of Carnival, with its spectacular street parades and vibrant music, has become one of the most potent images of Brazil. Its roots lie in the European Mardi Gras, a lively festival, which precedes the fasting and prayers of the Roman Catholic holy season of Lent. Carnival begins on the Friday before Ash Wednesday and lasts for five days. In Brazil it seems to have first occurred in Bahia in the mid-17th century and in Rio de Janeiro in the 1850s, where it was associated with street parades and elegant private balls.

Carnival did not take on its present spectacular form in Rio until the 1930s, when the dance known as the samba emerged in the favelas (shantytowns) of the city. Samba “schools” based in the favelas compete to create the most spectacular groups of extravagantly costumed dancers and original samba songs. In Rio they now parade through the sambadrome (a street stadium) before vast crowds of Brazilians and foreign tourists. The more traditional street parties and balls also continue. Carnival is celebrated throughout Brazil, but the most spectacular celebrations outside Rio take place in Salvador, Recife, and Olinda, although the nature of the events varies.



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