African Brazilians

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African Brazilians

POPULATION: About 16 million
LANGUAGE: Portuguese with some African terms
RELIGION: Afro-Brazilian sects such as Condomble; spiritualist sects
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: Brazilians


Brazilians of African origin comprise nearly 10% of the total population of Brazil. As in the United States, their arrival can be traced back to the slave trade of the mid 1500s. It is estimated that nearly 4 million or more slaves were shipped to Brazil from various African countries. This is vastly higher than the number of slaves that were imported into the United States, which has been estimated at approximately 600,000. The Portuguese crown traded African slaves to Brazil in order to have abundant and cheap labor in sugar plantations and mining. The majority of Africans brought to Brazil came from Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau (Republic of Guinea-Bissau), Benin, Angola, Republic of Congo, and Mozambique. In ethnic terms, the people brought to Brazil were part of two major groups: Sudan and Bantu people.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Afro-Brazilian culture is an important part of Brazilian society. Afro-Brazilian cooking customs and religion, for example, are practiced not only by blacks, but also by Brazilians of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

Brazilian law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race. Little overt tension or racial violence exists in Brazil, as it does in many countries around the world, including the United States. However, subtle racial discrimination continues to exist, and Afro-Brazilians have limited access to higher education and economic opportunities. As a whole, Afro-Brazilians are a socio-economically disadvantaged group in society.


Brazil is an ethnically diverse country. The population of 162,661,214 persons is primarily composed of indigenous Indians, mainly Amazonian tribes; Portuguese and other European immigrants; and Afro-Brazilians (about 16,000,000). More recent immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries has added Arabs and Japanese to the mix. These ethnic groups have intermixed. As a result, the percentage of the population that considers itself to be Black in the national census has been in dramatic decline, while the number of those who consider themselves Brown has increased. This has been called the "bleaching" of Brazil.

The northeastern state of Bahia can be considered the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture. Both sugar and cacao were produced in the northeast region and Bahia became the port of arrival for many slaves. Afro-Brazilians reside throughout the country, however, with large concentrations in the major cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.


The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. Afro-Brazilians originating from many different African countries and ethnic groups learned Portuguese as a way of communicating both with colonial Brazilians and with each other. Some words of African origin have been incorporated into everyday language (i.e., samba). This can be seen most clearly in the area of Afro-Brazilian religion, which retained the original African names of deities, ceremonies, and dances.


The Afro-Brazilian folklore has a rich tradition in Brazil. One of the most revered historical figures is Zumbi. He was a rebel slave leader in the region of Palmares, a zone in Brazil occupied by escaped African slaves, Amerindians, and other mixed races. The zone of Palmares was organized following African traditions with a king and an assembly where the best warriors were elected kings. Zumbi was the most famous of them.

Slaves, Amerindians, and people of mixed races of Quilombos dos Palmares fought for more than 65 years against Dutch and Portuguese soldiers. Today, many Afro-Brazilians celebrate November 20, the date that, according to the popular belief, Zumbi jumped off a cliff to avoid being captured by government forces. However, other historic accounts suggest something different. In 1694 Domingo Jorge Valho would have fought and defeated the African resistance of Quilombos dos Palmares and Zumbi would have survived and managed to escape feeding up the rumors that assured that the black leader was immortal. On 20 November 1965 Zumbi would have been captured and immediately decapitated and his head would have been brought to the public plaza to show the rest of the community that Zumbi was not immortal. The heroic actions of Zumbi have made him a legendary figure to Afro-Brazilians.

Perhaps the most well-known and powerful mythical creature in the Afro-Brazilian culture is the boiúna, or mboiaçu that lives in the rivers of the Amazon. According to the myth, the cobra-grande (large serpent) lives in the water and can take different shapes to frighten away the fishermen.


Brazil is a cosmopolitan country, and its cultural diversity can be appreciated in the existence of different religions. Even though most of African-Brazilians are Christians there is an extended range of religions rooted in African traditions. These Afro-Brazilian religious sects are becoming increasingly popular with Blacks and Whites alike in Brazil. There are a variety of religious groupings that continue to follow traditional African religious practices. The first is Condomble, a religion originated in the city of Salvador and first practiced by slaves from the Yoruba tribe. Based largely in the state of Bahia, Condomble followers worship many different gods and goddesses of nature, such as Iemanja, the goddess of the sea. Condomble services are characterized by pulsating drums and rhythmic music that encourages followers to reach a trancelike state. Animal sacrifices, healing, and dancing are part of these ceremonies, which are conducted not on Sunday mornings, but late at night. It has been estimated that over 1,000 Condomble temples exist in the city of Salvador, Bahia.

Other spiritualist sects, such as Umbanda, combine African and non-African religious influences. In these religions, it is common for the services to be led by a female priestess. Umbanda is becoming widespread in Brazil's major cities. Followers of Umbanda invite spirits into their bodies as part of the services. When they are "possessed," they traditionally light a cigar. Umbanda services account for the majority of cigar sales in Brazil.


Bahia is the center of Afro-Brazilian culture, and it is there that its festivals are most celebrated. On February 2, residents of Salvador celebrate the Condomble goddess of the sea, Iemanja. Gifts and offerings are made to Iemanja and are floated out to sea in small handmade sailboats. These offerings are usually sent by fishermen's wives, in the hope that the goddess will protect the fishermen and ensure calm waters. Condomble rhythmic music accompanies the ceremonial events.

Another Afro-Brazilian festival is held in the city of Cachoeira. An Afro-Brazilian religious society holds an annual festival to celebrate the liberation of slaves in Brazil. Dancing, music, and prayer act to remind Afro-Brazilians of the suffering of their slave ancestors. Afro-Brazilians also celebrate Carnival (see Brazilians ).


Major life transitions, such as birth, puberty, and death, are marked by ceremonies appropriate to each Afro-Brazilian's religious tradition.


It is difficult to distinguish Afro-Brazilian customs from those of Brazilian society as a whole. Afro-Brazilian mannerisms, traditions, rituals, and music have been incorporated into wider Brazilian culture.

Afro-Brazilians are an outgoing and gregarious people. They speak animatedly and use a variety of hand gestures to add emphasis to what they are saying. Afro-Brazilians are also accustomed to close personal contact. Women will often walk down the street hand in hand, and male friends will greet each other with a hug.

Music has been incorporated into many aspects of Afro-Brazilian life. Samba clubs that rehearse for Carnival are an important form of social organization. In addition, music is incorporated into their traditional sports, capoeira (a martial art), and into religious services. Most Afro-Brazilians are deeply religious and these beliefs pervade every aspect of their lives. It is common, for example, for food and candles to be left on street corners as offerings to spirits.

In January in Bahia, colorful ribbons are sold that are believed to be good luck. These ribbons must be received as gifts and should never be bought for oneself. These ribbons are tied with multiple knots around the wrist. The wearer makes a wish with each knot tied. The ribbons are then worn continuously until they fall off from daily wear. Only then are the wishes granted.


Many Afro-Brazilians live in poverty in the urban slums that surround the major cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Many of these slums, called favelas, are on steep hillsides. The earlier settlers can be found at the base of the hill, which is more accessible. These areas are likely to have electricity and running water. Further up the hillside are newer, less accessible communities. Pathways between houses are narrow and cramped. Often large families will live in a single-room dwelling. The lack of running water and the accumulation of sewage in these densely concentrated areas create many health problems for residents. Gastrointestinal and infectious diseases are widespread. Clinics and health care, when they exist in the favelas, are overcrowded and poorly equipped.

The favelas surrounding Rio de Janeiro are also at risk of flooding. Heavy rain will carry garbage down the hillsides and can create landslides that wash away flimsy housing.


In Brazil, there are different types of socially accepted marriages. Unions between couples can be religious, civil, or common-law. Civil marriages are those recognized by the state. Most couples undergo a civil wedding followed by a religious ceremony.

Long-term relationships between couples that live together are common and socially accepted in Brazil. This practice, known as amasiado, is common among Afro-Brazilians. Official forms of marriage are perceived to be unnecessary. As with other types of marriage, some couples ultimately separate while others may last a lifetime. Couples in amasiado are accepted as married by the community and may have children without fear of being shunned.

The extended family provides an additional source of mutual assistance and support. The role of godparent is taken very seriously and entails many responsibilities. Family loyalty takes first priority. Relatives offer both economic and moral support to family members in need.


Regional differences in dress in Brazil are pronounced. In the largely Afro-Brazilian regions of Bahia, Black women dress in clothing inspired by 18th century attire. Colorful, full-length skirts are worn with delicately embroidered white blouses, which are sometimes worn off the shoulder. Women in Bahia, known as Baianas, also wear scarves or turbans wrapped tightly around their heads.

Brightly colored beads are worn by both men and women. These beads have religious symbolic meaning. The color of the beads worn reflects the individual's orixa, or African Condomble god.


Brazilian cuisine has diverse culinary roots. The majority of its typical dishes are heavily influenced by culinary styles from Europe and Africa, syncretism that is expressed in a variety of tastes and aromas. Afro-Brazilian food combines African, Portuguese, and indigenous ingredients and cooking traditions. African peppers and spices are now grown in the tropical northeastern state of Bahia and are used widely in Afro-Brazilian cooking. Dende oil, for example, is extracted from an African palm now grown in Brazil. Dende is used to make moqueca, a spicy mix of sautéed shrimp, tomato, and coconut milk.

The most distinctive Afro-Brazilian dish is feijoada, also considered to be the national dish of Brazil. Feijoada is a black bean and pork stew, traditionally cooked in African-style earthenware pots. The dish was created by Brazilian slaves. They were given the discarded pieces of pork, such as the tail, snout, and feet, which they stewed slowly with spices and beans. This dish was so tasty that it was soon copied by the slave owners. Feijoada is now usually made with prime cuts of pork and beef and is a Saturday lunch time favorite.

Vatapá is another traditional dish among Afro-Brazilians. Its main ingredients are bread, shrimp, coconut milk, and palm oil. In some areas of Brazil, shrimp is replaced by fresh fish, tuna, chicken, or turkey. To prepare vatapá, all the components are smashed until getting a creamy paste. Vatapá is served with white rice.


Brazil has a serious problem of illiteracy. Approximately 20% of the Brazilian population does not know how to read or write, while many others have only a rudimentary ability to read. Although the proportion of children that attend school has increased since the 1960s, the quality of the education they receive is poor. Not surprisingly, the schools in the poorer neighborhoods where many Afro-Brazilians live have limited resources. Classes are extremely crowded and there is often a shortage of books. A larger proportion of Afro-Brazilian children, moreover, fail to attend school. Many children, particularly in both rural and urban areas, begin work at a young age to help the family make ends meet. The low level of education most Afro-Brazilian children receive makes it difficult for them to find employment as young adults.


Most of the slaves brought over from Africa were illiterate, and slave owners preferred to keep it that way. As a result, an oral tradition of storytelling and history became very important in Afro-Brazilian culture. Many family histories, stories, and myths continue to be passed down through successive generations. Afro-Brazilian themes have also become an important aspect of Brazilian culture. Jorge de Lima is a poet who was widely read in the 1960s. He drew from African-style verses and wrote about the plight of Africans in Brazil.

Afro-Brazilian cultural heritage can be more readily seen in the powerful influence it has had on Brazilian music generally. Brazil's varied music traditions draw heavily from traditional African instruments, rhythm, and dance. Samba music, now popular around the world, is a direct descendant of African music. A more pure form of Afro-Brazilian music is performed by afoxes, dance groups that perform to music of the Condomble religion. Using drums and percussion, these dance groups have increased in popularity in recent years. The African influence continues to shape Brazil's music and culture.


Brazil is a vast country and common types of work vary from region to region. In the northeast regions, cattle-raising and ranching are important economic activities. In the southeast, sugarcane, cotton, and coffee are also grown and exported. This diverse agricultural sector provides employment as field hands for many Afro-Brazilians. This work, however, pays poorly and is very laborious. In addition, many field workers are separated from their families to find employment at harvest time.

Brazil also has an impressive industrial and manufacturing sector. Autos, shoes, textiles, and electronic equipment are all made in Brazil, providing steady employment for many people. The manufacturing sector, however, does not generate enough employment for the millions of urban slum dwellers. Many favela (slum) residents work as self-employed street vendors or develop small-scale enterprises in their own homes. Many women, for example, work as seamstresses or hairstylists from their homes.


Perhaps the most famous soccer player in the world is an Afro-Brazilian, Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Better known as Pele, he continues to be a global personality. He rose from a low-income family in the state of Sao Paulo and had limited formal education. Pele led the Brazilian national team to World Cup championships in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Brazil was the first country to win the World Cup three times.

A more distinctive Afro-Brazilian sport is capoeira. This form of Angolan martial art is now more of a dance than an actual form of fighting. Brought over by slaves from Angola, this form of foot-fighting was banned by slave owners. In order to disguise this practice, slaves transformed foot-fighting into a rhythmic gymnastic dance form. Accompanied by music, capoeira dancers gracefully use arm and leg motions, designed to barely miss the opponent. Well-aimed high kicks skim over the head of the other fighter.


Most entertainment revolves around music and dancing. Preparations for Carnival, for example, can begin up to six months in advance of the festival. Samba schools are popular in the favelas (slums) and provide an outlet and form of recreation for many Afro-Brazilian youths.

The other central form of recreation for Afro-Brazilian youths is practicing the national sport—soccer. Brazil is probably the country most enthusiastic about soccer in the world. Both in urban and rural areas, playing soccer is the preferred after-school activity.


Afro-Brazilians produce a wide variety of arts and crafts. In Bahia, the African tradition of cooking in ceramic pots is still followed, and functional clay pots can be found in many markets. Intricately hand-carved rosewood and handmade lace are art forms passed down through successive generations. Banana leaf fibers are sometime used in place of thread for lace making.

Many Afro-Brazilian arts and crafts are closely linked to African religious traditions. Many objects used in Condomble rituals are produced by skilled goldsmiths in Bahia. Charms and other forms of jewelry traditionally worn around the waists of slave women in Brazil are still popular.

The state of Bahia is also home to a growing number of painters. Numerous galleries have been set up in Salvador, Bahia, to market the paintings of talented local artists. Many of these paintings deal with themes relating to Afro-Brazilian life and culture.


Drug trafficking and related violence are serious problems that are on the rise in urban slums, or favelas. Organized gangs operate in the favelas, selling drugs and engaging in other types of crime. In part, this is the result of high unemployment among youths. Teenagers in the favelas are unlikely to have completed their formal education, and their employment prospects are bleak. The lure of easy money by selling drugs has drawn many young people into this dangerous activity. Conflicts between competing gangs often lead to violence and many deaths. Other forms of violent crime are also becoming widespread in the favelas.


The socioeconomic, political, and cultural situations of Afro-Brazilian women are, in general, extremely precarious. Most live below the poverty line and endure situations of social exclusion. Most black Brazilian women have limited levels of education and do not have access to information technology or training. It is not uncommon for black women to be educated in antiquated public school systems that do not promote cultural diversity or equal rights.

In addition, there is no public health policy that specifically addresses the needs of black women in Brazil, such as treatment or clinical testing programs for diseases that typically affect this population more frequently. Afro-Brazilian women also constitute the majority of sexual exploitation cases, feeding the sexual tourism and human trafficking markets in growing numbers. Statistics reveal that, in Brazil, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is growing mainly in the most impoverished social strata, and at an even faster rate among women. Black women are hit the hardest by the disease, since they are the poorest and least educated of all of Brazil's ethnic groups. Another health problem among Afro-Brazilian women is pregnancy-related deaths. For instance, in the state of Paraná, black women from that state are seven times more likely than other women to die from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes.

In the labor market, Afro-Brazilian women suffer the highest rates of unemployment and spend the most time unemployed. When they do receive wages, they are paid on average 55% less than white women. Black women also constitute the majority of workers in the informal market. In addition, they are primarily employed in jobs that are considered less skilled, such as domestic work. According to the 1999 National Household Survey, 56% of all domestic servants are black women.

Regarding politics, Brazilian women are not adequately represented among elected officials. The number of elected female representatives falls short of the participation quota of 30% stipulated by Brazilian law. The situation of Afro-Brazilian women is even bleaker. In terms of political representation, black women are far from accessing institutional power resources.


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—revised by C. Vergara

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African Brazilians

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African Brazilians