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POPULATION: 191,908,598
LANGUAGE: Portuguese
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Afro-Brazilian religions; other indigenous beliefs


According to historical accounts, communities of farmers, fishermen, and gatherers occupied and developed in the Amazon lowlands. Between two and six million indigenous people lived in the territory known as Brazil at the time of Portuguese contact at the beginning of the 16th century. As a Portuguese colony, the region was named Vera Cruz ("True Cross"), but it was soon renamed Brazil after the type of tree found there.

In colonial times, Brazil played an important role in the world economy, providing nearly 75% of the world's supply of coffee. After independence from Portugal in 1822, Brazil underwent a period of economic growth and prosperity. A rubber boom led this period of economic growth, which was also fueled by sugar and gold. Brazil has since developed a significant industrial sector and was among the world's ten largest economies as of 2008. However, serious problems of poverty and inequality remain. This elusive economic development gave rise to the saying, "Brazil is the land of the future—and always will be."

Even though Brazil is considered South America's leading economic power, internal problems such as a high crime rate, corruption, and an unequal income distribution continue to characterize Brazilian society. During the first years of the 21st century, more than 30% of the population lived in poverty.

From 2003 to 2007, Brazil achieved record trade surpluses due to increased productivity and high commodity prices. Many of these achievements were rooted in economic reforms implemented by Fernando Enrique Cardoso, president of Brazil from 1995 to 2003. He was succeeded by the leader of the Worker's Party, Luiz Inacio "Lula" Da Silva, who took office in 2003 and was reelected with more than 60% of the vote in 2006.


Brazil is a large country (the fifth-largest nation in the world), with a landmass equal to that of the continental United States. Brazil has borders with every South American nation except Chile and Ecuador. However, most of Brazil remains sparsely populated. The Amazon basin takes up nearly one-third of Brazil's landmass. Most of the lowland areas in the north and west of Brazil remain populated only by native Amazonian tribes. Major indigenous tribes include the Yanomamo, Xavantae, and the Cayapo. Many land areas are protected as national parks, but the Brazilian government has failed to maintain these zones, giving in to pressure to allow construction of highways and other development projects.

In 2000 three oil spills transpired in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay and in the Iguaçu River. In addition, the Amazon rain forest is under threat as a result of extensive logging and deforestation. Consequently, many indigenous tribes are facing cultural extinction.

The majority of Brazil's population (about 192 million as of 2008) live in the densely populated south and southeast regions, where the major cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Bello Horizonte are located. Brazil is an ethnically diverse country. Its population comprises European migrants, descendants of African slaves, and a variety of indigenous ethnic groups. Although Afro-Brazilians play an important cultural role, problems of racial discrimination exist. While Blacks have the same legal rights as Whites, most Blacks live in poverty in the favelas (urban slums) in Brazil.


The official language of Brazil is Portuguese. In pre-colonial times, many different indigenous languages were spoken throughout the country. At that time the lingua franca (the language used by different groups to communicate with each other) was Tupi.

Even though Brazil and Portugal have made efforts to standardize the language, Brazil's geographical closeness to Spanish-speaking countries has deeply modified the Brazilian version of Portuguese. As a result, Portuguese spoken in Brazil has given birth to new words and pronunciations. Words combining Portuguese and Spanish languages, known as Portuñol, are common.


Each of the various ethnic groups in Brazil has its own tradition of folktales and myths (see African Brazilians; Kayapos; Tenetehara; Xavante).


The beliefs of many Brazilians reflect elements from African, European, and indigenous religions. A wide range of religious traditions and practices coexist in Brazil, from the European religions of Catholicism and Protestantism, to the multitude of spiritual sects of African origin such as umbanda.

While many Brazilians claim to be Roman Catholic, these beliefs are often infused by traditional practices. Offerings and gifts are made to saints and protective spirits for favors in this life. Self-sacrifice plays an important role in convincing saints to grant requests. Fervent believers, for example, may crawl on their knees to sites of spiritual significance to demonstrate their faith.

After Catholicism, Afro-Brazilian religions are the most important in Brazilian society. Umbanda, for example, is one of the most rapidly growing sects. Attracting both African and non-African Brazilians, Umbanda sects use music, dancing, and sometimes alcohol to reach a trance state that enables believers to communicate with spirits. Also significant is Condomble of African origin. Condomble priestesses also seek to communicate with African spirits. Their ceremonies sometimes include the sacrifice of goats and chickens.


Carnival in Brazil is one of the world's most famous festivals. Celebrated for the five days preceding Ash Wednesday (in February), Carnival virtually brings the country to a halt as Brazilians take off work to join street festivals, dance contests, and other festive activities. The major Carnival parade takes place in Rio de Janeiro, with elaborate costumes and floats that are the result of many months' preparation. During Carnival, dance balls and samba contests are held. The festivities last well into the morning hours. While other Latin American countries also celebrate Carnival, only in Brazil is it done on such a grand scale.


Major life transitions (such as birth, marriage, and death) are marked by ceremonies appropriate to each Brazilian's religious tradition.


Brazilians speak animatedly and use a variety of hand gestures for emphasis. For example, when a Brazilian speaker moves his or her fingers under the chin, this means "I don't know." Placing the thumb between the index and middle fingers is a sign of good luck.

Brazilians are accustomed to late-night dinners and parties. Many restaurants in the major cities do not open for dinner until 8:00 or 9:00 pm. The people make up for lost sleep during the afternoon siesta. Stores and many businesses close for three or four hours during lunch, and many Brazilians go home and have lunch and a short nap before returning to work.

Not surprisingly, Brazilians are also heavy coffee drinkers. In many city plazas, there are roving street vendors selling sweet espresso to passersby.


Brazil is a land of contrasts. Its cities combine modern skyscrapers, suburban houses, and impoverished slums. Known as favelas, Brazil's urban slums have been estimated to be home to as many as 25 million people. The inhabitants of favelas, which are built on hillsides surrounding the major cities, live in desperate poverty. Many of the older houses or shacks in the favelas now have electricity and running water. However, poor sanitation causes serious health problems. There is no garbage collection or sewer access in the favelas. A life of crime is often the only alternative for unemployed youth with no economic opportunities.

In contrast, the upper and middle classes that live relatively near favelas have a high standard of living. Brazil's major cities are very modern, with large shopping malls, restaurants, and superhighways. There are many luxury high-rise apartment buildings and large houses with all of the amenities one would expect in the United States. Most of the middle- and upper-class families have servants to assist with housework.

There is a diverse range of housing and living conditions in rural areas. The type of housing depends largely on the weather. Adobe, stone, and wood are all used as housing material. In the Amazon, reeds and palm are used to construct houses.


A family in Brazil generally consists of parents and 5 to 7 children, although some families continue to have as many as 15 children. Both the nuclear and extended families play an important social role. It is a widespread cultural institution among the poorest families that inhabit favelas to share their shanty houses creating a spontaneous social net to protect their kin. At the same time, most socializing (drinking, dining, gambling, etc.) is conducted with members of the extended family. Godparents remain extremely important in rural areas, but their importance was declining in urban areas in the early 21st century. Godparents of a higher economic class are often chosen, as they have the financial means to take care of the child if a problem arises. However, family ties were losing importance as more and more of the population migrates from rural to urban zones.

Gender differences are clearly marked in Brazilian society and sexism is an ingrained feature of the culture. Limited educational opportunities, especially for lower-class women, keep females tied to traditional roles. Few middle- and upper-class women work outside the home, although this was beginning to change in the late 1990s and 2000s. It is a common custom for middle- and upper-class women to have social "teas" at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., before returning home for dinner with their husbands.

Female beauty is highly valued and Brazilian society can be considered to be very flirtatious. It is common for young women to wear short skirts or shorts in an attempt to attract the attention of men. This also probably serves to perpetuate machismo among Brazilian men.

Marital infidelity is a serious social problem in Brazil. It is very common for men to take a mistress on a long-term or permanent basis. While this behavior is not completely sanctioned in Brazilian society, it is widespread and is tolerated.


Brazilian dress in urban areas is very modern. Young people wear jeans and skirts, although among women short skirts and dresses are also very common. Business attire is very similar to that worn in the United States, with men wearing suits and ties.

Dress varies more widely outside of urban areas. In the south plains regions near the border with Argentina, the gaucho (cowboy) style is still worn. This includes ponchos, wide straw hats, baggy pants known as bombachas, and boots. In the Amazon, native Amerindians wear face paint and traditional tunics. In the predominantly Afro-Brazilian region of Bahia, women wear bright, colorful skirts and head scarves.


Brazilian food reflects the many cultural groups that have settled there. Combining cooking styles and ingredients from the rain forest and the Portuguese and African cultures, Brazil's cuisine is a unique melting pot of influences. The African influences are particularly pronounced in the southeastern region of Bahia, where spicy seafood dishes may be flavored with peanuts, coconut, lime, or other tropical ingredients.

In Brazil it is a longstanding tradition to have feijoada for lunch on Saturday afternoons. Considered the national dish, feijoada is a stew of black beans with different types of pork— such as sausage, bacon, and salt pork—and an occasional piece of dried beef. A good feijoada, it is claimed, will have a minimum of five cuts of pork. This dish was common among the slaves in Brazil, who used discarded cuts of pork, such as the snout, tail, and feet. These cuts are still often used. Rice and/or vegetables such as collards or kale often accompany feijoada.


Brazilian children are required to attend school for a minimum of eight years. In reality, however, a large percentage of the population fails to receive an adequate education. The overall national literacy rate was nearly 898% as of 2006 (men 88.4% and women 88.8%), although numbers are much lower in some regions. School attendance at the secondary level is low. Brazilian schools are generally underfinanced and overcrowded. In order to cope with the large number of students, children attend classes either in the evening or in the morning.

There are a growing number of universities and technical schools. These higher-level institutions of education, however, tend to be filled by middle- and upper-class students. Places are limited and entrance exams are very difficult.


Brazil has a wide variety of folk and modern music. Samba is perhaps the most popular and well-known internationally. Samba, however, is but one of Brazil's many rhythms and musical traditions. In the northeast, Portuguese guitar introduced during colonial times is still popular. African dances and percussion endure in Afro-Brazilian culture and are used in religious ceremonies. African influences are strongly felt in modern music as well.

Brazil has been the birthplace of musical forms that have become popular worldwide. In the 1950s, for example, a fusion of American jazz and samba rhythms known as bossa nova made international stars of singers such as Sergio Mendes. More recently, the lambada topped the charts in the United States and Europe. The lambada is in fact a version of carimbo, a musical tradition of the northern regions with strong Caribbean influences.


Brazil's economy is diverse. It has an extensive raw material and agricultural sector as well as heavy industry and manufacturing. Brazil continues to be the largest coffee exporter in the world and also produces sugar, soybeans, and corn for the export market. Many people in the northeast work in the sugar plantations and mills, while coffee laborers are found in the south. In addition, harvesting rubber, timber, and nuts provides a way of life for many inhabitants of the Amazon regions.

Of all the South American countries, Brazil has been the most successful in exporting its manufactured products. Brazilian shoes, for example, are now found in stores around the world. Automobiles and steel products are also major exports. While these industries provide formal employment for many, a significant proportion of urban Brazilians rely on small-scale, informal economic activities to survive. Women, for example, might become seamstresses or street vendors. A great many young women from the favelas (urban slums) find employment as servants in middle-class homes.


While soccer is popular throughout Latin America, in Brazil it is close to a national obsession. The city of São Paulo, for example, has three soccer stadiums, which hold matches nearly three times a week. The stadium in Rio de Janeiro is also spectacular. It seats 200,000 people and is the largest stadium in the world. Brazil has won more World Cups than any other country. Its most famous soccer player, Pele, is still a popular and highly regarded figure. It has been suggested that he might run for the presidency.

Volleyball is also very popular. The Brazilian women's volleyball team won the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1988, defeating Peru in overtime.


In Rio de Janeiro and other seaside cities, the primary form of recreation is the beach. Brazil is the nation with the largest coastline in the world. This is reflected in Brazilians' love for the beach and sunbathing, which attracts people from all social and economic backgrounds during the summer.

Samba schools are an important source of recreation in the favelas. More of a community or neighborhood club, samba schools work virtually all year long to prepare for the Carnival festivities. They teach dancing, create costumes, and write songs for the annual Carnival song competition.

Televised soap operas are extremely popular with Brazilians of all social classes. Telenovelas, as they are called, are broadcast in the evenings and attract a huge following. These soap operas are not permanently ongoing, but last from a few months up to a year. Brazilian soap operas are so popular that they are successfully exported to other Latin American countries.


A rich tradition of folk art and handicrafts arises from different regions in Brazil. In the mining region of Minas Gerais, goldsmithing and jewelry are the local art forms. Gemstones such as diamonds, opals, sapphires, and rubies are produced in Brazil. A popular piece of jewelry throughout Brazil is the figa. The figa is a pendant of a hand with the thumb between the first and index fingers—the symbol of good luck. In areas where ranching predominates, leather goods are made from cattle- and goatskins. Shoes, handbags, and wallets of high quality are also crafted in these regions. In the Amazon regions, Amerindians produce woven straw baskets, weapons, textiles, and beads.

A unique traditional art form originates from the San Francisco River. This river, once believed to house evil spirits, led 19th-century boaters to car ve fierce-looking figureheads, called carrancas, on their boats. These carvings of beasts that are half human and half animal were thought to provide protection from spirits and ward off bad luck. While most boaters no longer believe in these superstitions, many boaters still carry carrancas.


A serious social problem in Brazil is the number of homeless children that live on the streets. It has been estimated that as many as 8 to 12 million street children live in desperate poverty. Street children as young as seven and eight years old have often been abandoned by parents who are too poor to be able to provide for them. Street children live a dangerous life. Drug abuse and glue-sniffing are serious problems among street children. They are forced to resort to stealing, pick-pocketing, and prostitution to survive. Although children have full protection under the law, thousands of street children have been murdered by Brazilian police. Shop owners hire "death squads," believing that the immense problem of street children can only be solved by eliminating them. In response, many community groups and the children themselves have organized to raise awareness of children's rights.

Another social problem in Brazil is its decreasing population. According to the data collected by the 2000 census, total population growth decreased by 3.3%. The decline in population may be attributed to the high rate of mortality due to an AIDS epidemic that Brazil has face since the late 1980s. At that time, the World Bank predicted that for the year 2000 Brazil would have around 1.2 million cases of AIDS. The government responded quickly and the prediction did not come true; in fact, AIDS cases numbered around 600,000 as of 2000.


Although women had equal access to schools and employment in the early 1900s and suffrage on a national level in 1933, they were not on an equal footing with men in family affairs. Men were automatically heads of households and married women were legally subordinate to their husbands. However, divorce was legalized in 1977 and the 1988 Constitution granted women and men equal status for all legal purposes. In addition, female participation in the labor force grew dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s, due to the expansion of the services sector and economic pressures on family income. The economic participation of women in Brazil rose from 18% in 1970 to 30% in 1990.

Women's movements grew in the 1980s, when the National Council on Women's Rights (Conselho Nacional de Direitos da Mulher, CNDM) was created. Originally the feminist movement was closely connected to human rights movements and resistance to the military regime. In the 1980s and 1990s, attention shifted to violence against women, especially domestic violence and sexual abuse and harassment.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, women's status in Brazil has been improving on various fronts. As a rule, there are as many females as males in schools, even at the highest levels, and professions that traditionally were dominated by males, such as law, medicine, and engineering, are becoming more balanced in terms of gender. Nevertheless, there are still relatively few women in positions of power. By 2006 women made up only 11% of Congress.


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Devine, Elizabeth, and Nancy L. Braganti. The Traveler's Guide to Latin American Customs and Manners. New York: St. Martins Press, 1988.

Duquette, Michel. Collective Action and Radicalism in Brazil: Women, Urban Housing, and Rural Movements. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

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—revised by C. Vergara