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  • Reflections on Brazil and Life as a Historian: An Interview with Richard Graham
  • Alida Metcalf (bio) and Hal Langfur (bio)

Richard Graham is one of a handful of historians who shaped the field of Latin American studies in the United States. Graham taught for many years at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor of History Emeritus. At Texas he directed more than 20 doctoral dissertations and served as associate editor and then editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review from 1971 to 1975. Graham is the author of five books, among them Britain and the Onset of Modernization in Brazil (1968), Patronage and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Brazil (1990), and Feeding the City: From Street Market to Liberal Reform in Salvador, Brazil, 1780-1860 (2010). He has edited five books, including Machado de Assis: Reflections on a Brazilian Master Writer (1999), Independence in Latin America (1972 and 1994), and The Idea of Race in Latin America (1990); he has published more than 40 articles. He was awarded the Conference on Latin American History’s Distinguished Service Award in January 2011 (see his CLAH Luncheon Address in this issue), one of many scholarly honors.

Alida Metcalf, currently Harris Masterson, Jr. Professor of History at Rice University, interviewed Richard Graham at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Saturday March 14, 2009. His wife, Sandra Lauderdale Graham, herself a well-known historian of Brazil, briefly joined the conversation at the very end. Hal Langfur, associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo, corresponded with Graham about his new book on the provisioning of the city of Salvador from 1780 to 1860.

Alida Metcalf:

You grew up in the center of Brazil, right?

Richard Graham:

When I was in third grade we had a day-long school picnic, and we went to a place with a beautiful stream with rapids. After lunch, I and some others came upon a concrete obelisk about the height of a man. I read the first words on it and it said “Center of the future Federal District of Brazil.” I [End Page 97] was very excited and I ran back to the teacher, “This is the center of the future Federal District of Brazil!” And she said, “Nunca foi; nunca vai ser. [It never was, and never will be.]” Well she was quite wrong.


And the name of the town where you lived was—


Planaltina. It’s now a suburb of Brasília. The little creek is within the capital city. The obelisk is no longer at the center of the federal district because they have moved the boundaries a bit.


So what was Planaltina like in the 1930s and 1940s?


It was a rural, cattle-raising area. It took five days to get there from São Paulo, three days in a train and then two days by truck over weathered roads where sometimes the bridges had washed out. It was rustic by today’s standards, although as a child it seemed just normal. It didn’t strike me as anything odd or different or problematic.


Did you have water and electricity?


The town was electrified in the mid-1940s. When I was growing up, there was no running water in my house. That part of Brazil has a rainy season and a dry season. In the rainy season we collected the water from the roof. But the rest of the year we had to walk to a big ditch that ran from the river on the up-side of the town, where everyone went to get their fresh water. Down at the other end was where everybody went to wash their clothes. One of the chores that the whole household did, not my mother, but everyone else, was to collect water. We would go out early in the morning when the sun was just rising to gather water for the day in buckets and pitchers and whatever we could carry, depending on our size.


Tell me about the racial composition of the town.


By American standards about three-quarters of the population were...


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