- Editor's Note
Brazil is a vast and complex nation with a history, geography, and people not easily summarized. It embraces the great Amazon rainforest—covering nearly fifty percent of the country's land area—as well as the famous coastal city of Rio de Janeiro. The northeast comprises immense, dry hinterlands (the sertão); in the central region of the Pantanal is the world's largest wetlands; and in the south are rolling pastures and farmlands. Over two hundred million people live in Brazil, including people of indigenous, European, African, and Asian descent, and newly arrived travelers from other Latin American countries and throughout the world. It shouldn't surprise us that many Brazilians question whether their country and countrymen share a common identity, or even a single reality.
Literature and art give us a way of experiencing the many realities of Brazil. With this in mind, the editors of Becoming Brazil have brought together works of prose and poetry by about two dozen authors, juxtaposing stories of the country's diverse people in places urban, rural, and remote. Depicted in this collection are the machinations of the military in Brasilia during the recent dictatorship; the cultural practices of the caiçara fishermen of Paraty; and the violence that too frequently befalls residents of Brazil's impoverished favelas. Each is the reality of some aspect of the country, and through these stories—written in innovative styles and multiple genres—our comprehension of an ever-changing, ever-becoming Brazil is enriched.
As early as bce 10,000, indigenous peoples lived on the eastern half of the South American continent. Vast distances, nomadism, and geographic obstacles such as mountains, rivers, and jungles prevented these tribes from assembling into large, unified civilizations, as indigenous peoples did in the Andes and in Mesoamerica. Following the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, many of Brazil's indigenous peoples were pressed into felling brazilwood trees, for which the country was named. Later on, sugar became a lucrative commodity, but the indigenous slaves responsible for cultivating it refused to labor under their colonial overseers. Consequently, millions of West African slaves were brought onto the plantations. When the profitability of sugar declined, slaves were forced to mine for gold and diamonds in what is today the interior state of [End Page vii] Minas Gerais ("general mines"). Mining attracted a great influx of people from many places, and created a social, cultural, and linguistic melting pot. In the succeeding decades, more immigrants arrived from Portugal, Italy, Germany, the Middle East, and Japan, adding to the country's complex ethnic mixture.
In 1808, the Portuguese crown, under threat of Napoleonic invasion, fled across the Atlantic and reestablished itself in Rio de Janeiro. Here, the Portuguese royal family would remain for the next thirteen years, and their presence raised the former colony to higher and higher levels of prominence. When the court was restored to Lisbon in 1821, prince regent Dom Pedro I stayed behind to rule Brazil. A year later, he proclaimed independent nationhood for the country and established the Brazilian Empire. In a region with so many geographically and culturally distinct territories, war and rebellion were inevitable; the empire nearly fractured many times but was kept intact under the leadership of the monarchy. The most notable figure of this era was the erudite emperor Dom Pedro II, whose nearly sixty-year reign coincided with a number of significant developments, including the Paraguayan War and the abolition of slavery.
Disaffected military officers deposed Dom Pedro II in 1889 and founded the Brazilian Republic. Their ruthless power grabs and authoritarian rule would serve as a model for Brazilian governments well into the twentieth century, such as those of Getülio Vargas in the 1930s and the dictatorial military junta that held power from 1964 to 1985. Each regime rationalized its authority by citing evidence of national progress: modernized economies founded on industrialization, the emergence of an urban middle class, and Brazil's increasing prestige in international affairs. It was not until 1985 that a democratically elected government came into being.
The trauma of political strife concerns several writers in Becoming Brazil. Their works are meant to challenge conventional narratives...