SÃO PAULO, Brazil — In my high-school English language class in São Paulo, our teacher Agnaldo once raised the question of whether Brazilians saw themselves as “Latino” or not. After some lively discussion, Agnaldo informed us that, in the U.S., we would be seen as Latinos.
This came as a surprise to many of my classmates, specifically the white and well-off ones who, given their European heritage, rejected the “Latino” label. It also acted as a harbinger for the realization they would receive when they arrived in the United States.
It was nothing new to me, however, as a Brazilian with dark skin.
Coming to the States, the first shock is the language and the frustration that comes with not being able to communicate. Though I had it easier since I learned Spanish back home as an adult, New Yorkers kept coming up to me speaking Spanish, believing it to be the official language of my native country.
Dr. Maxine Margolis, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Florida, explains that it is different for Spanish speakers because there are many more of them in “El Norte.”
“Brazilians have a lot of problems with their identity when they go abroad to the U.S.,” said Margolis, a Brazilianist, before pointing to other cultural differences my compatriots might encounter in New York. “They’ve never been a minority and here they are an ethnic minority for the first time.”
“They rarely stop to think about what it means to be Brazilian when they are in Brazil,” she added. “But that becomes a huge question when they are in New York because they are surrounded by people who are not Brazilian, who are American or other nationalities.”
The first big wave of Brazilian immigrants to America occurred during the economic crisis in the 1980s, which coincided with a time when Brazil was freed from military dictatorship and transitioning to democracy.
Many newcomers hailed from the city of Governador Valadares in the state of Minas Gerais —earning the city the nickname “Governador Valadolares” in reference to the remittances received from those abroad— and were largely undocumented, arriving in the U.S. with hopes of thriving in a country with a stronger economy.
Today, the profile of immigrants from Minas Gerais and other Brazilian cities tends to be more qualified professionals with legal permission to immigrate. Still, more than half of the undocumented Brazilians who arrive in the U.S. are from Minas Gerais, according to Mark A. Pannell, the former country information officer at the U.S. State Department.
According to the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2017, close to one million Brazilians live in the United States, 250,000 of them from Minas Gerais, or 25 percent. The top destinations for Brazilian immigrants are Boston, New York, Miami, Orlando, and Los Angeles.
Another shock is discovering new labels, as Margolis observes, since “the term and category ‘Latino’ doesn’t really exist in Brazil. They learn the term once they come here. In Brazil, you could say others are South Americans or Peruvians or Ecuadorians or Argentines, but then there is no general term used in Brazil to describe Spanish speakers. The term ‘Hispano’ is not used in Brazil. It is something that they learn to use here. So, ‘Hispano’ and ‘Latino’ are new terms to them.”
Katiuscia Galhera, a professor in the graduate program of sociology at the Federal University of Metropolitan Dourados (UFGD) in Brazil, explained that “it is hard to ascribe just one identity to Brazilians.”
Paraphrasing Benedict Anderson, the author of Imagined Communities (1983), Galhera points out that there are no rigid criteria for defining national identity, and it certainly can’t be done just by appealing to national symbols like an anthem, a flag, and culinary dishes.
“Brazilian identity is also forged on racist and sexist pillars and tends to erase the existence of traditional and enslaved peoples,” Galhera added.
Margolis refers to the “one-drop rule” in the U.S., a once-legal ruling stating that anyone with one Black ancestor was to be classified as Black. The one-drop rule was a concept that my grandfather told me about since early childhood, but it comes as a blow to the many Brazilians who imagine that, in the U.S., they will be perceived as closer to Clint Eastwood than Edward James Olmos.
Margolis also underscores the intersectionality of racial identities in the U.S. Some folks are labeled “Black Latino,” others “white Latino,” with an array of identities, cultures, and colors in between. In Brazil, however, we are more closely identified by our skin tones and facial features.
Given the genetic mixing with Indigenous peoples, whites, Blacks, and Asians, Brazil has a wide variety of identities. Brown-skinned people with an African ancestor, for example, can describe themselves as “moreno(a)s” and, although not considered Black in Brazil, they would be perceived as such in the U.S. There are also curious terms to describe skin tones here, such as “cinnamon skin.”
“If Brazilians can identify themselves as white in their native country, in Western European countries and the U.S.A. it will be altered to Latino,” Margolis explained. “Many very white-skinned Brazilians are labeled (as) White Latino. So, for racist Brazilians who consider themselves to be superior in Brazil, this will sound offensive. (But) for those who know their own history, this identity can be an opportunity to embrace a bigger intercultural community—the Latino community.”
In the movie Bacurau (2019), a Brazilian duo from the southern region tries to fit in with a party of human-game hunters hailing from the U.S.A. and Western Europe. The locals try to explain to them that they aren’t like those from the Northeastern region—poor, uneducated, and with sun-kissed skin. “Like you guys,” says one of the Brazilians, eliciting laughter from the hunters who adamantly state that Brazilians are “not white.”
Disappointment falls on the Brazilians’ faces, as if their hopes of joining the cool kids have just been dashed. It is a good example of the rude awakening referred to above.
The Hatred We Sling Ricochets Back to Us
Ideas of whiteness and Brazilianness combined with other ideas in the U.S.’ collective consciousness can lead to prejudice against other members of the Latino community. This negative portrayal tarnishes the legacy of a group, as when Donald Trump, who, when launching his presidential campaign in 2015, began by describing Mexicans coming to America aiming for a better life as drug dealers, criminals, and “rapists.”
Margolis and Galhera underscore this Trumpian episode as one of the main examples of exposed prejudice towards Latino people. I watched it firsthand when I was at the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, coming back to Brazil from a philosophy summer program at St. Olaf College.
I was well-received at St. Olaf, but being away from home, I noticed that I wasn’t exactly equal to African Americans, as some Afro-Brazilians tend to believe themselves to be. For one, African-American speech patterns are different than Afro-Brazilians’, with the Brazilians tending to speak in a tone that is almost musical. Differences extended even to the way African Americans and Afro-Brazilians walk, and so on. Yet, as with other members of the African diaspora living in the United States, Afro-Brazilians are quickly learning to mimic their U.S. cousins.
Sadly, the image conjured by “Latino” is one constructed on the archetypes of poverty, crime, prostitution, low-wage jobs, and so on. This is not too far from the way Indigenous Bolivian immigrants are perceived in Brazil, being pigeonholed to low-cost sewing shops and lower educational levels.
“There lies a colonial memory exalting the whites and devaluing the peoples that were originally in the continent,” Galhera insisted, “but there is also a national xenophobic sentiment which naturally doesn’t translate to immigrants from rich countries like the U.S.A., Germany or France.”
On the other hand, Galhera explains that while there is bias from Brazilians toward other Latin nationalities, there is also prejudice coming from Americans and Europeans against those hailing from Latin America.
“We are a continent marked by colonization, and the perception from part of the inhabitants from European countries and America is eugenic: we are in their countries hungry, desperate for jobs, and even ‘stealing’ local (opportunities for employment)—and some of us are even born evil,” she said.
One of those to blame for such perceptions is Cesare Lombroso, the late-19th-century Italian criminologist who claimed that people with certain phenotypes were born criminals.
“This racist and completely erroneous perception, considered science, resonates to this day,” Galhera said.
By living and working alongside other Latinos, Brazilians not only learn more about the Spanish language but also tend to befriend them, breaking prejudices and other barriers to community.
Margolis, the anthropologist, also points out that, for social mobility reasons, being “Latino” can increase opportunities for members of smaller minority groups, including Brazilians.
“Latinos are almost the dominant ethnic group in South Florida, and there are many wealthy Latinos. They own businesses. They are bankers. They are politicians, etc. So, in that situation, in South Florida, it is advantageous, especially for the 1.5 —those who came in their early childhood— and second generations to identify as Latino,” Margolis said. “It may open more doors to them.”
Gabriel Leão is a Brazilian journalist based in São Paulo whose work has been featured by Wired, Ozy Media, Al Jazeera, and Vice. He holds a master’s degree in communications and a post-graduate degree in foreign relations.