Brazil is Primitive
By B. Michael Rubin
Before I’m accused of cultural stereotyping for this article’s title, let me say that I’m an American living in Brazil, and despite what Americans believe, Brazilians are not lazy or uneducated, swinging from hammocks strung between coconut palm trees on a pristine beach. Nor are there many left living in primitive tribes in the Amazon.
In fact, most Brazilians today live in urban areas. I live in Curitiba, a large city in the south of Brazil on the 10th floor of an apartment building. Built 40 years ago, my building is already considered old. I have a high-definition flat screen TV with a million cable channels. Like most apartments here, mine is purchased, not rented. There is a separate service elevator for laborers, and when residents take out their dogs, they must exit through the garage. Dogs are not allowed in the building’s lobby.
In many ways, Brazil is more civilized than the US. For example, voting is mandatory, and voter ID is established with a fingerprint scan. Brazilians are also more fastidious than Americans, thanks to the assistance of maids, whose duties include food shopping, cooking, and ironing. My maid also washes the outsides of the windows, standing on the window frames, leaning halfway out on a perilous perch.
Brazilians are fussy about their personal hygiene, more so than Americans. Their bodies are as spotless as their homes. They shower twice a day and actually brush their teeth after every meal, which means keeping a toothbrush in their desks at work.
Brazilians are polite and helpful. When entering the elevator in my building, it’s rude not to greet the other residents, even if I don’t recognize them. When entering a doctor’s waiting room, it’s customary to launch a general “Good morning” to the others waiting.
However, there is something fascinatingly archaic about Brazil. The soul of the country is closer in essence to the ancient lives of our earliest ancestors. For example, Brazilians, like Asians, have a great respect for deceased family members. There is a national holiday, the Day of the Dead on November 2, when families visit the cemetery. Most Brazilians believe it’s possible to receive guidance from the dead in dreams or through ghosts or spirits.
Additionally, like the first tribes who lacked written language, Brazilians are entrenched in the oral tradition. They value conversation – men trading information at the bar or women gossiping on the phone – more than they value what they read.
Brazilians are more influenced by organized religion than Americans. They rely on established answers to the ancient questions surrounding the meaning of life. There are just as many Catholic holidays, where no one goes to work, as there are federal holidays.
Brazilians, even urban dwellers, are as influenced by the weather as American farmers; they are continually discussing it. Storms frighten people, and traffic jams become monumental when it rains in Curitiba, even though it rains more than Seattle.
Recently, a private English class I had scheduled with a middle-aged doctor and his teenage daughter was canceled when a rainstorm arrived. The wife of the doctor called her husband while he was in route to class with his daughter. The doctor’s wife asked him to return home because she was frightened of the storm.
This woman’s fears reflect a primeval and basic respect for the gods of weather and the forces beyond our control. Also, like the US in the 1950s, many middle-aged Brazilian women have never worked. They live with their parents until they marry, under the secure umbrella of Christianity, and thus are unaccustomed to being alone.
Perhaps it’s Brazilian nature to remain close to our simple origins, in the same way children are close to perfection – sincere, magical, embarrassingly candid – that draws so many Brazilians to Disney World. It’s the number one tourist destination for Brazilians.
In fact, there is a historical connection between Disney and Brazil. During World War II, US President Franklin Roosevelt, worried about the growing influence that Germany and Italy were having in Latin America, decided to send his best ambassador to the region – the world-famous Walt Disney.
A documentary film, Walt & El Grupo (2008) narrates the travels of Disney in Latin America. The film was directed by Ted Thomas, whose father, Frank Thomas, was a Disney animator who went on the trip with Walt Disney. “The trip had a great impact on Walt and particularly on the animation artists who accompanied him, such as Mary Blair,” says Ted Thomas. The tour led to the production of Disney animated features that took place in Patagonia and Rio de Janeiro, including the animated parrot from Rio known as Zé Carioca.
Thomas believes the influence of the tour can also be seen in some of Disney’s most famous films such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan because “during her tour, Mary Blair’s style and color palette underwent a major transformation, acquiring many influences of Latin American nature and culture,” explains Thomas. This new style adopted by one of the few women animators at that time led Blair to be primarily responsible for the graphics of these three famous Disney films.
Brazil has had an influence on the look of Disney films, and perhaps it is this affinity that draws so many Brazilians to Disney World. While Brazil today is no more of a primitive country than the US, there remains a childlike enchantment in Brazil. Like humanity’s earliest origins, Brazilians live life one day at a time. Magical thinking involves the suspension of disbelief. It was Peter Pan’s key to eternal youth.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.