Brazil is divided economically, socially and politically between its two major population centers, the wealthier Southeast and the historically richer Northeast, so much so that prejudice still exists. Far too few appreciate the ways in which the fiercely proud, culturally rich Northeast revels in its uniqueness.
by James Young
A week after Brazilian football was rocked by the racist abuse of Santos goalkeeper Aranha by Grêmio fans during a game in the south of Brazil, veteran Ceará midfielder Souza wanted to talk about a different type of prejudice after his team were knocked out of the Copa do Brasil by Rio side Botafogo.
“I don’t want to play the victim, but I’m nordestino, [from Brazil’s poor Northeast]. I’ve seen this happen plenty of times. When it comes to the crunch, they always favor the other side and hurt teams from the nordeste. How can I go home and explain this to my kid?” he said, in protest at a number of controversial refereeing decisions made during the game.
It may have only been football, and worse, Brazilian football, where conspiracy theories blossom like flowers in the spring. But Souza had touched upon one of Brazil’s most virulent, though often overlooked, forms of prejudice.
While Brazil’s racial and social divisions are well documented (as in this article by Vincent Bevins), the country’s regional schisms are perhaps less well publicized. But subtle or not so subtle prejudice against those from the northeast of Brazil is a common occurrence.
Football, as it so frequently does in Brazil, provides a convenient illustration of the ills of the country’s society – in this case the lack of respect with which nordestinos are often treated. It is hard to imagine a journalist from a major US or German broadcaster, for example, asking a famous athlete if people from his or her part of the country are “different because they’re funny” and if “it’s their accent that makes the rest of the country think they’re so funny” – as a journalist from the Esporte Interativo channel asked Brazil international Hulk, from the northeastern state of Paraíba, this June.
The roots of Brazil’s regional divisions are historical. There were times in the dim and dusty past when the nordeste was the country’s powerhouse – Salvador was the country’s colonial capital until 1763, while Recife remained a city of major influence until the beginning of the 20th century. “People like us from the interior of Bahia used to look at Recife like the world looked at Paris,” said MPB legend Caetano Veloso.
But a number of interrelated factors – among them the decline of the sugar trade (the region’s staple industry), the poverty and social disadvantages of huge swathes of the population, many of whom were descended from freed or escaped slaves, the harsh terrain of the sertão (the parched nordeste backlands), which forced hundreds of thousands to migrate to state capitals ill-prepared for their arrival, the indolence and self-interest of the area’s ruling classes, and a lack of investment by both state and federal governments – brought steady decline.
Now, tragically, the nordeste is best known in Brazil for its poverty, and the region trails the south and south east of the country in every social and economic indicator. A 2012 study by research agency IBGE found that more than half of the 12.9 Brazilian adults who are unable to read or write are nordestinos, while Veja magazine recently stated that the region is home to 52% of Brazilians who claim Bolsa Familia, the Brazilian government’s basic welfare program strongly associated with the ruling Worker’s Party (PT). According to a 2011 study by research agency IBGE, 9.6 million people in the nordeste live below the government’s definition of extreme poverty (U$30 a month). It is such hardship that forced hundreds of thousands of nordestinos to the south and south east, to work in cities such as São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, where if they were lucky they found a menial job and managed to eke out a basic living, as well as being almost universally nicknamed “paraibanos” – regardless of what state they actually came from.
Even today the more unreconstructed of southerners perpetuate the nordestino stereotype, blaming the people of the region for maintaining the grip on power of the PT of Lula and Dilma Rousseff by voting out of ignorance or under the influence of coronelismo (the abuse of power by wealthy landowners or politicians), and portraying them as toothless, illiterate simpletons. Never was this clearer than in 2010, when a court found São Paulo law student Mayara Petruso guilty of discrimination and sentenced her to community service after she tweeted “Nordestinos aren’t people. Do São Paulo a favor – drown a nordestino!” after Rousseff won the presidential election.
At the same time it is impossible to deny the vivid differences between the south and southeast of Brazil and the northern half of the country, whether it is in terms of climate (whereas Minas Gerais and points south shiver through chilly winters, the nordeste basks in summery temperatures all year round), food (from the acarajé of Bahia to buchada de bode, a backlands dish not unlike the Scottish haggis, though made from the innards of a goat, rather than a sheep), music (such as forró) or accent and dialect (the manioc plant, known as aipim in Rio de Janeiro and mandioca in other parts of Brazil becomes macaxeira in the nordeste).
“From its larger coastal cities, the Northeast can look very like the Southeast,” wrote Peter Robb in his intoxicating interpretation of Brazilian culture and history, A Death In Brazil. “But these appearances deceive. The Northeast is different. The past is present in the Northeast. Rio and São Paulo destroy as they grow, but walk down certain streets in a north-eastern city and you might be in the 1940s. There is the cream painted curved art deco cinema…there are the lean men with hats over their faces, asleep on the tray of a beat up old truck.”
Robb was writing over ten years ago, however, and the nordeste has changed a great deal over that period. While the expansion of Brazil’s welfare state arguably began during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, it was the election of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, born in the hardscrabble backlands of Pernambuco, as president in 2003 that truly kick-started the region’s transformation. Social support systems such as Bolsa Familia and increases to the minimum wage, together with a number of major infrastructure works included in the PAC (Program of Accelerated Growth) and increased private investment, led to greater prosperity in the region.
Now, while the same social problems remain (a report by the UN Drugs and Crime office earlier this year put six nordestino cities among the 20 most violent urban areas in the world, the nordeste continues to enjoy economic growth that outstrips the rest of the country– in the first five months of 2014, for example, the economy in the region grew by 4%, in contrast to Brazil’s sickly 0.6% growth rate, according to the Brazilian central bank.
At the same time the area maintains a fiercely independent sense of pride. Never was that better seen than at the funeral of the former governor of Pernambuco, Eduardo Campos, last month, when 160,000 people flooded onto the streets of Recife in mourning. Campos was hugely popular in his home state but overlooked elsewhere, reaching only 8% nationally in the presidential election polls before his death. There had been equal, though not quite so public, lamenting over the death of the great Paraibano playwright and author Ariano Suassuna in July, while a torch still burns in Recife for Chico Science, leader of the band Nação Zumbi and founder of the mangue beat movement, which mixed rock, hip-hop and maracatu, who died in a car crash in Olinda in 1997, aged just 31.
Regional pride is also on vivid display at the nordeste’s massive carnaval celebrations, where Recife, its sister city Olinda, and Salvador, throb to the rhythm of maracatu, frevo and axé, respectively. “I came back to Recife,” goes one carnaval anthem by Alceu Valenca, “it was homesickness that dragged me by the arm.” And the same passion is reflected in the popular support enjoyed by many of the region’s soccer teams, who, due to financial disparity struggle to compete against clubs from the south and south east of Brazil, but still manage to pull in massive crowds – last year two teams, Santa Cruz (Recife) and Sampaio Corrêa (São Luis) were among the top 10 best supported clubs in the country – while playing in Serie C.
“To be Baiano (a native of Bahia) is a state of mind,” wrote the great writer Jorge Amado, one of the state’s most famous sons. In truth though, he could have been talking about anywhere in the nordeste –perhaps Brazil’s most unique, and bewitching, region.
James Young lived in Recife for years and now resides in Belo Horizonte. Follow him on Twitter.