Poor, Ugly, Uneducated?

Last month I took about a week to travel to Curitiba, in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, and then to Foz do Iguaçu, in the same state on the border with Argentina and Paraguay. Accompanied by three other lovely ladies from the Fulbright ETA program, I relished the chance to see a bit of southern Brazil and reflect on my time thus far in the Northeast.

(One of my travel companions, Christina, has a blog about her experiences in São José do Rio Preto. She posted a fantastic three-part summary of our trip: Londrina and Curitiba, Puerto Iguazú, and Foz do Iguaçu.)

It was a week full of new sights, laughter, more rain than I’ve seen in three months, and a new stamp in my passport (hello, Argentina!), but for now what I want to talk about is the very real divide that exists between the north and south in Brazil. I was surprised, even at times shocked, by the strength of the stereotypes that exist between the regions.

To give you a quick idea, here is one of the first interactions I had with Curitibano (person from Curitiba).

Me: “I’m living in Petrolina.”

Him: “Where?”

Me: “Pernambuco.”

Him: “Oh, I’m sorry.”

In the course of just two days in Curitiba, I heard a number of variations on the following topics: Petrolina is an ugly city; Northeasterners are ugly and lazy and illiterate; the Northeast is sucking up all the money that the southern states generate.

Shocked by these first interactions, Cynthia (the ETA in Curitiba) and I decided to bring up the topic with her students in a more structured setting. In her conversation class, we asked the students about regional stereotypes in Brazil. To my relief, their opinions were nuanced, sophisticated, and intelligent: they recognized the stereotypes, explored why they existed, and recognized that in spite of the stereotypes, they didn’t actually know very much about the Northeast.

Encouraged by the success of this conversation class in Curitiba, I returned to Petrolina wanting to ask my students some of the same questions. Using a presentation that Cynthia had made about US stereotypes, I talked briefly about the preconceptions that Americans have about each other—for example, fast-talking New Yorkers, pot-smoking Californians and the concept of the “flyover states” in the middle of the country. Then I turned the question around to the students: what about Brazilian regional stereotypes?

Our conversation followed a similar vein as the class in Curitiba. My students recognized stereotypes that they had about other states in Brazil: people from the South are unfriendly and rich (and white—the issue of race deserves a whole new blog post); people from Rio are beautiful and spend their time partying and on the beach. (And what about the North and Center-West? Talk about “flyover states.”) They admitted that these stereotypes are unfair and often inaccurate generalizations. Yet even though some of the stereotypes about the southern regions are negative, the fact remains that the Southern and Southeastern lifestyles tend to be more admired—as just one example of many, virtually all news anchors on TV are light-skinned and have Rio or São Paulo accents.

Perhaps most interestingly, my students are also very aware of the stereotypes that exist about them, “nordestinos,” and expressed a kind of quiet frustration that they could be so prejudged when the experience of life here is so positive compared to the devastating image that the stereotypes paint.

I think I will inevitably keep having—and should keep bringing up—these kinds of conversations. Brazil is a huge country, and naturally regional rivalries and preconceptions exist just as they do in the United States. Now that I have some direct experience with this regionalism, I see it more clearly in the country’s politics: for example, the recent debate over a bill that would relax standards of forest protection in the Amazon, which President Dilma recently partially vetoed (the New York Times has been giving this topic significant coverage: start here and here). It’s fascinating to learn these ground-level politics by living them—particularly in a region that bears some of the worst stereotypes in the country.

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One thought on “Poor, Ugly, Uneducated?

  1. CT says:

    I like very much this post!
    Your experience here in Brazil it seems has been productive!
    Poor, ugly and uneducated are three constants in the speak of South’s persons!
    They disrespect us with this!

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