Talking About Brazil with Lilia Schwarcz

Historians in the News

On a recent trip to Brazil, I struck up a conversation with Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, one of Brazil’s finest historians and anthropologists. The talk turned to the two subjects she has studied most—racism and national identity....

Robert Darnton: Brazil’s emergence as a major world player provokes questions about its national identity, some of them hostile, such as the one you said you encountered on your last trip to the US: How can you live in a country overrun with favelas and violence? How do you answer them?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz: It is strange how nowadays Brazil has a new image coming from abroad. We used to be seen as “exotics”; a country of Capoeira (a Brazilian form of martial art), Candomblé (a syncretic African religion), Carnaval, and the “Mulatas.” Now we continue to be viewed as exotic, but the exoticism has a new ingredient: violence, even a new aesthetics of violence, mainly in the way Brazil is portrayed in contemporary films, like City of God. The fascination with favelas among many people outside Brazil is ambiguous. On the one hand, favelas are seen as violent communities, subject to violent leaders outside the authority of the state. On the other, they are just “different”—scenes of a culture outside the dominant culture, with its own special way of partying, dancing, playing soccer. We do not have favelas everywhere, but foreigners like to think so. We have developed a new kind of tourism, which features a “favela tour.” Everything is fake, but the tourists enjoy the illusion that they are experiencing another world. And what about you Bob? Are you afraid of walking in some parts of New York City? Is Harlem a kind of favela?...
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