A Dog’s Life
Despite the surfeit of first-rate material, written and performed by artists of the front ranks, in this author’s view Brazilians still need to face up to an unpleasant trait that continues to haunt their midst.
This trait, known, at the time, as complexo de vira-lata, or “mongrel complex” (decades before Sting’s use of the word “mongrel”), was introduced by sports columnist, author, and playwright Nelson Rodrigues (the self-professed “pornographic angel”) after Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. The phrase suggests that what Brazil has produced is less refined, less “pure” if you will and, for that reason, less genuinely Brazilian than what Europeans and North Americans have provided the world. Ever the dramatist, Nelson went so far as to accuse his fellow Brazilians (and, by implication, himself as well) of being “Narcissuses in reverse who spit on [their] own image.”
What an extraordinary admission! When you consider that eight years later Brazil enjoyed nearly back-to-back triumphs in the 1958, 1962, and 1970 World Cup Soccer tournaments, you realize that Nelson’s remark failed to hold up (as least as far as soccer was concerned). You would think that Brazil’s Fat Lady would have taken pride in these accomplishments rather than go the self-critical route.
How could Brazilians, who, as an example, took the sport of soccer (introduced into the country by a Brazilian-born, British descendant named Charles Miller), injected that sport with so much joy and spontaneity, and after that, went about making soccer essentially their own, have possibly subjected themselves to such levels of self-deprecation? The image of a mangy mutt overturning cans in a darkened alleyway, fighting for scraps with others of its kind, and rearing a brood of “less than pure” offspring, runs counter to everything we know and love about Brazilians. “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” goes the corresponding English connotation. Was this a warning to Brazilians to steer clear of foreign influences, lest they become infected with a permanent stain on their national identity? It positively reeks of post-Modernism gone awry.
However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated, and not as easily dismissible as it might appear. It goes to the core of the argument that Brazilians, as in the days of medieval flagellants, reserve the harshest punishments for themselves. An excerpt from a popular poem known to every Brazilian household, and ascribed to politician, writer, and fanatical Fluminense follower Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1864-1934), both praises and bemoans the insurmountable obstacles of motherhood. The last lines are quoted below:
Ser mãe é andar chorando num sorriso!
Ser mãe é ter um mundo e não ter nada!
Ser mãe é padecer num paraíso!
To be a mother is to cry when you are smiling!
To be a mother is having the world when there’s nothing to have!
To be a mother is to suffer even in Paradise!
If you were to substitute “Brazilian” for the word “mother” (“To be a Brazilian is to cry when you are smiling! To be a Brazilian is to have the world when there’s nothing to have! To be a Brazilian is to suffer even in Paradise”), you would begin to appreciate the lengths the Brazilian people have gone to, and the degree of suffering they’ve had to endure, in forging a purposeful life for their families and loved ones in the midst of turmoil and defeat.
Be that as it may, I happen to disagree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I believe, as many of my family members do, that diversity brings us strength and unity of purpose. In my own case, and in the case of my wife, we are the product of multi-ethnicities, of cultures foreign (for the most part) to the Brazilian ethos, yet inextricably bound to it.
My background, as revealed to me recently, was surprising and unforeseen in that it overturned all previous expectations — something many Brazilians have grown accustomed to experiencing. I learned that I am predominantly of Iberian descent (i.e., Portuguese and Spanish), and, in descending order of importance, part Southern European (Italian and/or Greek), part British Isles, part Middle Eastern, part Scots-Irish-Welsh, part North African, and part European Jewish. Similarly, my wife is overwhelmingly Portuguese, over a third Spanish, and a good part French, with a significantly smaller percentage of Native North, South, and/or Central American heritage, along with minor Sardinian ancestry. Do these statistics make us “mongrels”? I suppose they do, but without the complexes, I assure you. If you asked me, I’d say the preferred description would be “citizens of the world.”
In a way, the discovery of our roots has helped me to reconcile a longstanding issue I once had to face as a youngster growing up in the South Bronx. So many individuals I encountered had expressed surprise and, indeed, outright astonishment at my having been born in Brazil.
“Oh, really?” they responded quizzically. “Funny, you don’t look Brazilian,” as if they had advance knowledge of what Brazilians looked like.
It happened that I hailed from the city of São Paulo, a region populated by immigrants with Western European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese affiliation. Judging by such iconic images as those of superstar Pelé and soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello (Orfeu in the movie Black Orpheus), most folks took it for granted that Brazilians were all people of color, an understandable albeit misguided association. I grew up realizing that such misapprehensions about a person’s “looks” were commonplace in the sixties and seventies, although I had a hard time accepting them. Still, I struggled to overcome people’s ignorance of Brazilian culture and their seeming unawareness of Brazil as a place almost as large, and equally as diverse, as the continental United States, with events in both countries’ past that often paralleled one another’s history.
In the meantime, Orpheus, the perfect surrogate for a battered Brazil (and a citizen of the ancient world), continues to ply his trade by singing his songs through the mouths of present-day Narcissuses. “The show must go on,” he cries, even if it doesn’t. The irreconcilable dichotomy between the passions of Orpheus with the rancor of a reverse Narcissus is troubling, to say the least, but closer to the truth of who Brazilians are and what Brazil has become. There is one thing we can all agree on: even in the face of the direst distress, Brazilians remain resilient.
In spite of Brazil’s bittersweet trajectory and its perpetual tumbling toward the abyss, we must admit that the country has continued to evolve, though not in the way one would have expected. It is more apparent to me now that Brazil has been, and will forever be, the land of Carnival and samba. Orson Welles knew this. Vinicius and Jobim knew this, as well as Marcel Camus. Cacá Diegues and Caetano Veloso both knew this, as did Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and many others. But the world has always known it.
In the make-believe cinema universe and in real life, the Brazilian favelas have forever been depicted as crime-ridden, drug-plagued infernos (unfairly, I might add). Carnival was similarly looked down upon when Welles tried to capture the event in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. His attempts at foisting the festivities down the throats of RKO executives were met with resistance and defeat. Inconceivably, at the time not even those Brazilians in power wanted anything to do with Carnival, especially if it focused on black people. With the 1959 release of Black Orpheus, the elevation of the slums and the film’s inauthentic depiction of Carnival were again rejected by Brazilians, but embraced by everyone else.
Yet, by some miracle of modern thought transference, and a combination of déjà vu with wish fulfillment, the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics brought Carnival and the favelas back into the national conversation. In defiance of the odds Orpheus rose once again to strike up his lyre, this time over a setting Brazilian sun. Kept front and center throughout the games, it appeared to television viewers, and to millions of Brazilians, that the country had accepted the image that had long been imposed on them so many decades before. Too, the ceremony’s creative directors had begun to embrace this once-reviled picture of Brazil (the country’s “true face,” come to pass). And appreciably, the music of the ceremony — the same music that issued forth from the slums of Rio de Janeiro — has become suggestive of the forgotten inhabitants who happen to live, work, and die there.
With the exception of the commotion that swirled around the Ryan Lochte episode, a meddlesome sideshow to the main event, Marvelous City Rio put on a model Olympics. And despite the staggering costs involved in the project, and the adverse publicity generated with the city’s concurrent (and mutually exclusive) relocation and pacification efforts, most observers, including a majority of its citizens, gave Rio 2016 an enthusiastic “thumbs up,” a traditional sign of approbation.
About a decade ago, in September 2010, in conjunction with a planned Broadway mounting of a new musical version of Black Orpheus, I had the esteemed privilege of speaking to Susana Moraes, Vinicius’ eldest daughter. We talked, among other things, about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, and how it differed substantially from the movie, Black Orpheus. She told me in model English (she also spoke fluent French) how much the movie had perturbed Vinicius when he saw it at the Presidential Palace in Rio. She sat alongside him at the time, and described to me the tears of hurt and anger that welled up in his eyes and down his cheeks at the stereotypical images of black Brazilians cavorting on the screen.
Over the years, Susana came to soften her outlook on the picture. For one, she regarded it as mostly nostalgic, part of that longing for a time that may never have existed in fact, but that still had a place in her memory and heart; for another, she acknowledged the huge influence Black Orpheus exuded on the world scene in bringing something of Brazil’s culture to the fore.
Looking back on that experience, Susana Moraes, an actress, filmmaker, and producer in her day, had finally come to grips with the movie’s power to enchant through sound, images, and song. Susana had accepted the notion that Black Orpheus had been idyllic in nature, if not grounded in reality. But more importantly, she had grown more mindful today of how the Brazil of 1959 (coincidentally, the year my family and I came to America) had been represented — i.e., as a country on the verge of greatness — than when the movie had first come out.
Coincidence or not, this author has reached a similar conclusion: that Brazilians, too, must accept the notion of what a twenty-first-century Brazil has always been — i.e., an “Orphean country,” in the perceptive, frequently quoted, and still applicable terms of poet-musician Caetano Veloso, “one that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music” — with moments of revulsion and regret whenever that vision ran counter to those terms. To these, and more, we plead nolo contendere.
In a paradoxical twist of fate, Brazil, in the past, has been touted as the country of the future. For today’s Brazilians, that future never seems to arrive. Prosperity appears to be just around the corner; you can almost touch it, squeeze it, even taste the riches that are within your grasp, yet it remains stubbornly out of reach, as it was for many artists and those “just plain folks.” One gets the impression the populace rather enjoys harking after a nostalgic past, with misgivings for the present mixed with unbounded expectations for the future — Tropicália turned inside out and on its head. If diversity in all matters can lead those inured to the country’s problems into the light of reason, may it be so.
What does the future hold for Brazil’s Fat Lady? My parting advice for her is this: Take heart, girl. The performance is over. It’s time to take stock of your accomplishments. Learn from your mistakes, especially from your glorious past. Revamp your repertoire, learn new roles; take on new challenges, then show them what you’ve got. Do something to address the problems of the present, and the future will take care of itself. But do make it a future worth striving for — a grateful nation will be at your feet. Ω
Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes