Race and the Brazilian Body: Exploring ‘Comfortable Racial Contradictions’ in Brazil

This post was originally published on March 6th, 2017 on the University of Arizona’s UANews, by Lori Harwood (UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences).

Jennifer Roth-Gordon will speak about her book “Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro” during the Tucson Festival of Books, to be held March 11 and 12. Roth-Gordon will be part of the panel “A Conversation on Segregated Spaces” at 10 a.m. March 11 at the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences pavilion. With scholars Reginald Dwayne Betts, Jeff Chang and Tyina Steptoe, Roth-Gordon will explore the ways in which racially segregated spaces are constructed through language, law and culture in the U.S. and beyond.


University of Arizona anthropologist Jennifer Roth-Gordon spent 10 days in Brazil leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games with her children, two of whom are African-American and adopted.

During the visit, one shop owner yelled at her son, assuming he was a pivete (street kid). In another instance, a restaurant owner told the waiter not to let Roth-Gordon order any more food for the children, assuming they were begging. In Brazil, racism is considered immoral and un-Brazilian and, in both instances, the business owners were excessively apologetic when they realized their mistake.

In Rio de Janeiro, few geographic boundaries separate the “haves” from the “have-nots.” This housing project occupies some of Latin America’s most expensive real estate. (Photo: Marcelo Santos Braga)

In her new book, “Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro,” Roth-Gordon explores what she calls the “comfortable racial contradiction” that exists in Brazil, a country that prides itself on its history of racial mixture and lack of overt racial conflict. The book, published by the University of California Press, looks at how racial ideas about the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of blackness continue to play out in the daily lives of Rio de Janeiro’s residents.

The book was 20 years in the making. Roth-Gordon, an associate professor in the UA School of Anthropology, went to Rio de Janeiro in graduate school and has gone back every year since.

Using linguistic and ethnographic analysis, she conducted interviews, recorded conversations and observed the day-to-day lives of people living in the housing projects and in the whiter middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. She hired a youth who lived in the housing projects as a research assistant.

Roth-Gordon, an associate professor in the School of Anthropology, has been studying race relations in Rio de Janeiro for more than 20 years.

Roth-Gordon said that one of the most interesting things about race relations in Brazil is that “there is profound racial inequality in Brazil and yet people do not think of themselves as racist.” Brazilians have a history of promoting themselves as a racially mixed and racially democratic society. Many view their racial tolerance as one of the ways they are superior to other countries, especially the United States.

Roth-Gordon said that Brazilians certainly recognize the inequality that exists in their country, as the rich and poor live in close proximity. All of those famous beaches connect by hills that have favelas, or informal settlements. However, many Brazilians believe that the inequality and prejudice is due to socioeconomic class rather than race.

For her research, Roth-Gordon wanted to dig deeper into day-to-day interactions to explore the discrepancy. “Racial inequality has be reconstructed every single day,” she said. “It has to be reproduced.”

In her book, Roth-Gordon emphasizes how Rio residents “read” others for racial signs. The amount of whiteness or blackness a body displays is determined not only through observations of phenotypical features — including skin color, hair texture and facial features — but also through attention to cultural and linguistic practices, including the use of nonstandard Portuguese and slang, which is associated with “poor, black shantytown living.”

Roth-Gordon made recordings of largely dark-skinned youth and played them for middle-class families. She cites an example of when a youth in the projects was talking about his fear of being robbed.

“I played the recording for a family, and they reacted as if he were the criminal,” Roth-Gordon said. “They ignored what he said. All they could hear, because to them slang is such a clear marker of criminality and poverty, was this is the language of a criminal.

“I have a whole chapter on how the white middle class raise their kids to make sure they are avoiding slang and speaking standard Portuguese. When you ask them why, they won’t tell you ‘I don’t want my kid to sound black.'”

The conversations Roth-Gordon collected include youth in the housing projects talking about their strategies for talking to the police, which include speaking standard Portuguese.

“We don’t just size people up by what they look like, especially in a place like Brazil where people are racially mixed,” Roth-Gordon said. “How should this cop treat this kid? Like a poor black criminal or like a middle-class citizen?”

Roth-Gordon believes that acknowledging or studying only overt acts of racism is like studying the “tip of the iceberg.”

“It’s clearly so much deeper than that,” she said. “What is under the water is creating a base for what we can see.”

For example, with regard to police killing black men, she says many are prepared to punish those instances. “But they are unwilling to go beyond that and say these cops are reacting to these ideas that we have about blackness, linking it to criminality. And these ideas are not just ideas. We have a system in both the U.S. and Brazil that disproportionately locks up people of color, a system of justice that has never treated black men fairly. Those ideas are the rest of the iceberg.”


Chasing Che and the New Global Latin America

This post is published in conjunction with the American Historical Association conference in Denver, taking place January 5-8.When sharing this post on social media, please be sure to use the hashtag #AHA17!


The opening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States and continued changes to current Cuban sanctions is just an example of how Latin American countries can impact our global culture, economy, and politics. Yet the impact is usually not so apparent.

Matthew C. Guttmann and Jeffrey Lesser–editors of Global Latin America, part of the new Global Square Series–introduce how Latin American countries have, for quite some time, been global players.

The puzzle that inspired Global Latin America was, Why did we find Che Guevara’s image everywhere we went in the world? Why was a Latin American revolutionary of the 1950s and 1960s so popular among so many people around the globe in 2016? Why was Che easily the most famous Latin American outside the region? Sure, images of the bearded face and beret were often devoid of deep meaning, but there was his image, and we wanted to make sense of it. Trying to understand global Che led us to the larger meanings of global Latin America. …

Che Guevara image on man's cap, Shanghai, 2013. Photo: Matthew Gutmann.
Che Guevara image on man’s cap, Shanghai, 2013. Photo: Matthew Gutmann.

We are often more familiar with the impact of the world on Latin America than with the impact of Latin America on the world. The three C’s Conquest, Colonialism, and Christianity provide a tortured, if better-known story, about how some parts of the world have exercised control over other parts. … Although the significance of Latin America for the rest of the world is not new or sudden, it is ever more apparent. The impact that Latin America has had in the other direction, even though unmistakable, has never been as familiar a narrative. This volume, like the others in the Global Square series, seeks to remind us that regions are not just victims but also global players.

Latin America in 2016 is home to emerging global powers. In 2016, even despite massive downturns economically, Brazil had the seventh largest economy in the world and Mexico was poised to break into the top ten. Latin America is tightly bound to regions from Asia to Africa, from the Middle East to Europe, through commerce and trade, migration, and the arts. In political and economic terms, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico are world leaders, part of the Group of 20 (G20) countries that have greatly expanded membership beyond the old geopolitical leadership of Europe, Japan, and the United States.

In Realpolitik, Latin American leaders from Argentina’s Carlos Menem to Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez have proposed that they are uniquely able to help to resolve global problems, from conflicts in the Middle East to energy to climate change to participatory democracy. Heavy manufacturing in Latin America is reshaping global auto, weapons, and airplane industries. Environmental measures in the enormous Amazon region, positive and negative, are central to global discussions of climate change. Truth commissions formed to document the abuses of past dictatorships in Latin America have become vital reference points for similar efforts from South Africa to Rwanda to Cambodia. …

GutmannLesser.GlobalLatinAmericaGlobal Latin America is for students, business leaders, policy makers, and global travelers interested in better understanding Latin America’s deep entanglements with and influence on our interdependent world. Chapters by academics, politicians, activists, journalists, scientists, and artists shine light on Latin American history, society, and culture. For those who want to appreciate the diversity and global relevance of Latin America in the twenty-first century, this volume collects some of the top scholarship and social analysis about global Latin America today and historically.

 


On Shopping Malls and the Politics of Access

by Arlene Davila, author of El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Minneapolis. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on November 20th.

UC Press is proud to be part of the AAUP’s fifth annual University Press Week. Check out our blog and social media channels through Nov. 19th (plus follow hashtags #ReadUp #UPWeek), and learn how we, along with 40 of our scholarly press colleagues, work diligently to publish vital works benefitting educational, specialized research, and general interest communities.

9780520286856Since the publication of El Mall, I have been asked what turned me to examining shopping malls and shopping cultures in Latin America, a question that is always loaded with significance.  It often assumes that shopping and shopping malls are irrelevant subjects of study for anthropologists and scholars, or that consumer culture is a vain or superfluous topic, or even that Latin Americans are exempt from the dreams and pulls of global consumer culture. I end these conversations thinking that all the talk around globalization, neoliberalism, mediated lives and materiality notwithstanding anthropologists and interdisciplinary scholars have not fully come to terms with the powerful pull of consumption and consumer cultures throughout the world and with the need to fully engage these topics in our research.

In the twenty or so years that I’ve been researching and writing about consumer culture and the political economy of culture I’ve found that cultural studies on these subjects still focuses overwhelmingly on the United States and Europe, while anthropologist are still shy to take on subjects that would compromise the “authenticity” of their anthropological field sites or topics of research.  Why study shopping malls, or fashion, or commercial media when these cultural phenomena seem indistinguishable from our cozy experiences in our very own consumer landscapes?-goes the thinking.  The fact is that I myself was not immune to these concerns when I embarked on this study.  I wrote about shopping malls not because I had purposefully set out to do so, but because I found myself in the “belly of the beast” – sharing my previous work on Puerto Rican consumer culture in a trade organization meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centers in Medellin – invited by a former interviewee.  It was he who felt I needed to write about shopping mall cultures and who despite my warnings that whatever I wrote would be from a critical perspective –opened my eyes to the booming world of shopping malls developers, contractors, pundits and more.  Soon I learned that this impenetrable business that seemed to materialize all the workings of neoliberal capitalism and remained so intimidating in its scope and reach was ripe for analysis.

Those of use who strive to study up and expose the political economy of institutions, industries and how capitalism works know full well that access is not always easy to get.  Corporate culture is all about confidentiality agreements, closed door meetings, proprietary research, and inaccessibly priced meetings and conferences that keep many of us at bay from knocking at the doors of powerful stakeholders of capitalism.  But with access comes responsibility to follow up and crack up the worlds of industry and neoliberal capitalism with fine tuned ethnographic research.  The result is a book that shows the why and how shopping malls are one of the most powerful engines of social transformations in Latin America, shaping how cities are organized and even how local fashionistas define class and identities on their daily lives.  Most humbly, the result is a reminder of the same lesson I learned when writing Latinos Inc. years earlier:  That capitalism is made up of relationships and that studying up is more necessary than ever in these age of rapid neoliberalization.  Once again, the “mundane” yet shining space of consumer culture surpassed my own expectations of what questions could be asked, and what issues were most relevant within this industry, from urban design to the topic of informal economies and even fast fashion.  In all, I’m very glad I heard the call the mall, and just delved in!

When sharing on social media, please be sure to use the #AAA2016 hashtag!


Arlene Dávila is Professor of Anthropology and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is the author of numerous books, including Barrio Dreams and Latinos Inc..


Columbus Day, Then and Now

In reference to Columbus Day and as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we recognize Hispanic and Latino Americans’ current contributions–and current struggles–in the United States. Learn more at #HispanicHeritage Month and #ColumbusDay.


Every year on Columbus Day, Americans celebrate Christopher Columbus’s landing in the New World on Oct. 12, 1492. The holiday was established in 1937. But many have begun to question the prevailing views of this day, opening the doors to discuss how it ignores the enslavement and mass murder of thousands of native and indigenous groups.

Some Latin American countries now choose to celebrate Día de la Raza (Day of the Race), celebrated on October 12 of each year. And in Spain, the holiday has been changed to Día de la Hispanidad (Day of Hispanity) or Fiesta Nacional de España  (National Day of Spain) to recognize Spain’s history, monarchy, and military.

The recognition of the cultural meaning of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World and the shift in its meaning is being introduced to a new generation of people and students so all can gain a truer understanding of Latin American and Latino American culture.

Almaguer.NewLatinoStudiesReaderIn 1491, on the eve on the Columbian voyages, there were some 123 distinct indigenous language families spoken in the Americas, with more than 260 different languages in Mexico alone. Perhaps as many as 20 million people were living in the Valley of Mexico in 1519, in hierarchical, complexly stratified theocratic states. But there were no Indians. Christopher Columbus invented them in 1492 by mistakenly believing that he had reached India, and thus calling them indios producing the lexical distinction we now use to refer to the Caribbean as the West Indies and to India as the East Indies. Inventing Indians was to serve an important imperial end for Spain, for by calling the natives indios, the Spaniards erased and leveled the diverse and complex indigenous political and religious hierarchies they found. Where once there had been many ethnic groups stratified as native lords, warriors, craftsmen, hunters, farmers, and slaves, the power of imperial Spain was not only to vanquish but to define, largely reducing peoples such as the mighty Aztecs into a defeated Indian class that soon bore the pain of subjugation as tribute-paying racialized subjects.

From Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Tomás Almaguer’s The New Latino Studies Reader: A Twenty-First-Century Perspective, Chapter 1, “What’s in a Name?” by Ramón A. Gutiérrez. 

Many now see this day as an opportunity to reaffirm their culture, share the value of their cultural identity, and an equal relationship amongst all peoples.

GutmannLesser.GlobalLatinAmericaAt a time when the commemoration of the Fifth Centenary of the arrival of Columbus in America has repercussions all over the world, the revival of hope for the oppressed indigenous peoples demands that we reassert our existence to the world and the value of our cultural identity. It demands that we endeavor to actively participate in the decisions that concern our destiny, in the building-up of our countries/nations. Should we, in spite of all, not be taken into consideration, there are factors that guarantee our future: struggle and endurance; courage; the decision to maintain our traditions that have been exposed to so many perils and sufferings; solidarity towards our struggle on the part of numerous countries, governments, organizations and citizens of the world. That is why I dream of the day when the relationship between the indigenous peoples and other peoples is strengthened; when they can combine their potentialities and their capabilities and contribute to make life on this planet less unequal, a better distribution of the scientific and cultural treasures accumulated by Humanity, flourishing in peace and justice.

From Matthew C. Gutmann and Jeffrey Lesser’s Global Latin America: Into the Twenty-First Century, Chapter 12, “Nobel Lecture” by Rigoberta Menchú Tum


The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders

by Luis D. León, author of The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez: Crossing Religious Borders

As part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we recognize Hispanic and Latino Americans’ current contributions–and current struggles–in the United States. Learn more at #HispanicHeritage Month.

This post was originally published on November 12th, 2014.

I grew up in California’s East Bay Area, in San Lorenzo. Even while my family was suburban, and not involved in farm work (my paternal grandmother and grandfather were farm laborers), Cesar Chavez loomed large in my cultural and political ecology. He once spoke at my high school. He seemed to be speaking for us, the Latina/os, at a time when I was aware of only negative and stereotypical media images of brown bodies. When I took a Chicano history course as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley I learned that Chavez was primarily a labor leader. As a doctoral student conducting primary source research in the Chicano archives at UCSB I discovered another Chavez—a distinctly spiritual and religious leader. I knew then that I wanted to uncover and tell that part of his story.

My hope is that scholars will discover a different Chavez, one who defies conventional classification, and encounter also a fresh way of narrating his work—one not insistent upon modernist notions of truth and subjectivity. The book is neither a history or biography, the focus is on the mythology—that is the myths he created about himself and those that were manufactured around him. I recognize that it is important to be factual about the research, but really I am writing about the record itself, rather than his actual life. In the words of Ruth Behar: “There is no true story of a life, after all. There are only stories told about and around a life.” Story telling is a political act, and Chavez was adept at telling very effective stories.

One of the turning points in the research was learning that Chavez was active in the struggle for LGBT civil rights. In 1987 he was one of the Grand Marshalls for the second annual march on Washington D.C. for Lesbian and Gay Rights. At the ceremony culminating the protest, he addressed a crowd of 200,000 people, claiming that his movement had been supporting gay rights for over 20 years. His activism on behalf of the LGBT community has been elided from the historiography; I came upon it through research in newspapers.

I consider my book as a contribution to an ongoing conversation. There is much remaining to be told about the late labor leader.

Luis D. León is Associate Professor in the department of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and author of La Llorona’s Children: Religion, Life, and Death in the U.S.-Mexican Borderlands.


El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America

by Arlene Dàvila, author of El Mall: The Spatial and Class Politics of Shopping Malls in Latin America

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

Tell us what are some key lessons you hope people will learn about shopping malls from reading your El Mall.

I was most intrigued to learn how shopping malls are seen from the standpoint of the investors and pundits that are promoting their growth. For these agents, shopping malls are most valuable as “investment mechanisms” as products of real estate and as “management concepts” that sell brands and experiences rather than products. All of this language is part of the professionalization of the global business of shopping malls and their financialization, which is one of the reasons malls are spreading so fast throughout the developing world considered the new terrain of opportunities. This brings up key questions about land speculation and the privatization of space that I also examine throughout the book. Right now there’s a lot of emphasis on acquiring and developing land, and whether or not the malls are sustainable is a secondary question that few are considering.

Also concerning is that many development pundits see shopping malls as models of cities and citizenship. There is a lot of boosterism around their development as malls are glamorized as the space where everything works, where everything is clean, shiny, secure and so forth. So a lot of what I do in the book is explore how these spaces are generative for the development of governmentalities around financial capitalism, and how cities should run. This is a very market-driven and sanitized vision, and a highly exclusive one. In sum, I argue that shopping malls are great to think about the material ramifications of contemporary neoliberal development both in terms of infrastructure and urban planning, but also in terms of people’s imaginaries of identity and class.

What can we learn about consumption and middle classes in Latin America?

The issue of class was always at the forefront because shopping malls are developed on the promise of openness, diversity, and modernity and built in communities that never had access to modern spaces of consumption. Given this, they are often welcomed with open arms by locals and government officials as a sign of a community’s “coming of age.” Even some scholars have argued that shopping malls in Latin America and the developing world are more “open” and accessible than the more segregated suburban malls that we associate with malls in the U.S. A key point here is that in Latin America malls are often developed within cities, very accessible to public transportation, — which itself is an outcome of how much public infrastructure is being directed to these projects. All of this is happening at the same time that new trade agreements are opening up the way to the importation of cheaper consumer goods, and the the expansion of credit is making new types of consumption possible for emerging groups. So you see a lot of new consumers at these malls, yet I show that malls are far from open spaces for intra-class unity. Here I tease out how class distinctions are not only manifested but also shaped in the context of the mall.  In fact, there is a lot of surveillance around how people look, dress, in addition to all the markers of race and ethnicity. Ultimately, I hope to bring attention to matters of class and consumption in Latin America where these issues are seldom looked at. I hope to contribute to fill this void to understand who these “new middle classes,” what are their quotidian practices and to the extent to their middle classlessness may be more of a marketing construction than a reality.

What made you write a chapter on fashion?

There is always at least one chapter in your book that you never imagine writing but that has to be written because that is the topic that keeps coming up in most of your interviews. My fieldwork in Colombia coincided with the advent of new “global” fast fashion brands to the country, brands of the likes of Zara and Forever 21 and everyone was talking about this. Colombia is a fashion capital of its own, but like everywhere that is not NY-Paris-London-Milan, it never gets the recognition. I was curious to learn how the coming of global fast fashion brands was affecting the local fashion scene, and how professional young women were negotiating new consumption codes for self-styling. I learned that the globalization of brands and standardization of retail is one of the most conflicting outcomes of the spread of shopping malls in the region. This development has huge implications for local fashion and design workers, from those working in the informal economy to those trying to conquer a global fashion industry that gets more out of their reach with each new global North American/European brand that arrives in the local scene.


Arlene Dávila is Professor of Anthropology and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is the author of numerous books, including Barrio Dreams (UC Press, 2004) and Latinos Inc. (UC Press, 2001, 2012).


Kevin O’Neill interviewed on New Books in Latin American Studies

Kevin O’Neill, author of recently released Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala, spoke to Alejandra Bronfman on the New Books in Latin American Studies podcast last week.

New Books in Latin American Studies is part of the New Books Network, a collection of podcasts hosted by the Amherst College Library dedicated to public discourse and the discussion of new books by their authors.

Listen to the full interview here or on the New Books Network’s website, which also features Alejandra’s full review of the book.

9780520278493-1In their in-depth conversation, Kevin O’Neill touches upon a number of topics, from his path to the field of anthropology and his his research in Guatemala to his thoughts on the larger relationship between Christian institutions and gang violence and the role of “Mateo” as presented in his book.

“This is a finely hewn multi-sited ethnography as well as a moving account of the life of a single former gang member,” says Alejandra Bronfman on Secure the Soul. “At its core is a tension between the critique of programs that range from the absurd to the tragic, and a recognition that without those programs, former gang members in Guatemala would be relegated to the barest of bare lives.”