chapter  2
29 Pages

Social Realities

Traditionally, Brazil had two hierarchical classes. On top sat the upper class of property owners as well as merchants, bureaucrats, and officials; virtu­ ally everyone else belonged to the povo-the common people. There were divisions within each group, of course. Only men bom in Portugal were appointed to high positions, so in time Brazilian-bom members of the gen­ try chafed at their second-class status and ultimately opted for independence from Portugal. Soon after independence, French culture (as well as influ­ ences from Italy, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States) surpassed Portuguese culture in status. Brazilians came to consider their own dialect and traditions preferred to those of the mother country. Members of Brazil’s upper classes accepted and imitated the forms of cultural expression im­ ported from abroad and at the same time tended either to denigrate or to romanticize native Brazilian culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, moreover, Portuguese culture was identified mainly with immigrants from Portugal, mostly peasants and petty merchants. Brazilian high culture dur­ ing the belle epoque was rigorously French, emphasized by the creation of the Brazilian Academy of Letters with its forty immortals, housed in a building named the Petit Trianon-the same name as its counterpart in Paris. The Brazilian elite spent millions to build opera houses, theaters, statuary, arches, and to widen streets to approximate the great European boulevards. Upper-class culture was sophisticated, multilingual, and cosmo­ politan. Still, as late as 1970, an influential literary critic estimated that high culture reached only some 50,000 persons out of 90 million Brazilians.