Category Archives: History

UFOs over Brazil

Oscar Niemeyer's Contemporary Art Museum in Niterói. Photo by Rodrigo Soldon, Flickr

Brazil has its own Roswell – a widely documented episode in which hundreds of people declared they witnessed the presence of extraterrestrial aliens during a four-month period on the coast of the state of Pará, in the Amazon region. In 1977, several locals reported seeing very strong flashing lights. Many of them felt an extraordinary pain and lack of energy. The rumor was that these UFOs were extracting their blood for some sort of experiment. At least 400 people testified the phenomenon, that happened simultaneously in different villages, some of them 100 kilometers apart. The experience generated panic and  mysticism.

The Brazilian Air Force sent twenty officials to investigate these strange occurrences in a secret mission, named Operação Prato (Saucer Operation). Its leader, colonel Uyrangê Hollanda Lima, now deceased, took 20 years to reveal his conclusions (full report here, in Portuguese). He was fully convinced that some sort of alien civilization was actively investigating earthling activities.

Continue reading UFOs over Brazil

7 things you should know before cruising a Brazilian city

Street of Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul state. Photo by Fabrício Marcon, via Flickr

Sales of private vehicles grew 10% in 2010 and Brazilians get more and more addicted to their cars. In a way, it is a pity – more traffic jams, more air pollution, less urban interaction. In contrast, the circulation by public transportation or using your own feet offers wonderful opportunities for those who want to mingle with the locals, discover the country’s culture and habits, find unbeaten paths. I am a big enthusiast of the pedestrian way of life – got my driving license 25 years ago but never used it (you can read more about this experience here, in Portuguese).

Naturally, knowing how the Brazilian cities grew and function can be very helpful for the amateur strollers. I collected a few tips that are pretty universal all over the country. Please, let me know about your own observations.

  1. In most cities, houses and buildings are numbered according to the distance in meters from the beginning of the street. In this case, if you are in front of house # 100 and you are looking for house # 1100, you know you will have to walk 1 kilometer.  Street numeration begins downtown (or on the extremity that is pointing towards downtown). The same is valid for roads. If you see a sign saying the city you are heading to is 15 kilometers away, this is the distance to the center of the town, not to its borders. Personally, I love this system. I remember having trouble in Paris because the house numbers bear no relation to the size of the blocks. I could never calculate how long it would take to reach my destination. Continue reading 7 things you should know before cruising a Brazilian city

Zeppelin over the tropics

“We ran upstairs to the open porch and saw the colossal Graf Zeppelin float by above us, sunshine reflecting from its silver sides”, describes Alicia Momsen Miller, that was five in 1930, when she first saw the dirigible. Three years later, together with her two brothers, she was one of the first kids to ever fly in the Graf Zeppelin. By then, it had an established route between South America, Europe and the US.

Alicia’s father was an American diplomat and lawyer based in Rio. He was offered a free trip from Rio to Chicago  to visit the World’s Fair, named “A Century of Progress”. Her mother visited the airship and said, shocked, that the fabric looked like you could poke a hole through it with your finger. “She was horrified, deciding never to trust her children in such a thing”, remembers Alicia. “But my father insisted they look at the accommodations in the gondola, and they ascended the short sturdy ladder. ‘What a surprise!’,  my mother said, ”The large living room with its big windows had a number of attractive chairs and tables, and down the hall were wonderful  roomy double staterooms.’ She felt the mattresses, and found them comfortable. ‘If anything happens, at least we’ll all be together’, she said”. And so they traveled. Continue reading Zeppelin over the tropics

Brazilian Babel

Baré indians in the Cuieiras river, in the Amazon/photo by Daniel Zanini

by Sylvia Estrella*

You may be under the impression – like most people – that Portuguese is the only language spoken in Brazil. In fact, 0.5% of the population (around 750,000 people) are native speakers of 200 other languages, including the indigenous ones.
According to Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a non-profit that has the best statistics on the country’s native population, the 225 remaining Brazilian ethnic groups speak 180 different languages. A few Native groups abandoned their original languages and embraced other languages, such as Portuguese and French Creole (spoken in neighboring French Guyana).
Some of the Native languages remain relatively strong and are spoken by over 20,000 people. On the other hand, some are vanishing and are used by less than a couple dozen individuals. Continue reading Brazilian Babel

Brasília, half a century later

Photo by João Vicente/Flickr
Photo by João Vicente/Flickr

The most graphic city in the world becomes middle aged today. Fifty years later,  Brasília’s curves, ramps, wide avenues and huge open spaces keep their freshness.

Conceived by architect Oscar Niemeyer and urbanist Lúcio Costa to host the Brazilian federal government, Brasília was custom made to fulfill president Juscelino Kubitschek’s utopia. He dreamed of a modernist city right in the middle of the country, many hundreds of kilometers away from the coast and any major city. It was meant to integrate and develop areas that were scarcely occupied and also to remove the high bureaucracy from Rio, the former capital, a city full of distractions.

To Brasília converge not only all the power, but also all of those prone to mysticism. Many believe the city has a special energy, whatever that means. This legend began with Dom Bosco, the Italian saint that founded the Salesian order in the 19th century.  In a vision, he saw a promised land of immense riches that would be the epicenter of a new civilization. It would be built in the next four generations and would be roughly located where Brasília was established. Many Brasilienses believe the capital materializes that vision.

Several esoteric groups congregate in the capital. The most famous is Vale do Amanhecer (Dawn Valley), that believes that we descend from extraterrestrials that colonized the planet 32,000 years ago. These revelations were made by the group’s main founder, known as Tia Neiva, who believed she was the reincarnation of Cleopatra and Nefertiti. Vale do Amanhecer mixes spiritualism, Christian concepts, plus African, Mayan and Roma traditions.

In the following video, a cool summary of the pioneering years of this very peculiar city:


Brazil and food, a love story

Ten dishes for your delight:

  • Once upon a time, landowners used to invent dietary taboos to convince their slaves that they shouldn’t eat certain things. Two of these taboos remain strong. The first says that you might die if you ate mangoes with milk. Mangoes were (and are) very abundant in the Northeast and, thus, common in the slave’s plate. Thus, the masters were trying to avoid their access to the milk. The other taboo involves eating bananas, another abundant fruit in most of the country. “Banana, de dia é ouro, de tarde é prata, de noite mata” (Banana is gold in the morning, silver in the afternoon, and fatal during the night) warns a popular saying, efficient in keeping the slaves away from the orchard after the twilight.
  • Overheard in an international cruise, days ago. “Brazilian passengers want lots of food, don’t really care if a dish is hot or cold,  salty or sweet. But they want to eat a lot and several times a day”, writes architect and blogger Duílio Ferronato, who is working as a cook in a transatlantic, as he describes the orders he received from his superior. “European passengers, in contrast, eat less, use less salt and are more exigent. They want their dishes warm, with a beautiful presentation”. Continue reading Brazil and food, a love story

Saints without a halo*

Mighty Anastácia

They were not canonized. They are controversial. There is even doubt if some of them really existed. Nevertheless, Brazilian popular saints generate deep devotion, pilgrimages and flourishing commerce.

Take, for example, Escrava Anastácia. This beautiful slave of blue eyes, that supposedly lived in the 18th century, was obliged by her master to wear a mask covering her mouth, because she refused to, you know, accept his sweet love. Apparently, this device was commonly used in the gold mines, so the slaves wouldn’t ingest (and steal) the metal. There is almost no evidence that Anastácia really existed, but she is still considered a big miracle worker.

Another powerful popular saint is Padre (Father) Cícero, a priest, landowner and conservative political leader of Juazeiro, in the Northeastern state of Ceará. Also known as Padim Ciço, he was excommunicated in the late 19th century by the local bishop after a series of supposed miracles that his superior considered a fraud: the host offered by Cícero would systematically turn into blood when ingested by one of the priest’s followers. Later his excommunication was invalidated by the Vatican but he was never allowed to return to his parish. His popularity never diminished, though. He amassed a huge fortune, including 34 rural properties, and became the state’s vice-governor.

Continue reading Saints without a halo*

Brazilian aircrafts raid on Monte Castello

Today is the 65th anniversary of one of the main campaigns ever promoted by the Brazilian Army and Air Force – the takeover of the inexpugnable fortress of Monte Castello, close to Bologna, in Northern Italy. World War II was in its final months and 25,000 Brazilian soldiers were sent to Italy fight alongside with the Allies to stop the German advances. Under the leadership of general Mascarenhas de Moraes, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (Força Expedicionária Brasileira or FEB)  promoted a series of combined air raids and artillery and tank attacks.  Around 440 Brazilians died during the three-month operation.

Continue reading Brazilian aircrafts raid on Monte Castello

Brazilian Baroque

Igreja de São Francisco, Mariana, in Minas Gerais state

When you think of Baroque, you probably remember the curvy, exaggerated, passionate form of art that  blossomed in Europe since the 17th century.  You may think of Caravaggio and Bernini in Italy, or the rococo in France, or Bach and Handel in Germany. Less known but equally important was the Brazilian Baroque, that dominated the art scene in the country between the end of the 17th and the 19th centuries.

Although both literature and music incorporated baroque elements, it is in architecture that Baroque really excelled.

Most baroque churches have sober exteriors that contrast with very ornate interior decoration, including chubby angels, birds, vines and a profusion of color.  Cities that were rich at the time, thanks to diamonds, gold or sugar trade, such as Salvador, in Bahia, or Ouro Preto, in Minas Gerais, could afford to use gold leaves and noble materials and to hire the best artists of the time. Among them, Antônio Francisco Lisboa, known as Aleijadinho (The Crippled, a nickname given in less politically correct times), and Manoel da Costa Athaide (or Mestre Athaide).

Aleijadinho, the son of a Portuguese with a slave, lived in the state of Minas Gerais from 1730 until 1814. His amazing work as an architect, decorator and sculptor has a unique, dramatic style. The details and the realism of his statues, sculpted in wood or soap stone, are particularly impressive when you think of how the Aleijadinho worked: he had to attach his tools to his hands, after he lost his fingers to leprosy. Mestre Athaide was a very influential painter, known for the use of perspective and for the African traits of his angels and saints. Continue reading Brazilian Baroque

São Paulo, 456 candles

Favela do Moinho, a downtown shanty town

Happy anniversary, Sampa.

A few pictures to sum up the highs and lows of my hometown. Plus, images produced in 1929 by Rodolfo Lustig and Adalberto Kemeni, when São Paulo, then the coffee capital of the world, was transitioning into a huge industrial and financial hub. It was also the eve of the so-called Revolução de 30, when its  historical alliance with the state of Minas Gerais collapsed, and São Paulo lost a political battle to define who the next president would be. The main outcome of the conflict was the rise of Getúlio Vargas, that commanded the country for most of the following two decades.

Postscript – I did a lot of reflection after receiving Ray’s comment and seeing, at least partially, his point, decided to remove the homeless boy’s pictures from my original post. I appreciate my readers help. This blog is still trying to find its voice and its right tone. Continue reading São Paulo, 456 candles