Category Archives: Literature

Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil

Elizabeth Bishop, the American poet that would be a 100 this week, arrived in Rio when she was 40. And Rio changed her life.

She was supposed to stay for two weeks – that became 15 years. After moving to an apartment overseeing Copacabana beach, Bishop fell in love with carioca socialite Lota de Macedo Soares, the architect responsible for the design of Parque do Flamengo. There, Elizabeth wrote some of her best poems and translated books by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and João Cabral de Melo Neto. About Drummond, she said: “I didn’t know him at all. He’s supposed to be very shy. I’m supposed to be very shy. We’ve met once — on the sidewalk at night. We had just come out of the same restaurant, and he kissed my hand politely when we were introduced.”

In 1956, during her Rio phase, she won the  Pullitzer prize for a collection of her poetry. Later, she moved to Petrópolis (once the royal retreat and, more recently, one of the cities in the state of Rio affected by heavy floods) and also to historic Ouro Preto, in Minas Gerais. Finally, in the late sixties, she decided to return to the US (and was followed by Lota, who committed suicide a few days later). Back home, Elizabeth Bishop became a Harvard and MIT professor.

Always analytic, not always kind, Bishop comments on Brazilian ethnicity and racial relations at the time: Continue reading Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil

Who’s black?

Mulatto then white Machado de Assis (in a photo taken by the great Marc Ferrez in 1880) and...
Mulatto then white Machado de Assis (in a photo taken by the great Marc Ferrez in 1880) and…

Machado de Assis, the greatest Brazilian novelist of all times, was born black and poor, in one of the hills of Rio de Janeiro, the grandchild of freed slaves. His mother was born in the Azores islands, that belong to Portugal, but his birth certificate, from 1839, was clear: he was mulatto. But, in 1908, when Machado died, covered in glory, the founder president of Academia Brasileira de Letras (the prestigious club that congregates the elite of the country’s writers), his death certificate stated that he was white.

Black then white then black Lima Barreto
Black then white then black Lima Barreto

Another great writer, Lima Barreto, himself a slave descendant, had a different fate. This lonely, drunkard anarchist spent time in a psychiatric hospital, before dying at 41, in 1922. His birth certificate indicated he was black. His medical papers, the first time he was taken to the hospital, when he was enjoying celebrity, said that he was white. Finally, when he died in disgrace, his death certificate sent him back to the black community.

Traditionally, in Brazil, society identifies individuals as black or white according to their money. A few years ago I interviewed a successful black businessman that  would be considered black anywhere in the world . He thought of himself as black – and I suppose that is what really matters. He told me that he was a member of several trade associations and his partners would frequently hint that he wasn’t REALLY black. “They say to me: look at your nose, look at your skin tone, you are white!”, he told me, laughing.

If you are into this topic, you can also check my former post Racism, the Brazilian Way. Don’t miss the comments. Some are pretty cool. And if you want to dive into the universe of Brazilian literature, look for a decent translation of Machado de Assis’s “Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas“, “Dom Casmurro” or “Quincas Borba“, and Lima Barreto’s “Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma“.

If you liked this post, try also BBC documentary about Brazilian slavery and Darker middle class and Blacks that built Brazil.

Beloved criminals

Meneghetti desguised

Brazilians have a somewhat disturbing tenderness for certain types of criminals. Let me drop some names that will prove my point: Meneghetti, Adhemar de Barros, Lampião and your generic malandro.

Take, for instance, the figure of Gino Meneghetti. Born in Pisa, Italy, in 1870, he became a huge celebrity in São Paulo, between 1914 and the sixties. He was known as the “good thief”, “the greatest criminal of Latin America” and the “roof cat”, due to his ability of jumping from one house to another to deceive the police. The public passion for Meneghetti florished thanks to the massive media coverage of his feats and the fact that he never hurt anybody, only stole from the rich and performed spectacular escapes.

The second name in our list: coffee producer and politician Adhemar de Barros, the very popular governor that ruled over São Paulo state during part of the forties, the fifties and the sixties. One of his mottos, of striking candor, is still remembered by those who distrust politicians: “Roubo, mas faço” (I steal, but I also build). Indeed, he was very hard working and left a legacy of power dams, roads, schools and hospitals. But his government was also marked by several corruption episodes. Till today you can find elder adhemaristas that still long for those days.

Continue reading Beloved criminals