Lesser to evaluate Brazil’s flexible multiculturalism



Many scholars focus on somewhat traditional ways of thinking about Brazil, but Jeffrey Lesser is interested in Brazilians who don’t fit into the typical categories — namely, Japanese, Jewish and Arab Brazilians.

Lesser, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Brazilian Studies and chair of the Department of History at Emory University, will give a lecture titled “What’s So New about the New Multicultural Brazil?” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture theme is “Brazil: The Interplay of Religion and Culture.”

Brazil is a multicultural country that is not limited to black, white and Catholic people, Lesser said. And although religion is an important part of Brazilian national identity, the way people understand it in the country is much different than how people in the United States do so. In the U.S., people tend to be “of faith” or “not of faith,” and if they are of faith they adhere to certain practices, which isn’t always the case in Brazil, Lesser said.

“In Brazil, people often have an idea about identity that’s much more flexible,” Lesser said, explaining how Brazilians will participate in two faith communities simultaneously, or practice a religion that mixes other religions together. “That’s much more common in Brazil, and so in that regard, religion is very important in Brazil, but what religion means is quite different than in the United States.”

The root of this religious flexibility in Brazil dates back to colonialism, and this mixing is a normal action rather than a radical one, Lesser said. The U.S. was largely constructed by Protestants from Northern Europe who came from areas with strict ideas about religion and race, whereas Brazil’s roots are more multifaceted.

“Brazil was originally colonized by the Portuguese, and Portugal had itself been colonized by Arabs, and those Arabs had among them many Jews, so there was already a kind of mixing that was going on,” he said.

Much of Lesser’s work is about Brazilians who are not black but also not white, he said.

People are becoming more interested in ethnic relations and minority studies, but the groups Lesser studies have often been overlooked, in part because scholars have particularly focused on people in great poverty in Brazil, which does not always encompass these groups.

“Japanese Brazilians, Jewish Brazilians, Arab Brazilians generally inhabit the upper echelons of class society,” Lesser said. “I think scholars have somehow come to the mistaken impression of putting these groups in a simple ‘white’ category and therefore not really paying attention.”

Lesser will also discuss the political ramifications of the U.S.’s outlook on immigration compared to that of Brazil’s. Lesser said that the U.S. holds a strong cultural idea that when people immigrate to the country, they become better than they were, and that more immigrants will somehow dilute the transformative nature of the U.S.; in Brazil, however, that notion is reversed.

“In Brazil, there’s a sense that the more immigrants, the better Brazil will be,” he said.