Lesser explores the flexible ethnic and religious identities in Brazil

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Jeffrey Lesser, professor of Brazilian studies at Emory University, discusses the ideas of identity, immigration, nationality and heritage in Brazilian society during his Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Friday.

Americans describe their ethnicity with hyphens. When an immigrant comes to the United States, citizens become “Chinese-American,” or “Italian-American.” This modification, Jeffrey Lesser said, is representative of the fact that Americans strongly believe immigrants “come to the United States and better themselves upon arrival because the United States is intrinsically great.”

In Brazil, there are no hyphens.

Lesser, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Brazilian Studies and chair of the Department of History at Emory University, described the role immigrants play in shaping an interconnected cultural and religious Brazilian nation. His 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, “What’s So New about the New Multicultural Brazil?” wrapped up Week Six’s theme, “Brazil: The Interplay of Religion and Culture.”

“Many people across class, across race, across ethnic lines traditionally see immigrants as improving an imperfect nation,” Lesser said. “Immigrants in Brazil are hailed as saviors because they improve Brazil — not because they are improved by Brazil.”

Immigrants do not simply merge into a class of Brazilians as immigrants merge into a class of Americans in the United States. Instead, they remain immigrants even generations after their families migrate to the nation, Lesser said.

“When Brazilians claim … that they live in a país do futuro — a country of the future — they are suggesting that the country is changing for the better,” he said. “And in this cultural context, being an immigrant is a high status category.”

This high status means two things for Brazilian people, Lesser said. Immigrants are actually better Brazilians, and the actual Brazilians — the Afro-Brazilians, for example — “are often treated as an aspect of Brazil that needs to be improved.”

Foreigners are encouraged to stay true to their ethnicity, Lesser said. But there is also an intrinsic racism in the way Brazilians see foreigners as better than original Brazilians. Along with that racism is a different way of defining “whiteness,” he said. Instead of thinking of the classifier as a color, Brazilians think of it as a type of social construct defined by occupation and class status wherein ethnic groups “become white over time in very unexpected ways.”

Lesser said these ideas are inherent in the Brazilian political system. In his research, Lesser followed a group of Japanese politicians during campaign season. One of the politicians was disliked by Japanese Brazilians because of the part of Japan he originated from, meaning that demographic wouldn’t vote for him. Despite this, Lesser said he used his Japanese ethnicity in his political propaganda because it showed that he was an immigrant — therefore a much better politician than any Brazilian he was running against.

This idea of foreignness is also important when thinking of religion in Brazil, Lesser said. The nation is made up of a diverse religious culture — full of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and various Christian, Afro-Brazilian and New Age religions. In the same way Brazilian ethnicity is a flexible identification, religion is also flexible.

“There are some who claim simultaneous ethnic and religious affiliations that are really different than the norm [in America],” Lesser said. “My sense is if most of us met someone here in the United States who said, ‘Listen, I’m Muslim on Thursdays. Saturdays I’m Jewish, Sundays Catholic.’ We would kind of say, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. No. You’re one thing or you’re another thing — you don’t get to be all the things.’ But in Brazil, this is something that’s more commonly possible. It’s possible to move between these identities in a culturally comfortable way.”

Many people in Brazil “convert” to a different religion without giving up their prior beliefs, he said. Afro-Brazilians, for example, continue to practice religions such as Candomblé while converting to Islam or Judaism. In the same respect, Jewish, Christian and Muslim Brazilians also practice Buddhism or other Asiatic religions while continuing to practice their prior religions. Christians will attend Friday night Shabbat services and then attend their regular service on Sunday.

This flexible relationship is also evident in the way religious people are categorized in Brazil. Jews and Arabs, Lesser said, are thought of as being in one big group because of their cultural history in Brazil.

Many of the Jewish immigrants came from the Middle East. In the 19th century, all people coming from that region had Ottoman passports, grouping Christian, Jewish and Muslims alike under the category of Turks, Lesser said. Unlike many European immigrants, the Jews and Arabs were not agriculturalists and settled sporadically throughout the nation — they weren’t linked to other immigrant groups who settled in rural, plantation areas to work. These factors grouped the Arabs and Jews in the Brazilian mind, Lesser said.

Other ideas added to this classification.

“One common theory in Brazil was that the Portuguese colonizers were secret Semites who had a racial connection to the Amazonian indigenous people,” Lesser said. “To this day, some claim that the Indians in the Amazon, the indigenous people of Brazil, were a lost tribe of Israel, or a lost tribe of Arabs.”

In reality, the first Jewish immigrants in Brazil were from Morocco — “in other words they were both Arabs and Jews simultaneously,” Lesser said. They moved to the Amazon region and married indigenous women there, converting them to Judaism and giving them Arabic last names, adding another link between the two groups in Brazil.

Today, the connection persists because Brazilian Jews and Arabs are in the highest social and economic classes in Brazil, Lesser said. It continues the cycle — Brazilians would rather “convert,” or pick up the practices of Judaism and Islam and think of themselves as immigrants than simply classify as a Brazilian native. In the end, it’s the immigrants who continue to shape the nation.

A Brazilian minister wrote in the 1940s that even newborns are thought of as immigrants. Lesser quoted, “Let’s not forget this profound truth, and let’s support those who will make the future of Brazil bigger, stronger and more respected.”