When you think of Brazil, what comes to mind?
The beaches? Carnival? One of the world’s best football squads? For many, the South American nation serves as a backdrop to tropical vacations, sexy women and a non-stop party atmosphere.
But on closer inspection, Brazil is far more than it seems.
Despite the images exported around the world, Brazil is one of the world’s Blackest nations in the world. In fact, it is only second to Nigeria in the number of African-descendants residing within its borders. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, over 40 percent of all of the slaves were sent to Brazil, far more than any other country, including the U.S.
Despite the large concentration of African-descendants, however, Brazil’s racial history has been a complicated one. Although most residents—up to half—boast African-ancestry, the country has not fully embraced its identity as one of the Blackest nations in the world.
After slavery ended, Brazil’s government welcomed European immigrants and encouraged “race mixing” as a way to “whiten” the country. Even today, many Brazilians pride themselves on the diversity of their country, but the lack of visible Black or mixed raced public figures speaks to something else entirely.
Recently, Brazil’s complicated racial past made headlines yet again as news of Lázaro Ramos spread throughout the media.
Ramos, an actor, just nabbed a leading role on a popular Brazilian soap opera and is the first Black man—ever—to do so. Sure there have been a few Black actors cast on the soaps in the past, but Ramos is the first to be the star.
“Of course, it’s late,” Ramos said of his starring role.
“There’s something visible, perceivable, which is this inequality of the country, of television, of being black, of being in theater. This is the reality we live with. But I like to talk about the positive side,” he told the Christian Science Monitor.
The positive side for Ramos is that he thinks his new role will open the doors for other Black actors in Brazil. Although he’s been a prominent feature on the independent film circuit, Ramos’ role on “Insensato Coração” takes him into the homes of millions of Brazilians each night.
Despite Ramos’ achievement, however, everyone is not so happy about his new role. Many of his fellow Black actors have mixed feelings about Ramos’ character on the novela.
“We are divided. We commemorate it [but] it’s a very ambiguous feeling,” André Santana, an actor who once worked with Ramos, says of his prominent but hypersexualized character. “We have a step to the front because we have an actor on [the mainstream channel] Globo, but we have two back because it is such a negative role.”
The push to see more Black actors on TV screens in Brazil coincides with the rise of the Black and mixed-race middle-class. According to the Christian Science Monitor, for the first time in the nation’s history, less Brazilians are identifying as White, many claiming either Black or mixed-race heritage. And of course, Brazilians want this change reflected on popular telenovelas.
“Brazilian telenovelas denied [for years] our racial diversity,” says Mr. Zito Araújo. But he sees the growing movement for mixed-race Brazilians to call themselves black and a rising esteem for interracial relationships – “It’s starting to be chic” – as positive steps for integration. “It makes people admire this [black] middle class in Brazil.
Despite the push for many in Brazil to self-identify as Black or mixed, the fact that it’s 2011 and Ramos is the first Black male lead on the Brazilian soap opera speaks volumes.
Just like in America, Ramos’ achievement once again highlights that racial barriers still exist in many countries around the world…even in those that claim to have moved beyond race.
*Special shout out to Clutchette Chanel Sykes for sending us this tip!