How migration to and from the U.S. is transforming notions of race in Brazil.
I still remember my first trip to Brazil—I was amazed by the diversity of physical features I saw among the population, a continuous range of skin tones between what Americans think of as “white” and “black.” Everyone seemed to get along well; residential segregation levels were low and interracial couples, families and friend groups appeared to be the norm. It would have been easy to believe that Brazil was a racial paradise compared to the United States. However, as I learned Portuguese and spent more time in the country, I came to realize that Brazil was a country of racial contradictions.
Despite having seemingly more “cordial” interpersonal relations, Brazil has struggled with rampant social inequality, especially between lighter and darker Brazilians. While Brazilians espoused the beauty of its multiracial population, I was perplexed every time I passed stands full of Brazilian magazines and saw a sea of fair-skinned faces with blonde hair and blue eyes upheld as the ideal image of beauty. As a black American, I began to notice commonalities between the pervasiveness of structural racism in Brazil and the U.S. while being keenly aware of the different racial ideologies that characterized each nation’s history.
Brazil was once considered the global model for burying racial hatchets and fostering social inclusiveness.
Brazil was once considered the global model for burying racial hatchets and fostering social inclusiveness, while the U.S. has garnered a reputation for being an overtly racist country. As the two largest countries in the Americas, both indelibly impacted by long histories of structural racism, Brazil and the U.S. have been the focus of countless comparative studies on race. And though the number of people traveling and migrating between each country has increased significantly in the last few decades, there are few accounts of how these migrations facilitated movement of race between these countries.
Increased migration from Latin America to the U.S. and the ensuing immigration reform debates have drawn attention to the Latino population—now the nation’s largest ethno-racial minority. Despite being perceived as a monolith, Latinos are a highly diverse group—in phenotype, national origins, socioeconomic status, and language. This level of complexity inevitably results in distinct and nuanced notions of race—and yet, how these notions are brought to bear on racial discourse in the U.S. is not very well understood.
Even less is known about how U.S. racial discourse is transmitted internationally by migrants who temporarily or permanently return from the U.S. to their home countries. In this instance, Brazil is an intriguing case study. Though their numbers are much smaller than other Latino immigrant groups, Brazilian immigration to the U.S. ticked up amid a huge recession in the 1980s. Coming from a country with a historic reputation as a racial democracy, Brazilian immigrants have been perplexed by U.S. race relations, especially the importance of racial classification and overt discrimination.
Most Brazilian immigrants also do not tend to permanently remain in the U.S. Rather, their goal is to work for a few years, save money, and return to Brazil to start a business or purchase real estate with money earned in the U.S. This process has been referred to as Fazer a América, which translates to “making America,” and has been a rite of passage in the city of Governador Valadares (GV), the country’s largest immigrant-sending city to the U.S., for the last 50 years.
Nearly every resident of the city has migrated to or has relatives living in the U.S. The cross-border connections with the U.S. are so pronounced that some Brazilians refer to GV as “Governador Vala-Dolares” (a play on “dollars”). The number of high-rise apartments buildings and small businesses opened with U.S. remittances serves as a testament to the economic impact of U.S. migration and the social and cultural impacts have been just as relevant.
Perhaps most notably, “making America” has transformed the racial conceptions of Brazilian migrants who return to GV after living in the U.S. As mostly undocumented immigrants of color, they experience racial and anti-immigrant discrimination in the U.S., the likes of which many had never encountered before. Generally these migrants feel that while the U.S. is more overtly racist than Brazil, there are more opportunities for social mobility. Also, once these individuals return home, they often take a harder view of Brazil’s “cordial” race relations.
Subconsciously, these migrants returning to GV bring back a U.S. racial lens, acquired while living abroad, that recasts their own view of Brazilian racial relations. The experiences of these migrants illustrate how individuals can “carry” race with them—just as they do goods, money, and culture—as they move across borders. This movement facilitates the migration of race, namely racial categories and how race affects people’s interactions with others.
These exchanges of people, goods, culture, and racial notions between both countries is ongoing, with some scholars arguing that racial thinking in Brazil and the United States are starting to resemble each other. The growing diversity of the U.S. population, President Barack Obama’s historic presidency, and arguments that the U.S. is now “post-racial” have elicited comparisons to Brazil’s racial paradise. Conversely, Brazil’s implementation of quotas to increase Afro-Brazilians’ access to higher education is regarded as making that nation more racially conscious with this “American import.”
The movement of people between countries impacts both the construction of race and responses to racial issues. Migrants first negotiate race transnationally by relying on racial ideals from their country of origin to understand and interpret race in their host society as immigrants. After their return migration, however, they draw on racial ideals acquired abroad to readapt to race at home. Over time, the aggregate impact of this shift in social attitudes can have reverberations all they way up to macro-level processes, influencing racial stratification and race-based public policies. Owing in no small part to the increasingly porous borders of a globalized world, racial notions today are very much on the move.