Brazil is a big place. I don’t think I fully appreciated this until I got my placement (Caxias do Sul) and looked up how far away it was from São Paulo: about 13 hours southwest by car. And that’s just one tiny corner of the country.
Given Brazil’s size, there’s a whole lot of room for geographic and cultural diversity. This is one of those ideas I know intellectually but rarely slow down to actually consider. Brazil may house much of the Amazon and be situated on the equator, but it also contains cities (like mine!) where it’s not unheard of to get snow.
In fact, if you were to overlay Brazil onto the US, it would extend from Canada well into Mexico. Brazil is actually larger than the continental US—it’s just that pesky Alaska that keeps the US ahead in the overall rankings.
Even as I write this, I’m struck by how full the US seems. We have 50 states with distinct identities, and I can connect every one of them to either some personal or general experience. I’ve never been to Louisiana, for example, but I’m familiar with New Orleans and jambalaya and Hurricane Katrina. It’s not comprehensive, but at least it’s something.
By contrast, Brazil feels so empty. In my mind, it has the Amazon, some beaches, and various cities with discouraging levels of crime. If I don’t think about it, I find myself just assuming people across Brazil live a lifestyle of soccer and samba devoid of any history or context. But of course, that’s not true.
So, when I landed in Caxias do Sul a week ago, I was eager to contextualize the city, state, and country I’ll be calling home for the next nine months. I’m sure this will be an endeavor that extends far beyond my grant period, but after just a week here, I have a working thesis: I’m in the Texas of Brazil.
Like the US, Brazil has states. Caxias do Sul is in Rio Grande do Sul (abbreviated RS), the southernmost one. Do Sul just means of the south—Portuguese maps of the US show Dakota do Sul and Carolina do Sul, for example.
Geographically, Rio Grande do Sul shares a ton of similarities with nearby Uruguay and Argentina. In high school Spanish classes, I learned about the gauchos (cowboys, essentially) who roamed grassy plains called pampas, drank tea called yerba mate, and cooked asado similar to barbecue. Rio Grande do Sul has pampas and gaúchos too, but here they drink chimarrão and eat churrasco instead.
Gaúcho culture is a big thing here in Caxias. It’s the second-biggest city in Rio Grande do Sul, but I still get the impression that people here sort of think of themselves as gaúchos—proud, independent people with their own unique way of life. In fact, September 20 is a huge deal here, because it’s the day when some gaúchos took the capital city of Porto Alegre in an attempt to secede from the rest of Brazil way back in 1835.
How deep this allegiance runs, how it intersects with national and racial identities, and how it informs popular understandings of the region’s history (such as with indigenous people) all remain to be seen. I’m planning to write a more comprehensive blog post about it once I learn more. But even in my first days here, its cultural significance is clear.
There’s one way in which the Texas analogy fails, though: whereas there’s this notion in the US that Texas is the “real America,” I don’t think that’s the case here in Brazil. Between the gaúchos and the heavy immigration from Italy and Germany, I think there’s a sense that Rio Grande do Sul is an exception to what’s considered typical Brazil.
Immigration—in both Brazil in general and to Caxias do Sul in particular—is super interesting and also something I’m planning to delve into later on this blog. (Spoiler alert: it’s pretty explicitly racist.) But in terms of understanding the make-up of Caxias do Sul, what’s most important is the high levels of immigration from northern Italy in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
As far as I can tell in my first few days here, this has two main effects. First, Italian food is super common here—I’ve seen fresh pasta in the grocery store, and it seems like half the desserts our host mom has given us have been “típica Italiana.” (There’s also allegedly an Portuguese-Italian hybrid called Talian spoken here, but I haven’t yet heard it myself.)
Second, Caxias is just very light-skinned. Although US racial categories don’t map cleanly onto Brazil’s (oh look, another future blog post), both I and Barbara (my blonde Polish co-ETA) feel like we blend in while walking down the street. This wouldn’t be the case in many other places in Brazil.
All of this to say: I’m spending the next nine months of my life in a big country, and my experiences in Caxias do Sul are already challenging what little notions I had about Brazil. But even then, Brazil only makes up 5.6% of the world’s total landmass—and I have to remind myself that there are billions of people filling tens of billions of square miles, and how few of them I actually really know.