African Heritage and the Racial and Sexual Representation of Brazilian National Identity in New York


Marcelo Montes Penha
American Studies Program

My paper will examine the representation of Afro-Brazilian heritage in the Brazilian community in New York City through two different cases, or micro-communities, or networks: Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian art-form, and the Brazilian contingent performing carnaval during the New York Gay Pride Parade. Even though these two cases do not run parallel to each other, they reveal the African cultural legacy in Brazil as part of Brazilian national identity as the main tool for national representation. I try to show how the representations of Brasilidade in New York at the end of the century, in transnational terms, still encompass the construction of the Brazilian national identity of the 20s to the 40s.

Brazilian national identity of the 20th century is galvanized by the populist president Getúlio Vargas; a nation constructed through the contribution of the three races: whites, Indians and blacks. Several folkloric Brazilian elements became national symbols, but the African culture is a strong and important part of the national culture. During the 40s, it is opened in Salvador the first ‘official’ school and, samba schools and carnaval in Rio de Janeiro are institutionalized.

In 1975, capoeira officially arrived in New York City, and nowadays it has a cultural function in the city: it preserves African elements part of the diaspora, an Afro-Brazilian ritual; and it is also a source of employment of capoeiristas (practitioners of capoeira) as artists and instructors. Since the early 90s, the Brazilian contingent in the gay parade, on the other hand, claims visibility of gay Brazilians in the gay American politics in the city; and it is also a way to simulate carnaval as a Brazilian national ritual. Nevertheless, both groups rescue the Black heritage as a way of adaptation to the New York multicultural environment.