Brazil, a Melting Pot

“Believing leads to seeing but seeing doesn’t always lead to believing.” Ben Witherington

The term, “melting pot” could easily refer to Brazil at this moment in history. It has assimilated a number of other nationalities and made them its own. But that has not always been so. After 1850 when slavery ended the government and farmers paid the passage of Europeans to Brazil to work in the coffee fields—most of them were Italians. The farmers had a slave mentality so working conditions were miserable. Japanese were encouraged to immigrate to Brazil in 1908 and in the next seven years 15,000 arrived. Beginning with WWI 164,000 more came. But a melting pot did not happen.

When we worked in the interior of the State of São Paulo, part of our ministry was out on the huge coffee farms. Each farm had its row of housing for the colonos—the workers. The houses had no ceilings, a rough brick floor, instead of glass windows wood panels, no indoor plumbing or toilets. The workers would say, “We need food, clothing and medicines to be able to live. What we earn only provides two of those.” Though the Brazilian government does provide some social programs yet there is an immense contrast between the rich and the poor.

Brazil has forced the melting pot on different peoples at different times in its history. Example: Getulio Vargas before WWII promoted with laws the “whitening of the population.” Other language newspapers than Portuguese were banned. Only the Portuguese language could be used in schools among the large Japanese, Italian and German populations.

But the melting pot was happening. I recall a family that attended church when we lived in the interior. While his was a darker complexion that the typical Brazilian, yet his wife was blond and fair skinned. Nobody thought anything of that. I do not suggest there was never any color discrimination. But I do recall a book written by a Brazilian sociologist that extolled the virtues of the Brazilian melting pot. That included European blood lines, the Africans brought over as slaves and the native Indians. With the amalgamation of people from other nations the author proclaimed that it made the Brazilians a superior people. So what can I say?

The multiculturalism of the early years of the nation did not focus on allowing different cultures and languages to melt together. The opposite. That happened was because of the strength of the immigrant population. The melting pot has become more evident in recent years and may be described as moving away from a “salad bowl” approach.

It is interesting that our church’s mission work in Brazil began with a request by a Japanese, Daniel Nishizumi, to come help. The Japanese valued their culture—that certainly makes sense. The result was that most of our churches during the early years of our denomination there were Japanese. In recent times there has been a dramatic change with the planting of many Brazilian congregations. In a number of those churches, Japanese not only attend but give leadership.

The other day I came across picture of some of our Japanese friends from the time we lived in Brazil. Among them was Minoru Tsukamoto. His life began in Japan during WWII. Much of that time he was hungry with a lack of food that bordering on starvation. I knew Minoru as short and thin. As a Christian missionary to Paraguay he used his immense energy to minister there to his people.  His work was difficult for these poor farmers were spread all across the country.

When I think of “melting pot” I think of their food–Brazil has a good variety of recipes. When in the South of the country you would not want to miss a churrasco, a tasty meal of barbecued meats. Then there is the feijoada, a stew of slow-cooked black beans most often with dried pork sausage. It is served with rice and sprinkled with manioc flour. But traditionally feijoada includes most any part of a pig. As I write, I recall some of our missionaries being invited to a social club for a meal—a dinner of feijoada. I never was that fond of this food but one of our group found part of a pig’s snout poking up through the beans. But it was the pig’s eye staring at him that hurt his appetite.

No matter what this friend found in his feijoada, another loved it no matter what. I recall having dinner with him in a restaurant with both of us having jeijoada. I ate my share but the large serving bowl had more yet. I remember he finished it off–so I must say regarding this Brazilian food—to each his own.

About the Brazilian melting pot—our family was comfortable in their society with one reason being their wonderful acceptance of us. They were always forgiving and helpful. The rest of the world could learn something from the point of view we experienced.



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