Cultural Makeup

Modern Brazil's diverse population is a melting pot of three main ethnic groups: the indigenous inhabitants of Brazil, the white settlers from Portugal and other European countries, and the black slaves from Africa. Within Brazil the blending of various cultures and ethnic groups varies from region to region. Rio de Janeiro has a large population of mulattos. A mix of whites and blacks, people of this heritage are considered to have the "typically Brazilian" look -- light brown skin, black hair, and brown, hazel, or green eyes. In Salvador, more than any other area of Brazil, the people are mostly of African descent. Many of the freed slaves settled in this area, and the African influence is reflected in the food, religion, and music. In the Amazon, the cities are populated by migrants from other parts of Brazil, while the forest is predominantly populated by caboclos (a mixture of white and Indian ethnicities) and indigenous tribes, many of whom still maintain their traditional culture, dress, and lifestyle. The south of Brazil was settled mostly by white European immigrants, with a few notable exceptions such as the large Japanese and Middle Eastern communities of São Paulo. Migration within Brazil has also had an influence on the cultural makeup of certain cities. Both Brasilia and São Paulo have had a large influx of workers from the poorer Northeastern regions. These so-called Nordestinos introduced their music (forró) and traditional foods to these cities.


Brazil is still officially the world's largest Catholic country, but the Church no longer influences day-to-day affairs the way it once did; even as late as the 1970s divorce remained illegal in Brazil. Catholicism remains a very strong cultural influence -- Brazilian speech is peppered with phrases like Graças a Deus and exclamations such as Nossa! (short for Nossa Senhora, a reference to Mary) -- and most Brazilians still take their children to be baptized, but fewer and fewer are making it to Mass on Sunday.

In recent years, evangelical Protestant churches have been making great strides in Brazil, particularly among poorer members of society. There are dozens of sects, many of which make use of sophisticated marketing and media techniques; some have their own radio and TV stations. Non-church members will often tell you these evangélicas are little more than moneymaking schemes; there have indeed been a number of well-reported financial scandals involving evangelical churches, but that hasn't dimmed their appeal. Perhaps the largest -- the Igreja Universal de Reina de Deus -- has dozens of churches in almost every sizable Brazilian city.

The other religion of note is Candomblé. Though uniquely Brazilian, its origins lie in West African religions brought to Brazil by imported slaves. Followers of Candomblé believe in a pantheon of spirits, or Orixás, who will if approached properly bring supplicants luck, or fortune or love. Each individual has a particular Orixá. Determining which one you belong to requires going to a Candomblé priest or priestess. The religion is particularly strong in Salvador and Rio, but the exact number of Candomblé followers is impossible to determine. The religion was officially forbidden until recently, and Candomblé followers remain reluctant to profess their beliefs openly.

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