Portugal, positioned at what was once thought to be the edge of the earth, has long been a seafaring nation. At the dawn of the Age of Exploration, mariners believed that two-headed, fork-tongued monsters as big as houses lurked across the Sea of Darkness, waiting to chew up a caravel and gulp its debris down their fire-lined throats.
In spite of these paralyzing fears, Portugal launched legendary caravels on explorations that changed the fundamental perceptions of humankind: Vasco da Gama sailed to India, Magellan circumnavigated the globe, and Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. In time, Portuguese navigators explored two-thirds of the earth, opening the globe to trade and colonization and expanding the intellectual horizons of Western civilization for all time.
In spite of its former influence, Portugal still suffers from one of the most widespread misconceptions in European travel -- that it's simply "another Spain," and a poorer version, at that. Before its European political and economic integration in 1986, some dared to call it "the last foreign country of Europe."
Maritime expansion had a dark side. Portugal initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade that lasted hundreds of years. Up to the 1970s, the dictatorship in Lisbon fought to cling to its overseas colonies. The wars left Portugal cut off from the European mainstream, economically backward, and culturally isolated. Since a peaceful 1974 revolution restored democracy, the country has taken huge strides toward modernity.
She was called "The Brazilian Bombshell." In the 1940s, one critic labeled her Brazil's most famous export. Ah, but there's a secret here: The great Carmen Miranda, the star of all those big Hollywood musicals in the 1940s and 1950s, was actually Portuguese. In 1909 she was born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, in the little village of Marco de Canavezes, in the north of Portugal.
Costumed garishly, with bowls of fruit perched on her head, she wriggled outrageously through such kitschy numbers as "Tico Tico," in such 20th Century Fox films as Downstairs Argentine Way and The Gang's All Here. Although she appeared with a number of other stars, fans most remember her for her appearance with co-stars Cesar Romero and Alice Faye. Today an entirely new generation of young people is discovering this Latin bombshell as her old hits are revived on TV.
In 1911, she moved with her family to Rio de Janeiro, where in time she learned to make outrageous hats for wealthy customers. One of them asked her to sing at a party. With her sambas and tangos, she was an immediate hit. At age 19, she made her first record on the RCA Victor label. Called Tai, it sold a record-breaking (for the era) 35,000 copies. Her career was launched, eventually leading to 140 records and six films produced in Brazil.
The United States soon discovered her and she was lured to Hollywood, where her career soared. By 1943, she (along with Barbara Stanwyck and Bing Crosby) was one or the highest paid performers in the United States. Her act captured the fantasy of drag queens around the world (and still does!). With her colored dresses, stylized bananas, turbans, outrageous platform shoes that made Joan Crawford look flat-heeled, dangling earrings, and a shimmering dance step, Carmen Miranda emerged as an ambassador of the Portuguese world like no star before or since.
Although a hit with American audiences, she did not always meet with approval in her native Latin world. Many Latin Americans objected to the stereotype she projected -- that of an oversexed, vivacious, and clownish cartoon of a Brazilian woman.
Regrettably, her career also degenerated into caricature. After a failed marriage and a severe bout of depression, she ended up making farcical appearances in the 1950s. She made appearances on TV with Milton Berle (also dressed in Carmen Miranda drag). On August 5, 1955, she collapsed on the set of "The Jimmy Durante Show" and died of a heart attack shortly after.
Today, decades after her death, the memory of this Portuguese-Brazilian legend is kept alive by her legions of impassioned fans. A biography, Carmen Miranda, by Cássio Emmanuel Barsante, has been published, with 900 photos and illustrations, the result of 20 years of exhaustive research. A film was made of her life, Bananas Is My Business. Even the Film Forum in New York has honored her with retrospectives.
Coveted, adored, ridiculed, and eulogized, Carmen Miranda will no doubt remain a legend as long as there's a late show on TV.
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