Foreigners in Brazil

A Swiss plane is visible through floor to ceiling windows from the interior of Sao Paulo airport,
São Paulo International Airport. Photo © Jorge L. C. Andrade, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Even though Brazil doesn’t receive as many immigrants as the United States and Canada, Brazilians themselves are incredibly welcoming to foreigners—much more so, in a sense, than their North American counterparts (for instance, there is no anti-immigrant stance or movement in the country).

Brazilians are proud of their country, although they’re not given to jingoism. That said, they’re also understandably sensitive to criticism. Although they can dish it out—often hilariously—they can’t always take it, especially coming from sometimes insensitive gringos who complain about the way things are, or aren’t, done here compared with “back home.”

Traditionally, Brazil had always been a country in which First World and Third World coexisted, but it was always the Third World aspects that got all the press and defined the country on the global stage. Over the last 10 years, however, Brazil has made enormous strides. Even though poverty and its trappings still exist on a large scale, Brazilians have a new sense of pride in Brazil’s achievements and promise. They no longer see their country as Third World and react defensively to those who do—particularly gringos and especially Americans. The truth is that Brazilians innately have a pretty strong anti-American streak. It’s hard to blame them considering the history of U.S. paternalism and interventionism in Latin America, specifically the fact that the U.S. government was complicit in the 1964 coup that resulted in a brutal military dictatorship that lasted a quarter century. The United States’ frequently heavy-handed foreign policy—particularly during the Bush years—didn’t do anything to burnish the United States’ reputation. Brazilians were uniformly repulsed by Bush and critical of the invasion of Iraq. This tarnished U.S. image, however, has improved considerably during the Obama years. Brazilians greeted the election of the United States’ first black president with all the joy of a World Cup win. Increasing U.S. recognition of Brazil’s role on the global stage has also calmed antipathy considerably.

On the flip side, Brazilians (specifically middle- and upper-class ones) are fascinated by what Americans and American media think of Brazil (whenever Brazil makes headlines in major U.S. media, it’s reported in major Brazilian media as well). They are also fascinated with American pop culture, not to mention consumer goods and gadgets (Brazilian tourist/shoppers spend more money per capita on shopping sprees in the United States than any other nationality). Ultimately, however, critical views of the U.S. government and society rarely impact the way individual Americans are treated in Brazil. When it comes to personal relations, Brazilians will take pains to adopt you as one of them. Before long, they’ll be paying you the ultimate compliment by calling you a brasileiro adotivo (an adoptive Brazilian).

Life as a Gringo

Brazilians routinely refer to all foreigners as “gringos” although it tends to apply more the fairer you are and the worse your Portuguese is. While North Americans may feel the term is pejorative, more often than not it’s actually quite affectionate (many of my friends refer to me fondly as “my gringo” or “our gringo”). Gringos are invariably treated kindly by Brazilians, and if you speak Portuguese, you’ll usually be accepted on equal terms as brasileiros.

In some contexts, however, being a gringo will set you apart from the crowd because there is a (somewhat valid) stereotype that gringos who come to Brazil are richer and more educated than your average Brazilian. In a few instances, this may result in your getting preferential treatment over Brazilians based merely on your gringo-ness (which can be either useful or embarrassing). In other instances, this could result in making you a target for thieves or scammers who may think that you’re not only loaded, but naïve or easy to take advantage of.

No matter how long you live in Brazil and how assimilated you become, you’ll likely never kick your “gringo” identity. However, take comfort from the fact that once you’ve absorbed a sufficient degree of language and culture, you’ll no longer feel like a “gringo burro” (dumb gringo), but a “gringo inteligente.”

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil.