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Ask Dr. Salvo

July 26, 1994

Dr. Salvo and Tim

Ask Dr. Salvo

Dear Dr. Salvo,

I have been to Brazil many times, probably every deep water port, and I admire the people of Brazil very much. I also admire your reporting on various topics you have written about; but I am afraid your nationalism is showing when you quote as fact, William Styron's review of Slave and Citizen: The Negro..., your letter to "Dear Possum," (The Harbinger, 5/24-6/6/94) "But it is a striking fact that today there is no real race 'problem' in Brazil."

This is totally false. Maybe you can snow most norte Americanos who have never looked in depth at Brazil but I am afraid you can't snow me. I don't know if you are a black or of Portuguese extraction, but I have spoken to many blacks who have told me there is a definite race problem in Brazil. It is true if you have money you can live about anywhere you want, etc. But if you don't have money in Brazil you live in a segregated area.

While the majority of blacks live in northern Brazil near the equator, the reverse of the U.S., how many black representatives are there from central or southern Brazil to their national or state legislative bodies: darn few. How many dark skinned blacks are there in top government or business positions in Brazil, outside of the extreme north? Not many. Not all Brazilians practiced "miscegenation."

Please, Dr. Salvo, be as level headed with your own country as you are about everything else.

Robert M. Mills

Slavery was never benign. It sounds like you must have come from Rio Grande do Sul. Apparently, you were very isolated from your dark skinned countrymen.

You failed to mentioned in your "P.S." that the Moors were black.

Dear Mr. Mills,

Thank you for yours of 7/1/94, which clarified my mind and brightened my mood no end. It had been weeks, possibly months, since I had received a letter at all, and very long indeed since I had heard from anyone who knew Brazil. As you probably also know, I still have to check the mailbox everyday, whether there's mail waiting or not. First I must clamber down from my office at the top of a tall cypress. Then I must catch a large goat, preferably a nanny (those billies butt so bad), and harness it to my wagon. Then hold the brake lever down forever as we wind our way down the narrow trail to the pier -- there the mail boat contemptuously yields up to 12 lbs of junk and rarely a letter, once or twice a week. The goat refuses to take me back up the cliff, so I unharness her and pull the wagon myself, back up the interminable trail littered with coral chunks and fossil shark's teeth. Is it worth it? Is there a better way? I leave it to my faithful readers to say. So you can see, Senhor Mills, why your letter cheered me so. Especially that you honored my fantasy of Brazilian identity by taking it seriously and dealing with it straightforwardly, neither talking up or down to me, but directly. The truth is, or a piece of it is, my contact with Brazil has been limited to literature, dream, and fantasies. Salvo was born in Itaguai. He grew up in Pernambuco and was trained in New Orleans. He wonders where Rio do Sul might be, and strongly suspects it to be in the southern part of Brazil.

Salvo has a tendency to idealize Brazil, perhaps from reading too much Machado de Assis? He would prefer to believe William Styron, who was quoting some other writer, when he said "today there is no real race problem in Brazil." However, he must resign himself to the homely observation that it is worse here than it is in Brazil. Now why, you ask yourself, well traveled Reader -- why does Salvo cave in so easily?

Well he already had doubts about Styron's casual pronouncement on a very complex subject. Had Styron "been to Brazil many times?" Had he ever been to see Black Orpheus, or read Machado, the Shakespeare of South America? I doubt it. My doubts were further provoked by this article about Peru, once again filched from the New York Review:

"But long before we've got to that point in the narrative -- right on page five, in fact -- Vargas Llosa explains the reasons for his father's raging turbulence, and with it, he recognizes his father -- and himself -- as Peruvian, a citizenship he can claim on the basis of a carefully nurtured, devastating, and specifically Peruvian tradition of rancor:

But the real reason for the failure of their marriage was not my father's jealousy or his bad disposition, but the national disease that gets called by other names, the one that infests every stratum and every family in the country and leaves them all with a bad aftertaste of hatred, poisoning the lives of Peruvians in the form of resentment and social complexes. Because Ernesto J. Vargas, despite his white skin, his light blue eyes, and handsome appearance, belonged -- or always felt that he belonged, which amounts to the same thing -- to a family socially inferior to his wife's. The adventures, misadventures, and deviltry of my paternal grandfather, Marcelino, had gradually impoverished and brought the Vargas family down in the world till they reached that ambiguous margin where those who are middle-class begin to be taken for what those of a higher status call 'the people,' and in a position where Peruvians who believe that they are blancos (whites) begin to feel that they are cholos, that is to say mestizos, half-breeds of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, that is to say poor and despised.

In parti-colored Peruvian society and perhaps in all societies which have many races and extreme inequalities, blanco and cholo are terms that refer to other things beside race or ethnic group: they situate a person socially and economically, and many times these factors are the ones that determine his or her classification. This latter is flexible and can change, depending on circumstances and the vicissitudes of individual destinies. One is always blanco or cholo in relation to someone else, because one is always better or worse situated than others, or one is more or less important, or possessed of more or less Occidental or mestizo or Indian or African or Asiatic features than others, and all this crude nomenclature that decides a good part of any one person's fate is maintained by virtue of an effervescent structure of prejudices and sentiments -- disdain, scorn, envy, bitterness, admiration, emulation -- which, many times, beneath ideologies values, and contempt for values, is the deep-seated explanation for the conflicts and frustration of Peruvian life."

As soon as I read this sad description of Peruvian racialism, I thought of New Orleans, of Yoknapatawpha County, the South, and the U.S.A. in general. And, inescapably, Brazil as you described it in your letter. Would you agree that the situation in Brazil, beneath its "Big Easy" surface, resembles that in Peru?

It seems to me that "rancor" well describes the bitter core of racialism we see in our own country as well. The perpetual negation of democracy, of magnanimity. It may be true that slavery was never benign. Still, it was less brutal in some places than in others, if that is any comfort at all. I cling to the notion that Brazil may have had some merciful qualities in that respect, compared with the U.S. and Peru.

As to the Moors being black: Since Shakespeare had already emphasized it so thoroughly in Othello, I thought it could be taken for granted. Please write some more -- about Pernambuco, for example.


July 26, 1994

The Harbinger