Jeffrey Lesser is a historian of modern Latin America, whose research focuses on the construction of national identity. He is particularly interested in how ethnic groups understand their own identities, as well as national spaces. His studies have concentrated on a range of groups, including Asian-Brazilians, Arab-Brazilians, and Jewish-Brazilians. Cosmologics spoke with Lesser on the differences between immigrant identity in Brazil and the United States, and the consequences of these differences for racial categories and views of “the nation.”

Myrna Perez Sheldon for Cosmologics

Cosmologics: In your research, you’ve discussed different paradigms for the relationship between immigrants and national identity. For instance, you’ve argued in your book Immigration, Ethnicity, and National Identity that the frameworks in Brazil and the United States are quite different. Could you explain this difference, and why it matters?

Jeffrey Lesser: One of the interesting outcomes of the United States having a national identity that is very embedded in ideas of faith and God—it’s not like that everywhere in the world—is that both explicitly, and sometimes less so, this thing called “the nation,” whatever it is, gains this incredible power. With immigration, the idea is that people come to the United States—they’re kind of crummy, they’re huddled masses, and then the country transforms them into this awesome thing that’s called an “American.” This is the theory, I’m not saying this is my political position.

You see this happening in all sorts of ways. You have, for example, this unbelievably intense xenophobia that emerges from the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Often the leaders of anti-immigrant movements in the United States didn’t come over on the Mayflower, or through anything similar. Grandma fled a pogrom in Russia, or Dad came over from Cuba, or something like this. This is a real phenomenon in the United States, and it’s related to the idea that the United States has this mystical power, one which it allows it to instill a type of national identity. At the same time, you don’t want to push it too far: there is always this negotiation between anti-immigrant feeling and the notion that we’re the land of immigrants, that immigrants come and become better. You hear this tension expressed constantly, and not just today. If we looked a hundred years ago, we would also hear presidents saying things like “build a wall” and “criminals and rapists,” in other words, nativism. That’s this curious part of the United States, and I think it has to do with an intrinsic faith power.

In Brazil, it’s entirely the opposite. Very few people think of the country of Brazil as a particularly great place. On the contrary, the national identity is very much about how crummy Brazil is, and it’s highly critical, all the time. There, immigrants don’t get saved by Brazil; immigrants save Brazil. It’s almost the complete opposite way of thinking about it.

What does that mean? It means that in Brazil there almost never are anti-immigrant movements, because who would want to keep out the saviors? There is a complete distinction between (what we might call) native minorities and immigrant minorities. In the United States, there are—at least at times—political alliances between Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans, and Jewish Americans. It comes and goes, and I don’t want to over-kumbaya the 1960s, but that concept works. In Brazil, however, the immigrants instead remind everyone how crummy Brazil is, including the local native Afro Brazilian or indigenous Brazilian population. Everything is like a mirror image, and it’s a really different idea of what kind of process immigration is.


The thing that we’re so used to in the United States, this angry nativism, we definitely don’t find that in Brazil.


So what are the consequences? One consequence is that, in Brazil, at least over the last thirty or forty years, every five years or so the Brazilian government institutes an amnesty program. They think, “We’ll make this problem go away.” The thing that we’re so used to in the United States, this angry nativism, we definitely don’t find that in Brazil.

A second consequence is that in the United States, the descendants of immigrants are culturally obsessed with proving our Americanness. We do that by creating words like African-American, Asian-American, Chinese-American, Mexican-American. The hyphen is a really big deal, and the removal of the hyphen, at least in the public sphere, is culturally taboo. If one calls a Japanese-American Japanese, they will very quickly say, “I’m not Japanese; Grandpa was Japanese, but I’m an American of Japanese descent.” It’s all about the Americanness.

In Brazil, it’s completely different. People use immigrant designations over generations and generations. You’ll walk down the street, and someone will say to you “I’m Japanese.” You’ll say, “Oh, really? Where in Japan?” and they’ll respond “Oh no, I’m from São Paulo, my parents are from São Paulo, my grandparents are from São Paulo, and my great-grandparents are from São Paulo.” “Do you speak Japanese?” “Of course not.” Why do they say “I’m Japanese” rather than Brazilian? Because when you say “I’m Japanese,” or Syrian, or Jewish, all of these words, what you’re saying is that you’re a better Brazilian. This is a very different kind of consequence, linguistically, culturally, and so on.

Cosmologics: I have noticed that one place in the United States where people are willing to give up the hyphen, at least in the late 20th century (not late 19th or early 20th), is when they’re talking about European countries. People will say, I’m Scottish, Irish, or French when talking, similarly, over generations. The variations of Western Europe don’t mark you as something different than white. It’s this interesting thing about you, to be French or German, rather than a distinguishing thing.

Jeffrey Lesser: That little piece of it, I would say, is more like the Brazilian context. Although, I’m more uncomfortable, perhaps, with the implications when people in the United States say “I’m Scottish,” or “I’m English” for the same reason that people in Brazil say “I’m German,” or “I’m Japanese.” I think embedded in that is a cultural idea, related to whiteness, that I can say “I’m Scottish” without the hyphen because no one is going to be confused about my Americanness, other than my foreign graduate student friends who have no idea of what’s going on. Whereas a Japanese-American or Mexican-American—if they were to say “I’m Japanese” or “I’m Mexican,” they wouldn’t get that same privilege of a presumption of Americanness.

Cosmologics: Could you say a bit more about how, for the descendants of immigrants in Brazil who say “I’m Japanese,” for instance, that interfaces with racial categories? How does that notion of immigration and identity map onto how they think about race?

Jeffrey Lesser: It’s important, at least in my own work, for me to remind myself that my subjects, when they use words like “immigrant” or “immigration” or “to emigrate,” aren’t using the technical academic definition related to movement. In general, we think about immigration as about movement, but in Brazil to be an immigrant isn’t necessarily about movement. It’s a different kind of cultural category: that’s why a Brazilian can say “I’m a Japanese” and it makes sense, though all they’ve done is move from one side of the street to the other.


In terms of race, there’s always a challenge for US audiences when talking about Brazil. US audiences and culture tend to treat race as an essentialist category, and to treat people who don’t use race as an essentialist category as themselves being some kind of race traitors.


In terms of race, there’s always a challenge for US audiences when talking about Brazil. US audiences and culture tend to treat race as an essentialist category, and to treat people who don’t use race as an essentialist category as themselves being some kind of race traitors. As part of this, there are all these terms in the United States—like “banana,” yellow on the outside and white on the inside, and “Oreo”—but these terms make no sense whatsoever in Brazil. When you tell people in Brazil about these terms, they can’t believe that there is a country where such things exist. We have this hyper-essentialist thing, where you’re white or you’re black or you’re Latino, or you’re gay or you’re straight or you’re bi. I always use this example: if somebody came up to you and said, “during the week, I’m a white Catholic straight guy; on Saturday nights, me and my boyfriend, we’re Buddhists, we’re gay, and we’re black.” You would say “either that person is a racist, or they’re crazy.”

This is all based on the concept that you get to have one race. Even our concept of bi-racial has become a race: you now get to be bi-racial. You either insist on that, or you do the Obama thing and you say, “no, I’m not bi-racial. I’m going to choose to be this one, and not that one.” But in Brazil, race is a much more flexible category and the correlation between one’s self-definition and the definition that other people might have of you is very poor. I know all sorts of people who say they are one thing, but everyone else will say that they are something else. Consistency of racial definition is very low in Brazil.

For example, I know perfectly well how to change my race, just by the clothes I wear, the neighborhoods I hang out in, the way I talk, etc. Again, this is something that is an object of mockery in the United States: there is a whole genre of teen movies in which the butt of the jokes is the white kid who tries to pretend he’s black. It’s an entire genre that we all get, and we all laugh, we all know that kid somehow. And it’s all based on the idea of how can that kid be that kid.

What does this mean for immigration? First of all, it means that those who define themselves as immigrants, be they the actual people engaged in migration or the descendants of those people, are generally more successful in making claims about their racial positioning in the racial hierarchy than their counterparts in the United States. What do I mean by that? Brazil is just like the United States in that white is the top and black is the bottom. In that, the countries are exactly the same. The difference is that, because race in the United States is so essentialized, those who get to be white are a fairly narrow subset of people, and there is high correlation between the people who claim they are white and the people who are viewed as white. Not a perfect correlation, but a high correlation.

Because of the flexibility in Brazil, immigrants are very, very engaged in discursive claims about their own whiteness, although that whiteness doesn’t entail discursive claims about European-ness. To use a really clear example: in 1934, there was a debate in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies over who was whiter, people who were Portuguese or people from Japan. They were having the debate because whoever was whiter would get subsidies to immigrate and come help whiten the country. In the end, they voted overwhelming for Japanese. There was widespread agreement that Japanese were whiter than Portuguese, and that if you want to whiten your country, you’re going to need more Japanese people and fewer Portuguese people. In addition, Japanese immigrants and their descendants simultaneously argue for their whiteness, but that whiteness doesn’t mean a rejection, necessarily, of whatever their ethnic heritage is. This is quite different from the United States, where we think of whiteness as a rejection of an immigrant background.

Cosmologics: My follow up question, then, is about slavery. In the United States, there is, on the one hand, a fluidity to race for which we don’t have a good vocabulary. If people have a particular accent, or dress in particular ways, or live in certain neighborhoods, these things code for variations in race in ways we have trouble describing. But on the other hand, the categories can be very clear and rigid.

One of the things I go back to is that slavery must have been part of this essentializing in the United States, given that there was this expansive period in which the division between people who were to be enslaved or not enslaved had to be really clear. It got clearer moving into the 19th century, and this meant that race became something binary. But obviously Brazil is a country that had slavery for a long time, making this, for me, a kind of conundrum, in which the thing that I have thought of as the generator of essentialism in the United States doesn’t seem to function that way in Brazil. When we think of the legal categories for race coming out of the need to define who is enslaved and who is not, why do you think that Brazil has this fluidity, given that it also has this history of enslaving certain races?

Jeffrey Lesser: You’re absolutely right, when you think about it this way: it’s not slavery, because we can find slavery in many places and the outcomes aren’t all the same. They’re really different, and not only in the long term. When the master has a sexual encounter with a slave, for example, is the child slave or free? We see in Brazil, frequently, more than frequently, the child is free and is taken into the father’s home. In the United States, the child is more often enslaved and not in the father’s home.

So, we have to think about other cultural things and other questions, though we don’t always know the answers. What does it mean, for instance, for colonialists in Brazil to come from a country, Portugal, that was itself colonized, and colonized by those who were quite different in that they were Muslim and had different political and social organizations. Compare this to England, which was not colonized in that kind of way. There’s clearly something about the pre-colonization period that has to do with mixture.

There are also people that make arguments for the cultural differences generated by coming from a primarily Protestant as opposed to a primarily Catholic country, especially regarding what that means in terms of salvation. Maybe that’s something to play around with. There are people who make demographic arguments, who point out that you have in Brazil a much higher percentage of slaves vis-à-vis the population as a whole, as opposed to in the British colonies, or in the United States. Likewise, you have a much higher percentage of free men than free women.

This relates to why in 1934 Portuguese were considered less white than Japanese. For much of Brazil’s history, colonization was done by young men from Portugal, and the only young women around were slave women. As a result, what emerges is, very early on in Brazil’s history, a category that might be called “free people of color” that you don’t really have in the United States. Even in very poor parts of the United States, the number of relationships between first generation British migrants or their descendants and slaves or indigenous people was tiny. In Brazil, it was often the norm.

You might say that slavery is one factor, but that slavery involves so many other things—religion, gender, labor—that become localized and special, such that just saying “slavery” doesn’t lead to a very satisfying answer.

Cosmologics: If we’re thinking about movement, is there an ongoing movement or influx from the international slave trade in Brazil, compared with other parts of the western hemisphere? One of the points that people make about the US—related to what you were saying about the children of slave women and masters becoming slaves—is that once the US outlaws participation in the international slave trade, there is no longer an influx of slaves, and you therefore have to produce your labor. There’s a growing domestic slave trade. As we’re thinking of movement in and out of Brazil, and how movements can affect the structuring of slavery or racial categories, for how long did the slave trade affect Brazil, and do you think this is a factor in the things we’ve been discussing?

Jeffrey Lesser: It’s certainly longer than in the United States. Brazil is the last country to outlaw slavery, and although the slave trade is technically abolished, the international slave trade goes on for a long time. There’s a phrase in Brazil, “for the English to see”—you say that when you make a rule and everybody knows that you’re not following the rule. It was based on the outlawing of the slave trade, which was “for the English to see.” You also have much more widespread slavery in Brazil. The numbers are huge, so you do get an internal slave trade in Brazil, like in the United States. What happens is that the products and the locations of those products change over time, and the internal slave trade follows those commodities. You have mining, and then the mines are done; you have sugar, and then sugar is done. There is a movement from the North to the South of Brazil, and then the main products become coffee and cotton. Slavery as a lived experience is going on a lot later in Brazil than the United States.

There is a lot of interest, around the time of the Depression, in collecting oral histories in the United States from people who had been enslaved. In the 1930s, you could find people who had been slaves, and you could talk to them. In Brazil, you could find former slaves until twenty years ago; you could meet people who had been born as slaves. The dating of it is very different.

Cosmologics: And the living memory of it as well.

Jeffrey Lesser: Exactly. Brazil is a country largely without civil rights in the American sense of the term, and so movements for rights work quite differently. You never have in Brazil an exact version of the MLK and Malcom X debate about how do you achieve economic mobility, social justice, etc. A lot has to do with laws, in that it’s very had to fight for social justice when there are no laws that (overtly) oppose social justice. Brazil never had segregation, and today racism is against the law. It’s constitutionally against the law to be a racist or to do racist things, and what that functionally means is that it’s very hard to ever call anything racist.

Brazilians pursue social justice in very different kinds of forums than communities do in the United States. Afro-Brazilian religion is a very important forum for social justice, but—and this goes back to the difference between white and being European—many people who participate in Afro-Brazilian religion genealogically are not of African descent. Nonetheless, they describe themselves as Afro-Brazilian and are deeply engaged in Afro-Brazilian culture.

Jeffrey Lesser is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Emory University. He researches and teaches modern Latin American history, focusing on ethnicity, immigration and race, especially in Brazil. 

Myrna Perez Sheldon is co-editor of Cosmologics and Assistant Professor in Classics & World Religions and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Ohio University. 


Image from Flickr via paulisson miura


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