When I was younger, I loved working on jigsaw puzzles with my grandmother. I loved getting down to eye level with the table and seeing life from the eyes of the puzzle pieces. With half my face revealed, I would watch as a picture magically materialized from what used to be 1000 little pieces of cardboard.
Brazil is like a jigsaw puzzle. When I first arrived, all the pieces were scattered but slowly and surely, I have found myself piecing this complex country together.
But when piecing together Brazil, I have found that not all aspects of this puzzle are beautiful and picturesque like what you see on a jigsaw puzzle box. In any jigsaw puzzle, there are areas that are more difficult to complete than others; the same challenge applies when trying to understand Brazilian society. Some aspects of life here aren’t just hard to understand, but also hard to watch and experience.
One segment of this puzzle that has really caught my attention is the issue of racial inequality in Brazil. According to a decompositional analysis done by Carlos Gradin from the University of Vigo, Brazil has the second highest population of blacks outside of Nigeria and these blacks, along with indigenous Brazilians, are most susceptible to poverty.
Noticing racial inequality within Brazil is not an easy task. The truth has been covered up by years and years of excuses and lack of interest by the Brazilian government and civilians. For example, because Brazil has one of the most diverse populations in the world, people come from every type of background. Brazil’s government claims that the country does not have a racial inequality problem because there are not just two defined races. This argument would suggest that due to the country’s diverse population and the fact that most Brazilians do not classify themselves in such broad racial categories of “black” and “white” like in the US, accurately pinpointing one race that is being discriminated against is nearly impossible. Furthermore, because the Brazilian constitution is one of the most generous in terms of granting rights to people, it is hard for outsiders to see that none of those liberties make it past ink and paper. There is an expression here in Brazil, that in many cases “a lei não pega”, which means the law, though part of the constitution, isn’t enforced and is therefore overlooked. In many cases, getting down to eye level and reading between the lines is the only way to see through the veneer and understand the reality.
A general stigma follows those who represent the Afro-Brazilian culture, which halts their chances at a successful life. Due to the fact that today’s Afro-Brazilians came about as a result of slavery, they are viewed to not have the needed skills to work and it is very difficult to obtain work when they are competing against White European Brazilians.
In the 1800s, Brazil embarked on a program known as ‘whitenization,’ which made it incredibly easy for white European immigrants to gain Brazilian citizenship. Whitenization came about after Brazil received millions of African slaves. The government was worried that the population was getting too ‘black’; they were in need some ‘whitening.’
In the United States, civil rights activists and their supporters recognized the need to face racial inequality as an issue that plagued society. To this day, authorities in the United States continue to deal with this issue by establishing laws which ensure and protect relative racial justice. Brazilian authorities have never taken that broad of an initiative to ensure all civilians have equal opportunities. Half of the population, 200 million, claims African descent and it is this portion of the population that lacks accessibility to good schools, jobs and healthcare programs. By and large, Afro-Brazilian kids go to less than satisfactory schools, parents work for minimum wage in hard-labor jobs, and families aren’t able to afford good healthcare facilities. But considered in light of Brazil’s true demographic makeup, these realities represent an unfortunate contradiction. A study at the University of Minas Gerais (a state in southeastern Brazil), concluded that 87 percent of the Brazilian population have genes that originate from African descent. In other words, 175 million out of 200 million people come from African roots. Yet many brush off the subject of racial inequality because it is much easier to ignore a such an enormous–but often concealed–problem than go through the hardships to fix it.
A supervisor from my apprenticeship asked me why Global Citizen Year didn’t sent us to countries that speak English. “It would be so much easier if you went to Europe or Australia, Julia.” I told him simply that even if I had the choice to go to an English speaking country, I wouldn’t because this year isn’t supposed to be easy.
Similarly, I don’t do jigsaw puzzles because they are easy. I do them because of the time and precision that is needed to create that beautiful picture. I do them to feel that sense of accomplishment when I have finally laid down the 1000th piece. This gap year is not easy. Despite Brazil’s beauty, this country has tugged and pulled at me, at times dragging me down to the ground.
But no matter what challenge comes my way, whether it’s witnessing racial inequality unfold before me, or undereducation among children, I plan on absorbing everything that comes my way. After all: a jigsaw puzzle that’s challenging always ends up having the best picture in the end.