Where are You From? Making the Brazilian Northeast: A Region in the Nation and the World (1924-1968)

Our guest blog-post this week is by today’s research seminar speaker, and a new member of the Birmingham History Dept., Dr. Courtney J. Campbell. Thanks Courtney!

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cordaodascocacolas001pb

The Carnaval block known as the Cordão das Coca-Colas, which, following World War II, consisted of men who dressed as Brazilian women who had dated U.S. soldiers during the war, in order to ridicule the women. Cordão das Coca-Colas, Arquivo Nirez, Fortaleza, Ceará.

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— Where are you from?

— I grew up down the road. / I am from Ortonville. / I’m from a small town. You’ve probably never heard of it. / I am from Michigan. / I am a Midwesterner. / I’m from the United States. / I grew up not too far from Canada. / I grew up in the United States, but have lived here for years. / I’m from the U.S. – just got here a month ago. / I’m not from around here.

How you answer the basic question of origin – the depth of detail, specifics of location, or generalities of nation or region you offer – likely depends on who asked, where you were at the moment, and what was happening around you. The responses reflect a constant negotiation of geographic scale in our everyday understandings of a sense of place. For the questioner, the responses also come packaged with cultural characteristics, accents, historical narrative, and stereotypes.

My book focuses on the Brazilian Northeast—the region of Brazil considered at once the poorest, the most backward, the most rebellious, and yet the most culturally authentic. It emphasizes that notions of ‘north-easterness’ circulated among social classes and reflected increasing concerns of north-easterners from several walks of life with their place in the world at a moment of intense international and national change.

Within Brazil, the north-eastern region is considered at once the poorest, the most backward, the most rebellious, and yet the most culturally authentic region. Its cultural authenticity comes from a sense of isolation: the region is accepted as disengaged from the world around it and rooted in a rustic, illiterate past. It is in the Northeast that Brazilian culture is often thought to hide from the world around it, remaining untouched and pure, yet underdeveloped.

My book argues, on the contrary, that ideas about the region and its meaning circulated among social groups and across international lines. In a nation that either disparaged or folklorised their region, north-easterners brought their hopes and grievances directly to an international sphere, stepping out of their expected place and generating conflicted responses at the national level. As the region’s international status changed, so did what its residents chose to preserve of its culture, how they defined the culture, who they considered to belong within it, and who they chose to represent it symbolically.

Each chapter of my book presents a different event or moment of intense international interaction in which meanings of the Northeast and its place in the world are questioned and debated. It begins in 1926 with the Regionalist Conference of Recife (Chapter 1) and ends in 1968 with a change in focus of the international aid project called the Alliance for Progress and Martha Vasconcellos’ victory as Miss Universe. Along the way, it examines a protest by north-eastern fishermen and an Orson Welles movie about it (Chapter 2), international dating and allegorical representations of it during World War II (Chapter 3), a mobilization to bring a World Cup soccer match to Recife in 1950 (Chapter 4), debates over the ability of different Miss Brazil contestants to represent their region and nation at the Miss Universe events (Chapter 5), and interactions between the U.S. Alliance for Progress, Brazil’s Superintendency of Development for the Northeast (SUDENE), and the popular culture and education movement known as the Movimento de Cultura Popular (MCP – Popular Culture Movement, Chapter 6).

My analysis of international events in the north-eastern region demonstrates that regional identity in the Northeast is multivalent by nature and in a process of constant negotiation between state and intellectual invention and popular imagination, mediated by the region’s inhabitants and exiles. Becoming north-eastern, then, is better understood as an incomplete process of negotiation, mediation, contestation, and only brief moments of consensus.

Understanding the relationship between region, nation, and world is important not only for interpreting the Northeast or Brazil, but for understanding the development of the modern nation. Oaxaca in Mexico, the Scottish Highlands in the UK, the Deep South in the U.S., and Southern Italy are examples of one region—often the poorest—serving as counterpoint to the more dynamic regions of the nation as the area considered ‘backwards’, yet culturally ‘authentic’. Understanding the nation as an interrelated yet unequal group of regions became a portable, internationally repeated way of imagining the nation in the 20th century. The Brazilian Northeast serves as an example of how regions and their cultural identities were solidified through their engagement with the world around them at a moment of intense international change and an expanding international consumer culture.

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