With some trepidation I phoned a lady whose name I had been given by a Brasilian friend in Palo Alto. She spoke English and as soon as she understood that I was claiming to be a friend of a friend she asked what I was doing that evening because she was going to a party and would I like to come and I shouldn’t worry as there would be plenty of people there who spoke English. It would start late in the evening and last all night and she will come by and pick me up if I want to go. All that moved a little faster than I was expecting, but I said ‘yes’. The party didn’t start until 11 o’clock so we went first to a surf-side bar crowded with the young and lovely.
The young lady was about 35, divorced with a five-year-old child. A psychologist, the middle of 15 children from a village in Minas Gerais, she had worked her way through school. She says it is hard to make ends meet. She has two maids so that she can work, but must work more to pay for the maids. She says no one respects the government; they are just someone far away who takes their taxes and gives nothing in return. Except for certain operations, no one uses the state health system if they can possibly avoid it and will pay to see private doctors.
The chronic alcoholism of the Indians is due to the collapse of their world and their helpless dependency in the white world. They have the legal status of children. Unlike in countries such as Peru, there is no commerce by Indians. They are very distant, she said, not a part of our world.
Brasilian women, she said, are regarded all over Latin America as models of sensuality and openness. In other countries they act in old Spanish ways, but Brasil is more open to the ways of Europe and North America.
It is very noisy in the bar and I couldn’t concentrate and the more I thought about a party that doesn’t start until 11 pm, and from which I might not be able to leave when I wanted, the more it became a bit much for me, so I plead a travel-related malady and went back to my hotel.
I had forgotten about this conversation until I found it a few days ago in my notes. I repeat it here not because it tells the truth about Brasil or Brasilians or even about the attitudes of young women of a particular class who live in Rio. It is just what one 35-year-old professional woman thought about her country. It all came out in conversation as I report it. She is not a composite of many conversations, as I don’t think composite characters are proper in a factual report since one of the things being averred is that one person did hold all those different opinions. I did, however, hear variants of these opinions from many people, though hardly a scientific sampling. For example, another person I spent time with, a sociologist working for the government and in many respects similarly situated (though he had only one maid), would have agreed with some of her opinions, but not with others. Reading over her comments now, what strikes me is how she was prepared to make confident pronouncements summing up her very large and diverse country when I realize that I would be completely unprepared to make similar confident generalities about my own country, not because I don’t know enough, but because I feel I know too much. If it’s the truth you want about a place, even the most truthful conversation may be of limited value. As for myself, I have quit looking for the big truth and am content with the many little truths and what they meant to me when I was there.