Sueann Caulfield and Cristiana Schettini
Over the past forty years, increasing attention to gender and sexuality in Brazilian historiography has given us a nuanced understanding of diverse ways in which women and men in Brazil’s past experienced patriarchy, racism, and other forms of oppression. As gender historians have shed light on how racialized and patriarchal gender and sexual roles have been reconstituted in different historical contexts, empirical studies in the field of social history have focused primarily on the historical agency of women, particularly non-elite women, who lived within or pushed against the confines of prescribed gender roles. Pioneering histories of sexual minorities have accompanied this trajectory since the 1980s, although this subfield has grown more slowly.
A few nodal themes help to explain transformations in gender relations during each of the major periods of Brazil’s social and political history. Under the empire (1822–1889), honor is the entryway for analysis of gender and sexuality. Gendered standards of honor were critical tools used to mark class and racial boundaries, and to traverse them. Historians of the imperial period also stress the centrality of gender to the social, cultural, and economic networks built by members of various occupational, familial, and kinship groups. During the First Republic (1889–1930), the focus shifts to state vigilance and social control, together with debates over modernization of sexual and gender norms, particularly regarding urban space and prostitution. In the Vargas era (1930–1945), patriarchy and racialized sexuality formed the core of intellectual constructions of the nation’s history and identity, at the same time that homosexuality and women’s and worker’s rights generated intense debate. A new emphasis on domesticity emerged in the context of developmentalism in the 1950s, helping to spur a reaction in the form of the counterculture and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The dictatorship (1964–1985) went to great lengths to suppress challenges to gender and sexual norms as part of its broader strategy to demobilize society and repress oppositional political movements. These challenges reemerged in the 1970s, when feminists and sexual minorities gained much greater visibility within a new wave of social movements.
The 1988 constitution articulated these movements’ aspirations for social justice and equality through its foundational principal of human dignity. Significant legal changes followed over subsequent decades, including recognition of equal labor rights for domestic and sex workers, affirmative-action policies, and the legalization of same-sex marriage, in 2011. Despite notable setbacks, the momentum toward gender and sexual equality at the start of the 21st century was remarkable. This momentum was halted by the political coup that ousted the first woman president in 2016. The anti-feminist mood that accompanied the impeachment process underscored an overarching theme that runs through the historiography of gender and sexuality in Brazil: the centrality of gender to the major legal and political shifts that mark the nation’s history.
In Brazil between 1920 and 1945, the potential for professional advancement increased significantly among literate individuals in three main areas: the intellectual and academic field in São Paulo and the emergence of a university-based intelligentsia; the boom in the publishing industry and the rise of professional novelists; and the Vargas regime’s widespread and deliberate co-optation of intellectuals. The interpretation presented in this article links class dynamics to changes within the activities of intellectuals, some of whom are analyzed here in the context of political and institutional tensions produced by the collapse of the oligarchic Old Republic (1889–1930).
Japanese immigration to Brazil started in 1908 as a replacement for European immigrants to work for the state of São Paulo’s expanding coffee industry. It peaked in the late 1920s and early 1930s, in the face of growing anti-Japanese sentiment in Brazil. The Japanese migrated to Brazil in mandatory family units and formed their own agricultural settlements once they competed their colono labor contracts and became independent farmers. Under Getúlio Vargas’s nationalistic policies, a 1934 immigration law severely limited the entry of the Japanese. Strict legal restrictions were also imposed on them during Vargas’s Estado Novo (1937–1945). Japanese immigration was eventually terminated in 1942. Then the number of Japanese immigrants reached 188,986. At the end of the war, the Japanese were sharply divided among themselves over the defeat of Japan, and Sindō Renmei’s attacks on other Japanese factions terrified the nation of Brazil. Having given up their hope of returning to their homeland, the Japanese and their descendants began to migrate on a large scale to the cities, especially São Paulo City. Japanese immigration resumed in 1953 and peaked in 1959–1960. A total of 53,657 postwar immigrants, including many single adult men, arrived in Brazil before 1993. By 1980, the majority of Japanese Brazilians had joined the urban middle class, and many were already mixed racially. In the mid-1980s, Japanese Brazilians’ “return” labor migrations to Japan began on a large scale, due to Brazil’s troubled national economy. More than 310,000 Brazilian citizens were residing in Japan in June 2008, when the centenary of Japanese immigration was widely celebrated in Brazil. But the story does not end there: the global recession soon forced unemployed Brazilians and their Japanese-born children to return to Brazil.
Short and stout in physical stature, Brazilian statesman Getúlio Dornelles Vargas (1882–1954) still stands as an outsize figure in modern Latin American history. The politician’s long political career began in the 1910s and spanned terms as state deputy, federal minister, state governor, chief of state four times over, and federal senator. Vargas spent nearly two decades in the presidential palace, the longest of any figure during the republican period. By the time his second democratically elected presidential term (and his life) ended on August 24, 1954, Vargas had been dragged down by personnel scandals, factionalism, and economic destabilization. He likened the political climate of the final months in office to a “sea of mud.” Yet in his sudden death the president was able to free himself from the muck. Among adherents of the Brazilian Labor Party and key sectors of the working poor, “Getúlio” was elevated to the status of civic sainthood. Even after military rule dismantled the Brazilian Labor Party and banished Vargas’s political heirs to exile, the Vargas state managed to endure. Forty years after Getúlio’s death-by-suicide, president-elect Fernando Henrique Cardoso imagined the state interventionism of the Vargas years to be finally over. In reality, Vargas and his era still survive in the enduring Brazilian vocation for statism. Reminders of Vargas and his era are found in the innumerable streets, plazas, and commemorative plaques that bear the name of a politician of enigmatic charms and confounding contradictions.
This complex, resilient legacy draws in part from the bold accomplishments and ambiguous outcomes of the robust cultural policies of Vargas’s successive terms as chief of the provisional government (1930–1934), president (1934–1937), and president-dictator (1937–1945). Federal cultural policies during these fifteen years collectively known as the “First Vargas Regime” were innovative and far-reaching. Reversing decades of elite reverence for imported standards of civilization, official culture after 1930 was unapologetically and self-consciously nationalist. Policymakers, culture critics, entertainment entrepreneurs, and key figures in the arts and letters associated with the first Vargas regime self-presented as advocates for the cultural needs, aptitudes, and aspirations of the Brazilian povo (people). The central state, correspondingly, played a principal role in consolidating a canon of artistic and architectural treasures that endure in global imaginaries of Brazil and Brazilianness.
Paradoxically, the democratizing impulses of cultural management during the first Vargas regime drew their legitimacy from state authoritarianism and anti-popular politics. Most notably during the Estado Novo dictatorship (November 10, 1937–October 29, 1945), cultural policy and programming worked in tandem with censorship and manufactured paranoia. State agents orchestrated acts of violence against ideas, symbols, and creative expressions branded inimical to national interests. “Subversive” books were burned; dissidents confronted silencing. Some authors went into exile and novelist Graciliano Ramos (1892–1953) spent ten miserable months on an island penal colony for unproven charges of participation in a Communist insurrection. The oppositionist newspaper O Estado de São Paulo was outright expropriated by the state. Although the Vargas era included the official elevation of Carnaval, samba, and capoeira as authentically national cultural idioms, Afro-Brazilian popular culture remained under the watchful eyes of local police. Numerous cultural expressions vaunted as organically democratic were, in fact, shaped by regime demagoguery, symbolic violence, and, ironically, internationalism. The bold, sometimes mystifying contours of state- and culture-making in Brazil during Vargas’s first regime are explored here.