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Xenophobia toward Northeastern Brazilians? No, call it racism

Nothing new under the sun. In every presidential election, the votes of the Brazilian Northeast are pointed out as the result of welfarism, if not of stupidity or illiteracy. On the cover of Veja magazine in 2006, for example, there was a black woman from the Northeast with her voting card and the phrase: “she can decide the elections”. What is striking today is the use of the term xenophobia to define the rejection of the Northeasterner in articles and reports circulating in the networks.

In Brazil, racism is a founding principle of the nation’s project. The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were influenced by eugenic and naturalistic theories of racial improvement, the search for “whitening” of the Brazilian mestizo population, and the adoption of urban models and new economic parameters. This is where the economic and social backwardness of the Brazilian Northeast lies.

In this article, I want to emphasize the notions that divide the country into archaic/modern, the former represented by the Northeastern region and the latter centered on the Southeastern and Southern regions.

In their critique of Eurocentrism, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam demonstrate, through the analysis of Hollywood film images, that we live within a logic that consecrates the representation of the white European as normative aesthetics and as the cradle of values considered, within the Western Eurocentric imaginary, symbols of civilizational improvements, such as rationality, logic and formal literate culture. Following this thinking, colonized societies continue to be hegemonically represented from the place of otherness, being possible to identify in these images traces of racism, social hierarchy, and cultural prejudices.

In research published in 2008, I analyzed several film productions from the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo axis under this critical perspective. The work showed the permanence of a hegemonic positioning that transfers the vices of the gaze built along a Eurocentric hierarchy on the margins and peripheries of Brazil. This means that national cinema operated, with some exceptions, according to the same parameters as Hollywood.

This is how we became accustomed to quick associations. The Brazilian Northeast is a unique and compact region, with no sociocultural distinctions among its member states, practically without a trace of urbanity, detached from the values of modernity, inhabited by exotic and rural beings, sometimes represented under the label of the cangaceiro – members of outlawed armed gangs from the mid-19th century to the 1930s – or in the image of undernourished people, alluding to the food crises and famines that have historically affected the region – both easy victims of vote buying.  These generalizations are not exclusive to the Northeast region if we think of including the North region, for example.

Historical recoveries and communication work

The Brazilian Northeast represented economic development in the early stages of colonization. Production was based on large estates in the hands of colonists willing to exploit monoculture and slave labor. At that time, European emigration to the sugar mills was not very attractive, unlike what began to happen after the mining boom and later with the coffee trade. 

The centralization of political decisions in the Southeast of the country, followed by the beginning of industrialization, confirmed regional inequality. The disqualification of a labor surplus coming mainly from the slave contingent, impregnated with racist prejudices and based on official discourses, suggested the racial inferiority, not only of the black but also of the mestizo.

It was also at this time that the ideals of progress and development were consolidated in Brazil, represented by Euclides da Cunha in his 1902 work Os Sertões. The work is considered by Albuquerque Jr. a milestone, since it is the beginning of the search for our origins in the sense of understanding what would constitute the national and the apprehension of practically unexplored territory and a little-known people, the sertão (semi-arid region in Northeastern Brazil) and the sertanejos (people from sertão). According to Albuquerque Jr. “in Euclides appears the pair of opposites that will permeate the discourse on our nationality: the paulista versus the sertanejo“.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, under the influence of eugenic and naturalistic theories, the “whitening” of the Brazilian mestizo population was sought through the adoption of urban models and new economic parameters. With the beginning of the Estado Novo, led by President Getúlio Vargas, one can see the rise of the discourse of conquest and exploration, when he summons the nation to march into the sertão so that we can conquer our unity, both territorial and racial. 

Thus, between the 1920s and 1940s, reports of exploratory trips to the so-called “corners of the country” multiplied. These stories began to be disseminated in newspapers such as O Estado de S. Paulo, for example and began the construction of the image of a Northeast considered as national alterity, as picturesque and different. Furthermore, the subject of migration, the result of regional impoverishment, gained strength, and the migrant from the Northeast, poor and mestizo, for the most part, represents a nuisance that is notably opposed to the European immigrant

It is in this context that debates about national identity take place, in a clear displacement and substitution of models, in search of what would make us full or developed: “Brazil’s identity, constructed in the perspective of backwardness or underdevelopment, is given by what it lacks, by the deprivation of those characteristics that would make it full and complete, that is to say, developed” according to Marilena Chauí.

Backwardness, progress, and imagination: is the Northeasterner a foreigner?

The electoral map of the Northeast region today seems to be more the result of the implementation of emancipatory public policies than of the permanence of welfarism. Social policies such as Bolsa Família and investment in education have transformed the Northeastern context in recent decades and have made this population much more attentive since they have reality and history as parameters of comparison.

Therefore, the denomination of xenophobia to prejudice against the Northeast and its inhabitants is inadequate. First, because of its etymology. Xeno refers to the foreigner. Northeasterner, if we accept neologism, is a discursive and imaginary national creation anchored in racial hierarchies and in the permanence of the dichotomy between backwardness and progress. Secondly, by associating the term xenophobia with a native population group, we are inventing new terms and emptying a fundamental struggle. It is enough to locate the prejudice against Northeasterners as a racist expression to realize what has always affected us: racism and its derivations.

*Translated from Portuguese by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva 


Profesora de la Univ. Federal de Pernambuco - UFPE (Brasil). Coordinadora del Núcleo Migra - Migraciones, Movilidades y Gestión Contemporanea de Poblaciones de la UFPE. Doctora por la Escuela de Comunicación de la UFRJ.


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