Author Archives: Jack Hyman

What I Learned About Brazil This Semester

The first aspect of Brazilian society that I came to understand over the course of this semester was the country’s supplementation of concrete racial identities with more subtle social hierarchies, based on specific features of individuals including their skin tones and hair types. Those bearing a stronger resemblance to traditional standards of whiteness will wish to reserve geographic and cultural spaces for themselves, as self-identified white people have in places like the United States and Europe. People of darker skin complexion, larger hair, etc. will be left to develop their own cultural and economic infrastructure, albeit often with less material capital to build on.

The next major piece of information that I was able to glean from my experience in this class has been the extremely wide range of positions Brazilians have historically taken on issues of gender and sexuality. Ostensibly a religious celebration, the Brazilian Carnival included drag performances (such as those by Madame Satan) as early as 1942. However, a significant subset of the population continues to elect – or at least support – conservative and evangelical politicians who do not recognize the legitimacy of these preferences and identities. It is quite interesting to me, how this disparity in what very large segments of the public consider to be acceptable social norms has persisted for so many decades.

The final prominent feature of Brazilian society I learned of this semester has been the diversity of conditions one may find when examining community life in the favelas, along with that in other unplanned neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro. Favelas to the South are often quite prosperous and lacking in pervasive criminal activity, although they are also more in danger of gentrification and displacement due to their vistas and proximity to the city and ocean. Those in the North, meanwhile, have been decimated through deindustrialization, and are frequently subjected to violent power-struggles between the state and the cartels that occupy them. Families who have been evicted from any of these communities are typically driven to impoverished squatter settlements to the West, or drab concrete tenements located in certain regions of the city.

Brazil History and Culture: Prison Break

Attempted Prison Break Leaves 21 Dead in Brazil’s Amazon Region

Image result for santa izabel prison complex

This article, published in the Rio Times, discusses a recent incident in which the Santa Izabel Prison Complex, a Brazilian prison, was assaulted from the outside. The attackers, described only as “a heavily armed group,” used an explosive device to blast through a wall and “facilitate the escape of inmates” (Alves 2018). In a subsequent investigation by the Para state Department of Security and Social Defense, an indeterminate number of the prisoners themselves were found to have been in possession of weapons at the time of the offensive. A total of twenty-one people ultimately lost their lives over the course of this event, including a prison guard, five inmates attempting to escape, and fifteen individuals working to free the prisoners (Ibid.).

Santa Izabel is located near Belem, Para, a state capital in the Amazon river basin. In February, the National Council of Justice had warned both state and prison officials of the high probability that there would be a large-scale escape effort in the near future. Moreover, the agency had recommended the construction of an additional wall and an enhanced security presence around the particular compound which would be breached two months later. This facility, the Center for Recovery of Penitentiary Para III, was found by the Superintendence of the Penitentiary System to be capable of housing no more than 432 prisoners. However, at the time of the jailbreak its cells were well over capacity, holding “a total of 605 inmates” (Ibid.).

Brazil, Pará,Pará state officials during a press conference on Tuesday to announce an attempted mass escape at the CRPP III unit at the Santa Izabel Prison Complex

Upon observing the broader Brazilian prison system, one finds that this instance of violence, overcrowding, and apparent negligence by public servants is not unique to the complex in Para. Writing for the American University International Law Review, Layla Medina finds that the country regularly fails to enforce its own laws on the treatment of inmates, in addition to passively condoning actions which violate the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Through her research, the author also determines one of the key factors behind all of these problems to be the criminal justice system’s pervasive failure “to grant detainees a prompt custody hearing,” which in turn leads to overcrowding and leaves prisoners vulnerable to abuse by guards and other inmates (Medina 2016, 627). These problems are further exacerbated by significant political pressure to impose harsher punishments for relatively minor offenses, which disproportionately impacts poor communities and ensures that prison populations expand faster than the facilities accommodating them (Ibid., 612-27). It can then be stated that the problems highlighted in these articles are deeply connected to the social and economic divisions that have plagued Brazil since its independence, and will likely persist until such inequalities are recognized and properly addressed.

 Inmates stand in their cell in the Pedrinhas Prison Complex, the largest penitentiary in Maranhao state

Works Cited:

Alves, Lise. “Attempted Prison Break Leaves 21 Dead in Brazilian Amazon Region.” Rio Times, April 11, 2018.

Medina, Layla. “Indefinite Detention, Deadly Conditions: How Brazil’s Notorious Criminal Justice System Violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” American University International Law Review 31, No. 4 (July 2016): 593-627.

On the Hour of the Star

“What psychological and philosophical devices does Macabea employ as a means of coping with her perpetual state of destitution?”

On several occasions during the story, Macabea is noted by the narrator to have nearly considered the utter depravity of her external conditions. However, she avoids despair by simply accepting such things as she encounters them in particular moments, rarely pausing to reflect upon the gravity of her reality. An early example of this occurs as the narrator is describing her physical appearance and lack of decent food, and she is quoted as saying “it is so because it is so” (55). This tendency also manifests itself in her conception of the divine when it is revealed that despite her frequent recital of prayers, she does not believe in God since she never observes Him firsthand (81). Later, upon being fatally struck by a car following her meeting with the fortune teller, she promptly examines some nearby grass and rejoices as having been “born for death’s embrace” (441).

Wikipedia Revision: Anti-Vaccine Riot

For my second Wikipedia revision assignment, I plan to examine and make improvements to the article titled “Vaccine Revolt.” As one might assume from the title, this article concerns itself with a brief but violent popular backlash to a public health campaign waged by the government of Rio de Janeiro. Although the uprising itself was named for the in-home smallpox vaccinations mandated by the mayor immediately preceding the outbreak of violence, it is crucial to understand that this particular program followed a longer array of stringent measures aimed at eliminating the litany of diseases that had plagued the city since it had become drastically more populated in the nineteenth century. One especially disruptive policy was the demolition of old and low-income housing complexes, which left thousands of city residents homeless and potentially served to aggravate class tensions.

I discovered this article while searching for material relating to positivism in Brazil, an effort which merely uncovered several sources with which the concept had a degree of overlap. Once I learned of the 1904 Vaccine Revolt through these texts, I became intrigued; for the topic of political street violence in general has long interested me, and this event is one sufficiently obscure for me to assume that we will not be covering it in class. Moreover, the riot and its contributing factors may be emblematic of the issues Rio de Janeiro and other large cities faced in the midst of large-scale population influxes from Europe and the Brazilian interior.

The Wiki article itself, while providing a decent summary of the unrest and the series of events that preceded it, fails to make any citations whatsoever. Needless to say, this is insufficient for the standards outlined for the members of our class as editors. To make matters worse, it puts much of the article at some risk for deletion. I will verify as much of the information on the page as I can, in addition to providing what other knowledge I am able to glean from academic sources. One of these is “‘Civilizing Rio de Janeiro’: The Public Health Campaign in the Riot of 1904,” published in the Journal of Social History. Another is “Positivism and Revolution in Brazil’s First Republic: The 1904 Revolt,” published in The Americas. If these sources and the others that I find ultimately befit the purpose, I will also elaborate upon what divisions the turmoil might have revealed within Brazilian society at the onset of the twentieth century.

Portrayal of Indigenous Brazilians by Wikipedia

The introduction of Wikipedia’s article on the “indigenous peoples in Brazil” contains several interesting pieces of information – most starkly the scale by which the region’s indigenous population declined following the arrival of the Portuguese, but also the manner through which they gathered food and other necessities for themselves. Their domestication of tobacco is particularly interesting from an American and Eurocentric perspective, since this innovation would yield a vital cash crop for some of the British colonies in North America in subsequent centuries.

The first “body” section of this article concerns itself with the geographical “origins” of Brazil’s indigenous populations, specifically the exodus of their ancestors from Siberia and East Asia. The free encyclopedia deserves praise for its differentiation between the vast multitude of these groups, tracing existing tribes back to individual waves of migration using genetic and linguistic analysis. There does appear, however, to be a deficit of source material in the small section that claims an absence of records or monuments left by defunct native civilizations; while it is quite possible that this claim is true, there is only one source to support it at the end of the section.

Though rich in detail and interesting to read, the next section is abysmal in terms of having been adequately sourced. Only a few citations are made throughout this portion of the text, with most constituent paragraphs containing none at all. To be fair, however, the sources listed for this section appear to be very broad and comprehensive. A significant portion of recorded history is covered here as well, ranging from as early as 1500 to as recent as November 2012. As such, depictions of the interactions between the indigenous peoples and others in the world around them range from their first contact with Europeans, to Brazilian independence, on into contemporary struggles to reassert control over their own land and natural resources.

The final paragraph concerns itself with additional issues confronting indigenous populations today, and discusses what actions some groups have taken to address them. It contrasts with some of the others in that it is very well-sourced, but is fortunately similar to them in that it makes efficient use of the space that it covers. “Urban,” “environmental,” and “territorial rights” movements are addressed, the last of which, it is claimed, has occasionally escalated into violent skirmishes with national authorities in recent years.