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Encyclopedia ArticlefromEncarta
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Brazil: Flag and AnthemBrazil: Flag and Anthem
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Introduction; Land and Resources; People and Society; Culture; Economy; Government; History
IIIPeople and Society
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Brazil’s population is a mixture of Native American, European, and African peoples. These groups have intermingled over the years to create a society with considerable ethnic complexity. The Native American population has been in Brazil the longest, but is now the smallest group. The Portuguese began arriving in 1500, and other European groups came after 1850. The ancestors of African Brazilians arrived as slaves, beginning about the mid-1500s and ending in 1850 when the slave trade was abolished.

Brazil’s population growth was generally high during the 20th century, but it began to slow in the 1980s. Until recently the population was predominantly rural and agricultural. The last half of the 20th century brought rapid urbanization due to population growth and the migration of people from rural areas seeking employment in the expanding industries of the cities.


Brazil was first settled by Native American peoples, many of them members of the Tupí-Guaraní cultures. It is difficult to estimate the size of the Native American population at the time the Europeans arrived. There are no written records, and because of the scattered distribution of the tribes there is little substantive evidence remaining about their history. Recent calculations suggest that between 1 and 6 million Native Americans lived in Brazil prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500. However, as a consequence of war, enslavement, and the introduction of European diseases, the indigenous population decreased rapidly. Estimates for 1819 suggest that the Native American population had fallen by two-thirds. In 2000 Native Americans made up less than 1 percent of the population, living in isolated groups in remote regions of the rain forest.

Portuguese settlement was slow and small-scale. When they arrived in 1500, they established settlements along the coast and exported agricultural products to Europe. By 1600 there were no more than 30,000 European settlers in the country. The population increased during the 18th century as a result of natural increase and immigration to Brazil’s gold fields, which were discovered in the late 17th century. Population also increased when the Portuguese brought slaves from Africa to Brazil to provide labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines. More than 2 million slaves arrived during the colonial period. By 1800 Brazil’s total population was estimated at around 3.25 million, of which about 1 million were Europeans, 2 million were free or enslaved Africans or of mixed race, and about 250,000 were Native Americans.

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During the early part of the 19th century more than 1 million more slaves were imported. After the slave trade was abolished in 1850, the country’s population continued to grow by natural increase and immigration. Immigrants from Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Spain started coming to Brazil after 1850. Brazil’s first census, in 1872, recorded a population of 9,930,478; by 1900 the population was just over 17 million. Immigration continued to be substantial until the 1930s, with many Japanese arriving after 1908. Since then, population growth has been primarily due to natural increase.

In 1950 Brazil had 51,944,000 inhabitants, and by 1980 the population had more than doubled, rising to 119,002,700. The most recent census, in 2000, recorded a population of 169,799,170. A 2003 estimate placed the population at 182,032,604. Contributory factors to these high growth rates were immigration, a high birth rate, and a death rate that has declined steadily since 1870.

In Brazil, there are considerable regional variations in population density. The most densely peopled states are Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the Southeast and the Federal District in the Center-West. The least populous states are Roraima and Amazonas, both in the North. About 80 percent of the population lives within 350 km (220 mi) of the coast. Until the mid-1960s there were more rural dwellers than people living in towns; since then the urban population has increased as industrialization lures workers to the larger cities. About 82 percent of the population is now classed as urban, and a significant proportion lives in big cities.

BPrincipal Cities

The largest city in Brazil is São Paulo, the main industrial center of the nation. São Paulo is also the largest city in South America, with an estimated population in 2000 of 10.4 million. The former capital, Rio de Janeiro, ranks second. It is an important port and commercial center. Other important cities include Salvador, the regional capital of the Northeast; Belo Horizonte, a major industrial and commercial city in Minas Gerais; and Brasília, the capital of Brazil. Each of these cities forms the core of a larger urban area. In 2000 there were eight other cities in Brazil with more than 1 million inhabitants: Manaus, a port on the Río Negro near its confluence with the Amazon; Belém, a northern port on the mouth of the Amazon; Fortaleza and Recife, along the northeast coast; Curitiba and Porto Alegre in the south; Goiânia, in the south central; and Guarulhos, a suburb of São Paulo.

CEthnic Groups

Brazil’s population is derived from three main ethnic sources. The earliest secure date for the arrival of Native Americans in Brazil is about 10,000 years ago. Europeans arrived in 1500, and for the next three centuries European immigration was restricted to only the Portuguese. African slaves came from West Africa, the Congo, Angola, and Mozambique. Relations between these groups created a complex population pattern of mixed races, described by an often subtle terminology based on color—for example, preto (black), escuro (dark), mulato escuro (dark brown), or mulato claro (light brown).

Racial classifications in Brazil are not as sharply defined as in other nations. The Portuguese colonists who settled Brazil had a more relaxed attitude toward interracial relationships than other Europeans and often intermarried with Africans and Native Americans. In addition, racial classification often reflects an individual’s economic or social standing. For example, a Brazilian of mixed racial heritage who has done well economically may be classified as white.

The white population tends to be slightly more prevalent in urban areas while the black and mulatto population is slightly more populous in rural areas. There are also some strong regional variations. In the Northeast, where large numbers of slaves were imported during colonial times to work the sugar plantations, more than 70 percent of the people were recorded as black or mulatto in 1999. In the Southeast the population was classified as 64 percent white and 35 percent black or mulatto; in the South, which was settled mainly by European immigrants, more than 84 percent of the people were recorded as white. Brazil is widely regarded as a racially open society, with few ethnic tensions, and there is no recent history of legal discrimination. However, whites tend to occupy positions at the top of Brazil’s social structure, while blacks often occupy the lower economic levels of society. Considerable room for social mobility exists among individuals with a mixed racial heritage.


Portuguese is the official and prevailing language of Brazil, although there are some regional variations in pronunciation and slang words. Since 1938 Portuguese has been the compulsory language for teaching in schools, but German and Italian are still spoken in homes in the South by some descendants of immigrants. English and French are the main second languages of educated Brazilians.

There are also more than 100 indigenous languages, of which the most important are Tupí, Gê, Arawak, and Carib. The Portuguese borrowed some Indian words, particularly from Tupí, which was the common language used in interactions among the Native Americans of the coastal regions, Jesuit missionaries, and early settlers. Many settlements and physical features still have Indian place names. The settlers also borrowed some words from the vocabulary of African slaves.


Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, with 90 percent of the population claiming at least nominal affiliation. About 6 percent are defined as members of non-Catholic Christian churches. In recent years Pentecostal groups, which believe in the experience of holiness, or Christian perfection, have grown rapidly. The Spiritist movement, which believes in multiple incarnations and communication with spirits of the dead, has a small following, mainly among the urban middle classes. Traditional African beliefs, brought by slaves, have blended with Catholicism to create Afro-Brazilian religions such as Macumba, Candomblé, and Umbanda. These incorporate possession by spirits, the use of African music and dance, and the identification of West African deities with Catholic saints. Such religions are strongest in former slave areas, such as Bahia in the Northeast. Native Americans practice a wide variety of indigenous religions that vary from group to group.

The formal link between the state and the Catholic Church was severed in the late 19th century. However, the Catholic Church has continued to exert an influence on national affairs. It has traditionally been a conservative force, but in recent years a movement known as liberation theology has emerged among members of the Roman Catholic clergy. This movement teaches that Christians must work for social and economic justice for all people; it has encouraged greater church involvement in social issues, particularly those that affect the urban poor and the landless rural population.


Primary education is compulsory from age 7 to 14; high school education lasts for four years. Education is free in official primary and high schools. There was a major reform of education in 1971 that provided a basic education of eight years, with a common core of studies. Students may then continue on to pursue training for employment or higher education. Despite provisions in the 1988 Constitution decreeing federal expenditures for education, schooling remains underfunded and considerable variations exist in opportunity between urban and rural children, among the nation’s regions, and among social class.

Nearly all children complete both primary and high school. The level of adult literacy is similar for both sexes. In 1950 only half of the population over 15 years of age was literate. Despite a literacy campaign begun in 1971, the current level is just 86 percent. Literacy levels vary regionally and between rural and urban areas. Illiteracy is highest—around 27 percent—in the Northeast, which has a high proportion of rural poor.

The University of Rio de Janeiro was Brazil’s first university, created out of separate faculties in 1920. The University of São Paulo followed in 1934. In 2003 there were 125 universities. Each state (except the newest, Tocantins) has a federal university, and there are several in the states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and Rio Grande do Sul. There are state universities in most of the states of the Northeast, Southeast, and South. The Roman Catholic Church also has some universities, and there are dozens of private universities, many of them in São Paulo state.

GWay of Life

Historically Brazilian society has been patriarchal, with a strong tradition of male social dominance. This has weakened with immigration, urbanization, and the decline of the rural sector. Also, independence for women has grown under the influence of feminism and the expansion of urban employment opportunities for women. The family is still a crucial social unit, and there is some survival, even in the cities, of parentela, a kind of kinship system. This extended network involves close family and distant relatives, godparents and godchildren, and even family servants. Such linkages are generally stronger among the middle and upper classes.

There are significant differences in housing standards between social classes in Brazil. Striking contrasts exist in the cities between the luxurious mansions and apartments of the affluent and the favelas (shantytowns) of the poor. In the countryside the casa grande (big house) of the rancher or plantation owner and the simple shacks of rural laborers also illustrate the disparities. In the cities there is a social spectrum of rich, middle class, working class, and poor, but in the countryside distinctions tend to be more polarized between the rich and the poor, with few working-class or middle-class individuals.

Clothing in Brazil is not very distinctive, and formality has diminished over the past 30 years. Although high society is very fashion-conscious, only senior managers and public servants wear suits and ties to work in the cities; office workers wear casual clothes. In the countryside, jeans, shirts, and dresses of inexpensive cotton are typical. The cowboys of Rio Grande do Sul, known as gauchos, still wear distinctive clothing consisting of ponchos and baggy trousers, while the cowboys of the Northeast, known as vaqueiros, wear hats, coats, and chaps made of leather. In Bahia some women maintain traditional African clothing consisting of long, full skirts, colored shawls, and turbanlike headscarves. Native Americans may wear few clothes and make use of beads and other decorations for personal adornment. They may also use body paint and have distinctive hairstyles. However, except on ceremonial occasions, many Native Americans who are in contact with mainstream Brazilian society have exchanged traditional dress for more contemporary clothing.

Important staples in the Brazilian diet include beans, rice, wheat, and manioc, a plant grown in tropical areas and also known as cassava. These are consumed throughout the country, although manioc is an especially important element in the diet of the poor in the Northeast. Meat, particularly beef, is also widely consumed, although only occasionally by the poor. Despite the extensive coastline and river system, levels of fish consumption are low, except along the Northeast coast and in the Amazon region. Traditional dishes include feijoada completa, a combination of pork, black beans, and rice, and churrasco, barbecued meat that is common in the South. In the Northeast there is an important African legacy in spicy dishes such as vatapá, a fish stew made with onion, tomato, coconut, and spices. Coffee is the most popular beverage, often drunk as cafezinho, a small cup of strong and very sweet black coffee. A potent alcoholic beverage, known as cachaça, is distilled from sugarcane, and light beer is widely consumed. More affluent Brazilians may drink wine produced in Rio Grande do Sul. International brand soft drinks are also popular.

Soccer is the most popular sport, played in the massive stadiums of the big cities and as recreation. The game was introduced in the 19th century and was established as a professional sport in 1933. Although there is great rivalry between local teams, there is strong popular support for the national team, which has won the World Cup, soccer’s major international competition, four times. Pelé, one of the world’s legendary soccer players, led the Brazilian team to three of those victories, in 1958, 1962, and 1970. Motor racing is also very popular, and Brazil has produced a number of championship winners, including Emerson Fittipaldi and Ayrton Senna. Major participant sports include swimming, tennis, sailing, and golf.

The festival of Carnival, with its spectacular street parades and vibrant music, has become one of the most potent images of Brazil. Its roots lie in the European Mardi Gras, a lively festival, which precedes the fasting and prayers of the Roman Catholic holy season of Lent. Carnival begins on the Friday before Ash Wednesday and lasts for five days. In Brazil it seems to have first occurred in Bahia in the mid-17th century and in Rio de Janeiro in the 1850s, where it was associated with street parades and elegant private balls.

Carnival did not take on its present spectacular form in Rio until the 1930s, when the dance known as the samba emerged in the favelas (shantytowns) of the city. Samba “schools” based in the favelas compete to create the most spectacular groups of extravagantly costumed dancers and original samba songs. In Rio they now parade through the sambadrome (a street stadium) before vast crowds of Brazilians and foreign tourists. The more traditional street parties and balls also continue. Carnival is celebrated throughout Brazil, but the most spectacular celebrations outside Rio take place in Salvador, Recife, and Olinda, although the nature of the events varies.

HSocial Issues

Brazilian society displays marked inequity between the city and the country, between regions, and between social classes. The gap between rich and poor is among the most substantial in the world. In 1998 the richest 20 percent of the population received 64 percent of the nation’s income, while the poorest 20 percent earned only 2 percent. Besides access to wealth, this inequality is also reflected in access to education, medical care, and services such as water supply, sewerage, and electricity.

Despite the rich resources, rapid economic development, and the overall size of Brazil’s economy, the nation has major problems with poverty, hunger, disease, and inadequate services. In the cities, overcrowding compounds these problems. Rapid urbanization has brought people to the cities at a rate that has outpaced the growth of the job market and the urban services that they need to survive comfortably. Many of the larger cities have extensive slums. Homelessness—particularly among children and young teens whose families cannot support them—constitutes another major problem.

Despite these urban problems, poverty and lack of access to clean water, electricity, health care, and schooling may be more acute in the countryside. For example, 95 percent of urban dwellers have access to safe drinking water as opposed to just 53 percent in the countryside. Such distinctions are also evident between regions. The average head of a household in the Northeast is likely to earn only half as much as a counterpart in the Southeast, twice as likely to be illiterate, and have a life expectancy five years lower. A key challenge for the government remains the inequality of opportunity among citizens.

Among other social issues, overt racism is rare, although there is some evidence of a social segregation in which the poor are more likely to be black or of mixed race. Organized crime has links to gambling and drugs, and the favelas often serve as bases for drug dealers. Street crime remains a problem in cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Salvador.

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Cultural development in the colonial period (1500-1822) was primarily a transfer of Portuguese traditions to Brazil, particularly under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Architecture was the earliest art form to develop a distinctly Brazilian tradition through the blending of European and African influences. During the 18th century, wealth generated by sugar plantations and gold mines went into the building of flamboyant churches and public buildings in the regions of Bahia, Pernambuco, and Minas Gerais.

After independence in 1822, intellectuals rejected their Portuguese inheritance and sought models elsewhere. Artistic movements from throughout Europe had a significant influence on Brazilian art during the 19th century. A major milestone for Brazilian culture was the Week of Modern Art in São Paulo in 1922, an international arts festival that introduced modernist ideas in Brazil. Brazilian modernism emerged in response to artistic movements in Europe and to the social, political, and economic changes that Brazil was experiencing. After its introduction, modernism exercised a powerful influence on Brazilian literature, art, music, and painting. From 1968 to the 1980s the military regime that ruled Brazil repressed artistic expression by censoring the press, popular music and theater, and by establishing state control over radio and television. After the end of military rule in the 1980s, the government lifted restrictions on artists and journalists.

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