Exclusive: Smashing The Brazilian Stereotype

By Guest Contributor Tetsuhiko Endo, cross-posted from The Inertia

Adriano De Souza has been one of Brazil's most successful surfers. Criticisms have certainly accompanied that success. Photo: ASP/Kirstin

Of the many hoary clichés that the surfing world zealously cultivates, (from “selling out” to “soul surfing” to “unspoiled natives”) one stands out above the rest as being particularly ugly–the Brazilian stereotype. It is rare that the subject of surfing’s third nation comes up either in conversation or print without someone mentioning supposedly Brazilian traits like lack of etiquette, poor style, loud demeanors, “passion” (whatever the hell that means), and/or a propensity towards violence. As Australian Surfing Life once put it, (way back in 1994, no less) A Brazilian in the water is “The bastard surfer … a dark-haired, rude-as-f-ck, uncivilized prick, ripping off [waves] like a pirate stealing gold.”

“Prejudice is a reality in surfing but people don’t talk about it,” says Brazilian pro surfer Junior Faria. “It has been shamefully hidden behind words like ‘stereotype’ and ‘joke.’ I’ve heard and read things that are really heavy and the worst part is that people actually think it’s okay to make those statements. They think that we won’t understand or that everyone thinks those statements are funny, too.”

I got in touch with Faria and the Executive Editor of Brazil’s version of The Surfer’s Journal, Jair Bortoleto, to ask them about prejudice, if some of it is well founded, and what they make of it. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Portuguese, so although they were able to give me insight, they had to do it in their second languages, which, as Faria pointed out, is another issue that Brazilians have in trying to explain themselves to English speakers. “Some ignorant people think that we aren’t as intelligent because of the accent we have when speaking English.”

“The main stereotype I hear about Brazilians is that we are loud and aggressive,” says Bortoleto. “I say it’s true in some cases, and it’s not true in others. People can get angry everywhere. In Australia, for example I’ve seen some nasty stuff from the surfers. So I think you have to see both sides of the coin.” He also points out that what is sometimes construed as aggression is instead a certain cultural demonstrativeness. “Passionate is not aggressive. There are passionate Brazilians, that surf for the love, and there are aggressive guys that mostly travel together and are loud.”

“People who assume this (that Brazilians, as a whole are loud and aggressive) don’t have a problem with Brazilians only, they have problems with anyone who comes from different backgrounds or cultures,” says Faria. “I know that some guys have no respect and sometimes act like d-ck heads, but there are assholes everywhere: Australia, America, Mexico, Tahiti, every single country in the world has their share. Most ‘international’ surfers think every single Brazilian is loud, aggressive, blah, blah, blah, but that’s a huge mistake. I think 90% of the surfers that have that prejudice against us have never met us.”

By this point, some of you, dear readers, are perhaps disagreeing with the gentlemen I’ve quoted. Maybe you’ve had a first hand incident while traveling somewhere that proves that yours isn’t a prejudice, but an unconditional truth. I know: your home break gets invaded by large groups of Brazilians and they take your waves without showing due respect. I know: Adriano De Souza gets over-scored in Brazil, unforgivable. Unfortunately, if you think any of this adds up to substantial evidence supporting a generally negative view of Brazilians, you have miscalculated. The prevailing negative view of Brazilians in the surf world is a product of underlying prejudice within American and Australian society, and I’m going to explain why.

To get to the heart of the Brazilian stereotype, we need to reach back into the country’s history. Brazil’s surfing boom and subsequent integration into the world surfing economy occurred during the late seventies and early eighties, a time period that coincided with the dying throws of their military dictatorship (which didn’t officially end until 1985). The legacy of the dictatorship, along with various external economic factors like heavy IMF debt coupled with structural-adjustment rograms, left behind an extremely divided society in which the rule of law was weak, violent crime rates were off the charts, the divide between the rich and the poor was among the highest in the world, corruption was prevalent, and drugs and prostitution rampant. Although the last decade has seen a dramatic drop in both violent crime and poverty rates, many of these issues continue to haunt the country as it still has one of the largest income gaps between the rich and the poor in the world.

Although it would be easy to point to these phenomena as formative factors in an aggressive and unfriendly Brazilian national psyche, that would be misguided. Brazil is a multiethnic country of nearly 195 million people who inhabit a land mass bigger than the continental U.S. Some are far wealthier and better educated than most in the First World while some live on less than a dollar a day. Saying that they act a certain way because they are from a place with a high crime rate or a lot of inequality is like saying all Americans are gun-toting crazies because the US has comparatively high incidences of gun crime. Not the case.

Adriano De Souza repping the infamous claim in Portugal. Claim on! Photo: ASP/Kirstin

What we should, instead, take from the history of Brazilian society is this: when the bright lights of the international surf media first focused on Brazil in the late seventies and eighties, it wasn’t exactly Disneyland. Pro surfers visited the country more for the parties than the waves, according to Matt Warshaw‘s History of Surfing. Those parties could be expected to include plenty of cocaine, willing women and/or prostitutes, and other sleazy elements that accompany drugs, prostitutes, and traveling surfers. So from the very beginning then, we see Brazil established as a dark, semi-dangerous den of hedonism for the white, “civilized” Australian or Californian. This is, of course, is a variation of the way that the First World views all of Latin America–which is, in turn, a view that is highly influenced by the history of colonial exploitation in the region.

When Brazilians started traveling en masse, they did so slightly later than the other two main surfing nations and tended to flock to established areas like the Gold Coast or certain well-trod areas in Indonesia. They traveled in groups because, well, almost everyone travels in groups and, being from the largest economy in Latin America (quickly becoming one of the largest in the world), they brought with them a certain entitlement that is common to many citizens of countries with large economies.

Americans and Aussies can laugh about the Japanese who tend to shy away from hassling, but the Brazilians not only expect to, gasp, get waves in crowded lineups like their more established surfing brethren, they are also pretty damn good. Crucially, this makes them a threat to the heretofore established, and highly canonized surfing world order. As Nick Carroll, who has long pointed out the fallacy of the Australian stereotype against the Brazilians, wrote on a comment board in 2007: “The standard Aussie attitude to Brazilian traveling surfers is incredibly similar to the standard Californian Old School’s attitude to Australian traveling surfers.” He goes to so far as to suggest that Australians overreact to a perceived Brazilian threat because they sense a certain similarity to themselves. Carroll also lampooned this cultural sensitivity in a brilliant satirical piece that can be found here.

At the same time that Brazilians were making their presence felt in international lineups, they were doing the same on the competitive scene. The English-speaking media and some of their fellow pros responded with a whisper campaign that has lasted to the present day. “They are small-wave specialists or competition specialists.” “They have bad style.” “Stink bug stances.” “No flow.” Whenever a Brazilian did break the mold, like the buttery-smooth Fabio Gouveia, he was deemed an exception to the rule instead of a refutation of it. It’s also interesting to note that, often, anything a Brazilian surfer does do well is then used as proof of his inability to do other things. When Jadson Andre began hucking a huge and rather unique frontside air in competitions, instead of being praised for his innovation, many grumbled that he overused it.

Perhaps the largest sticking point has been over claiming. No professional sport in the world has as much taboo surrounding the acknowledgement of your own prowess as professional surfing. Basketball, tennis, football, soccer…every one of these sports sees more claims in an hour than most surf comps do in a whole season. The fact that Americans and Aussies don’t like to claim and are quietly appalled by those who do is probably a hangover from the predominantly WASP culture that spawned modern (post-Hawaiian) surfing. The fact that criticisms of it should be taken seriously speaks volumes about the anachronistic emotional repression that still lords over surfing.

Finally, talented Brazilian surfers have never had as much access to sponsorship by the large US and Australia-based surfing brands, which has meant less exposure for them in the global (read: English-speaking) media outlets and therefore less opportunity for people outside of Brazil see them as dynamic individuals. This isn’t some sort of conspiracy by surf brands, but simply a matter of not having the interest or perhaps resources to identify talent in the Brazilian market–something Rip Curl is obviously trying to remedy by picking up surfers like Gabriel Medina and Silvana Lima.

This is not prejudice for the sake of prejudice, it’s a common side effect of the power struggles between cultures. Surfing, of course, is not a global cold war, but it is an international competition for limited resources and therefore sometimes functions in similar ways. In this sense, the stereotype is a reaction to the implicit threat posed by a) the rise of a new and somewhat distinct surfing culture and b) the rise of a developing nation whose global economic clout challenges both the economic and ideological status quo. There are historical precedents for this.  In the same way that the Americans created an image of the Bolsheviks during the Cold War, surfers have established the “Brazzo” as the Savage Other, which helps to reinforce not only our stereotypes of Latin America as a “dangerous” and “uncivilized” place but also our view of ourselves as leaders of taste, style, and acceptable behavior. The constructs of this system dictate that “we” dictate and abide surfing etiquette, while “they” catch whatever they can. “We” are polite and reserved; they are loud and obnoxious. “We” are humble; “they” claim. “We” resolve our disputes in a civilized way; “they” like to fight. You get the point.

Gabriel Medina has recently emerged as Brazil's trendsetter--a counterpoint to much of the negative press his contemporaries have endured. Gabriel, pictured at his inaugural ASP World Tour victory in France last year. Photo: ASP/Kirstin

There is perhaps no Brazilian who has been the target of as much dislike as Adriano De Souza. For many, he seems to be the embodiment of every supposedly Brazilian shortcoming wrapped up in one small, wiry package, and his competitive success has become the bugaboo of ASP World Tour fans from just about everywhere outside of Brazil.

Although I tend to root for De Souza based on his Rudy-esque, every-man appeal, I’m not, otherwise, a fan of his surfing.  But there are plenty of surfers on Tour who will never have their own profile movie and yet don’t inspire the kind of ire that De Souza routinely receives.  His critics site a raft of reasons, but few of them hold up under the light of scrutiny:  He’s small.  True, but most ASP surfers don’t have room to talk.  He has a wide stance. So do Owen Wright and even the great Mark Occhiluppo–both of whom are rightly considered very stylish surfers. He has a hunchback. I refer you to Taj Burrow.  He claims too much.  If “claiming” in the era of Tim Tebow and Rafael Nadal actually bothers you, you should just stop watching sports altogether.

There is no doubt that De Souza can and does beat better surfers based on the strength of his competitive drive and savvy.  This can be frustrating to watch, but it’s not why people hate him.  No, I think many in the English-speaking surfing world dislikes De Souza because, on a deeper level, it offends our sense of superiority to see a little Brazilian beating our surfing heroes. When Floater Gate erupted last year at the Rio Pro, the Internet exploded with criticism despite similar scoring controversies happening at almost every other large competition. Hovering on the edges of the comment boards was a simmering and ugly anti-Brazilian prejudice that boiled over in diatribes, like one on the Grind TV blog labeling him a ‘brown midget with a massive under bite’ and others evoking the nickname that he shares with Jadson Andre, “spider monkey.”

In retrospect, all of this seems ridiculously over-the-top, but it’s one year later…and little has changed. Every time De Souza breaks the Quarters, as he just did in Rio, the nastiness on the Internet once again rears its head.  The only difference now is, with the emergence of Gabriel Medina, people are beginning to add preambles to their Brazil bashing that will be familiar to anyone who has ever heard a racist joke:  “I like Brazilians but …”  “I think Medina is awesome but …”

One reason Medina represents the exception to “Brazzo-ness” instead of the rule is his sponsorship with a “big three” company. Through ad campaigns, magazine shots, and video clips, Rip Curl has presented him to the public as both a worthy competitor and star material. That is not to take anything from his incredible surfing ability, but to point out that, in the eyes of American and Aussie surfers, he is not really “Brazilian” in the way that they have come to view that country and its surfers. He may indeed be a great guy in many respects and he has benefited from his sponsor being able to present him to the English-speaking market as such. This is a benefit that has not traditionally been enjoyed by many Brazilian pros whose largest sponsors might be Oakley or Mormaii, to name a couple.

Prejudice is the flimsiest of concepts, but the most difficult to root out because it requires a re-evaluation of not only the object of your prejudice, but a re-evaluation of yourself. Surfers are not one breed or culture of people. Furthermore, we do not exist outside the grasp of wider societal norms, perceptions, experiences, and views. We are many different types of people from many different places nominally united by a shared passion. The sooner we can discard the notion that a surfer has to look a certain way, speak with a certain accent, or be from a certain place, the better we will all be for it.