Negotiating National Identity: Middle Eastern and Asian Immigrants and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil (Working Paper #8)

Jeffrey Lesser, Connecticut College

Summary: Today I will examine the processes by which ethnic identities and perceptions were constructed in the twenties, thirties and forties, and how these function as a kind of mirror in which national identity confronted itself. These were decades of enormous demographic change, massive economic growth, and authoritarian rule. They were also years when what it meant in a public sense to be a “Brazilian” was widely contested. By examining similar strategies used by Syrian-Lebanese (the term used to describe those of middle eastern descent) and nikkei (which describes those of Japanese descent) I will show how markedly Brazilian national identity was redefined prior to World War II. I have chosen these two groups for three reasons: first these communities each claim over one million people (there are more people of Japanese descent in Brazil than in the rest of the world combined, for example); second, many who define themselves as Syrian-Lebanese and nikkei have found wide success in the political, economic and social spheres; and third, it was exactly the “non-whiteness and non-blackness” of these two groups that most challenged elite notions of Brazilian identity.7 By examining public ethnicity as expressed in the language of the majority – in newspapers and books, on the political stage, and in the academy – I want to suggest that the definitions of virtually all of the components of national identity – ethnicity, class, color, gender, and even the very boundaries of the Brazilian state – were successfully negotiated by certain groups. By the mid-twentieth century, elite paradigms about who was and was not an acceptable Brazilian changed so markedly that many European groups were no longer in the “white” category while at certain times Asians and Middle Easterners were.

Working Paper #8»