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Culture

More notable than small

A study analyzes the trajectory of Carmen Miranda in Brazil and the United States

WWW.DOCTORMACRO.COMThe “Samba Ambassador”: going to the USA was a proud reason and in the end one of prejudiceWWW.DOCTORMACRO.COM

How to emphasize that she was more notable than small, in an article that he wrote for the North American newspaper The New York Times about the singer and actress Carmen Miranda (1909-1955), Caetano Veloso analyzed how she was an icon of the dilemma of a whole generation when the question was the image that Brazil had abroad: “She was firstly a reason for pride and shame, afterwards a symbol of intellectual violence on how we wanted to confront our reality, of an implacable look that we wanted to launch upon ourselves. We had discovered that she was our caricature and our X-ray.”  Until today the “Ambassador of Samba”  lives on, like the wavy pavements of Copacabana, the Yankee imaginary concerning the country. The trajectory of the diminutive Portuguese woman who turned herself into a sterilized Baiana (woman from the state of Bahia), conquered the Brazil of President Vargas and afterwards America is the theme of  “O verde e amarelo”  de Carmen Miranda, ( the green and yellow it of Carmen Miranda) the doctoral thesis of Tânia da Costa Garcia, now, through  the support of FAPESP,  transformed into a book.

“The polemic situation concerning the sterilized Baiana reveals the crisis that we have with our identity. Carmen is a caricature, but is, at the same time, what we are: underdeveloped, tropical, of mixed race, Dionysian”, she explained. In Tânia’s opinion, in spite of her diminutive size, she was right from the beginning of her career, a “cultural weapon”  used both by the new Vargas state and by the Pan-Americanism of the expansionist stamp of the Americans, whose pill was sugarcoated with the policy of good neighborliness. With reason, Hollywood called her the “Brazilian bombshell”; such was the size of her firepower in serving, even in an unconscious manner, ideological interests. From the start, in Brazil, she was the catalyst of the official movement of our transformation into the “Land of Samba”.

Pulled down from the slum hilltop, the Samba, before “something somewhat outcast”, was enthroned, in the middle of the debate concerning the Brazilian identity in the decade of the 1930’s, to a symbol of nationality in opposition to the growing influence of foreign culture brought in, it was to believed, with the arrival of the talking cinema (one only has to remember the Samba Canção para inglês ver ( Song for a Englishman to see) , by Noel Rosa, with its allusions to “I love you/ To via Steven Via-Catumbi”,  etc.). Carmen herself had sung in Eu gosto da minha terra ( I like my land)  that  “I am a Brazilian / and my taste denounces / that I am a daughter of this country / the foxtrot / don’t compare oneself / how our Samba is something rare.”

“Carmen’s career was structured in a period in which the means of communication were coming to have a significant role in the capital of the Republic. This coincided with the nationalist policy of the Vargas government, which, attentive to the power of the media outlets of communication, made a point of approximating itself to the symbolic universe of the less favored layers of society by turning itself into the government of the masses”, Tânia analyzes. The Samba became a State question, or better still the Rio de Janeiro  Samba, established as the Brazilian Samba by radio waves. “The Samba, elected as the symbol of the “new common people” had turned transparent the social barriers that the populist policy insisted on hiding behind national unity”, the author observes.

President Getúlio Vargas even went on to break up his official speeches during the “Hora do Brasil” ( The Hour of Brazil) with numbers from popular composers and song interpreters. There was even the case of a program for the Germany of Hitler directly from the First Mangueira Radio Station. Clearly they will not want the Samba “of the slum hilltop with its black rhythms”, as a newspaper of that time noted. The Afro-Brazilian rhythm had the beat of the new state’s political policy, idealizing the “social and racial democracy” of Brazil and that of work. Even the “playboy” Wilson Batista wrote Sambas that praised work. In spite of this, more than three hundred (300) songs were censured by the regime and even Carmen, with her roguish and mischievous interpretations (full of double meanings that had challenged the in force moral), was ideologically checked up on.

Even at that, the atmosphere of the moment allowed that Carmen, at the end of 1938, dressed herself for the first time as a  woman from Bahia in the film Banana da terra, which forecast scenes with Bahia settlements and coconut palms. The problem was that the producer did not accept the prices asked for by Ary Barroso for the motion picture’s two main songs and opted for “O que é que a baiana tem” “what does the Bahiana have”, by Dorival Caimmy, more in line and adequate for the movie sets. Carmen inspired herself on the lyrics to create her visual dress, half way between the native culture and the glamour of the American cinema stars.

“During the decade of the 1930’s, the urban popular song was elected by the press and by the State as one of the national representations and Carmen, being among the most popular song interpreters, turned herself into the singer of  “green and yellow it””, Tânia observs. The mixture of chewing gum with banana came to fruition most definitely a year later when the entrepreneur Lee Schubert saw Carmen dressed as a Baiana in a show at the Urca Casino and decided to take her to the United States.

“The American movie  industry was responsible for the diffusion of the sterilized Baiana that immortalized the artist”, the researcher said. Both there and here. “Different from the Baiana of our typical singers, Carmen, a hybrid and cosmopolitan, brought together this personality of the popular layers to other sectors of society. The Exotic, by being propagated nationally and internationally by the means of communication, stopped being an exclusive right of the black cook, and went on to become, against the desire of many, the nation’s identity”, the researcher evaluated.

Good neighborliness – However: on emigrating to North America, the Baiana of Carmen took on characteristic slices of other Latin American cultures, clearly to the liking of the policy of Yankee good neighborliness. They did not want a Brazilian (even less a Portuguese), but a symbol of all Latin peoples who, for the majority of North Americans, did not have very many differences. “Thus in reality a singer from the only Portuguese language country in Latin America had been elected as the representative of this grouping of Spanish language communities and brought to it little stylistic difficulty in her performances”, Caetano Veloso’s article evaluated with precision.

The diminutive lady performed notable work: she transformed herself metaphorically into the fruit carrying and smiling Pan-Americanism personality wanted by the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs within the Roosevelt government. It was times of war and it was necessary to have every bit of help, even from those below the equator. This was not something new: back in 1860 Napoleon III had advocated a common Latin cultural tradition, although full of bad expansionist intentions. The new registration was obtained by the divide between civilized North America (Apollonian) and the other, Latin America, wild and Dionysian, with its Pampas and its irrational mixes of races. “Carmen, in the flesh with her Little Rositas, Doritas, Chitas e Chiquitas all from 20th.

Century Fox, represented exactly this Latin America founded by the American cinema. She behaved like a wild animal, her libido was uncontrolled, she was indolent and lived on her wits, preferring life’s pleasures, and she was also grotesque in the caricature interpretation of  her personalities, with poorly spoken English, an outsider in the face of the civilized world of the North American”, Tânia analyzes. Transformed into “Latin American totality”, Carmen marked the difference between the savage world, the South American way, and the North American way of  life.

After having conquered the Far West with violence, the time came to overcome, with subtlety, the Far Latin America. “The idea propagated by Pan-Americanism is the interpenetration of these two universes (Apollonian and Dionysian), under the domination of the former. In Hollywood, Pan-Americanism had reinvented advocating, in the final instance, the subordination of a Latin America inferior to the “superior” nation of the north”, the author observed. “She was the tasteful fruit that the perfumed and hot tropical zone of the south had sent to reanimate the serious business men of Fifth Avenue”, wrote a North American journalist. Carmen had been perfect to demonstrate the natural subordination to civilization and the peripheral positive aspects of  backward peoples.

The Urca Casino –  Right from the start, Carmen’s success in North America went down well here. When, in 1940, she returned to the country she was received with a banquet by Lourival Fontes, the Director General of the DIP (Press and Propaganda Department). Nevertheless, in the show that she gave at the Urca Casino, after having complemented the public in English, she saw that it was not going to be easy to make Brazilians content. “Carmen skewed our music, impregnating it with things that were North American.  At that time the Brazilian wanted Samba to be purely his, national and without being mixed”, the Carioca newspaper “A Notícia” criticized, and that was not the only criticism or the worst.

The dilemma had been positioned: popular culture was official culture and desirable and what had been celebrated was the fact that foreigners recognized our riches. “Tropical Brazil as represented by Carmen was not all of Brazil, but nevertheless it had been this Brazil that had been highlighted abroad”, Tânia observed. “What had been in play was not the artist, but the representations surrounding the music that she had interpreted, Samba, and the invented personality, the Baiana. Both bore reference to Afro-Brazilian culture that was not of interest when being propagated as the nation’s symbol.” The “Samba Ambassador”  had turned into a collaborator of  North American imperialism, and worse, an artist who denigrated, literally, the nation’s image together with the Yankee admirers.

“When the consecrated singer of  “green and yellow to”  went up to North America, she had taken with her the anxieties and desires of a nation. During the time that she stayed in Brazil, she was a reason for debate in virtue of the nationalistic atmosphere of that time. With her departure to the United States a determined image of Brazil was established abroad: thus we had to recognize this image in the face of the other. And the other, for its part, had been represented as the most modern nation of the West”, she evaluates. “Carmen’s films managed a consensus, previously impossible to have been imagined, between those who had approved of Samba as a national representation and those who had refuted this image of Brazil propagated by the artist in the United States.”  The radiograph of the caricature.

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