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Media, Cinema and Modernization in Brazil: The Case of Carmen Miranda and Mazzaropi

Silvana Seabra Hooper1,2*

1Social Communication Graduate Program, Catholic University MGBrazil, Av. 31 de Março – no. 1020, Belo Horizonte – MG, Brazil

2Sociology of Culture, Comparative Literature/Literary Studies – Catholic University, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil

*Corresponding Author:
Silvana Seabra Hooper
Professor in Social Communication Graduate Program
Catholic University MG-Brazil, Av. 31 de Março – no. 1020
Belo Horizonte – MG, Brazil
Tel: 553133195664
E-mail: [email protected][email protected]

Received Date: April 04, 2018; Accepted Date: April 11, 2018; Published Date: April 18, 2018

Citation: Hooper SS. Media, Cinema and Modernization in Brazil: The Case of Carmen Miranda and Mazzaropi. Global Media Journal 2018, 16:30.

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Since the end of the nineteenth century, Brazil has debated the display of its established identities, which comprise the country’s “national types” (e.g., back lander, cordial man, forester, and gaucho). Between 1940 and 1950, new types were added to the list (which was already replete with sometimes antagonistic figures), contesting the existing discursive forms, representations, and ideals of an “imagined community.” This paper compares two antagonistic characters- Carmen Miranda and Amácio Mazzaropi-who emerged in the context of Brazilian modernization at a time when light entertainment was giving way to more complex explorations of Brazilian society. Their personas and national types delineate the rough transition from traditional to urban society through mass media and reveal drastic cultural ruptures and irreconcilable national ideals.


Brazilian culture; Cultural mediation; Latin America modernization; Carmen Miranda; Mazzaropi


Brazil from the 1950s to the 1970s was extensively discussed in the economic literature as part of the industrialization process that would have begun in 1930. Studies on cultural changes, comparatively, are still significantly smaller. In general, such changes arise as a result of the development of capitalism, which would be expanding in Latin America at that time. With the end of the Second World War in 1945, the so-called mass society in Brazil was consolidated: radio broadens. In the cinema, the mass bias of popular culture was established with the musical comedies known as Chanchadas, very popular until the end of the 50's. This genre tied musical numbers to a fictional plot and was responsible for the strong recognition of several artists from around the Carnival world, as is the case of Carmen Miranda. In another aspect, a little later and that would last until years 70, another cinema found immense popular success. It was the production started by Mazzaropi, an artist from the circus world and who was notable through a character of rural origin that faces the urban world. Both the Chinchaga’s and Mazzaropi's films were, each in its own way, directed towards mass entertainment and had a great popular appeal: the first through comedy and the second through drama.

Despite the great success achieved and the contribution they made to the development of Brazilian national cinema it is unlikely that Brazilians aged twenty or younger have heard of Amácio Mazzaropi, while those over fifty probably grew up watching his films. Regardless, most Brazilians know the figure of Jeca Tatu,1 a character he played in many films,2 who is often confused with Mazzaropi himself. These films achieved great popularity during Brazil’s development list period, and it seems almost paradoxical that a jeca found success during the “golden years” of an increasingly urban culture. This was the time when Brazil was building Brasília, focusing on technology, and planning its future. In this context, Mazzaropi’s films seem somewhat out of fashion, or démodé. Carmen Miranda, meanwhile, has a stronger presence than Mazzaropi in modern culture, although she too is beginning to fade from national memory. At the same time, Miranda is undeniably recognized abroad as a singular interpreter of the culture, full of rhythm and possessed of a remarkable voice. Miranda and Mazzaropi responded to Brazilian modernization in different ways, creating vocabularies that were identified as national representations.

While previous studies of Miranda have mostly comprised biographies and research on her singing abroad, there has been some recent work in the areas of celebrity studies [1] and ethnic studies [2-4]. Few studies, however, have approached Miranda within the context of Brazilian modernization or within the framework of national representation. Judged more than studied, Miranda and her so-called aesthetic exaggerations helped create a gallery of national types and representations. The present study sets aside the ideological vision of Miranda as an “envoy from the United States” as well as the notion that Mazzaropi’s chanchada cinema “makes [you] laugh and forget what really matters” [5]. Such arguments do little to explain the emotional mobilization that both figures provoked. Did Miranda and Mazzaropi simply engender caricatures, or did they represent the desire of Brazilians to “be themselves,” even if it meant being “the other” in the context of 1950s modernization?


The basic methodology of this work is the critical reading of historical cultural production throughout the decades from 1950 onwards. This is an analytical essay that also considers the films produced with Carmen Miranda and Mazzaropi (singer and actor respectively), as well as the discussions that followed these productions. By its qualitative character, the study proposed here follows the hermeneutic reading line of the productions.

Brazilian modernization and the conflict of cultures

There is general agreement that Brazilian modernization occurred roughly between 1940 and 1980 [6,7]. It was during the reign of Getúlio Vargas3 that pronounced urban transformations got underway. Before 1940, Brazilian cities had acted much like managers of rural production and as centers of public administration [8]. Approximately seventy percent of the population lived in the countryside. Beginning in 1937, the New State4 enacted policies leading to modernization (e.g., developing transportation, energy, and heavy industry). With WWII, Brazil’s national industry rapidly flourished, stimulated by the country’s inability to import. Soon after, JK’s5 famous “fifty years in five”6 program, along with foreign capital and new economic policies, sealed Brazil’s entrance into the modern, urbanized era.

In the 1960s, modernization reached the countryside, forcing rural inhabitants to change their values and behaviors. They were pushed to rapidly adopt new patterns of sociability without adequate time to assimilate.7 This reflects Germani’s [9] concept of “society in transition,” which provides a framework for “accelerated modernization.” Germani emphasized the values that orient sociability in a given historical moment. Despite Germani’s structural-functionalist bias [10], his analyses of changes in the attitudes and behaviors of people transitioning from traditional to modern societies remain useful [11]. For Germani [9], this process is characterized by coexisting social forms (traditional and modern) and involves high degrees of conflict among institutions, social groups, and individuals.

Accelerated modernization refers to transformations that are measured not in centuries but years and are experienced by all groups in the society. Such societies conceive of themselves “societies in crisis” to express the perplexities and contradictions of their situation. In trying to define a typology for the experience of modernization in Latin America, Germani [9] observed thatcontrary to the tradition of reducing the process to the “transition to capitalism”-economic development is only one facet of the process.8

For Germani [9], modern society corresponds to a type of individual-oriented elective action: once the traditional community is dissolved, individuals have to make decisions for them. Individualism, in this sense, is not only an aspect of modernity but one of its foundations.9 Thus, modernity is also a way of living and of understanding the meaning of existence, different from that which prevailed in traditional societies. As a result, modernization often produces what Durkheim [12] called “anomie,” which arises when people who have internalized certain values and behaviors face situations for which their values no longer provide effective answers. The depth, extent, and pace of Brazilian modernization produced such a situation.

Miranda and Mazzaropi, by very different trajectories, contributed to the production of social meaning and orientation. This was not about abdicating old values. Rather, through Mazzaropi, the traditional type was incorporated into the narrative. In Miranda’s case, however, there was a more complex and less obvious process. She established a new glamour, making many references to Brazil and the tropics. In effect, except during times of war or natural catastrophe, accelerated modernization does not materially destroy the old agencies; instead, it renders them obsolete. Just as one might regard his or her automobile as obsolete when a new model arrives, an individual experiencing modernization might feel that traditional answers are obsolete because the questions are completely new.

Similar to Germani [9], this paper suggests reevaluating Brazilian modernity as neither “late” nor “deficient” but as a process in which the relations among tradition, cultural modernity, and economic modernization are unique.10 Various models arise from this debate. First, there is the canonical/European view of culture, discussed earlier, which presents Brazilian culture as deficient. Second, there is the leftist view that follows the same principle but inverts the order of phenomena, allowing for the construction of pride and an evolutionist narrative in reverse. In this view, native elements, which were rejected as modern, become the indicators of breakthrough (this was crucial to the Verde Amarelo Movement11 as well as research on folklore in the 1920s and 1930s). Third, there is the affirmation of Latin America as “the land of pastiche and bricolage, where many periods and aesthetics are cited, [which has] had the pride of being postmodern for centuries, and in a unique way” [13]. Finally, there is a version of culture, associated with the canonical view that attributes culture to dependency and presents modernity as an elite undertaking. The present analysis of Mazzaropi and Miranda mainly relies on the latter two perspectives.

Carmen Miranda: A performance of Brazil

Previous studies of Carmen Miranda ever since her appearance on Broadway in 1939-have typically focused on the following aspects: Latin American stereotypes [14], Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy [14], her “Americanization,” and the exotic type as an element of alienation for Brazilian culture [15].

Miranda, however, also embodied the modernity that began in the late nineteenth century. During that time, new standards came from Europe to Brazil, bringing new rhythms to its cities [16]. However, these foreign aesthetic standards were not merely reproduced in Brazil with their original meanings. Rather, society incorporated modernization in inventive and unpredictable ways. The arrival of radio, cinema, and TV created a new repertoire of cultural sources and aesthetic standards, and Miranda embodied much of this new frenetic environment. She was a lover of cinema and fashion who abandoned verbalization and writing in favor of a performance-based persona [17].

Despite Miranda’s efforts to reaffirm her Brazilian identity through songs such as “Disseram que eu voltei americanizada” (They said “I came back Americanized”) analyses have continued to regard her as mainly a phenomenon “for Englishmen to see” [14]. Here, there is a binary logic that regards something as true or false, authentic or inauthentic. In this way, Miranda can be understood as a functional object for the others; in that case, she is the result of the Good Neighbor policy, but in other situations her role is less obvious [14]. Miranda embodied many elements of popular culture, including Afro-Brazilian culture, samba, Carnival, and even aspects of North American culture. It has been noted that many of her movies and performances contain elements of racism, showing a biased foreign view of Latin America and Brazilian women in particular. Miranda’s manipulations of these elements, however, were unique and intricate. Her performances often made indirect references to the umbanda and candomblé rituals, which were conducted by black women in dresses similar to Miranda’s typical attire. The bracelets with their balangandãs have mystical meanings that surely had an effect on those familiar with their significance. The frenetic shaking of the bracelets, the hand movements, and the shifting eyes recall the “trance” in Afro-Brazilian rituals. Such a reference could point to something superior or magical, or it could represent the corporeal seduction of Miranda, her body as something possessed. The excess colors, as well as the presence of fruits and tropical elements, suggest the stereotype of a woman representing a natural place (i.e., Brazil), ready to be explored by others.

Born Portuguese and white, Miranda was often considered a contradiction; yet, her legitimacy-be it her use of Afro-Brazilian elements or her national type construction-is uncontested. She was often criticized for her poor English, confirming yet another stereotype: the inability of Latin Americans to speak proper English. Her language skills, however, did not impede her success. Moreover, the inability to fully comprehend her persona reveals the “uneasiness” of not being able to fully control. This liberty can be understood as “the freedom allowed by songs when the listener has ‘no clue to their meaning’-the freedom experienced through the recognition of the artifice, as opposed to the essence, of social definitions of ethnicity and femininity” [18]. Such inconsistencies or fluctuations in meaning, as well as other conflicting aspects of Miranda, can be related to the ginga, or the basic movement in capoeira martial arts, which is characterized by undefined patterns that are therefore unexpected by the opponent. As Sevcenko [17] notes, Ginga’s effect is to destabilize the opponent’s combative logic. It was through her performance, which always brought the unexpected, that Miranda exerted her enchantment. Ambiguity itself is considered a remarkable trait of the nation’s culture. Kushnir and Velho [19] suggest that cultural mediation is a kind of communication between places, spaces, and distinct cultures. By circulating among different environments, lifestyles, and experiences, a cultural mediator does not necessarily mediate on a personal level but ends up, for various reasons, fulfilling such a function. More than simply bringing information from one world to another, a cultural mediator can become an agent of transformation. Traditional examples of mediators are clergymen and foremen, while modern examples include artists, carnivaliers, and politicians [19]. Miranda functioned as a mediator between popular culture and official culture. She also mediated Brazilian multiracialism and mediated between the national and the international. Without being reduced to simply representing the Good Neighbor policy, Miranda’s form of mediation also involved various representations of Brazil. These included its ideas about modernity and identity developed between its citizens and the “other” (the US), as well as Brazilians’ wish for a certain type of modernity, or a special way to view capitalism.

Perhaps some of the animosity directed against Miranda upon her return to Brazil can be attributed to feelings of betrayal. This is a common effect among those who act as mediators but become authors and imprint a personal brand on their performances. As suggested by Duarte [20], the idea of betrayal commonly arises when the mediator is brought inside the dominant segment.

Personage construction: Mazzaropi and Brazilian/Paulista culture

When Amácio Mazzaropi appeared in the theatre during the 1930s, prior to developing his best-known creation (the hillbilly), he sporadically worked in the Paulista (“from Sao Paulo”) tradition of the Italian-Brazilian theatre mixed with the urban-Carioca entertainment theatre. The Italian-Brazilian tradition, carried on by Nilo Nello, refers to the Italian-influenced filodrammatici movement [21], which was very successful among Italian immigrants. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Paulista capital was the place most intensely immersed in this tradition, due in part to its circus heritage, which involved a mix of theatre with auditorium plays and singing performances.

Mazzaropi created his own troupe during the 1930s after being a part of the Olga Crutt troupe, where he was able to develop his talent. Many artists who worked in the Italian-Brazilian theatre and the traditional circus ultimately migrated to radio, revues, cinema, or, ultimately, TV.

The hillbilly was a familiar character in this rural environment. As a romanticized and naïve figure, he expressed the dichotomy of the countryside and the city. In the 1930s, the Filodramatic Theatre developed a regionalist character that incorporated groups and features beyond those of Italian immigrants. In this way, the theatre projected a national type, staging discussions about whether Brazil’s true character was rural or urban. Throughout the 1950s, the figure of the hillbilly coincided with battles over politics, economics, and the need for modernization. The movie Jeca Tatu was released in 1959, inspired by Jecatatuzino, a work by Monteiro Lobato. There is some debate regarding the extent of the hillbilly type incarnated by both Mazzaropi and Lobato; however, independent of the greater or lesser proximity between them, the hillbilly became a type that addressed the national sentiment. This type was not only a countryside man secluded from the city but also a man contrary to modernity, which was related to the loss of character as well as to viciousness and untruthfulness. There is also a correlation between the style of the Filodramatic Theatre and of Mazzaropi’s movies, as the protagonists in the plays were always winsome, hardworking, affective, humble, and respectable Italians, much like Mazzaropi’s Jeca Tatu. Both also employed the genre of the comedy/drama of customs.

The jeca and his pedagogical performance

Pedagogical performances typically generalize mere representations, revealing the dichotomy between reality and its representation, or a place in which the object of representation no longer stands. The performative perspective, however, works through movement that initiates, generates, and produces the object. Retrospectiveness refers less to a happening than to a discourse that, by being pronounced, projects itself toward the past. In Mazzaropi’s movies, a discursive act typically occurs that, before (re)presenting, initiates a narrative. Mazzaropi’s hillbilly, in addition to reproducing himself in his jeca, generates a plot, or a story.

Mazzaropi’s films produce pedagogical narratives about the difficult transition from the countryside to the city, under the general assumption that the latter would overcome the former. In the play Filho De Sapateiro, Sapateiro Deve Ser and the film Chofer de Praça, the hillbilly goes through the representation of his “other,” or the city and the urban way of life. The dichotomy between the countryside and the city is represented through multigenerational family conflict. Shoemaker’s Son, Shoemaker Must Be is about a shoemaker who pays for his son to study to become a doctor. However, the son falls in love with a rich young woman, and the climax occurs when the father goes to his son’s graduation party, where the cultural and social differences between father and son are highlighted. Plaza Chauffeur has a similar plot: the father, a countryside man, moves to the city and becomes a taxi driver to pay for his son to become a doctor.

The generational element in these works expresses the conflict not only between two periods but also between two Brazis, in which one element (the urban) is seen as more important. The sentimental plots, developed between the parents’ generation (rural tradition) and that of their children (urban modernity), reflect a society long affected by, and resistant to, the issue of transformation. Using this approach, Mazzaropi transforms abstract discussions about economic or societal models into tangible discussions manifested through a plot that plays out in the private sphere. These works clearly illustrate the distance between the hillbilly and the urban man. In Plaza Chauffeur, however, the humor is more strongly emphasized. All the comic scenes highlight the difficulties Mazzaropi’s rural character faces in response to the demands of the city.

These stories represent the formula Mazzaropi typically employed: the hillbilly in the cold, impersonal city. Mazzaropi’s characters can be seen as symbolizing the resistance of a pure, rustic culture against a competitive, consumerist world that lacks values. This aspect situates Mazzaropi in proximity to Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s [22] “good savage.” While the jeca is less about foreseeing the end of this type than trying to maintain a model culture, another interpretation might emphasize the idea of the “good savage,” as the humor becomes a fundamental pedagogical element. This is about transferring something to an “other” (i.e., the viewer) using the provoked laughter as the medium. The humor centers on the hillbilly’s maladjustment in the urban world, making it possible to recognize what is typical of each world. The insistence on the same type of plot and humorous situations can be related to the stereotype concept discussed by Bhabha [23], for whom the “stereotype is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place,’ already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated”.

These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and their dynamics are loaded with tension, allowing for different personal dramatic itineraries. The character gains the viewer’s trust by not only representing the possibility of rural resistance but also by integrating a narrative that-if not omitting the valorization of rural life-dramatizes Brazilian modernization.

Conclusion: Cultural Mediators

Debates about Brazil’s national types have persisted in social writings about the country since the early twentieth century. The issue was initially approached through personality analysis within the framework of collective psychology in relation to modernization. Beginning in the 1950s, these discussions shifted to economic analysis. The national character began to be seen as a variation of underdeveloped social thought highly influenced by the dominant classes [24]. Perspectives imbued with such economic presuppositions were applied to Miranda and even Mazzaropi, with both viewed as ideological (or false) forms created by capitalism itself. Within this perspective, there is not much to be done or innovated; the only possibility is to establish another angle of analysis.

The concept of cultural mediator (introduced earlier in the discussion of Miranda) can provide a more complex perspective than seen in previous analyses. It can enhance our understanding of Miranda and Mazzaropi in terms of their careers, their relationships with the public, the expectations placed upon them, and, in the case of Miranda, the feelings of betrayal imputed throughout her professional life. While cultural mediators are found in modern societies where individuation processes are significantly developed, the development of this phenomenon in the context of Brazilian modernization during the time of Carmen Miranda is of special interest [25].

As cultural mediators, Miranda and Mazzaropi are situated as both new and old references for a society in transition. In Mazzaropi, the predominant elements come from the countryside, with characters coming into conflict with modern urban society. In Miranda, references to modernization are mixed with political and cultural problems. The elevation of samba to a national symbol is strongly related to its adoption by Miranda, who popularized it internationally. Thus, even if we give the government credit for constructing samba as a “national cultural element,” the mediation between popular culture and elite culture occurred via Miranda.

Through their performances, mediators also stir the imagination. Likewise, Miranda and Mazzaropi activate viewers’ imaginations through their performances, not only raising questions but also introducing possible responses that might not have existed previously. Such activation of the imagination contains something that can only be perceived afterward, though it is not always possible to specify the exact meaning. Miranda and Mazzaropi offered two images of their country: Brazil as gaudy (where all is excess) or as jeca (rural and traditional). To make a definitive statement that fits within this dichotomy, the country would have to be reduced to one pole or divided into digestible pieces. In truth, it is not a matter of choosing between one and the other, nor is it about dismantling both. Both personas activate innumerable possibilities for the real and the imaginary. In this way, for Brazilians, it is possible to be both one and the other.


This study and writing of this paper were supported by Catholic University of Minas Gerais.

Biographical Note

Silvana Seabra Hooper is a Professor of the Social Communication Graduate Program at the Catholic University of Minas Gerais and a researcher of Brazilian culture and national identity.

Disclosure Statement

The author has no conflicts of interest to declare.

1Jeca Tatu is a character created by Monteiro Lobato (an influential early twentieth-century Brazilian intellectual) in his book Urupês (1918), which contains short stories about a worker in the São Paulo countryside. Jeca Tatu personifies the simple “countryside man” who disregards the romantic views popular among intellectuals of the time. Lobato presents the jeca as an ignorant, backward social type who is lazy and physically weak but also cunning. While this character prescribes something educational, the jeca does not represent a genuine social type but a condition resulting from disease. Once he is healed, Jeca becomes a different man, and most of his traits, including physical weakness, disappear.

2In addition to the Jeca Tatu film itself, Mazzaropi starred in six other films where Jeca was the principal character: The Miraculous Jeca and Mare (O Jeca e a égua Milagrosa, 1980), The Jeca and His Black Son (O Jeca e Seu Filho Preto, 1978), The Jeca against the Devil (O Jeca Contra o Capeta, 1976), A Pistol for Djeca (Uma Pistola para Djeca, 1969), The Jeca and the Nun (Jeca e a Freira, 1968), and Jeca’s Sadness (Tristeza do Jeca, 1961).

3Vargas led Brazil for eighteen years, first as dictator (1930–1945) and then as democratically elected president (1951–1954 [suicide]). This was the longest term of any Brazilian president, second only to Emperor Pedro II among heads of state. He favored nationalism, industrialization, centralization and populism. For the latter, Vargas earned the nickname O Pai dos Pobres (Father of the Poor). He was both a proponent of workers’ rights and a staunch anticommunist.

4Estado Novo was the authoritarian period that began in November 1937 with a military-backed coup led by President Vargas.

5Jucelino Kubicheck, president of Brazil from 1956 to 1961.

6JK’s program for rapid growth and development. The plan aimed to develop an industrial base, build roads and dams, and extend oil extraction

7According to Germani (1971), different societies correspond to different types of social action. In modern industrial societies, increased secularization leads to a type of “elective action” based on individualism and personal choice. Such action replaces the “prescriptive action” typical of traditional societies, where regulatory frameworks are rigid and people have limited choices. The passage from one type of society (traditional) to the other (modern) presupposes the abandonment of prescriptive action and the adoption of an “elective” model.

8For Germani, there is no economy that is not also a set of ideas, values, and behaviors.

9Germani and Dumont are very similar in this regard.

10However, Germani’s perspective on socialization contains a certain idea of “late modernization,” dismantling analyses that pretend to see the whole process, or part of it, as a “detour.”

11This movement, active during the twenties and thirties, was a kind of response to the nationalism of Semana de Arte Moderna. Formed by Pliny Salgado, Menotti del Picchia, Guilherme de Almeida, and Cassiano Ricardo, the group criticized the “Frenchie nationalism” of modernists like Oswald de Andrade and proposed a primitive nationalism.


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