AGI Congress São Paulo


Matthew Shirts


Matthew Shirts is editor-in-chief of National Geographic Brazil and coordinator of the Sustainable Planet Project, whose collaborators include over thirty magazines and sites put out by Editora Abril, as well as its own site. Shirts was born in the United States and came to Brazil for the first time as an exchange student in 1976. He obtained a degree in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1981, studied History at University of São Paulo, and went on to do graduate work at Stanford University in the early 1980s, where he studied under legendary historian Richard M. Morse. He was a regular columnist for the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo for 17 years and currently writes a column for the weekly magazine Veja São Paulo. In 2012, he published O jeitinho americano, a book of articles he wrote on his life experiences in Brazil.

Talk: The unofficial country

The Brazilian style favors improvisation over planning, the informal over the formal, and the popular over the erudite in culture. It tends to be festive, upbeat and inclusive rather than exclusive and profound. It is based in music and dance and sport – the movement of bodies. There is a strong African element in Brazilian culture, mixed in with European and indigenous influences. If we agree that football, carnival and samba are its mainstays, and that the São Paulo modernism of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Bossa Nova of the late 1950s and early 1960s in Rio are two of its high points, then we can draw some conclusions about how it came to exist. 

Football, samba and carnival were generated in the urban popular culture which took shape at the beginning of the twentieth century. The end of slavery, finally, in 1888, and widespread immigration from Europe, Japan and the Middle East, along with migration from the North to the South, turned cities here into lively cultural melting pots. The bureaucratic heritage of the Portuguese court and the fragility of local elites resulted in a state apparatus that was as elaborate as it was ineffective at establishing a project of its own. The result was that unofficial culture (carnival, samba, football) grew and became more persuasive than official culture (school, state holidays). Over the course of the 20th century, unofficial culture took the place of official culture. High culture thrived primarily whenever it was able to dialogue effectively with its popular counterpart (Paulista modernism, Bossa Nova). Official culture never took hold. Brazil became the unofficial country.


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