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.
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.
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.