Brazilian Miscegenation: Disease as Social Metaphor
2012 Congress of the Latin American Studies Association
San Francisco, California May 23-26, 2012
Okezi T. Otovo, Assistant Professor of History
University of Vermont
Brazilian medicine of the 19th and early 20th centuries had a peculiar cultural relationship to disease. Certain debates consistently recurred as disease experts typically argued that Brazil was uniquely prone to higher manifestations of particular diseases or that its cultural and social milieu (or the deficiency thereof) gave universal diseases distinctive local contours – making certain diseases exceptionally Brazilian. Many considered disease to be one of the most critical issues facing Brazilian society, and disease was wrapped up in strange and often unexpected ways with intellectual and cultural understandings of Brazilian nationality. Disease became a way of understanding Brazil itself, as it was considered either the cause or effect of social phenomena as well as the expression of various “truths” or “problems” of class, race, and gender. As one prominent physician proclaimed, the entire nation of Brazil was a “vast hospital” where epidemic and endemic disease were the rule rather than the exception.
One of the most fascinating sites for analyzing these trends is the cultural history of syphilis between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, a period of great transition in which the end of slavery and empire triggered new anxieties about Brazil’s ranking amongst so-called “civilized” nations. Transmission of syphilis emerged as a major medical concern at the time as the disease was labeled a significant cause of Brazilian degeneracy, compromising the future of both nation and nationality. According to leading physicians, syphilis—like tuberculosis, Chagas disease, and alcoholism—was a disease that weakened the race and prevented Brazil from achieving its full economic potential. Physicians also worried that certain Brazilian traditions, such as the widespread use of black wet-nurses to nourish infants, contributed to the spread of syphilis and thus to the larger crisis of degeneracy. Domestic servitude and syphilis became intertwined in a certain medical dialogue that reflected changing debates about race, nation, and “progress.”
Among domestics, the figure of the black wet-nurse, the mãe preta or literally the “black mother,” is an iconic character in Brazil. This cultural veneration of the mãe preta, however, only dates back to the early 20th century when she became a folkloric symbol of harmonious and intimate relationships between white and black Brazilians. In the 1800s, at least in medical discourse, the wet-nurse was a more sinister figure whose ignorance and irresponsibility threatened the health of the infants in her care and whose transmission of syphilis through breast milk caused their premature deaths. This version of the wet-nurse as contagion did not completely disappear with the dawn of the new century; it existed alongside the newly created figure of the beloved wet-nurse of old. Yet her contagions in 20th century literature were much more likely to be expressed in cultural terms, rather than in racial ones. That is, whatever deficiencies or diseases she represented were the result of social problems rather than her African heritage. Brazilian intellectualism was by then emerging from the pessimistic trap of climatic and racial determinism and reaching a more optimistic consensus. Physicians increasingly agreed that the “problematic” demographics and racially-integrated social relations of which the wet-nurse was a part did not necessarily doom the nation to incurable backwardness.
Physicians never argued that wet-nursing was the sole or even the primary cause of syphilis in Brazil although they did consider wet-nursing to be one of the principal methods of transmission to children. By the late 19th century, prominent physicians at Brazil’s two medical schools—in Bahia and in Rio de Janeiro—identified high infant mortality rates as a major impediment to national “progress” and urged governmental action. This article examines broad Brazilian patterns, while emphasizing the state of Bahia from which the majority of evidence for this analysis is taken. The rising concern over the supposed dangers of wet-nursing was one element of this new attention to infant health, yet the alarm over wet-nursing as a mode of transmitting syphilis, in particular, held greater significance as it united various intellectual strains on race, gender, sexuality, and nation. The heightened medical interest in syphilis and servitude reflected tensions related to political and social change in the late 19th century and to Brazil’s long-standing anxieties over race. Brazilian slavery’s slow death was finally complete in 1888 and the monarchy fell apart soon after, leaving intellectuals and politicians to ponder how the new Brazil could take its rightful place amongst the community of modern 20th century nations without the institution of slavery which had organized social, political, productive, and even familial relations for centuries. During this period, and well into the 20th century, intellectuals produced a wealth of medical scholarship, social science, and political treatises analyzing the contemporary state of Brazilian “civilization” and prescribing measures that would ensure a stronger nation in the future, populated by a supposedly better class of Brazilians. The issue of race was at the center of all of these debates as it was at the center of medical discourse about syphilis and servitude.
By the early 20th century, Brazilian intellectuals, including physicians, had reached a uniquely Brazilian “solution” to their racial anxieties in the face of universally negative assessments of the political and economic potential of predominantly black and mixed-race tropical nations. According to these new homegrown theories, Brazil’s racial composition may have created certain social complications, such as the prominence of diseases like syphilis, but it should not be considered an insurmountable obstacle if the nation could “whiten” itself both biologically and culturally. Renowned scholar Gilberto Freyre, and others, went even further than this already optimistic assessment by asserting that biological and cultural miscegenation was Brazil’s distinguishing feature and that each “primordial” race had made significant contributions to the national “character.” Freyre’s ideas are treated in detail at the end of this analysis because his highly influential work posited that the enslaved black wet-nurses and nursemaids of the colonial and imperial periods were principle characters in Brazil’s historical narrative: maternal figures that culturally and biologically united the descendants of the slave masters and the descendants of the slaves. Freyre’s arguments best illustrate this new faith in Brazil’s potential. Rather than being plagued by some inherent weakness or “mestiço degeneracy” as 19th century intellectualism claimed, Brazil’s cultural and racial hybridity embodied the best of diverse elements. This type of theorizing was clear in medical discourse as well, but none of it meant that physicians abandoned the notion that there was a problematic side to their blended society. Caregivers could still be incompetent, servants sexually promiscuous, and all disease-ridden.
With a spate of new literature, the medical understanding of syphilis was color-coded in novel ways in the early years of the new century, as experts began to see the disease as a result of a uniquely Brazilian hypersexuality that resulted from historical and contemporary race relations. While the wet-nurse became an important symbol of Brazilian cultural miscegenation, syphilis was implicated in the nation’s biological miscegenation. Miscegenation, therefore, was ironically both an asset to Brazil’s cultural development and a symptom of the excessive sexuality that kept Brazil behind more “civilized” nations. The concern over race and servitude took on an updated medicalized tone in the early 20th century, turning away from the explicitly racist 19th century theories and embracing more modern ways of thinking about social “problems” and degeneracy through disease. Thus, despite Brazilian medicine’s adoption of many French medical theories, this history of the domestic servitude, syphilis, and medical discourse is fundamentally Brazilian and not simply the story of the transfer of medical ideas and racial theories across national borders. Through debates about syphilis, public health, and family welfare, experts theorized about what the reorganization of society post-slavery and empire and the assumed loosening of deeply entrenched hierarchies would mean in medical terms for Brazilian development…
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