Twenty-one-year-old Raissa Santana graciously accepted the title of Miss Brazil in 2016. This assured the beauty’s eligibility to compete in the 2016 Miss World Pageant which took place in Manila this past January. Stunning, smart, and talented—why wouldn’t she take the top spot in the Brazilian beauty competition? Santana is black, that’s why. She is, incredibly, only the second black Miss Brazil in 61 years and only the first black Miss Brazil in 30 years. To put this into context nearly 45% of Brazilians identify themselves as Black. In the midst of racial and political tensions in America, the implications of this victory in Brazil might be worth analyzing.
Globally, citizens reach out in support of ending racism and bigotry. That’s all well and good, do we, however, actually know what makes up racism? Brazil has a rocky history of racism that still prevails today. America views South and Central America as one blur where the term “Mexican” signifies the entirety of people and races of all 8 Central American countries and, at times, the entire South American continent. Brazil, settled by the Portuguese, developed as one of the largest outlets in the new world for sugar and other crops. African slaves were brought to Brazil in larger numbers than were any in the new world, including the American colonies. Outposts across Brazil became especially diverse with mixes between African, Native peoples, and Europeans. Myriad languages erupted and diverse cultures blended including: Criollo, Mestizo, Indios, Mulatas, and Zambos. This diversity was captured for history in artwork called “Casta Paintings” revealing the colors and mixes that were created in Brazil. The artwork, naturally, made its way back to Europe for all to see the melting pot that was Brazil.
So then, why so little evidence of the incredible diversity of Brazil in its pageantry or in its filmography for that matter? Seu Jorge, a Brazilian pop star starred in the highly acclaimed Brazilian film “City of God.” The film followed the history of drug dealers in the renowned Brazilian slums. When asked about the state of racism in Brazil Jorge lamented, “Black people in Brazil? There has been no progress. Women are getting stronger, gay people are also fighting for their rights. That’s very important. But for the black people there has been no improvements.” (City of God, Ten Years Later) That interview took place in 2012.
America’s favorite Brazilian exports include that nation’s modeling icons: Gisele Bundchen, Adrianna Lima, and Alessandra Ambrosio among others. All these beloved beauties, without exception, are of European descent and certainly not a reflection of the diversity that is Brazil. This lack of representation both in Brazilian pop culture and the world’s conception of the Brazilian culture slowly changes, sometimes at a glacial pace—much like it changes globally. A history of colonization, miscegenation, segregation, and unadulterated racism holds Brazil back.
#BlackGirlMagic “celebrates the beauty, power and resilience of black women.” This popular movement weaves itself throughout social media platforms with the intent of changing the world’s outlook on what we may consider beautiful, professional, and even worthy. Every person of every race deserves a feeling, an essence of worthiness. Pageant winner Santana explains, “I didn’t expect to win this title, but I am very happy to have won and to represent black beauty and encourage girls who have the dream of having something—to conquer, to be a model, to be a Miss…now I want to encourage these girls and show them that they can.” (Cosmopolitan) A black Miss Brazil rings relevance in any country, in our country, especially. After all, aren’t we the world’s leader? Contemporary culture celebrates Eurocentric features in a majority of modern media. Santana’s beauty pageant crown represents a victory over decades of racism and oppression in Brazil; she beat out her first runner up—oppression and her second runner up—ignorance by the slimmest of margins. In the event Miss Brazil cannot fulfill her duties as the pageant winner, let us hope that multicultural affection fills in for her!