I just returned from a nice visit to Porto Alegre. Porto Alegre is where I learned about life. That’s where I was born. To me, it is the most important place in the world.
For most people outside of Brazil, the “Porto Alegre” words do not ring any bells. Most people have never heard of this town of 1.5 million people (2010) the largest city in an important metropolitan area of 4.4 million people (2010), and the proud capital of the Southernmost state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul.
Porto Alegre, simply stated, is not a destination town. It is not on international touristic routes. But it is a large city and has had its important moments in regional history. And not too long ago it became important in world history: for several years Porto Alegre was pictured on newspapers and articles world wide for its founding and hosting of the first set of years of the World Social Forum.
Porto Alegre is not part of the iconic Brazil that triggers people’s imaginations whenever they hear the word Brazil. It does not have the landscapes that framed the Girl from Ipanema imagery, it does not have the tropical beaches, nor the coconut trees. Nor the humid sensations and sounds of a lush rain forest. Nor the gigantic favelas with houses built on top of each other on a steep hillside with an ocean vista. It is not a traffic-crazed Latin American mega-metropolis. Although Porto Alegre has some of that, on its own way.
When people in the United States or other places in the world meet me for the first time, conversations usually flow like this:
Where are you from?
Brazil, I respond.
Oh, nice. And where are you from in Brazil?
Porto Alegre, I respond to an interlocutor’s blank stare, an obvious reaction for having never heard of it before.
Brazil is getting increasingly popular. It is on the news frequently, and usually it is related to something positive that is taking place in Brazil. The economy is booming, political leadership on international matters is growing, and Brazil is getting ready to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
As a matter of fact, on a recent CNN survey, Brazilians were voted the coolest nationality in the world. http://www.cnngo.com/explorations/life/12-coolest-nationalities-earth-050844?page=0,1. This is what the article summarizes:
Without Brazilians we wouldn’t have samba and Rio carnival; we wouldn’t have the soccer beauty of Pele and Ronaldo; we wouldn’t have the minuscule swimwear and toned bodies of Copacabana beach; and we wouldn’t have certain eye-watering procedures performed with wax.
Unless they’re using their sexy, laid-back, party-loving reputation as a cover for exterminating dolphins or invading Poland, then we have no choice but to name Brazilians as the coolest people on the planet.
But unless people have been to Brazil before, on business or as tourism, aside from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, maybe Brasília and Salvador, people know nothing about Brazil outside of those iconic imagines.
Porto Alegre is not on the touristic routes for the Brazilians themselves, much less on the routes of international tourism.
But Porto Alegre is unique and it deserves to be known. Brazilians put Porto Alegre and the state of Rio Grande do Sul on another domain in terms of culture. For example, when they talk about soccer, they place us in the
domain of Argentina and Uruguay when they describe the type of soccer played by Porto Alegre’s most important and internationally successful soccer team, Grêmio (and some people would claim its little sister, Internacional Football Club, is in the same category as well, but not really). But soccer is only an addendum to the many cultural differences between Rio Grande do Sul and Brazil.
Why is Porto Alegre and Rio Grande do Sul so different and unique?
I won’t claim I have the right answer. This could be about a combination of things. One of them could be the geography. Rio Grande do Sul is the southernmost state of Brazil and shares borders with Uruguay and Argentina.
These countries were once the cultural and business centers of South America, namely by the great progress experienced by Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the capitals of Argentina and Uruguay respectively. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when this region of South America was probably growing the fastest, Rio and São Paulo had yet to acquire the presence they have today in Brazilian culture and in international politics, business or tourism.
Therefore, during those years, instead of Rio or São Paulo, people in my state looked at Buenos Aires or Montevideo to do business, to learn about the latest trend sets, to get higher education standards.
And economically speaking, the southern part of the state, the pampas, had much more in common to Argentina and
Uruguay. I’m specifically talking about the cattle industry. And with it, I’m talking about the Gaucho culture. This is one important piece of this puzzle.
Another piece of the puzzle is certainly the massive German and Italian migrations that started in 1825 and fizzled out before the beginning of WWI.
The confluence of the gaucho and European traditions was or is one important element that makes Rio Grande do Sul a special and unique state, and consequently Porto Alegre, its capital, could be considered unique as well. And the food is one of its most significant cultural outcomes.
All around the world people go to Brazilian steak houses. What they don’t know is that this type of food, the barbecued meats matched to salads, polenta, and other European food staples, was born in Rio Grande do Sul. It is one of the most representative products resulting from the merge of the Gaucho culture with the Italian and German cultures. The Rio Grande do Sul’s melting pot. And voilá, we have Fogo de Chão and so many other internationally known steak houses. All of them carry in their DNA the sequence that identifies its origin in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. And Porto Alegre is where this cuisine was fine-tuned, made into a business model, and then exported to Brazil (well, I mean the rest of Brazil), and from there to the world. We may be proud that our specialty food is known as “Brazilian Cuisine” around the world. But we in Rio Grande do Sul know that it is Gaucho before it is Brazilian.
Back to the conversation with people who meet me for the first time, after I say I’m from Porto Alegre and people react with that “what the hell is Porto Alegre” look, the conversation usually shifts to something else about Brazil. Sometimes I try to elaborate about Porto Alegre, describing it as the southernmost state capital of Brazil. And that it is near Uruguay and Argentina. And that people born in my state are the Brazilian representatives of the South American “Gaucho” culture. But then it invariably opens another can of warms.
Cowboys? Someone may ask or assume.
Well, not necessarily, I would respond.
It is not about riding horses, or ranching. It is about this very particular South American culture… Difficult to explain, it is something different. It is something special. And because of that I now prefer to simply state that I am from South Brazil. And hope this is enough. Unless someone is insistent. Or I really want to have a conversation about Porto Alegre or the person may be interesting. Perhaps I should hand them my blog address and let them read this story here and other stories and find the connections themselves.
In the end, one way or the other, my words can not make justice to what Porto Alegre really is or how it deserves to be described. So, if you have read this far, you may as well be interested in seeing this video about Porto Alegre.
And this other video which has the “Porto Alegre É Demais” song. How do I translate this to English? Never mind, just enjoy its beautiful sounds. It is about someone describing or declaring his/her love to the city. One can do that, right? And you will hear many times the word Porto Alegre spoken by the beautiful voice of this singer. You will learn to say it in the Porto Alegre way after you see (hear) this video.
Thanks for reading about my original corner of the world. Porto Alegre is far from Oregon, but I try to be in Porto Alegre at least once a year. It is worth the long journey to see my family, re-visit with my great friends, enjoy the sounds, smells and the old and the new vistas of Porto Alegre. I re-energize in that most important place to me. Porto Alegre, my home town, this is for you. Cheers!