Speaking Spanish might no longer be a key factor to be considered a Latinx in the U.S., and the release of Música brings some rare but welcomed representation of Brazilian Americans to the screens: Will their voice start to be heard?

When a Step Forward Is Someone Else’s Mistake

It was quite telling that only through a coding error by the U.S. Census Bureau we could get an insightful view into how Brazilians in the U.S. relate to Latinx identity: even if they identify themselves as “Latino” in the annual American Community Survey (ACS), the Bureau counts them out of that definition, since officially “Latino” applies only to people of “Spanish culture or origin”.

But as the Pew Research Center pointed out, in 2020 the Bureau did not apply that policy, and more than 416,000 Brazilians could describe themselves “as Hispanic or Latino and were counted that way, representing more than two-thirds of Brazilians in the U.S.” That’s almost 30 times the people that gave that same answer the year before (and 26 times the number of 2021, when the recategorization was applied again). 

This simple but flawed statistical decision highlights two issues: how “Latino” and “Hispanic” have been interchangeable terms in the U.S., and how this inevitably links Latinidad with speaking Spanish (among other homogeneous aspects that we’ll go over in a moment).

Making a Distinction

In 2016, MTV’s Decoded offered a very simple way to avoid the overlap of both concepts, marking that “Hispanic” refers to people of Spanish-speaking origins and “Latino” refers to having origins in Latin America. Brazil and Spain are the two countries that better illustrate the difference: Brazilians are Latinxs because Brazil is located in Latin America, but they are not Hispanics because their country’s first language is Portuguese. You can find other examples of non-Hispanic, Latinx people in Haiti, the French-administered territories in the Caribbean, or Belize, where English is the official language.

That distinction that the U.S. Census Bureau is failing to do is actually curious when you think about the portrait that Brazilians have in pop culture coming from the U.S. As Frances Negrón-Muntaner tells it, Hollywood has shown Brazilians “as stereotypical Latinos: The women are sexy or tragic, the men dangerous or disposable – all are terrific dancers”. She mentions how Carmen Miranda “embodied all things ‘Latin’ under her tutti frutti hat during the 1940s,” or how “Brazilian actor Wagner Moura plays Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar” in Netflix’s Narcos. You could add a reversed example to that list with Spaniard Javier Bardem playing a Brazilian character in Eat, Pray, Love.

But the Negrón-Muntaner article brings another curious and true fact: some Brazilians in the U.S. might want to differentiate themselves from Latinxs, according to the city they live in or the circumstances they go through. In a Latinx-majority city like Miami, Brazilians “can integrate into a pan-Latino mainstream as ‘white Hispanics’ without loss of status,” while in northeastern cities, with a significantly smaller Latinx population, they tend to be grouped with “Latinos” despite their preference. Some other Brazilians can go as far as to try to be seen as unique and different from Spanish-speaking people from Latin America, in order to avoid discrimination and racial prejudice.

From the side of Latinxs in the U.S., language might stop being a determinative aspect of their identity: a 2023 report by Pew Research Center found that 78% of them have stated that it is not necessary to speak Spanish in order to be considered “Hispanic”, with Latinx immigrants being less likely than U.S.-born Latinxs to say speaking Spanish is not necessary to be considered Latinx – 70% vs. 87%. While this has not certainly stop being an important factor in relations among Latinxs in the U.S. (54% of non-Spanish-speaking Latinxs have been shamed by other Hispanics for not speaking Spanish), it poses an unavoidable question: could this be the context in which the Latinidad of Brazilian Americans becomes more visible?

Música Is Bringing a New Voice

According to a 2023 statistic, the U.S. is the country with the highest level of Brazilian emigration. How that fact never translated into an empathetic portrait of Brazilian Americans in the U.S. American media needs to be looked at, but this year saw the release of what might be one of the first steps in the right direction: Música, a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical musical rom-com directed by and starring Rudy Mancuso, and co-starred and co-produced by Camila Mendes. Both are American of Brazilian descent, and became a real-life couple during filming.

The movie follows Rudy, who’s trying to pursue his musical dreams in New Jersey and finds himself torn between the expectations of his mother (played by Maria Mancuso), his girlfriend, Haley (Francesca Reale), and his new romantic interest, Isabella (Mendes), while his synesthesia makes him turn regular sounds into rhythm all the time.

Video Credit: Amazon

After her successful roles in Riverdale, Do Revenge and Palm Springs, Camila Mendes knew she was headed to tell Brazilian American stories, but it wasn’t until she received Mancuso’s pitch for the project that she set herself to join it not only as an actor, but also as an executive producer. She also offered herself to develop her character, looking to avoid a stereotypical image: "I wanted to make sure she didn't feel too perfect, like the perfect Brazilian girl that's just go-with-the-flow and isn't worried about the future and she's super chill," she stated.

For her, it was also a way of reflecting a story about Brazilian characters, period: “You never see stories about Brazilians, you never see Brazilian characters even. I’ve auditioned and been offered roles that are mainly Spanish speakers only, exclusively Spanish speakers. And I constantly have to remind people that I don’t speak Spanish and that that’s not my dominant language.”

Meanwhile, Rudy Mancuso highlighted the need to shine “more light” on “Brazilian culture and Portuguese language in mainstream film, television, and stage”, adding that “It’s such a dynamic, specific, and dense culture that’s magical and vibrant that deserves more screen time.”

What Can Change in Times of Crisis?

Brazil itself is currently going through tragedies, issues, and transformations that are changing preconceived notions in the Brazilians way of living: the dramatic floods in Rio Grande do Sul, which almost all Brazilians link to climate change as they try to dodge disinformation, is posing questions about how to modify urban infrastructure to avoid further deaths and crisis, with ecologist Marcelo Dutra saying "We can't oppose nature. We have to wake up to this force that is telling us we need to adapt and respect nature." Meanwhile, president Lula’s administration is failing to meet its promises on recognizing Indigenous lands, which led to a recent march by Indigenous people in Brasília, in which Marivelton Baré, head of the Rio Negro Federation of Indigenous Organizations, stated that they “expected a lot from the government, but it’s doing very little.”

Will this movie, Música be the beginning of a bigger integration of Brazilian Americans into the concept of Latinidad and a better understanding of Brazilian culture and news in American media? Change must come from all directions, for Brazilian Americans to be able to officially identify as Latinxs and for the U.S. to adjust its view on them.

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