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A Historical Perspective On Family Life

The colonization of Brazil started on the shores of the Atlantic, in the northeast region of the country. During early colonial times, the economy was agrarian, based on the cultivation of single crops. This economic pattern depended upon control exerted by the social structure on the family system and on Indian and slave labor. The family was the center of life as it fulfilled both economical and political roles (Bruschini 1993).

Families, especially in the northeast where sugar cane grew, and in the southeast where coffee was the predominant crop, were composed of married couples, their children, and many aggregated persons—relatives, godchildren, workers, Indians, and slaves. These two groups—the nuclear family and all who lived around them—held in common a strong sense of commitment and obedience to the head of the household. The head of the household held personal and social authority and power. As the political chief and holder of all economic resources, he was called colonel, and was revered and feared by his family and those who worked for, served, and depended on him. Any act seen as disloyal to him was met with severe punishment.

Family life was based on strong patriarchal values. Roles were extremely hierarchical and rigid. Women cared for the house, raised the couple's many children, and zealously protected family traditions and social customs. Female authority was only shown in the absence of the husband. Men, on the other hand, were socially and sexually free (Bruschini 1993).

Marriages in the upper class were usually arranged. Building alliances between families to maintain power and economic interests was a priority. Love and affection were not usually the basis for unions and men used this as an "excuse" to seek lovers on their properties and often had children with other women. In this way the three cultures began a complex process of integration.

Consensual unions were common in other social classes. In such family systems, men tended not to feel obliged to assume patriarchal roles, and therefore many women became heads of households. Slaves were not allowed to stay together as families. Family members were separated among different properties in order to undermine the strength and cohesion of the African group to which the slave belonged (Brushini 1993).

The colonial patriarchal family structure became the symbol of family life in Brazil. The seminal work of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, particularly Casa Grande e Senzala (1943), helped consolidate this representation. Critics of Freyre's work argue that this social representation of family life should not be seen as the prevailing model for all areas of the country or for all social groups. It could be seen as an ideological construction, or ideal myth, of the integration of roles and relationships between unequal people and social groups—e.g., men/women, parents/children, master/slave or other laborers, white/Indian, white/Negro (Samara 1983; Almeida, Carneiro, and Silvana de Paula 1987).

Freyre's ideas have had a tremendous impact on how family and social life are thought of in Brazil. Angela M. de Almeida, Maria Jose Carneiro, and Silvana G. de Paula (1987) recognize that this model served as a blueprint for a set of values and ethics that has influenced all other forms of family life in Brazil. It may also have influenced other social spheres, such as politics, labor relations, and philosophies of citizenship and civil rights.

The colonization of southern Brazil presented distinctive features when compared to the northeast. The militaristic colonization, especially of São Paulo, and the movement called Entradas e Bandeiras—the male-dominated expeditions to map inland regions and claim ownership of the land—forced women to administer farms and control workers, including slaves (Neder 1998). Taking an active role in society, however, did not liberate women from submissiveness and subordination to male authority. Family structure remained extremely repressive, faithfully reproducing rules and norms of discipline and social control dictated by the Catholic faith brought from Portugal.

Research done by Eni de M. Samara (1983, 1987) shows that families in the São Paulo area were smaller, as couples had fewer children. Also, fewer extended family members lived with the nuclear family. Married children usually left their parents' house to build an independent life. Samara (1983) also found a peculiar trend—a great number of informal unions. Many men and women remained legally single but had as may as eight children with one or more partners. Society's acceptance of these children varied, depending on sex, race, and the socioeconomic status of the father.

During the nineteenth century, the agrarian, family-centered social organization began to change drastically. Urbanization, industrialization, and later, the end of slavery (1888) and Proclamation of the Republic (1889) were some of the forces of change. The Republican project included a revision and reorganization of roles both within the family and in society. The modern family was composed of the couple and their children. Marriages were no longer prompted solely by financial or political interests. The emotional and sexual needs of spouses were now considered (Corrêa 1982). The role of women changed drastically. They were to be mothers and supporters to their husbands. Women gained access to education in order to be educators of their children. This process targeted mainly white families of European descent (Neder 1998).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsBrazil - A Historical Perspective On Family Life, Aspects Of The Contemporary Family, Perspectives Of The Future