Felipe Fernandes Cruz is an assistant professor of Brazilian history at Tulane University. His research looks at the use of science and technology, in particular aviation, and their role in the colonization of the Amazon.

As a Brazilian living in the US, I have seen over the past sixteen years a growing awareness about Brazil. I’ve gone from having to explain that Brazilians don’t speak Spanish, to seeing Brazil constantly on the news, for better or worse – from its economic boom that survived the global depression to the current political instability and the dire warnings surrounding the 2016 Olympics. The fascination perhaps lies on the fact that while the country itself is becoming more familiar, the story of how Brazil came to be remains a mystery to many Americans, let alone everyday Brazilians – a tale of contradictions within contradictions.

For one, Brazil has always touted its history of racial tolerance, devoid of the kind of legally enforced segregation that existed in the United States. On the other hand, it is the country that brought the largest number of African slaves to the Americas, whose slave system was only abolished in 1888, and where racial inequality remains a persistent problem. Brazil’s territory is larger than the continental US, but Brazil’s government has long struggled to maintain control over its own land, especially the Amazon. And while known as a Catholic nation, Brazil is actually a polyreligious society, where devotees of African deities, spiritists, Pentecostal evangelicals and followers of dozens of spiritual cults can be neighbors, or sometimes even participate in multiple belief systems at the same time.

What better way to explain these apparent contradictions than to delve into the history that made Brazil what it is? Starting with a few books that will give you the big picture of Brazil’s history, this list goes into deeper histories of popular culture, religion and the environment in Brazil that will help you better understand the complexities of this nation now thrust into the global spotlight.

Places to Start

Skidmore’s classic has long been used as a textbook for introductory courses on Brazil. It gives a broad narrative history of the country since the times of Portuguese colonization all the way to the country’s re-democratization process in the 1980s and 90s. An accessible read, it provides both a concise narrative of five hundred years of history as well as critical insights into Brazilian culture and the many inequalities that still plague the country.

This hefty tome is an interdisciplinary anthology whose 106 essays and primary sources cover major historical periods as well as many societal phenomena. One can browse and read selections over time, gaining great insights into Brazilian history and culture. The primary source selections themselves are fantastic: confiscated letters of political dissidents, oral histories of favela residents, and fascinating photographic collections.

Digging In

Bryan McCann’s historical tour of how samba came to be does not treat the music in the usual romantic way, as an art form hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. Instead, this book shows us how recording studios, radio stations and the government of populist dictator Getúlio Vargas all helped shape samba to become Brazil’s national music. Replete with stories about musicians and their lives, Hello, Hello Brazil shows that music, business and political interests created an art form that has become synonymous with Brazil itself.

“Death to the Cemetery!” This fascinating read shows us how central death and dying were to life in nineteenth century Brazil. The book opens with the Cemiterada Revolt of 1836, when a mob in the city of Salvador turned their rage on to the city’s newly built cemetery, completely destroying it – but why? João Reis takes us on a tour of the elaborate mortuary practices of the age, whose exuberant funeral processions included all the priests, processions, colorful shrouds and professional wailing women that money could buy. Yet even modest people spent time and money for their own as well as others’ funeral arrangements, and it was this coalition of everyday people, religious brotherhoods, and the wealthy who protested that the monopoly granted by the city to this new cemetery was a disruption of the beautiful business of dying.

Antonio José Dutra was born in the Kingdom of Congo sometime in the early nineteenth century and brought to Brazil as a slave. During his life in Brazil, he was not only able to purchase his own freedom but also his own slaves, dying in 1849 as a man of considerable wealth in Rio de Janeiro. Via serious socio-economic research, Zephyr explains the kind of complex urban world in which such a feat would be possible, demonstrating that prior to the end of the slave trade in 1850, becoming a slave owner was the best investment a person of middling wealth – even an ex-slave – could make.

New Moves

This book delves into an amazing period of Amazonian history, when the rain forest very suddenly became an important resource for the Allies to win World War II. The government of Brazil under populist dictator Getúlio Vargas had already been trying to economically revitalize and integrate the region. The outbreak of war in the Pacific, and the loss of Malaysian rubber supplies, made Amazonian rubber crucial for the Allied war effort, and in partnership with the Americans, the Brazilian government recruited tens of thousands of “rubber soldiers” – poor workers from drought stricken regions – to move to the Amazon and tap rubber for the war effort. Garfield’s careful study of rubber tappers and the geopolitics of world war provides a new foundation for the recent environmental history of the region.

Jogo do bicho (animal game) is an extremely popular underground lottery in Brazil that uses animals as the betting numbers. Going back to its origins in the late nineteenth century as a raffle to promote a zoo, Amy Chazkel shows us how the game grew into a clandestine lottery of its own when, was criminalized by the government, even if mostly tolerated on the streets, where police often looked the other way for a bribe. This fascinating look at the repression, acceptance and popular culture surrounding this Brazilian phenomenon suggests that in Brazil, written law is very far from everyday life in the streets.

Voices and Lives

This classic work is a translation of the diaries of Carolina Maria de Jesus, a self-taught writer living among the poor residents of a São Paulo favela (slum). A journalist on the local news beat met Carolina in her neighborhood and helped her publish it the diary in 1960. It became the best-selling book in Brazilian publishing history at the time, was translated into English and gained international fame. That Carolina died in 1977 without a penny to her name speaks to Brazil’s persistent social inequality.

This fascinating book explores two crucial moments in the lives of two women from very different backgrounds in nineteenth-century Brazil— each one centered around a key primary document of their struggles. The first, Caetana, is a slave who seeks the annulment of a marriage forced upon her by her master. The second, Dona Inácia, is from a wealthy planter family and uses her will and testament to free the family of one of her favorite slaves. The book is an enlightening journey through these lives, showing us once again that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to understanding Brazilian society.