Rio 2016: City of Ethnic Diversity

Rio 2016 Olympic logoWith the Summer Olympics in full swing now, I couldn’t help reflecting on the history of Rio de Janeiro. As I mentioned in my introductory post, I studied Latin American Studies. While I am far from an expert, I present here some interesting tidbits about Brazil. From the perspective of a family historian, Brazil is fun because of its immense ethnic diversity.

Early Brazilian ColoniesColonial Past

Like other parts of the New World, Brazil was colonized by the Europeans. Following the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, he stopped in Lisbon, Portugal on his way back to Spain. Spain no longer had “the scoop” on the New World and the race was on. As the world’s superpowers, Spain and Portugal wasted no time laying claim to the new lands. Then, to oversimplify, in 1494 the Pope divided up the western hemisphere between Spain and Portugal. In essence, Portugal got Brazil, and Spain was granted the lands westward. Although many expeditions were sent, the first permanent Portuguese colony was established in 1532.

Ethnic Diversity

Ethnicity or race is an interesting subject in Brazil that I cannot get in to in this article. However, interracial mixing has been common since the first Portuguese arrived over 500 years ago. This means that the overwhelming majority of Brazilians have at least some degree native Amerindian ancestry, African ancestry, and European ancestry. So race is often a matter of individual self-identification.

Amerindian (Native) Heritage

Only about 0.4% of Brazil’s population are indigenous peoples (about 700,000). However, due to early interracial mixing many Brazilians have some Amerindian ancestors. Pardo (“brown”) is a broad term that defines those of mixed European, African, and Amerindian heritage. About 43% identify as “Pardos.”

African Heritage

Brazil was the single largest importer of African slaves in the Western Hemisphere. It is estimated that nearly 5 million people were sold in to slavery in Brazil in the period from 1501 to 1888 when slavery was officially abolished. Initially slave labor was used in the sugar cane industry. Then, later, in gold and diamond mines and tobacco plantations as well as other industries. Today, “Black Brazilians” are those who have descended primarily or solely from African slaves or immigrants. About 14.5 million people or 7.5% of Brazil’s population are Black.

European Heritage

Clearly, of all the European nations, Portugal has had the strongest cultural influence on Brazil. Brazil has adopted its language, religion, and other cultural aspects. In the first 300 years over 750,000 Portuguese emigrated to Brazil. However, so-called “White Brazilians” come from several countries of Europe as well as Lebanon and Syria.

Until the second half of the 19th century, nearly all of the European immigrants to Brazil were from Portugal. Then policy changes were made throughout the 19th century to encourage other Europeans to come to Brazil. They came in large numbers from Spain, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Ukraine. The new immigrants added to the ethnic diversity of the region.

The period of the great immigration, between 1876 and 1930, brought to the country more than 5 million Europeans. Most were Italians and Portuguese, followed by Spaniards, Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians.  (Source:

Although there is a strong European presence in most of the coastal regions of Brazil, there is a higher concentration in the South and Southeast of Brazil. In fact, some DNA studies have shown that nearly 80% of the population near Rio are of European descent.

Olympic Games 2016: Competing CousinsRio: City of Ethnic Diversity

For nearly two centuries millions of immigrants have come to Brazil and to Rio de Janeiro to build their futures. Now, athletes from around the world have come to Rio to compete in the Olympic games. What they may not realize, however, is that when the line up to compete against the Brazilian athletes, they could be competing against their cousins!

Have fun watching the Olympics! Share your favorite Olympic stories below.


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