Brazil country overview

The people of Brazil

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

Brazil information index

Ethnic groups of Brazil

Brazil has historically served as a crucible for a diverse array of cultural influences. Since the era of colonization, the Portuguese-speaking population in Brazil has embraced principles of assimilation and tolerance towards various ethnic groups. The prevalence of intermarriage in Brazil has been notably higher compared to many other European colonies. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Brazilian society has not been entirely devoid of ethnic tensions and exploitation. Certain groups have opted to maintain a distinct identity, separate from the broader societal framework.

Individuals of predominantly European ancestry constitute approximately half of Brazil’s demographic makeup, while an increasing proportion of the population is composed of individuals with mixed ethnic heritage. Over two-fifths are classified as mulattoes (people of African and European descent) and mestizos (also referred to as caboclos; individuals of European and Indigenous descent). Those of solely African or Afro-Indigenous lineage represent a smaller fraction, and the segment of the population with Asian heritage is smaller still. Indigenous peoples represent the smallest of the major ethnic categories, yet it is estimated that up to one-third of Brazilians possess Indigenous ancestry.

The Afro-Brazilian population, as categorized by external academics, can be further delineated into pardos (mixed ethnicity) and pretos (exclusively African descent), with the latter term typically denoting individuals with the darkest skin tones. The distinction between pardo and preto is primarily based on skin color, though it is often a subjective and self-identified classification. It is observed that many individuals of color may opt to self-identify as pardo, perceiving potential social advantages in doing so.

In Brazil, skin color and ethnic origins are influential factors in the realm of social dynamics. Those with darker skin tones disproportionately represent the impoverished segments of the Brazilian populace. However, incidents of racially motivated violence and intolerance are reported to be less prevalent in Brazil than in the United States and certain European regions. Overt discrimination is prohibited by law, yet it remains widespread, particularly in regions predominantly inhabited by the white middle and upper classes. Racial bias tends to manifest in more insidious ways. While interracial marriages do occur, the majority of marital unions are between individuals of the same racial or color background, reflecting the tendency of Brazilians to engage socially within their own economic strata and geographic areas—both of which are closely correlated with racial demographics.

Brazil’s social structure, while not the “racial democracy” some have posited, exhibits a degree of flexibility and permeability. Afro-Brazilians who attain high educational or socioeconomic status often do not face discrimination from the light-skinned majority. Consequently, the pursuit of social mobility among Afro-Brazilians is typically sought through individual endeavors rather than collective movements, such as those associated with civil rights.


Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous communities of Brazil’s tropical forests exhibited remarkable adaptation to their environment. While they did not establish vast empires akin to those in the Andes or Mesoamerica, they developed an array of tools and practices that harmonized with their surroundings. These included the construction of both dugout canoes and jangadas, sailing crafts still utilized on the northeastern coast. Hammocks, now a common substitute for beds in Amazonia, were used for sleeping, and the people engaged in the creation of pottery and art. They also cultivated an assortment of tropical crops, such as maize and cassava.

Initial interactions between these indigenous populations and the Portuguese settlers were often characterized by mutually beneficial trade and amicable relations. However, the introduction of diseases like influenza, measles, smallpox, and others by Europeans led to a catastrophic decline in the indigenous population. The colonial era also saw the subjugation and enslavement of indigenous individuals, compelling many to seek refuge in remote and less accessible regions, including the forested areas of the Tocantins and Amazon basins, as well as the savannas of Mato Grosso.

Despite their efforts to find sanctuary, indigenous communities were not immune to the impacts of colonization. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Portuguese conducted bandeiras from São Paulo and certain northeastern towns, which were ruthless slave raids that further devastated the indigenous populations. Over time, many coastal indigenous groups intermingled with European and African settlers, while those in the interior persisted in their resistance against continued incursions.

In contemporary Brazil, indigenous peoples represent a small fraction of the overall population, yet they encompass approximately 230 distinct cultural groups. These groups are distributed across all five major regions of the country, with the highest concentration in the North, and about half of them now residing in urban environments. Notable indigenous groups include the Yanomami in Roraima, the Mundurukú in Pará and Amazonas, the Kayapó and Kayabí in Mato Grosso, the Guajajára and Fulnio in the Northeast, and the Kaingáng in the South and Southeast. Except for the most secluded Amazonian communities, these groups maintain varying degrees of interaction with other Brazilian citizens, including the staff of the government’s National Indian Foundation.

Following the 1988 constitution, over 350 Indian reservations have been officially demarcated, granting indigenous communities legal rights to their ancestral territories. Some of these reservations are expansive, collectively approaching the size of Bolivia, and account for over one-tenth of Brazil’s total land area. However, the sanctity of these reservations is not always upheld, with instances of illegal trespassing by transient miners, known as garimpeiros. This has led to severe conflicts, particularly on Yanomami land during the 1980s and 1990s. In response, the government has implemented revised protocols for the demarcation of Indian lands.


Brazil holds the distinction of having the largest population of individuals of African descent outside the African continent. The profound influence of African heritage is evident throughout Brazilian culture, manifesting in its music, dance, cuisine, and religious traditions. The transatlantic slave trade, spanning from the 16th to the 19th centuries, resulted in the forced migration of approximately four million Africans to Brazil. These individuals predominantly originated from West Africa and Angola.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the majority of enslaved Africans were employed on the sugarcane plantations situated in the Northeast region of Brazil. Subsequently, in the 18th century, as the extraction of gold and diamonds commenced, a significant number of slaves were relocated to the state of Minas Gerais. While many were engaged as laborers and house servants, a portion managed to escape, subsequently forming independent agrarian communities or assimilating with indigenous populations.

Following the abolition of slavery in 1888, a substantial number of Africans dispersed from their previous areas of enslavement, opting to resettle in various agricultural zones or urban centers. Despite this migration, the Northeast continued to maintain a dense population of individuals of African and mixed heritage. Between the 1860s and 1920s, Brazilian industries recruited millions of European immigrants for employment, conspicuously excluding the descendants of enslaved Africans from economic opportunities and relegating them to the periphery of the nation’s economic framework.

As the 21st century dawned, there was a notable shift, with an increasing demographic leveraging educational advancements to achieve socioeconomic progress.

Europeans and other immigrants

Individuals with European heritage represent the predominant demographic within Brazil’s diverse population. This is attributed to the substantial migration of Portuguese settlers coupled with an estimated four million Europeans, predominantly Italians, who relocated to Brazil during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Notably, the number of European immigrants during this concise historical window matched the aggregate number of African slaves brought to Brazil over the preceding three centuries.

Prior to the late 19th century, the Portuguese were virtually the sole European group to immigrate to Brazil, and they were eager to amass wealth swiftly through ventures such as plantation ownership or commerce. The influx of immigrants from various European backgrounds commenced after Brazil declared its independence in 1822. Among these, Italians were the most numerous, establishing themselves mainly in the states of São Paulo and the northern part of Rio Grande do Sul. Due to cultural affinities with the Portuguese, Italian immigrants were readily integrated into Brazilian society. Other Mediterranean groups, including Spanish and immigrants from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Lebanon, predominantly arrived in the early 20th century. Much like the Italians, they quickly adapted and began to significantly contribute to Brazil’s industrial, financial, political, and cultural spheres.

German and Japanese immigrants, arriving in the 19th and early 20th centuries respectively, added to the ethnic diversity of Brazil. However, these groups maintained their distinct cultural identities longer than previous immigrants, primarily due to their settlement in remote rural communities and the support they received from their countries of origin, including educational materials and instruction in their native languages. Post-World War II, these groups have been largely assimilated into the broader Brazilian society. Notably, Brazilian individuals of Japanese descent have achieved an educational level that surpasses the national average. Additional immigrant populations have included Slavic individuals from Eastern Europe and dynamic Jewish communities concentrated in major cities. By the late 20th century, immigration had significantly decreased, with foreign-born residents comprising less than 1 percent of Brazil’s total population.

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