Wed, Feb 07, 2007 - Page 13 News List

In Brazil, life's a beach

The hierarchy on Brazil's beaches, in which both class and skin color play a part, is clear to all

By Larry Rohter  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , RIO DE JANEIRO

Beachgoers at the sector of Ipanema beach known as Posto 9, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the Brazilian imagination, the beach has traditionally been regarded as the great leveler. But some beaches are more equal than others.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Brazilians like to say that the beach is their country's "most democratic space." But some bodies — and some beaches — are more equal than others.

In the Brazilian imagination, the beach has traditionally been regarded as the great leveler, "the place where the general, the teacher, the politician, the millionaire and the poor student" were all equal, said Roberto da Matta, an anthropologist and newspaper columnist who is a leading social commentator. "Their bodies were all made equally humble," he said, by the near-naked proximity of "one body with others, all of them without defense or disguise."

But here in Brazil's postcard city, where the summer vacation season is in full swing, the hierarchy, in which both class and skin color play a part, is clear to all. The beaches facing the ocean in elite neighborhoods on the south side and those who frequent them rank higher than those on the north side, fronting the polluted Guanabara Bay.

In Rio, 59 beaches spread out along 177km of sand. Even the city's most elite beaches, Ipanema and Copacabana, and their lesser-known extensions, Leblon and Leme, are informally subdivided into sectors, demarcated by a dozen lifeguard stations called postos, each about 800m from the next. Each posto, numbered one to 12, has a culture of its own, appeals to a different "tribe" and can be inhospitable to interlopers.

Brazil has nearly 8,000km of tropical coastline, and "by law, the beach is always public property and never private," said Patricia Farias, author of Grabbing Some Color at the Beach, a study of race relations on Rio's beaches. "The discourse is always one of, 'We all live together democratically,' but the second, unspoken part of that is 'but it has to be by my rules."'

In Rio, Posto 9 is clearly at the top of the heap, and has been for more than 30 years. It is favored by left-wing intellectuals, who fly the flag of the governing Workers' Party there, as well as by entertainers and former hippies.

The area between Postos 11 and 12 in Leblon is the redoubt of upper-middle-class mothers and their small children. That phenomenon emerged about 20 years ago, when a sidewalk kiosk selling coconuts and drinks installed a diaper-changing station and a small playground in hopes of seeing business grow.

"Ipanema is always in the vanguard, but Leblon has more of a family vibe," Joao Fontes of the Leblon community association said when asked to compare the two beaches, which are separated by only a narrow canal. "We'd rather be quiet and unassuming than to brag."

At the other end of Ipanema, Posto 7 is a favorite gathering spot for surfers from the neighborhood. But it also draws outsiders, many of them dark-skinned, from working-class suburbs up to a three-hour bus ride away, especially on weekends, when entire families station themselves on the sand.

The bulk of these suburban bus passengers choose to get off at the first bus stops in Ipanema, near Posto 7. The outsiders are known pejoratively as farofeiros, because they are said to prefer to bring picnic lunches that include farofa, a dish made of toasted flour. They are also the butt of gibes because they sit on drab straw mats rather than colorful cloth towels and apply a cheap red tanning lotion instead of buying more expensive sunscreens.

“Most people treat you OK, but some are really prejudiced, even racist,” said Jefferson Luiz Santos Fonseca, 27, who occasionally goes to Ipanema on summer weekends with his wife and children.

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