Consumption Intensified: The Politics of Middle-Class Daily Life in Brazil
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Duke University Press Books
Consumption Intensified: The Politics of Middle-Class Daily Life in Brazil

Consumption Intensified: The Politics of Middle-Class Daily Life in Brazil

by Maureen O'Dougherty


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822328797
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/18/2002
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Maureen O’Dougherty is a Research Fellow at the Institute on Race and Poverty, University of Minnesota.

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Consumption intensified

The politics of middle-class daily life in Brazil
By Maureen O'Dougherty

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2894-1

Chapter One


Home Ownership, Consumption, and (Re)definitions of Middle-Class Identity

The dream ended. Those who didn't sleep in a sleeping bag didn't even dream. The dream ended. It was heavy, that sleep, for those who didn't dream. -from the song "O Sonho Acabou" [The dream ended] by Gilberto Gil, 1972

Milton told me his situation would have been different if he had been born ten years earlier. Milton was an engineer employed for more than twenty years in a bank that served as the Brazilian government's office of housing financing. Given where Milton worked, it was sad but ironic that he and his wife, Aninha, did not own their home. They lived with their two grade-school-aged children in a rented house in Jardim Bonfiglioli, not one of the south-zone Jardins neighborhoods, but a southwestern suburban area (past Butanta) with two-storied houses on quiet streets. To explain his point about timing, Milton told me of his cousin: also an engineer, he had started his career earlier and came to have a firm with forty employees, a big house in Sao Paulo, a beach house, and a country home. Then, the firm lost during the 1980s crisis, he and one partner opened an antique store in the traditionally exclusive Jardins area, which relied on the labor of the partners'wives. Although this example somewhat contradicts what he was trying to illustrate, Milton nonetheless reiterated that starting ten years earlier, his family could have done well. This set him to recalling the 1970s economic miracle and Brazil's phenomenal growth, and the stagnant 1980s. It was as if he and Brazil could have made it together, but, as in the poem "Miniver Cheevy" by Edwin Arlington Robinson, he had been "born too late."

Perhaps Milton did have a point. Consider Joao, a graduate in civil engineering, about ten years Milton's senior, who built an ever more successful career in banking, most recently with Citibank. He lived with his wife, Wilma, a homemaker, and two college-bound daughters in a luxury apartment in Vila Nova Conceicao, the neighborhood of Sao Paulo then boasting the highest real-estate values. Joao repeatedly noted with satisfaction that graduates in the economic miracle period (1968-73) of the dictatorship enjoyed great ease getting jobs. "My whole class graduated employed. One could even choose jobs. The demand for educated professionals was great.... It was a golden age, the whole decade of the '70s." He later added, "We passed through a black political period, in an exuberant economy." I excluded this family from my study, but kept in contact with them for they were helpful in providing an outside perspective. Joao's high income, the family's living conditions, and his and Wilma's unfaltering optimism provided a usefully clear contrast to the middle-class people in my study.

This chapter introduces the question of Brazilian middle-class identity through discourse, first through discussion of informants' homes: those they owned, were paying for, were hoping to buy or to sell. I then turn to informants' explicit self-definition of the middle class and compare it to the media's. The final section considers unsolicited informant criticisms of the homes and consumption of others. This choice of introduction to some families in the study is doubly motivated: indeed, the commentaries and stories about consumption and homes were chosen because this was how these middle-class Brazilians (in a display of commonality) defined middle-classness. Although family history might be the more usual method of introduction, the recollections of my informants, often first- to third-generation immigrants (from Portugal, Italy, Japan, Spain and beyond), were lacking in detail, attesting perhaps to instability. When instead we turned to their homes, to their discourse on consumption and that of others, I received abundant description and stylistic qualities that allowed me to situate these families, if only partially, in the context of the economic crisis.


Irene and Heitor

Formerly a nurse, Irene was an active secretary for her husband, Heitor, a doctor. They had three young children and were living in an apartment in Vila Madalena bought in 1983 with government housing financing. Irene's buoyant good spirits were matched by her ironic humor, displayed from the very beginning. At our first meeting, Irene played on the etiquette of offering refreshments with a set formality, whether from a white, gilded-rim porcelain demitasse coffee service on a silver tray covered with a lace doily or from a plastic variant. She, too, offered me a beverage, but informed me impishly that it would be served on "Cica crystal," that is, recycled jelly glasses (the standard glassware of the poor). Walking to the kitchen, she tossed back that it would not be served on a tray either. She also reported that when he heard about our interview, her husband, Heitor, was horrified that it was to take place at their home. "Nessa porra toda?!" he exclaimed (the translation, "In all this mess?" doesn't capture the crudeness of the term porra). Later on, Irene told me without any drama, just with sheer energy, about their seventy-six-square-meter apartment (a mid-range size compared to those of other families in this study): "We are desperate to leave. As you can see, we don't fit inside it. As you entered, you could see the bookcase with things on top. The bedrooms are full of piles. We don't fit in here. But we can't get out of here either. The investment would be too high. We just have this apartment as capital. With the expenses of schooling-probably with that money we could make monthly payments on a new apartment. But I prefer to stay here and keep the children [at a school] we think is better."

Among the twenty-four families of the study, all but seven already owned a home, and thus had attained the essential status and means of building middle-class culture (see G. Velho 1980; DaMatta 1985; Frykman and Lofgren 1987; Blumin 1989; Wilk 1989; Halle 1993; and Colloredo-Mansfeld 1994). For most, homes had been acquired during the dictatorship (1964-85), a time of rapid economic growth, increase in middle-class employment for both men and women, and broader consumer opportunities. Almost all long-term, unchanging home owners told me, as if paraphrasing each other, that they were lucky to have acquired their homes when they did (often as many as fifteen years before), for they would never have been able to do so since the crisis. The stories of the next two home-owning families show that Brazil's miracle and crisis allowed for-even favored-some unexpected developments.

Maria do Carmo and Jose Claudio

Maria do Carmo, an immigrant from the Azores, started working at age eighteen. She taught for ten years, then stopped after having her fourth child. (This family had the most children in the study.) Jose Claudio built up a successful private practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist. They were living in a huge apartment (four bedrooms, five bathrooms) in Paraiso, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of the Jardins distinguished for being very close to the main uptown commercial avenue, the stately Avenida Paulista. To follow Jose Claudio's story, please note that correction refers to monetary correction, or increases in salary, savings, or prices to offset the devaluations. Jose Claudio told me:

Nineteen ninety was the only time in my life that I got worried, it was because of the apartment we are buying. There was this distortion. I signed a contract in which my debt could be corrected during the construction of the building via the correction of the savings. When I got the apartment, this correction was no longer valid, because this correction, it was equal to inflation, but there was another inflation index, from civil construction, by the construction company. Obviously they pushed the index way above inflation, and I had to pay the difference.... I had expected to pay about 300,000 dollars, but they charged me about 450,000.

I exclaimed, "That can't be true!" Maria do Carmo then replied, "It's really absurd ... we lived here alone [in the building] for nearly a year [1992]." Jose Claudio explained, "Many people gave up, lost ... all but 20 to 30 percent of their investment." In response to my query about the legality of the proceedings, Jose Claudio told me they had figured that legal recourse would be as much or more of a risk than paying. Resuming the story, he added, "Today my monthly payments are practically half of what I earn, at the time [1990-92], 60 percent, an absurdity.... I had to start working more. Luckily I can work more ... with my private practice."

Jose Claudio and Maria do Carmo were then 49 and 46, their children teens (one already in college); Irene and her husband, in contrast, had a young family (then aged 8, 6, and 3) and were in their late thirties (then 36 and 38). Heitor was still struggling to establish himself, whereas Jose Claudio had already done so and could "simply" work more to manage. I saw Jose Claudio only twice. Arriving in his white clothes direct from work after 8 p.m., he was visibly fatigued. The last time I saw Irene she was exhausted-from being secretary and from chauffering her children to and from schools, extracurricular classes (cursinhos), clubs, shopping centers, friends' homes, and more, as mothers often do. Perhaps Milton was right, if even doctors (like Heitor) could be born too late. Contrariwise, as the next example shows, a waiter and seamstress could come to own two homes before the crisis hit them.

Clarinha and Jose

During our first encounter, Clarinha spontaneously told me her family's house and car history. "We did the following in order to marry. We went out for five years. He bought a car, and I helped. It was an old car, we traded it and bought a new car. We sold the car when we finished the payments and put this money as down payment on a small apartment in Pinheiros [in 1974]. Two bedrooms, kitchen, living room. And we got married. He bought another old car. Our house financing was for two years. We paid for it. After less than a year and a half of marriage, I had my first child. I worked until the last week. He was born, and two weeks later I was already working again."

Currently a housewife (dona de casa), Clarinha did not complete secondary school and had worked for eight years as a seamstress. This can be a very meager living, but she had sewn for a boutique on what was for years Sao Paulo's fashion center, the Rua Augusta. Her husband Jose's work situation was similar: an immigrant from Portugal at age twelve, he had always worked at a banquet hall in Itaim-Bibi. This family's history illustrated one road to the middle class; they had acquired material means and were intent on providing their children with the requisite cultural capital to consolidate class standing. Their children, Marcos and Marcia, attended one of Sao Paulo's expensive private high schools, thereby nearly ensuring college entrance.

Clarinha explained that when she worked, she would go to the boutique, pick up the sewing work, and bring it home. "At the time, I had a girl, fourteen or fifteen years old, who stayed with me, so that I could watch the baby. We moved up through our work. We didn't receive help from my parents or from his." After this comment differentiating their family backgrounds from more privileged middle-class families, the conversation switched momentarily to a discussion of Marcia's fifteen birthday party (see chapter 4), held free of charge at the buffet house where Jose worked. Clarinha then described how she and Jose repeated their financing strategy, this time selling a car to purchase land in a semiurbanized western suburb where they built the spacious home in which they lived. Sometime in the 1980s, they inherited another plot just two blocks away, and built a house they hoped to sell. Of contemporary design, the home boasted a swimming pool and barbecue area (the rage), and had three bedrooms and two and a half baths. (See fig. 4.) However, Jose and Clarinha were unable to find a buyer. In Brazil there is almost no financing except for new constructions. Buying a "used" or already built home from a home owner usually requires outright payment in full, an especially difficult prospect during the inflation crisis. Clarinha also felt the house was less salable because it was on an unpaved road.

The upward mobility of this family attests to the fact that not only middle to upper middle classes benefited in the period of Sao Paulo's boom. Notwithstanding, expressing disbelief that people with lower levels of employment could have the means to send their children to private school, academic contacts insisted that the children must have had scholarships. Although this was not so, tuition was indeed a financial burden that this family was just barely managing. It was clearly a relief as well as a joy that (then) nineteen-year-old Marcos had made it into the Universidade de Sao Paulo (USP), the public state university, rather than a less renowned and costly private college. Marcia was still in high school, but there would probably be reluctance to spend money on her college education, since she was deemed less academically inclined.

With no prospect of a sale, the family moved into the newer house in late 1994. Clarinha then spoke to me of her idea of turning the vacated home into a garment-making business if a sale did not go through. She would have more time now that the children were nearly grown. Furthermore, Jose's buffet employment was suffering from the crisis and from increased competition. Thus the crisis was prompting the need once again for two incomes, and together with the limits on financing, was threatening to turn the second home into either an inalienable possession or a cottage industry.

Although I am not interested per se in ordering families along a socioeconomic continuum, it might be useful to view Clarinha and Jose as belonging to the newly middle class, Maria do Carmo and Jose Claudio as moving up and out, and Irene and Heitor as falling somewhere in between. The next example belonged to this last category and was part of the minority in my sample who were not home owners.

Sandra and Carlos

Carlos and Sandra and their two teenagers lived in a comfortable but rented apartment in a small, older complex in the bairro Moema, where newer expensive-looking apartments were being built. Carlos had been in bank administration for seventeen years; a full-time housewife, Sandra was setting up her own jewelry-making business. The styles of this couple were quite distinct. Sandra had a low but sharp voice and a determined manner. An active Spiritist (a practitioner of Kardecism, as were six other informants), Sandra explained that her religious beliefs included a sense of strong personal responsibility, including for the "vibes" one emits. She practiced chromotherapy at the religious center she and her husband frequented. Carlos was soft-spoken and had an air of constant fatigue, evidently related to his heart condition. Although a Spiritist himself, a discouraged manner colored most of what he said. Sandra dwelt not in dreams and laments, but in realism. Like Milton, Carlos emphasized his sense of lost opportunity. The excerpt below reveals his family's difficulties with making a large purchase such as a home during the crisis.

Carlos: So you start to plan and suddenly you see ... like us. We plan to buy a house. We have lived here for eighteen years, this is rented. You try to save money in the bank, but if you do, it's worse. You can't save.

M. O'D.: You have to invest in something.

Sandra: Yes, even if in a lesser good. In Brazil, to save money is not an advantage. We separated off some of the monthly budget, kept saving something. In some of the government's plans, what they call "packages," which were made by ministers ... new rules were made. These plans fooled with savings a lot. If you reached a certain level, the government would have to give you a lot. They'd say, "Well now, we're giving a lot to these people. Let's make a system to cut this off." Many times the savings, at a given moment, were pushed down [jogado la para baixo].


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



1. The Dream Class is Over: Home Ownership, Consumption, and (Re)definitions of Middle-Class Identity

2. Shopping Nightmares, Banking Games, Government Packages: Local Shopping During Inflation

3. The Discrete Sales of the Middle Class: Gender and Generation in a Globalizing Economy

4. The International in Daily Life: Of Debutantes and Disney

5. International Bargain Shopping and the Making of Modernity

6. Delivering the Crisis: The Media and the Middle Class through the Collor Years

7. The Middle Class versus the Nation: Discourses of Region/Race and Morality

8. Deliverance: An End to Inflation and the Promise of Neoliberalism




What People are Saying About This

Timothy Burke

This fascinating and important book is based on a solid foundation of fieldwork and research. O'Doughterty introduces new paradigms and new approaches, and not just for Brazilianists.
— Timothy Burke, Swarthmore College

Richard Wilk

An outstanding book...The first extensive treatment in English of the problems of Brazilian modernity and consumerism.
— Richard Wilk, Indiana University

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