Brazil and the sport of Peteca

13 March 2011

The world may have once been quite small for the sea-faring Portuguese, especially during the 15th and 16th centuries. They knew how to man caravels and read stars, and with just the right amount of disregard for self-preservation ended up venturing into vast uncharted regions of the planet such as India, Japan and the west coast of Africa.

To put things into perspective, let’s just say that to them Christopher Columbus was about as sea-knowledgeable as a desert cactus. Don’t get me wrong, they did consider him a discoverer, in the sense that he would end up discovering he was not about to reach India when he accidentally tripped over the Americas.

The Portuguese did not fare much better in The Discoveries saga, for when they moored the shores of Brazil in the 1500’s, the region had already been discovered by the millions who lived there.

Members of complex and fascinating tribes, they ended up (today, at least) conquering the Cartesian-minded invaders with their music, customs and mysterious knowledge, much like the Greeks did the Romans. Unlike the Greeks, however, the ‘sabedoria do indio’ (knowledge of the indian) remains a mystery to this day.

Often referring to Brazil as the ‘New Eden’, thousands of colonists settled there in the years that followed. And while they had been playing with caravels for quite a while, the tribes they encountered had been practicing primitive communism, bathing in the rain to wash their souls and extracting rubber from trees for centuries.

For leisure and distraction, the Brazilian natives turned to music and dance (e.g. also important in the enactment of their myths and religious rituals); art (e.g. carving masks and figurines like animals and dolls out of wood); and sports – most notably and perhaps widely, playing a game called Peteca.

In a nutshell, Peteca can be seen as an ancestor of badminton – a net divides a court where two teams (of one or more players each) use their hands like rackets to hit a peteca (a shuttlecock made of rubber with stuffed feathers) from one side to the other.

The word peteca itself comes from the Tupi language, meaning ‘hit’. At the time, the game was regularly played in occasions of celebration along with dances and songs, but also during winter, to keep the bodies of the players warm.

For the most part of Brazilian history after the arrival of the Portuguese, even after the country’s independence, the pale dark haired peoples from across the Atlantic had a prevalent impact on the culture, and things like Peteca, tribal music and myths were frowned upon by colonial powers.

This happened to such an extent, in fact, that the theory of Lusotropicalism sprung up and became engrained. Lusotropicalism basically held that the ‘undeveloped’ peoples of Brazil would benefit greatly if they mixed themselves with the ‘civilized’ whites coming from Portugal. The Portuguese were always very good at genetic imperialism… Actual imperialism was never really an option for them, since there were never enough Portuguese around to enforce it.

For a long time, this lead to a repression of the cultural identity of indigenous Brazillians, and later the same happened with their mulatto descendents. During the 19th century, moustaches and ties were riding high, along with ‘proper’ Portuguese – the importation of native terms into the language was especially blasphemous – and a complex notion of what it meant to be ‘white’.

With the advent of the 20th century, Brazilian writers, musicians and artists, fed up with the prescriptive restraints and the lack of originality of a day-old European culture, returned to their traditional ancestry, to their Brazilianness, if one may call it that. The bourgeois-themed novels were replaced by the forests of the northeast and the people who lived there in communion with nature.

One of the highpoints of this trend came when Getulio Vargas rose to power in the revolution of 1930, and the song ‘Aquarela do Brazil’ (Watercolor of Brazil) became the hymn of an entire nation.

‘Brazil, meu Brasil brasileiro/Meu mulato inzoneiro’ (Brazil, my Brazilian Brazil/My good-looking mulatto), it went, embracing all the things that today characterize the imagined Brazil some of us have come to know and love.

And in that imagined Brazil, it is astounding to find that Peteca made its way across the generations of the natives of the past, to the mulattos, down to the white majority of today, and into the cultural pantheon where Bossa Nova, samba, and a watercolor of many other things live on as what makes up that ‘Brasil brasileiro’.

Sebastiao Martins

Photo Credit: Renato Carvalho