Negotiating National Identity

Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil

Negotiating National Identity

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 11 b&w photographs, 4 tables Published: June 1999

Author: Jeffrey Lesser

History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Brazil, Theory and Philosophy > Race and Indigeneity

Despite great ethnic and racial diversity, ethnicity in Brazil is often portrayed as a matter of black or white, a distinction reinforced by the ruling elite’s efforts to craft the nation’s identity in its own image—white, Christian, and European. In Negotiating National Identity Jeffrey Lesser explores the crucial role ethnic minorities from China, Japan, North Africa, and the Middle East have played in constructing Brazil’s national identity, thereby challenging dominant notions of nationality and citizenship.
Employing a cross-cultural approach, Lesser examines a variety of acculturating responses by minority groups, from insisting on their own whiteness to becoming ultra-nationalists and even entering secret societies that insisted Japan had won World War II. He discusses how various minority groups engaged in similar, and successful, strategies of integration even as they faced immense discrimination and prejudice. Some believed that their ethnic heritage was too high a price to pay for the “privilege” of being white and created alternative categories for themselves, such as Syrian-Lebanese, Japanese-Brazilian, and so on. By giving voice to the role ethnic minorities have played in weaving a broader definition of national identity, this book challenges the notion that elite discourse is hegemonic and provides the first comprehensive look at Brazilian worlds often ignored by scholars.
Based on extensive research, Negotiating National Identity will be valuable to scholars and students in Brazilian and Latin American studies, as well as those in the fields of immigrant history, ethnic studies, and race relations.


“[A] very welcome addition to Brazilian studies. . . . By giving voice to the role ethnic minorities have played in weaving a broader definition of national identity, this book challenges the notion that elite discourse is hegemonic and provides the first comprehensive look at Brazilian worlds often ignored by scholars.” — Edward J. Neugaard , South Eastern Latin Americanist

“[Lesser] avoids preconceived theoretical positions and examines the process with intellectual honesty and acumen, in graceful prose, and adds a great book-cover to boot. Who could ask for more?” — Jose C. Moya , Journal of Social History

“[Lesser] has moved the discussion of ethnicity substantially beyond its traditional bounds with this study of the ways in which immigrants may renegotiate the national identity of their host nations.” — Judith Laikin Elkin , Hispanic American Historical Review

“[V]ery well written . . . . The clarity of the writing, combined with plentiful and well-chosen examples, guide the reader through the very complicated experiences of native Brazilians and immigrants. An impressive array of sources and careful documentation supports the credibility of Lesser’s arguments. Historians of Brazil, of immigration, and of ethnicity who ignore this book will be making a serious mistake.” — Gail D. Triner , Luso-Brazilian Review

“A first-rate addition to the literature that is essential for comprehending Brazil’s infinite complexity.” — Foreign Affairs

“Lesser has written an extremely valuable addition to the field of Brazilian studies in a book that expands the intricate complexity of what constitutes the Brazilian national identity.” — American Historical Review

“Lesser masterfully documents the myriad debates over the role ‘ethnicity’ would play in the formation of Brazil’s national identity. . . . [He] provides an important corrective to studies which have focused primarily, or exclusively, on Brazilian identity as something constructed along a black/white continuum. . . . The strength of Lesser’s Negotiating National Identity is the way his analysis seamlessly flows back and forth between the changing nature of political discourse surrounding immigration policy and the actions of the immigrant communities themselves. . . . [T]he sophistication of the analysis is matched by the readability of the text, making this relatively compact text a joy to read for specialists and undergraduates alike.” — Thomas Jordan , H-Net Reviews

“Lesser redefines the model of ethnic and nationalistic identity. . . . [T]his book must remain at the top of the list for Latin American students and scholars interested in understanding Brazil, its ethnic makeup and national identity. It is precisely what the field of Brazilian studies needs. I highly recommend this book for interested parties in fields such as political science, anthropology, and area studies as well.” — Matthew D. Anderson , Nationalism and Ethnic Politics

“Lesser’s work is a welcome exploration of non-European immigration and the construction of national identity between 1850 and 1950.” — Andrew J. Kirkendall , Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs

“This ground-breaking book is one in need of reading and re-reading by both historians and non-historians alike. . . . [T]his is one that anyone, even one that knows nothing about history, can read, understand, and walk away enlightened.” — Kim Richardson , Bulletin of Latin American Research

“This is an erudite and well-documented book. . . .” — Livio Sansone , Ethnic and Racial Studies

“This is good intellectual history. . . . [A] very interesting read, and refreshing and important as it discusses aspects of the nation’s history which have received so little scholarly attention to date, despite the millions of immigrants who have made Brazil one of the world’s most diverse multi-cultural societies.” — British Bulletin of Publications

“This masterful book opens up a new level of debate over issues of nationhood, ethnicity, and whiteness in Latin America, and it will surely inspire new research along these lines.” — Lauren Derby , American Journal of Sociology

"Negotiating National Identity is a powerful historical work on immigration and minority creation in Brazil."

— W. Lawrence Neuman , Critical Asian Studies

"[A]n important and welcome contribution to unraveling the more or less hidden recesses of ethnicity in Brazil." — Fernando Rosa Ribeiro , European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies

“A rich, welcome addition to social history in the broadest sense. . . . [This study] convincingly demonstrates the ironic fact that immigration policies seeking to ‘whiten’ Brazil instead led to the creation of an immensely multi-cultural society. A major contribution.” — Robert M. Levine, author of The Brazilian Photographs of Genevieve Naylor, 1940-1942

“Clearly written and well organized, this book makes a major contribution to the field of Brazilian studies. An outstanding work.” — Leo Spitzer, author of Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism


Availability: In stock
Price: $27.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jeffrey Lesser is Professor of History and Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program at Emory University. His books include Welcoming the Undesirables: Brazil and the Jewish Question.

Table of Contents Back to Top



The Hidden Hyphen

Chinese Labor and the Debate over Ethnic Integration

Constructing Ethnic Space

Searching for a Hyphen

Negotiations and New Identities

Turning Japanese

A Suggestive Epilogue



Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, Brazil in Comparative Perspective section of Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Best Book Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2292-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2260-3
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