Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

In Brazil, we speak “Pretoguês” (black Portuguese): Lélia Gonzalez and Afro-Brazilian Portuguese as a political act of resistance


Lélia: in the middle of the books, dividing herself between studies, the magisterium and publications. Neighborhood of Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, 1968 (Photo: Acervo Lélia Gonzalez)

Note from BW of Brazil: As many of us have come to learn, language is yet another weapon that European colonizers have used over the centuries as a means to dominate their subjects. Erasing the memory of the language of our ancestors was a key ingredient in the process of Europeanizing the minds of millions of Africans brought across the Atlantic to the New World. But as with so many other things that we as a people re-interpret in our own ways, as in the example of Hip Hop, African peoples have taken European languages, sampled it and given them fresh interpretations. I’m often fascinated when I hear what Jamaicans and Nigerians have done with English as well as what Cape Verdeans have done with the Portuguese language. Critics have long been quick to denounce the re-interpretations of these languages as being “bad” or “uncivilized” versions of those languages spoken by the European colonizers. But the fact is, communication is just that. If one person speaks to another person and that person understands the meaning of the words, it IS communication.

Having grown up in a black community in the United States, I was so thoroughly immersed in what has been defined as “Black English” that it wasn’t until I took a university course on “Black English” and actually saw the style in print that I realized, “Wow! We do speak like that!” It’s so natural that one may not even perceive how different it really is. When I began to study the Portuguese language many years ago, I began to wonder if there was a difference between the way black and white Brazilians spoke Portuguese. Speaking to numerous Brazilians, I would ask the question: “If you called a person on the telephone, would you automatically know if this person was black or white?” The answer was usually no. I knew, based on my own experiences, that in the US, one could immediately know who was black and who was white when talking on the telephone. The differences are that stark. 

But when I began to use Portuguese books, tapes and later CDs to practice my Portuguese, I once made a mistake when I bought a language book and accompanying CD. When I called a friend in Bahia and played the CD of spoken Portuguese on the phone, she told me, “But that’s not Brazilian Portuguese, it’s the Portuguese spoken in Portugal.” As my ear for Portuguese was still not developed, I hadn’t yet discovered the difference. I would later come to discover that Portuguese from Portugal was as different if not more so different than the English spoken in the US in comparison with that spoken in England. What I would later discover is that it’s not that what one could define as ‘Black Portuguese’ didn’t exist in Brazil, but rather that the Portuguese spoken by Brazilians of all colors is in fact ‘Black Portuguese’ and accounts for many of the differences between the Portuguese spoken in Portugal and that spoken in Brazil. On  this topic, New York University professor, Robert Stam had this to say: 

“The Brazilian version of the Portuguese language…is thoroughly Africanized. As the black activist Lélia González once punningly put it, Brazilians do not speak Portuguese but ‘Pretoguês’ (“Blackoguese”). The African influence in the Brazilian language is at once phonetic, morphological, and lexical. Words from African languages such as Fon, Hausa, and Yoruba have enriched the Brazilian Portuguese vocabulary and made the language more musical and melliflous. Indeed, it waas ironically thanks to enslaved Afro Brazilians that Portuguese became disseminated as the national language. As mentioned in the early centuries of European colonization, Tupi-Guarani served as the lingua geral ( general language) for commerce and communication. It was only when Africans, coming from widely divergent cultures and languages, learned Portuguese from the shouted commands of the slave drivers and used it as a common denominator among themselves, that Portuguese became the national language of Brazil.”

With this in mind, the work of under-appreciated Afro-Brazilian scholar and militant Lélia Gonzalez must be re-examined and continue to be discussed so that she is given the accolades that she deserves. A great disservice that has affected numerous Afro-Brazilian scholars over the years. This past February 1st, Gonzalez would have been 82 years old

Lélia Gonzalez and Afro-Brazilian Portuguese as a political and resistance act

By Luma Oliveira

“I’ll learn to read in order to teach my comrades …” – Roberto Mendes

“You want to know, black culture is not only samba, pagode and funk. It’s in the ‘pretuguês’ that we speak. It has transformed the language and our whole culture.” – Lélia González

Lélia González was a university professor, black feminist, anthropologist and Brazilian intellectual who left a huge legacy to the black feminist movement and to the left that was constituted from a perspective of gender and race.

The professor Lélia Gonzalez was born in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, on February 1, 1935; however, it was in Rio de Janeiro where she graduated and constructed her intellectual and political trajectory. Among her main works are: Lugar de Negro (Place of the Black) (1982); Festas Populares no Brasil (Popular Festivals in Brazil) (1987); articles, interviews and transcriptions of lectures and conferences given by Lélia Gonzalez can also be found.

In the month of February, in particular, we remember Lélia Gonzalez with the intention of keeping her memory and history alive: for only the memory and history can guarantee that we can construct horizons of struggle and resistance and recognize the footsteps of black women who came before us opening up paths and resisting in the face of a racist and sexist society.

This text proposes to trace the political trajectory and (re) construction of the racial consciousness of the intellectual, manifested through language – or as Gonzalez called it, “pretoguês”, or “black Portuguese”. The anthropologist reached high heights in academia and to this day is one of the main references in studies of gender, race and class; thus, she utilized her space in the academic arena not to remain inert or captive as the racist and macho society expects of black women, but to tinker with structures and question ethnocentrism and various oppressions that affected (and affect) the black population of  Brazil, especially black and poor women.

Among its political choices (wisely done), the main one is to claim the contribution of black women and men who came as victims of enslavement to Brazil, constructing cultural communities and, above all, contributing to the establishment of a português brasileiro (Brazilian Portuguese), or rather, português afro-brasileiro (Afro–Brazilian Portuguese). Regarding what the anthropologist called “pretoguês” or “black Portuguese”, we can define it as:

“[…] what I call ‘pretoguês’ and which is nothing more than the mark of Africanization of Portuguese spoken in Brazil … is easily found especially in Spanish in the Caribbean region. The tonal and rhythmic character of the African languages brought to the Novo Mundo (New World), as well as the absence of certain consonants (such as the l or the r, for example) point to an little explored aspect of black influence in the historical and cultural formation of the continent as a whole (and not to mention the ‘Creole’ dialects of the Caribbean).” (GONZALEZ, 1988)

It is necessary to emphasize that black and indigenous peoples contributed effectively to the Brazilian linguistic identity and the professor/anthropologist studied the subject assiduously. However, on these contributions of the indigenous and black communities of the diaspora, we can see that they are ignored and even discriminated against throughout history. In addition to derivations of words, we also have the use of terms and the so-called gírias (slang) that make up linguistic plurality in Brazilian territory. The fact is that everything that is part of the colonizing vocabulary continues to have prestige, since what is part of the mental and cultural dictionary of the colonized peoples continues to have attempts of deletion – thus constituting a racist and ethnocentric plan of “superiority”. As such, we can return to Lélia herself to understand how this linguistic relationship of contribution vs. linguistic prejudice/ discrimination occurs:

“It’s funny how they [elitist white society] rejoice when we say that it’s Framengo. They call us ignorant  saying that we speak wrong. And suddenly they ignore that the presence of this r in the place of the l is nothing more than the linguistic mark of an African language, in which the l doesn’t exist. So, who is the ignorant one? At the same time they find excellence in Brazilian speaking that cuts the R’s of verbal infinitives, which condenses você into  (meaning ‘you’), está  into (meaning ‘is’), and so on. They don’t draw out that they are speaking pretuguês.” “(GONZALEZ, 1988)

The anthropologist Lélia Gonzalez in the 80s had already pointed out this question and from there she would produce texts, give lectures, give speeches and the like that they lecture about – and the most importantly: adopt standards of speech and writing that breaks with the exalted vocabulary and that that is accepted by academia. In addition to the linguistic question, we also have literature as a cultural expression and of resistance of the diaspora being ignored throughout history.

A political choice of Lélia was to break with the formal vocabulary, because she wanted to dialogue with different social extracts and, mainly with popular movements that were in the streets and peripheries – since she realized base work and was not only in the academic scope, but also in the streets. A good example of this is that the professor participated actively in the militancy in favor of daycare centers on the outskirts of Rio, because she understood that the dialogue with hers took place, especially in the streets.

The apex of her intellectual production took place between the 70’s and 80’s, in which the theoretician wrote books, articles and gave several lectures: in all those media of communication that attracted the attention of those who heard or read Lélia Gonzalez dealt with her informal tone, slang utilized and attempts to dialogue as if in a conversation with fellow combatants. At this apex of militancy and intellectual production, the professor also broke the racist, classist, and colonial currents that bound her to the behavior patterns (posture, speech, aesthetics) that, in the case of us as black women, are required to comply with at the risk of being “minimally” accepted; I consider this resistance and freedom of expression as a political and courageous act in the midst of a strongly racist and macho society. Besides theory, Lélia Gonzalez erected a discursive field of resistance as a black woman: uniting dialect and slang. As an example of this political, ideological, intellectual and resistance construction through speech and writing, we recall a speech of the anthropologist:

“I’d like to place one thing: a minority we’re not, okay? Brazilian culture is a black culture par excellence, even the Portuguese we speak here is different from Portuguese in Portugal. Our Portuguese is not Portuguese, it is ‘pretuguês’” (Testimony of the 1980’s)

In the following decade, texts were no longer recorded and to speak of Lélia Gonzalez with the present of terms and expressions characteristic of Afro-Brazilian Portuguese, this also points to the moment experienced by Professor Lélia after intense action as a militant; since we black women are overwhelmed by existing and resisting: Thus, it is said that Lelia had been taken by a moment of reflection, more reclusive, until the day came when her writing would no longer be recorded, her voice would never be heard – with her death in 1994.

“I see my own case, I was very much like this, it’s self-criticism what I’m doing too. I thought I had to be in everything, crazily throwing myself around, and my personal project got very lost, now that I’m picking up the pieces so I can follow my existence as the person that I am. […] “(Interview with the MNU)


Lélia Gonzalez, present!/Photo: Acervo Lélia Gonzalez. July 1979

It is important to keep the memory of Lélia Gonzalez alive and learn from her steps, as we are facing a moment when more and more the chains try to maintain black people at the margin and muted of any and all legacy and history that they have constructed, this all by means of language, since we see at all times the dialect, terms, expressions and words being diminished or victims of linguistic prejudice – which in itself carries the oppressions we struggle every day to fight. Language carries power, ideology and is one of the main instruments of domination of peoples, but if we use it as a tool of struggle and resistance, we can keep histories alive through it.

Long live, Lélia Gonzalez! Long live her trajectory of resistance that took place on the streets, in academia and also through what she spoke and wrote.

Source: Blogueiras Negras, Stam, Robert. Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race in Brazilian Cinema and Culture. Duke University Press Books, 1997.

4 comments on “In Brazil, we speak “Pretoguês” (black Portuguese): Lélia Gonzalez and Afro-Brazilian Portuguese as a political act of resistance

  1. PTR
    February 15, 2017

    Oh, soo true!!! But please do not tell this to people in Leblon. They will freak! 😀

  2. Bamabrasileira
    February 15, 2017

    another good and funny video about white fragility that occurs when white people feel threatened by anything that isn’t “white”, or when others have the audacity to correct them:

  3. Bamabrasileira
    February 15, 2017

    I hope to see more Black Brazilians unabashedly speaking Pretoguese! It seems that this is yet another thing that connects Black people everywhere. We ALL seem to have the ability to create fully functional languages for ourselves wherever we are. This is not surprising, since there are over 2,000 languages spoken on the African continent (often mischaracterized as “dialects” rather than fully formed “languages”)!

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