Oral History in Brazil: Development and Challenges

By Meihy, Jose Carlos Sebe Bom | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Oral History in Brazil: Development and Challenges


Meihy, Jose Carlos Sebe Bom, The Oral History Review


In the case of Brazil, as in Latin America in general--or at least in those countries which only recently lived through the syndrome of military dictatorships--the emergence of oral history was directly tied to the process of re-democratization. It established a natural link between the advent of oral history and the political issues arising from democratic acceptance. This fact makes the role of oral history in Latin America different from that in Europe or North America. For this purpose, Brazil is an eloquent example.(1)

Identification of themes immediately leads to the observation that Latin American oral history requires solutions and approaches which are notably different from foreign ones. Reflecting exclusively in terms of Brazil, one questions the virtues of the importation of theoretical models and the insistence that the same thematic matrixes should prevail there and elsewhere.(2) Is our oral history simply an echo of a "First World" oral history? Do we not have specific responsibilities and commitments to our own social environment? Even more pertinently: are the same analytical criteria used to study "their" immigration valid for us studying "ours"? Can the experience of black slavery in Latin America be filtered according to "their" criteria? How should oral historians proceed, and which models should they use, when encountering native Indian societies? What have "they" to teach us about immigration, native Indians, miscegenation, or the experiences of black slaves and abandoned children? In regards to themes relating to popular culture, could they be addressed in one or another culture according to the same criteria? In short, could the same European and North American models have any use for "us"? Should we create our own analytical criteria? Would that be possible?

We evidently insist on the relevance of the exchange of academic experiences, for it would be equally unwise to isolate our practices of oral history as if we had absolutely nothing in common with that of "others." Clearly intellectual dialogue is sacred and should have no frontiers, but this should not signify abandoning the political commitment that is an echo of the Latin American voice in oral history.

Given the complexity and political dependence of Latin America, the development of its oral history presents circumstances which distinguish it positively. Our colonialist academic experience, so versed in "their" texts, has paradoxically the very conditions to create a desirable synthesis, one which in most cases cannot be found in centers other than ours. In this sense, the oral history practiced in Brazil, as well as in Latin America, is the result of combined readings--characterizing it thus with a sophisticated theoretical grounding and a thematic pertinence to unequivocal political and local liens. The synthesis of European, North American and Latin American texts, when duly filtered, permits interesting reflections for reversing imported models. The process of "devouring," used metaphorically and borrowed from Brazilian literature, which expresses itself through "anthropophagy," suggests that, read with criteria, imported texts can be used as a stepping-stone to reflect on the good uses of Latin American oral history.(3) At the same time, we advocate the creation of new concepts and mechanisms of study.

Modern Brazilian oral history defined itself as of 1979, flowering mainly after 1983 in the process of political re-democratization of the country. Although there were prior scattered efforts in the seventies, oral history only developed as a consulted and vigorous practice after a process of maturing which brought different tendencies together and provided the collective spaces necessary for the exchange of opinions.

The first attempt, however, occurred in 1973, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Fundacao Getulio Vargas do Rio de Janeiro (CPDOC/FGV). On this occasion, academics concerned with documentation issues in the social sciences met in Rio de Janeiro. …

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