In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of the Brazilian Northeast

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Empire (1822–1889) and Early Republic (1889–1930)
  • Drought and Migration in the Late 19th and 20th Centuries
  • Labor in the 20th Century
  • Early Studies in Anthropology and Sociology of the Northeast (1930s–1960s)
  • Economy, Dependency, and Development (1959 to Present)
  • The United States and the Northeast in the 20th Century
  • The Military Dictatorship (1964–1985)
  • Jewish Presence and Exile in the Northeast
  • The Construction of Racial Identities in the Northeast

Latin American Studies History of the Brazilian Northeast
Courtney J. Campbell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0160


Once belonging to the vast Northern region, the Brazilian Northeast was first referred to as such by a governmental agency dedicated to drought management in 1919. From that point onward, intellectuals imbued the region with biological, economic, social, political, and cultural characteristics. Scholars have associated the Northeast with drought, poverty, and high infant mortality rates, but they also have referred to it as a place of resistance to imperialism, as the cradle of racial democracy, and as the very essence of Brazilian nationality. Nonetheless, regional stereotypes in Brazil are so problematic that the simple act of defining the Brazilian Northeast is a highly contentious point. The most straightforward description is that the Northeast is a political, cultural, economic, and geographic unit of nine states, including Maranhão, Piauí, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, and Bahia. Yet, while this definition rests comfortably on a map, some scholars argue that defining the region only furthers the perseverance of stereotypes. Further, according to this line of thought, referring to “the Northeast” before 1919 is anachronistic and simplifies the region’s past. While this is certainly true, regional literature—both creative and scholarly—has often called back on a distant past to describe the region and its culture. To describe the region, historians, folklorists, and novelists draw on the history of Salvador da Bahia as colonial capital, of sugar plantations as heart of the colonial economy, and of slavery as the cruel system that simultaneously upheld the economy and fueled the region’s cultural development. Scholars base the region’s uniqueness on its past of Dutch colonization and Jewish emigration, but also on its great droughts that led to poverty, migration, rebellions, and social movements. This article bases an understanding of the invention of Northeastern cultural identity on a basic knowledge of its history. The article maps out sources for the study of the history of the Northeast in the colonial, imperial, and republican periods, before turning to themes frequently associated with the region and movements that defined its identity.

General Overviews

What is the Northeast? The question is deceivingly simple and the answer is quite contentious. While intellectuals charged with Defining the Northeast in the 20th Century proposed a definition based on economic, political, and cultural distinctiveness, more recently, writers have questioned the act of definition, choosing instead to investigate how the Northeast was invented or imagined. While Penna 1992 introduced this type of investigation of regional identity in his study of newspaper discourse on the Northeast in São Paulo in 1988, Albuquerque Júnior 2009 is the groundbreaking text that set a reexamination of the social and historical construction, or “invention,” of the Northeast in motion. Albuquerque Júnior 2004 is a shorter, English-language version of the main arguments expressed in Albuquerque Júnior 2009 and is more accessible for undergraduate courses conducted in English. Albuquerque Júnior examines intellectual discourse, literature, visual arts, and music to present how ideas, tropes, and stereotypes of the Northeast were socially constructed. Blake 2011 continues in this tradition of identity studies, focusing on how medical doctors, politicians, and intellectuals relied on theories of social Darwinism, eugenics, biomedicine, race, and science to construct the concept of the “Northeasterner.” Campbell 2014 examines popular art, cordel pamphlet literature, visual culture, intellectual manuscripts, correspondence, and the press that discuss international events to argue that the Northeast’s cultural identity was a product not of isolation, but of international interaction. Garcia 1986 and Araújo 2004 emphasize the diversity and plurality of the Northeast. Garcia 1986 is an attempt to break the stereotypes of the Northeast held by Brazilians from outside the region. Araújo 2004 is a study of the Northeastern economy and serves as a helpful introduction to the region.

  • Albuquerque Júnior, Durval Muniz de. “Weaving Tradition: The Invention of the Brazilian Northeast.” Translated by Laurence Hallewell. Latin American Perspectives 31.2 (March 2004): 42–61.

    DOI: 10.1177/0094582X03261187

    Article-length presentation of many of the arguments expressed in Albuquerque Júnior 2009. Presents region as originally defined by governmental agencies working with drought and then by intellectuals like Gilberto Freyre who established its origin and rooted its culture in the past.

  • Albuquerque Júnior, Durval Muniz de. A invenção do nordeste e outras artes. 4th ed. São Paulo, Brazil: Cortez, 2009.

    Watershed text on Northeastern regional identity formation. Employs discourse analysis to study literature and art as inventing Northeastern cultural identity. Originally published in 1999.

  • Araújo, Tania Bacelar de. “Northeast, Northeasts: What Northeast?” Latin American Perspectives 31.2 (March 2004): 16–41.

    DOI: 10.1177/0094582X03261184

    Study of economic characteristics and direction of the Northeast, emphasizing the diversity of the region. Good overview of the region for beginners.

  • Blake, Stanley. The Vigorous Core of Our Nationality: Race and Regional Identity in Northeastern Brazil. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011.

    Examines construction of Northeastern regional identity by politicians, intellectuals, medical doctors, and other urban professionals from 1888 to 1940, highlighting ideas put into practice in state building. Focuses primarily on Pernambuco.

  • Campbell, Courtney J. The Brazilian Northeast, Inside Out: Region, Nation, and Globalization (1926-1968). PhD diss., Vanderbilt University, 2014.

    Dissertation examining regional discourse around international events in the Northeast between 1926 and 1968. Topics include: international regionalist conferences, an Orson Welles film about Northeastern fishermen, Northeastern women who dated U.S. soldiers during World War II, French and Northeastern popular culture movements, World Cup soccer, and international beauty pageants.

  • Garcia, Carlos. O que é Nordeste brasileiro? 5th ed. São Paulo, Brazil: Brasiliense, 1986.

    A short pocket book describing physical, cultural, and economic aspects of the Northeastern region with the intent of dispelling stereotypes about the region held within Brazil.

  • Penna, Mauro. O que faz ser nordestino: Identidades sociais, interesses e o “escândalo” Erundina. São Paulo, Brazil: Cortez, 1992.

    Studies regional identity through an examination of newspaper discourse following the election of Luiza Erundina de Souza, of Paraíba, in November 1988 as first female mayor of São Paulo. Concludes that Northeastern identity is a historical construction, referring to recognized symbols, assembled collectively and represented individually.

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