4234 - "'As Elites de Cor" do Sul da Bahia: Cacao, Color and Social Mobility in Early 20th Century Brazil

The cacao growers and their families who dominated southern Bahia in the first part of the twentieth century numbered among the wealthiest people in the Brazilian northeast at that time. Yet, few of these men and women resembled the aristocratic planters of Brazil ’s famous sugar plantations. Many had been born into northeastern Brazil ’s African and Amerindian descended free poor; all of them had once worked with their hands. Long after they had hired others to work for them, donned business suits and elegant dresses, and moved into mansions in the city, their skin color, the shape of their bodies and the calluses on their hands and feet marked their origins as working men and women. They had done the seemingly impossible—they had gone from rags to riches in Bahia—the most tradition bound socially hierarchical society in nineteenth and twentieth-century Brazil .

These men and women represent an important, but understudied, phenomenon in Brazil : social mobility on the part of the rural poor. Since the 1950s, historians and social scientists—including myself—have devoted much more attention to the impediments to upward social mobility in Brazil than to the elements that made it possible. Largely, they have done so in an effort to call attention to the serious obstacles to success that Brazilians of African descent have suffered despite Brazil’s famous—or infamous—“myth of racial democracy.” Yet in failing to study social mobility more fully, we have missed an opportunity to investigate the circumstances in which the poor might succeed.

Thales de Azevedo labeled these well-to-do families a “colored elite,” but otherwise they have received very little attention. [1] This paper addresses that gap, challenging the notion that either race or class formed a permanent and total barrier to success.

[1] Thales de Azevedo, As elites de côr: Um estudo de ascensão social. (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1955).

Keywords: social mobility, cacao, Brazil

Author: Mahony, Mary Ann (Central Connecticut State University, Ud States of Am / USA)


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