By Ed Catchpole
May 12, 2015
Brazil’s intelligentsia has often considered the question “who are Brazilians?” This was an important issue in the 1920s when the character of “Macunama”, an anti hero who had absolutely no moral fiber was created by Brazilian writer, Mrio de Andrade. Macunamaappeared at exactly the time that a new definition of what it means to be Brazilian was needed.
New immigrants were arriving and contributing to a new profile of Brazil which led to the conviction that imported labor was much better than the existing Brazilian workers.
Some scholars at the time argued that slaves had an inherent horror of labor and the native indians a knack for laziness. In this context the Lei de Gerson (to take advantage of someone or something) was a reaction to the dedicated and productive workers required when, firstly Brazilian agriculture, and then its industry needed to compete in the international market.
These wheeler dealers have become part of the folklore of an imaginary country with a slave soul, the antithesis of the European model which was perceived as full of rules.
They were viewed as shrewd, smart, lived by “jeitinho” and most importantly could find a “way around” anything. They made money through unofficial means; playing billiards, betting on horses, and in some cases surviving as gigolos. Over time, this imaginary rogue has increasingly become viewed as a criminal, but not before his associated folklore took hold of the national psyche.
A more marked expression of jeitinho came in the 1970s, in a landmark commercial for Vila Rica cigarettes. It was a time when nationalism was very different to the 1920s, a green and yellow pride and a megalomania fueled by the dictatorship. Against this backdrop a national hero and triple world cup champion midfielder Gerson coined his most famous phrase “You like to take advantage of everything too, right?”
(The above text translated from the article Lei de Gerson at Istoe Brasil, 1999)
The commercial did not have negative connotations at the time but later became the Lei de Gerson (Gerson’s Law). “It was very widespread jargon back then and the advertising captured the popular imagination,” says Historian and Researcher Maria Matos Izilda. “The Lei de Gerson served as yet another element in the definition of the Brazilian identity and a more explicit symbol of our ethics… or lack of them,” adds the historian.
Lei de Gerson works like this; if you have a regular job and pay your taxes you are an “Otario” a sucker. If you can somehow gain advantage (money) finding a way around your circumstances without necessarily working you are “Esperto” or smart. To put this esperto guy into context you might recognize him in the character of Captain Jack Sparrow, an anti-hero who uses wit and deceit to attain his goals.
Unfortunately, this also means there is usually a victim because someone has to get tricked for the jeitinho to work and those victims are nearly always other Brazilians. To me it explains why Brazilians are so reluctant to trust people they don’t know very well.
The recent protests are an example of how frustrated Brazilian are with Lei de Gerson and jeitinho which is the root cause of most political corruption and scandals. Billions of reais of government money are wasted every year through esquemas “schemes” that rely on these cultural traits.
In fact, many, many Brazilians do not subscribe to and deeply dislike this character trait. The thousands of companies operating in Brazil would not tolerate its official use by their employees and Supreme Court Justice, Joaquim Barboza, gave it no credence in his decisions in the Mensalo case. But it is still very ingrained in Brazilian society and bound up in its folklore.
However, it has to be said that some Brazilians still admire such people and regard the perpetrators as heroes and their victims as gullible saps who should have seen it coming.
Previous articles by Ed: