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Race and Employment Practices in Northeast Brazil’s Ecotourism Industry: An Analysis of Cultural Capital, Symbolic Capital, and Symbolic Power


Melanie A. Medeiros ,

SUNY Geneseo, US
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Tiffany Henriksen

SUNY Geneseo, US
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The ethnographic study of tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean offers the opportunity to examine the ways that racial ideologies perpetuate social inequality, debunking the myth of racial democracy in countries such as Brazil. In the case of Brogodó, in Bahia, Brazil, structural inequality and racial ideology limit the equal participation of Brazilians of African descent in the local ecotourism industry. This article draws on evidence from ethnographic research to investigate the relationship of structural inequality, racial ideology, and cultural and symbolic capital. In the ecotourism industry, employer discourses emphasizing the limits of local community members’ cultural capital conceal their preference for employees exhibiting both the habitus and phenotypic traits associated with whiteness, reflecting broader social and economic practices that discriminate against African-descendent Brazilians. The ability to naturalize habitus and disguise racial ideology behind discussions of education and qualifications reflects employers’ and members of the dominant classes’ symbolic power.



O estudo etnográfico do turismo na América Latina e o Caribe oferece aos estudiosos a oportunidade de examinar as formas pelas quais as ideologias raciais perpetuam a desigualdade social, suplantando o mito da democracia racial em países como o Brasil. No caso de Brogodó, Bahia, Brasil, a desigualdade estrutural e a ideologia racial limitam a capacidade de brasileiros afrodescendentes participar em condições igualitárias na indústria local de ecoturismo. Neste artigo, recorremos a evidências da pesquisa etnográfica para investigar a relação entre desigualdade estrutural, ideologia racial e capital cultural e simbólico. Argumentamos que na indústria do ecoturismo, os discursos dos empregadores enfatizando a limitação do capital cultural dos membros da comunidade local ocultam sua preferência por funcionários que exibem tanto o habitus quanto os traços fenotípicos associados à branquitude, refletindo práticas sociais e econômicas mais amplas que discriminam os brasileiros descendentes de africanos. Afirmamos que a capacidade de naturalizar habitus e disfarçar a ideologia racial por trás de discussões sobre educação e qualificações é um reflexo do poder simbólico dos empregadores e dos membros das classes dominantes.

How to Cite: Medeiros, M. A., & Henriksen, T. (2019). Race and Employment Practices in Northeast Brazil’s Ecotourism Industry: An Analysis of Cultural Capital, Symbolic Capital, and Symbolic Power. Latin American Research Review, 54(2), 366–380. DOI:
  Published on 25 Jun 2019
 Accepted on 11 Jun 2018            Submitted on 26 Oct 2016

In the misty dawn hours, local African-descendent guides sat on the steps of Brogodó’s open-air bus station waiting for one of the daily buses from Salvador de Bahia to arrive.1 Irrespective of the early hour, the guides created an energetic, unofficial welcome committee, and as tourists disembarked, they would offer to take them to an inn to rest or to schedule a guided tour of the national park adjacent to town. Most mornings there were not enough ecotourists to employ all the guides at the station. Men like twenty-three-year-old David explained that he would return to the bus station twice more in one day, hoping that his efforts would result in a commission from an inn or work as a guide. The potential to earn an income working in the ecotourism industry, and yet the persistent instability of employment in Brogodó, raises the question of the presumed socioeconomic benefits of ecotourism for rural communities in Brazil (Moura-Fé 2015). Despite Brogodó’s flourishing ecotourism industry, social disparities at the intersection of race, class, and geography persist, and locally born African-descendent residents of Brogodó continue to suffer as a result of structural and social inequality.

Ecotourism affords tourists experiences in the natural world and promotes both environmental preservation and socioeconomic growth. Although ecotourists appreciate cultural activities that complement ecotourism activities, they are not the primary focus of their itineraries. Thus, the ecotourism industry in the interior of Bahia differs substantially from tourism in coastal cities such as Salvador, where the Afro-Brazilian cultural products of music, dance, art, religion and capoeira are the focal points of tourism, affording Afro-Brazilians income opportunities—albeit still limited ones—as purveyors of culture and also racialized sexuality (Williams 2013). Similarly, in the ecotourism industry in the Amazon, in the ecotourist’s gaze, indigenous Brazilians are authentic brokers to the natural world as well as eroticized beings (Mitchell 2016). In Brogodó, however, African-descendent locals are not valued by the ecotourism industry as cultural or ecological brokers, and subsequently have been subjected to exclusion from certain forms of employment, what we refer to as occupational segregation (Harrison and Lloyd 2013).

Recent ethnographies have argued that the study of tourism in Latin America offers anthropologists the opportunity to examine the ways that racial ideologies perpetuate social inequality, debunking the myth of racial democracy in countries such as Cuba and Brazil (Cabezas 2009; Mitchell 2016; Roland 2010; Williams 2013). Although these studies examine the interplay between globalization, transnationalism, and tourism, and draw from local and tourist experiences, they focus less on the structure of the tourism industry and the ways that gender and racial ideology affects business ownership, employment, and unemployment (Medeiros 2018). In the case of Brogodó, structural inequality and racial ideology limit the ability of locally born Brazilians of African descent to participate equally in the local ecotourism industry. In this article, we draw on evidence from ethnographic research to investigate the relationship of structural inequality, racial ideology, and cultural and symbolic capital. We argue that in the ecotourism industry, employer discourses emphasizing the limits of local community members’ cultural capital conceal those employers’ preference for employees exhibiting both the habitus and the phenotypic traits associated with whiteness, a reflection of broader social and economic practices of discrimination against African-descendent Brazilians. The ability to naturalize habitus and to disguise racial ideology behind discussions of education and qualifications is a reflection of the symbolic power of employers and members of the dominant classes.

Anthropologists have adopted Appadurai’s (1996) use of scapes to describe other dimensions of global cultural flows (e.g., Parker’s [1999] “homoscape; Brennan’s [2004] “sexscape”).2 Williams (2013) described a “touristscape” as encompassing the many sites within a town or city where tourism is the focus, as well as the people who inhabit, engage with, or move through these sites daily. For the study of tourism, the term touristscape highlights the relationship between local tourism industries and the broader global cultural economy, including how “globalized hierarchies of race, class, gender, citizenship, and mobility create undeniable power differentials among actors in these geographic spaces, which, in turn, give them unequal opportunities” (Brennan 2004, 15). The touristscape is a useful framework for examining the variety of places and actors involved in the ecotourism industry in Brogodó. This article contributes to the study of tourism and touristscapes in Latin America, highlighting how broader regional and global social and economic dynamics of inequality are reproduced at the local level.

Field Site, Participants, and Methods

Brogodó is a small town nestled amid green mountains that strikingly contrast with the surrounding landscape of the semiarid Sertão subregion of Northeast Brazil. Brogodó experienced a shift in its socioeconomic structure from small-scale diamond mining and subsistence farming to ecotourism after the creation in 1985 of a national park adjacent to the town. The park has become a popular ecotourism destination for domestic and international travelers, who come to explore the park’s rivers, waterfalls, mountains, and caves. Brogodó, a gateway to the park, boasts the area’s largest tourist infrastructure, containing inns, hotels, tour agencies, shops, and restaurants.

Locally born residents of Brogodó use the identifier nativo to signify their historical connection to the place and the mining history of the region. The mid-nineteenth-century diamond-mining boom in the area depended on the labor of slaves before 1888, and once slavery was abolished, on the labor of former slaves who had little mobility. When the mining boom ended in the early twentieth century, miners of African descent remained in the region, most of them living in abject poverty as they searched for remaining diamonds. Although Brazilian census categories do not represent the multitude of racial identification terms in Brazil, it bears mentioning for this discussion that 76 percent of residents of Brogodó identified as preta (black) or parda (brown) (IBGE 2011). The identity label nativo encompassed a shared regional history linked to economic stratification based on (primarily) African ancestry and was a way of distinguishing locally born residents from people who had moved into the region—pessoas da fora (people from the outside), whom we refer to as non-nativos. Because nativos did not differentiate between Brazilians and foreign-born residents when describing their relationships and interactions with “outsiders,” we discuss the two groups together.3

As a result of the success of the ecotourism industry, Brogodó is now a prosperous town. However, according to the 2010 census, 80 percent of private households had a household income of less than or equal to minimum wage—R$510 per month (US$170), and 7 percent of households did not have an income (IBGE 2011). These statistics indicate that although there have been income gains since the 2003 Brazilian demographic study of poverty and inequality, in which the incidence of relative poverty in Brogodó was 47.12 percent, most individuals and households in Brogodó were living off an average nominal monthly per-capita income of R$375, or US$120. These statistics were partially the result of an unemployment rate of 38 percent among nonstudent residents over ten years old (IBGE 2011). Nativos attributed income and unemployment rates to exclusionary employment practices in the ecotourism industry. They explained that non-nativos who moved to Brogodó after the creation of the park owned the most prosperous ecotourism businesses, and those business owners preferred to hire non-nativo residents to work higher-paying positions while nativos were relegated to lower-paying positions. In a town as small as Brogodó, socioeconomic inequalities were apparent in the quality of housing and consumption patterns, and as a result, nativos often expressed discontent with their social position and, at times, resentment toward more affluent non-nativos. Racial and class divisions in Brogodó were visible in the town’s geography; most of Brogodó’s nativos lived in coated brickwork houses (IBGE 2011)—small, two- to three-room structures—on the unpaved roads filled with ruts that sloped steeply uphill from the town’s center, whereas business owners lived in renovated homes in the center of town or large, newly built houses on its outskirts. The residential neighborhoods inhabited by nativos starkly contrasted to the small but lively town center, where restaurants, tourism agencies, and shops lined quaint cobblestone streets and the two main town squares.

In this article, we present qualitative data drawn from an ethnographic study conducted from 2009 to 2016. The full study included semistructured and life-history interviews with sixty residents of Brogodó, as well as extensive participant observation in inns, tourism agencies, restaurants, people’s homes, and at community and private social events. This article reports on findings from this larger study, as well as an analysis of twenty-four semistructured interviews with a purposive sample of employers and employees, which focused on individuals’ perceptions of and experiences with the ecotourism industry. We inductively coded the data from all interviews, as well as our field notes, and analyzed the data for general themes related to education, language and communication, tourism, (un)employment, race, discrimination, work experience, and social relations. As part of the interview, participants were asked to state how they self-identify racially, and the terms we employ in this article are the ones that participants used to describe themselves. When speaking more generally, we use an approach that is consistent with other scholars and activists who examine issues of race and inequality in Brazil and collapse the racial or color categories of parda and preta into the single category negro (black).

Race and Racism in Brazil

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Brazilian elites carried out a national project to usher Brazil into modernity (Weinstein 2015). Compromising “between the racist doctrines in vogue around the twentieth century”—in which whiteness was associated with the establishment of modern societies—“and the socio-racial reality of Brazil” (Hasenbalg 1984, 2), this project emphasized mestiçagem (miscegenation) as a gateway to branqueamento (whitening), in order to frame Brazil as a modern multiracial nation-state capable of assimilating diverse people (Da Silva 1998). Brazil implemented eugenics programs designed for the branqueamento of the population, including offering subsidies to Europeans to immigrate to Brazil, which attracted more than four million European immigrants over the course of thirty years (Baran 2007). Brazilian intellectuals juxtaposed the Brazilian multiracial nation-state to the United States, critiquing the notion of race as a biological concept and rejecting American institutionalized notions of hypodescent and the black-white dichotomy (Da Silva 1998; Skidmore [1974] 1993). Less than fifty years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil, Freyre (1933) argued that as a result of mestiçagem, Brazilians were not racist people. The ideology surrounding mestiçagem and discourses that compared racism in the United States to Brazil’s nonracist society became central to the formation of the Brazilian nation-state and national identity (Pinho 2004, 2009, 2010). The intellectual discourse supporting mestiçagem and denying racism influenced Brazilians’ perceptions of race and racism, their preference for discussing “color” instead of “race,” and policies surrounding race (Pagano 2014; Sheriff 2001; Skidmore [1974] 1993). The Brazilian government used mestiçagem to justify discourses of a “racial democracy,” a society free of discrimination based on skin color and other phenotypic traits, granting equal rights to all citizens. Embedded in this discourse was the belief that upward mobility associated with mestiçagem further demonstrated that there was no racial or color discrimination in Brazil (Degler 1986).

However, the ideology of a racial democracy represented an ideal of what Brazil aspired to be rather than a reality (Azevedo 1975; Sheriff 2001). Although the construction of race in Brazil is not predicated on emphasizing genotypic differences or rigid categories of classification, discrimination against Brazilians with certain phenotypic traits, gestures or ways of speaking, what Nogueira ([1954] 1985, 79) refers to as “preconceito de marca,” was and is still prevalent. Since the early twentieth century scholars have argued against the belief that Brazil is a society free of racism (Bastide and Fernandes ([1959] 1971; Costa-Pinto [1953] 1998; Nogueira [1954] 1985), asserting that racial discrimination can exist even without institutionalized racial categories and social identities, or what Sansone (2003) calls “blackness without ethnicity.” Gonzalez and Hasenbalg (1982) explained that for much of the twentieth century scholars tended to deny the role of race in social inequality, conflate racial prejudice with class prejudice, or argue that racial discrimination was a remnant of slavery (e.g., Fernandes 1978). Hasenbalg (1979) encouraged a shift in focus away from studies of racial identities and relations toward the study of racial inequality, providing evidence for racism and a critique of it in the labor market and in access to education. While some contemporary scholars continue to support the ideology surrounding mestiçagem and criticize discussions of race and policies to address racism (Fry et al. 2007; Fry and Maggie 2004; Lessa 2007; Maggie 2005), other contemporary Brazilian and Brazilianist scholars argue that racial discrimination persists, often intersecting closely with class and gender discrimination (Burdick 1998; Caldwell 2007; Goldstein 2003; Silva and Hasenbalg 1992; Santos and Anya 2006; Twine 1998; Vargas 2004, 2005). The myth of the racial democracy leads to the “social lynching” of black people in Brazil, because rather than recognize that social inequality is based in racial discrimination, it is attributed to class instead (Smith 2016, 8). The myth disregards that black Brazilians make up the vast majority of people living below the poverty line (Lebon 2007) and 75 percent of the poorest 10 percent of the Brazilian population, whereas white Brazilians make up 83 percent of the richest 1 percent of the population (Pagano 2014). Twelve percent of income inequality in Brazil is the result of income differences that align with differences in skin color (compared to 2.4 percent in the United States) (World Bank 2004). Persistent race and class hierarchies in Brazil are the result of and contribute to the discrimination and marginalization of working-class black Brazilians, including occupational discrimination (Alves 2016; Azevedo 1959, 1975; Guimarães 2002, 2005; Hasenbalg 1979; Santos and Inocêncio 2006; Silva 1988, 2000). Black people in Brazil suffer from social and structural inequality—including unequal access to social resources such as health care, quality education, and adequate housing and sanitation—related to poverty and the lack of government investment in their communities (Silva and Hasenbalg 1992; Paixão 2013; Sheriff 2001; Telles 2004; Twine 1998).

Furthermore, the classification of Brazilians based on color or race is extremely complex and encompasses more than just phenotypic traits to include markers such as social class, bodily practices, language and communication, taste, preferences, and religion (Burdick 1998; Nogueira ([1954] 1985; Roth-Gordon 2017). Telles (2004) describes three systems of classifications in Brazil—official, informal, and a system used by the Black Movement. Most Brazilians are officially classified in the census into one of five color or racial categories: white (branca), black (preta), brown (parda), indigenous (indígena), or yellow (amarela), but Brazilians have an informal classification system with more than one hundred terms to describe themselves along a spectrum of informal, flexible color categories (Hordge-Freeman 2015). The third system, used by the Black Movement in Brazil, collapses the categories of preta and parda into the broader category of negro (Baran 2007; Nascimento 1979, 1982; Sansone 2003), which denotes a black subjectivity, as opposed to preto, a color, as part of a movement of Afro-nationalism that acknowledges similar levels of wage and occupation discrimination, health inequality, and educational attainment among those identifying as preta and parda (Hordge-Freeman 2015; Lovell 2000; Silva 1985, 1999). Thus, although the vast majority of Brazilians identify themselves using one of hundreds of terms that signify a combination of phenotypic traits and other markers (e.g., class, practices), Brazilian institutions and activists rely on broader categories to classify difference and examine inequality.

Perceptions of race in Brazil are strongly influenced by social class and prestige, including education and the geographic location where someone was raised, which further emphasizes the fluidity of Brazilian racial classification and identification (McCallum 2005). For example, middle- or upper-class Brazilians who have more African phenotypic traits can claim a lighter or whiter racial classification or identity if they exhibit a middle- or upper-class communication style and disposition, which are largely influenced by education and socialization. However, although class and disposition are embedded in the classification of race, which seems to indicate the potential for individuals to be upwardly mobile irrespective of their phenotypic traits (Degler 1986), African-descendent Brazilians face significant obstacles to achieving an upper-class status or prestige. This is largely due to the legacy of slavery, persistent racial discrimination, and structural inequality that has resulted in unequal opportunities in education and employment, among other challenges, for generations of black Brazilians. According to the 2010 Demographic Census, people of African descent made up 51 percent of the Brazilian population; however, when given a choice between identifying as preta or parda, 85 percent selected parda (IBGE 2011). This selection indexes a preference for lighter-identified labels and the privilege that comes with whiteness in Brazil (Lebon 2007), indicating the persistence of a racial hierarchy based on relative whiteness.

Cultural Capital, Symbolic Capital, and the Study of Race and Inequality

We use Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital, symbolic capital, and symbolic power to understand the mechanisms through which race contributes to social inequality in Brazil more generally and in the ecotourism industry specifically. Bourdieu’s (1990) theoretical framework is particularly useful for examining how social inequality is the product of both micro-level social transactions influenced by ideology and culture, and macro-level social structures. Applying Bourdieu’s theoretical framework to a discussion of race rather than class, Weiss (2010, 38) discussed how racism is “symbolically reproduced” and acquires social relevance “through their embedding into social-structural relations of inequality.” Weiss articulates that social divisions such as race should not be reduced to a product of class, as is so often done in Brazil, and that race is both symbolic—as a construction—and a social reality due to the manifestation of the symbol into social inequality, thus linking structural racism, ideological racism, and social inequality.

For Bourdieu (1986), social inequality is not only the result of the unequal distribution of economic capital but also a product of the ways dominant groups in a society construct which objects or ways of thinking and being are valuable as capital. In Brazil the middle and upper classes construct a dominant form of cultural capital that encompasses formal education (cultural capital in its institutionalized state), material “high” culture such as art (in its objectified state), and the embodied state of cultural capital, visible in one’s disposition, speech, bodily presentation, and tastes (Carter 2003; Kraaykamp and van Eijck 2010). Although dominant cultural capital—henceforth referred to as cultural capital—is not the only form of cultural capital in Brazilian society, its value to dominant groups privileges it above other forms. Furthermore, given their position in society, members of dominant groups are also more likely to meet the prescribed standards through which one acquires and embodies cultural capital, thus reifying their social status (McKnight and Chandler 2012). Embodied cultural capital is a significant component of one’s habitus, a product of historical and social context and socialization that influences one’s way of being in the world, including individual disposition, communication style, tastes, emotions, preferences, and social expectations. Significantly, structural inequality deters the accrual of cultural capital across generations, which is reflected in one’s habitus and then naturalized as a group trait rather than the product of inequality. The process by which structural inequality is embodied and naturalized is key to understanding the relationship between structural inequality and racial ideology, or between cultural and symbolic capital and power.

Studies of social inequality reveal that the accrual of cultural capital and its socioeconomic benefits are mediated not only by class, as Bourdieu emphasized, but by race and ethnicity as well (Lan 2011; McKnight and Chandler 2012; Purcell 2007; Yosso 2005), thus exposing the economic and social consequences of someone’s inability to attain cultural capital (Carter 2003) and to embody a habitus that reflects cultural capital. In Brazil, habitus is racialized, and a habitus that includes embodied cultural capital indexes someone’s whiteness. Building from critical race theories of whiteness and white privilege (Bonilla-Silva 2010; Frankenberg 1993; Lewis 2003), studies have demonstrated how in many contexts whiteness is a form of symbolic capital, and individuals embodying the phenotypic traits and habitus associated with whiteness can employ it as a resource (Connolly 1998; Davis 2016; Hancock 2008; Twine 2010). Whiteness in Brazil symbolizes privilege, wealth, intelligence, power, and progress, whereas blackness symbolizes poverty, backwardness, and ignorance (Caldwell 2007). Whiteness also affords dominant groups symbolic power, “that invisible power which can be exercised only with the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it” (Bourdieu 1991, 164). This power includes the ability to naturalize and racialize habitus, rather than acknowledge that it is the product of social and structural inequality (McKnight and Chandler 2012), and to reinforce racial domination (Hancock 2008).

Bourdieu’s theoretical approach to examining social inequality, though not based in a discussion of race, offers insight into the dialogic relationship between structural racism and ideological racism, and ultimately social inequality based in race. Building from scholarly perspectives on cultural and symbolic capital, symbolic power, and whiteness, we analyze the complex relationship of structural inequality, cultural capital, habitus, and symbolic capital and power, contributing this Brazilian case study to research that employs Bourdieu’s theoretical framework to the study of social inequality at the intersection of race and class. Although Bourdieu (1986, 245) stated that cultural capital is “predisposed to function as symbolic capital,” in the Brazilian context, to fully understand the complex structural, ideological and discursive pathways by which the exclusion of rural, working-class, black Brazilians from certain types of employment is justified and naturalized, the theoretical lenses of cultural capital and symbolic capital and power should be examined separately, but in close relationship to one another.

Cultural Capital and Occupational Segregation

Among employers in the ecotourism industry, discourse surrounding the employability of nativos is focused on their shortcomings in education and in language and communication skills, in other words, lamenting their lack of cultural capital. For employers, nativos’ lack of cultural capital justified occupational segregation in which they employed nativos in lower-paying behind-the-scenes positions, and non-nativos in higher-paying public-facing positions—tour guides, receptionists, restaurant servers, managers—that required employees to interact with tourists on a daily basis. In this section, we explore employers’ and employees’ perspectives on the relationship between cultural capital and employment, and we examine the structural inequality that undermines nativos’ access to cultural capital.

Both Brazilian and foreign-born employers deemed nativos to be less qualified for public-facing positions, asserting that they lacked language and communication skills to interact with domestic and international tourists. For example, thirty-five-year-old Nathan, the European owner of an inexpensive hostel, explained his preference for non-nativo employees for certain positions. “I hire people from everywhere and people from Brogodó … It could be difficult to find them [employees] from Brogodó. The nativo … maybe doesn’t know what tourists want … how to receive them, what they prefer, what they like. I want someone who tries to speak with the tourist.”4 Nathan believed that nativos lacked the cultural capital and habitus necessary to effectively engage with tourists. He continued, explaining that for cleaning the hostel, “it is good to go with people from here during the day because there’s not a lot of people [in the hostel] so it is the moment to have [employ] someone who doesn’t speak English but wants to work.” Although we do not have data on the preferences of domestic and international tourists themselves, Nathan’s explanation illustrates how employers in Brogodó felt strongly that their businesses were better served by having non-nativos in public-facing positions. It was more common for employers to hire nativos to work maintenance, cleaning, gardening, cooking, laundry in inns, hotels, and restaurants—jobs that did not require as much interaction with tourists. This pattern in Brogodó differs significantly from other sites in Brazil where black or indigenous Brazilians are key figures in tourism, which is a response to the preferences of international tourists (Mitchell 2016; Williams 2013; Pinho 2010).

As a result of their lack of cultural capital, reflected in their habitus, nativos were largely limited to positions that paid minimum wage or less. In Brogodó, the average value of the nominal total monthly income for those identifying as black was R$548; as brown, R$557; and as white, R$1,248 (IBGE 2011). Nativos were also more likely to be offered employment on a temporary, day-to-day basis. Therefore, not only were nativos earning less income; temporary work also contributed to their sense of vulnerability (Medeiros 2018).

The common belief that nativos were not qualified for public-facing employment because of their lack of cultural capital was juxtaposed to perceptions that individuals from outside of Brogodó were qualified. Tour agencies that organized everything from car-based day trips to multiple-day backpacking trips were more likely to hire educated, English-speaking guides who were originally from outside of Brogodó. Agency-contracted guides were paid a competitive salary and protected by the agency’s insurance coverage, and they had the support of the agency’s vehicles and office. In comparison, nativos were more likely to work as freelance guides, offering their services at a lower price and without office-based support for organizing transportation and other tour logistics. Non-nativo guides’ cultural capital enabled them to earn a steady income as contracted guides, whereas freelance guides were much less likely to work consistently enough to achieve financial security. While employers perceived nativos to lack the education, skills, and disposition necessary for success in public-facing interactions with tourists, non-nativos had the cultural capital necessary to attain higher-paying and more secure positions.

Marco, a thirty-three-year-old nativo tour guide explained why non-nativos were considered a more desirable employee for front-of-the-house work. “He [the non-nativo] has a good formal education so he knows how to communicate better. He comes with the hustling attitude of big cities. He is much more articulate than we are here.” Marco referred not only to the non-nativos’ education level but also the ways an urban lifestyle and communication style prepared individuals to interact with other similarly socialized tourists from both within and outside of Brazil. The non-nativos’ cultural capital and upbringing outside of rural Bahia was embodied in their habitus, contributing to the perception that they were better suited for public-facing positions and helping them navigate the opportunities available in the ecotourism industry. Non-nativos’ suitability for certain positions was indexed not only by the English-language skills needed for interacting with international tourists but also by the way they spoke Portuguese (Bourdieu 1991; Roth-Gordon 2017). Employers sought employees with communication skills in both English and Portuguese, and they justified their employment practices by explaining that nativos did not have the ability to communicate properly to interact with tourists.

Nativos’ educational shortcomings were largely due to structural inequality, or more specifically structural racism, that deprioritized investment in Northeast Brazil, where the vast majority of residents are black. Structural racism resulted in black Northeast Brazilians’ unequal access to social resources such as quality education (Hasenbalg and Silva 1992). Since the early twentieth century, Brazil’s educational system has been decentralized, with state and municipal governments holding primary responsibility for the funding and oversight of local education. By the early 1990s Brazil’s education system was considered one of the worst in Latin America, with high failure and dropout rates (Borges 2008). There have been efforts to improve the public education system by the federal government, such as the establishment of the Fund for the Maintenance and Development of Primary Education and Valorization of Teachers (FUNDEF) in 1997, but unfortunately the state of Bahia continues to suffer from substandard public education (Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira 2003; Borges 2008). In light of the inadequate public education system, middle- and upper-class Brazilians opt to enroll their children in private schools, where students receive a superior education and preparation to pass the vestibular (university entrance exam) for the best public universities in the country. As a result, working-class students in the Northeast, the majority of whom are black, are not able to pass the exams to admit them into free, public universities and pursue higher education (Mikulak 2011). Access to cultural capital relies heavily on Brazilians’ ability to attend private school to pass college-entrance exams, which the vast majority of nativos do not have the opportunity to do (Goldstein 2003).5

Nativos described the lack of resources and the misuse of education funds by the local government in Brogodó. They believed that funds allocated for improvements in education infrastructure, including clean water, desks, and books, or for hiring teachers and increasing the number of classes were not actually reaching the schools. Although this conjecture on the part of nativos was unsubstantiated, it does index the general distrust and dissatisfaction that nativos felt toward the local and regional government and the institution of education. Students in Brogodó attended school for only four hours a day and parents complained that teachers, most of whom were not from Brogodó, canceled classes when they left town ahead of school breaks to travel home and returned to town days late. Some residents attributed these issues to a lack of interest on the part of the government to improve education in the Northeast and in the rural areas of Bahia. Residents of Brogodó with greater disposable income—mostly non-nativos—paid for their children to attend a private school in town, further contributing to social inequality in the community.

In 2010, a striking 63 percent of individuals older than age ten in Brogodó had received no education or had not completed elementary school, 10.6 percent had completed elementary school but not high school, 22.3 percent had completed high school but not college, and 3.7 percent had completed higher education (IBGE 2011). These statistics indicate that structural inequality at the intersection of race, class, and geography limited the education opportunities and achievements of rural, working-class nativos. School completion statistics also indicate some racial disparities in education. Sixty-five percent of individuals over the age of ten years old identifying as black or brown had no schooling or had not completed elementary or middle school, in comparison to 51 percent of those identifying as white (IBGE 2011).6 Among individuals over fifteen years old, the illiteracy rate was 18.7 percent, with an illiteracy rate of 24 percent among individuals identifying as black, 17.3 percent identifying as brown, and 15.5 percent identifying as white. These statistics reveal disparities in institutional cultural capital resulting from class, geographic, and racial dynamics within Brazil more broadly, and locally in Brogodó. Nativos’ dearth of institutionalized cultural capital contributed to their lack of embodied cultural capital across generations and was reflected in their habitus, which employers naturalized and used as a justification for excluding nativos from public-facing employment in the ecotourism industry.

A new adult education program in Brogodó could have provided a way for nativos to overcome the deficiencies of the public education system and gain relevant skills for work in the local ecotourism industry. In anticipation of increases in tourism due to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the federal government established a vocational and technical school in Brogodó—Serviço Nacional de Aprendizagem Comercial (SENAC). SENAC offered courses in tourism, including hotel reception, guiding, and cooking, which were targeted to the ecotourism industry in Brogodó. However, there were economic, cultural, and social obstacles to nativos’ participation in the courses. Several of the courses required a high school degree, and only 26.4 percent of nativos over ten years old had completed high school (IBGE 2011). Other obstacles to enrolling in SENAC courses included the time commitment and conflicts with family and work responsibilities. Silvana, a non-nativo manager of a tour agency who completed SENAC’s yearlong professional guide course explained: “For one year we study every night. It’s free but … the problem is time. But it is a choice. To be a professional guide to earn this money, they have to stop [working] to study.” Nativo guides had to weigh the benefits of taking the guide course and becoming more qualified against the cons of losing income while they were studying, which for many nativos was not possible. Middle- and upper-class non-nativos like Silvana were more likely to have money saved, which would mitigate the effects of a reduced income during the course.

Additionally, there was a discourse among nativos surrounding who was suited to be a student or trainee. Gabriela, a twenty-five-year-old nativa who worked at an inn, discussed why a nativo was less likely to take advantage of the SENAC courses: “Maybe because we are not accustomed to it … To have a course, it’s … new in Brogodó … When you grow up … maybe the people [who are] younger will have a new vision. When you are twenty-five and you’ve never seen or done it [school or training] before it’s difficult to start.” Marco also explained: “Education is not our background … Just because we don’t have the habit … For us it is difficult because of this.” For nativos who did not have the practice of going to school, sitting in class for several hours every night was thought to be challenging and deterred some people from attending classes. Their habitus both reflected their lack of cultural capital and complicated their ability to acquire it, demonstrating additional deleterious effects of structural inequality.

Hierarchical social relations and power structures also influenced nativos’ desire and ability to participate in the SENAC courses. The courses were available to all residents of Brogodó, and non-nativos enrolled in them as well. Because of the complex local social relations, nativos and non-nativos did not interact as peers, and geographic spaces and places in Brogodó, such as town squares, were divided between the two groups. As a result of their cultural capital and subsequent comfort navigating social institutions (Hunter 2015), non-nativos actively enrolled in courses, and the SENAC classroom became a primarily non-nativo space. Thus, these programs reproduced the privilege of non-nativos. More research is needed to understand how non-nativos’ attitudes and behavior toward nativos within these programs, as well as institutional treatment of nativos, generated the nativos’ feelings of exclusion and belonging.

In Brogodó’s touristscape, discourse surrounding nativos’ employability appears to indicate that occupational segregation is the product of structural inequality and historical processes that influence rural, working-class Northeast Brazilians access to cultural capital, and in turn their habitus. This discourse justifies exclusionary employment practices by constructing nativos as unsuited, and non-nativos as suited, to performing the tasks associated with public-facing employment. Thus, the theoretical lens of cultural capital contributes to our understanding of the ways structural inequality contributes to and reproduces social and economic inequality in Brogodó. However, structural inequality in Northeast Brazil is a product of historical and contemporary disparities in government investment in this primarily Afro-Brazilian region, which is in turn indicative of structural racism. The effects of structural racism and oppression, discrimination, and economic deprivation on one’s habitus are naturalized and racialized by the dominant groups in Brazil, legitimizing the symbolic capital and power of whiteness and race-based social inequality. Examining cultural capital in conjunction with symbolic capital and symbolic power illuminates the dialogic relationship between structural and ideological racism as it pertains to social inequality in Brazil and in Brogodó’s touristscape. Our data demonstrate that employment practices in Brogodó’s ecotourism industry were largely influenced by a racial ideology that valued whiteness, which non-nativos who had both phenotypic traits marking them as white and embodied cultural capital exhibited and employed as symbolic capital.

Racial Ideology, Whiteness, and Symbolic Capital

New Year’s Eve is a significant tourism holiday in Brazil, and hotels and inns host elaborate dinners for their guests and friends. On a recent return to the field site, one of the authors witnessed one upscale inn’s preparations for the dinner. The two nativa women responsible for preparing the inn’s fantastic daily breakfast buffet stayed on past their normal eight-hour shift to prepare food for the evening’s celebration. Another employee who works at the inn explained, “They are doing all the work, but the owner has hired a chef to come in for the evening to look as if he has prepared it.” Our informant boldly turned to the inn’s owner and asked, “What is the point of hiring a chef if they are not going to prepare the food?” The owner responded that the chef was a professional and knew how to serve the food and interact with the guests. Unsurprisingly, the chef was a young man with European phenotypic traits, educated and raised in a large Brazilian city.

While structural inequality and racial ideology prevented nativos from accessing certain forms of employment in the ecotourism industry, the symbolic capital of whiteness afforded Brazilians with more European phenotypic traits and embodied cultural capital preferential access to employment. Flora is a thirty-six-year-old woman from Salvador who worked for ten years as a receptionist and then manager of two different inns before leaving the tourism industry. Flora is tall and slim, and has curly, sandy-blonde hair and hazel eyes. She described her move to Brogodó when she was twenty years old, saying: “I arrived speaking about two words of English and with zero experience in tourism, but everyone wanted to hire me, just because I am white. It was unbelievable.” Flora’s phenotypic traits combined with a habitus that reflected her education and urban upbringing indexed her whiteness. For Flora and other non-nativos with more European phenotypic traits and embodied cultural capital, their whiteness was a form of symbolic capital; it was “unrecognized as capital and recognized as legitimate competence” (Bourdieu 1986, 49), which gave them access to employment opportunities irrespective of their qualifications.

Marco explained that both nativos and non-nativos might possess the same amount of knowledge and familiarity with the national park, but employers were more likely to hire a non-nativo. He imitated an employer: “OK, guys from the community, I’m sorry … they [non-nativos] are more interesting, they are more cute, they know how to communicate.” Marco then described the relationship between race and acceptable appearance for public-facing employment: “Good or not Brazil still has a little racism you know like hidden under things. So a tourist comes here and you see this black skinny guy beat up by time, by mining work. You see this other guy … cute, with nice communication, nice hair, and he says, ‘Well, I want that guy to take me around.’” Marco contrasted black or brown skin and the embodiment of harsh labor practices from the mining industry with good communication and “nice” hair, two markers of Brazilian whiteness.

Perceptions of employability were also influenced by gendered expectations for appearance that often excluded nativa women from public-facing employment. Marco continued, “The guy [employer] doesn’t want a local girl as a receptionist who doesn’t look very good, who doesn’t have computer skills. You want someone beautiful to make a good impression.” Gabriela also discussed how appearance influenced one’s ability to access employment: “I think if it is a women it matters if she is beautiful or not to work at reception. If she works in the kitchen no, she only needs to be a woman.” In Gabriela’s example, appearance was less important for behind-the-scenes employment. Karolina, a thirty-six-year-old nativa and inn employee, stated, “Employers only want beautiful people to work, people with boa apparência [good appearance].” Our informants attributed exclusionary employment practices to employers wanting someone bonita (beautiful) with boa apparência, Brazilian euphemisms for whiteness (Hordge-Freeman 2015). Characteristics such as “good hair”—hair that is straighter and lighter—light skin, and certain clothing and shoe styles that index class, are all facets of boa apparência and are symbolic goods (Bourdieu 1993). In Brogodó, women used chemical treatments and flat irons in efforts to smooth out their “bad hair,” before presenting themselves at work and in other public places. We observed that in the instances in which nativa women were granted front-of-the-house positions, they tended to have more European phenotypic traits and took pains to meet the standards of boa apparência. Caldwell (2007, 65) asserts that “the notion of boa apparência has traditionally been used to exclude Afro-Brazilian women from certain types of work,” and “the negative moral value associated with blackness has been used both to justify and perpetuate the economic subordination of Afro-Brazilians.”

Gabriela further articulated the racial and racist ideology attached to phenotypic traits and the ways those ideologies contribute to occupational segregation. “I think the white one [applicant would be hired] probably … [someone] not from here coming from a better place, [with] good food, good education, good everything. And the black people is coming from no food, bad music, bad examples … And something also in the blood … I think that the brain [of a white person] works better … it’s more if you make [ask] a question, like [they] think quick, answer quick.” Her explanation speaks to the black nativo’s upbringing and cultural capital while also drawing on racist ideology that constructs the “black” Brazilian as intrinsically less able to think quickly and work certain positions and ascribing symbolic value to whiteness. Marco also explained how nativos were “a reference for bad, cheap labor. So when people are looking to hire, the local community is never a priority. It’s always like, ‘OK, if I don’t have anyone else.’” Exclusionary employment practices were legitimized through ideology and discourse that constructed nativos as incompetent, incapable, and unreliable, whereas non-nativos exhibiting the characteristics of whiteness were considered ideal employees irrespective of their actual competence. Our findings are consistent with studies of occupational segregation that examine the ways in which employers use racial ideology and discourses to justify their employment practices and treatment of their employees (Harrison and Lloyd 2013; Holmes 2007; Maldonado 2009; Zamudio and Lichter 2008), as well as studies demonstrating that race relations in Brazil consist of exclusionary structures and practices—including black Brazilians being considered unqualified for certain forms of employment (Damasceno 2000; Mikulak 2011; Santos and Inocêncio 2006; Soares 2000; Baran 2007).

Discussion: Symbolic Power in Brogodó’s Touristscape

In Brazil, structural inequality limits rural, black Brazilians’ access to institutionalized cultural capital and embodied cultural capital, which alongside a history of oppression, discrimination, and social and economic inequality is reflected in their habitus. Discourse among the dominant group of middle- and upper-class Brazilians naturalizes this habitus and critiques it as unsuited for certain forms of employment, thus justifying occupational segregation. However, one’s habitus is also a key component of the construction of race in Brazil, in such that someone with African phenotypic traits who also embodies the habitus of an uneducated, rural, working-class person is more likely to be constructed as black, and someone with an educated, middle- or upper-class, and urban habitus as white or whiter. The category of “white” subsumes and assumes cultural capital, which then affords symbolic capital to individuals who exhibit whiteness. In Brogodó, the value of whiteness was largely unrecognized by those with power, the employers, who justified their employment decisions as related to issues of education and skills. We argue that employer discourses surrounding nativos’ lack of cultural capital served to justify their propensity for hiring employees exhibiting both the phenotypic traits and habitus—including embodied cultural capital—associated with whiteness, which bespeaks broader social and economic practices that discriminate against black Brazilians. The ability to naturalize habitus and disguise racial ideology behind discourses of education and qualifications indexes the symbolic power of dominant groups.

Employers’ legitimization of occupational segregation is emblematic of symbolic power because it treats exclusionary employment practices as natural and self-evident (Bourdieu 1994) while furthering the symbolic capital of whiteness, making it “so natural and, at the same time, so implicit that they cannot even put a name to ‘white privilege’” (Weiss 2010, 49). Employers lamented their perceived inability to hire nativos for front-of-the-house positions but continued hiring practices that perpetuated the value of whiteness and contributed to persistent social inequality. Hancock (2008, 787) argues that “definitions of black and white and the competencies and attributes that attach to them serve to reinscribe racial mythologies of racial difference, and, in turn, operate as mechanisms of domination through their naturalization.” Symbolic power was also reflected in the extent that employers and nativos themselves rarely made the connection between nativos’ phenotypic characteristics and habitus, and the belief that they were less capable than non-nativos to hold certain positions. Not all of our nativo informants openly acknowledged the phenotypic and class differences between nativos and non-nativos as part of the symbolic value of non-nativos. This is consistent with patterns throughout Brazil in which low-income African-descendant Brazilians are less likely than middle- and upper-class black Brazilians to have racial consciousness and to acknowledge that racism exists (Pagano 2014). Employers likewise may not have been conscious of the fact that their employment preferences were based in race. As a result of the entrenched ideology surrounding mestiçagem, Brazilians often misrecognize racial ideologies and discourses as social facts rather than sources of domination and oppression, thus normalizing social inequality (McKnight and Chandler 2012).

Racial ideology classifies some people as undeserving of equal rights, including the right to participate in certain labor markets (Weiss 2010); these individuals are asked to demonstrate why they should be accepted and treated as equals. Thus, individuals whose rights are threatened adopt practices that enable them to be accepted as equal members of society, whereas the entitled members of the privileged group maintain the status quo. Employers questioned nativos’ qualifications for certain positions while considering those of non-nativos a given. These social classifications and prejudices result in “relations of symbolic domination,” by which “subjective structures, habitualized practices, and objective structures coincide without leaving room for doubt or criticism” (Weiss 2010, 42–43) of the practices, in this case employment practices. As a result, racism becomes a form of symbolic violence in which members of society take race-based social inequality for granted as a natural product of individual behavior rather than the result of structural racism and racial ideology, thus maintaining the stability of racism as a form of power.


The study of race and discrimination within the geography, structures, institutions, and social relations of a touristscape highlights the ways in which the ecotourism industry conforms to globalized social hierarchies based in race and class, and also, through the unequal distribution of power and opportunities, perpetuates social and economic inequality (Brennan 2004). Social inequality is the result of both social structures that perpetuate inequality and social interactions influenced by ideology, rather than either-or, as some social scientists suggest and as Bourdieu (1990) critiqued. Thus, racial inequality is the product of structural inequality and racism, and racial and racist ideology that justifies discriminatory practices. Our findings contribute to ethnographic studies that examine how encounters in the touristscapes of Latin America often uphold, rather than challenge, structural racism, racial ideology, and inequality (Cabezas 2009; Mitchell 2016; Roland 2010; Williams 2013). Nativos’ experiences in the ecotourism industry in Brogodó are indicative of the ways in which, through discourse and practice, structural racism and racial ideology contribute to and naturalize broader-level social inequality in Brazil and throughout Latin America.

Brazilian studies show that for ecotourism to fulfill its potential socioeconomic impact for rural (Oliveira et al. 2010) and rural Afro-Brazilian communities (Cruz and Valente 2005), state and federal government investment is needed to develop social infrastructure and an inclusive ecotourism industry. Without a concerted effort on the part of the state and stakeholders in the ecotourism industry, the full socioeconomic benefits of ecotourism for underserved and often neglected communities will not be realized. However, while these suggestions address issues surrounding education, skills, and small enterprise development at a local level, they overlook the ways in which symbolic power influences employment practices. To challenge the symbolic capital and power of whiteness and to eliminate occupational segregation requires systematic change, including popular support for policies that acknowledge and address structural and institutional racism, and campaigns to confront racial and racist ideology in Brazil.


1We use Brogodó as a pseudonym to protect the anonymity of our informants, whose names have also been changed. 

2Appadurai (1996) asserted that the global cultural economy comprises five complex, overlapping, fluid cultural dimensions: ethnoscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes. 

3In 2010, 0.5 percent of residents of Brogodó were born in another country (IBGE 2011); most commonly Argentina, Germany, France, Italy, and Switzerland). 

4Several of the interviews were conducted in English, and when employing direct quotes, we do not correct the English-language grammatical errors of our participants. 

5In an attempt to resolve this issue, in 2012 President Rousseff signed the Law of Social Quotas, requiring that all public universities enroll students from public schools at a rate of 50 percent and enroll students who mirror the racial composition of the state’s population (Hordge-Freeman 2015). 

6Nine percent of individuals identifying as black or brown had completed elementary or middle school but not high school, compared to 11 percent of those identifying as white; and 2.3 percent had finished college, compared to 14.5 percent of whites. 

Ethics and Consent

This study was approved by the SUNY Geneseo Institutional Review Board for human subjects research (#201415068r3).

Author Information

Melanie A. Medeiros is an assistant professor of anthropology at State University of New York at Geneseo and coordinator of the socio-medical sciences program. She is the author of Marriage, Divorce, and Distress in Northeast Brazil: Black Women’s Perspectives on Love, Respect, and Kinship (Rutgers University Press, 2018).

Tiffany Henriksen is a graduate of SUNY Geneseo’s anthropology program and conducted research in Brazil as a 2015 Edward Pettinella Geneseo Ambassador of Business.


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