What do Brazilian capital buildings, favela back alleys, clothing, futebol team uniforms, police uniforms, the daily paper, your canga and your flip-flops have in common? Not purpose. Well, perhaps in one sense. They all include, whether explicitly or squeezed in for a bit of nationalistic detail, the glorious green-yellow-blue rectangle that is the Brazilian flag.
The Brazilian flag is treated with a level of common adoration elsewhere nonexistent. I never knew what flag pride was until I came to Brazil. Reminders of national location are as constant as blinks. Whereas use of the American flag — which certainly serves as a pride-inducing image in the states — is strictly regulated, the Brazilian flag serves as a versatile decoration that appears virtually everywhere.
It’s on the Havaianas, in graffiti, on busses, bras, jiu jitsu uniforms, congas (the beach-goers’ handy, multipurpose slabs of material), and even the sungas (Brazilian Speedos) and thong bikinis. Sure, the Brazilian flag flies proudly above various buildings, but it also hangs majestically from the DJ tables at the clubs and is sported by highly-protected drug dealers. Talk about accessibility.
The flag’s symbolism reflects selections in Brazil’s rich history. The green field that serves as a background currently represents the Amazon rainforest. (Previously it was a shout-out to the Imperial House of Braganza or Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil.)
The yellow rhombus in the middle represents Brazil’s abundant mineral wealth, which, beginning in the 16th century, had a lot to do with the heavy trade of African slaves and colonization by strategic Europeans, and is largely responsible for Brazil’s current demographics. (Like the green field, the yellow originally represented the Hapsburg Imperial Family of Empress Leopoldina, Pedro I’s first wife.)
The centered blue circle includes 27 stars and various constellations, as seen from outside the celestial sphere from Rio de Janeiro the fateful morning of November 15, 1889 when the Republic of Brazil was declared. (Before the republic replaced the Brazilian monarchy, the centerpiece was the Imperial Coat of Arms.) Each star represents a specific state in Brazil. The slogan that transverses the starry blue circle is the nation’s motto: “Ordem and Progresso.” It means “Order and Progress,” and is adapted from French philosopher Auguste Compte’s motto of positivism, “Love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal.” Surrounding the military coup after which Brazil became a republic, people in opposition of the Monarchy widely supported Compte’s ideas.
Undoubtedly, modern appreciation of the flag has less to do with these specific throwbacks than it does with the Brazilian’s ubiquitous love for their homeland. This is irrelevant. What are most fascinating are the differences between Brazilian and American treatment of the flag.
The two share similar flag protocol. In formal circumstances, use of both flags follows strict regulations. The key divergence is this: the United States Flag Code is strict, while the Brazilian flag is bound by (or not bound by) a delightfully slack social code that vaguely nods in approval at whatever creative form appears.
So the rule concerning flags on the ground, getting dirty, or being stepped on doesn’t count when your canga serves as a barrier between hot sand or pavement and your skin. Cangas also make for good picnic platforms. Scratch the tablecloth rule. They make excellent towels, dresses, skirts or shirts. Walking around the streets near the beach, sights of Brazilian flag wrap skirts are common. Scratch the clothing rule.
The rule concerning formal hanging of flags on poles or the sides of buildings loosens when considering the widespread appearance of the flag in graffiti. I counted the tagged flags when walking through a really long alleyway shortcut from the top of Rocinha, the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro, to the bottom of the densely populated hill. In the winding, steep, meter-or-so wide path, I lost count after 20.
While the American flag is strictly kept from the world of advertizing, the Brazilian flag finds itself in various forms in the logos of Brazilian companies. It’s on all sorts of billboards and posters, flyers and programs. It’s on the side of Brazilian tour busses and all over the advertisements in papers.
According to the US Flag code, only military personel, firefighters, police officers and patriotic organizations can sport the flag on uniforms. The Brazilian flag unfailingly finds its way onto all of these, but it’s also on an incredible variety of other clothing items. It’s on the informal t-shirts of the employees who run the informal van-transportation system in Rio. It’s on the futebol, jiu jitsu and capoeira uniforms. If you get a shirt to support your preferred samba school, you’re getting a shirt that includes the Brazilian flag.
And then there’s the Havaianas. These are the most comfortable, convenient, colorful little slabs of rubber your feet will ever encounter. In any given situation, roughly 80% of the people surrounding you in Rio will sport Havaianas. And no two pairs will be exactly the same. Many include a tiny Brazilian flag. So whenever you eye your feet, it’s just another reminder that you’re in Brazil — proud home of the Havaiana.
The Brazilian flag’s freedom of versatility is lastly augmented when considering the Brazilian freedom to edit. While it is seen as disrespectful in the US to change the American flag’s official appearance, the same customization is perceived more as a tribute in Brazil. Street art, the lively creations often painted by favela residents looking to earn some cash off of tourists in search of Brazilian art, may include the Brazilian flag in inventive forms.
If you prefer a flowery pattern to the solid green background, go for it. If the center would be more to your liking with a few big yellow stars, rather than the 27 specifically placed white stars, feel free. If you want to cut out the center all together, it’s up to you. If all this isn’t Ordem and Progresso, I don’t know what is.