[Brazil at Harvard] Harvard Gazette: Brazil's public intellectual - Nicolau Sevcenko

Tomas Amorim amorim at fas.harvard.edu
Tue Oct 26 18:57:44 EDT 2010



Brazil’s public intellectual
Now a Harvard professor, Nicolau Sevcenko finds time to reflect

By Alexandra Perloff-Giles
(21 October - 3 November 2010 issue)

When Nicolau Sevcenko’s parents arrived in Brazil as political refugees — a
destination chosen mostly because it was one of the few nations in the 1950s
that accepted Soviet émigrés — they never imagined their newborn son would
become perhaps the world’s leading authority on Brazilian cultural history.

Sevcenko was born in the coastal city of Santos while his family was en
route to São Paulo to escape the turmoil of Europe after World War II. Once
settled in Brazil, however, Sevcenko’s parents were reluctant to integrate
into the culture. Convinced that the Soviet Union would soon collapse and
they could return home, they made no effort to learn Portuguese, or to teach
it to their young son.

The Harvard professor remembers sitting at the back of the classroom on his
first day of school and not understanding a word that was said.

“I came home and told my mother that she had made a mistake and accidentally
sent me to a foreign school,” said Sevcenko, who joined the Harvard faculty
last year as a professor of Romance languages and literatures. But he
quickly learned that he, in fact, was the foreigner.

Learning a new language and trying to navigate his position within Brazilian
society were not the only obstacles Sevcenko faced growing up. He was born
left-handed, but because left-handedness was considered a sin by his church,
Sevcenko’s mother tied that hand behind his back, forcing him to become
right-handed. Then, as a young adult, he was diagnosed as severely dyslexic.

Adding to his confusion was his parents’ refusal to discuss the
circumstances that had brought them to Brazil.

“People would get very nervous if you ever mentioned the past or the word
‘communism,’ ” Sevcenko said. “It was very disturbing.”

Sevcenko’s desire to surmount this secrecy and understand his family’s story
contributed to his decision to become a historian, and he sees his scholarly
interests as a means of filling in the gaps and coming to terms with his own
national identity.

“More than anything else, I wanted to know what Brazil was, what Latin
America was,” he said.

While Sevcenko was navigating a difficult childhood and adolescence, all of
Brazil was facing the turmoil of the military dictatorship that ruled the
country from 1964 to 1985. This period was marked by severe censorship of
books, movies, television shows, and music.

Ironically, because of this censorship, young people of Sevcenko’s
generation became particularly interested in avant-garde cultural forms, and
Sevcenko was exposed to experimental writing at an early age. His 1983 book
on Rio de Janeiro’s “Belle Époque” at the beginning of the 20th century
attracted widespread attention, his access to underground networks of banned
cultural materials allowing him to present a vision of social and cultural
life that challenged the party line of the waning military dictatorship.

Almost immediately after publication of this first book, Sevcenko rose to
the status of public intellectual in Brazil. It’s a position he has
maintained since: In addition to his academic writings, he has written for a
number of newspapers and magazines on a diverse array of topics, ranging
from theater and film to architecture and urban studies.

Sevcenko is often recognized on the street when in Brazil and is asked to
comment on issues of public debate. He admits to enjoying his newfound
anonymity in Cambridge, which allows him to walk unimpeded all over the

Sevcenko first came to Harvard, which he calls “the intellectual crossroads
of the world,” as a visiting professor in 2004. Though he misses his wife,
who remains in Brazil caring for his ailing mother and mother-in-law,
Sevcenko expresses his delight at being at Harvard, not least because of the
tranquility of Cambridge compared with São Paulo, a teeming metropolitan
area of 20 million people.

“It’s an urban inferno,” he said of the city in which he had taught since
1983. “Changing from that into little Cambridge is just coming into


Tomás Galli de Amorim
Program Officer, Brazil Office
Harvard University
David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS)


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