Brazil or Argentina?

If most Brazilians knew where I lived I would probably receive death threats for writing this post. Brazilians are very touchy about Argentina and Argentina is very touchy about Brazil.

Touchiness aside, I am a native Argentinian who has been living in Brazil for more than 20 years, so most Brazilians accept my ideas on this subject. I have also recently found myself fantasizing about Argentina for the first time in years. So the natural question I am now asking myself is: Brazil or Argentina?

To put it very bluntly, the main difference between Argentina and Brazil is based on their cultural background and influence. Brazilians look up to the USA while Argentinians prefer Europe. This is, of course, very a very cultural characteristic and mostly due to the influence of settlers, but nothing really explains that fascination Brazilians have with the USA as both countries were colonized by Europeans.

In Brazil, Portuguese people are the targets of bad jokes. No one respects them and both populations are always bickering over language issues and who is better or smarter. Brazilians generally consider the Portuguese slow, inflexible (square) and dull.

Argentina maintains lots of its Italian traditions, without the bad jokes, and is generally proud of its cultural heritage. Their buildings and railways were built by the British and they are truly concerned with their conservation and preservation. Old buildings are maintained and loved even by individuals (not only by organizations that focus on national heritage), without any form of intervention to ensure their protection, while organizations sometimes have to intervene drastically to protect the heritage left by the Europeans that settled in Brazil.

Brazil will never be like the USA because of its background. The USA was targeted by people who were looking for a better life, a chance to start again, while Brazil was colonized by people who wanted to strip it of its most precious resources to take back to their native country. Some sociologists say that the biggest problem of South American countries is the mixing of native Indians with Europeans. I don´t know if that is true, as the distant ancestors of these Indians were banished from the great ancient civilizations in this continent and were considered less than human. I personally think that the USA developed better than its southern neighbours because the intentions of its settlers were a lot more altruistic.

Another huge difference, probably related to this same cultural influence, is the fact that the USA is a country of consumption and the entire economy is founded on this concept. Quality is important, quantity is equally important, so prices are fair. In Brazil, companies focus on price rather than quantity or quality. In fact, good quality is sometimes reduced to cut costs and increase profit, even in small companies. The higher the price, the better, even if you only sell one. This would be unthinkable to a US company. They believe in selling more for less to make more.

The USA opened its doors to free trade to benefit consumers, risking the devaluation of domestic products. North Americans bought Japanese cars for decades and almost destroyed the US car industry, but manufacturers were forced to become more competitive and produce better cars. In Brazil, they wave the banners of free trade to accompany “globalization” but the benefits are for the companies alone, not for the consumer. Brazil does not want its people to buy better and cheaper, it wants them to buy domestic without facing competition from the outside. They build higher walls (usually in the form of tax) to prevent people from truly benefiting from free trade.

I think that the only reason Brazil admires and imitates the US is affinity. North Americans like Brazil and Brazilians like North America because they are similar in many ways. There is nothing more dissimilar than a Brazilian and a European.

Returning to the main topic (I had to cover this to make the rest understandable), Brazil and Argentina are for totally different types of people.

If you like good food (my weak point), cultural richness and individuality, Argentina is for you.  If you prefer crowds, simplicity in details, natural exuberance and appreciate a little chaos in your life, Brazil is the best choice. Argentinian people are not characteristically friendly or warm. They can be cordial and they seem to have a greater sense of organization. Things work better in Argentina. The basis is more solid. Education is better and they appreciate art and the aesthetic nature of things.

In Brazil, you will find a collective society that values family (whether they like their family members or not), friends, celebrations and traditions and generally getting together. They are less formal and more carefree than Argentinians.

Argentina, to Brazilians, is synonymous of elegance, formality, classic  beauty and quality. Brazil, to Argentinians, is synonymous of fun and festivities, sun and sea, half-naked women, nature and sun tan lotion. The idea Argentinians have of Brazil is obviously less realistic than the idea Brazilians have of Argentina. I was once on a bus travelling from Argentina to Brazil. When the bus crossed the border, some Argentinians sitting near me shrieked, “We´re in Brazil, but…it´s the same… nothing has changed.” I asked them what they expected and they said, “Monkeys, jungle… something exotic”.

Brazil has more diverse natural resources, more richness, while Argentina has less polluted, less exuberant, better “quality” natural resources. They still have the best grass for cattle and purer water sources due to the low population and climate.

Argentina has the corner café with tables on the pavement and people reading the newspaper for hours as they sip an expresso or smoke a cigarette. It has the solitary  walkers roaming used book shops, while Brazil has very few bookshops because reading is not a popular pastime and people seldom walk alone in their free time. Argentina has flower kiosks and news-stands in almost every corner, which are extremely rare in Brazil. It has hidden, almost sombre bars selling delightful surprises with groups of two or three chatting silently at each table, while Brazil has the neon, plastic and steel with bright lights, metal chairs scraping on ceramic floors and bustle.

Argentinians have an obsession with perfection. Obesity is the same as cancer. If you are fat, you will be criticized and ill-treated. In Brazil, the obsession is more focused on belongings. People walk up and down beaches delightfully  exhibiting their cellulite and protruding tummies but if they have an Honda Civic, a Rolex or a Louis Vuitton handbag, their physical appearance does not matter in the least. On the contrary, the newer the Honda Civic, the better the treatment and the greater the admiration. Argentinians will drive around in the same old car for years but God help them if their waist line is not in its proper place.

The values, the customs and the people are completely different in Argentina and Brazil. An Argentinian would not be caught dead in some of the horrid white-plastic chair and economy light bars that are so popular in my town, while a Brazilian would feel a little uncomfortable or overwhelmed in a typical but classy Argentinian bar. When I worked as a waitress in Buenos Aires, the Brazilian customers would ask for all types of souvenirs to take home, including the menu and the little umbrellas.

Quality and service is valued in Argentina. A good waiter gets a good tip, while in Brazil, no waiters get tips, good or bad. So what´s the point of being a good waiter? Obviously none. I remember once I saw a rich woman get her BMW and keys from the valet at an expensive restaurant without giving him so much as a dime or a nod. We, in our humble parati 1999, gave him 10 reales as they make virtually nothing and offer a great service. Have you ever tried not tipping in the US?

Argentina and Brazil, as with most South American countries, have one thing in common. Extremely low self-esteem when compared to the developed countries. Deep down, they feel they are the jungle of the world, and they are not. Both countries are extremely rich and have huge potential, but their choice of governors and  insecurities prevent them from acknowledging the good or correcting the bad. In the case of Argentina, they tend to overindulge in the bad and never consider the good. In Brazil, people do not take criticism well, they complain amongst themselves but seldom do anything about it. Brazil can admire the US, but it should only imitate the good things, not the bad.

My choice

I have been living in Brazil for 20+ years and am 40 years old. The things that did not bother me before or did not bother me enough, are bothering me now. I love this country and will always be Brazilian (I opted for Brazilian nationality), but I am suffering from cultural and aesthetic starvation. I am an intellectual person who has stopped reading because there are no bookshops in my town (I like touching books and scanning the pages before I buy), I have stopped shopping because I don´t find the food I long for and haven´t bought anything other than bread in a bakery for years because there is nothing they sell that I want. In Argentina, I go insane in bakeries and bookshops.

Maybe it´s a mid-life crisis, maybe it´s my fading tolerance or adaptability, but this year I am going to give Argentina a(nother) shot.






24 thoughts on “Brazil or Argentina?

  1. I agree with You in many points, as example Brazilian really don’t have the habit of reading, that’s not my case, but is the most people case. But I really didn’t understand about the bakery, I had been many times in Buenos Aires and to be honest, I think so I have more options in SP city than BA, plus the breads in SP city are always hot and soft, while in BA is hard and cold, and I saw more options on sweets and cakes in SP too.


    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I totally agree that bread in Brazil is a “sentimento”. It is a lot softer and tastier than in Argentina, but outside of SP or large cities there are not many options on sweets or cakes. I remember waiting outside my bakery in BA for it to open and smelling the medias lunas de grasa. They also have the sandwiches de miga. SP has lots of options, but you have to know where to go or live in a decent neighbourhood. It is also hard to find whipped cream in Brazil, especially on sweets cold in bakeries. I don´t know. Food is important to me, and I tend to salivate a lot more in BA bakeries than in Brazilian ones. Other than the bread, I usually leave without buying anything else. In BA, I have to struggle to pick just one thing.


        1. I´ve been to some of them, but as I said, you only find such variety in large cities, mostly são paulo. I will take some pictures of the bakeries we have in Bahia so you can really cry with me. So sad.


          1. Yes, but it’s the same in Argentina, I had been in BA, Salta, Mendoza, Cordoba and Rosario and only in BA I saw great options. And there is a town in SP state that is small and they have a bakery that is simple one of the best I ever saw it !!!


            1. We could go on for years, couldn´t we? I was born in Argentina and raised in Europe, and have always felt that Argentina is a lot more like a city in Spain, let´s say, while Brazilian cities tend to imitate the US. Most European cities, hence cities in Buenos Aires, have that aroma and ambience that is very difficult to capture if you aren´t used to it. These cities would never serve filtered coffee, for example. Customers would go mad. It has to be an expresso machine, which is where the aroma comes from. That, together with the softness and smell of a freshly-baked baguette or croissant are priceless and impossible to imitate to me, at least. I have only been to Cordoba, Mar del Plata, Foz and Bariloche and did not go to any bakeries there, so I cannot compare, but I am sure the aroma and ambience is the same. It´s a question of senses. My sensitivity is different to yours, which means we will never agree on this particular matter.


  2. really everyone claps I am a brazilian and I live on the Capital, well since you live in Brazil how you can say everyone claps and does not critizes if you lived here in Brazil for 20 years did not you see the impeachment of president Collor on 1992 also the combat against dictatorship against the army on 1984 well this date I am not sure but the overpass of the dictatorship which is an event I am sure, also if you never noticed our economy is much better then your aristocracy on Argentina, while inflation here does not pass 3% on your side Argentina it overpasses the 22% .Also how can you say we do not criticize our way of living. We may not criticize like people on Argentina but when you say we “not” criticize it is to strong to say “not” it seems like never criticize.

    Take these things in consideration before saying that we do not criticize, also about our way of trying to be like the us, i disagree because we not only denied a base of Otan to be installed here on Brazil as other countries did not denie.


    1. Thanks for your comment. The examples you gave me were not related to my point, but comparing Brazil to Argentina always triggers reactions in Brazil or Argentina. Collor made the mistake of messing with people´s money, which is always a bad idea in any country. Regardless, he is still there. Something that would be almost impossible in another country. If you read any book on sociology that mentions Brazil you will see that there is a general consensus that Brazilians are extremely non-confrontational. I also realized, and other Brazilians agree, that most lack “senso crítico”. One Brazilian reporter calls it the “cultura da submissão”. This is one of the reasons we pay such high taxes and get nothing in return, why people like Renan Calheiros are sitting in the Senate and so on. We just don´t say anything for fear of “bothering” others. I see examples of this every single day like I have never seen in other countries. The good news is that this seems to be slowly changing. The other day a friend said she got up and left a bad conference and was immediately followed by almost all the other members of the audience. Maybe we just need an incentive to do and say what we should when something is terribly wrong. I could talk about this for hours and you would probably still disagree, but that is my point when I talk about clapping.
      I did not understand the last part of your comment.


  3. First sorry for the long post.

    Sorry for the text but you really don’t really understand the Brazilian cultures. About Argentina first.

    Having been there I thought the Argentinian Northwest was culturally too distant from the europeanized culture of Buenos Aires.

    That said I think the City and Province of Buenos Aires, along with Santa Fe and Córdoba forms the stronghold of the Argentinian culture is as it’s defined by the Argentinians I’ve met, the majority of whom comes from these places.

    Buenos Aires was one of the places in Argentina that received most immigrants, once they had some economical power they spread their aesthetics.

    They even “imposed” the idea that they are the norm in Argentina, ethnically and culturally, that’s mainly why I believe some Argentinians see themselves as Europeans and define themselves as whites, as the term is used in Anglo-Saxon cultures, although in all genetic studies that I saw it’s clear that on average Argentinians have between 15% to 20% Native American ancestry. And it’s fairly common to see people who appear like Hernán Crespo or Jorge Valdívia in Argentina, Uruguay or Chile define themselves as whites, their phenotype are not really common in the Latin European countries that I visited (Portugal, Spain and Italy), for me this type of ethnic characteristics is mainly caused because of Native American admixture in the population. I experienced the same thing in Uruguay but not in Chile.

    Culturally I read there was a fruitless debate in Argentina among intellectuals in trying to define an Argentinian culture with a nativist side defending a new Latin American culture arguing against a side that defended a more “universal” (they meant European) national culture. I don’t believe either side won but this played a role for me a place in how Argentinians see themselves.

    Although Brazil had an analogous process of immigration it had a different base culture and immigration itself developed differently, the majority of immigrants did not went to live in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital, or even close to it, although Rio received a large number of immigrants it’s eclipsed by the number who went to the South Region or the state of São Paulo.

    These regions never really had the political AND economical power that Buenos Aires and so they generally did not affect how Brazilians outside of these areas saw themselves, a Paulista generally could not care less that the Gaúcho from the South see itself as a distinct culture and vice-versa. The kid in the favela does not care how the rich kid see him and again vice-versa.

    Brazilian cultures (the various regional cultures) are generally based on some universals shared among them, first the Luso-Portuguese culture which has a strategy of toleration, of avoiding conflict and try to reach compromises to deal with these situations, this same trait has persisted until today (note bellow), this is generally coupled with the Master & Serf culture and with the so called mongrel complex. I’ll explain and you’ll see how you can fit the attitude of Brazilians to these traits.

    First the avoiding conflicts is the main cause Brazilians will be so lenient on quality of works of others, this generally will not affect how they will push the quality of their own work but it will mean that to avoid a conflict, in the case an embarrassment for the performer, they will accept to clap at a music they did not like. It’s just something we do.

    Then there’s Master & Serf culture, it’s mainly a heritage of slavery, since Brazilians had slaves to serve them, the free houses who could afford back then generally had one, the Brazilians created this stratified society of people on the top and people bellow, the first are masters, the second serfs, we do not have slavery anymore but this persisted, a not so rich Brazilian (middle class) will expect to be treated like a master, they will generally have a maid, in the UK when I was there I learned only very rich people had one, but it’s the norm for the top 10% income earners in big cities of Brazil.

    This is mainly why will see no tips being given, the guy doing the job is considered a “serf” for the business owner and hence to the clients, he’s there to do that, he will not get any tip because of that. It’s also why Brazilians are immersed in a culture of possessions compared to other countries, it’s a mark to others that you should be considered a master and not a serf.

    The last one is the mongrel complex, the fact is Brazilians hate criticism (remember the clap?), even when it’s a rightful one, if it’s a harsh criticism it will only turn matters worse and will probably mean a Brazilian will abstain from avoiding conflict. Brazilians are sometimes well aware of the shortcomings of their way of doing things, however out of ignorance they generally think that some societies outside Brazil are perfect because they do not have the same way of dealing with a similar situation.

    There are various versions of this for various countries, but for example for Argentina when a guy go to Buenos Aires and finds it’s elegant compared to his hometown with a decadent downtown, the idea is to ignore Argentina problems and compare what you think is good to Brazil.

    I only wanted to point to you some aspect it appears you did not understood about the various regional Brazilian cultures, with this framework you’ll see that everything makes sense.

    (note): I had a Portuguese grandparent, if I saw him eating a snack and asked if it has meat he would answer yes if it’s from chicken, mutton, beef, fish or pork. In Brazil “meat” means beef, Portuguese people that I know do not really try to take a side if they can, this is mainly the source of Portuguese jokes told in Brazil. I believe this behavior has something to do with answering to the Portuguese Inquisition, but I digress.


    1. Thank you for your incredibly informative comment. However, you are wrong about one thing: I already know most of the information you provided. I have been studying Latin American history and culture all my life and my father was a lecturer on the subject.
      My point is different. If Brazilians imitate the US so much, why not imitate the good things? If the “madam” goes to Paris, where she HAS to tip, why not tip here too? I think Brazilians are less aware of the reason behind their behaviour than we are, as observers. They honestly do not realize why they act the way they do and that leads to more insecurity, a greater sense of inferiority.
      As for Argentina, I FEEL, although I know this to be culturally true, that they are a population without a national identity. They are mostly melancholic sons and daughters of immigrants who dreamt of being somewhere else, of returning home. Most Argentinians refuse to even consider this and immediately adopt a patriotic discourse, but their actions show the contrary.
      My blog is more about intuition, about the frustrations of seeing certain things in Brazil or Argentina. I prefer to talk about the present because finding explanations in the past does not seem to make a difference to the people who experience this phenomenon. It helps us understand, but it does not cause change. If Brazil and Argentina want to be respected or considered equal to first world countries (competitively), they should start trying to change certain things, starting with tipping, picking up their litter, maybe learning more and developing some form of curiosity instead of feeling inferior and being defensive.
      So, although your comment may be very informative to readers, I have already covered this ground in terms of trying to understand cultures and people. My blog is more about the critical side, the changes, the personal experiences, the present and the future. Regardless, your comment amazing. Thank you.


      1. Hi again, this one will be short. I initially thought about providing more points in the last paragraph to address why I think Brazilians do not bring home the good they see in foreign lands but it would enlarge an already long comment, and I was not sure if I understood what you wanted to do with your original post, which your comment confirmed I did not.

        Also sorry for implying anything about your knowledge of Brazil.

        Anyway I agree with you in all your points, I’ll keep following your blog.


        1. Yes, you understood I think but you thought I was complaining because I do not know the underlying reasons for the things I complain about, and I do. Please enlarge your comment. I would like to know why you think Brazilians do not imitate the good.


  4. Cipriana,

    Thanks for this excellent blog post – I’m English, married to an Argentinean, and I’m really interested in Brazil. Your observations are insightful and respectful. Great blog!



    1. Thanks for your comments sarah. Yes, I think you are right. I am currently translating a book on Brazil (photography book with text, so nothing too deep) that actually quotes people who think the same, so I am not the only one, thank god. Anyway, I also agree that Brazil imitates the US, but is actually the other side of that coin, too, as quoted in the book. So it is this huge country with a very shaky identity that is the opposite of a the huge nations above it and below it. When Brazilians stop looking up or down for approval (or reference), they might actually think like a nation. The good news is that we, gringos, don´t have those conflicts. We appreciate Brazil for what it really is, or at least try to.


      1. Thanks for getting back. I know you have probably head this before, but I’ll say it again, I really enjoy your blog. It’s the best one I’ve read yet. Unfortunately I have exhausted all your posts and now have nothing to distract me from my school work. =(

        Anyhow, keep up the good work.


  5. I don´t know why you regret having written this post.. I´m completely agree with you Cipriana. I´m an Argentinian who had lived in São Paulo. I have worked in a company and studied in USP (even in the best University of the country you can see all you have written about Brazilians) Actually, I found your post cause I am studying in Vienna and I had proposed to do a presentation about the differences between ARG and BR. Thanks!


    1. Thanks for your comment. I did not regret writing the post, just the last comment because the political situation and inflation in Argentina got a lot worse after I wrote it, forcing me to reconsider. I still stand by the rest.
      It is so difficult for Brazilians to understand the difference between cultural heritage, culture and cultural education or awareness. I have almost given up trying because they simply do not seem to have the sensitivity I am referring to. They do, however, have other qualities that may be more important. My father used to say, what is the point of critical thought if that leads to revolutions and wars? Maybe Brazil is the wonderfully non-confrontational, almost passive country it is because no one gives a toss if the comedian is actually funny, if the book as actually good… but I was raised with that type of critique so I really miss it sometimes.


  6. You say you live in Brazil for 20 years but, where in Brazil?
    Brazil is a huge country and all stated above sound more like Rio or Northeast.
    You find tons of great bookstores in São Paulo, Curitiba, Porto Alegre. The south is very concerned about quality and aesthetics, Curitiba for example has a very beautiful antique architecture.
    I feel your text carry truth at certain level however I believe overall you are far of understanding what Brazil is.
    What you have right now is too simplistic considering the size and cultural diversity that Brazil has.


    1. Thanks for your comment Mauro. This post is one of the only ones I actually regret having written because I have since decided to remain in Brazil. I lived in Florianópolis (2 years), São Paulo and interior (20 years), several cities in the Northeast (3 years) and visited lots of cities in Brazil. Just as it is difficult, if not impossible, for foreigners to fully understand Brazil, it is also almost impossible for Brazilians to understand us, foreigners. When we speak of culture, we are not merely referring to the architecture, the book shops and the cinemas, we are talking about the discussion, the critique, the ability to sense and understand, to judge and appreciate. to differentiate. Critics in Brazil are lonely people because Brazilians never question or criticize. Everyone claps at a show, whereas Europeans or Americans only clap when they like something. I have been to performances in London or other cities where people walk out or just remain in silence when they don´t like something, when they consider it an insult to their “artistic sensitivity” let´s say. There is a lot of imitation here and no one seems to care. One thing is historical heritage and another is actual culture or the intellectual assimilation of it, with all the observation, criticism and discussion it entails. That is mostly absent in Brazil. I do not expect you to understand me, and most Brazilians just gape at me when I try to explain myself, but that is how I (and many foreigners I know) feel when we refer to lack of culture. I know Brazilian has cultural diversity, but that again is not my point. Maybe that is why so many Brazilians are not happy in other countries. They appreciate different things.


      1. “Everyone claps at a show, whereas Europeans or Americans only clap when they like something.”
        lived in both the US and London and this is far from the truth.

        in addition to that, completely disagree with you on the Europe/Brazil thing. And I don’t get your comment about tipping in Paris? No one tips in Paris except for tourists. Tipping in Brazil is a much bigger habit.


        1. Thanks for your comment, but I seriously stick by my statement. Everyone tips in most European countries, even if it´s just coins. Brazilians are charged the 10% that they pay without too much of a hassle, but it is not common to voluntarily tip AT ALL. I have never, ever seen someone leave money for the waiter on the table (maybe in good restaurants or by Brazilian who have travelled, but I have never witnessed it), and I have worked in dozens on restaurants and make it a point to leave the 10% in the waiter´s hand at the till. When I worked in Argentina and Spain as a waitress or bar tender, NONE of us wanted to serve the Brazilians because they never, ever left a tip. It´s not intentional, because they are used to having it added to their bill. It´s not a habit at all. As for the clapping, it struck me the first years I lived here and it still does. People in Brazil find it rude to not clap at anyone who performs, and rarely leave a performance even if they hate it. They are not critical or judgmental at all and usually feel very insecure when asked what they think about something.


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