ParentsGilberto de Mello Freyre was born into a distinguished  family on March 15, 1900, in Recife, Brazil in the heart of the sugar cane economy of the northeast. Little is known about his mother, Mello Freyre, except that in her adolescence, she learned the modern languages and Latin. His father, Dr. Alfredo Freyre, was a professor of law, a free-thinker, and a conservative Catholic. He was also a great admirer of Anglo-Saxon traditions and, after teaching English to his son, enrolled him in a Baptist missionary school run by Americans. Young Freyre’s intelligence and conversion to Protestantism led his teachers to arrange a scholarship for him in 1918 at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Upon graduation, Freyre enrolled at Columbia University where he earned his Master’s degree in Political Science and Social Sciences.

GraduateAt Columbia, Freyre is said to have lost faith in his Protestant religion but acquired a new enthusiasm: cultural anthropology. Prominent pioneering anthropologist, Franz Boas, was a professor at Columbia and had an especially deep influence upon Freyre. As his disciple, he learned that race mixture was probably Brazil’s highest achievement, rather than being the cause of its lack of development (as espoused by social Darwinists of the time). Instead of racial mixture, Freyre began to believe that social and cultural factors, especially slavery, could account for the country’s retardation.

Additionally at this time, Freyre became enthralled by the possibility of interpreting Brazil by looking at its past. His master’s thesis on “Social life in Brazil in the Mid-Nineteenth Century” was published in English immediately upon completion.

Young kidsAfter graduating Columbia and subsequently traveling Europe for a year, Freyre returned to Brazil in 1922 full of new ideas. One of them was the importance of regional differentiation within a country as large as Brazil. It was, he felt, that by taking advantage of rich local traditions (from architecture to culinary arts) that Brazilians could maintain their identity in the face of an alienating modern world. With this in mind he organized a Regionalist Conference in Recife in 1925 and encouraged the development of local novelists, poets, and artists.

In 1927 he was named Cabinet Officer of the Governor Estácio de Albuquerque. But his political involvement led to his leaving the country for Portugal first, and then to United States, when in 1930 a military junta took control of Brazil and put Getúlio Vargas in power as dictatorial ruler until 1945. In Portugal he worked as translator and conceived the book that would become “Casa-Grande & Senzala” (his most famous book, discussed further along in this article).

In the U.S., Freyre was invited to teach as Visiting Professor at Stanford University. During this time, Freyre traveled through the U.S. south, noting its similarities to his own northeast, and began to develop and hone a broad thesis regarding the patriarchal origins of Brazil’s social organization.

Casa-Grande & SenzalaReturning to Brazil, in 1933 he published perhaps his most famous book, “Casa-Grande & Senzala” (The Masters and the Slaves), in which he shows the development of Brazilian society from the influences of the Portuguese, Indians, and African slaves. The work was criticized as an idealization of the paternalistic relationship between masters and slaves. Conversely, the book won international acclaim for its author and gave Brazilians a sense of national identity and of belonging together. It also made Freyre a household name among literate Brazilians. The work is still credited with exposing the Brazilian cultural heritage and providing a source of national pride.

Also in the 1930s, Freyre introduced controversial the “Brazilian racial democracy” theory, which argued that the racial mixing (which was looked down upon in Brazil) was enriching the culture. Freyre believed that the Iberian-Catholic tradition would play a prominent role within the hybrid culture, but the miscegenation among all the races would produce a unified and robust race and enable everyone to attain opportunities within the society.

In 1936, Freyre was named to a chair in sociology at the University of Brazil and published “Sobrados e mucambos” (The Mansions and the Shanties), a sequel to “Casa-Grande & Senzala” (The Masters and the Slaves). A third work in the series, “Ordem e progress” was published much later, in 1959.

PoliticoFreyre was the prime mover in the first Congress of Afro-Brazilian Studies in 1934 with the goal of studying African minorities.

In 1941 he married Magdalene Guedes Pereira, from Paraíba.

In 1945, as World War II ended, Vargas was deposed in a bloodless military coup, Freyre was choose as Constituent to the House and then elected to the first term of democratic rule out of the Constitution of 1946 (in the period known as the Second Republic). Freyres’ contribution to the new constitution was credited as important thanks to his sociological insights.

In the Brazilian Congress he proposed the creation of social research institutes throughout the country, the first of which, was established in July of 1949 as the Instituto Joaquim Nabuco de Pesquisas Sociais.

Luso-TropicalismoIn 1950 he became the director of the Regional Center for Educational Research in Recife, advocating an educational policy attentive to the diversity of Brazil. Shortly after he accepted an invitation from the Portuguese government to visit Portuguese provinces in Africa where Freyre would develop his theory of Lusotropicalism.

Lusotropicalism is an extension of the theories espoused in his 1930s books and refers to the proclivity of Portuguese as the most qualified European colonists, to adapt and live in an environment and harmoniously mix the various cultures and races thanks to Portugal’s hot, tropical environment and years of inhabitancy from European empires and cultures. He wrote many books on Portuguese settlers and mixing races from 1930-1960s.

Freyre continued to write and lecture into his eighties. He was well recognized by American and European scholars as a sociologist, politician, and writer. Moreover, he has been acknowledged as the most influential Brazilian intellectual of this century.

Freyre died July 18, 1987, in Recife. He was 87.

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