1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES

ABSTRACT  In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the register of slang has historically been embraced to forge salient social and spatial distinctions, demarcating the physical space of the favela (shantytown) and naturalizing the exclusion of its residents. In this article, I examine the ongoing enregisterment of slang in Rio's current context of profound social inequality, democratic instability, heightened urban violence, and geographic proximity. Within this climate of fear and insecurity, newly vulnerable and newly marginalized city residents draw on and reify salient speech repertoires to negotiate rights to the city and to the nation-state that have become increasingly threatened along socioeconomic, racial, and residential lines. I argue that the enregisterment of slang constructs newly emergent citizenship categories that both challenge and reinforce Brazil's entrenched regime of differentiated citizenship, illuminating the productive role of linguistic differentiation in the modern nation-state. [Keywords: slang, crime, citizenship, marginality, Brazil]

One day after we had been living in Tuiuti for some time, we were called into a little bar by people we did not know though they later became our best friends in Tuiuti. Almost immediately the conversation turned to giria[sic] (slang). “O senhor conhece nossa giria?” (Do you know our slang?) No, I did not. There followed a half-hour of instruction in favela slang terms. I asked if they used these words la[sic]embaixo[down the hill]. Maria Antonia said no. I asked why. She said, “Por vexame!” (For shame). Her meaning was not that they would feel embarrassed, so much as that the language has no place there and they, too, therefore, would have no place “down there.” The language of the favela slang is an impropriety to the stiff and stolid middle class which defines its users as brutos, assassinos, ladroes[sic] (thieves), maconheiros (pot-smokers), malandros (no-goods). … On the hill, they are free to use this language, rich, funny, ironic, allusive, and largely incomprehensible to outsiders. With it, they can mock the system that presents so many encrencas (monkey-wrenches in the works) and hardships.

 —Anthony Leeds and Elizabeth Leeds, Brazil and the Myth of Urban Rurality: Urban Experience, Work, and Values in “Squatments” of Rio de Janeiro and Lima (1970)

This is superslang of bandits of the hills. It's a slang that I … don't hear even among the adolescents of a better level. It's a very bandit language, very … really super criminal from … thieves, from street kids … 1

 —Miguel, a white middle-class father commenting on a tape recorded by the author in a Rio shantytown, 1998

WITHIN THE NEARLY 30 years that separate these observations on the gíria (slang) of Rio's hills, Brazil has experienced profound political, economic, and social change. Extraordinary economic growth in the 1970s under military rule (the so-called “miracle years”), triple-digit inflation in the 1980s, and multiple currency devaluations in the 1990s have all contributed to Brazil's status within the top ten GDPs in the world and among the bottom ten nations in wealth distribution. Political change over the past few decades has only exacerbated inequality, as Brazil's process of democratization has resulted in a political enfranchisement that is juxtaposed with rampant abuses of civil rights, particularly for poor black male youth (Goldstein 2003; Huggins 2000; Scheper-Hughes 2006). In the 1990s, an unprecedented rise in drug trafficking, the consolidation of organized crime, and the resulting escalation of violence all contributed to a climate of fear and insecurity that was palpable in Rio's hillside favelas (shantytowns) and throughout the city (Leeds 1996; Perlman 2004; Zaluar 1994, 1998).

This heightened sense of insecurity is a reaction not only to the havoc introduced by drug trafficking but also to the unstable condition of democracy across Latin America. When I visited Rio de Janeiro in the late 1990s, most of the people I met had themselves been robbed or had experienced a robbery within their immediate family. Accompanying these intimate experiences with crime was a national distrust in a slow and ineffective justice system. Studies suggest that nearly three-quarters of Brazilians involved in criminal conflicts do not seek resolution through formal institutions of law and justice (Holston and Caldeira 1998). Instead, a growing number of private security guards and off-duty policemen, sometimes called justiceiros (lit., justice makers) indicate new trends in the privatization of security and the lack of confidence in the Brazilian state (Caldeira 2000; Huggins 2000). Fear and vulnerability infuse what it now means to be carioca (a Rio resident): enduring daily life in an urban center with notoriously high levels of drugs, crime, and violence, where government officials and law enforcement are unable (and unmotivated, see Arias 2006) to protect city residents (Veloso n.d.; Zaluar 1998).

As Rio residents struggled to make sense of their increased vulnerability to drug trafficking and state violence in the late 1990s, they invoked the register of slang to both resist and reproduce Brazil's entrenched regime of differentiated citizenship (Holston 2008). In what follows, I examine the ongoing enregisterment of slang, the process through which a linguistic repertoire is infused with “stereotypic indexical values” (Agha 2007:81), linking linguistic features with characteristics, people, and places. As the opening quotes indicate, the enregisterment of slang has been integral to the construction of longstanding social and spatial distinctions in Rio, demarcating the physical space of the favela and naturalizing the exclusion of its residents. And yet, the new context of drug trafficking and a fragile democracy have blurred the boundaries of Rio's social, political, and physical geography. Within this current climate of fear and insecurity, newly vulnerable and newly marginalized city residents draw on and reify salient speech repertoires to negotiate rights to the city and to the nation-state that have become increasingly threatened along socioeconomic, racial, and residential lines. I argue that the enregisterment of slang constructs newly emergent citizenship categories that both challenge and reinforce Brazil's entrenched regime of differentiated citizenship, illuminating the productive role of linguistic differentiation in the modern nation-state.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES

James Holston and Arjun Appadurai describe cities as “especially privileged sites for considering the current renegotiations of citizenship” (1999:3), and this is particularly true given Rio's “compulsory closeness” (Veloso n.d.), in which people of different race and class backgrounds live and interact within unusual proximity. In Rio de Janeiro, questions of belonging and “the right to the city” have long been determined, in part, by where one lives. Socially significant spatial binaries divide the favela (shantytown) from the condomínio (condominium), the morro (hill, often a euphemism for a favela in Rio de Janeiro) from asfalto (asphalt, or the developed parts of the city), and the centro (center) from the periferia (periphery). Condominium dwellers are racialized as white, and their residence connotes wealth and a civilized status that is confirmed by paved streets that provide them access to regular city services (such as post offices and public transportation) and rights to urban resources (including the beach). People who live in favelas or more distant and dilapidated suburbs (considered, literally, sub-urban throughout Brazil) are both socially and geographically removed from the cosmopolitan city center, either by height (as favelas visibly dot the hills that separate Rio's most prestigious neighborhoods) or physical distance. And yet these distinctions are largely symbolic, as the entrance to a favela may be located at the end of a street filled with some of Rio's most expensive residences. These “peripheral” spaces are racialized much like the U.S. urban ghetto, where blackness and poverty justify their lack of resources and first-world living conditions. Within the notion of the periphery, topography and physical distance are rendered socially significant (and even imagined) to explain dramatic side-by-side social inequality.

Shantytowns throughout Latin America have long been described as “marginal” spaces, viewed as sites of racialized poverty, havens for crime and violence, and icons of the breakdown of law and order (Goldstein 2004; González de la Rocha et al. 2004). The racialized and embodied figure of the marginal has been described as “backward, aggressive, and primitive or uncivilized in nature, qualities that their geographical position on the urban periphery supposedly reflects” (Goldstein 2004:12). In the 1970s, the concept of marginality was used to explain the condition of “uncivilized” Northeastern migrants living precariously in illegal squatter settlements on the edges of city life. As Janice Perlman (1976, 2004) and others have demonstrated (González de la Rocha et al. 2004; Vargas 2003), “marginality” never described actual distance or separation from city life but was instead used by academics and politicians to justify the political, social, and economic exclusion of residents and to deny requests for infrastructural improvements such as streets, plumbing, and electricity.

Yet the meaning of the term marginality underwent a profound shift with the introduction of cocaine in the 1980s, as dominant social anxiety over the rise in crime and violence shifted the terms of stigmatization and political exclusion. The concept of marginality now describes the lawlessness of drug lords who traffic in crime and violence and signifies the dangerous (still racialized) urban element that makes “innocent” city residents vulnerable. Although the favela shoulders a disproportionate amount of drug-related violence, “new” marginality incorporates the middle-class fear that drugs and violent crime have made central parts of the city no safer than the periphery. Recent “shutdowns” orchestrated by the city's most powerful drug gangs (Penglase 2005) illustrate the depth of this current crisis. These struggles over urban space, resources, social hierarchy, and national belonging are read and reproduced through the socially and politically significant categories of victim and criminal, marginal and citizen. In a recursive pattern, the elite and middle class describe favelas as marginal places (occupied by marginal people) to defend their own citizenship status, whereas favela residents themselves make sharp distinctions between deserving trabalhadores (workers) and dangerous bandidos (bandits) (Caldeira 2000; Scheper-Hughes 2006). Within this “new” marginality, criminality and vulnerability redefine the terms of Brazilian citizenship. And yet this new order overlaps with old ideas of privilege in a country that has always recognized varying levels of citizenship.

The neighborhood in which I conducted my fieldwork illustrates how the backdrop of new marginality informs localized struggles over space and belonging. Praia do Cristo (Christ's Beach, a pseudonym) lies just blocks from some of Rio's best beaches and most expensive neighborhoods and boasts an impressive view of Corcovado, the large Christ statue that is one of Rio's best-known landmarks. Despite this idyllic location, Cristo suffers from typical problems associated with urban poverty, including small, cramped living quarters, unsanitary conditions, drugs, violence, and police surveillance. Cristo is best described as a conjunto habitacional (public housing project), as it consists of government-constructed high-rise buildings that offer residents the infrastructure and legal apartment ownership that favela residents often lack. And yet, I refer to Cristo as a favela, following the local custom of both community members and their middle-class and elite neighbors.

This slippage reveals a critical tension, as Rio residents from various social positions grapple with what this “new” marginality means for their daily lives and sense of security. For Cristo's wealthier neighbors, these few blocks of public housing constitute “matter out of place” (Douglas 2002) in Rio's prestigious South Zone. Neighbors fastidiously avoid the blocks of Cristo, taking circuitous routes around the favela to enter the expensive athletic facilities and dance clubs right next door, and they resent the increased fear and crime they associate with Cristo and its residents. For them, Cristo is a marginal space incongruously located on some of Rio's most expensive real estate, and their reference to it as a favela is shorthand for blackness, poverty, danger, and dirt, intentionally suggesting its illegitimacy and the possibility of its eradication.2

The stigma of favela residence stings, and it successfully limits one's social and physical mobility (Perlman 2004). Dark-skinned Cristo youth, in particular, complain they that are automatically associated with the favela, even when they claim the official neighborhood of Nobre Jardim (Noble Gardens, also a pseudonym) as their home. In response to this marginalization, Cristo residents call themselves a comunidade (community)—a term the white middle class rarely use for themselves (Caldeira 2000:261). When residents refer to Cristo as a favela, it is to emphasize their shared status as workers and sufferers, to highlight the social exclusion they face, and to call attention to the discrepancy in lifestyles from one block to another. Describing Cristo as a favela is thus a semiotic and sociopolitical act, through which insiders and outsiders negotiate competing visions of Rio's social and spatial order.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES

As Brazilian anxiety over inequality and violence has been focused almost exclusively on local drug trafficking and violent crime (particularly theft with a weapon), marginality has become synonymous with poor black favela male youth. In this section, I explore how Cristo youth deal with their daily experiences of marginalization and how they attempt to renegotiate the terms of their citizenship and rights to the city. Through my research assistant CW, I met dozens of male youth in their early teens through their early twenties, and a common topic of conversation was the shared experience of police harassment. A view of police as corrupt, abusive, and disrespectful is widespread in Brazil (Caldeira 2000; Gay 2005; Holston and Caldeira 1998; Zaluar 1994), and white middle-class cariocas also complain that they (and their adolescent children) are stopped by the police, both on foot and as they drive through the city. Men and male youth are interrogated more frequently, as male officers are unable to legally search females, who are rarely centrally involved with drug trafficking (see Gay 2005; Goldstein 2003). The community of Cristo is predominantly black, and youth often cited race as a relevant factor in police harassment (Goldstein 2003; Mitchell and Wood 1999; Scheper-Hughes 2006). Thus, race, gender, age, socioeconomic class, and residence all combine to make interactions with the police more common—and more dangerous—for poor black favela male youth.

As some of Brazil's most vulnerable citizens, Cristo male youth must frequently negotiate the terms of their national and urban belonging with the police who patrol their neighborhood. Navigating encounters with a repressive police force is nothing new for favela residents, of course (Holloway 1993). And yet, the context of new marginality has significantly reframed these interactions. On the one hand, the violent crackdown on drug trafficking has been fueled by popular support for police violence and the widespread denial of civil rights including the internationally publicized police massacres of street children, shantytown residents, and prisoners (Gay 2005; Holston and Caldeira 1998; Huggins 2000). On the other hand, Brazil's progressive 1988 constitution and the Statute of the Child and Adolescent passed in 1990 have promoted a very public discourse on citizenship rights, particularly for disenfranchised populations such as minors (Guidry 2000; Veloso n.d.). Thus, poor black male youth juggle increasing citizenship literacy with their intimate knowledge of egregious human rights violations. As they describe most eloquently in their narratives of police harassment, the terms of their citizenship are up for grabs. In Excerpt 1, KLJ, CW (my assistant), and their friend Pitbull (pseudonyms)3 recount the common experience of being illegally stopped and searched in front of their homes by the military police:4

Table Excerpt 1: .  “I'm Nobody”: KLJ's story5
 1KLJ:Aí, o PM veio assim pra perto de mim. [polícia militar]KLJ:So, the PM came up real close to me. [military police]
 2 “Me apresenta os documentos no “Show me the documents from your
 3 bolso.”[… .] Eu tava- eu tava- eu tava até pocket.”[… .] I was- I was- I was even
 4 com os documentos no bolso. ready with the documents in my pocket.
 5 Já pronto pra quando vi- viesse eu Ready for when they sa- saw me
 6 chegar assim, né? arrive, right?
 7Jennifer:Mas eles querem ver os documentosJennifer:But why do they want to see your
 8 por quê? Tá procurando o quê? documents? What are they looking for?
 9 Em ver um documento? In seeing your document?
10CW:Não, pra ver se vocêé alguém na vida.CW:No, to see if you are somebody in life.
11 Pra ver se vocêé- é alguém na vida. To see if you are- are somebody in life.
12Pitbull:Tanto o lado mal, quanto o lado bom.Pitbull:As much from the bad side, as the good.
13KLJ:Se ver o lado mal,KLJ:If they see you are from the bad side,
14 e já vai querer- they will want to-
15CW:De repente, ele conhece o sobrenome deCW:Maybe, he knows the last name of
16 um bandido. Aí ele olha assim, a bandido (bandit). So he will look like
17 se tiver assim, ele pode, sabe? this, if it's like, he can, you know?
18 “Pô, tu é da família de não sei “Damn, you are from the such-and-such
19 quem? Não sei que lá.” Só essas coisas. family? Etc. etc. etc.” Things like this.
20 Aí, ele te pergunta, “Tem documento aí?” So, he asks you, “Do you have ID?”
21 Mas não é obrigado. Entendeu? But it's not obligatory. Understand?
22 Aí, a gente tem que amostrar de noite. Then, we have to show them at night.
23 Ninguém quer apanhar. Nobody wants to get beaten.
24 Ninguém quer tomar tapa na cara. No one wants to get hit in the face.

Excerpt 1: “I'm Nobody”: KLJ's story

In this excerpt, KLJ describes daily life in an uncivil political democracy, in which his political rights as a Brazilian citizen are relatively secure whereas his civil rights are increasingly threatened. As KLJ notes, citizens are not legally obligated to show identification within a certain distance of their home. Brazil has been described as a “disjunctive” democracy (Holston and Caldeira 1998) in which the right to vote may be “the only right that truly exists” (Gay 2005:195). The 2002 election of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was initially hailed as a sign of political success for Brazilian democracy, but it was followed by widespread corruption scandals and the continuation of everyday violations of citizens' civil rights and human rights abuses that include torture and extralegal killing by a police force that was never demilitarized (Bitencourt 2007; Holston 2008).

As illustrated in Excerpt 1, Cristo youth are very aware of the unequal distribution of rights and protection in Brazil. Although this has long been the case (Holston 2008), new marginality has redefined citizenship to include the importance of proving that one is not involved with drug trafficking. One favela youth informed me that the military police's slogan was, “Bandits I kill. Workers I hit in the face.”6 It is clear from KLJ's narrative that he does not expect protection from the police; in fact, he is accustomed to having his civil rights violated. And yet, the terms of his citizenship status must be linguistically negotiated, as can be seen in the continuation of his narrative in Excerpt 2.

Table Excerpt 2: .  “I'm Nobody”: KLJ's story (cont.)
25KLJ:Aí, aí, eu tô voltando, aí, aí o-KLJ:So, then, as I'm going back, then, then the-
26 o- policial fez assim, … “Ô, cidadão. the- cop goes like this, …“Hey, citizen.”
27Jennifer:Falou o quê?Jennifer:What did he say?
28KLJ:“Ô, cidadão.” Aí, eu parei … e faleiKLJ:“Hey, citizen.” So, I stopped … and said
29 assim: “Boa noite.” Aí, ele falou like this: “Good evening.” So, the cop said
30 assim mesmo, “Boa noite. just like this, “Good evening.”
31CW:Sabia que- tá certo assim.CW:Did you know that- that's right like that.
32 Você já quebra o PM já no You already break the officer with the
33 “Boa noite.” Sabia? “Good evening.” Did you know that?
34KLJ:Eu sei disso.KLJ:I know that.
35CW:Primeiramente, “Boa noite.” Aí, ele jáCW:First, “Good evening.” Then, he gets
36 fica meio, sabe? kind of, you know?
37KLJ:Mais light. [… .] Aí, poxa. Ele chegou.KLJ:More “light.”[… .] So, damn. He came up.
38 “Boa noite.”[KLJ falou:]“Posso te “Good evening.”[KLJ says:]“Can I help
39 ajudar em alguma coisa?”[o PM falou:] you with something?”[The cop says:]
40 “Você mora aqui mesmo?” “Do you live right here?”
41 “Caralho, hum … Eu moro tanto aqui “Shit, um … I live as much here
42 dentro como do lado de fora.”[Voz alta:] inside as I do outside.”[Voice raised:]
43 “O que que vocêé pra poder ter duas What are you to be able to have two
44 casas?” Eu falei, “Não- houses?” I said, “No-
45CW:Escutou?“Que que vocêéCW:Did you hear that?“What are you
46 pra ter duas casas?” to be able to have two houses?”
47 Só porque ele é preto. (?) Just because he is black. (?)
48KLJ:Aí, eu falei, “Não, eu tô no lugar comumKLJ:So, I said, “No, I'm just out here
49 porque … a casa é aqui e a outra because … one house is here and the other
50 é ali.” Eu não quis esclarecer logo is there.” I didn't want to clarify right
51 assim que era minha mãe, … tá ligado, e away that my mother, … you know, and
52 meu padrinho no outro bloco. my godfather live on the other block.
53 Já deixei logo um mistério pra ele ver I left it a mystery at first for him to see
54 que- o que que ele iria falar. “Aí, não that- what he would say. “So, no
55 porque numa casa eu durmo e na because in one house I sleep and in the
56 outra eu fico assim, escutando som ou other I hang out, listening to music or
57 então eu vou comer.”“Quem vocêé?” else I eat.”[The officer:]“Who are you?”
58 “Ah, não sou ninguém. Você não tá vendo “Oh, I'm nobody. Aren't you looking at
59 o meu documento? Eu sou esse my identification? I am that
60 rapaz aí. […][o PM:]“Você tá guy there.”[…][The officer:]“Are you
61 querendo tirar onda com a minha cara?” trying to show off to my face?”
62CW:Qualquer coisa- se ele te perguntar,CW:Whatever- if he asks you,
63 a gente tem que ficar quieto. Se a gente we have to stay calm. If we
64 responder, é um- já quer ficar mais respond, it's a- he'll want to get more
65 ignorante, entendeu? Quer- pô, ignorant, understand? He'll want- damn,
66 se for possível, ele dá até tapa if it were possible, he'd even hit him
67 na cara. in the face.
68KLJ:Aí, eu já vi que ele já tava ficando meioKLJ:So, I saw that he was getting a little
69 estressado. Aí eu, “É porque- stressed. So I was like, “It's because-
70 eu não sou ninguém. Eu-”[PM:]“Você I'm not anybody. I-”[The officer:]“Do
71 trabalha?”“Eu saí do quartel há pouco you work?”[KLJ:]“I just left the army,
72 tempo, mas no momento eu não trabalho. but right now I don't work.”
73 [PM:]“E tem duas casas? [The officer:]“And you have two houses?
74 Não, tem alguma coisa errada. Calma aí. No, there is something wrong. Hang on.
75 Aguarda um momento aí. Wait here a minute.”

Excerpt 2: “I'm Nobody”: KLJ's story (cont.)

KLJ's retelling of this incident includes multiple instances of reported speech that juxtapose his voice as narrator with the voices of central characters, taking (or inventing) words of the past to fulfill his present intentions (Hill 1995). This particular narrative brings old and new social orders into sharp relief. Privilege in Brazil has typically meant being above the law, where elite members of society could respond to a request for identification with a challenge of their own: “Você sabe com quem esta falando?”[Do you know who you are talking to?] and a common aphorism proclaims “For my friends, anything! For my enemies, the law!” (DaMatta 1991). This preferential treatment is itself codified in Brazilian law, which offers special consideration by the police and prison system to anyone with a college degree. The military officer's hailing “Ô cidadão” (Hey citizen) in line 26, thus implies KLJ's lower status as someone who is accountable to (but not protected by) the law. Paul Chevigny reports that the Rio government ordered police to begin referring to all individuals as cidadão instead of using other (likely racialized) derogatory address terms (1995:151).7 Indeed, Cristo youth often use the term negão (big, strong, or intimidating black guy) to protest how they are frequently addressed (and racialized) by the military police.8 And yet, if the officer uses the term cidadão to demean him, KLJ turns this into a political claim in the retelling, foregrounding citizenship rights that have been violated.

To tell a convincing tale of unjustified police harassment (one in which his rights to the city have also been denied), KLJ highlights his possession of citizenship documents (lines 3–4), his army service (line 71), and his rights to occupy city spaces (lines 41–42). In contrast, he stresses that he withheld relevant personal information (his familial connections to two different residences) to highlight the officer's transgressions: in particular, the fact that KLJ is stopped without reason and further interrogated because of his race. (This last part is jointly constructed with CW in lines 43–47). As KLJ implicitly suggests, these personal connections should not matter if everyone is equal under the law (see also Holston 2008). Yet both the officer and KLJ recognize that the rules have changed. Being “somebody” (lines 10–12) now signifies people both above and below the law: the elite who continue to claim special treatment and the bandit for whom the protection of the law does not apply. In response to the explicit question “Who are you?” (in line 57), KLJ twice claims to be a “nobody,” aligning himself with the workers and sufferers of the Brazilian shantytown who deserve legal protection, in contrast to the bandidos. KLJ's claim to be a “nobody” (line 58) is thus a strategic political stance within the context of new marginality.9

The content of this narrative is supported by linguistic forms designed to assert his rights and to “perform” his citizenship status (Holston 2008). Linguistically, KLJ must negotiate his place within the victim–criminal, citizen–marginal binaries that will define his relationship with the state, as one subject to police protection or police harassment. As I will describe below, the use of standard Portuguese here is a marked contrast to the normal linguistic style of Cristo youth. Although this may be in part because of my presence, the most salient slang term they include tirar onda (to show off, in lines 60–61) is attributed to the military officer. As Asif Agha notes, use of the standard language indexically “points” to and calls on “socioeconomic (and other) entitlements, to images of national unity, to ideals of rationality, beauty and other types of social essence” (2007:147). In their retelling, both KLJ and CW call my attention to their linguistic strategies of politeness (“Good evening. Can I help you with something?” in lines 38–39) that are intended to signify their command of standard Portuguese and index their role as innocent victims in need of protection from the state. Yet as this example illustrates, allegiance to the standard constitutes a necessary but insufficient performance of Brazilian citizenship and helps construct a differentiated sociopolitical order in which performances of linguistically upstanding citizenship may be readily denied.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES

The fear and vulnerability of favela residents is explained not only by the experience of police harassment but also by the burden of a disproportionate share of drug-trade induced violence (Gay 2005; Goldstein 2003; Perlman 2004). The power, money, and crime that has accompanied drug trafficking has rearranged the social, spatial, and linguistic order within the favela as well. Youth are very aware that the register of slang associates them with favela residence, crime, and danger, and yet they both suffered from and recursively perpetuated these metapragmatic distinctions. Within the favela, Cristo youth told me that I needed to “ficar na rota” (hang out on the street late at night) if I wanted to hear the latest slang and the most skilled slang speakers. In their daily talk with each other, Cristo youth typically incorporate a range of innovative slang terms that not only lexicalize new forms but also create new discourse rules that alter the rhythm of their speech (Roth-Gordon 2007). As I will illustrate, they draw on competing linguistic ideologies that juxtapose “old” and “new” orders, in which the register of slang is associated with the daily linguistic fare that marks loyalty to the favela and the language of criminals.10

In Excerpt 3, Feijão narrates to my research assistant CW and to an audience of Cristo peers the only time he thought he was going to be robbed. He had been sitting at a local bus stop, wearing a showy watch (which is often the target of theft) and listening to a walkman, when two white favela youth attempted to intimidate him with frequent references to their gun collection, the kind of veiled threat that often precedes robberies in Rio.

Table Excerpt 3: .  “The Only Time I Thought I Was Going To Be Robbed”: Feijão's Story
 1Feijão:Aína moral, sou doidinho pra ser- [… .]Feijão:So seriously, I'm a little crazy to be- [… .]
 2 O dia- o único dia que eu ia- eu The day- the only day that I was- I
 3 ia ser- eu senti que ia was going to be- I felt that I was going
 4 ser roubado foi ali no Flamengo. to be robbed was there in Flamengo.
 5 Bum. Sentadaine, Bum (boom). [I was]All seated,
 6 maior relojaine. Aí elebum. [with a]huge watch. Then he bum.
 7 “Ô, o moleque, … aí formas “Oh, kid, … hey ya' got
 8 as horas aí?” Eu falei, “Porra, … uma e the time there?” I said, “Shit, … one
 9 brau.”Aí começou a falar o something.” Then he started to say some
10 negócio de arma pra me intimidar aí. stuff about guns to intimidate me.
11 [Ele falando com o amigo:]“Porra, cadê [He says to his friend:]“Shit, where's
12 a pistola, cumpadi? Porra, tem que the gun, buddy? Shit, we have to
13 arrumar aquela pistola. Tô com uma aqui get that gun. I only have one here,
14 só, mas pô … tá ligado? but damn … you know what I'm saying?
15 //Perdemos pro PM.” (?) //We lost it to the police.” (?)
17CW://Tem que mandar- [Risos]CW://You had to- [Laughter]
18Feijão:Eu tava de walkman, mas jáFeijão:I had a walkman on, but I had already
19 de::sliguei. turned it o::ff.
21Feijão:Aíbum. Balançando a cabeça. [para fingir que ainda está escutando ao som]Feijão:So bum. [I'm] Bouncing my head. [to pretend he is still listening to the music]
22 Aí, ele falando altã::o, né? So, he's practically shou::ting, right?
23 Bum. Aí começo a comentar. Aí venho Bum. So I start to comment. Then comes
24 o 433 [ônibus]. Porra. Eu falei, “Pô, the 433 [bus]. Shit. I said, “Damn,
25 não vou deixar o 433 passar, só I'm not going to let the 433 pass, just
26 pra- sabe, demonstrar medo pra ele. to- you know, show him I'm not afraid.”
27 Falei, “Pô.” Fui pegar o 433. Aíbum. I said, “Damn.” I got on the 433. So bum.
28 Entrei no ônibus. Aí ele foi- fez assim I got on the bus. So he goes- went like this
29 pra mim [gesto], pensando que to me [gesture], thinking that
30 eu tinha peidado. Aí cara deu vontade de- I had chickened out. So man I wanted to-
31 Porra. [Risos] Shit. [Laughter]
32Judo:Vem cá, como é que eu vou ter penaJudo:Come on, how am I going to feel bad
33 de te bater? Tu não tava com pena about beating you up? You didn't feel bad
34 de me roubar, arrombado. about robbing me, asshole.
35 Eu da cor. [… .] Me, a person of color. [… .]
36Feijão:Não sabe o que que fez, rapa.Feijão:You don't know what you did, buddy.
37 Roubar pobre. Rob a poor person.

Excerpt 3: “The Only Time I Thought I Was Going To Be Robbed”: Feijão's Story

Excerpt 3 is full of slang terms that locate Feijão in a particular social space and affirm his loyalty to the favela. These range from very local, in-group forms such as the productive suffix -aine (“Sentadaine, maior relojaine,” in lines 5–6), used instead of the more standard aggrandizer -ão (big), to more well-known slang terms such as na moral (seriously). Throughout his narrative, Feijão uses the loud and emphatic pragmatic marker bum! (boom!) to attract attention and dramatically parse his narrative, focusing his listeners on the key parts of his story. Bum comes from a class of Brazilian Portuguese slang terms that I call sound words (Tannen 1983) because of their onomatopoeic effect. Working on a similar class of words in Greek, Deborah Tannen notes that they might also be referred to as “sound non-words,” an observation that rings especially true for standard Portuguese speakers who would not recognize these sounds as a productive part of the linguistic system (see below). Although bum is not recognized as a word, it does have some semantic recoverability to listeners as a sound, particularly as the sound of a gunshot. Emphatic sound words were used frequently in daily conversation among Cristo male youth, and they appear in the lyrics of politically conscious rap groups like Racionais MC's from São Paulo, who intentionally use slang to connect with the youth of Brazil's periphery.11

Feijão's use of slang here is particularly interesting as it pervades the multiple voices of his story. Feijão-as-narrator, Feijão-as-victim, and white guy-as-criminal all use salient slang features. As for KLJ, the success of Feijão's story rests on his ability to convince an audience of his peers that he has been wronged. He must balance the need to look savvy and street-smart with the desire to evoke strong disapproval of a situation that has left him unjustly vulnerable. Feijão describes how he discretely turned off his walkman to be able to assess what he rightly perceived as a dangerous situation. He racially describes the potential assailants to both counter the unspoken assumption that the criminals are black and to highlight his own racial identity, as his friends do for him in line 35. These content cues all suggest that Feijão is an innocent victim, a poor black youth waiting for public transportation (yet another sign of his vulnerability).

The projection of similar slang use in Feijão's narrative suggests that, race aside, there is little difference between would-be criminal and victim, and these signs of similarity are intended to intensify the social and criminal transgression of the robbery. There are strong proscriptions against stealing in the favela, and drug gangs often violently punish offenders. Feijão's speech style in Excerpt 3 is intended to do more than signal his residential background; it is strategically employed to evoke the physical space of the favela itself. Through the use of slang, Feijão seeks to transform the public space of the bus stop into the safe space of the favela where these proscriptions apply. The linguistic form and the content of his narrative thus work together to protest that new marginality has made favela male youth increasingly vulnerable, as his friends ratify in lines 32–35. Thus, through their narratives, poor black male youth grapple with the insecurity they face as the social order shifts within the favela itself. As they participate in the enregisterment of slang (by choosing to speak or avoid particular linguistic features according to their interlocutors and the conversational context), their linguistic “choices” situate them within newly emergent citizen–subject positions, offering up opportunities to protest their increasing vulnerability yet maintaining Brazil's regime of differentiated citizenship.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES

Gíria is said to trickle down the hills of Rio de Janeiro, and cariocas across race and class lines participate in the enregisterment of slang. In this section, I turn to illustrate how members of the middle class also embrace the language ideologies surrounding the register of slang to negotiate access to citizenship and city rights. The register of slang is set both implicitly and explicitly in contrast to standard Portuguese, which is institutionally supported and enforced as the language of the nation-state and a prerequisite for national belonging.12 Within the context of new marginality, the Brazilian middle class attempts to confirm the terms of their Brazilian citizenship through performances of their standard language competency. As I will describe, they draw strategic linguistic borders through the enregisterment of slang to ensure both their relative privilege and physical safety.

While living in Rio, I interacted with middle-class families both socially and through a pilot study on the language of middle-class youth. To contextualize my research in Cristo, I conducted metalinguistic group interviews with several middle-class families who lived in various parts of Rio's South Zone. Members of the middle class are exposed to different kinds of slang use in shared public spaces such as the beach and city streets (Freeman 2002). To access implicit and explicit language ideologies, I played several short excerpts that I had tape-recorded in Cristo (including Feijão's narrative presented in Excerpt 3), provided participants with a transcript of the recording, and tape-recorded the discussion that followed. I always began by asking listeners to comment either on the content of what was said or the speech itself, and Feijão's slang clearly surprised interviewees. In Excerpt 4, parents Miguel and Miriam and children Érica and Roberto explain the social and linguistic salience of the pragmatic marker bum.

Table Excerpt 4: .  Bum Bum Is Bum Bum
 1Miguel:Para mim, bum bum é bum bum.Miguel:For me, bum bum is bum bum.
 2Miriam:[Risos] Bum bum.Miriam:[Laughter]Bum bum.
 3Miguel:Bum bum. Os caras falam bum. Fui aquiMiguel:Bum bum. The guys say bum. I went here
 4 bum. Fui lábum. Eu não bum. I went there bum. I don't
 5 entendo nada disso. [… .] understand any of this. [… .]
 6Jennifer:Que que vocês não entenderem dessaJennifer:What didn't you understand in this
 7 conversa? conversation?
 8Érica:Esse bum para mim é um detalhe tem queÉrica:This bum for me is a detail that has to
 9 ser riscado. Não entendo be crossed out. I don't understand
10 nada do bum. [… .] anything of this bum. [… .]
11Roberto:Agora esse bumé bem gente deRoberto:Now this bum is really from people of the
12 morro [favela]. hill [favela].
13Miriam:Esse bum eu nunca escutei.Miriam:This bum I've never heard.
14Roberto:Esse bum é bem gente de morro.Roberto:This bum is really from people of the hill.
16Miguel:É. Super.Miguel:Yes. Very much so.
17Jennifer:Por que?Jennifer:Why?
18Roberto:A maioria não usa bum.Roberto:Most people don't use bum.
19Érica:Não existe. Não existe.Érica:It doesn't exist. It doesn't exist.

Excerpt 4: Bum Bum Is Bum Bum

Excerpt 4 offers an illustration of the enregisterment of slang, as specific linguistic features are indexically linked to particular city spaces and speakers. Note that they talk about Cristo as a morro (hill), even as they are familiar with its location and know that it is comprised of multistory buildings located on a paved city street just like theirs. This “slip” between housing project and hill casts a shadow of illegitimacy over the speakers, their language, and their rights to occupy contested city spaces. Favelas still don't exist on many city maps, an erasure that reinforces Érica's dismissal of Feijão's use of bum (suggesting that it needs to be crossed out, in lines 8–9 and that it does not actually exist in line 19). Miguel's initial reaction, likening the emphatic pragmatic marker to the word bum bum (butt, rear end) in line 1, similarly trivializes not only Feijão's linguistic style but also the pragmatic and political force of his narrative. Miguel's ability to successfully imitate this novel discourse convention in lines 3–4 suggests that “misunderstanding” is an integral part of linguistic differentiation. Members of the middle class have long used the physical space of the favela to reinvent themselves as more modern, cosmopolitan, and upstanding urban dwellers, reinforcing their status through language ideologies that trivialize and dismiss the linguistic registers associated with the favela (Leeds and Leeds 1970). Indeed, it is significant that although Feijão recounts a familiar experience, fearing that he will be robbed, members of the white middle class for whom I played this excerpt actively worked against this shared connection, choosing to racialize and criminalize Feijão through the use of his language, as in Excerpt 5.

Table Excerpt 5: .  “Here It's Funny. But If I'm On A Bus…”
 1Miriam:Agora uma coisa. Aqui eu tô achandoMiriam:Now one thing. Here I am thinking
 2 engraçado [bum]. Mas se eu tô no ônibus, it's funny [bum]. But if I'm on the bus,
 3 e eu escuto dois- duas pessoas tendo and I hear two- two people having …
 4 esse diálogo, que eu não ia this dialogue, that I wouldn't be able
 5 entender que era roubo to understand that it was about a robbery
 6 nem nada, falando eu não ia or anything, speaking I wouldn't
 7 entender, mas se eu escuto esse be able to understand, but if I hear
 8 tipo de coisa- this type of thing-
10Miriam:Eu trocaria de lugar ou ou tentaria saltarMiriam:I would change places or or try to get off
11 do ônibus. of the bus.
12Miguel:Eu também ia ficar … apreensivo.Miguel:I also would be… apprehensive.
14Miguel:Se escutasse dois ou três caras dentroMiguel:If I heard two or three guys inside
15 do ônibus- of a bus-
16Miriam:Conversando assim,Miriam:Talking like this,
17Miguel:Com esse linguajar, eu ia ficar maiorMiguel:With this dialect, I would be paying a lot
18 atenção que ia ser assaltado. of attention that I was going to be robbed.
19 [… .] Sem virar a cabeça, eu vou [… .] Without turning my head, I would
20 eu vou dizer assim- I would say-
21Miriam:A intonação-Miriam:The intonation-
22Miguel:“Ih, tem negão atrás.Miguel:“Eee, there are big black men behind me.
23 Tem assaltante. Tem cara de There are muggers. There are guys from
24 morro. Tem bandido atrás de mim. the hill. There are bandits behind me.”

Excerpt 5: “Here It's Funny. But If I'm On A Bus…”

As in Feijão's narrative, participants here suggest that crime and urban violence have blurred the city's already tenuous social and geographic boundaries. Fears over social mixture in shared spaces, such as public transportation, highlight how social order is linguistically negotiated through the enregisterment of slang. Slang and slang speakers are linked to blackness and marginality (in lines 22–24). The term negão (here used to mean big, strong, or intimidating black man) can be used as an address term or term of third-person reference to racialize black male youth and to imply danger and criminality.13 Miguel and Miriam create both social and linguistic distance as they label Feijão's language “linguajar” (dialect), another (often overlapping) nonstandard register associated with the favela. Speech repertoires are thus linguistically differentiated—given indexical values that link them to race, class, and residence—and made to constitute opposing citizenship categories.

As speakers engage in the monitoring of appropriate linguistic repertoires by particular speakers within particular contexts, they contribute to the ongoing linguistic and social process of enregisterment. This daily regulating, performed through the act of speaking itself, creates the “stereotypic indexical values” that Agha (2007) argues are the defining properties of speech registers. For the elite and middle class, Brazilian Portuguese gíria has long symbolized disorder, where the unauthorized breaking of linguistic convention indexes the breaking of laws. Through the ideological process of iconicity (Irvine and Gal 2000), people who speak with gunshots (bum!) are made to represent people who use guns. The term helps construct the scene of a hypothetical crime, in which victim and criminal, citizen and marginal, are linguistically connected.

Slang here serves as an “interdiscursive clasp,” a speech register that links “those who create the category of a person-type and produce justifications for its indexical signs with those who are recruited to that person-type” (Gal 2007:6). As Susan Gal describes, one category makes the other possible. Thus, together, victim and criminal constitute the event of a crime. What is interesting in the reactions provided in Excerpts 4 and 5 is the way the middle-class interviewees draw on linguistic ideologies to recast these roles. As Feijão has chosen (consciously or not) to give narrator, victim, and criminal the same slang-speaking voice, many of middle-class listeners collapsed these subject positions (as I describe further below). Ignoring the content of the story (as Miriam readily acknowledges in lines 2–7), respondents did not hear a potential victim. Invested in creating social distance and safety in a city of uncomfortable proximity (as hypothetical passengers on a shared public bus), the people I interviewed foregrounded their own positions of vulnerability. Indeed, Miriam and Miguel invent a scenario in which Feijão and friends are the unintelligible slang-speaking criminals, as they position themselves as the innocent victims. Their jointly imagined narrative is likely intended to socialize me (and their children) into avoiding dangerous city spaces and people, as it simultaneously draws on linguistic ideologies to create a moral geography (Hill 1995) and ground their sociopolitical standing in what is now violently contested turf.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES

Amidst this climate of fear and violence, other middle-class respondents shared their own dramatic crime stories. My close friends Gustavo, in his early sixties, and his daughter Gabriela, in her late thirties, had been carjacked at gunpoint in front of their apartment building.14 In the event of a robbery, it is common convention to give whatever is asked for, without resisting, to ensure one's physical safety. On the night of the carjacking, Gabriela was furious with her father, who quickly got out to give up his car but refused to surrender his wallet because he had finally received his new driver's license two weeks prior (more on this below). After the thieves took their car, Gustavo and Gabriela managed to attract the attention of a police car down the block, which followed the men but returned rather quickly and without success. Meanwhile, another police car had been following the assailants because of their previous car theft. This police car began shooting at the men, who dumped the car right near a police station and escaped by climbing a hill into the neighboring favela. Gustavo and Gabriela successfully recovered the car from the police station, although without the cartons of light bulbs they had been carrying (which they assume were stolen by the police). The next day, Gabriela told her seven-year-old son that they had hit a metal fence to explain the gunshot holes that remained in the car. This particular family had had multiple cars stolen from in front of their apartment building.

Although I had heard this story from Gabriela, the context of my slang interview brought the incident to mind for Gustavo. Looking back at the transcripts of Feijão's story (presented in Excerpt 3), Gustavo returned to the first line, “Aí na moral, sou doidinho pra ser-” (“So seriously, I'm a little crazy to be-”). In Rio slang, “na moral” draws on its more traditional definition (lit. morals) to indicate that something was done well, helpfully, or urgently. Used in an utterance-initial position, the term commands attention, and Feijão likely chose this common slang expression to get the floor to tell his story. Reading this phrase aloud, Gustavo reflected back on the event of their carjacking: “‘Aí na moral na moral’—that's what the guy who carjacked me said. He stuck a gun in my face, ‘Na moral na moral,’ (‘Let's go, hurry up.’), and I said to him, ‘Que moral é essa?’ (‘What kind of morality is this?’).”

Gustavo's overt juxtaposition of the slang and standard definitions of this term illustrates how the positions of slang-speaking criminal and non-slang-speaking victim are simultaneously constructed and always either implicitly or explicitly compared. Through the multivocality of reported speech, Gustavo uses the carjacker's slang to index an illegal request for resources, whereas Gustavo's own confusion over the slang term is intended to signify his morality and his innocence as a law-abiding citizen. In this example, Gustavo's strict adherence to the standard negates the existence of the slang register and delegitimizes the carjacker's challenge to Brazilian social inequality. (This calls to mind Érica's quick dismissal of Feijão's use of the pragmatic marker bum in Excerpt 4, line 19: “It doesn't exist. It doesn't exist.”) At the same time, Gustavo's act of public remembering links two distinct discursive events through the use of a single, salient slang term. The repetition of linguistic form creates the effect of a “lasso” (Gal 2007), and Feijão, the near victim of crime in Excerpt 3, is likened to Gustavo's assailant through these similar narratives. In this linguistic reordering of participant roles, poor black male youth who linguistically identify themselves with the favela become interchangeable—strategically read as criminals regardless of their involvement with criminal activity. Their use of the slang register is highlighted to reaffirm social, spatial, and moral order.

Teresa Caldeira (2000) takes up the productive nature of these narratives in her extensive study of violence, citizenship, and urban space in São Paulo. Analyzing what she calls the “talk of crime,” a linguistic genre in which one crime story is followed by another, Caldeira argues that this discursive practice increases segregation, prejudice, and violence, justifying the need for additional security and walls and fueling support for the death penalty (currently illegal under Brazilian law) by 70 percent of São Paulo residents. She also finds, as I describe above, that the working poor participate in the marginalization of their neighbors, as they actively construct themselves as honest, working people and distance themselves from the spatialized, racialized, classed, and gendered image of criminals. The recursivity of this marginalization points to shared linguistic ideologies newly embraced to critique the fragile state of Brazilian democracy.

As in KLJ's story of police harassment (provided in Excerpt 1), middle-class narratives suggest that urban Brazilian citizens are defined through demonstrations of state failure. Gustavo's story is illustrative in this regard: through Gabriela and Gustavo's reconstruction of the carjacking, it is luck—not the police—that allows them to recover their vehicle. Unmotivated police return unsuccessfully, but a car chase happens to lead to a favela where the assailants can escape, and the car is abandoned near a police station. Once the car is recovered, it is discovered that certain possessions are missing, and the fact that they happen to be cartons of light bulbs eliminates carjackers on the run from suspicion. The police become the second set of criminals in their tale. Finally, Gustavo risks his life, not for his car but for his driver's license. Although financial assets such as cars are protected, replacing one's documents involves the dehumanizing and difficult process of dealing with the Brazilian state (see also Caldeira 2000:314). Thus, although a private insurance company will confirm and maintain his class status by replacing his possessions, the newly democratic state will no longer guarantee or recognize his privilege. In effect, through the potential loss of his identification, Gustavo risks becoming a “nobody,” dependent on state-issued documents to prove who he is and forced to wait in line like everybody else. The application of the law here means “humiliation, vulnerability, and bureaucratic nightmare” (Holston 2008:19). “Old” and “new” orders clash once again, as the middle class is made reliant on an inadequate and inefficient state. The three players in this story—the slang-speaking criminal, the standard Portuguese–speaking victim, and the corrupt and broken state—belie the frustration of the middle class who must redefine themselves in this new social and political landscape and justify their claims for additional protection, resources, and rights. Their palpable sense of anxiety is heightened by the fact that “old” rules do not necessarily apply in the face of new marginality. The standard Portuguese they have dutifully perfected now guarantees neither their safety nor their class standing, leaving them as vulnerable in their interactions with the state as they are in their encounters with street crime. The indexical value of standard Portuguese thus shifts in response to the new values attributed to the register of slang, juxtaposing the political categories of victim and criminal and redefining the terms of Brazilian citizenship.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES

The conversations analyzed here suggest that political vulnerability and linguistic anxiety are co-constructed and productive for both citizens and the state within a regime of differentiated citizenship. As a primary example of the state's direct hand in emergent citizen-subject positions, police officers are instructed to linguistically call particular kinds of citizens into being through the (euphemistic) address term cidadão, distinguishing those who must be forced to abide by the law (because of their presumed racialized criminality) from those protected by the law. These subject positions are expressed through appropriate ways of speaking that are transmitted through institutions such as the school. Yet within the context of new marginality, allegiance to the standard does not automatically offer citizenship and city rights to the newly vulnerable middle class or the newly marginalized (and racialized) lower classes. Political and linguistic anxieties thus inform the current citizenship categories of victim–citizen and criminal–marginal that Brazilians now struggle to inhabit and through which they interpret their world. These new binary “facts” open up space for cariocas to protest the failures of democratization (through the performance of vulnerability) yet simultaneously uphold the legitimacy of an exclusionary regime in which the state protects only particular kinds of citizens. I have argued that the enregisterment of slang in contrast to the standard is critical to these emergent sociopolitical categories. Brazil's distinctly modern regime, thus, must be understood, in part, as a linguistic project, as the state is actively involved in the construction of linguistic differentiation and the current situation of widespread linguistic anxiety.

And yet the conversations provided above are full of examples of linguistic self-disciplining and the disciplining of others, as Brazilians manipulate linguistic registers to properly “perform” the vulnerable citizen-subject and to inhabit or attribute the position of marginality. KLJ and CW appropriate a hyperpolite register associated with standard Portuguese and docile, well-disciplined citizenship in their interactions with military police officers; they take on the register of slang (with its connections to marginality) to recreate the shared “safe” space of the favela when with bandidos. Members of the middle class affirm their allegiance to the standard language, their class standing, and their privileged place in the nation-state through their negation of the slang register. These linguistic moves open up new spaces for political maneuvering along a vulnerability–marginality continuum, situationally shifting the terms of their participation in the nation-state even as they further entrench a regime of differentiated citizenship and exacerbate Brazilian inequality. The process of linguistic differentiation, seen here through the enregisterment of slang, thus sheds light on the exclusionary nature of citizenship within the modern democratic nation-state.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES


Acknowledgments.  I would like to thank Penelope Eckert, Jim Fox, Jane Hill, Miyako Inoue, Norma Mendoza-Denton, and John Rickford for their continued guidance and support. This research benefited from the generous assistance of the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Departments of Anthropology, International Studies, and Latin American Studies at Stanford University. I am grateful to Tom Boellstorff, Victor Braitberg, Mary Bucholtz, Mary Good, Susan Shaw, Antonio José da Silva, Leticia Veloso, Terry Woronov, Leisy Wyman, and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful feedback. Finally, I would like to thank the Brazilian youth, especially CW, who made this research possible.

1.  “Esse é gíria su::per de bandido de morro. […]É uma gíria não- não escuto nem entre […] os adolescentes de um nível melhor. É uma linguagem bem bandido, bem de […] bandidão mesmo de … assaltante, de pivete … ”

2. The threat of removal is not merely symbolic: part of the public space of Cristo, where children used to play, was “purchased” to construct a fabulously expensive and well-guarded high-rise mall and office building.

3. Pseudonyms have been chosen to reflect the wide range of nicknames used by Brazilians and these youth in particular, including initials for celebrities they admired (both U.S. and Brazilian). I have translated some of these names for the English reader.

4. Despite the transition to democracy, Brazil retains a military police force (polícia militar or PM) that is in charge of public security and defense that patrols and makes arrests. This is separate from the civil police force (polícia civil) that is in charge of upholding the law through the investigation of crimes (for more on this distinction, see Arias 2006; Caldeira 2000; Huggins 2000). Military police enjoy high levels of impunity as they can only be tried in military courts.

5. Transcription conventions are as follows: (?)     Transcription not possible (word)    Uncertain transcription [laughter]  Transcriber's note (includes background noise as well as clarifications for the reader) …      Noticeable pause (untimed) [….]    Excerpt cut underline  Emphatic stress or increased amplitude ::     Vowel elongation -     Self-interruption; break in the word, sound abruptly cut off //     Simultaneous speech (noted before speech of both participants) .     Sentence-final falling intonation ,     Phrase-final intonation ?     Question rising intonation bold     Indicates lexical items or example to be illustrated

6.  “Bandido eu mato. Trabalhador eu dou tapa na cara.

7.  Susana Rotker (2002:16) describes a similar practice of police addressing pedestrians and drivers as “citizen” in Caracas, Venezuela.

8. The use of the term negão in police searches is commonly reported in politically conscious rap lyrics (see, e.g., M. V. Bill's [1999] song A Noite on the album Traficando Informação).

9. This suggests that we need to unpack Holston's (2008:267) claim that there is no utility in being an “anonymous citizen” in Brazil's regime of differentiated citizenship. This claim holds true for the white middle class and elite, as I discuss later.

10. Gíria is also associated with the figure of the malandro (rogue), a clever, shady guy associated with poverty and the favela and someone who often skirted the law. The shift in emphasis from malandragem (trickery) to bandidagem (criminality) over the past few decades illustrates how the stakes over slang speaking have changed.

11. See, for example, the line “Se eu trombo esse fulano, não tem , não tem pum. E eu vou ter que assinar um cento e vinte e um” in the song Diário de um Detento, on Sobrevivendo no Inferno by Racionais MC's (1998).

12. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing me in this direction.

13. The culturally licensed term negão, like its counterpart neguinho (little black man, generic guy), illustrates the slippery slope of Brazilian racism as it can be used to racialize black men but also can be used as a generic “any man.”

14. This story is reconstructed from field notes and also from a detailed e-mail in which Gabriela recounted the event down to the day of the week, ten years after the fact.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES
  • Agha, Asif 2007 Language and Social Relations. New York : Cambridge University Press.
  • Arias, Enrique Desmond 2006 Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press.
  • Bitencourt, Luis 2007 Crime and Violence Challenges to Democracy in Brazil. In Citizenship in Latin America. Joseph S.Tulchin and MegRuthenburg, eds. Pp. 171186. Boulder , CO : Lynne Rienner.
  • Caldeira, P. R. Teresa 2000 City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley : University of California Press.
  • Chevigny, Paul 1995 Edge of the Knife: Police Violence in the Americas. New York : New Press.
  • DaMatta, Roberto 1991 “Do You Know Who You're Talking To?” The Distinction between Individual and Person in Brazil. In Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the Brazilian Dilemma. Pp. 137197. Notre Dame , IN : University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Douglas, Mary 2002 [1966] Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York : Routledge.
  • Freeman, James 2002 Democracy and Danger on the Beach. Space and Culture 5(1):928.
  • Gal, Susan 2007 Circulation in the “New” Economy: Clasps and Copies. Paper presented at 106th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., November 28–December 2.
  • Gay, Robert 2005 Lucia: Testimonies of a Brazilian Drug Dealer's Woman. Philadelphia , PA : Temple University Press.
  • Goldstein, Daniel M. 2004 The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia. Durham , NC : Duke University Press.
  • Goldstein, Donna M. 2003 Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown. Berkeley : University of California Press.
  • González de la Rocha, Mercedes, Elizabeth Jelin, Janice Perlman, Bryan R. Roberts, Helen Safa, and Peter M. Ward 2004 From the Marginality of the 1960s to the “New Poverty” of Today. Latin American Research Review 39(1):183203.
  • Guidry, John A. 2000 The Useful State? Social Movements and the Citizenship of Children in Brazil. In Globalizations and Social Movements: Culture, Power, and the Transnational Public Sphere. John A.Guidry, Michael D.Kennedy, and Mayer N.Zald, eds. Pp. 147180. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press.
  • Hill, Jane H. 1995 The Voices of Don Gabriel: Responsibility and Self in a Modern Mexicano Narrative. In The Dialogic Emergence of Culture. DennisTedlock and BruceMannheim, eds. Pp. 97147. Chicago : University of Illinois Press.
  • Holloway, Thomas H. 1993 Policing Rio de Janeiro: Repression and Resistance in a Nineteenth-Century City. Stanford : Stanford University Press.
  • Holston, James 2008 Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton : Princeton University Press.
  • Holston, James, and Arjun Appadurai 1999 Cities and Citizenship. In Cities and Citizenship. JamesHolston, ed. Pp. 118. Durham , NC : Duke University Press.
  • Holston, James, and Teresa P. R. Caldeira 1998 Democracy, Law, and Violence: Disjunctions of Brazilian Citizenship. In Fault Lines of Democracy in Post-Transition Latin America. FelipeAgüero and JeffreyStark, eds. Pp. 263296. Miami : University of Miami North-South Center Press.
  • Huggins, Martha K. 2000 Urban Violence and Police Privatization in Brazil: Blended Invisibility. Social Justice 27(2):113134.
  • Irvine, Judith T., and Susan Gal 2000 Language Ideology and Linguistic Differentiation. In Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities. Paul V.Kroskrity, ed. Pp. 3583. Santa Fe : School of American Research Press.
  • Leeds, Anthony, and Elizabeth Leeds 1970 Brazil and the Myth of Urban Rurality: Urban Experience, Work, and Values in “Squatments” of Rio de Janeiro and Lima. In City and Country in the Third World: Issues in the Modernization of Latin America. Arthur J.Field, ed. Pp. 229272. Cambridge : Schenkman.
  • Leeds, Elizabeth 1996 Cocaine and Parallel Polities in the Brazilian Urban Periphery: Constraints on Local-Level Democratization. Latin American Research Review 31(3):4783.
  • M. V. Bill 1999 A Noite. From Traficando Informação. São Paulo : BMG International.
  • Mitchell, Michael J., and Charles H. Wood 1999 Ironies of Citizenship: Skin Color, Police Brutality, and the Challenge to Democracy in Brazil. Social Forces 77(3):10011020.
  • Penglase, R. Ben 2005 The Shutdown of Rio de Janeiro. Anthropology Today 21(5):36.
  • Perlman, Janice E. 1976 The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro. Berkeley : University of California Press.
  • Perlman, Janice E. 2004 Marginality: From Myth to Reality in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro: 1969–2002. In Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. AnanyaRoy and NezarAlsayyad, eds. Pp. 105146. New York : Lexington.
  • Racionais MC's 1998 Diário de um Detento. From Sobrevivendo no Inferno. São Paulo : Zambia.
  • Roth-Gordon, Jennifer 2007 Youth, Slang, and Pragmatic Expressions: Examples from Brazilian Portuguese. Journal of Sociolinguistics 11(3):322345.
  • Rotker, Susana 2002 Cities Written by Violence: An Introduction. In Citizens of Fear: Urban Violence in Latin America. SusanaRotker, ed. Pp. 722. New Brunswick , NJ : Rutgers University Press.
  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy 2006 Death Squads and Democracy in Northeast Brazil. In Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. JeanComaroff and John L.Comaroff, eds. Pp. 150187. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.
  • Tannen, Deborah 1983 “I Take Out the Rock—DOK!”: How Greek Women Tell about Being Molested (and Create Involvement). Anthropological Linguistics 25(3):359374.
  • Vargas, João Costa 2003 The Inner City and the Favela: Transnational Black Politics. Race and Class 44(4):1940.
  • Veloso, Leticia N.d. Victims, Outlaws, Citizens: Children, Violence, and Rights in Brazil. Unpublished MS, Department of Sociology, Instituto Universitário de Pesquisas do Rio de Janeiro (IUPERJ) .
  • Zaluar, Alba 1994 Condomínio do Diabo. Rio de Janeiro , Brazil : Editora Revan.
  • Zaluar, Alba 1998 Crime, Medo, e Política (Crime, fear, and politics). In Un Século de Favela (A century of the favela). AlbaZaluar and MarcosAlvito, eds. Pp. 209232. Rio de Janeiro , Brazil : Fundação Getulio Vargas.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  9. NOTES