In 1933, Gilberto Freyre published his magnum opus, Casa-grande e senzala. The title of the English translation, The Masters and the Slaves, even more starkly evoked the main theme of that sweeping overview of social history: Brazil was the land of an elite white few who dominated a mass of subservient Africans and their collective descendants. A major irony is that in the half century leading up to Freyre's work, Brazilian society was transformed by a massive influx of immigrants, and the ethnic composition of the southern third of Brazil's territory became more pluralistic and diverse.

Freyre's figurative vantage point was the veranda of a plantation house in Pernambuco, the heart of the old Northeast. The analogous point for Jeffrey Lesser is a busy intersection in the megalopolis of São Paulo, heart of the booming Southeast, and his purview is...

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