You know what they say about people in glass houses?
In the light of the sudden realisation that the “Brazilian storm” that everyone has been talking about for ages - more in the hope that surfing might manage to navigate a way around it, like a pilot weaving a 747 around a bank of thunderheads, rather than any real expectation of it arriving – is finally here, it’s interesting and quite instructive to delve into the past to try to discover whether we’ve always hated the “Zillas”, “Brazilnuts”, or “uncivilized pricks”, as no less an authority than Australian Surfing Life once described them.
It’s also interesting to note that in the past couple of years the social media commentators have moved considerably away from racial stereotypes and vilification, even if they haven’t always been able to take their readership with them. This is called survival in the jungle. With seven Brazilians on tour and five of them currently in the top 10, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep going on about how the Zillas burned you on that big day at Outside Corner, even if it actually happened!
There also seems to be a growing (if grudging) recognition that Brazil’s surfing heritage is almost as old as our own, and therefore legitimate. True, it took a visiting Aussie (Peter Troy in 1964) to get the cats on hot foam boards, but hollow paddleboards and solid redwoods had been ridden since the 1920s. This vast country’s two-speed economy and yawning gap between rich and poor meant that surfing remained the province of the happy few for a long time, but the slow rise of the middle classes saw talented Brazilian surfers emerging onto the world stage in the mid-1970s.
Pepe Lopes, a fisherman’s son from Rio, won the first Brazilian pro event, the Waimea 5000, in 1976, and went on to make the final of the Pipe Masters that year. Another Rio surfer, Daniel Friedman, made his debut on the North Shore that year, and was impressive at the Stubbies at Burleigh in March 1977. But for me, the guy who personified the new Brazilian presence was laughing, smiling Rico De Souza, a world tour journeyman who may not have been a major threat to the frontrunners, but spread good vibes wherever he went.
That’s how I remember the Brazilians from those early tour years. Fun guys with great spirit. It was a less rosy picture back home, where tempers ran hot when a local hero got beaten (as they invariably did). In 1979 Critta Byrne copped a hard rain of food and beer bottles as he left the water in the Waimea 5000, but maybe that was because he was from Wollongong. (This is not regional vilification, just an insider joke between Gong boys.)
Outside the tour environment, I remember small numbers of them on the North Shore and in Bali, usually frothing in the lineup but without incident. I think we were more concerned about hordes of Japanese arriving on every plane. Memories can be very selective, so I pored over my bound editions of Surfer Magazine from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and in letters columns full of complaints from both sides of the growing localism argument, I found no complaints about Brazilians, but by 1989 Surfer had observed: “Most surfers think Brazilian is synonymous for loud, obnoxious and ready to hassle.”
So when did they become everyone’s pet hate? Probably about the time they started winning. Brazilian surf writer and editor Rosaldo Calvacanti predicted: “We will win contests in small waves, in good waves and in big waves, and everybody will then have to take their hats off to us.” Well, not quite. Soon Calvacanti was writing: “They look for any excuse to punish us. They are afraid of us.”
But other Brazilians looked deeper into the mirror. In his History Of Surfing, Matt Warshaw quotes surf shop owner Fabio Schifino: “We are a very territorial people, and even when surfing overseas we try to rule the break. We take the waves that are ours, and we take other surfers’ waves too.”
If you troll the blogosphere you’ll find that most current commentary remains a response to Schifino’s honest assessment of his countrymen, but you’ll also find an emerging realisation that stereotyping is not quite fair. Maybe Gabby needs to be brought down a peg or two, but maybe Adriano is becoming a human, more of an Aussie than a Zilla? They hang in a pack, waving their flags, but they are individuals with differing sets of attitudes.
Maybe one day we’ll just see them as colourful, flamboyant surfers whose passion has taken them to the top of the rankings, just as ours did not so long ago.