Earlier this month, thousands of Brazilian expats converged on downtown Miami to vote in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election.
It wasn’t hard to figure out who their favorite candidate was. Most erupted in cheers when a truck passed the polling station with an electronic billboard flashing the picture of right-wing Congressman Jair Bolsonaro.
“Um, dois, tres…cuatro, cinco mil…queremos Bolsonaro presidente do Brasil!” they chanted in Portuguese. “One, two, three, four, five thousand of us want Bolsonaro president of Brazil!”
Bolsonaro is still recovering after being stabbed at a campaign event last month by a lone assailant who said he was acting “on God’s orders.” But polls indicate he’ll likely win this Sunday’s run-off election.
And that’s a highly controversial prospect. Bolsonaro has been called “the Donald Trump of Brazil” – notorious for rhetoric widely considered fascist, racist, homophobic and above all sexist. He once publicly said a Brazilian congresswoman didn’t “deserve to be raped” because she was “too ugly.”
But at the Miami expat vote, just about every Brazilian woman I talked to defended Bolsonaro – including Erika Faria of Hollywood, who wore a yellow Brazilian soccer jersey that’s become a trademark of Bolsonaro supporters.
"I think it’s all fake news,” Faria said of charges that Bolsonaro is a misogynist. “The real story is that he’s a very good dad. He has a daughter.”
Besides, said Faria, what matters most to her and other Bolsonaro backers is that Brazil today is seeing the worst corruption scandals in its history: “Bolsonaro is definitely the change we need now to stop what’s going on in Brazil.”
Not far away, Brazilian expat Pietra Diwan of Doral – a woman who voted against Bolsonaro – looked forlorn.
“It’s kind of scary that the amount of women here voting for Bolsonaro probably is bigger than men,” she said. “I feel completely isolated from the mainstream of the Brazilian community. ”
Diwan fears for women’s rights in Brazil since Bolsonaro, for starters, says women shouldn’t earn as much as men do – because, he says, “they get pregnant.”
“In Brazil today things are so extreme,” Diwan said. “We are taking the most dangerous steps.”
Diwan says many of the Brazilian women she’s friends with here support Bolsonaro and now snub her. Some even call her a petralha – a "criminal leftist" who, like Diwan, backs Brazil's Workers Party, or PT, which has been involved in much of (but hardly all of) the corruption.
Thanks to Bolsonaro, Brazilian women here and in Brazil are experiencing a bitter political split – much like the one dividing American women because of President Trump’s own stances on gender issues.
But like the U.S. breach, it can be more complicated than it seems.
Bolsonaro fans like Erika Faria, for example, reject any notion they're betraying their sex.
Each morning Faria hosts a talk show on Radio Florida Brazil, the Portuguese-language, online station she co-owns in Fort Lauderdale. She’s a single mom who came to South Florida 14 years ago from São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. Her father is a conservative Brazilian congressman, Arnaldo Faria, and the family has wealthy business and landholding interests. But she insists they’ve rejected the corruption and privilege that’s made Brazilian politics so notorious. (Update: According to Brazilian media, Arnaldo Faria is under investigation in one pending corruption case there. He denies any involvement.)
“I remember when I was at school, people said, ‘Oh, don’t mess with her; she’s the daughter of a politician,’ ” Faria says. “I said, ‘No, my dad taught me that I’m exactly the same as everyone.’ ”
Still, Faria objects to what she calls the coddling of the poor by Brazil’s bloated welfare state.
“If you’re rich, you’re successful, that’s because your work,” she says. “I don’t really think it’s fair giving my money to the poor people. They can work.”
Brazilians like Faria hope Bolsonaro will take Brazil back to a time – real or imagined – when those ideals of honesty and self-reliance predominated. But more than that, Faria thinks Bolsonaro will restore a moral respect for women in a Brazilian culture she sees as oversexualized and misogynist.
“Here in the U.S., you go to a nightclub, someone touches you, you call security,” she says. “In Brazil, someone touches you, you better run away. They don’t respect you.
“I have an 11-year-old daughter, and when we go to Brazil, she’s bullied because people think she is too childish. No, she acts like an 11-year-old. You’re here in Brazil with 11-year-old girls acting like 17-years-old. Or 20. Very provocative, the way they dress.
"Bolsonaro says, ‘I want to build a country that, when my daughter is 17 years old, she can walk without the fear of someone grabbing her or doing things that hurt just because she’s a woman.’ ”
Brazil does suffer some of the world’s highest rates of crimes against women – but Pietra Diwan insists Bolsonaro is the problem, not the solution. She points out that a recently enacted law in Brazil increases the sentence for murder if it involves femicide, or killing a woman due to her gender in cases like domestic abuse. Bolsonaro wants to repeal it.
“He thinks women [are] inferior,” says Diwan. “He’s not a type of person that will allow women to decide on the same level as men do.”
Diwan is in a Doral coffee shop after dropping her own 11-year-old daughter off at school. She too is from São Paulo, and she recalls growing up during Brazil’s two-decade-long military dictatorship, which ended in 1985 – and which Bolsonaro, a former military officer, often speaks fondly about.
Back in those days bossa nova songs like “The Girl From Ipanema” helped defined Brazilian women as sensual sirens. But Diwan’s mother, a psychoanalyst named Sonia, was among the dissenters who challenged those limiting stereotypes and pushed for women’s rights. The military once detained her for it.
Fortunately, Sonia wasn’t tortured, as so many dissidents then were. But as a child, Diwan faced social scrutiny because her mother was divorced when that was still stigmatized in heavily Catholic Brazil.
“She would make sure to put us in the best school possible – one of the most conservative schools in São Paulo, probably in Brazil,” Diwan says. “And she was the first divorced mom in the school.
"So I remember her talking to me: ‘You never depend on a man. You have to work and be independent and never rely completely on someone else's wealth or power to be yourself.’ ”
Post-dictatorship, Brazilian women seized a more progressive track – and soundtrack. Diwan’s generation came of age hearing Cássia Eller sing anthems in a genre once forbidden, especially for women: rock.
Diwan married and had children – and became an entrepreneur. She also owned a business in Miami when the family came here a decade ago. She recently sold it – and is now getting her PhD in history.
But she says Brazilian-American women like her feel a double disappointment right now as they ponder the New World’s two largest countries.
“This moment is very frustrating and depressing,” she says.
She says that’s because eight years ago Brazil elected its first woman president – and two years ago the U.S. came close to electing its first female president. Now, as Bolsonaro enjoys a large lead over liberal candidate Fernando Haddad in polls for Sunday’s election in Brazil…
“...the New World is looking so old.”
Diwan says one consolation is that a Brazilian #MeToo movement has emerged from women’s opposition to Bolsonaro: #EleNão, or #NotHim.
“It was for Bolsonaro, but now it’s also for any man that is an idiot,” she says.
Back at Radio Florida Brazil in Fort Lauderdale, Bolsonaro supporter Faria says she too was glad to see Brazil elect a woman president in 2010. But that president, Dilma Rousseff of the PT, was impeached two years ago and removed from office.
“Dilma, she was a good example as a woman – but then she got lost in all this corruption and everything,” says Faria. “That’s why most of the people, we want Bolsonaro, because we feel he’s gonna stop this system that corrupts people.”
Most Brazilian women here do support Bolsonaro. But the latest polls in Brazil itself show the women’s vote for Sunday is about evenly split. Meaning, if Bolsonaro does win, Latin America’s largest nation is likely to see its women’s divide last long after the election.