Reexamining Brazil’s Animal Game: On Modernity, the Taming of Chance, and the Distribution of Risk
Associate Professor of History
City University of New York, Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center
At the turn of the twentieth century, popular games of chance emerged throughout the Americas with remarkable simultaneity: La Bolita in Cuba, Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean, for instance, and the numbers game in the United States. In each case, these informal lotteries drew the ire of public officials; playing these games of chance became a crime punishable by fines and prison time. Fearing economic and social disorder in the face of massive urban growth and, in some cases, the recent abolition of slavery, public officials throughout the Americas reviled these forms of petty gambling as they sought to regulate petty commerce, encourage monopoly contracts with growing lottery businesses, and coerce the poorer classes into wage labor. The few contemporary commentators—professional scholars, for the most part, but also journalists, and others—who have written about this phenomenon have characterized both the rise of these games of chance and their persecution with the concept of “modernity” as a horizon line that establishes the perspective of the anti-gambling modernizers vis-à-vis the atavistic and folkloric people who engaged in these practices.
Of all of these criminalized games of chance in the Americas, Brazil’s animal game (jogo do bicho) was, and to the present day remains, arguably the most iconic and popular. Originating in Rio de Janeiro in the 1890s and almost immediately made illegal, this side-bet on the legal lottery spread throughout Brazil and became the object of songs, plays, and popular lore. Like the scholars and thinkers of today, Brazilian writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who witnessed the booming popularity of the jogo do bicho also often held the illicit lottery as a foil against which to measure Brazil’s modernity and, conversely, to name and criticize their country’s pockets of perceived backwardness. In two instances, in particular, the animal game came to embody Brazilian intellectuals’ concerns: during the massive and ultimately cataclysmic speculation boom in the 1890s; and in the anthropological writings of Gilberto Freyre in the 1920s and 1930s and, later, those of his structuralist heirs. This strikingly diverse group of authors had in common their impulse to oppose the jogo do bicho to modernity. Examining the trajectory of the animal game in Brazil over the course of the twentieth century presents an especially colorful example of the dialectical relationship between order and chance that has been a recurring theme in our shared understanding of modernity across the disciplines and throughout the West.
As well as reaffirming this understanding of the relationship between modernity and chance, the animal game provides a useful way to question what we mean when we speak of chance, luck, and above all risk as cultural categories and social forces. Notably, as a game of chance, itself, little risk was involved in playing the jogo do bicho; people bet small amounts of money in the course of their daily shopping chores. There was materially little to gain or lose in the game itself. By contrast, however, as both a form of employment and as a criminalized act, much was at stake. This paper thus brings into the analysis of this piece of urban folklore the discussion of the redistribution of risk—a discussion usually reserved for such dramatic events as natural disasters—as another crucial dimension of modernity.
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