Rio’s Fast-Thinking Malandros

by | May 15, 2010 | Brazil, Travel | 6 comments

Words from a foreign language reveal how people from another culture think, and that can be endlessly fun. This week one word kept popping up in conversation in Rio. It’s a particularly Carioca word called “Malandro.”

The first time that “Malandro” came up I was waiting in a bookstore in Leblon, the most chi-chi part of Rio, with a new friend I had just met. We were waiting for someone I had made plans with and he texted me to say he was almost there, “one minute.” I explained this to the first guy and he reacted with some doubt and asked if I knew the word “Malandro.” No, I said. He told me “Malandro” means a guy who has more than one woman but doesn’t let any of them know, a slippery kind of person. Oh. That night I was looking at Lonely Planet Brazil and noticed the use of “Malandro” in a box of text describing Lapa, the historic center of samba in Rio. A “malandro,” according to Lonely Planet, was a “con artist.”

The next day, a young Lithuanian guy who has lived in Brazil five years and who works at the guesthouse where I am staying asked me if I knew what a “Malandro” is. Amazed, I told him the word had already come up twice in 24 hours. He proceeded to tell me that a “malandro” is like an urban surfer, a guy who doesn’t work but manages to get by somehow and that everyone wants to be a malandro. He’s the cool guy every other guy would like to be. Can a woman be a “malandra”? Oh, definitely not, according to Tita.

That night I asked a few more people about “Malandro.” My friend Roberto told me that a “malandro” was a historical character of Lapa that can now only be found in escolas de samba, samba schools–dapper men who dress all in white. My friend Marcello described a “malandro” as a clever, fast-thinking person who can talk his way out of any situation. He thought “malandras” exist, they’re just fewer in number. Josemando thought a “malandro” is someone that takes advantage of others.

No one seems to really self-identify as a “malandro.” Tita, the outsider, is the only one who really glorified them. Roberto and I joked about going malandro-spotting in a samba school–it would be fun to find some malandros and take pictures.

The word begins with “mal” so I assume that a “malandro” is a shady character but most people say that they’re more complicated than “bad.” That’s one thing I am noticing about Rio. Everything has two sides, everything has a double meaning. At times I wonder if I should be leaving and spending time in another country in order to learn more, be exposed to another culture. But spending more time in one place means that I get to learn more deeply about cultural intricacies like these. And I am still waiting to meet an official “malandro.” Stay tuned for a picture if I ever find one.


  1. Tiago Donato

    I think the description by your lithuanian friend is the soundest one. I think malandro is really the guy that doesn’t work for a living, because working would be for suckers, as the general devaluation of hard work in Rio goes, and Cariocas happily mock people from Sao Paulo for supposedly being the opposite. There is surely the connection with the malandro character in samba, but that’s just one form of malandro, perhaps the original one, being a samba player, sort of like a jazz playing substance abuser who never shows up on time for his gigs, but that model spreads from that character to Rio culture at large. I’d say the first description your friend gave you, about 2 women, is definitely not what characterizes a malandro, but only a consequence of it. And I think it’s a bit of an over-reaction for someone to start talking about malandro just because a guy is trying to downplay how late he is.
    If you want an example of what seems oddly like some kind of hero of Rio de Janeiro, someone we all should apparently aspire to be like, god knows why, look up Jorge Guinle on wikipedia in portuguese. I remember when he died, there was a news report on TV, in which they glorified the fact that he has never worked a single day in his life, like he was a source of fascination or some kind of hero who really knew how to live. I hate it.

  2. tracyblanchard

    I heard all of the same definitions of malandro as you heard: con artist, womanizer, guy who doesn’t work and gets by on his charm. I’ve met a few men in Brasil who I would define as malandros, but not all of them defined themselves as malandros. I didn’t consider any of them bad people. Charming, yes, definitely. Women can display the same characteristics as malandros, but somehow, the term malandro is only used for men. The closest word I can think of that they use for a female malandro would be pilantra. Someone who is up to no good, but who you can’t be mad at because they’re too charming. Funny. I’m writing an article right now on my blog about the Protestant Work Ethic, which was something I really came to understand when I lived in Brasil because attitudes towards time and work are so different there. The malandro is like the opposite of the Protestant Work Ethic. If I had to choose between the two, I choose the malandro!

  3. Marcello

    Eu ando querendo
    Falar com você
    Você tá sabendo
    Que o Zeca morreu
    Por causa de brigas
    Que teve com a lei…

    Eu sei que você
    Nem se liga pro fato
    De ser capoeira
    Moleque mulato
    Perdido no mundo
    Morrendo de amor…

    Sou eu que te falo
    Em nome daquela
    Que na passarela
    É porta estandarte
    E lá na favela
    Tem nome de flôr…

    Só peço favor
    De que tenhas cuidado
    As coisas não andam
    Tão bem pro teu lado
    Assim você mata
    A Rosinha de dor…

  4. Roberto Roessler

    Homenagem ao Malandro

    Eu fui fazer um samba em homenagem
    à nata da malandragem, que conheço de outros carnavais.

    Eu fui à Lapa e perdi a viagem,
    que aquela tal malandragem não existe mais.

    Agora já não é normal, o que dá de malandro
    regular profissional, malandro com o aparato de malandro oficial,
    malandro candidato a malandro federal,
    malandro com retrato na coluna social;
    malandro com contrato, com gravata e capital, que nunca se dá mal.

    Mas o malandro para valer, não espalha,
    aposentou a navalha, tem mulher e filho e tralha e tal.

    Dizem as más línguas que ele até trabalha,
    Mora lá longe chacoalha, no trem da central.

  5. Renato Clementi

    Malandro é malandro, mané é mané !!!



  1. The Truth Behind the Happy Smile « My Unplanned Adventure - [...] time they are very suspicious that other Cariocas are trying to take advantage of them in some way. Malandragem…
  2. Found! A Malandro! « My Unplanned Adventure - [...] my first blog post on malandros I promised to be on the lookout for an official specimen to take…

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