NEW YORK — If you’re a typical American, you probably think the capital of Brazil is Buenos Aires.
Sorry, I mean, if you’re the Brazilian caricature of a typical American, you probably think that.
Brazilians are hardly the only people on earth to turn myth into fact, but they are quite skilled at it, especially when the rumor at hand involves outsiders misunderstanding them. Many Brazilians are still convinced that American textbooks show the Amazon under United States and United Nations control, even though that hoax was disproved years ago. And every Brazilian knows someone who has come home from Florida or Texas or Nebraska with a story — the same story — about the American who was surprised to hear Brazilians wear shoes.
Those, at least, may be based on general American misperceptions of the world. But there’s something particularly oddball about the Buenos Aires rumor. Americans are certainly not the world’s foremost geography geniuses, but thinking the capital of Brazil is Buenos Aires is like thinking that 10 times 10 equals 47, instead of much more logical wrong answers like 20 or 1,000.
So, on a recent trip to New York, I spent an afternoon conducting an informal poll of as diverse a crowd of 50 Americans as I could come up with, mostly tourists visiting Battery Park and Times Square. The primary challenge was to name the capital of Brazil; if they did not know, they were encouraged to guess.
Don’t know: 16
Sao Paulo: 13
Rio de Janeiro: 8
“Not Rio de Janeiro”: 1
La Paz: 1
Brazil City: 1
As expected, few knew the correct answer (Brasilia). But most of the incorrect answers were perfectly reasonable: Maintaining “I don’t know” under pressure to guess is an admirable demonstration of knowing your limits. Sao Paulo, in second place, is also a smart wrong answer: It is the biggest city in both Brazil and South America. And Rio de Janeiro is an even smarter one — it was the capital until 1960.
In fairness, Buenos Aires did come up three times. A 23-year-old from Minneapolis said “Buenos Aires … no, that’s Argentina,” before registering an “I don’t know.” One couple’s adolescent son piped up with a Buenos Aires guess after his parents had registered one Rio and one Paraguay.
The third mention came when a man I stopped in Times Square turned out not to be American, but Andre Moreira da Cruz, a 24-year-old Brazilian living in the United States. I told him what the survey was about and asked him to take a stab at the top answer. “Buenos Aires,” he said, without hesitation.
But why? Where does this rumor come from?
Moreira da Cruz and a companion visiting from Brazil thought it might have emerged from the 1997 movie "I Know What You Did Last Summer." They recalled a scene in which a character who had the chance to win a trip upon guessing the capital of Brazil responded with "Buenos Aires."
Close. The quiz actually occurs in the 1998 sequel, "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer," and the character (Karla, played by Brandy Norwood) guesses Rio — and wins the trip anyway.
Back in Sao Paulo, I shared the results of the poll with other Brazilians and got their thoughts on where the oddly specific myth came from. Several were convinced that either George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan has made the error. Again, not quite. Reagan, at a dinner in Brasilia in 1982, goofed by offering a toast to the “Bolivian” people (it was reported in a Washington Post article that misspelled Sao Paulo as “Sao Paolo”). Bush’s gaffe was more apocryphal: He supposedly asked in a private conversation with then-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso if Brazil had black people (it does — about 50 percent of the population, by one measure).
There are pop culture references: A 2008 song by Brazilian Tom Ze is called “Brazil: Capital — Buenos Aires.” The website Desciclopedia, which specializes in publishing misinformation, has it. A questioner on Yahoo! Answers’ Brazilian version asks “Why do foreigners think the capital of Brazil is Buenos Aires?” And several years ago, after the invasion of Iraq, a nine-minute cutout animation went viral in Brazil. In it, President Bush has decided to invade Brazil for its oil. Silly gringo soldiers led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris fail miserably, leaving Bush no other option: To launch a nuclear missile at the capital of Brazil.
Predictably, Buenos Aires explodes; soccer legend Maradona and then-President Nestor Kirchner emerge dazed from the rubble. Fade to black. Ha. Ha. Ha.
But therein might lie one explanation. Brazil’s primary cultural, geographical and soccer rival is Argentina, so considering Buenos Aires to be the Brazilian capital would be the ultimate insider insult, like saying the Red Sox played in New York. By this theory, the Buenos Aires rumor does not underestimate Americans’ knowledge of the world, it overestimates it.
The survey did ask three other questions: What continent is Brazil in, what is the official language, and who is the president? Forty-nine out of 50 knew Brazil was in South America; 29 knew the national language was Portuguese (12 gave the most predictable wrong answer, Spanish). But only two could even partially name the president: “Lula,” said one, and another said “Inacio da Silva.” (Another woman said “Cardoso.” Best wrong answer of the day.)
Brazilians informed of the result were disgusted and surprised Americans did not know the name of the president of the biggest country in Latin America. On the other hand, they were themselves hard-pressed to name the leaders of the biggest countries of Asia and Africa (presidents Hu Jintao of China and Umaru Yar-Adua of Nigeria, FYI). Ignorance, it would appear, is widely misunderstood.
For those who are, in fact, curious about Buenos Aires:
Visit Buenos Aires without leaving your chair
And if you want to brush up on your Brazil knowledge:
Brazil's (unofficial) economic forecast
Adventures in Brazilian bureaucracy