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Brazilians don't think much of Americans' knowledge of their country.
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.