Cabdrivers know passengers don't want to miss a moment of Brazil's nightly soap operas, or novelas. In the popular Ti-ti-ti, Claudia Raia (on-screen) plays a strong-willed fashion designer.
José Alberto, Murilo, Geraldo, Angela, Paulo, Edwiges, Vicente, Rita, Lucia, Marcelino, Teresinha. That makes 11, right? Not including the stillbirth, the three miscarriages, and the baby who lived not quite one full day. Dona Maria Ribeiro de Carvalho, a gravelly-voiced Brazilian lady in her 88th year, completed the accounting of her 16 pregnancies and regarded José Alberto, her oldest son, who had come for a Sunday visit and was smoking a cigarette on her couch. "With the number of children I had," Dona Maria said mildly, her voice conveying only the faintest reproach, "I should have more than a hundred grandchildren right now."
José Alberto, who had been fishing all morning at the pond on his ranch, was still in his sweatpants. His mother's front room in the mid-Brazil town of São Vicente de Minas was just big enough to contain three crowded-in armchairs, a television, numerous family photos, framed drawings of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin, and the black vinyl couch upon which he, Professor Carvalho, retiring head of his university's School of Economics and one of the most eminent Brazilian demographers of the past half century, now reclined. He put his feet up and smiled. He knew the total number of grandchildren, of course: 26. For much of his working life, he had been charting and probing and writing about the remarkable Brazilian demographic phenomenon that was replicated in miniature amid his own family, who within two generations had crashed their fertility rate to 2.36 children per family, heading right down toward the national average of 1.9.
That new Brazilian fertility rate is below the level at which a population replaces itself. It is lower than the two-children-per-woman fertility rate in the United States. In the largest nation in Latin America—a 191-million-person country where the Roman Catholic Church dominates, abortion is illegal (except in rare cases), and no official government policy has ever promoted birth control—family size has dropped so sharply and so insistently over the past five decades that the fertility rate graph looks like a playground slide.