Using DNA Tests & Powerful Portraits, This Project Captures the Ethnic Diversity of Brazil

Lead Photo: Marcus Lyon
Marcus Lyon
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“Brazilians seem undaunted by simply being Brazilian.” That’s the conclusion English photographer Marcus Lyon arrived at after traveling across the Americas for 30 years. In the United States, people tie their identities to their ancestral homeland. They may say they are Italian Americans, for example. But this isn’t quite the same for Brazilians.

And maybe Lyon would have left it at that had he not married and had children with a Brazilian woman. One day, his two Brazinglish children told him: “Daddy, we’re Brazilian.” Despite having a very clear connection to England and being born in the UK, his children – like other Brazilians – identified themselves through the South American country.

“I knew I had a deeper search on my hands to understand the identity of my family,” he said at a TEDxExeter talk. So he embarked on a nearly 14,000-mile journey across Brazil to explore identity in the country his family calls home. This series became Somos Brasil. He photographed 52 people, and used DNA samples and anecdotes as a way to challenge what outward appearances suggest.

In more than six months, Somos Brasil brought him to community heroes, mothers, athletes, and entrepreneurs, who shared stories about their families, memories, and dreams. The work has been turned into a exhibition, a book, and an app. It’s truly impossible to learn who these people are without seeing their images, their genetic makeup, their stories, and their blurbs on the Somos Brasil app.

Check out eight stories below:


Josicleide Nascimento de Oliveira and Maria Auxiliadora do Nascimento Silva

Marcus Lyon

City: Conceição das Crioulas
Birthday: January 30, 1995 and August 6, 2013
Genetic origin: 31% West Africa, 13% Sephardic Jewish, Native North American, 12% Sardinian, Western-Central Europe, 7% Iberian peninsula, 4% Eastern Europe, 13% Native North American, 3% Native South American, 2% Finland/North Siberia, 2% Southern-Central Africa, 2% Eastern-Central Africa, 1% Scandinavian

“My mother said that her grandmother was picked up in the brush by dogs. She’s the one who tells that story. Can you believe it? She just told me that. I work with clay, as my mother has done. I saw what she was doing, and others as well, and so I started to do the same. My mother is still working, just as I do, not just with clay, buy with caroa. I make placemats, skirts, but I’ve never been able to make dolls. I’ve never learned.”


Leila Velez Hespanha

Marcus Lyon

City: Rio de Janeiro
Birthday: February 21, 1974
Genetic origin: 50% Iberian peninsula, 24% West Africa, 9% Native North American, 4% Eastern-Central Africa, 3% British, 3% Native South American, 2% Middle East, 32% North Africa, 2% Southern-Central Africa, 1% South-east Asia

“I had a very privileged childhood, because I lived in the southern zone of Rio de Janeiro in Leblon in the Ipanema, which is an incredible place, a marvelous spot here in Rio de Janeiro. My father was a doorman. He came with migrant workers from the northeast. They offered him a home for the family in return for being the doorman and janitor for the building. At Beleza Natural, 90 percent of my team is comprised of young ladies – some 18, 19 years old. This is their first job, so to give you an idea, almost all of them arrive here, and they already have a baby, maybe two by a father who is out of the picture.

“In most cases, it was an unplanned pregnancy. We give them that first opportunity at a career, for girls who often were unable to access the labor market for lack of experience, not having gone to a prodigious school or taken other courses. At the same time, we show them that it os possible to transform their lives through hard work. We tell them, ‘There’s no glass ceiling. You can do it.’ We have a motto here: ‘I want, I can, I will.’ At the company, we also joke that not even the sky’s the limit.”


Anthony Lawrence Da Rocha Azevedo

Marcus Lyon

City: Rio de Janeiro
Birthday: November 21, 1981
Genetic origin: 62 percent Iberian Peninsula, 17 percent Scandinavian, 7 percent British, 5 percent Eastern European, 4% Western-Central Europe, 3% Jewish Ashkenazi, 1% Eastern-Central Africa, 1% Western Africa

“I have always liked sports, but I saw the passion my father had for water polo, and I wanted to be like him. Water polo for me is life. I started playing when I was 8 years old. I told my father then that I wanted to play in the Olympics and win a medal. The next four years, I did everything I could. I woke up about 5 in the morning. I trained six hours a day, school as well. And at 18, I achieved my first Olympic games. Then, I started playing water polo in the United States, but every time I play against Brazil, I get a different feeling, because I have a lot, all my family here in Rio, Belo Horizonte, in São Paulo. As a boy, water polo helped me study. It helped me understand that things need to be done at 100 percent.”

Related: For These 14 Latino Olympians, What Country to Compete For is a Matter of Identity


Bekwynhka Kayapó, aka João Pangrá Kayapó

Marcus Lyon

City: Ourilândia do Norte
Birthday: November 15, 1968
Genetic origin: 74% Native North American, 26% Native Southern American

“It was when I started to go out to learn other languages, particularly Portuguese, that I could start helping my relatives, who do not know the customs of white Brazilian society and were unable to resolve problems on their own. I have to offer guidance, counsel. I explain. I translate. That’s my work within my community. I’ve always liked doing this, because my father is a cacique – an indigenous leader – and I’m the person to do this job. I always have to go and help my people, so they don’t forget their traditions… I know my ancestry…

“In the old village, my grandmother would tell me, my father’s mother would tell me, that my grandparents were warriors. They always defended the family to prevent outsiders from invading the Kayapó territory. So I remember when my grandmother told me that my grandfather fought to defend his territory. He upheld that mission, and he died for that protection. He died like that. At war. I remember that.”


Andressa Sousa do Nascimento

Marcus Lyon

City: Boa Vista
Birthday: June 21, 1985
Genetic origin: 57% Iberian Peninsula, 16% West Africa, 11% Native North American, 5% British, 2% Native South American, 2% North Africa, 2% Eastern-Central Africa, 2% Sephardic Jewish, 2% Scandinavia, 1% Southern-Central Africa

“My father played the keyboard. He’s an amateur musician. He was always passionate about music.”


Bruno Horácio Pereira Dos Santos

Marcus Lyon

City: São Paulo
Birthday: June 3, 1989
Genetic origin: 35% WestAfrica, 13% British, 8% IberianPeninsula, 8% Native North American, 6% Sardinian, 5% Scandinavia, 5% Eastern-Central Africa, 3% Native South American, 1% Southern-Central Africa, 1% North Africa, 1% Northeast Asia

“I feel completely African. I feel like I belong to this black race. I don’t know why I feel this way, but these are the people I identify myself with. This culture. I find it beautiful. I connect with this. My grandmother was a slave, for example. She tells several stories, even nowadays.”


Dayse Beatriz Barreto de Oliveira

Marcus Lyon

City: Acopiara
Birthday: April 23, 1988
Genetic origin: 65% Iberian Peninsula, 9% Asia Minor, 9% Native North American, 5% West Africa, 3% Native South American, 2% North Africa, 2% Southern-Central Africa, 2% Finland/North Siberia, and 1% Siberia,

“My father asked me, very nicely, to study law. And I finished nine semesters, but it just didn’t feel right. You’re born to be who you are, and that was not who I was. So I made a video for my father called How to Convince My Father to Leave Law School and Study Film, and I went out in the city, doing what I liked to do. I went to the university library, where I edited and put together my history, which was maybe, I don’t know, maybe 200 books. 150 were in law, fashion, architecture, and I made this video for my father. And after he saw it, he said, ‘You’re going to study cinema.’

“And now I’ve been working five years in film. It’s not been long, but I’ve started to discover who I could be, who I really was, to offer more to society than just sitting and doing some bureaucratic job, which would never bring me any pleasure outside of the financial gain. I believe that film saved me in a way, not just my life, but my father’s, my home. Film has a power to change people’s lives in a real intense way.”


Claudia Dias Batista de Souza

Marcus Lyon

City: São Paulo
Birthday: June 30, 1947
Genetic origin: 54% Iberian Peninsula, 13% Scandinavian, 9% British, 6% Sardinian, 5% North Africa, 3% Native North America, 3% Middle East, 2% Native South America, 2% Sephardic Jewish, 1% Eastern Central Africa

“My monastic name is Coen, which means a single circle. I ended up getting married at 14. My mother cried like crazy at the wedding: ‘My baby. My baby.’ But I left home, and not only home, I got away from the pressures of school and the group discrimination I was experiencing. I felt important. I was a married woman. When I got pregnant, we started to pull apart. My husband left, and I didn’t want to go back to my mother’s house, but I had no money, no food. So I ended up coming back. My baby girl was born, and I stayed to take care of her myself. And my father comes around one day and says, ‘You will not remain uneducated, staying and taking care of your daughter at home. What are you going to do with your life? Will you work or study?’ I said, ‘Oh,  I’ll find a job.’ He said, ‘Doing what? You don’t have any skills, and I’m not going to help you. I won’t talk to my friends. You’ll find a job yourself.’

“And I applied for jobs but nothing came of it. So I said OK, I’ll go to school. I wanted to study philosophy or theology. They thought the idea was absurd. Again, the family puts pressure on you. ‘How absurd. Can you imagine? What? Will you be a teacher?’ they’d say. ‘A teacher makes nothing. What a sad thing. A whole family comprised of teachers. Go and study law.’ So I went to study law, and I hated it.”

Visit BBC and The Guardian for more information on Somos Brasil.