RIO DE JANEIRO — IT'S a kind of free-for-all televised kids' party. For four hours every day, Brazil's blonde TV idol, Xuxa (SHOO-sha), plays host to vast numbers of small children who jump around waving pompoms, throwing confetti, and playing games. Xuxa, usually dressed in glittery shorts and high boots, sings, plays with the children, reads letters aloud from her fans, kisses the children, pauses to show a few cartoons, and then dances with the ``Paquitas'' - several blonde girls who look just like Xuxa and just like each other.
It's a good-natured, relentlessly cheerful mess of a children's TV show. And Xuxa is not alone: There are three or four other Brazilian shows almost identical to hers, with female hosts.
Xuxa and her clones have won the hearts of millions of Brazilians - both adults and children - all over the country. There are Xuxa dolls, Xuxa comic books, Xuxa record albums (the top sellers in the country), Xuxa movies, books, clothes, on and on. It's every Brazilian child's dream to be on the Xuxa show. A neighbor in Rio's North Zone, a lower middle-class suburb, couldn't wait to show an inquirer pictures of her little girl on stage with Xuxa.
But what about the fact that Xuxa is so white in a country where 43 percent of the population is black or mixed race? Cries of ``racism!'' were been raised prominently in a New York Times article last summer.
When many Brazilians were asked what they thought of the charge, their answers were best summed up by Edna, a black who lives in Rio's North Zone:
``Nobody pays any attention,'' she said. ``Brazilians are so racially mixed - you can be blond and have a black aunt, or be black and have a white cousin.'' Edna also said that Xuxa, whose real name is Maria da Gra,ca Meneghel, was an uneducated girl from the lower classes. She got her start in show business by posing nude for magazines - hardly the ideal credential for a children's TV host. Brazilians, however, tend to be forgiving about such things, and Xuxa has managed to change her image.
Xuxa started a TV show on Manchete, Brazil's second-largest station. There, according to Edna, and corroborated by several others, Xuxa ``wasn't popular at first. She was rude to the children. She didn't really become popular until she recorded her first album.''
The show was picked up by Globo, the No. 1 network, where ``they straightened her out and made her be nicer to the children,'' Edna says.
Now Xuxa is not only nice to the children, she has supported a number of worthy causes. She constantly reminds her baixinhos (little ones) to be good, take care of the environment, stay off drugs, and to believe in themselves. Her TV persona is sweet and innocent. ``Why quibble about the color of her skin?'' my Brazilian friends (who came in all colors) told me.
True, you don't see a lot of black faces on television here, and there's no question that racial inequality exists, but most Brazilians seem much less concerned about these matters than many in the United States are. There's a lot more racial mixing here than in the US. Black anger exists here, though in a less-organized form than it does in the United States.
Censorship does not seem to be an issue in Brazil, either - surprising for such a largely Roman Catholic country. Nothing vaguely resembling the 2 Live Crew ruckus has come anywhere near Brazil, where rap is virtually unknown and heavy metal is so far underground you can't find it. Attitudes toward nudity vary, though: North Americans are often stunned by the women parading the beaches dressed in bikinis so minuscule that they've been dubbed flo dental (dental floss).
Nevertheless, the first time a woman paraded at Carnival ``dressed'' only in some body paint a couple years ago, many Brazilians found it offensive.