FORTALEZA, Brazil -- The grimace on Hulk's normally cheerful face at Sunday's Seleção news conference said it all.
"Nordestinos [people from the northeast of Brazil] are different because they're funny, aren't they? And it's their accent that makes the rest of the country think they're so funny, isn't it?" a Brazilian journalist asked.
Hulk, who is from another northeastern state, Paraíba, was not impressed. "I don't think we're funny at all," he said. "Northeastern fans are special because they support from the heart."
Prejudice against the nine-state nordeste region of Brazil is nothing new. The northeast is the country's poorest region, where, according to a 2011 report by research institute IBGE, 9.6 million people (18.1 percent of the area's population) live below the Brazilian government's extreme poverty line of $32 a month.
Such poverty stems from historical factors. Away from its coastal metropolises and glorious beaches, the northeast is dominated by the sertão, vast swathes of inland semi-desert. Life in the sertão is terribly difficult; drought is a constant threat, and until relatively recently, the specter of famine has lurked in the region.
As a result, the rural poor of the nordeste have historically been forced to seek better lives in state capitals such as Fortaleza (where Brazil face Mexico later today), Recife and Salvador. But such cities, beset by social problems themselves, lack the jobs, housing or social infrastructure to give the new arrivals much of a welcome. The result -- from the gaunt faces of the homeless begging at traffic lights to the tumbledown alleys of the favelas -- are all too visible, even today.
Nor does the political history of the nordeste help. While southern cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo grew through industry (and coffee, in the case of the latter), the northeast relied on sugarcane to make its money -- a trade steeped in the culture of coronelismo, with huge parcels of land controlled by a rich and powerful few.
The sugarcane plantations needed workers, and the solution was to bring those workers from Africa. An estimated 1.5 to 2 million slaves arrived in the state of Bahia before the practice was abolished in 1888. Tourists visiting the idyllic beach of Porto de Galinhas near Recife are advised not to ponder too long on the history of the resort's name -- galinhas means chickens, and chickens here, in the past, meant slaves. The area was where new arrivals were secretly smuggled into Brazil after slavery had been abolished.
When the slaves were eventually freed (or escaped and set up a quilombo community such as that at Palmares, home to the legendary slave leader Zumbi), they most often simply added to the legions of nordestino poor. For many, not that much has changed today -- the descendants of the poor then continue to be poor now, while the rich of the northeast maintain the same lives of gilded luxury as their ancestors.
The singsong nordeste accent -- actually one of Brazil's most melodic -- is often ridiculed, and in Rio de Janeiro and places to the south, nordestino economic migrants, of which there are millions, are uniformly referred to as paraibanos (someone from Paraíba), regardless of where they're actually from.
Such prejudice is a shame, for things are looking up for the nordeste. Former president Lula, who grew up a poor nordestino, was perhaps the first modern Brazilian leader who truly understood the region, and welfare programs and an increased minimum salary have done much to help the area's poor. The local economy, particularly in states such as Pernambuco, has also grown.
Brazil will be excited about playing Mexico in Fortaleza. It was here, against the same opponents during the Confederations Cup, that the fans first belted out an extended a capella version of the national anthem after the stadium loudspeakers had fallen silent, a spontaneous show of patriotism and solidarity with those protesting against corruption in all its forms outside in the streets. Neymar scored just nine minutes after kickoff, and the Seleção has rarely looked back since.
It is such passion that Hulk was referring to in his response to the journalist, who, to his credit, has since apologized. The same enthusiasm is reflected everywhere in the nordeste -- from the support locals give to their beknighted football clubs, who are rarely competitive on a national level but often pull in crowds to put their southern rivals to shame, to the region's rollicking carnival celebrations. As World Cup visitors will discover, there is a lot more to the nordeste than an accent.