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Brazzil - Places - January 2004

Happy 450th Birthday, São Paulo

São Paulo contains everything that is bad about Brazil, particularly
the enormous social division between the rich and poor, but it
also contains a lot that is good and admirable. If the people
in other parts of Brazil had been imbued with the same spirit
of enterprise the country would be very different today.

John Fitzpatrick


São Paulo or Sampa, as the locals call it, is celebrating, January 25, the 450th anniversary of its founding and the city is making a big fuss. Politicians are trying to get into the act, none more than mayor Marta Suplicy, ahead of the October elections. Shows and parties are being held, buildings and statues are being cleaned up, documentaries are being shown on television, countless books are being published and publicized and old buffers are being asked to recall the good old days when it was safe to walk around the center without being harassed by beggars or attacked by thieves and murderers.

The various ethnic groups are pointing to the contribution their people made to building up the city. The Portuguese are recalling the early days when a couple of Jesuit priests founded the settlement near today's Praça da Sé. It was built on a hill for defensive reasons to keep the Indians away. Nowadays the only Indians to be seen nearby are a young woman and two children sitting in the Largo de São Francisco square selling trinkets and begging.

The Italians, who once outnumbered the local Brazilians and gave São Paulo people their accent, are at the heart of the celebrations. The other big communities—Spaniards, Germans, Japanese, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese and Koreans—are also joining in. The Scots and the English whose contribution, apart from the railway stations dotted around the city, included a sport called football (soccer to US readers) will be having a wee dram of whisky or a cup of tea respectively.

The Americans will be hoping they do not have to wait too long at the airport to have their photographs and fingerprints taken. As his personal contribution to the festivities your correspondent will be taking part in a 10-kilometer race and promises not to complain about the city or its inhabitants for 24 hours.

São Paulo contains everything that is bad about Brazil, particularly the enormous social division between the rich and poor, but it also contains a lot that is good and admirable. The fact that the city has developed in such a way is a tribute to the work of the millions of immigrants from other countries and migrants from other parts of Brazil. The population has soared from almost a quarter of a million in 1900 to over 10 million in 2000. In 1872 it only had about 30,000 inhabitants.

The immigrants who poured in developed the city and state and turned it into Brazil's industrial heartland. These immigrants were resourceful and ambitious. If the people in other parts of Brazil had been imbued with the same spirit of enterprise the country would be very different today. This has not been the case and it looks as though São Paulo will stay well ahead of other regions.

The Outsiders' Contribution

Foreigners are still present but not in the same scale as they used to be. For example, in the last years of the 19th century there were more foreigners (mainly Italians) than Brazilians. The incomers these days are Brazilian migrants with the largest groups coming from the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais and Pernambuco.

Many Paulistanos, particularly older people, blame these migrants for the deterioration in many parts of the city. These people claim that the migrants—always referred to as Nordestinos—are lazy, dirty, stupid, criminally inclined and are only interested in exploiting the city, which the hard-working natives created. While some migrants do fit into these categories so do many native-born Paulistanos.

In fact, most migrants have shown enterprise and courage by traveling long distances to get here in order to make better lives for themselves and their families. Many have no luck and return to their poverty-stricken home areas. Others make a living. Few become rich. The most successful example of a Nordestino migrant is, of course, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Brazilians should be proud that a man from such a humble background is today their leader.

In fact, São Paulo businesses and the Paulistano middle class do very well out of the Nordestinos who are an endless supply of cheap labor. It is unusual to find a middle class family without a daily maid. Sometimes there will also be a girl called a babá who looks after the children and stays with the family. Few middle class families in Europe or the United States could afford such a luxury, but here a maid is regarded as almost essential.

The maids do not earn much money, but at least they are earning something and, if they have a good relationship with the family, will stay for decades. These maids are often a more steady source of income for the family than the husband who may lose his job or be one of the long-term unemployed. This domestic industry has also been an escape valve and reduced the social tensions which might have erupted otherwise.

By bringing people closer as individuals this symbiotic relationship has given Brazilians a greater sense of personal proximity than in more developed countries. The rich and poor and the black and white know each other in a way which might strike some as outdated and paternalistic.

However, since we do not live in a perfect world, a practical kind of harmony has evolved. The middle class Paulistano is still too selfish and insecure to be a model citizen but he adapts as best as he can to get by in this gigantic, sprawling, scary city.

Let me finish by sending best wishes to all expatriate Paulistanos and Paulistas who no doubt will be morrendo de saudades on this special birthday.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações - www.celt.com.br, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br
© John Fitzpatrick 2003

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