The Brazilians Are Coming

Brazil used to be a country that received immigrants from around the world. Now, at least a million Brazilians have packed their bags to seek better economic opportunities in the US, Europe and Japan. Even Brazilians who don't intend to emigrate are taking advantage of their strong currency to travel and shop abroad at bargain prices.


From Hong Kong to Japan, from England to South Africa and throughout the United States, Brazilians are on the move. They are tourists, students, business executives, housekeepers and prisoners. Some of them hope to return home once they have saved enough money to insure a comfortable lifestyle. Others are willing to tell fantasies of political or police persecution to obtain asylum and free social services in First World nations.

Before the 1960s, Brazil was a country that people immigrated to. From the early 19th century to the mid 20th century, Germans, Swiss, Italians, Spaniards, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Japanese and others joined Portuguese in searching for new opportunities in Brazil. After the coup d'état of 1964, thousands of opponents of the military regime went into exile. Although most of these exiles returned to Brazil after the amnesty of 1979, the number of economic emigrants grew in the '80s. Since 1987, when about 300,000 Brazilians lived outside the country, emigration has increased at a rate of 20% per year.

Since April 1991, there have been no official statistics about Brazilian emigrants. The only number available is that of passports issued by the Federal Police. That came to a total of 436,177 in 1993, the most recent year for which statistics are available. However, this does not necessarily mean that everyone who got a Brazilian passport went abroad and never came back.

Nevertheless, Roberto Fabene, a representative of the International Trade Service of the Brazilian Federal Police, believes that the emigration rate has increased since 1991. "Everything indicates that it has grown progressively all these years," he said.

According to Brazilian demographer José Alberto Magno de Carvalho, director of the Center of Development and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Cedeplar UFMG), there were between one million and 2.5 million Brazilians living outside Brazil in 1995. The Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute (IBGE) adds that the statistical "absence" of 1,379,928 Brazilians between the ages of 20 to 44 from the 1991 census (which IBGE researchers discovered while making demographical exercises with the census results) has only one explanation: emigration.

Where are these Brazilians living abroad? Perhaps half of them live in the United States. The largest Brazilian settlements are on the East Coast. New York, with its "Little Brazil" district on 46th Street, has an estimated 80,000 to 150,000 Brazilian emigrants. Another 150,000 are estimated to live in Boston, and 65,000 in Florida (mostly in the Miami area). About 20,000 Brazilians live in California, divided approximately equally between the San Francisco and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. The cities of Houston, Texas and Washington, DC also have about 10,000 Brazilians each.

More than half the Brazilians who immigrate to the US, according to the Center for Immigration Studies in New York, already have friends or relatives in the US with whom they stay after they arrive in the country. In 25% of the cases, the immigrants do not plan on returning to Brazil.

"Despite what many people think, most Brazilian immigrants arrive with money and contacts to stay in the US some time before getting a job," Gino Agostinelli, of the Center for Immigration Studies, has told the São Paulo newspaper Folha de São Paulo. "They aren't desperate fugitives, but people with money who are looking for another way of life."

About 65% of Brazilian immigrants to the US find a job within three weeks of their arrival. At first, most immigrants seek jobs in the same field in which they worked in Brazil principally because this is one of the easiest ways of getting a green card, the permanent resident visa for aliens living in the US. However, almost 70% of Brazilians living in the US are illegal immigrants.

This fact means that the vast majority of Brazilian immigrants end up working in menial jobs with salaries between $1000 and $2000 a month. Only about 4% of Brazilian immigrants who come to New York to stay earn more than $3000 a month. Generally, these are legal immigrants who work in occupations related to the jobs they had in Brazil.

While 59% of Brazilian female immigrants in New York have gone to college, 56% of them work as maids, housekeepers, cooks or nannies. Among the men, while only 4% have no more than an elementary school education, almost all of them are working as laborers, construction workers or bus boys in restaurants. However, the two occupations in which Brazilian immigrants have an almost total monopoly in the New York metropolitan area shoe shining among the men, gogo dancing among the women are also considered the most shameful.

Since the 1930s, West 46th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues has been the commercial Mecca of Brazilians living or visiting New York. It took New York City Hall some 65 years to note that fact. Finally, on September 7, 1995 Brazilian Independence Day New York City officially gave the title of "Little Brazil Street" to what Brazilians call Rua 46. Like Italians, Chinese, Puerto Ricans and other immigrants to New York, Brazilians now have an official claim to their chunk of the Big Apple. Most Brazilians who live in New York do not make their homes on 46th Street, or even in Manhattan. Instead, they usually reside in Astoria, a neighborhood of the borough of Queens.

Unfortunately, not all Brazilian immigrants to the US find what they are looking for in the land of Uncle Sam. "It's not worth it to live in illegality. We are really humiliated," Régis Ferreira, a 27 year old student, told the Brasília newspaper Correio Braziliense. Ferreira was an illegal alien in the US from 1989 to 1993. He washed dishes, delivered pizza, painted houses and mowed lawns. After two years of menial jobs, Ferreira gave $5000 to a lawyer who offered him a chance to get a green card. However, the lawyer disappeared with Ferreira's savings. Thwarted in his hopes to become a legal resident of the United States, Ferreira returned to Brazil.

Going East -- Every other day, Varig Flight 838 departs from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to Nagoya Airport in Kobe, Japan. Each 27hour flight brings to Japan a new contingent of dekasseguis Brazilians of Japanese descent who seek better economic opportunities in the land that their parents or grandparents left. For the past three years, the number of dekasseguis has increased. Although no official statistics are available, it is estimated that there are about 170,000 dekasseguis working in Japan. Only the US has more Brazilian migrants.

Nisei (children of people born in Japan) are allowed to work for three years in Japan, while sansei (grandchildren of native-born Japanese) can only stay in Japan for a maximum of one year. Dekasseguis are often found in jobs (such as manual labor and factory work) that native-born Japanese seldom do themselves, and for which the dekasseguis almost invariably middle-class, and frequently college graduates are overqualified. However, the salaries of $2000 to $3000 a month are the great attraction to working in Japan. Even taking the higher cost of living in Japan into account, many dekasseguis can save much more than they could back home.

Marcos Ino is a 28-year-old Paulista (from São Paulo state) of Japanese descent. Although he is the son of Brazilian-born parents, their dual citizenship technically makes him a nisei. Ino has been living in the city of Gifo, near Nagoya, for three years. Before coming to Japan, he worked as a technician in an elevator factory in Villares for $1000 a month. Now he has a lower-ranking position in a paper factory, but earns three times more than he did in Brazil. With his wife, Elaine, who works in a firm making cellular telephones, the family salary is $5000 a month. They are saving money to buy a home after they return home. "This would be impossible in Brazil because the money that's left over at the end of the month would only be enough for weekend entertainment," Ino said.

About one third of the dekasseguis do not speak their ancestral tongue. According to Paulo Matsubara, a 48-year-old mechanical engineer working in a factory that makes automobile headlights, this is a source of amazement to Japanese. "They don't understand how somebody with a Japanese face doesn't speak their language," Matsubara said.

Lina Nistzu graduated from college with a degree in public relations. She left a banking job in São Paulo to work 14-hour days in a ceramics factory near Nagoya. According to her sister Lucy, Lina does not mind the near-feudal conditions: the wages are better. "Salaries in Brazil are very bad," Lucy Nistzu explained. "It's shocking that somebody with a degree in public relations prefers to do factory work in Japan. But that's Brazilian reality."

London's call -- Great Britain has the third largest number of Brazilian residents. The Brazilian Arts & Community Centre (BA&CC), a London-based organization that offers aid and support to Brazilians in England, has estimated that about 80,000 Brazilians live in the United Kingdom. The vast majority live in England, mostly in the London metropolitan area. In fact, the neighborhood of Bayswater, near the famous Hyde Park, has so many Brazilian residents that it has acquired the nickname "Brazilwater."

Since 1985, when more than two decades of military rule ended in Brazil, 535 Brazilians have requested political asylum in Great Britain 450, or 84%, since 1993. Statistics from the Home Office (a department in the British government that controls the entry and permanence of foreigners in the country) state that 190 Brazilians requested political asylum in Britain in 1993. In 1994, there were 145 requests from Brazilians. In the first six months of 1995, 115 Brazilians sought political asylum in Great Britain. On the other hand, in all of 1994, only 26 Cubans asked the British government for political asylum.

This does not mean that people are fleeing any actual political persecution in Brazil. Almost all of the asylum seekers entered Britain as tourists and only then asked for political asylum. The wave of requests for political asylum conceals a desire to stay legally in Britain with all expenses paid by British taxpayers. While the request for political asylum is being processed, applicants receive $60 a week, complete health insurance, low cost housing and authorization to work legally in the country.

The Home Office has refused to grant refugee status to all 130 Brazilians since 1985 whose cases have been closed. Although penalties for people who file false requests for political asylum in Britain are harsh (a $3000 fine, a ban on traveling to any nation in the European Community and the possibility of having to repay the British government for all the Social Security benefits which the false refugee received), this does not faze Brazilian asylum seekers. "For Brazilians, the climate is favorable to the false refugee," said Mary de Fátima Lee, president of the BA&CC.

"Samanta" (not her real name) is a 21-year-old Brazilian who has lived in London for three years. In an interview with Sylvio Costa of the Brasília newspaper Correio Braziliense, Samanta confessed that she lied to apply for political asylum. "It was when all that mess was going on, and PC [Farias, the man behind the scandal that forced President Fernando Collor de Mello out of office] was in hiding here in London," she said.

"My son had just been born. I went to the Home Office with the baby and I told them I had helped Collor, and that I couldn't go back home because I'd be risking my life," Samanta said.

"It was so ludicrous a story that, before the yearlong time limit that they had given me to stay here as a political refugee had passed, they sent me a letter telling me that I had 28 days to leave the country," Samanta continued.

Instead of leaving, Samanta decided to marry an Englishman. As the wife of a British subject, Samanta receives the same Social Security benefits that she had as an asylum seeker. These include the "housing benefit," which pays all of Samanta's rent (about $800 a month).

Samanta is content with her London life. She speaks fluent English and is studying fashion design in college. "Here, I can bring up my son, study and go for my degree, which is worth a lot in Brazil. Over there, I couldn't do any of that," she said.

Affluent migrants and tourists -- Emigration can be found at the highest levels of multinational corporations as well. Brazilian business executives are currently in Uzbekistan, Cuba, England, Argentina, Spain, Hong Kong and the US working in such areas as finances, marketing and human resources. Antônio Carlos Guimarães, director of human resources at Xerox, told Brazilian weekly newsmagazine IstoÉ that Brazilians' experiences with hyperinflation make them especially well suited to confront the challenges of new markets in emerging countries. "And in this, Brazilians are PhDs," added Lywall Salles, the director of Chase Manhattan Bank in Hong Kong.

It is not cheap to send a Brazilian executive abroad. Each worker at Xerox do Brasil who is transferred abroad costs an average of $300,000 a year. "Expatriates are expensive, but they're worth it," Guimarães joked. Also, each executive in a management position receives an extra $1000 to $1500 a month for working outside Brazil.

Carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) Franklin Pereira, who has headed the commerce and industry department of Unisys in Boca Raton, Florida and is currently the sales and marketing director of Epson in Los Angeles, compared Brazilians and Americans in the business world. "Adapting to the US isn't as easy as it seems. Despite our similar cultures, we lack dynamism. The American executive is practical. In Brazil, executives confront a lot of bureaucracy and things get delayed in functioning. It's not the professionals' fault, however. Brazilians are very versatile. The business firms themselves are what make Brazilians seem stupid."

Not all Brazilians who are going abroad plan to emigrate. In 1970, only 179,000 Brazilians two out of a thousand could enjoy a foreign trip. Now, there are more Brazilian tourists than ever before. In 1995, 3.1 million Brazilians traveled outside the country, according to a survey by the Brazilian Travel Agents' Association (Abav). Two percent of all Brazilians have gone on business trips or vacations beyond their nation's frontiers.

The popularity of foreign travel is due to three factors, according to the Brazilian weekly newsmagazine Veja, which published a cover story on the topic last January. First, the Brazilian middle class has never found it so affordable. A week-long package tour to New York (plane tickets, hotel room and excursions included) costs as little as $900 a person. That is cheaper than spending the same amount of time in a first-class hotel in a capital of one of Brazil's northeastern states. Another reason is that foreign travel has become much easier to arrange.

Not too many years ago, Brazilians who wanted to indulge in overseas travel had to make a compulsory deposit, buy dollars on the black market and declare how much money they planned to bring. Buying merchandise abroad was out of the question. Now, Brazilian tourists can leave the country whenever they want, bring as much money as they can and even use credit cards issued by non-Brazilian banks. Finally, the economy has stabilized. The strength of the real which is worth more than the US dollar makes it tempting for Brazilian tourists to shop for bargains in countries where prices are lower, and the variety is greater, than at home.

The result has been an explosion of Brazilian tourists. Brazilians occupy third place in foreign tourists to Disney World in Florida, behind only the Canadians and British. Travelers from the largest country in South America also are the second most likely overseas visitors to the ski resort of Aspen, Colorado, with only the Germans being more prevalent. According to a US government study, Brazilian tourists are arriving in the US at a faster rate than tourists from any other country.

Brazilians are also going to countries that were previously unknown territory to them. For example, 30,000 Brazilians went to South Africa in 1995, twice as many as went to that country three years previously. Eight thousand of those Brazilians in South Africa went to celebrate New Year's Eve 1995 at the Palace Hotel in Johannesburg, the only six-star hotel in the world.

What do Brazilians like to do while traveling? One type of voyage is reminiscent of the 1969 film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. As you may recall, that was the story of American tourists trying to visit seven European countries in 18 days. Like those hapless Yankees, many first time Brazilian tourists attempt to see and do everything in two or three weeks. They return home totally exhausted and need another vacation to recuperate!

The second prevalent type of vacation is the shopping spree. According to Janet Unger, director of marketing at the renowned New York department store Bloomingdale's, "Brazilians now occupy fourth place among our biggest buyers." As of last summer, Bloomingdale's began to hire Portuguese-speaking sales clerks to assist the wave of Brazilian shoppers.

Just in 1995, tourists from Brazil spent $2.2 billion on purchases, food, hotel rooms and transportation in the US. The number of Brazilian tourists, which was just 398,000 in 1990, almost doubled in five years. It is estimated that there will be a million tourists in the US by 1998, and a whopping 2.2 million by the year 2005.

For the French historian Frédéric Mauro, of the National Foundation of Political Science in Paris, the stampede of Brazilians to the First World is comparable to another exodus within Brazil's own borders: that of Northeasterners who arrive at the bus depots in Rio or São Paulo in search of opportunity. "The Northeastern migration is a smaller-scale portrait of what is happening throughout the world," Mauro told Brazilian newsmagazine Veja in 1991. "The poorest people, when they are in trouble, always find space in big cities."

This analogy, like most comparisons, is far from exact. One difference is that the dream of the wonderful South no longer excites Northeasterners as much as the American or European dream inspires the natives of southern Brazil's urban centers.

By 1990, only 10,000 migrants came to São Paulo, much less than the 200,000 who arrived each year during the 1960s. The sertanejos (backlanders) of Brazil's Northeast now prefer the gold mines of Amazonia or the more prosperous cities in the interior of São Paulo state. Largely for financial reasons, they have not yet thought of taking Manhattan.

Behind bars

At least one thousand Brazilians are imprisoned outside their homeland, according to an estimate by the Consular and Legal Affairs Department of Itamaraty, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry. Most of the Brazilian prisoners are in the US, but a precise number cannot be established.

One reason is that the correctional system in the US is not centralized. Although there are some federal prisons, there are many more state prisons, and also city and county jails. Another difficulty in determining the number of Brazilian prisoners in the US is because many states do not identify convicts by nationality. On the federal level, the Justice Department classifies prisoners by race and not by their country of origin. Thus Brazilians are included among the 75,000 Hispanics of the most recent "jail census," taken in 1994.

Finally, whether through ignorance or fear, most prisoners abroad do not demand that the diplomatic representative of their country be notified of their detention. This is a guaranteed right of the Geneva Convention.

In New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the Brazilian consulate has been informed of 12 Brazilians in state prisons within their jurisdiction. Most are there for illegal immigration or drug trafficking. At Kennedy International Airport in New York City, Brazilians are detained almost daily under suspicion of trying to enter the US illegally. Most, however, are immediately repatriated to Brazil.

Florida has the most Brazilian tourists behind bars. Nearly all are accused of shoplifting. This is largely due to the intransigence of Disney World, which always calls the police when visitors attempt to leave a store without paying.

Practically all of the Brazilian prisoners in Texas, Colorado and New Mexico are illegal immigrants who attempted to enter the US without a visa. The Brazilian consulate in Los Angeles, however, does not provide information about Brazilians detained in its jurisdiction.

Most Brazilians living in the US whether legally or not behave quite well. They are perceived as hardworking, law-abiding and discreet. "They don't get into gangs," Charles Troy, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in New York, told Brazilian newsmagazine Veja in 1991.

An unnamed spokesman for the Miami Police Department agrees. "Perhaps since many of them are illegal immigrants, they avoid getting in trouble," he said.

Sugar loaf next?

If Little Brazil has a symbol, it has to be the orelhão (big ear) of Telerj (the telephone company in Rio de Janeiro) on 46th Street, in front of the Café Emporium Brasil. The phone booth is a tourist attraction for homesick Brazilians who take photos of the piece of Rio in the Big Apple. Unlike most phone booths in Rio, however, the orelhão is in perfect condition, thanks to the efficiency of NYNEX, the telephone company serving New York.

João de Matos, the owner of the Café Emporium, imported the phone booth by telling US Customs that the orelhão was just a decoration. Now de Matos wants to have another piece of Brazil in Manhattan: he plans to construct a replica of the wave-patterned sidewalks of Copacabana along the pavements of Little Brazil.

"It only depends on Rio's city government," de Matos told Domingo, the Sunday supplement magazine of the Rio newspaper Jornal do Brasil. "If I can get the sidewalks here to New York, I'm going to ask if they can take the Statue of Liberty and put up the statue of Christ the Redeemer in its place," he joked.

Understanding the Brazuca

Maxine Margolis, an American anthropologist, spent three years studying the Brazilian community in New York. She ate feijoada, went to see Brazilian gogo dancers at nightclubs and even participated in a street party during the TV broadcast of a World Cup game. With her interviews of more than 250 Brazilian immigrants or Brazucas as they are called as source material, Margolis wrote about their experiences. Her anthropological study, Little Brazil, was published to rave reviews in 1994.

In an interview with Fernanda Godoy of daily newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Margolis emphasized that most of the Brazilians she interviewed are ashamed to be immigrants. "Almost 90% say that they're not immigrants, that they're just passing through," Margolis said.

Another point to which Margolis gave importance is that most of the Brazilians in the US are from middle-class families. "Someone who had a maid over there [in Brazil] is a maid here," Margolis commented. "Immigrants here [in the US] have the lowest ranking jobs. And a middle-class person in Brazil never, never, never is going to think about working as a dishwasher. Immigrants defend themselves from frustration by thinking that they're doing these services only for a year or two, that it's a temporary situation."

Finally, Margolis underscored the fact that the Brazucas are an "invisible community." First, since most Brazilian immigrants work from 10 to 15 hours a day at low-paying menial jobs, they do not have the time or energy to make a bigger mark on their adopted country. Also, the relative lack of Brazilian-owned businesses in the US makes it easy for most Americans to consider Brazilians yet another "Hispanic" group. Brazilians dislike this label after all, Brazilians speak Portuguese and not Spanish. But in the minds of many North Americans, the small amount of Brazilian immigrants (as compared to immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America) blends in easily with other Latin American immigrants.