Keeping
the Flame

Who are these men and women dressed in colorful and festive garb? They are Brazilians who believe that the best way to live their nationalism is through the emphasis on regionalism. They are Gaśchos.

Bernadete Beserra

On a Sunday morning, September 20, 1998, those enjoying Verdugo Park came across yet another of many cultural rituals that gives Los Angeles its international color. Dressed in traditional costumes, a group of men, women, and children playfully chatted apparently in preparation for some special celebration. Wearing long colorful full skirts, the women reminded European peasants from the last century decked out in festive dress. The men, on the other hand, in their baggy pants, boots, handkerchiefs and hats suggested less well-known characters. They might have reminded some sort of Turkish cowboys.

Undoubtedly, few observers would have guessed that these people were preparing a Brazilian festival. Other than the Brazilian flag, which was flying between their American and Gaścho equivalents, there were no obvious indications that one was in the presence of a group of Brazilian immigrants. I doubt that those Brazilians would have been offended for not having been identified with an image of Brazilian culture and people that has been imposed domestically and sold internationally. Rather they are Brazilians who believe that the best way to live their nationalism is through the emphasis on regionalism. In this case, the image of the tropical country, the land of samba, Carnaval, the girls from Ipanema is not exactly the image that that group of Brazilians have come together to reinforce.

Rather than propagate the tall tales of a tropical country blessed by God, the members of the Traditionalist Gaucho Center (CTG) of Los Angeles are interested in living and spreading a rather unique way of being Brazilian. On that September 20 they gathered to celebrate another anniversary of the Farroupilha Revolution, a revolutionary movement that took place in Rio Grande do Sul between 1835 and 1845 against the economic-political centralization imposed on them by the Empire.

The Gaścho anthropologist Ruben Oliven in his book, Tradition Matters: Modern Gaucho Identity in Brazil, recently translated into English, points out that the official celebration of the Farroupilha Revolution "serves as a constant reminder that, although Rio Grande do Sul may be part of Brazil, it was once an independent republic and this fact must remain vivid in the collective memory of its citizens." As the first CTG to be founded outside of Brazil, the Bento Gonēalves Traditionalist Gaucho Center, named in honor of the leader of the Farroupilha Revolution, was founded exactly six years ago on September 20, 1992 by the family of Jatir Delazeri and fourteen other families of which only four are native Gaśchos from the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

This fact, which is not common among CTGs scattered throughout Rio Grande do Sul and other Brazilian states leads to the following questions: What does it mean to be a Gaścho in Los Angeles? What is the meaning of affirming regional identities within an international space? In explaining why only four of the fifteen founding families of the Traditionalist Gaucho Center of Los Angeles are Gaśchos, the founder Jatir Delazeri states that Gaścho is more than being born in Rio Grande do Sul. To be a Gaścho means to agree to adopt a cluster of traditions that the traditionalist Gaścho movement defends. He playfully sums it up by saying that to be a Gaścho is a spiritual state.

Although the Statement of Principles of the CTG is lengthy, the explanation of the founder is brief: "I decided to found this CTG because since I arrived in Los Angeles in 1984 I felt this difficulty that people from the south had in integrating with people from the center and the north of Brazil to form a Brazilian organization." Although I reminded him that I was a Northeasterner, from Paraķba, Delazeri continued to insist that Brazilians from the center and the north of the country are more liberal in comparison to the Gaśchos who are more conservative.

In spite of that generalization, Delazeri insisted that the CTG of Los Angeles was open to all of those who agreed with the Statement of Principles. There is even, he pointed out, a family that is a member of the CTG from the state of Pernambuco. In addition to people from the states of Pernambuco, Sćo Paulo and Paranį, there are members from the United States and other countries of Latin America. Such diversity shows that in Los Angeles Gaścho traditionalism is lived in a rather unique way.

For example, on that Sunday, one didn't enjoy the smell of the two most popular and traditional dishes from Rio Grande do Sul, which were created out of the legendary lifestyle of the Gaścho, namely, churrasco (barbecued meat) and arroz de carreteiro (a rice dish). Since it was a more open party, each person or family brought their own food, creating a semi-picnic, semi-pot luck. No alcoholic beverages since it is part of the principles of the CTG to obey the laws of states, cities and countries in which the chapters are located.

In spite of the absence of barbecued meat and rice, the members insisted that more importantly, the chimarrćo was present. (Chimarrćo is another name for maté, but it is also the carved out gourd used to drink the tea). And the drinking vessel was passed out from person to person as part of a ritual that has been celebrated for over two centuries, although thousands of miles away from Los Angeles.

The use of traditional dress is recommended in public parties but it is not an efficient means to distinguish between Gaśchos and non-Gaśchos. There were not many visitors, but the group anticipated the arrival of specially invited guests: the Brazilian Consul of Los Angeles, Jório S. Gama and the Secretary of the Cultural Department of the Consulate, Albino Poli Jr., who were to participate in the ritual of lighting the "Creole Flame."

Here one needs to explain that the participation of the representatives of the Brazilian Consulate had to do with the fact that the celebration of the anniversary of the Farroupilha Revolution this year was included in the calendar of events of the Brazilian Consulate in Los Angeles to commemorate the Independence of Brazil. It is important to observe in this regard that the policy of the Brazilian government in promoting Brazil abroad relies largely on the voluntary or paid work of Brazilian immigrants who in some cases receive moral or material support from institutions such as the Consulate.

In most cases, the cultural diffusion is undertaken by people whose survival depends on that kind of business. At the sixth anniversary of the CTG of Los Angeles twenty-three member families are present, among them two of the original fifteen founding families. Delazeri explains that this is the dynamic of the CTG in Los Angeles, since many immigrants have moved to other states or simply returned to Brazil. To say nothing about those families who were unable to follow the principles of the center.

Returning to the question that has not yet been answered: What is the meaning of the affirmation of regional identities in an international space? First, the insistence on being a Gaścho in Los Angeles rather than being a Brazilian has to do with the diversity of possibilities of being a Brazilian both in Brazil and abroad. Second, it is not just regional identities that are reinforced under the circumstances of immigration but also religious, political, class and gender identities.

In other words, the need to affirm identities that clearly delineate and bring people together even in other countries is related to the function of developing networks of relationships that immigrants need to establish in order to survive in another country. In this regard, the Gaśchos are not any different from other social groups that Brazilians have created to survive in Los Angeles.

In fact, the criteria of the Gaśchos from the Bento Gonēalves CTG are quite similar to those of the members of the First Adventist Church of the Portuguese Language located in Chino in Southern California, from that of the Brazilians from the Group of Brazilians in Los Angeles, or from the members of the MILA Samba School which is also in Los Angeles. The founders of each group establish criteria with which they can identify more fully and the members come and go according to their interests and circumstances.

It is two in the afternoon and the ritual of lighting the Creole Flame has started. Katheryn Gallant, an American Brazilianist, is the person chosen to bring the American flag to the podium. Immediately thereafter the consul brings the Brazilian flag. The flags of Rio Grande do Sul and the Traditionalist Gaucho Movement are simultaneously brought to the podium by two Gaścho members of the center, one who is Brazilian and the other Peruvian. Applause and photos follow. Mission accomplished: the Creole Flame burns elegantly with the flags flapping in the background. It is three thirty and the traditionalist Gaśchos of Los Angeles begin to prepare to return home to their life of work and transnational dreams.

Bernadete Beserra is doing research on Brazilian immigrants in Los Angeles for her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside. She would like to receive comments about this article as well as talk to people who can help her to understand better the history of Brazilian immigration in Los Angeles. Please send messages to brbeserra@aol.com 


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