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Keeping the Flame

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 Gaúchos.
By 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 Gaúcho 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 Gaúcho 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 Gonçalves 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 Gaúchos 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 Gaúcho
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 Gaúchos, the founder Jatir
Delazeri states that Gaúcho is more than being born in Rio Grande do Sul. To be a Gaúcho
means to agree to adopt a cluster of traditions that the traditionalist Gaúcho
movement defends. He playfully sums it up by saying that to be a Gaúcho 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 Paraíba, Delazeri continued to insist that
Brazilians from the center and the north of the country are more liberal in comparison to
the Gaúchos 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, São Paulo and Paraná, there are members from the
United States and other countries of Latin America. Such diversity shows that in Los
Angeles Gaúcho 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 Gaúcho, 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 chimarrão was present. (Chimarrão 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 Gaúchos and non-Gaúchos. 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 Gaúcho 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 Gaúchos are not any different from other social groups that
Brazilians have created to survive in Los Angeles.

In fact, the criteria of the Gaúchos from the Bento Gonçalves 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 Gaúcho 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 Gaúchos 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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