Hoping These Poor in Brazil Will Inspire More than Just a Liberal Guilt Trip

Brazil's Migrant HouseThe Scalabrinian Order of the Catholic Church was founded in Italy in 1887 by Giovanni Battista Scalabrini, then Bishop of Piacenza. The Order’s mission was to “maintain the Catholic faith and practices among Italian emigrants in the New World.” Today, the Scalabrinians and their sister organizations, the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo and Secular Institute of the Scalabrinian Missionary Women minister to migrants, refugees and displaced persons all over the world.

The Scalabrinian Migrant House in São Paulo is located right on the frontier between the downtown district and the old immigrant neighborhood of Brás. Located at Rua Almirante Mauriti #70, the building is tucked in under a highway overpass as an annex of the traditionally Italo-Brazilian Nossa Senhora da Paz Church.

Its goal is to “take in internal migrants as well as immigrants and refugees – people who are on the cutting edge of the global drama of human mobility – without regard to age, gender, color, creed, nationality or any other discriminatory focus”. In other words, the House serves as a refuge for people who are caught up in the daily struggles of migrations, whether this be forced or voluntary, internal to Brazil or international.

The House provides a space for up to 100 migrants to sleep, eat, bathe, wash clothes, socialize and in general get their life in some sort of order. It also provides immigrants with legal and social aid, as well as providing them with a solid base for their new life in the largest metropolis of the Americas. Most people use the House’s services for only a month or so, but up to a quarter of its floating population of guests may stay for three to six months or even longer.

Until recently, most of the House’s guests were Brazilian migrants – often northeasterners seeking work in the South. Over the last ten years, however, there has been an increase in the number of immigrants from other South American countries who seek out the Scalabrinian’s aid.

In particular, large numbers of Bolivians (though also Colombians, Paraguayans and Ecuadorians) have been attracted by work opportunities in São Paulo’s fashion and clothing industries. These men and women are largely illegal or irregular immigrants with no civil rights in Brazilian society.

They are the poorest of the poor, escaping unbelievably harsh life conditions in their home countries to work as quasi-slave labor in sweatshops in Brás and Bom Retiro. Most of these illegal immigrants are Native American in ancestry and come from the poorest and most backwards regions of the Andean nations.

The Migrant House’s associated church is the official Latin American immigrant parish for São Paulo and its sanctuary holds sacred images of the patron saints of all the Andean nations. Father Mário Geremia, the priest in charge, has worked incessantly for immigrant rights in Brazil and has also labored to aid immigrants in creating diverse cultural and social spaces throughout São Paulo.

In this task, he might be likened to a man trying to mop up the Augean Stables with a handiwipe. Courageously and daringly, Father Mário refuses to see his charges as powerless “victims of international trafficking”, a tag which the Brazilian Federal Police is all too quick to apply to illegal Bolivian immigrants.

“Whatever these people’s situation, they have an absolute human right to be here and to work here,” says Padre Mário. “Their work conditions in the sweatshops are horrible, but they themselves say they prefer this life to a forced return to their country of origins. As Brazilian citizens and Christians, it is our duty to aid these people, our brothers, in achieving a more dignified and fruitful life here, and not treat them as criminals or powerless children.”

Now, I am the first person to admit that I have little use for organized religion of any sort and even less use, normally, for the Catholic Church. The Scalabrinians and their work, however, is to my mind a sterling example of what that Church can accomplish when it is led by intelligent, generous and humble people. (One hopes that this side of the Church will finally come into its own once Herr Ratzinger shuffles off to glory, but I digress…)

The night we visited the Migrant House, some 100 people were being served dinner in the building’s communal dining hall. We arrived just as a brief, ecumenical prayer service was being conducted. The residents of the House on that night were very much a mixed bag of ages, genders, colors.

There were, of course, many Brazilian immigrants there. I talked to one young woman who had just arrived in the city with her two-year old daughter. They had come up from Porto Alegre alone with, as we say in Portuguese “one hand in front and another behind”: a polite way of saying that they had sweet f#$k all in terms of support or money. She had landed at the House and had stayed there for a month, using its phone and address for job applications. She had just recently been hired, however, and was looking to move out in the next week or so.

There were also many Africans and Andeans eating dinner and even a pair of elderly Europeans, whose story I unfortunately didn’t get to hear. The mix reflected the House’s open door policy: you are moving about in the world and need three hots and a cot? The door’s wide open to you, no matter who you are.

We got a complete tour of the facilities courtesy of Dirceu Cutti, one of the House’s ex-directors (the current director is Father Lírio) and also the editor-in-chief of Travessia Magazine, Brazil’s only immigrant affairs periodical. The place was well kept and sparklingly clean. Bedrooms (divided into men’s and women’s dorms) were somewhat crowded, but also neat and well-maintained.

What really impressed me, however, were the social facilities: classrooms, TV room and a beautiful and ample courtyard garden. There was also a meeting hall, complete with a mural painted by a pair of Colombian immigrants. In the mural, representatives of all the world’s religions watch as God hands the city of São Paulo as a gift to mankind.

I suppose I could end this piece with a brief homily about how today’s corruption scandal or flagrant miscarriage of justice tends to drive from peoples’ minds the ongoing, everyday labors of people like Dirceu Cutti, Father Lírio and Father Mário to make Brazil a better and more just place.

But to tell the truth, what I really was thinking about during my visit to Migrant House was this site, the many other gringo sites like it and my master’s work on Anglophone immigration to Brazil, Gringos.

You see, we modern North American and Western European gringos have a very bad habit: no matter how long we live in Brazil, no matter what ties we create with the nation and the people, we rarely – if ever – consider ourselves to be immigrants.

“Immigrant”: now that’s a bad word, calling to mind such adjectives as “illegal” and “third world”. We’re better than that, right? We’re not like Mexicans in the U.S. or Pakistanis in Britain or Algerians in France because we’re… well we’re… Uhm, well we’re just not like them. We contribute to the country’s economy. Yeah, that’s the ticket! We bring positive culture and sweetness and light to Brazil. So don’t call us immigrants. Call us “travelers”, or “locals”, or “expats”. Call us anything but that bad “I” word.

When I did this research I discovered that fully 75% of my informants – all Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis and Brits – were, in fact, irregularly in Brazil. They had overstayed their visas and were as “illegal” as those Mexicans U.S. Republicans love to pontificate about. Furthermore, almost all of them were working illegally: no health care, no social security – certainly no job security.

Many of them had encountered scams which had preyed on their vulnerabilities as immigrants. And yet almost to a man and woman, every one of these gringos believed that they were somehow “immune” to the dangers and pressures that all immigrants, everywhere, face. They weren’t “really” immigrants.

Now I’m hoping against hope that some Brazilian-resident gringo out there reading this will have a little light bulb go on in their skull. That they’ll realize that in spite of their first world passport and college education, they too are an immigrant for however long they decide to remain in Brazil.

And I’m praying that this person will see what is very clear to me: that if we are ever to have a chance of changing Brazil’s incredibly unjust and chaotic immigration laws, then relatively privileged immigrants like ourselves are going to have to make common cause with the Nigerians, Chinese, Angolans and Bolivians who make up the majority of this country’s immigrant population. We’re going to have to work together with the people who the Casa do Migrante serves and see them as our brothers and sisters.

More realistically, however, I’m hoping that some liberal guilt feelings will percolate away at the bottom of the consciences of the gringos reading this and they’ll donate some money or goods to the excellent people at the House.

You can get in touch with Dirceu and his crew via their website at http://www.casadomigrante.com.br/casa-do-migrante.html. The Casa do Migrante is always in need of food, blankets, clothing, money and volunteers.

Thaddeus Blanchette is an immigrant to Brazil who has been living in and studying the country most of his adult life. He can be reached at poboxthad@yahoo.com.br.

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