When did they start coming? Why the U.S? What do they do here? How do they assimilate the culture? Do they intend to come back? What do they expect from the United States?
By Duval Guimarães
Photos: Claudia Passos and Jane Ceron
Nowadays, Brazilians’ expectations in the United States have become several. For many, these definitely continue to be having a job and saving money, but for many others learning English, acquiring knowledge, having fun, finding the true self, or even finding a place to live happily ever are on the top of their expectations’ list.
Since the 1980s, a considerable number of people from several backgrounds left Brazil to not come back. About 1,250,000 Brazilians left the country between 1985 and 1989. Experts estimate that at least 1.6 million out of the about 170 million Brazilians have already left the country. Out of those numbers, at least 1 million are in the U.S. The biggest concentrations of Brazilians in the United States live in the Greater Areas of Boston, New York City/New Jersey and Miami/Fort Lauderdale, while the smaller concentrations are in different cities of California, Connecticut, Texas and Washington.
When did they start coming? Who are they? Why did they leave Brazil? Why the United States? How did they get here? How do they assimilate the culture? What do they do here? Are there differences between different concentrations of Brazilians in the United States, and if so, what are they? Do they intent to go back? What do they expect from the United States? How do North Americans see them? These are questions of which answers would lead to a better understanding of the Brazilians who live in the United States.
History of Brazilian Immigration to the USA
Brazilians began immigrating in large numbers to North America in the mid-1980s. At that time, the Brazilian people started suffering the consequences of the big economic downturn that happened between the end of the 1970s and the begging of the 1980s. Brazil was going through huge political change. The military government that had run the country since the mid-1960s was being replaced by democracy. The new government found many difficulties as they assumed the power, which led to the economic downturn mentioned.
Maxine Margolis, an Anthropology professor at the University of Florida, argues that “economic uncertainty, low wages, lack of job opportunities, and high cost of living” influenced many Brazilians to leave the country. Since the United States was seen as the country of the “opportunities,” the Brazilians found here a chance to escape the uncertainty of the times they were living in Brazil and many decided to come try their lives in a “First World” country. As the economy remained uncertain, the Brazilians kept coming to the United States throughout that decade and after the 1990s.
It is important to state that there was an improvement in the economy of Brazil in the mid-1990s. According to Maxine Margolis, the economic plan established by Fernando Henrique Cardoso as he assumed the presidency in 1995, seems not to have diminished the motivation of Brazilians to leave the country, nor did it motivate those who had already left to come back. *Note that many of those Brazilians come back to Brazil after 2009 with the “hope” of new opportunities in the country.
It is difficult to describe a typical profile of the Brazilian immigrants in the United States. According to Ana Cristina Braga Martes, a Sociology professor of the Getulio Vargas Foundation who has done a survey on the Brazilians immigration in the Greater Boston Area, there is not a typical profile of Brazilians living there. She concludes that the age concentration of those Brazilians is between 21 and 34 years old, but there are not enough similarities between them in order to describe them according to one single profile. The Greater Boston Area was one of the first to aggregate Brazilians.
The variation in background and characteristics that Braga Martes found in Boston is due to the increase of immigrants with diversified reasons and expectations who came to the U.S throughout the 80’s and 90’s. In cities where we now find a big concentration of Brazilians, there are always more distinct groups. Some have been there for a long time and have already formed families while others came to study, work, or follow their friends or partners, and so on. Considering that reasons to migrate between certain groups of immigrants are usually similar, different reasons would lead to different groups, and consequently to diversity. Their diversity relates to their origin in Brazil, level of education, marital status, and intentions when they decided to migrate here.
What Brazilians living in the USA are like
Contrary to the bigger concentrations, it might be possible to describe the typical profile of Brazilian immigrants in smaller concentrations. Speaking from my personal experience in California, I have observed that most Brazilians who live here seem to have similar backgrounds and characteristics. That is especially true in cities that have English as a Second Language (ESL) Schools and Community Colleges such as Santa Barbara, L.A and San Diego. These Brazilians usually come from more developed cities of Brazil, such as Rio, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Recife, Curitiba and Porto Alegre.
They are usually between 17 and 28 years old and come from upper-middle to high-class families. Most of them come to study English for a couple months or even a couple semesters, and decide to stay longer to further “improve their English,” as most of them say to justify their overstay. As they decide to stay longer, the cost of living may increases even for those from the higher social class as the Brazilian currency, Real, is considerably devalued compared to the dollar.
Consequently, they need to look for some source of money here, and start seeking jobs just like all other immigrants. They tend to work in restaurants (as busboys, hosts/hostesses or waiters), as baby sitters, pizza-deliveries, valet parkers, among other positions less desired by the American working class. Those who have learned at least the basics of English tend to get higher wage jobs. Most “Californian Brazilians” go back home after 3, 4 or 5 years, but that is only after they have explored the waves, mountains, great concerts, parties and other entertainments of this awesome state.
The opportunities in the U.S attract Brazilians just like many others. People usually think about money, experience, knowledge and entertainment when they consider coming to America. After 09/11, it became harder for many folks to obtain a US visa; the Brazilians included.
It was not so hard to get a visa until 1998, when the number of US visas conceived started to decrease, and diminished even more after 2001, affirms Franklin Goza, a professor of the Department of Sociology of the Bowling Green State University in Ohio. According to Goza, “the number of Brazilian Citizens that entered the U.S with a non-immigrant visa increased almost continually from 1980 and 1998 until it began to decrease”. The Brazilian immigrants used to come with a non-immigrant visa, but there was those also, that after trying the visa for two or three times and not getting it, try to cross the U.S borders from Mexico and Canada.
Curiously, in a flight from Boston to L.A in April of 2004, I met two Brazilian who “work” for a company that they ironically referred to as “Coyote Tour.” Their job is to transport the Brazilians who cross the borders of Mexico (usually between 15 and 18 passengers in each van) to their destination in the U.S, which is normally Boston or New York. They said that the competition for such costumers is hard because even though there still is the risk of being caught by the immigration officers, the profit “per/head” is worth it. At that time and according to them, there was at least 200 Brazilians trying to cross the borders of Mexico every month and paying about $10,000 dollars to be taken from Brazil to their final destination in the U.S.
The way Brazilians assimilate the culture of this country depends mostly on how well they speak English. In order to understand how this assimilation works, it is necessary to think of the bigger concentrations separately from the small ones. Culture assimilation in bigger concentrations seems to be harder because there are already many options that provide the Brazilian immigrants with their own style of life. In the Greater Boston Area, for example, there are several Brazilian stores, supermarkets, restaurants, newspapers, etc, and there is often a Brazilian employee or interpreter in hospitals or governmental institutions like the DMV.
Most Brazilians who migrate to the biggest areas of Brazilians concentration usually know someone living here before coming-chain migration – which facilitates their arrival but makes it harder for them to assimilate the American culture. The type of jobs Brazilians got in North America depends on how much they have assimilated the culture, or, more specifically, the language. Those who have assimilated the culture well are more likely to get much better jobs, whereas those who have not, are hired for the heavier works like constructions, housecleaning, doing landscapes and delivering pizzas.
Most Brazilians who lived in the U.S in 1996 said they “did not know when” or “did not intend” to go back to Brazil, according to the survey data done by Braga Martes that year. The survey results show that there were big expectations about going back to Brazil, but the general perception contrasts with the 15% who declared not to intend to go back.
Is the language a barrier?
Many of those who decide not to return might be satisfied with the life style they have here, or they might be aware of the difficulties they would find if they were to try their lives in Brazil again. But as I mention above in this article, in the end of the 10’, thousands of Brazilians have decided to return to Brazil, in part because the ‘Brazilian Boom” or new opportunities in the country and/or for small perspectives to become legal in U.S (those still with illegal status) and the U.S financial crisis.
Questions such as, “Do you speak Spanish in Brazil?” or “Do you speak Brazilian?” are not rarely heard from Americans. Such questions make many Brazilians mad given their general sense of uniqueness in relation to the other Latin American people. It is true that there are many groups of immigrants here and Brazilians are very small compared to them, but it is the “strong sense of cultural pride and uniqueness that distinguish Brazilians from surrounding Spanish-Speaking,” as describes Margolis.
As Brazilians tend to keep migrating to the United States – much less than in the 80’and 90’s, the diversity between them might also continue to increase. Once the bigger concentrations become “overpopulated,” these immigrant groups will probably expand within the U.S towards areas of smaller concentration. After 2009 per example, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego in California; Dallas and Houston in Texas; and Las Vegas in Nevada have received Brazilians residents already living in the U.S – from the East Coast.
* Duval Guimarães lived in Santa Barbara, California and Washington DC where he graduated in Studied International Relations at American University. He is married and lives now in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
** Special thanks to professor Cynthia Davis, who strongly support the author and Ana Cristina Braga Martes for collaborating with Duval for this article.