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The invisible foreigner

Brazilians in the United States avoid being regarded as Hispanics except when convenient

New York, May 1, 2010: hundreds of Latinos protest a law that required immigrants suspected of being illegal to provide documentary proof of residence

Spencer Platt / Getty ImagesNew York, May 1, 2010: hundreds of Latinos protest a law that required immigrants suspected of being illegal to provide documentary proof of residenceSpencer Platt / Getty Images

Brazilians who settle in the United States, usually with plans to return to their home country after a few years, tend to maintain invisibility and make an effort not to be confused with Hispanics, except in places and situations in which such connection would be beneficial.  In contrast, the children of Japanese who were born in Brazil, having been rejected by the traditional Asian society when they migrate to Japan, assume Brazilian identities and habits.  They march in Carnaval parades and exhibit jarring behaviors such as speaking Portuguese loudly in public, according to analyses made by both foreign and Brazilian researchers.

In the United States, the first move is to refuse to accept an undesired identity.  “When you arrive in the United States the first thing Brazilians learn is to say: “I’m not Hispanic and I don’t speak Spanish,” because in general the Americans think Portuguese is spoken only in Portugal, not in Brazil,” says anthropologist Maxine Margolis, professor emeritus from the University of Florida.  Author of a book that serves as reference among those who study the subject, Little Brazil: Imigrantes brasileiros em Nova York (Little Brazil: Brazilian Immigrants in New York), published in 1994, she began a series of lectures about patterns of migration among Brazilians at the Museum of Immigration in São Paulo on June 16, 2016.  The lectures were sponsored by the Migration Observatory, located at the Population Studies Center at the University of Campinas (NEPO-Unicamp).  According to Margolis, most Americans still draw no distinctions among the various Latin cultures although more than three decades have passed since the famous 1982 trip to Brazil by President Ronald Reagan, who proposed a toast “to the people of Bolivia” at a state dinner in Brasília.

Hispanics currently represent almost 80 million of the 310 million residents of the United States, while Brazilians themselves probably form a contingent somewhere between the 350,000 found by the 2010 U.S. Census and the 1.4 million estimated by Itamaraty, Brazil’s Foreign Ministry.  They are not, however, always separate worlds.  Margolis observed that an affinity with Latin food and music, the latter rarely heard in Brazil, emerges in cities like Miami, a Florida city with a high percentage of South Americans where Brazilians feel at ease and can pretty easily find restaurants that serve rice and beans.  “Brazilians have told me: ‘We came to Florida and discovered that we are Latinos!’” the researcher says.

“To the Brazilian who arrives in the United States, being recognized as Hispanic comes as somewhat of a shock,” observes sociologist Ana Cristina Braga Martes, a professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.  She came to this conclusion when she interviewed other Brazilians in Boston during the 1990s as part of her doctoral studies under the guidance of anthropologist [and later First Lady of Brazil] Ruth Cardoso (1930-2008).  She reiterated that view in her later studies about the subject.  According to Martes, Bolivians, Colombians, and other Latins also experience a diminished national identity on being lumped together in a single ethnic group called “Hispanics” along with everyone else who comes to the United States from Latin America.  That classification, albeit not desired, can facilitate access to public benefits and policies.  “Some Brazilian immigrants have told me that they took advantage of the Hispanic quota in order to enroll their children in school or get a job,” Martes says.  “Depending on the context, national identity is flexible.  Being Brazilian becomes less important when one’s priority is to secure a better economic or social position in another country.”

In her book New Immigrants, new land: A study of Brazilians in Massachusetts, the sociologist describes the strategies employed in building an identity and surviving in the labor market.  In general, Brazilians are willing to accept simpler work—the women cleaning houses and the men working in construction or restaurants – but the loss of status is partly offset by higher incomes and the more formal social relationships, according to Martes.  “The immigrants I interviewed say they feel they are treated well and that it is possible to achieve dignity and a better life, even as cleaning ladies and janitors.”  In a study done in 2012, she confirmed that Brazilians in Boston preferred the American health care system, in which they were served by programs designed for low-income patients, to the Brazilian one.

A distant land
“In Brazil, your identity is simply assumed.  It is something abstract that is rarely expressed and is recognized based one one’s city or state of origin, economic class, and occupation.  In the United States—and also in Portugal—Brazilians are regarded essentially as foreigners from a far-off and exotic land, without differentiation among them,” Maxine Margolis says.  “I noticed this in New York, and later other researchers saw the same thing in cities in Florida and California.  Consequently, a lot of people ask themselves: ‘Who am I?’”  In her most recent book Goodbye, Brazil: Emigrantes brasileiros no mundo (Goodbye Brazil: Brazilian migrants around the world), the American anthropologist comments that the children of Brazilians who emigrated may perhaps accept more readily than their parents the fact that they are Latinos, thus joining groups that are better organized.

In Japan, also examined in this book, Brazilians who are descendants of Japanese, called nikkeijins in that country, are also coldly received by the locals.  “Ethnic pride deteriorates when, after being regarded favorably in Brazil because of their Japanese heritage, they are treated as inferior in Japan because of their Brazilian heritage,” Margolis says.  The reaction by Brazilian migrants in Japan—in numbers estimated at about 250,000—is peculiar.  “Instead of becoming more Japanese, as they had intended, the nikkeijins are becoming more Brazilian, wearing green-and-yellow, parading in Carnaval events, and speaking Portuguese loudly in public.  Their Japanese neighbors in residential buildings complain that the nikkeijins play loud music, don’t know how to recycle and, especially, engage in public displays of affection.”

MARGOLIS, M. L. Little Brazil: Imigrantes brasileiros em Nova York.  Papirus, 1994.
MARGOLIS, M. L. Goodbye, Brazil: Emigrantes brasileiros no mundo.  Contexto, 2013.
MARTES, A. C. B. New immigrants, new land: A study of Brazilians in Massachusetts. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011.