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The mobile metropolis

The profile of migration from São Paulo is underscored by comings and goings and by internationalization

Published in june 2011

It is a reasonably well known fact that the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo is no longer a center of attraction for immigrants from abroad or from other parts of the country, as was the case during most of the 20th century. In the first decade of the 21st century, there was a significant negative balance between the number of people who came and the number of people who left. One hundred thousand newcomers came to the city, while eight hundred thousand people left for other towns in the state. A little known fact is the new migration profile that these numbers hide, to some extent. The flow of newcomers is no longer explained by the dynamics of industry and by the formal jobs that previously attracted newcomers. What is new is the phenomenon of reversibility – that is, the length of time that people stay tends to be shorter and the movement is characterized by comings and goings, as well as definitive departures.

Describing in detail these new demographic configurations and consequences is the task taken on by the Observatory of Migration at the Center of Population Studies (Nepo) at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), funded by FAPESP and coordinated by Rosana Baeninger, professor of the Department of Sociology at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences, also at Unicamp. The research project has an extensive chronological scope – from 1880 to 2010 – and an interdisciplinary perspective, which means that new themes of study – currently totaling 16 – will take place as the research project moves forward.

“Our objective is to allow each researcher to reveal processes that the bigger numbers do not show,” says Rosana. “Our challenge is to look for new data sources – the census does not provide information on domestic migration, for example.” The end products are expected to be a themed atlas and a data base. In addition to new sources, the researchers are also resorting to national and foreign bibliographies to help them understand the overall situation. One of the starting points of the project is that “the understanding of migration processes only becomes meaningful if we consider the spatial and territorial aspects.”

Thus, the researchers have concluded that in the 21st century – as had already been envisioned since the 1990s – the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo has been inserted into the route of international migration. “The city’s characteristic is now much more closely focused on the international market, as part of a chain of global cities,” says Rosana. Within this broad scenario, economic processes multiply in terms of space while time becomes globalized. This is what British sociologist Anthony Giddens refers to as “disembedding mechanisms.”

Nowadays, São Paulo is the destination of both highly qualified and unskilled workers with no documents, but who are already part of the flexible production mechanisms and fit into the capital city’s mobility. The highly qualified professionals are Argentines and Chileans who come to work in the city in upper-level management positions and have a two-year work permit that can be extended. According to the Ministry of Labor, these professionals currently number 20 thousand. The unskilled workers are mostly from Bolivia, who come to Brazil because of problems in their native country; this contingent is not accounted for in official statistics. Estimates by private entities such as the Pastoral do Imigrante, church organization, are that these unskilled laborers from Bolivia total 200 thousand. Thus, says the sociologist, “100 years after the European migration, São Paulo has once again become the port of entry for international migration, this time without any government subsidies.”

As has been widely known for thirty years, most of the Bolivians are employed by the garment industry, which is in the hands of Asian immigrants or their descendants. Bolivian migration is already in its second generation and has caused significant urban impact, such as the well-known changes in the demographic profile of the Bom Retiro neighborhood, which had traditionally been predominantly Jewish and today is the center of most of the garment industries that employ Latin American labor.

This activity is already international at the beginning of the production chain, as the textiles come from South Korea. In the last few years, the sector has been implementing elaborate systems that allow the Bolivians to work seasonally, according to specific demands related to fashion launches (summer and winter), which reinforces the general coming and going of the migrants. Nowadays, many Bolivian laborers come from urban regions and are professionally trained.

The habit of working seasonally has also intensified among domestic migrants, especially those coming from the Northeast region of Brazil. For example, a fairly large contingent of people earn money as street vendors, selling lottery tickets. They work for a couple of months and then go back to their home states during high season to work in the area of tourism. Another reason for the migrants´ short stay or return is the fact that the cost of living in São Paulo has risen significantly. In the past, the neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts had their own routines and the potential to absorb new inhabitants. However, nowadays, according to Rosana, “the outskirts are no longer separated from the city; these regions have become denser and are being re-shaped.” Departure is another characteristic of the migration profile of the 21st century in the Metropolitan Region of São Paulo. This is the region in Brazil that loses the highest number of people per year, especially with domestic migration. On the other hand, it is the region that receives the highest number of skilled workers.

In La Paz, Bolivian walks by sign offering employment, 2007

Social networks are an important element in the social structure, as they allow domestic and foreign migrants to move around. The social networks are articulated groups that provide support to migrants who are here temporarily. These groups are comprised mostly of the migrants´ relatives. Thanks to these networks, it is possible for the migrants to leave their children in their home states while they work at seasonal jobs. The social networks operate at both ends of migration and are not a new phenomenon (some of these networks have existed for 60 years), but have gained key importance in support of the temporary nature of migrations between far-flung regions. This has resulted in the creation of organized and dynamic transportation systems, such as the buses that leave from the region of São Miguel Paulista,
on São Paulo’s East Side.

Nowadays, the State of Goias is the main destination for migration in Brazil. “It is the biggest,” says Rosana. Agribusiness has even attracted qualified labor from the State of São Paulo. In addition, grain producing regions, such as the city of Rio Verde, offer public administration courses that attract people from outside the state.

The expansion of agribusiness in the State of São Paulo also continues attracting migrants from other regions, from the capital city, and from neighboring towns, and, on a lesser scale, from abroad. Agribusiness is joined in this respect by the growth  niches in the economy involved in exporting, which various regions have managed to consolidate. Examples of this are the region of Franca, which has a flourishing shoe manufacturing industry; Limeira, with a leading jewelry industry; the furniture industry in the region of Votuporanga; the hotel industry, supported by rodeos in Barretos, etc. The road network is efficient enough to allow many professionals to live in one town and commute to another town for work, which results in the increase of “population density in small towns previously characterized by a shrinking population.”

Is this a return to rural regions? “No,” says Rosana. “Even though some jobs are performed in rural areas, people live in towns or in what we refer to as non-registered urban extension zones, that is, areas with urban characteristics without being officially considered as such.” This standardization has led to an increase of short-distance migration and regional commuting, to the point that a theoretical question is being asked: should people who commute such short distances be considered migrants? The professor says that, according to the related criterion in effect in the 1960s, a rural migrant’s adaptation to the modern urban environment took about ten years. In the State of São Paulo nowadays, urban and consumption patterns are virtually identical in all regions.

The way in which research studies are conducted at the Observatory of Migration, which focus on interdisciplinary and cooperation with other Brazilian and foreign academic institutions, has resulted in studies on phenomena that do not entail very high numbers, yet are very important from the sociological and anthropological points of view. For example, the researchers plan to conduct a pioneering study on the social impact caused by the transfer of prison facilities to small towns in the State of São Paulo, and the resulting movement of groups.

South Koreans in front of a second-hand furniture store in Bom Retiro

A study currently under way sheds light on the migration of refugees in the metropolitan region in this century. A significant number of Colombians (and some Cubans), who left their native countries pressured by internal conflicts, have settled here. “Brazil has one of Latin America’s most lax rules for refugees, which has provoked this influx,” says Rosana. It is estimated that the city of São Paulo is currently home to 1,800 refugees. Among these are Colombians with families, many of them with Brazilian spouses or children. In general, these refugees are professionally qualified but have difficulties in terms of blending in, because they do not have validated diplomas. For comparative purposes, most of the refugees in the city of Rio de Janeiro are single Africans, who arrive in Brazil as students and then ask for refugee status. According to Rosana, the refugees and immigrants without identity documents have created situations that demand social policies to protect their rights and to protect them from discrimination. Such social policies have not been implemented yet.

A particularly interesting study conducted by the Observatory of Migration was headed by sociologist Marta Maria do Amaral Azevedo, also of Unicamp. The study focused on the existence of the Guarani indigenous people in São Paulo. At present, there are 20 Guarani communities in the eastern part of the state; four communities live in the capital city. The migration process, which came from Paraguay, from what is now the State of Mato Grosso do Sul and from Argentina, started in the second half of the 19th century. However, this process is still under way, “often creating stalemates for public policies and for the land ownership issue.” Among other issues, the study seeks to quantify this population and specify its genealogy. “Existing studies point to religious and economic reasons, such as the search for a land without evil, a place where it would be possible to live in the Guarani way, or according to the guarani reko, the way of life of this indigenous people,” says Marta. “Nowadays there are broad structured social networks based on family and religious ties. The communities engage in economic barter and practice the oguatá concept: walking, which can be a visit to a relative or a trip to consult a pajé (witchdoctor), or even to go to a family reunion.”