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Unity from a distance

At first strongly attached to their regions of origin, Italians in Brazil developed the notion of Italianness

Immigrant family in the Rio Claro countryside, between 1904 and 1908

Unicamp Memory Center (CMU), collection of the São Paulo Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Public Works (SACOP) Immigrant family in the Rio Claro countryside, between 1904 and 1908Unicamp Memory Center (CMU), collection of the São Paulo Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Public Works (SACOP)

Italians immigrants to inland São Paulo State between the late 19th and early 20th century did not recognize themselves as belonging to a homeland. They identified more strongly with the traditions and dialects of their home regions, but then came to build their “Italianness” in Brazil. The process of discovering their Italian identity as immigrants working in the state’s coffee-growing regions was the subject of four research studies and is described in the book Italianidade no interior paulista – Percursos e descaminhos de uma identidade étnica (1880-1950), [Italianness in inland São Paulo – paths and detours to an ethnic identity (1880-1950)] by Oswaldo Truzzi, an engineer who holds a PhD in social sciences the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and is a professor in the graduate programs in sociology and production engineering at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

In the late 19th century, the Promotion of Immigration Society – established by farmers in rural São Paulo to encourage immigrants to come to Brazil to work in coffee farming – and the São Paulo State government entered into agreements with the Italian government to bring in people who could replace slave laborers on the coffee plantations.

Italy was interested in relieving its own social pressures through emigration.  Brazil, primarily in its rural areas, was facing a labor shortage as a result of the process of industrialization. According to data compiled by the Center for Population Studies of the University of Campinas (NEPO-Unicamp), the population of São Paulo in 1886 stood at 1.2 million. Immigrants accounted for 4.74% of this total.  Most were Italians, constituting 13,490 (37%), Spanish who made up 9,853 (27%) and Germans who numbered 4,838 (13%). Of the 4.1 million foreigners who entered Brazil between 1866 and 1934, 56% settled in the state of São Paulo where Italians also made up the largest share.

In 1902, the Italian government eliminated its travel subsidies for immigrants after concluding that the working conditions on Brazilian coffee plantations were not good.  Even so, according to the 1920 census, there were 389,000 Italians in the state, 308,000 of whom were outside of the capital.  The Italians then represented 48% of all foreigners in the state, followed by the Spanish (21%) and the Portuguese (20%).  The state population stood at 4,592,188 according to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) for that same year.  From 1870 to 1920, IBGE also indicated that Italians accounted for 42% of all immigrants in Brazil, totaling 1.4 million people.

Cotton workers in Americana, between 1907 and 1910

Unicamp Memory Center (CMU), collection of the São Paulo Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Public Works (SACOP) Cotton workers in Americana, between 1907 and 1910Unicamp Memory Center (CMU), collection of the São Paulo Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Public Works (SACOP)

On the farms, Italians worked side by side with immigrants from other countries – like Spain and Portugal – as well as with former slaves and their descendants who had remained in the rural areas after they were freed. From the outset, immigrants tried to distinguish themselves from the black population, identified with slave labor.  It was the contact Italians had with other nationalities and ethnicities that helped promote a common identity – an Italianness –, because in Brazil they were no longer identified by their regional origins.  Instead of Calabrians, Romans, Neapolitans or Venetians, they were called Italians.

“Studies by Truzzi are the first to reveal an overview of all of rural São Paulo State, which received 70% of the Italian immigrants to Brazil,” says Angelo Trento, retired Italian professor of Latin American History at Naples Eastern University in Italy.  Previous studies on Italian immigration had already addressed the large cities, rural areas and inland cities.  Truzzi consulted newspapers, civil registries, city councils, business associations and immigrant museum collections in the cities of São Carlos, Araraquara, Catanduva, Bauru, Ribeirão Preto, São José do Rio Preto and Franca, in addition to consulting studies conducted by other researchers on Jaú, Jaboticabal, Rio Claro, Descalvado, Bebedouro and Pedrinhas.

Truzzi suggests that these immigrants developed the feeling of belonging to a specific country of origin even before their contemporaries in Italy.  The Italian unification had occurred just before the great immigration to Brazil.  Until then, Italy was made up of various kingdoms, each with its own monetary and political systems.  The kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, the wealthiest and most industrialized, interested in expanding its market and influence, led the fight for Italian unification. Despite the fact that the kingdom of Italy was founded in 1861, the process was completed only after conflicts that resulted in the annexation of Venice (1866), Rome (1870) and much later, Trent and Trieste (1918). Truzzi holds that the resistance of certain parts of the peninsula in taking part in nation-building would have delayed the development of the feeling of Italianness in Italy, while in Brazil, that process would have begun in the early years of the 20th century.

Above, team from the Palestra Itália soccer club (undated)

Museum of Image and Sound – Araraquara Above, team from the Palestra Itália soccer club (undated)Museum of Image and Sound – Araraquara

Italian cultural diversity was reflected in Brazil.  According to historian Siqueira Teixeira, postdoctoral fellow in social sciences at the School of Sciences and Letters of São Paulo State University (Unesp), Araraquara campus, during the early decades of immigration, only a tiny minority of literate individuals spoke the vernacular, the native language of a country.  Despite this, the feeling of sharing a common origin was stronger.  “Being in a place full of ‘others’ helps build an ‘us’,” says historian João Fábio Bertonha, a professor in the history department of the State University of Maringá (Paraná State), who agrees with the claim that the feeling of belonging to an Italian nation was born in Brazil, with the caveat that a national sentiment was also in full bloom at the time in Italy. He believes that there was already a burgeoning national identity among these immigrants, stimulated by the process of unification.

Truzzi explains that after coming in contact with different nationalities of people on the coffee plantations, some of the Italians migrated to the cities following the agrarian crisis of 1930 (when increased coffee production coincided with reduced exports). Physical proximity fostered the connections among immigrants and assisted in their developing the sense of Italianness.  In the cities, Italians were already engaged in occupations such as blacksmith, mechanic, engineer, carpenter, locksmith, bricklayer, coppersmith and tinker.  Immigrants from various origins practically monopolized such jobs, helped by the loyalty of fellow Italians who were their customers and by prejudice against lower class Brazilians, mostly made up of former slaves and rural workers who were viewed as uncouth Truzzi says that foreigners and their descendants filled the void that was created by an earlier social structure that was polarized between masters and slaves. “Since the economy was growing, there were opportunities for immigrants to become integrated without having to compete,” says the researcher.

Affirmation as a group manifested itself with the establishment of associations in the form of mutualist organizations that offered health care services, or sporting and cultural societies.  An ethnic press emerged at the same time, publishing newspapers in Italian starting in the 1880s.  These newspapers carried news from Italy and articles on topics of interest to immigrants in Brazil. They acted as spokespersons for the community’s concerns, which included calls for better working conditions on the farms.  Another factor cited by Truzzi was the network of consular representatives which, at the initiative of the Italian government, were set up in medium-sized cities in inland São Paulo beginning in the early 20th century.  Such representatives formed a link with the vice-consulate of Campinas, which reported to the consulate in the capital.  Such a network was established because more than ¾ of the Italians lived in inland areas.  “Newspapers in Italian and Italian schools founded in Brazil starting in the early decades of the 20th century that gave instruction in the vernacular played an essential role in weakening regional ties and unifying the Italian language.  When Benito Mussolini rose to power in 1922, he expended a tremendous effort to promote the Italian language in Italy and beyond,” says Rosane Teixeira.

A 1910 class at the Italian school, both in Araraquara

Lopes, L.V., Araraquara Photographic Memory A 1910 class at the Italian school, both in AraraquaraLopes, L.V., Araraquara Photographic Memory

Beginning in 1937, with the advent of the Estado Novo, the term used to refer to the Getúlio Vargas regime 1937-1945, Vargas wanted to promote Brazilian nationalism by suppressing the existence of ethnic associations.  Vargas encouraged the establishment of unions and trade associations that promoted fellowship among workers, regardless of origin. When they saw that the glorification of Italian identity did not fit the new Brazilian political-economic scenario, immigrants and their descendants stopped emphasizing ties to their former homeland.  Through his research of city councils in the cities he studied, Truzzi observed, starting in 1948, the presence of Italians and their descendants in the role of councilman, which suggests a process of upward mobility and integration into Brazilian society.

According to Angelo Trento, recent studies show that the discovery of Italianness in the foreigner occurred differently in other countries of the Americas.  In the United States, for example, the government forced immigrants to Americanize.  Because of this, Italianness developed as a defense mechanism, and the Italians spent more time closed up in their communities.

Rio Claro weekly newspaper (June 7, 1908) written in Italian: topics of interest to the community

Fundação Pró-memória (FPM), São Carlos Rio Claro weekly newspaper (June 7, 1908) written in Italian: topics of interest to the communityFundação Pró-memória (FPM), São Carlos

Some groups of immigrants, like the Japanese, experienced just the opposite of what occurred with the Italians.  With regard to the feeling of belonging to the nation, the Japanese government had cultivated a national identity among its citizens since the 17th century, says Shozo Motoyama, faculty member in the Department of History at the School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). That nationalism was reinvigorated with the advent of the Meiji period in 1868, when rulers forged the myth of the monarch’s divine origin.  With the Japanese victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), these convictions were strengthened, and thus Japanese immigrants to Brazil from the earliest years of the 20th century had a strong national identity.  However, the distance and difficulties in communicating with the country of origin provided an opening to the local culture that allowed for the formation of a more flexible and hybrid Japanese culture in Brazil.

TRUZZI, O. Italianidade no interior paulista – Percursos e descaminhos de uma identidade étnica (1880-1950). São Paulo: Unesp, 2016, 138 p.