Archive | January, 2014

Italian Immigrants in Brazil

1 Jan


Tudo Bem ! The year 2013 was an amazing year. The Pallante Center went to South America and studied internal migration routes in Southern Brazil! Quite a bit was learned in just a couple of weeks. First we arrived in the City of Sao Paulo, and had a general tour around the city by a private escort who spoke English. The native language in Brazil is Portuguese (a unique Brazilian form of Portuguese). We visited the old historic city center and a very old cathedral,
2013-07-01 11.13.01 old church SP

as well as the historic marketplace. From the plane the first views of the City of Sao Paulo reveal that this city is HUGE !


We toured Little Italy Sao Paulo. The main event was the historic church. They were very nice people who gave me a little book about the history of their parish.  There is not much going on otherwise in this old Italian neighborhood these days.  It has pretty much assimilated into Brazilian culture.

There are several historical and cultural museums in the City of Sao Paulo that were very informative. I bought a lot of books and postcards at the museum shops.  Many of the books were specially designed for English-speaking tourists, with  multi-language translations on each page.

One day we went on a private tour of a  former coffee plantation, now functioning as a bed and breakfast with museum on site. coffee plantation

coffee plant

The archivist there showed us around the grounds, explaining in detail about the days when Italian immigrants worked as indentured servants–a very hard life. But it was only for two years. The archivist had a treasure trove of old record books that the old plantation owners had kept on each worker regarding how much they were paid. The books are a wonderful resource with the actual names of the Italian workers!

book of coffee workers

I met some of their living descendants in the area of Campinas. One man said that his grandparents had come from region Veneto and spoke a Venetian dialect. The archivist had roots in Calabria.

Another day we went to the old Port of Santos, where the immigrant ships first landed (if they didn’t enter farther north in Rio).

Santos beach

There was a wonderful coffee museum in the historic downtown area that was very well done. It was once a place where coffee owners came to sell to buyers. They held auctions and had an area for taste testing. There were exhibits showing the tools workers used on the plantations to cut gather the coffee beans from the trees (which are larger than I imagined). It requires use of a ladder to reach the top branches.

There were other tools to rake the coffee beans around as they dried in the sun on a flat surface that was a big square area about the size of a small tennis court (in the days before freeze drying). This was right next to the dormitory housing where the workers lived on sight. We saw an example of  such housing on the plantation that we visited. The museum had exhibits of old coffee burlap sacks that the dried beans were put in for shipment. They were carried on the backs of workers and loaded on a train that came to the port area, then other workers loaded the sacks on ships.

There was a little research library where I spent about an hour getting a private workshop from the librarian about genealogy research sources and offices in southern Brazil that pertain to genealogy.  We had also gone to the state archives office in the City of Sao Paulo to research naturalization records.  I was escorted by our private tour guide.  The staff spoke Portuguese only.  He helped me to fill out the forms and submit my research request. The staff explained the way things work there.  A few days later they had the results of the search.  Our immigrant did not file for citizenship in Sao Paulo.  He must have done so in Porto Alegre area later on in his journey.


I also went to other history museums in Sao Paulo, one that was all about the general history of Brazil, but included a lot about immigrants.  We saw the historic marketplace in the Centro area, which the Italian immigrants helped to develop.  It is filled with fruit vendors and little places to eat lunch–much more upscale than I expected.  Signs are all in Portuguese. There were large murals all over the walls depicting the olden days of coffee plantation workers in historic costumes.

It just happened that while we were in Brazil, it was a summer of unrest and many public protests were being held all over the country from north to south.  The locals referred to them as “manifestations”.  We witnessed several of them in various cities during our trip. Most all that we saw personally were peaceful. There was a military police presence that stood back, but ready. They did not appear unfriendly, and probably recognized us as tourists. (Maybe because everyone else was in the street chanting and holding signs, as we looked on–a bit confused—with cameras snapping away). One night we had gone into a phone store after dinner, and while we were in there it got dark, and suddenly a mob of protestors just “appeared”, seemingly out of nowhere. We were nervous at first, but quickly saw that they seemed peaceful. They came in droves from every side street (and did so each night thereafter like clockwork after the dinner hour). Each night was about a different theme.


The first night was a bus worker’s theme and there were lots of empty buses honking horns, like a parade, with people dressed like clowns going down the street (“the government will not make clowns of us” I think they were saying). There were people beating on drums. Many brought children who were marching next to them.

The next night was a health care worker’s theme. Doctors, nurses, and other medical workers (all dressed in various medical outfits that they wear in the hospital). They too had red clown noses. A few were wearing a mask that stood for “revolution”. They would chant as a big group with a man holding a megaphone leading –in front of the news cameras (which happened to be at the corner of our hotel block). There were reports that it sometimes got a little ugly later in the night after the main crowd dispersed. Our tour guide had instructed us to go straight to the hotel and stay inside, when he dropped us off after the excursion to Santos. But we heard the chanting from our room and couldn’t resist this chance to experience Brazilian history unfolding!

Ultimately, we left the City of Sao Paulo and took a shuttle plane to Curitiba.  We were advised not to drive–that would have taken most of the day and we only had two days total for this next stop.  Also, the road is said to be a dangerous, winding mountain road, with a lot of big trucks in a hurry.

We found that Curitiba had much more of a “Little Italy” in tact than we could find in Sao Paulo.  The neighborhood is called “Santa Felicidade”.


There was a main street lined with Italian restaurants and little stores and their Italian church. But when I saw a car going down the road slowly, shouting things into a megaphone (just exactly as I had seen done in Sicily), it really felt like a town that was truly a recreation of a Sicilian town, complete with the housing being up the side of a hill that sloped up from behind the main street with the stores. (Thankfully the streets were normal size and not the tiny paths in Sicilian villages). But I’m told that Curitiba is actually a melting pot of northern European immigrants.

We drove all around (with a new tour guide) who explained the area to us, and also took us to an old train station, which had a little museum and exhibit area. They had an old wooden passenger train of the kind that the immigrant generation used. But railroad transportation has kind of faded away in many areas, as most get around by shuttle planes these days. They built a modern shopping mall attached to the old train station, so that it is now all enclosed as one big tourist stop.


There was one old-fashioned train still functioning, that you could ride out to the seacoast and back for an afternoon excursion. We didn’t have time as we had only a few short days in this town and wanted to see all of the main sites besides Little Italy.

The Botanical Garden is a popular tourist stop in Curitiba. It was July, but that is winter season in Brazil, so they didn’t have as many of the flowers as would sometimes exist there. It was hard for us to understand that it was winter to them because the temperature felt the same as when we left New York on July 1st. Yet there were people wearing jackets. Maybe it’s because we’ve lived in the North Country for 15 years now that “winter” to us is more like 20 below zero! It was like a spring day–maybe about 70 degrees.

We took a modern train across country to a seashore resort island called Florianopolis. Since we were only to be there one night, we splurged a little and got a really nice hotel right on the water. (Actually it was at very reduced price because it was winter). But we wore our bathing suits and had a great time on the beach. The water was warm, but nobody was swimming. We had the place practically to ourselves. For dinner we took a cab to a nearby little bar on the beach and saw a real pirate ship pass by! Singing “yo ho ho” or whatever pirates sing. Much of the island is for tourists with high rise fancy hotels.  At our hotel many seemed to be from Europe. It was one quick stop to break up the previous week of research and study before moving on for a new week of studying the very south of Brazil.


We then flew to Porto Alegre, another historic port city–way down in the most southern part of Brazil–close to the border of Argentina. There my husband was speaking at a customer seminar for two days.  His presentation was about industrial water treatment. I used the time to read some of my new books I had picked up at Sao Paulo museums, and attended a cocktail party with him in the evening, where I met many interesting people.  Quite a lot of that group spoke English.  There were a lot of young engineers who took the occasion to chat with my husband, who is an expert in his field.

The next day, we hired a private driver guide and drove up into the mountains about two hours from the city. Veranopolis is a little village settled by Italian immigrants. Almost everyone who lives in this mountaintop town is a descendant of an Italian immigrant! I had been tracking a particular Italian immigrant who came from northeast Italy in the 1880s, and first lived in Sao Paulo briefly, before migrating to the extreme south.


The Italian immigrant I was following had to cross this river to get to his new town of Veranopolis  (a very Italian town high on top of a mountain). So we too had to cross this river !  It was a little out of the ordinary for our private escort driver/translator. Usually he gets calls by businessmen to be taken to a meeting. But I had him looking for old house addresses and town halls and cemeteries.


In this town I met a living descendant of the immigrant (posing next to his ancestor’s gravesite below), who  showed us the remains of the immigrant’s original stone house, on an outlying farm.  There was nothing left of it but a bit of a stone foundation.  At the  cemetery  we saw  the graves of the immigrant, his wife, and several of his children, which reveals their dates of death.  The style of the cemetery was just like those in Italy–like a little city, with all the former Italian residents of the town, many who were born in Italy.


living manliving man 2

We stopped at the town hall to request documents (which are not kept there but another location nearby). But the people were all very friendly. They spoke only Portuguese, but wanted to make the effort to try to understand us. At no time anywhere in Brazil did I feel any kind of anti-Americanism (meaning anti “United States”, as was sometimes present in certain villages in Sicily). We took a general tour around the area. The living relative of my client (shown here) runs tours to the Amazon (called Adventure Tours).  He does not speak any English but our personal guide translated for us.  It was all a great learning experience.

So I had successfully followed the life of an Italian from his arrival to his final resting place in Brazil. Pretty cool! It’s hard to imagine what’s going on if you’ve never been to a place. Seeing it all first hand was a tremendous help in understanding Italian immigrants to Brazil.  Below is a photo of a vineyard we passed on the way up to the mountaintop village of Veranopolis.


On our way to Veranopolis, that morning we had first stopped at Caxius-do-Sul, another town full of lots of Italians. They did not have a “Little Italy” section, but did have a very informative immigrant museum.  It started out being dedicated only to Italian immigrants,  so was heavy on informational exhibits about Italians.  Later on they expanded their focus to include all immigrants to southern Brazil. The other big group who settled the area were Germans. They tended to settle the valley areas on ranches, while the Italians liked the hilltop towns and had vinyards .

cax museum

In this museum they let me photograph every exhibit and informational sign! I told them I would need to translate the signage to English when I got back to the USA, and that would take more time than we had standing there. They were very willing to assist in my studies.

Back at our hotel that night some of the seminar people we had met were still there, so we went into town in Porto Alegre and had a nice dinner with some new friends. Some were actually born in other areas of South America.

On our first day of arrival to Porto Alegre, before the conference began, we toured the historic district and saw incredible old architecture. In Centro there was a street vendor atmosphere with all kinds of tourist items for sale.


But we did not know where to find the actual port (where the old immigrant family had worked on the docks for a short while before moving to Veranopolis).

So at the end of the trip (on our last day in Brazil) after taking some time to study books and maps about the city, we had one last chance before our flight home. We were on our own for the first time without a private guide to translate for us. After discussing with the front desk we took a cab to the street location on water. We found a small paper mill, which has been converted to a museum.  From the park outside  alongside a river, you could see oceangoing ships passing by. But there was nothing else there but some vendors selling food. So we asked the guard at the museum (which had no other staff–you just walked around on your own).

My husband was in his glory looking around this old paper mill.  He’s a chemical engineer for industrial water treatment, specializing in paper mills these days. His face lit up when he realized the old building we were standing in was once an old mill! Since he had gone all over Brazil with me tracking Italians, I could not deny him this moment of something fun for him, but I was in a bit of a hurry with a plane to catch and trying to find the correct location of where the immigrant once worked to finish out the story. So we had to move along !

Our Portuguese was much improved by now, so we were able to understand the guard’s instructions on our map where to go to find the original old warehouse section of Porto Alegre.  It was too far, so we had to find a taxi. As we approached, I saw the iron gates to an old historic looking complex and knew at once it was definitely the right place!  There were old wooden buildings, now abandoned, an old dock area where the ships used to unload (which is now done at a more modern industrial area). There was just a problem of the big iron gate was padlocked! We found a policeman/guard nearby and begged “oh please ! We only have one last hour before we have to get to the airport, and this is the last thing we need to see about the life of the immigrant we’ve been tracking all over Brazil ! ”  He was happy to open the gate.  I breathed a  sigh of relief and took moment to marvel about how he understood our broken Portuguese. He at least knew I needed to take pictures with some urgency.

We ran around the old waterfront area where the immigrant we were following had once worked.  The old historic buildings sat empty,  lost in another era on the water’s edge, with the modern city in the back ground. The old train tracks are no longer used–weeds growing over them. The modern industrial port is at a different location.


Our trip was over. It was a very fruitful learning experience, packed with so many things that for the first time on an international trip, I didn’t even have time to keep a journal each day. Things just moved too fast. Our private guides in each city always wanted us to be ready in front of our hotel promptly at 6:00am each day. Always, we put in a full day each day, and by the time we got back to the room dropped of exhaustion. I have the digital images taken in the chronological order that  serve as a photo journal.

This time the full story has be written after the trip. My camera was snapping pictures every minute the entire time. So there are photos galore of every minute! I can’t wait to go again sometime. I didn’t get to see the areas between Sao Paulo and Rio (except for Campinas), so I have more to learn. For now I am reading books to better understand the things we saw.  This is just meant to be a light overview of the trip. Another time I will write more in-depth  about specific subjects—such as the Italian workers and the coffee industry, the history of specific Italian villages, Little Italies, and of course more about the reason I went on the trip—internal migration patterns after immigrants first arrived from Italy.



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