Chain Migration: From a Single Brazilian Town to the Northeastern US

My travel companions

            On a Sunday in the fall of 2016 my Brazilian companion and I drove to a restaurant called Terra Brasilis (Brazilian territory) in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  We met my Portuguese teacher Janaina and her American husband and took our place in the buffet line.  The diners were undistinguishable from other Americans, except, if you listened carefully, you realized they were speaking Portuguese, not Spanish or English.  Some were pale and others had a tinge of brown skin.  The young women sported long straight hair and some men had cultivated full beards.  There were lots of strollers and some older folks.  Whole families.  We realized we were in a gathering place for a nearly invisible minority.

Terra Brasilis, Bridgeport, CT

The restaurant was a  “by kilogram” where diners choose from a variety of Brazilian dishes and have the option to add churrasco, which is barbequed meat which a chef slices onto each individual plate.  Janaina told us that the food was excellent.

At the table Janaina observed that all of the people in the restaurant were from a single town in Brazil, “Governor something or other…”  Janaina is a gaucho from the Europeanized south of Brazil and isn’t familiar with the immigrants’ home state of Minas Gerais.  I laughed because even though I’m American-born, I’ve heard of the city and have been there.  It is “Governor Valadares,” a country town that is renowned or notorious, depending on your viewpoint, as one the biggest US emigration hotspots in Brazil.  It is a city that treats emigrants as heroes and celebrates July 4 as “Emigration Day.” 

Seeing such a large gathering of people from one place made me curious.  I asked myself, what is special about Governador Valadares?  What motivates its residents to take great risks and endure great hardships to emigrate to the US?  It is difficult to get across the US border.   After that, legal or illegal, the weather is harsh in Connecticut and in Framingham, Massachusetts where most of them land.  

Many do not speak English, even after being here a while.  Social services, in so far as they even exist, do not cater to Portuguese speakers.  Americans put an unbalanced emphasis on speaking Spanish.  Also, there’s plenty of poverty to go around in the United States both for immigrants and for natives, in Bridgeport and many other locales.  In some ways, the conditions in the US are more challenging than in sunny Brazil.

From a Country of Immigrants to a Country of Emigrants

I did some research and discovered that Brazil was always a country of immigrants like the US, but that shifted around 1985 when their economy began to experience political instability and hyperinflation.  The inflation was tamed in the 1990’s, but Brazilians have been one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the United States since the that time, with a brief reversal at the time of the US financial crisis of 2008-09.  By 1990 about 600,000 Brazilians were estimated to reside in the United States (authorized and unauthorized).  By 2000 the number had climbed to 800,000, and in 2010 the Brazilian government estimated that Brazilians in the US numbered 1.4 million.  In 2014 the Brazilian economy went from commodity boom back to bust again, and in the month before the Trump inauguration, the number of Brazilians detained at the Mexican border was surging to record levels. 

Partly by design, the Brazilian diaspora has been rendered invisible.  Many prefer not to attract attention.  They are a not-so-evident minority that blends in with a larger Latino community that they don’t even identify with.  This is largely unknown to the American public. 

“Doing” America

In January 2017, I visited the state of Minas Gerais (“General Mines”), Brazil, and made a special trip to Governador Valadares to learn more.  Governador Valadares is a country town of about 280,000 situated in a mountainous area about 400 kilometers from the Southwest coast of Brazil.  It is the point of origin of most of the immigrants to the East Coast of the United States and is the largest immigrant sending city in Brazil.

Many Brazilians I met who had the immigration experience said they worked “jobs that Americans don’t want to take.”  About 30-50% return to Brazil after they’ve saved their target sum in a few years.  In Brazilian Portuguese, it is to “Fazer a America”, meaning “do America”, and some Brazilians jokingly refer to U.S. remittances as “valadolares” (a word play on “Valadares” and “dollars”).  The savings are typically used to buy real estate or to start small businesses back in Brazil.  In 2004 it was estimated that the remittances were over one percent of Brazilian GDP and were particularly important to Governador Valadares where they reached as high as 60% of the city budget in 2006.  There are some powerful economic forces behind this phenomenon, but what stimulated this in the first place?

History of a frontier town:  natural and man-made disasters

What triggered the emigration from this particular place?  After all, this is just one town in a country of 211 million people, and economic conditions such as inflation or unemployment affect everyone, not just one city. 

The town is situated beside a fast-flowing silty river known as Rio Doce (Sweet River).  The river flows between the town center and a 3,684-foot granite mountain called Ibituruna Peak.  In the 18th and 19th centuries soldiers were quartered at this site to protect river boats from attacks of the Botocudo Indians.  The surrounding countryside is mountainous and was originally covered by the dense “Atlantic Forest.” 

Me on Araujos Island in front of Ibituruna Peak, Governador Valadares, MG, Brazil

Botocudo Indians in 19th Century


American presence in 1940’s

A View of the City from the top of Ibituruna Peak

A railway station was built there as early as 1910, but as late as 1940 the town still only had about 6,000 residents. The first wave of development came in the 1940’s and 1950’s when the Belgium-Mineira Steelworks Company got control of vast areas around the city for the purpose of harvesting timber.  Fourteen sawmills opened in the township.  In the 1940’s extraction of minerals also flourished, mica, iron ore, and precious stones in particular.  Beyond that raising of livestock and cultivation of sugar cane contributed to the economy.  By 1960 the population reached 70,000, and it has grown steadily to the present 280,000 level. 

This rapid development unfolded in an unplanned manner.  The forests were exhausted by the 1960’s and the mills closed shop.   Sugar cane production declined.  Much of the land was converted to monocultural planting of Eucalyptus trees to supply Cenibra’s cellulose mill in Belo Oriente.  Planting trees and raising cattle doesn’t generate enough employment to replace what was lost.  Although mining activity continued and there was growth in the commercial and service sectors, no big industrial company moved in to generate employment as happened in neighboring towns like Ipatinga, site of a modern steel mill.

In 1979 natural and man-made disasters made the town the epicenter of an “international crisis.”  Intense rains caused the River Doce to rise by over five meters, flooding parts of the city.  This emergency propelled an outward migration of much of the population, first in the early 1980’s to other parts of the country and to the exterior.  By 1993 about 27,000 local residents had emigrated to other countries, especially to the United States. 

Why the United States?  One source of the idea to go to the US came from an American company that was mining mica to manufacture insulators. 

Sociologist Sueli Siqueira observed “People began making the connection that Americans bring progress, and that America must be a good place.  Then they started going north and when they saw how easy it was to make money in America, the news spread fast.”  In fact, even today, the minimum wage in the United States is over five times higher than in Brazil.

Another flood in 1997 raised the river level by almost five meters again, followed by more floods in 2013.   Then in April 2016 there was a scandal revealing the fact that a criminal organization embezzled $Real 1 billion that was allocated for investment in recovery from the flood of 2013.  A Federal Police Investigation called Mar de Lama (“Sea of Mud”) resulted in the dismissal of 26 public employees including 13 city councilmen.

In November 2015, the city experienced another catastrophe.  The Samarco mining reservoir collapsed upstream at Mariana, sending a wave of toxic tailings down the Rio Doce, killing fish, and making the city water supply completely unusable for more than 10 days.  Afterwards residents complained that the water remained discolored and that it had an unpleasant odor. 

Governor Valadares may be particularly vulnerable to flooding, but it was not the only city in Minas Gerais and Brazil to suffer.  According to Ms. Siquera, the issues that impacted Governor Valadares were merely background factors.  Population growth in the city actually continued after year 2000, albeit at a slower rate.  She concluded that the emigration was more about maintaining a certain standard of living than about abject poverty.  The city is prosperous compared to most others in the state, boasting a modern shopping mall, high rise office and apartment buildings, and other conveniences.  What makes this prosperity different is that much of the civil construction and small businesses are funded by remittances from the United States.  The entrepreneurial spirit of anonymous and even shadowy individuals does more to explain how the town became the center of an international chain of migration.

Entering the US

The townspeople had motivation and willingness to take risks, but how did they actually pull it off?  I don’t have figures, but a great part of the immigration was legal from an American standpoint, or took place by overstaying student and tourist visas, and then using marriage or American-born children to apply for citizenship (21 years later!). 

More impatient people elected to “save paperwork” by hiring “consuls” to help them cross the Mexican-US border clandestinely.  An informant close to them said, “They do the job of US consuls.  The difference is that the U.S. Consulate will likely deny you the visa, but the other ones will send you to the United States.”  The traffickers fly the clients to Guatemala or Mexico, and then arrange for them to walk, swim, or travel by truck across the Mexican-US border.  My friend Janaina was recently met a Brazilian woman in Bridgeport that she paid $15,000 to be transported across the border and out by truck.  Marriage with American citizens is also for sale.  These are open secrets in this community.

The traffickers are some of the more prosperous members of the community, and some have built elaborate houses around Governador Valadares with values even exceeding US $1 million. Unfortunately, not all of their clients reach their destinations safely.  There are documented cases in which emigrants have died after being abandoned in the Mexican desert or have been victims of rape or homicide.  Arranging for emigration is not illegal under Brazilian law, but the city of Governador Valadares did recognize the problem by creating a fund to assist families of the victims.  

A Modern house on Araujo Island across from the peak, possibly funded by remittances from the US

Arrival in the US

Once the emigrants reach the United States, they find an informal support system waiting for them, created by earlier immigrants from the 1980’s.  Social networks exist to help the immigrants find jobs and housing in such cities as Bridgeport Connecticut or Framingham, Massachusetts.  There is some ethnic competition with the native born and with other ethnic groups, and life is still hard, at least in the beginning.  For example, I met a 30-year-old woman named Maria in Minas Gerais who had worked as house cleaner on Cape Cod.  Although she still identifies with Massachusetts and roots for the New England Patriots, she said working there was too hard for her to take, and she returned to Brazil to work in small retail store.  Later she emigrated to Sweden!

Collateral damage

Back in Brazil the reputation for illegal emigration from Minas Gerais actually hurts people who want to travel to the US legally.  In Ipatinga I met a college professor who applied for a tourist visa to travel with his son, a youth who had studied in Germany already and earned an MBA degree.  They were refused by the US Embassy.  The father said, “What better way to kill a young man’s ambition?”

Free flight

Governador Valadares is also known for another form of risk taking.  Ibituruna Peak is one of the best places in the world to practice “free flight.”  We were there on a Thursday in January 2017 just before an international hang-gliding competition.  I drove a rental car for over 40 minutes up the steep winding road leading to the top of the peak and was able to witness young men launch themselves off a steep cliff.  We saw that some were lifted by the wind to altitudes even higher than the launching pad. 

That is another testimony to the human spirit and the desire to be free of constraints, whether they be distance, US immigration law, or gravity.

Take-off from Ibituruna Peak

A free flight launched from Ibituruna Peak

Amusement park on peak
Three “happy little pigs”

Rest stop / restaurant

Rest stop

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