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Goodbye, Brazil: Émigrés from the Land of Soccer and Samba

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By Maxine L. Margolis

Minneapolis: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013

This year Brazil will hold its eighth presidential election since its return to democracy in 1985. Much has changed over three decades. Brazil is hailed as a rising regional power and an apparently prosperous one. So it’s easy to lose sight of the multiple economic crises that characterized the transition from dictatorship to democracy and easier still to miss a less-well known phenomenon launched during those years. Financial pressure made Brazilians look for opportunities abroad, reversing a migratory trend in a country formerly on the receiving end. Migration to Brazil, particularly from surrounding countries, continues today, but far more people leave the country than enter.

Maxine L. Margolis is an American anthropologist who has researched Brazilian culture and emigration since the 1980s. Since her first book, Little Brazil: An Ethnography of Brazilian Immigrants in New York City, appeared in 1994, she has extended her investigation into other U.S. cities as well as Europe and Japan. This most recent work explores the migration pattern more broadly—the reasons, the diaspora and the links to home. Less than 2 percent of Brazil’s 200 million citizens live abroad and their remittances amount to “a drop in the bucket,” Margolis says, given the size of the Brazilian economy. Nonetheless, she insists, this diaspora has had a notable impact.

Why has migration occurred? Who are the émigrés? Why do they choose their destinations? How do they fare? The first Brazilians to leave were predominately middle-class males from Minas Gerais, specifically the city of Governador Valadares. They saw the move as an opportunity, not a necessity. Gradually this profile changed to include blue-collar workers, including women, who took more expensive and more dangerous routes to destinations that reflected their class, finances, education, community of origin, even ancestry—a basis for a legitimate claim to citizenship in Japan and Italy that did not and does not neutralize discrimination.

Diaspora enclaves often replicate the social hierarchy that migrants thought they had left behind. A commonality that many share is what Margolis calls a “fall from grace” as they accept jobs that that pay decently but would rank as low-status in Brazil: childcare, construction, prostitution. Margolis notes that especially in the United States, Brazilian identity hinges on distinguishing the “otherness” of Hispanics/Latino and emphasizing uniqueness, which does not make for cohesion. “[T]heir common ethnicity does not bind them in organized cooperative associations,” Margolis writes. “[O]bservers of Brazilian communities have remarked upon their apparent disunity and lack of ethnic-based organizations.” Many Brazilians see themselves as “sojourners,” not settlers, and hold onto a desire to return home. But will they? Margolis leaves us with that question.

Margolis’ global perspective incorporates data collected from her own extensive ethnographic work and synthesizes other studies as well as media reports. Given the illegal nature of some migration flows, citing an accurate figure on Brazilian emigrants is difficult; Margolis uses figures from the American Community Survey undertaken by the U.S. Census Bureau and from the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She also digs into the tension between migration and development. In Brazil, remittances improve conditions for families and are not invested in community development and children left behind “see no reason to work hard in school or pursue a career” because they too expect to leave. Migration has given rise to a complex of travel agents, smugglers and recruiters in service to the business of sending Brazilians abroad on an industrial scale. However, some push factors are missing from the discussion, which could have benefited from a more robust analysis of the role of race relations, class structure and the education gap. Nonetheless Margolis’ book is a splendid introduction to migration from this fascinating country.—Alejandra Argueta, former IAF program staff assistant