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Many Brazilian Emigrants Now Returning Home To Find Emerging Economic Powerhouse

Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Suzette Grillot
Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Since the 1990s, Brazil has slowly positioned itself as a major economic world player. It’s been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world over the past two decades, with abundant natural resources and ongoing appreciation of its currency. Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill coined the term BRIC in a 2001 paper to describe how Brazil, Russia, India, and China could become economic juggernauts by the year 2050. Last year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have solidified the country’s place among the global elite.

But before this resurgence, massive amounts of Brazilians emigrated to the United States and Western Europe, according to Maxine Margolis. The anthropologist at the University of Florida and Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies is the author of An Invisible Minority: Brazilians in New York City, and Goodbye Brazil: Emigrés from the Land of Soccer and Samba, and specializes in cross-cultural gender roles, Brazilian culture and society and international migration.

Margolis told KGOU’s World Views that starting in the 1980s, many Brazilians realized they could make more money through service sector jobs in industrialized countries. Two to three million Brazilians now live abroad, mostly in the United States and Japan.

“There’s definitely, aside from the economic issues, a feeling of adventure of wanting to know another country and particularly a country that receives so much attention in Brazil and is seen as such a world leader,” Margolis said.

But economic downturns in the United States and Western Europe mean Brazilians are now returning, and these former émigrés are discovering their home country is now much more powerful.

“I would say the biggest catalyst for sending Brazilians home back to Brazil is high unemployment in Western Europe, in Spain and Portugal,” Margolis said. “As the American economy had its problems, people gave up their house cleaners, for example, or their nannies, or they didn't go out to eat in restaurants as much.”

But Margolis says the large number of Brazilians still migrating concerns federal officials. The government in Brasilia has made sending money back to Brazil easier, and published a pamphlet on how to succeed in Brazil for migrants that have moved home.

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Maxine Margolis, welcome to World Views.


GRILLOT: The work that you've been doing - you've been working in Brazil for many many years, but this most recent book of yours "Goodbye, Brazil" really focuses on how and why people are leaving the country of Brazil, why Brazilians are emigrating and leaving the country. Tell us a little bit about why that's happening.

MARGOLISWell it started  in the late 1980s, early 1990s when there was a lot of real dire economic problems in Brazil: hyper inflation, high unemployment, low salaries, high cost of living. Middle class Brazilians, particularly middle class Brazilians, were having trouble maintaining their lifestyles because of these issues. So they began to leave Brazil in reasonably large numbers for a country that had no history of emigration, only immigration, to take jobs in the industrialized world, the U.S., several countries in Europe, Japan that paid far more than they could earn in Brazil. And the ratio I always use is 1 to 4, which they told me about, is in 1 week in the U.S., even doing menial work like cleaning apartments or waiting on tables, they earn the same as they make in 4 weeks in Brazil. 

So the ratio is 1 to 4. Even though in Brazil many of them had what we would call white collar jobs that one would think would be reasonably well paid, but they weren't, especially not given the high cost of living.

GRILLOT: So there's no one segment of society that's leaving and others are staying. So you wouldn't consider it necessarily brain drain in the sense that the educated classes are leaving. It's everyone, people are who are working including homes as well.

MARGOLIS: It's not everyone because very poor people don't leave because they don't have the resources to leave. Initially, through about the year 2000 it was middle class and lower middle class Brazilians. People who were nurses and school teachers who are considered lower middle class in Brazil, terrible salaries, as well as middle class people with white collar jobs. Even people with professional jobs who had attended university who simply could not get positions in which they could use their expertise which paid middle class lifestyle wages so that was really the catalyst for them leaving even though when they came, for example, to the U.S. they took menial jobs that they would never ever consider doing in Brazil such as cleaning houses. 

GRILLOT: So the economy though was booming in Brazil for quite some time, but the cost of living is what you're saying is really, as a result of that booming economy, that really drove a lot of people out.

MARGOLISWell there have been a whole series of boom busts in the Brazilian economy. Today it's up and tomorrow it's down sort of thing. Like in 2010 it was really booming, and some Brazilians who were living abroad said, "Let's go back. Let's try our luck. Let's see whats happening," and that slowly faded and today they have a very low growth rate, I forget what it is, I think it's less that one percent. It's very low. So things have changed once again. I would say there's no single pattern in that, but definitely the initial driving force were the early 1990s economic conditions that I've described. 

GRILLOT: So primarily economic, are there any other factors? Are there other social or cultural factors that also might be it? Because I know Brazil is obviously a diverse country. Most people don't realize how diverse it really is. And so do you have other kinds of societal issues that are at play here?

MARGOLISIn terms of coming to the U.S. in particular, Brazil is absolutely a wash in U.S. media: movies, music, television shows and so on. And so the imagination of the Brazilian, I would say, especially again middle class people, to come to this land who they have extremely, I would say, idealized versions of in their heads, so there's definitely, aside from the economic issues, a feeling of adventure of wanting to know another country and particularly a country that receives so much attention in Brazil and is seen as such a world leader in that sense.

GRILLOT: So the majority of them are coming to the United States.

MARGOLIS: Well yes. More coming to the United States than any other country. Second place would be, in terms of industrialized countries to which they go, would be Japan.

GRILLOT: So what's the connection there to Japan?

MARGOLIS: The connection is that in the early 20th century many thousands of Japanese left Japan and settled in Brazil, particularly in southern Brazil. In 1990 the Japanese government, Japanese industry realized they did not have sufficient labor force to do jobs that were considered extremely undesirable by the Japanese themselves. So that they would legally, basically, import labor. But the important thing about the labor is that it looked like them, that is people of Japanese ancestry. The feeling was that if they were Japanese by ancestry they would easily fit into Japanese society. The problem is most of them didn't speak Japanese. They speak Portuguese, they're second/ third generation and they are culturally Brazilian.There's nothing Japanese about them. Yes, some of them eat Japanese food or go to Japanese restaurants in Brazil but it's very sort of a light touch, and they really don't know Japanese culture. So there have been all kinds of cultural conflicts once they get there in terms of, I was telling a class, the inability to properly recycle and to play loud music. And the Japanese simply say they look like us but they sure don't act like us, as a  way of summarizing the issue.

GRILLOT: Well certainly. I think if you grow up in a different place, you're a different person. 

MARGOLIS: Just because you're racially similar... So it was quite a shock to the Japanese. 

GRILLOT:  Well let's talk about the linguistic similarities. So I'm thinking, you mentioned that they're going to the U.S. and Japan, but what about Portugal? Brazil is a Portuguese colony and they share a language, but Portugal isn't necessarily the best place to go economically either. Is this maybe part of the problem?

MARGOLIS: It is and isn't in a sense. Yes, you're exactly right because they speak Portuguese, the mother country. Beginning also in the 1990s, a lot of professional Brazilians left for Portugal. They got jobs there in areas in which they were trained such as marketing, and I.T., and television production, and so on - these sort of very high level jobs that paid well, better in Portugal than they did in Brazil. And moreover there was need for them in Portugal. Portugal did not have that many people trained in those areas. And of course Brazilian television is absolutely world class production, so this was very attractive. One of the few examples where Brazilians, as immigrants, can actually get jobs in the areas in which they were trained in Brazil. Now not all Brazilians who went to Portugal are of that educational caliber. So there were poorer Brazilians who went. Working class who worked in construction and so on and so forth. 

GRILLOT: So what has the government been doing in Brazil about this. I mean are they concerned at all, the Brazilian government, about people leaving the country?

MARGOLIS; Well it's still such a drop in the bucket because Brazil is a country of 200 million people and we're talking about maybe 2 or 3 million who live outside the country. Something like that. So 1 or 2 percent, so it's very small. It's not like Mexico or the Philippines or what have you. At first, I would say, the Brazilian government pretty much ignored these people. But in more recent years, particularly after Lula became president of Brazil, there was more attention paid to this sort of expatriate community. One thing that was done, (it) became much easier to send money from say the U.S. to Brazil, to your relatives in Brazil. You could do it through banking. You didn't have to go to Western Union and pay high fees. It was virtually free. And money could be received at any bank in Brazil by your relatives and withdrawn with no problem at all. So that was one of the things the government did. Now, since 2008, as many Brazilians from the U.S. and from Western Europe and Japan, have been returning to Brazil, they've lost jobs due to the recession, the government again sort of woke up and they published a little book about returning to Brazil and how to re-adapt and how to invest your money and that sort of thing. So there's been, what I would say, some attention, particularly on the ability to send money home more than anything else. But it hasn't really been a big issue. There is, however, some attempt on the part of Brazilians living abroad to get the government to pay more attention to them by perhaps having a representative in the Brazilian government in the Brazilian congress. That hasn't happened so far, but there has been lobbying particularly by Brazilians in Europe for that to take place.

GRILLOT: For representation of the Brazilian diaspora.

MARGOLIS: I think Haiti has a special representative in the government that represents those Haitians living outside of Haiti. It would be the same idea. They've lobbied, but to my knowledge, it hasn't come to pass. 

GRILLOT: What about Brazil's connection to other Latin American countries. In terms of immigration and migration going back and forth. Of course Brazil is the Portuguese speaking country in Latin America and the rest is largely Spanish speaking, but, nonetheless, they share a lot in terms of culture and way of life. What about that relationship?

MARGOLIS: Well you have in fact a large number of poor Brazilians, uneducated Brazilians, many with high rates of illiteracy who go to some of the neighboring countries, particularly Paraguay. Paraguay has more Brazilians than any foreign country other than the U.S. We don't know how many because they're now into the third generation and many of them are basically stateless because they're not recognized by the Paraguayan government. They have no documentation to prove they came from Brazil or their parents or grandparents came from Brazil, but those are a very different kind of immigrant. They're very poor, they're landless, they're looking for jobs in agriculture, sharecropping, they've been pushed out of southern Brazil in particular because of mechanization of agriculture and land consolidation. That's actually older. That started in the late 60s, much earlier than this other, but large numbers of people have gone. And smaller numbers of Brazilians go to Venezuela or to Guyana to work in the mines, to work as rubber tappers in Bolivia, smallish numbers. some even go to Argentina. There's a fairly small population of middle class Brazilians who have gone to Buenos Aires to take jobs that actually pay better than equivalent jobs in Brazil, but that's a fairly small number of people I believe.

GRILLOT: Well there's a lot of attention on Brazil these days obviously. To many of us around the world it's still an up and coming country. It's part of the BRICS as we call them: Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. And they had the World Cup and now they're going to have the summer 2016 Olympics. There's a lot of attention being paid to Brazil. Do you see some reversal perhaps in this happening, and that maybe Brazilians won't be leaving the country as much? But I know their economy is still struggling. Do you see many might be coming back? There just seems to be a lot of good stuff going on.

MARGOLIS: There is. Although, recently the cost of living has just been astronomical. One of the problems for immigrants is if they're sending money home, well if they're sending dollars, that's wonderful because the dollar is worth so much against the local currency. For awhile that was reversed. So it became less attractive to work abroad. And that, again, keeps changing. I would say the biggest catalyst for sending Brazilians home back to Brazil is high unemployment in western Europe, in Spain and Portugal in particular, maybe somewhat less in Italy and in parts of the U.S. Now you never had Brazilians working in construction very much, very little, and mostly in service sector jobs, in service jobs, in restaurants and nannies and housekeepers and that sort of thing. As the American economy had its problems, people gave up their house cleaners for example or their nannies or they didn't go out to eat in restaurants as much. So that all impacts employment and we do know that a certain number of Brazilians have definitely returned to Brazil. What we don't know is how many. We don't know how many left to begin with, and we really don't know how many returned. There really aren't very good records. 

GRILLOT: Well Maxine thank you so much for being here today. Most of us are really watching Brazil and how it's developing and I think this gives us another thing to think about.

MARGOLIS: Well it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

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