Town in Brazil thrives on labor of its emigrants

January 20, 1991|By New York Times News Service

GOVERNADOR VALADARES, Brazil -- In the vast, arid interior of Minas Gerais State rises a tidy, thriving city that residents call "Brazil's best American town."

Lacking any visible source of income other than ranching, Governador Valadares is sprouting high-rise apartment buildings. The tallest, with an Art Deco motif, is called the Empire State Building. Around the central square, teen-age girls shop for outfits at Benetton. Boys sit on park benches, reading Mad magazine in Portuguese.

When money exchange shops started to outnumber tractor dealerships, locals knew a fundamental change had taken place. "Almost all the families here now have a relative in the United States," said Ilca Quirino dos Santos, surveying her neighborhood from her veranda.

The sound of hammering emerged from the shell of a building next door. A two-story house for her son, Carlos Alberto, was being built with weekly remittances from his job washing dishes in a Boston restaurant.

The lure of working illegally in the United States, traditionally associated with laborers in Mexico and the Caribbean, has reached down to Brazil, which, with 153 million people, is South America's most populous nation. Disillusioned after a decade of economic stagnation, inflation and politicians' unfulfilled promises, Brazilians are migrating north in a flow unbroken by the inauguration this year of Fernando Collor de Mello, a president who promises a "new Brazil."

Although no reliable figures are available, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians are thought to be working in the United States. Historically, those most prone to emigration are residents of this city of 250,000 people.

The U.S. connection dates from World War II, when American planes took off regularly from here carrying mica, then an essential material for making radios. In return, the U.S. government helped to combat malaria and build the town's water and sewage system. After the war, U.S. businessmen started coming here as the city became a trading center for semiprecious stones.The United States "was always something palpable," said Lana Mara de Castro Siman, a regional historian.

In the 1960s, unemployment spread after loggers cut down all the tropical forest around here. Young men started making the 10-hour bus trip to Rio de Janeiro, the first step in the journey to the United States.

"The Brazilian is not an emigrant; he is generally earning a nest egg for life in Brazil," said Jose Victor Bicalho, a psychiatrist here.

Fascinated by the exodus, Mr. Bicalho traveled in 1989 to Framingham, Mass., where an estimated 6,000 Brazilians work. Supporting himself by washing dishes in a steak house and pressing clothes in a dry cleaner's, he studied the emigrants.

The profile that emerged was of a single man under 35 years of age with a high-school education or less. Virtually all of the group surveyed said they planned to return to Brazil within three years.

Eighty percent said they shared an apartment with five or more people to save money, and 92 percent said they spent less than $300 a month on rent, food and transport. Mr. Bicalho found that Brazilians most commonly worked as dishwashers, busboys, hotel maids, gardeners, factory workers and supermarket checkout clerks. But with the United States enjoying a per capita income 10 times that of Brazil's, the last in Boston are the first in Governador Valadares.

Livio Rodrigues Gomes, a cook's helper in Framingham, is the owner of Livio's bar here, on the second floor of the city bus station. "It is very hard in Brazil to earn any real money," Mr. Gomes said shortly after returning from a two-year stint in a Framingham steakhouse.

With his savings, he put a new floor in his house here, bought a $6,000 station wagon, spent $3,000 on a medical operation for one daughter and paid for a $3,000 wedding for another. Overall, the estimated 10,000 Valadarenses living in the United States are believed to send home more than $20 million a year.

The dos Santos household uses a classic hedge of rural Brazilians against inflation: All surplus remittances are invested in cows.

"He earns $800 a week and sends home $400 a week," Mrs. dos Santos said, leafing through an album containing photos of Carlos Alberto in New England. Before going there last year, he earned $25 a week helping his father drive a milk truck here.

Claudia dos Santos, his 22-year-old sister, exclaimed: "I would give anything to go to the United States."

But Miss dos Santos, like many residents here, has run into a brick wall at the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro. Consular officials who issue visas for this part of Brazil say that the overall refusal rate has averaged 19 percent over the last three years. But travel agents here -- several of whom have gone out of business in recent months -- charge that the consulate routinely denies most visa applications from residents of "Brazil's American town."

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