Blame It on Rio? The Peculiarities of Brazilian Immigration in the United States

by Gerald Nowotny

Gerald Nowotny - Law Office of Gerald R. Nowotny


A Brazilian client recently asked me about my curious odyssey in Brazilian Portuguese and culture. The question seemed to be more about “why” I spoke Portuguese rather than “how” I learned.  I traced my interest in Portuguese and realized that it goes back to my childhood.  My parents liked the Bossa Nova sound and then there was the greatest ambassador of Brazilian music Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66 which I heard around age 10 and still listen to all of these years later. As a teenager I had the opportunity to see the great Pele play with his club team Santos just a few years after the 1970 World Cup.

When I got to West Point, I discovered that the Portuguese department was the friendliest department at West Point. I spent countless hours in the home of the Brazilian military exchange officer Colonel, Oacyr Pizzotti Minervino, who would later retire as a general. I had good aptitude for foreign language. By the time that I graduated, I was able to reach the highest level of proficiency for non-native speakers in both Portuguese and Spanish.

Out of the Army, I lived in South Florida where I attended the University of Miami School of Law. At that time, I was aware of the growing permanent community in Pompano Beach/Deerfield Beach while wealthy Brazilians were starting to arrive in Miami. After spending some time working in South Florida in 2014-2015, I noticed that there were a lot more Brazilians in the permanent community as well as new arrivals in the “one foot in, and one foot out community” of wealthy Brazilians in Miami. During this time, I casually noted that very few Hispanic attorneys bothered to learn Portuguese. The consequence of this observation was the conclusion that it was time to “dust off” my Portuguese.

Nevertheless, it seemed odd to me that fifty years after the Hispanic invasion, Gringos in South Florida were just beginning to think that it was finally time to learn Spanish and had no idea of what to make of Portuguese speaking Brazilians. When I lived in Rhode Island, I about twenty minutes away from Fall River, Ma which was home to the largest Portuguese community in the United States. The Portuguese have been in the United States since the nineteenth century. In fact, the Portuguese have been in the U.S. so long that many do not speak Portuguese anymore. These communities became a magnet for immigrants from other Portuguese speaking countries such as the Cape Verde Islands, Madeira, Azores, Mozambique and Angola. In fact, unlike any other large Metropolitan area where Hispanics outnumber any other group, Boston is the one metropolitan area where Portuguese speakers outnumber Hispanics.

Oddly enough, I noticed that most of the Brazilians were from the State of Minas Gerais. This short article is a summary of my adventures and observations about the Brazilian community in the United States.

Why Do the Brazilians Come to the United States?

Brazilians joke among themselves that Brazil is a country of the Future except that the Future never arrives. From the typical American perspective, Brazil is a festive country of Samba and Carnival; soccer and sun on the beach. For many Brazilians, it is Syria in Latin American. Brazil averages 60,000 murders per year and has had more deaths by violence over the last five years than Syria, a country with a civil war. Sixteen of the most dangerous cities in the World are in the Northeast Brazil. The country also has an alarmingly high rate of policemen killed off the job (versus on the job).

The movie series Elite Squad features Wagner Moura as Captain Nascimento, a captain on the SWAT team in Rio De Janeiro. The movie is sort of a Brazilian Dirty Harry that highlights the intersection of political corruption, police corruption and organized crime. I once asked a police captain from Sao Paolo if he thought that the film was exaggerated. He told me that reality is far worse than the film.

Brazil is arguably the most dangerous country in South America at this point in time. It is unlikely that the situation will improve any time in the near future. The country is experiencing the worst recession in its history. At the same time, the country is facing the worst series of corruption scandals in its history. The Brazilian Swamp seems to have no bottom!

The former Brazilian president was impeached in 2016 and her replacement is currently under investigation for political corruption and has an approval rating of a whopping ten percent. Nearly a third of the president’s cabinet, the heads of both chambers of Congress, two dozen senators and 42 representatives are being investigated for corruption, money laundering and fraud, according to a list released by a Supreme Court justice presiding over the cases. The President of one of the largest companies in Brazil, Marcelo Odebrecht, is serving a nineteen-year sentence and is singing like canary surrendering the names of one politician after another. The company paid $3.3 billion in bribes over a ten-year period. Things are so bad that Brazilians are reminiscing about life under the 21-year military dictatorship the country had between 1964-1988.

Where do the Brazilians live in the US?

As a rule of thumb, the Brazilians have always migrated to areas where there have been large Portuguese lived. It makes sense, same lingo! The largest traditional communities for the Portuguese have been the Newark area; the Providence-Fall River-Ned Bedford area and Boston area. The San Francisco area has a Brazilian community. I recently asked a Brazilian that lived in San Francisco for a number of years if the City by the Bay had a lot of Brazilians. She responded that the City had a lot of Brazilians and a lot of “Goianos” from the Brazilian state of Goias making the joke that the Goianos are somehow different than other Brazilians. The technical point here is that Brazilians from one region follow other people from the same region to the same place.

The initial migration of “Mineiros” from Governador Valadares began in World War II. Connections between this area and Massachusetts date back to World War II when Boston engineers and technicians were posted to Minas Gerais to work on the mining of sheet mica used to insulate radio tubes and detonators. Contacts between the Bostonians and the residents of Minas Gerais resulted in cultural exchanges that encouraged some Brazilians to come to Boston to attend school or find work. The connection never ended. The American Dream became the Brazilian Dream.

In recent times the number of tourist visa request denials has tripled. Brazilians state than when the US consulate in Rio sees an application from someone from Governador Valadares, it is an automatic denial. The area became infamous for its fabrication of fake visas that the U.S. consulate closed its office there.

The main cities are Framingham-Marlborough; Lowell, Everett, Plymouth and the Cape; Worcester and Sommerville. Nashua, New Hampshire also has a pocket of Brazilians. The Newark area is also loaded with Brazilians. These cities are well organized communities with newspapers, radio and community associations. A large number of Brazilian men work in the trades. A large number of the women in the undocumented community operate cleaning companies, or provide babysitting services or home healthcare for the elderly.

On the other hand, the Brazilian community in Florida does not have the same type of community organization. In my view the quality of work opportunity and quality of life for Brazilians in New England are better for the Brazilians than South Florida where they have to compete with a very large Hispanic community. Cities like New York and Washington, DC have Brazilian professionals that are very well educated both in the U.S. and Brazil and very successful.

Brazil – The Largest Catholic Country in the World?

One of the most interesting aspects for me is the significant percentage of evangelical Christians in Brazil in general and in the United States. Statistically, Brazil remains as the largest Catholic country in the World. Nevertheless, a third of the country’s population identifies itself with various evangelical churches. The Assemblies of God denomination is probably the largest of the evangelical denominations in Brazil. This percentage is significantly greater than any of its South American counterparts. The last time that the Pope went to Brazil and held a gathering in the Maracanã stadium, the stands were half empty. Brazilians have told me that a Brazilian city of any size will have three churches, Igreja Universal, Assemblea De Deus, and Igreja Catholica.

The Brazilian community has many evangelical churches. Instead of having one mega-church with 5,000 members, the Brazilian community has 100 churches with 50 members each. The churches provide a tremendous foundation of support for members in every respect from housing to employment and financial matters. The pastor of the church is the go-to source for every need for the congregants.


The Brazilian and Hispanic communities co-exist pretty well. Brazilians tend to speak bad Spanish but understand it very well. Hispanics tend to speak to Portuguese. In many respects they share many similarities but in many respects they are different. The Portuguese language and Brazilian culture separates them from the Hispanic community. The Hispanic community has been in the United States much longer and is more skilled in accessing the American political system than the Brazilians.

The current situation in Brazil would seem to indicate that it is going to take ten times longer (correction – 1000 times) to drain the Swamp in Brazil than here in the U.S. The confluence of the political corruption and economic recession has forced many Brazilians to look outside of the country for a solution from the violence and corruption and economic malaise. Wealthier Brazilians are buying places in Miami. At the same time, less fortunate Brazilians that cannot get a tourist visa continue to trickle across the Border.  The economic situation in Europe is not great but better than Brazil.

The political and economic crisis is likely to send many Brazilians abroad to Europe and Canada but with an eye of the United States. Brazilians have exempt visa status in Europe but many Brazilians are able to get second passports for Portugal and Italy from their ancestors who came to Brazil.

The size of the Brazilian community in the United States is small relative to the Hispanic community but growing in size and influence.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Gerald Nowotny, Law Office of Gerald R. Nowotny | Attorney Advertising

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