Brazil loves immigrants, but only if they’re the right color

‘Federal police barred immigrants on the bridge connecting Brazil and Peru on Wednesday’

Note from BBT: So, today’s topic is one that I’ve been wanting cover for years, but just never got around to it. I mean, threre’s so much to cover when it comes to the issue of race in Brazil, and even having posted more than 3,700 articles on this blog, being only one person, sometimes I come up short in terms of time to discuss all of the topics that I would like cover. I don’t remember exactly know when I became aware of today’s topic, but I know that it was courtesy of the work of professor Petrônio Domingues.

Looking back, it must have been some times between 2006 and 2007 when he academic articles began to attract my attention. In the past century, there have been a number of noteworthy interactions between black Americans and black Brazilians, or perhaps, black Americans first becoming interested in Brazil.

First, in the 1920s being fooled by Brazil’s so-called racial democracy, then questioning the racial democracy myth from the 1940s to the 1960s, to finally rejecting the myth completely by the 1960s and 70s. Today, even as black American scholarship on racial issues in Brazil continues, there is a whole other interest in Brazil that goes beyond academic scholarship as thousands of African-American males pour into the country in search of female companionship.

I find this new found interest in Brazil intriguing especially considering that about a century ago, Brazil’s government didn everything it could to deter black americans from settling in the country. What could have been the reason for not wanting black Americans to settle in Brazil? Well, considering that this is a blog about how race works in Brazil, I’ll give you one guess and two seconds to guess. Time’s up.

The history of black American migration to Brazil back in the 1920s is far too fascinating to cover in just one post, so I will introduce today’s piece as just an intro to the topic that is intertwined with the way that Brazil has treated recent immigrants from Haiti and the African continent. As the title of the article suggests, Brazil has historically opened its door to immigrants, but only if they have the right skin color and phenotype. Read on because this is deep.

Haitians detail routine humiliations and prejudice in Brasil

Immigrants yes, but what color?

By Alex Castro

Brazil likes to imagine itself as an open, hospitable nation, without prejudice. Its record, however, tells another story. Today, richer and more important, assuming a place of greater weight in the world, there is still time for Brazil to change its attitudes.

Our attitudes.

Immigrants yesterday and today.

Not all people who immigrate are equal

In the beginning of the 20th century, in an attempt to whiten the population, boost the economy and occupy regions which until then were almost uninhabited, the Brazilian government strongly stimulated foreign immigration. With limits, of course.

Already in 1891, it prohibited the immigration of natives from Africa and Asia. After fierce debates, the law was revoked in 1907, opening the way for Japanese immigration, but other “undesirable” groups, such as Arabs from North Africa or Chinese, encountered strong resistance.

In 1921, in response to an advertisement in several newspapers promising passage, accommodation and long-term credit to farmers from the United States who wished to settle in Brazil, a colonization company called the Brazilian American Colonization Sindicate (BACS) was formed. The government of Mato Grosso had even granted them huge land concessions, which were promptly cancelled when an unpleasant detail was discovered:

The people in the group, amazingly, were black!

Suffocated by the racist segregationist atmosphere in the US, these poor people were convinced that Brazil was the true racial democracy it claimed to be, where there were no color lines and where black and white people were equal before the law.

Obviously, they had never been to Brazil – and they never would: The Itamaraty denied visas to all the people in the company. Itamaraty is the name of Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Since Brazil and the US had an immigration treaty that gave US persons, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion, the right to enter and settle in Brazil, BACS demanded that Brazil’s government justify the ban.

In public, the Itamaraty took refuge in the statement that the Brazilian immigration policy was sovereign and could not be questioned by foreign governments or people.

In private, however, the Itamaraty sent confidential memos to all Brazilian consulates in the US making it clear which type of immigrant from the US was desirable and which was not.

It is almost anti-Brazilian that the government had to be so explicit in its racism!

Cartoon by the always brilliant Carlos Latuff. Brazil leads the UN mission in Haiti

Captions in photos above

Haitians are killed in protests against high food prices

Newspaper headline: ‘Brazil promises to send 14 tons of food’

‘While they don’t send food…We’re sending bullets’

That rare moment when you say what you really think

Our elected representatives, however, were not so diplomatic.

Fidélis Reis, congressman from the state of Minas Gerais, proposed a bill vetoing immigration of black people, limiting immigration of Asians and encouraging immigration of white people. Here is what he said, in the plenary session, in 1923:

“When we then think … … in the near or remote possibility of the immigration of the American Negro to Brazil, it is that we came to admit the eventuality of the disturbance of peace on the continent. … Our African black man, who came here under very different conditions, fought with us the hardest battles of the formation of nationality, worked, suffered and with his dedication helped us to create Brazil. … The case is now imminently different. And it must constitute for us a motive of serious apprehension, as an imminent danger weighing upon our destiny.” (emphasis of the author)

From the congressman’s speech, one really gets the impression that “our black African” came to Brazil willingly, voluntarily to work and suffer for our homeland; and that the so-called “imminent danger” that caused “apprehension” was precisely the fact that North-American black people, these scoundrels, were coming in search of a racial democracy, where have you seen this?!

The illustrious novelist and president of the Brazilian Association of Letters Afrânio Peixoto also gave his opinion on Congressman Fidélis’ project, in the same year:

“Is it at this time that America intends to get rid of its core of 15 million blacks in Brazil? How many centuries will it take to purify all that brown human matter? Will we have enough albumin to refine all this scum? Liberia was not enough, did they discover Brazil?” (emphasis of the author)

For the great and generous academic, it’s enough for a person to be black to be scum, but, all right, nothing that albumin can’t solve. A farmer by the name of Antonio Americano do Brasil, states:

“We would no longer have the simple people for farming, who were the African primitives of slavery, easily identifying with the land. Today’s blacks would come from the United States, … elements full of defects, carrying the hatred of the white man who has persecuted them, possessing sharp vices that the former slaves didn’t have.” (emphasis of the author)

Leaving aside the patent nostalgia for slavery, what are these “defects” and “vices” that this North American “masked scum” possesses? Who answers is the great historian Oliveira Lima, also a promoter of European immigration as a way to whiten Brazil

“… these, who threaten to come to us from America, find themselves modeled by a superior civilization, speaking their own language and having a feeling of haughtiness and aggressiveness, natural in the environment in which they live and which the Africans who came here, in other times from the coast of Africa, did not possess. The latter, because of the inferiority of their civilization, merged with the superior whites; who can tell us that the American Negroes will do the same? But if they remain “infusible,” then we will have one more political danger overshadowing our destinies. If they mix, then we will have increased the formless mass of inferior mixed breeds that so retards our progress.” (emphasis of the author)

That is, according to the sensitive and worthy intellectual, the “defects” and “vices” that American black people bring with them is precisely to be proud and proud citizens, aware of their rights.

God, Brazil wants to distance itself from these people!

(The source of the story above is the article “Dos Males que Vem com o Sangue: as Representações Raciais e a Categoria do Imigrante Indesejável nas Concepções sobre Imigração da Década de 20”, meaning ‘Of the evils that come with blood: racial representations and the category of undesirable immigrant in the conceptions of immigration in the 20s’ by Jair Souza Ramos, in the book Raça, Ciência e Sociedade (Rio de Janeiro: Fiocruz, 1996), organized by Marco Chor Maio).

Note from BBTI want to address the above quotes made by Brazilian politicians about a century ago when the discussion of black americans possibly settling in Brazil. As I have stated in previous articles, there are numerous examples of the problem Brazilian statesmen had with black Americans. As you can surmise from the above comments, many elite Brazilians thought of black Brazilians as being docile, easy to control and totally on board with elite desires for the black population to disappear within a few generations through the process of miscegenation.

As black Americans were accustomed to segregation, building community and being able to support themselves, the last thing these elites wanted was for a population that was considered much more resistant and militant to influence black Brazilians. It was if they were saying, ”We here in Brazil have our negros under control and there’s no way we’re going to allow these rabble-rousing negro Americans to come here, wake up our negros and mess up our plan to mix themselves about of the nation.” 

What other way would you interpret the above comments?

Accommodation of Haitian immigrants at the Brazilian border.

And Brazil never had racist laws. Right?

Brazil has always needed foreign arms, but there are arms and arms. Who until yesterday were imported and bought for a lot of money today are not wanted even for free.

Already in 1890, a mere two years after Abolition and in the first year of the new democratic and citizen’s republic, Brazil explicitly prohibited the immigration of African people. The law would be complemented and reinforced in 1920 and 1930 to prohibit not only African people, but also anyone who looked like them.

In Brazil, as the racist saying goes, we never need racial segregation laws because “the blacks know their place.” In fact, our country has always been so racist that laws never needed to be: just put things vaguely and trust our historical racism. (As in the case of the Itamaraty’s confidential memos, it is only in the last case that it is necessary to be explicit and, even in those, discreetly).

Text of a 1945 decree-law, only revoked in the 1980s

Art. 1 – every foreigner may, enter Brazil as long as he satisfies the conditions established by this law.

Art. 2 – in admitting immigrants, consideration shall be given to the need to preserve and develop, in the ethnic composition of the population, the most convenient characteristics of their European ancestry, as well as the defense of the national worker. (emphasis of the author)

(The information in the excerpt above came from the article “A Caixa Econômica Federal, a política do branqueamento e a poupança dos escravos”, meaning ‘Caixa Econômica Federal, the policy of whitening and the saving of slaves’ by Ana Maria Gonçalves, author of the masterful novel Um defeito de Cor. I recommend reading the novel, the article and everything else that Ana writes.)

Haiti in Brazil today

If you are breathing a sigh of relief, thinking, “whew, it’s a good thing Brazil is not like this anymore,” think twice, kind reader.

In 2010, Haiti was destroyed by an earthquake and subsequently occupied by UN troops led by Brazil. The post-earthquake difficulties, a closer contact with the Brazilian armed forces and the good phase of our economy caused the largest migration wave to the country in more than a century.

Haiti, it is worth remembering, was the second independent nation in the Americas, when enslaved black people led the first and only successful large-scale slave rebellion in history, burned down the sugar mills, killed all the white people, and defeated the armies of Britain, France and Spain. (Text about it here.)

In recent years the number of people immigrating to Brazil is only increasing: the main nationalities include Bolivians, Chinese, Peruvians, Paraguayans and Koreans, mostly unskilled laborers.

Meanwhile, thousands of Haitians, many of them skilled, are barred at our borders, generating clearly sensationalist headlines, full of negative words like “illegal,” “crisis,” “suffer,” “invasion,” etc.: “Illegals cause humanitarian crisis in Acre,” and “Acre suffers from invasion of immigrants from Haiti”.

Our deep-rooted anti-black racism manages to beat even our constitutive anti-Hispanic disgust.

(For more information, I recommend the graduation monograph by Jenny Télémaque for the communication course at UFRJ, “Haitian immigration in the Brazilian media: between facts and representations”. The author, who has already been the subject of an article in the Extra newspaper, is Haitian and studied in Brazil thanks to an agreement between UFRJ and the Brazilian embassy in Haiti).

Elite Squad and Haiti, by Latuff.

Captions of photo above

Meanwhile, in the ‘elite squad’…

‘Did you know that Brazil has already spent 370 million with the troops in Haiti?’

‘Wow, with this money we could buy more plastic bags’

Everyone should be allowed to be Brazilian

Are we or are we not the country of the future, hospitable and desirable, where the birds don’t chirp as they do there, a racial democracy where everything grows if you plant it? Do we or do we not have a low population density and gigantic empty and unexplored areas?

We have the same area as the continental United States, and 100 million fewer people.

More people in Brazil does not mean “more people sucking on the “bolsa familia” (Brazil’s universal basic income program), but more people generating wealth for all.

We are a country of immigrants. Anyone who wants to be Brazilian should be allowed to be.

Time to open the gates.

Haitian immigrants with their newly obtained Brazilian work cards.

SourcePapo de Homem

About Marques Travae 3737 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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