Brazilians on Martha’s Vineyard organize to have a voice

While Brazilians have been living and working on Martha’s Vineyard since the late 1980s, for the first time they have formed an association to better represent them — and to represent themselves to the whole Island community.

“One voice is hard to hear,” said West Tisbury police officer Leomar DeOliveira, who has lived on the Island since 1994 and is the chairman of the Brazilian Association of Martha’s Vineyard — in Portuguese, Associação Brasileira em Martha’s Vineyard, or ABRAMAVIN for short. “We felt this group has the possibility of magnifying the quality of life for Brazilians committed to living here.”

The four-person board of directors held its first meeting April 3, and a subsequent meeting open to the public a week later. Since then, close to 200 people (aged 21 and older) have already paid a $50 membership fee.

One of the group’s stated goals is to help Brazilians who live and work on the Island become legal citizens of the United States. To that end, some of the membership fee will help cover the cost of bringing a representative to the Island from the Brazilian Consulate General in Boston, to aid in processing official applications for U.S. citizenship. A Consulate officer will be on the Island this Saturday, May 21, to meet those who have already scheduled appointments, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Tisbury School. If that goes well, the group’s leaders say, the officer will return on an intermittent basis.

Along with aiding processing citizenship paperwork, ABRAMAVIN will help organize courses in computers and English language skills, career counseling and other social services. It will also eventually have an attorney to counsel them. Since the Brazilian churches are a pivotal part of their lives, the group has been engaging those church leaders in conversations as to what and how they can work together toward shared goals of community development.

The group has also talked to the local YMCA about various forms of cooperation and participation. In the future they plan to host events and festivals open to the entire Island community, as a way to introduce themselves and Brazilian culture to non-Brazilians living here.

Though the very first trickle of Brazilians started coming to the Island in 1988-89, their numbers peaking to an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 by about 2005, and now having dwindled to about half that as the Island (and American) economy has offered fewer work opportunities, this is the first time they have attempted to organize as a community.

According to the last U.S. census, Vineyard Haven ranked 7th and Edgartown ranked 12th among American cities with the highest percentage of people claiming Brazilian ancestry. Nonetheless, the Island Brazilians are the most isolated geographically from the rest of those in New England, such as in Danbury, Conn. (ranked 3); and Framingham (4th), Somerville (5th), and Marlborough (9th), all in Mass.

“Many of those who have remained here have a greater stake in the community — their kids go to schools, they pay taxes, they’re citizens,” said Elio Silva, whose idea for the group had been brewing in his mind for 15 years. Mr. Silva, 41, is a businessman who has lived on the Island since 1988 and whose latest venture is to combine his two grocery stores into one large multi-level complex at State Road and High Point Lane in Vineyard Haven.

When he approached Officer DeOliveira with the idea, the West Tisbury policeman felt the timing was right.

While there’s no way to corroborate the numbers exactly, Officer DeOliveira concedes that possibly as many as half the Brazilians currently living and working on Martha’s Vineyard may not be U.S. citizens. One reason: he contends that the federal government does not provide a clear path to obtaining legitimate status. And, he said, “there is often a lack of communication between law enforcement and federal immigration officials.”

Mr. Silva suggested that while some Brazilians anecdotally are said to get around the taxation system by accepting cash for work (foregoing employee benefits), that practice also is said to occasionally occur with non-Brazilians who accept cash for pay on the Island. This may imply that employers who do pay employees cash off the books might be getting paid in cash themselves, and therefore could be evading tax laws.

Responding to claims that Brazilians add to community medical, educational, and court costs while not paying taxes, Mr. Silva noted that homeowner taxes pay for a share of such social services in American municipalities. Anyone who rents a house on Martha’s Vineyard or anywhere in the U.S., he pointed out, also does not contribute to tax revenues that support those services.

Mr. Silva stressed that ABRAMAVIN “will have no jurisdiction about immigration laws,” but it will refer people to experts who can provide such information. Eventually, he said, he hopes the association’s website will include information about mortgages; as well, it would post names of employers with both good and bad reputations and practices.

Joining Mr. Silva and Officer DeOliveira on the board are Edivalda Santana as president and Danubia Campos as vice president.

A member of one of the first Brazilian families to settle on the island in the late ’80s, Mrs. Santana is an aesthetician who runs her business from the basement of her Edgartown home. The mother of two teenagers, she is married to Paco Santana, who owns a successful contracting business that specializes in painting and flooring.

She said part of the problem Brazilians on Martha’s Vineyard face in obtaining U.S. citizenship papers is simply the expense, due to having to travel to Boston for the paperwork. “It’s costly to take the ferry and bus to Boston,” she explained. “Plus you have to miss a day of work.

“I was brought up to be helpful,” Ms. Santana added. “To my mind, this is the association’s main goal.”

She said Islanders of Brazilian descent wishing to join may call 508-444-3356, or email abramavin@gmail.com.