Soundings : Coming to America
One enduring thread in the American story has been the tension between Us, the folks who have been here all of a generation or two, and Them, people still arriving in search of a better life. First, the English settlers of the colonies directed their scorn at the waves of Irish, Scottish and Germans. Eventually these immigrant strains assimilated, only to form a reconstituted Us against a threatening new Them - Italians, Eastern Europeans and Chinese.
The Brazilians who have joined our community over the past two decades are only the most recent wave in a long history of immigration to Martha's Vineyard. Two of them, Joao and Romilda Pinto of Edgartown, both newly-minted United States citizens, sat with me this week to talk about their journey to America, their excitement at exercising their new citizenship for the first time in our national elections, and their perspective on the immigration debate.
Joao and Romilda, immigrants to America in December of 1995, Island homeowners for the past nine years and parents of three sons in the Vineyard public schools, took the oath of citizenship at the District Court in Lowell together with some 3,000 other new Americans on Jan. 17. It was an emotional ceremony; Romilda recalls thinking how long it had taken to reach this milestone. "I was so happy," she says.
Photos by Nis Kildegaard
Joao and Romilda are originally from Belo Horizonte, Brazil's third-largest city and the capital of the state of Minas Gerais. Joao was unhappy with the bad pay and the unfair treatment he received in the military police. On a family vacation in Rio de Janeiro, he applied for visas and brought the family to America. On the Vineyard he found work as a house painter with Rick Convery, Romilda found work cleaning houses, and soon their eldest son, John, was enrolled at the Edgartown School.
John is 15 now, a freshman at the regional high school; he has two American-born brothers, fifth-grader Joseph and first-grader Joshua. Joao and Romilda are active on the Edgartown School advisory council. She says, "We love it here, and the kids love it here. It's very quiet, it's good to raise kids here - I love the school."
It would be a huge understatement to say that when I spoke with them this week, the Pintos were excited to be voting for the first time as American citizens. They were looking forward to standing in line for however long it takes - with their fellow Americans - and walking into that booth to cast their votes.
"In Brazil," Joao says, "they try to put inside of us that it's very important to vote. In their last election, they had 130 million voters."
When Romilda thinks of the millions of Americans who don't bother to exercise their rights as citizens, she says: "I wish they knew how important it is to vote."
Joao Pinto knows the story of how, less than half a century ago, people of color couldn't sleep in certain hotels, or eat in certain restaurants, or ride in the front seats of public buses in many parts of the United States. He knows this election is a historic moment for this nation. But he knows that race is a big issue in Brazil, too.
"Brazil began like America," he says - a nation of immigrants. "The real Brazilians are the Indians, and people tried to kill them." In Brazil, he says, dark-skinned people are widely looked down upon. "It's difficult to find one black senator in Brazil."
Joao and Romilda say they love their new life on the Vineyard, but feel torn because it's hard living so very far from their families in Brazil. They actually tried returning to Brazil to see if they might live more happily there, but managed to stay only a few months. Joao says it was an important experiment, because it helped him clarify his own feelings about life here. "When we drove back here," he recalls, "I was thinking, 'I love this place. This is my home. I feel good here.'"
"My mother thinks we're crazy," says Romilda, "because she wants us there. But for us, and for our kids, we did the best to be here. This place is the best for our family."
Now, Joao says, he's clearer in his mind about the decision to make a life with his family here in America. He says, "When you're thinking two ways, you know, that's no good. Now, I'm sure what I am doing."
Joao and Romilda do not believe that immigrants somehow threaten our jobs and livelihoods. Americans, they say, don't seem to appreciate what a wealthy country this is, with plenty for all. "I think most people here have more than they think they have," says Romilda. "I wish every American could go to some country which is more poor than we are, to see how lucky we are."
She adds, "The Bible says it's better to give than to receive. You have more to offer here than you think you have. And I don't think anybody has to be afraid of us, because we do the jobs most Americans don't do."
Says Joao: "I think God has used this country to bless a lot of people. They came from a lot of places. And now, I think, is the time of the Brazilian people. I think if God brings me here, it's not to take a job from somebody else. He brings me here to bless me, like he's blessed a lot of people who came before."
After years of working for Mr. Convery, Mr. Pinto opened his own painting business this April. The launch hasn't been spectacular, he says, but he's not complaining. "I know that everything, in the beginning, is hard. But it's okay."
"We believe tomorrow's going to be better," says Joao, who is convinced that this land of opportunity is the best place for his sons. He's happy that his family has attained full citizenship, but adds with a shrug: "I think maybe I'm never going to feel American. For me, the American people are born here. I have the rights now, but I'm never going to really be American. That's my feeling."