A Brazilian story–not the American dream
Hard work, living expenses, language, loneliness common
August 18, 2005
By Edward Cerullo
The Brazilians who live and work on Martha’s Vineyard experience the anxieties and unease common to all young immigrant populations. Exhaustion, homesickness, fear of immigration officials, depression, and alienation are among the many serious conditions that Brazilians confront daily. Rewards are few and far between for the many who work long days and have very little leisure and personal time.
Joao, a middle-aged Brazilian painter, says that he deals with life one day at a time. “Every day I break a new barrier” he says, “finishing a day’s work is a new victory.”
He sits at a round table with his co-worker and friend Pereira, who nods his head in agreement. Even though both men have only been on the Island for a little more than four months, they feel that each day passes slowly and they already sense the coming of winter — a word that sends shivers down their backs.
Despite his fear of long, slow workless days to come, Pereira, 18, is optimistic about his life on Martha’s Vineyard. After only four months of work, he is hoping that in eight months he will have already earned enough money to repay the $10,000 his aunt lent him in Brazil to pay the human trafficking agency that arranged his journey to Martha’s Vineyard. Unlike some Brazilians, he does not have a deadline to pay the sum; nor does he have to pay interest on it. He estimates the cost of living for himself and most Brazilians on the Island to be $800-900 monthly, roughly $30 daily, which includes rent, telephone bills, food, and in his case the cost of being an indentured servant to his aunt for the next year.
For Pereira and Joao, any paid form of entertainment is out of the question. They often forgo even a car ride to the beach on the weekend for a chance to make extra money. “This Sunday while Pereira went to the beach in Oak Bluffs, I helped a friend on a paint job” said Joao.
While Pereira and Joao both arrived at the same time, work together and live under the same roof, they have very different stories to tell about their experience as migrants to the Martha’s Vineyard.
The difference begins with their nationalities and legal status. Pereira, who has a Brazilian passport, is an illegal immigrant. Joao, who was born and raised in Brazil, holds an Italian passport and is legally in the United States.
It takes Pereira more than an hour to simply describe his journey to Martha’s Vineyard, which took two months and included two failed attempts.
“In Brazil we have an expression, ‘Dinheiro paga’ (Money pays), and that’s why I came” he says. “I know people in Brazil who went to the United States to work at a young age and who are now back in Brazil and are just as well off as university educated, born-wealthy Brazilians.”
For this reason alone Pereira left Brazil at the age of 18 and did not lose hope after being deported twice by Mexican immigration officials. “The first two attempts were free because you don’t have to put any money down” he says, “so this is why I tried one last time.”
Pereira recounts how on his third attempt to enter Mexico City he and one other Brazilian devised a scheme to separate themselves from the large crowd of fellow-countrymen from their flight who were bound to be apprehended by Mexican immigration officials, whose instructions are to detain and interrogate all Brazilians upon arrival into the country. Mixed among Americans and other foreigners, he and his companion scooted through the immigration line and entered Mexico. From Mexico City he proceeded to the notorious border town of Nuevo Laredo 15 hours north.
He remembers that from the Mexican border, Martha’s Vineyard still seemed as unreal as a dream.
Two weeks later and $10,000 dollars in debt, Pereira arrived at Vineyard Haven, where his cousin awaited him.
Five days after arriving he began working as a painter, earning $13 an hour. Before he knew it he was falling in love with the Island. “I want to spend my entire life here,” he remembers thinking to himself.
Now, four months later, he feels differently. “All I want to do is go home” he says, “Life is too expensive here.”
Nevertheless he hopes to stick with his plan of staying here until he feels that he has earned enough money to return to Brazil, marry, have kids and support his whole family.
Homesickness in common
Joao feels the same way. He is homesick, missing both family and country. He laughs when Pereira, only 18, mentions kids. Joao left his wife, 11-year-old daughter, nine-year-old twin sons, and position as a high-school history teacher to be a painter on Martha’s Vineyard. “I came here to earn fast cash. I have a piece of land, an incomplete house, and when I return to Brazil I want to have the house done and paid for and be self-employed.”
A growing realization for many Brazilians, Joao added, is that progress is slower than expected. Joao admits that he is behind schedule. “We were all told that we could come here, make money fast and then leave” he says. “These are false promises, it doesn’t work like that”.
Even though Joao did not have to pay the cost of entering the country through Mexico, he did see five years pass by while waiting to obtain his Italian passport so he could enter the United States legally. His grandparents had emigrated from Italy to Brazil.
Before entering the United States, Joao went through Canada and visited Toronto. He then flew in to Buffalo, N.Y. and made is way to Martha’s Vineyard, where his brother was waiting for him.
Despite his legal status, Joao is still faced with many disadvantages as a non-English speaker. Many non-English speaking Brazilians, regardless of their level of education, must accept jobs of considerably lower social prestige than their jobs in Brazil. “I never would have imagined having to be a painter,” he says “but it’s just something I have to accept, it’s the same for many Brazilians.”
Promises and reality
In Brazil, both Joao and Pereira were led to believe that they could easily make upwards of $25 per hour in the United States. Both currently earn $13 an hour and say that only English speaking Brazilians who have professional skills can make $18-25 an hour.
Finding a good-paying job is not easy for many Brazilians, and Pereira and Joao consider themselves extremely lucky to work together in a friendly environment under a very understanding American boss.
They say that a friend who only makes $9/hr must work 16-hour days so he can pay off the money that he borrowed to come here and simultaneously support his family in Brazil.
“Competition between the Brazilians at work is worse than competition between the Brazilians and Americans.”
Pereira describes this real concern for Brazilians who are new on the Island. “Let’s pretend Joao speaks English and I don’t. What happens is that when I arrive on Martha’s Vineyard, I immediately seek out work with a Brazilian who speaks English like Joao. Then I start working and learn a little English and the boss begins to like me, but Joao becomes jealous because he is scared that I will take his place as boss’s favorite. So then, Joao speaks to the boss to get me fired. And there is nothing I can do.”
Pereira says that this potential for exploitation increases when Brazilians work for or do business with fellow countryman. He hints at the housing situation for many Brazilians on the Island, who pay roughly $300-400 in rent for a place to sleep, some of which ends up in the hands of fellow countrymen.
Joao was able to move in with his brother who had already been living on the Island for more than a year. Their home is relatively neat, noticeably sparse, and remarkably quiet. Joao points outside to another house, “That’s where the noisy people live.”
Pereira did not initially have the same luck with housing. Describing the people who he lived with, Pereira says, “Some Brazilians just don’t pay bills. These are the type who tarnish our reputation.”
In fact, when Joao became aware of Pereira’s living situation, he shared with him the opportunity to live nearby. Friendship between an unrelated father and a teenager is not uncommon for Brazilians on Martha’s Vineyard who work and live with each other regardless of age or gender.
While they both want to be successful in the United States, Joao feels that his time is running out. “It will be my twin sons’ ninth-birthday tomorrow and I miss them so much.” He doesn’t see himself staying that much longer because the separation from his family is too painful.
On the other hand, Pereira is reluctant to estimate the duration of his stay because it may be long. “Ten years maybe, but it’s impossible to know, it doesn’t work like that.”