On Martha’s Vineyard Brazilian workers live a life apart


Following an extensive interview with four Brazilian construction workers who have sued a former employer for significant back wages (see related story), a Times reporter sat down with two of the men in an effort to learm more about their lives on Martha’s Vineyard.

Edinaldo Alves, 50, and Waldemar DePaula, 46, described a life that centers on work and church, underground and remarkably separate from the majority of Island residents.

A pastor of a local Brazilian church, who asked not to be identified, agreed to translate for the men. Throughout the conversation the men were guarded and careful in their answers, and elaborated little when asked about the details of their employment history.

The men are part of a significant community of Brazilian workers on Martha’s Vineyard, of legal and illegal immigration status, that defies reliable estimates. Community leaders put the current Brazilian population at about 3,500.

Mr. Alves understands many construction terms, but is far from fluent in English. He said he lives in a two-bedroom home with two other men in Vineyard Haven. While there is anecdotal evidence that Brazilian workers often live in extremely overcrowded conditions, Mr. Alves said he has never lived like that, and doesn’t know others who do.

Mr. Alves works long hours. “Ten to 14 hours a day,” he said. “Sometimes seven days a week, sometimes Sunday off.”

He said he does not posses a Massachusetts driver’s license, so getting to work is an ordeal. “A lot of the time with a bike,” Mr. Alves said. “When it rains, with the bus.”

When he finds construction work, he negotiates his hourly rate. On his last job it was $20. He never asks about the working arrangement, he leaves that up to the contractor. He is always paid in cash or by personal check.

His father visited Martha’s Vineyard once, but Mr. Alves has not been back to Brazil to see his family since he left 10 years ago. “No, it’s hard to go back,” he said. “Then it’s hard to come back.”

He said he misses his family a lot, and calls them twice a week.

Mr. DePaula has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for six years. He does not have a bank account. Often he gets paid in cash, but when he needs to cash a check, he uses his passport as identification.

Mr. DePaula gets by mostly with the help of a Brazilian word-of-mouth network. That is how he found an apartment in the two-bedroom home he shares with five other men in Vineyard Haven. That is how he finds work.

He suffers from serious heart disease, requiring expensive medications, and now cannot work.

Mr. DePaula said that sometimes he doesn’t have enough money for the medication he’s taking, so he has to ask people for money.

He has never had medical insurance or workers’ compensation insurance through an employer, and does not have private insurance. When he had a heart attack, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital treated him through a free care program, he said.

He said he has no social life at all, but finds comfort in his religion. “Church, work, then home.”

His plan is to return home to Brazil once the lawsuit has been resolved.