Agence France-Presse

Longing for ginger ale


GOVERNADOR VALADARES — Brazilian immigrants working their tails off as roofers and housekeepers and babysitters in the United States and Europe often mention the “saudades” — longing or homesickness — they feel for family, friends and the simpler life they left behind.

But as the economic crisis has taken hold and many have returned to Brazil unexpectedly, they have been blindsided by a sort of reverse saudade for certain aspects of life in their adoptive homes. They miss the higher salaries, of course, but also more surprising things: Ginger ale, for example. Polite police officers. Tolerance for homosexuality. The Boston Red Sox. Seafood paella.

This city of 260,000 in the Doce River Valley — which has been synonymous with Brazilian emigration since the 1980s and is often referred to as Governador Valadolares for the amount of American currency that flows back here — is now ground zero for returnees. (No one keeps track of the precise number of Brazilians returning from abroad.)

Some are easier to spot than others. Jose Correa, 43, was hanging out with relatives outside his almost comically outsized three-story orange home in the working class Santa Rita neighborhood, sporting a bright red New England Patriots T-shirt. Correa spent most of 1996 through 2007 in Quincy, Mass., sending money home to his wife and family, which went toward constructing the house. Now, he’s back for good, albeit reluctantly. “If it weren’t for my family, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I don’t like anything about here. I like it over there.”

Not surprisingly, he liked the weekly pay he got for cleaning supermarkets — in Brazil, pay tends to be monthly, not to mention more meager. But more than that, he liked the way he was treated by authorities, even as an undocumented immigrant.

“The police, when they stop you on the street, they are very respectful,” he said. “I liked that. Here, it is the contrary.”

He was also impressed by the American health care system, especially when his mother Amelia — who spent a few years in Quincy working in a supermarket — had to be rushed to the emergency room. “There, you go to a hospital and they take care of you,” he said. “Not here, unless you have money up front. If you don’t have insurance, they’ll let you die.”

Correa’s mother Amelia, 65, stood next to him listening and agreeing. She had been treated well in her job. “Even though I didn’t speak the language,” she said. “They were still more polite.” She giddily recalled how a friendly boss named David used gestures and rudimentary English to show her how to dislodge a tricky door. “Amelia ... open ... door,” she said, mimicking him and laughing.

No one in Correa's immediate family is working, although they do rent out rooms in their mammoth house. That is a typical problem, said Sueli Siquiera, a sociologist at Univale, the University of the Doce River Valley, who recently completed a study of returnees that she will present at the Latin American Studies Association conference in Rio de Janeiro in June. Returnees tend to arrive with minimal savings and no pre-arranged job in Valadares. Those with some savings often start businesses that soon fail.

As the Correas hung out outside their home in Santa Rita, Leonardo Alves drank beer down the street at the Bar do Sete. He had gone to Everett, Mass., at age 18, and spent five years there as a roofer before returning. What he misses about the Boston area would shock most Bostonians: “The traffic is more organized,” he said. But all is relative: Stopping for pedestrians, for example, is a rarity in many parts of Brazil and extremely impressive to many immigrants. Alves also took a liking to the Red Sox after his boss took him to a game, although he still doesn’t fully understand the rules of baseball.

Marcelo Coutinho, also having a beer at Bar do Sete, went to Spain in 2000 after a rough divorce to work installing wood floors and tending bar. He returned in September of last year — temporarily, he said, although his friends back in Europe warn him not to return.

His time abroad changed him. “Before, I was a very close-minded person,” he said. “I hated gays. I was a typical stupid macho Brazilian.” When he got back to Brazil, the brother he left as an adolescent had become an adult — a gay adult. “My reaction was certainly much more positive because of my time abroad,” he said. “I see the world with other eyes.”

Tolerance was not the only thing he found lacking in Valadares. “I really miss the paella,” he said. Specifically, seafood paella, with wine.

Devani Tomaz Domingues, a sociologist who manages a city government program to aid families of emigrants, said returnees often think they can forge a life that combines the best of both worlds, but are usually frustrated. “Immigrants can tell you what’s good here in Brazil, and what is good in the United States, but there’s no way to achieve that middle ground that they’re always looking for, bringing what’s good there back here.”

Perhaps no one more so than those who spent some teenage years abroad. Samilla Silva, 14, her sister Gleyce, 21, and their parents just moved back to Valadares on Dec. 24. The girls had spent four-and-a-half years in the Boston area; their parents spent even longer. “I prefer living there,” said Samilla, in accent-free English. “You get more freedom.”

Like, freedom to go to the mall (the Square One Mall in Saugus, Mass., was her favorite) and restaurants like Burger King. Yes, there is a mall in Valadares, which Samilla described as having “just one store,” a slight exaggeration. And yes, there is Burger King, but — like Burger Kings across the developing world — its relatively high prices compared to Brazilian salaries make it a luxury, not a dirt-cheap teenage hangout.

With the money their parents made in Boston (copies of their mom’s old business card, “Family Cleaning: My Family Cleaning for Your Family,” lie on the dining room table), they bought several houses neighboring their own in the Santa Rita neighborhood, and now make money renting them out. The Silva house itself is spacious and well furnished, and it would seem they have accomplished at least some version of the immigrant dream.

If only the carbonated beverage options were more varied.

“You know what I miss?” said Gleyce, “The ginger ale. I love ginger ale. I miss it a lot.”

More GlobalPost dispatches from by Seth Kugel:

Valadares: paragliding paradise

The Elian Gonzalez of Brazil

The secret to one town's financial success: lingerie

Related Stories