Driving into Danbury, Conn., you can feel the magic. Somewhere between exits four and five on Interstate 84, dreary New England is transformed into the tropics.
It may be the “Fala-sê Português” signs in the windows of the stores that line Main Street. It could also be the resplendent green and yellow hues of the stores and restaurants with names like Banana Brazil.
Chances are high that the average New England citizen would never think of Danbury as a mecca for Brazilian immigrants. After all, to those outside of Connecticut, isn’t the entire state just a suburb of New York? Or is it Boston? But even New Englanders would not expect to see the Girl from Ipanema strolling through the neighborhood with her famed curvy hips. It is also questionable whether they would they sigh “ah,” as they see her walking not toward the ocean but toward the CT Transit bus stop. They would most likely not think about Samba Sunday, a popular Brazilian social activity at the Tuxedo Junction, an American-owned nightclub in Danbury.
In the same county as WASPy Greenwich or Darien, it may seem almost surreal that immigrants from as far away as Brazil wake up every day not knowing whether they are going to be deported.
But there’s something different about Fairfield County these days. Something is morphing. That something is Danbury: a city undergoing a transformation so interesting it would boggle any scholar studying immigration cycles. It is no longer the city of middle class, white, suburban New England families — it belongs to everybody now.
Just walking through Danbury, it becomes evident that this is a city of immigrants. Of the city’s approximately 75,000 inhabitants, about 15 percent are Latino or Hispanic, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The bulk of the Latinos and Hispanics in Danbury are of Puerto Rican, Mexican, Ecuadorian and Brazilian descent. There are also those that come from other countries such as Portugal, but have lived in Danbury for two or three generations.
Two years ago, the Ecuadorians started building their first volleyball courts. Volleyball is to Ecuadorians what soccer is to Brazilians — a game so deeply immersed in the culture that it is common to play pick-up games with other people in the park across the street from home. It is analogous to the old men in Central Park playing chess, but the Ecuadorians, according to news reports from “The Danbury News-Times,” can be quite rowdy.
The local media, including the News-Times, reported that the disturbance fueled tensions between the Ecuadorians and the Brazilians. But Mayor Mark Boughton (R) says that this portrayal of unhappy Brazilians was largely exaggerated by the media. The Brazilians, who come from a boisterous culture themselves (take a look at pictures of last year’s Carnaval in Rio), were most likely not perturbed by their neighbor’s volleyball games. But, for the non-immigrant inhabitants of Danbury, it is a different story. Unaccustomed to disturbances in the famously tranquil Connecticut suburbs, they did not appreciate the noise the games produced late on Sunday nights — and eventually the Mayor got involved.
The complaints from some Danburians resulted in the City Council drafting an ordinance. Last April, the Danbury City Council went to the drawing board and came up with a solution that they didn’t think would be a huge inconvenience: a restriction on the outdoor playing of games such as volleyball past certain hours.
“It was not fair to elderly people and children sleeping to have to listen to the loud volleyball games at 3 a.m. where they were selling alcohol and playing loud music,” Boughton says. But the Ecuadorian community found it offensive, an insult to their culture, as Raimundo Santana, a Brazilian living in Danbury, put it.
Shortly thereafter, Boughton proposed state troopers be deputized as federal immigration officers. But Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell spoke from the big chair in Hartford and said that no such action would be taken. This, as one might assume, created tension between the immigrant community and the city government.
“The Governor and the Commissioner of Public Safety felt that the program I was suggesting would not work here in Connecticut,” the Mayor explains. “There is simply nowhere to send people that we would deport here in terms of a detention facility.”
Boughton says that it is not the undocumented worker that poses a threat to his city, but rather those that come to Danbury with a prior criminal record in their country of origin.
“We’re looking for criminal backgrounds, not those immigrants that have overstayed their visas,” Boughton says. “Sometimes they come to our country and get involved in human trafficking, human slavery; maybe they exploit women in the sex industry.”
Even if the Mayor’s initiative to deputize state troopers as INS officials was stifled in Hartford, it still caused uproar in the Brazilian community.
“We were all pretty worried,” Santana sighs. He adds that life is already difficult enough for the Brazilian immigrant in Danbury, especially since it is hard for many of the undocumented Brazilians to obtain driver licenses, which are necessary to get to work.
In Connecticut, the requirements for a driver license are no walk in the park. An applicant must present verification of an in-state residential address with an item such as a mortgage receipt or a utility bill. In addition, proof of legal status in the United States must also be presented — this is where the Brazilians run into problems, Santana says.
According to the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles, the proof of legal status can come in the form of a valid Employer Authorization Card or verification from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In addition, a Social Security number is required to fill out the driver license application. This creates another problem for the Brazilians because without being a legal resident, a genuine Social Security number is nearly impossible to attain. Without this golden number, the Social Security Administration, in addition to the INS, needs to clear the applicant.
The irony is that the Brazilian immigrants come to the United States to work so they can support their families back home. But they end up being challenged not by an employer, but by acquiring a driver license so that they can get to work in the first place.
“So, what happens?” Santana starts off with a rhetorical question in his native Portuguese. “People begin to drive without a license and they drive the way we do back in Brazil — they pass people up on one way roads; they swerve on the highways and they cause accidents.”
Raimundo Santana is well respected in his community. He is the editor-in-chief of the local Portuguese-language newspaper based in Danbury — “The Immigrant”. The newspaper is also printed in Spanish, although most of the staff speaks only Portuguese. After all, Danbury is not a city where only Brazilians take refuge. Lately, Danbury seems to be the place to go for many immigrants from places far more beautiful than the often dreary Connecticut landscape.
“And you know what?” Santana likes rhetorical questions. “We all get along. We live together peacefully. Even with the Portuguese.” Santana alludes to the colonial settlers of his native Brazil, but then he laughs.
The story behind why the Brazilian community chose the city of Danbury as their new domain begins well before the economic inflation of the 1980s — a hardship that displaced Brazilians to places as far off as Italy. According to Professor Marta Almeida of the Portuguese Department at Yale, a cohort of Danbury businessmen traveled to Governador Valadares during World War II with the hopes of building a railroad. This southeastern Brazilian city had never seen a railroad before, and so the “gringos,” as they called them, were automatically popular. Eventually, some of the American men working on the railroad ended up marrying Brazilian women and taking them back to Danbury.
“So, now you have all these people in this region of Brazil saying that they have a cousin in Danbury, or an aunt or uncle, and well, you know how it goes,” Professor Almeida laughs.
Boughton confirms Professor Almeida’s theory of immigration. But, he also offers his own idea on how the Brazilian media glorifies the United States in the eyes of the Brazilians.
“Maybe it has a lot to do with the Brazilian soap opera, ‘America,’ ” he states firmly. “But, really, if one person emigrates anywhere, another follows suit, before you know it, you have an entire community.”
The Brazilians, after all, are here for the same reason that everybody else is here.
“What is the American dream?” Santana asks in his melodic Portuguese, then answers himself, “Well, you have a steady job, you make money and you put a roof over your head. You can feed your family and you live well. That’s why all these people are here.” He adds that people venture to Danbury only when they know that they have the security of a family member or friend waiting with open arms.
“Usually, they help them get jobs before they get on the plane to come over here,” Santana says. He explains that most of the Brazilian men, who amount to about 70 percent of the Brazilian immigrants in Danbury, work in construction or landscaping or as painters. The other 30 percent, the women, work as housekeepers or in stores. He also says that although the immigrants’ lives are tough, they are here because they want to be — or at least because Danbury offers them the opportunity to make money to send home. This, he adds, is a positive aspect of immigrant life.
Boughton also takes a stab at describing the complex relationship between a seemingly quiet city in Fairfield County and a population of immigrants that speak a language as tropical as a Bird of Paradise.
“I would definitely describe the city’s relationship with the Brazilian community as positive,” Mayor Boughton says. “We have open channels of communication. But I think that there are certainly areas of concern.”
Boughton can sense an outsider the minute he has to explain what these areas of concern are.
“Well,” he pauses. “Immigration.” But there is something in the way the Mayor says the word: immigration. It is quick enough that it seems a given that it’s Danbury’s largest problem, yet slow enough that it’s clear he is talking about illegal immigration. But the Mayor goes on to explain in a positive tone that Danbury, although seemingly not a city an immigrant community would flock to, has always been a dynamic center of immigrants in New England. He explains that the first Portuguese settlers came to Danbury about 200 years ago and that is why he thinks the area has had such allure to Brazilians in recent memory.
“People here already speak the language, so, I think that has something to do with this trend,” he says.
Meanwhile, as Santana shares stories of Brazilians living in Danbury, and of how crazily they drive, a young reporter for The Immigrant, Daniel Antunes, sits next to him. He is a newcomer who seeks neither construction work nor gardening jobs, but rather wants to explore what Portuguese-language journalism is like in the United States. He has only been here for about a month and is still in shock at how different life in Connecticut can be from his native Governador Valadares. This is immediately evident when he walks outside and nearly freezes in the 58-degree weather.
Mr. Antunes notices his fellow immigrants chuckling at him, almost feeling sorry for him. “I only plan to be here for a year,” Mr. Antunes responds in Portuguese with a smile.
It is the one word in the Portuguese language that does not really have a translation in English, Professor Almeida tells me.
It is also the word that most Brazilians in Danbury use when they are asked about their homeland.
The word signifies a combination of “longing,” “yearning” and some “missing.” One thing is for certain, the Brazilians miss home. Here in Danbury there is no replacement for the bonds of family. Walking through the stores of Danbury’s Main Street, it is not difficult to deduce that most immigrants are working hard for some money in order to go back home to Brazil as soon as possible. Most of them have come to Danbury without their parents, spouses or children.
But with so many of these Brazilians from the same region in Brazil — the southeastern state of Minas Gerais — an outsider would think that they have created a family of their own. With about 8,000 Brazilians in a city of about 75,000 people, building a community is not a challenge — or so one might assume.
The more people one meets, the more apparent saudade becomes.
“People are here to realize the American dream,” Santana explains. “With the 14-hour workday that most of these people have, there is not much time to socialize and create a community.”
This leads to all sorts of other maladies, such as depression, but Santana is quick to assert that there is a negligible suicide rate. The depression is a result of a diminished social life, which Santana says is a big part of Brazilian culture.
“Of course my family is in Brazil,” says Nani, who would not reveal her last name. She is folding a pair of pants at the clothing store, Brasil Favo de Mel. As she explains her situation, she is seems annoyed that she has to answer such an obvious question. “Of course we don’t have a unified community,” she continued, “I mean, what do you think?” She deflects the question to her co-worker who is at the register with a group of three young women buying shirts.
“It’s just a place to come work,” says the co-worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
“It’s not a bad place,” one of the customers chimes in.
They like to keep it simple, answering in sparse, clipped phrases.
Later on, Nani reveals that she is from Para, a state in the northeastern part of Brazil near the Amazon. This state is also known for its underdeveloped status, which differs from the southern, wealthier part of the country. Nani works at the clothing store, methodically folding jeans day in and day out.
Santana and Daniel, the journalists, are from Minas Gerais as well. Rosy Freyre the Samba Sunday coordinator and even Cleunice Brostel, the jeweler, are also from Minas Gerais.
Yet, they are all fragmented. They may see each other at the stores and at work, but according to Santana everyone is so busy working, that there is no real time to invest in becoming a strong community. Ms. Freyre explains that the Portuguese have a community center, as do the Ecuadorians. Some of the other ethnic pockets of Danbury are even beginning to be politically active. The Brazilians, she says, are lagging.
“That’s why we created Samba Sundays,” Ms. Freyre says. She is a tall and tan woman, and in her chic black leather coat, she explains the origins of the Samba Sunday.
The Tuxedo Junction is an American-owned club in Danbury. But, on Sunday, visitors check the winter coat at the door before they go in to samba. Ms. Freyre coordinates the Brazilian-themed events at the nightclub, which features either a local or Brazilian band. She advertises to the saudade-plagued Brazilians through television, radio, newspapers like The Immigrant and flyers she sends to Brazilian homes.
“We usually get between 700 and 1,000 people at Samba Sundays,” she shines with pride as she talks about her accomplishment as a community leader.
Santana says he laments the fact that most Brazilians really have no regular place to go socialize, but that the Brazilian community is simply too busy trying to make some money. “Besides,” he adds, “Most of us want to go back home, soon.”
How soon is soon?
Most immigrants are alone in cold, wet Danbury. They come without their families and without their children and they face a City Hall that the media portrays as trying to oust them from their community.
Ms. Freyre has only seen her son once in the five years she has been in Danbury. Santana has not seen his wife and two sons at all since he arrived in Danbury about four years ago. The women at the store are here alone, as well.
“If you make it past five years, you usually don’t ever go back,” Santana explains. “So most people only stay between three and five years. But, it’s not like going back is any easier than it was coming here.”
Santana explains as Ms. Freyre nods her head in agreement that it is difficult to adjust back to Brazilian lifestyle. They both say that divorce is common amongst the couples that are finally reunited after having been separated by a continent. Sometimes, they say, a third party has entered the picture and the shoes of the spouse have been filled.
“So, most people eventually come back to Danbury,” they say. It is apparent by the factual tone they take that this does not come as a shock. Santana estimates that seven out of 10 Brazilian immigrants in Danbury end up returning to Brazil and that about two-thirds of those end up returning to Danbury.
But for those immigrants who come to Danbury and intend to stay, it is a different experience than for those who know they will not be living there permanently. The ones who stay want to raise their families and try to live out the American Dream.
This is the case for Cleunice Brostel, the jeweler. She works at “The Immigrant” and supplements her income by buying gold in Minas Gerais and selling it in the States. She says with a smile that Brazil’s gold is unlike any other in the world. Then she begins to talk about her family.
“Here, I have a home and a car,” she shares in Portuguese. “I am thinking about the future of my children.”
Mrs. Brostel says that Danbury was a great place to raise her son and daughter. Her son is 22 years old and works in construction and the daughter is a tenth grader at the local high school and aspires to own a beauty shop. She adds that her son may want to go back to school, which is something she is not sure would have happened in Brazil.
“I speak to them in Portuguese and they answer in English,” she shares. It is clear that the bilingualism is one of many things she is still getting used to. Moving to another country, especially one as different from Brazil as the United States, is all about “getting used to it,” as Mrs. Brostel points out.
For example, in Brazil patriotism is not displayed in the same manner as it is the United States. With a touch of saudade, she says that in her country, people would never wear an image of the Brazilian flag on a T-Shirt, as people do here with the American flag. This, too, is something she is taking time to acculturate to.
Some people, like Mrs. Brostel, do get used to life here and even end up raising a bilingual family. She says her children identify as both Americans and Brazilians. But others, like Nani and the rest of the women at Brasil Favo de Mel are just waiting to go home, back to their tropical roots.
And then there are those walking around the streets of Danbury, like Mr. Antunes, the reporter for “The Immigrant” who is just starting his tenure as a transplanted Brazilian, full of hope and more optimistic than the women at the store.
But, as for Santana, well, the seemingly content editor-in-chief went back to Brazil to his wife and two children on a Thursday about one month ago. Danbury’s immigrant community never remains static, people come and people go, all in search of the American Dream. Some find it here in Fairfield County, the wealthiest county in America — and others return home, wherever that may be, perhaps learning that wealth comes in the shape of family.