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Immigrating to America: A Journey from Brazil

Written by Lulu Li, Potencia Marketing Coordinator

Every time we turn on the news, open our browser, or speak (socially distantly) with our neighbors, it seems all anybody is talking about is the pandemic. It is so prevalent that it can be difficult to remember there are other things happening in the world besides COVID-19.

With this in mind, we reached out to community members to learn about their stories and perspectives.

I was fortunate enough to (virtually) speak with “MPF”, one of Potencia’s most promising learners. Originally from Brazil, MPF immigrated from Minas Gerais in his mid-twenties and settled down four years ago just outside of Boston.

It would’ve been easy for MPF to stay within his comfort zone and spend most of his time with Boston’s thriving Brazilian community that shares his language, customs, and struggles. But he knew that he can’t improve his life and create his own path if he only stayed where he’s comfortable.

MPF’s story is eye-opening to the struggles of living in Brazil and immigrating to America. There were times in our interview where I laughed, and there were times where I was stunned with how difficult his journey has been.

We want to share this interview with you so we can all grow as empathetic and effective members of our community. If you are interested in different ways to volunteer and give back, check out our blog posts here and here!

But before we dive into the details, we need to understand the circumstances of Brazil that led to its large-scale emigration.

Brazil: The Largest Country in South America

Brazil’s cultural life is highlighted by family, music, festivals, dancing, food, and sports. Particularly futbal (or soccer for us) and volleyball. We are all familiar with how Brazilian teams are consistently the top contenders for the World Cup.

This beautiful and unique culture involving what is possibly the most vibrant festival I have ever seen (google the Carnaval do Brasil to see a truly exuberant celebration) has also faced much economic and political hardship. As a result of military coups and economic crises, the US became one of the main destinations for Brazilian emigration.

Historically, Brazil actually has been a center for immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than 2.6 million immigrants from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Japan arrived in Brazil from 1890-1919. As a former Portuguese settlement in the early 16th century, modern Brazil boasts a unique multicultural society due to its migration history.

Emigration grew in the 1980s due to the economic crisis, the U.S. as the main destination. The majority of Brazilian immigrants are what Brown University considers “economic refugees.” Immigrants needed to escape the Brazilian economy and came to the US searching for higher wages and lower cost of living.

To understand the impact of Brazil’s economy on its people, we need to understand the following timeline:

  • 1980-1994: The Brazilian economy suffered hyperinflations. This is a type of inflation that is very high with a very fast rate of acceleration, occurring for 14 years.

  • 1994: Inflation ended and prices stabilized. The impact? Middle and Lower-class Brazilians experienced an average loss of a third of purchasing power in their salaries.

  • 2015-2016: Crippling recession begins where Brazil’s economy contracted by 7%.

  • 2017-2018: The economy is struggling to recover but is only growing at a pace of 1.1% a year. Inflation has caused prices to go up by more than 25% since the recession began.

  • 2019: Unemployment increased from 7.6 million (2012) to 13.4 million.

Source: BBC and Brown University

Brown University reports that Brazilians are attending university and attaining higher education at a much larger rate than historically. But there is no growth in the professional job market to match the growth of the population that has higher education. This means that there is a large population of skilled, highly educated Brazilians with no job prospects available. The Pew Research Center states that nearly 3 out of every 10 Brazilians aged 18-24 are jobless.

Source: BBC

America provides an opportunity for many Brazilians to achieve financial stability. By working the same job in America, you can earn 4x as much as you would earn in Brazil. These circumstances pave the way for many Brazilian immigrants, like MPF, to come to the U.S.

Massachusetts: A New Home

Like many other Brazilians, MPF studied at university and gained a degree in industrial engineering. After graduation, he worked for a year before immigrating to Somerville, MA.

“Back in Brazil, there are a lot of political and economic problems. But here, there is always an opportunity to work on something and earn money. If you want something, you can buy it. You can do these things we can’t do back home.”

He talks about how he loves living in Somerville and how the Brazilian community helped him adapt to living in the U.S. In fact, the Boston Planning & Development Agency reports that Massachusetts is home to 18% of all Brazilians in the U.S, which is the second-largest Brazilian population behind Florida (19%). The settlement has mainly been in Boston, Framingham, Everett, and MPF’s home of Somerville.

This community came with its challenges though,

“Somerville has a lot of Brazilian restaurants, stores, and salons. But since coming here I always thought about how I want to build up my life and find a new path. I needed to do something to figure it out, improve my life, and learn English.

[The Brazilian Community] helped me live in the U.S, but it also did not help me with my English. Some people only stay within the community and never learn English, they speak Portuguese everywhere. They live here for 20 years and still can’t speak 50% of the English that I can now. If I lived somewhere without any Brazilians, it would be a much harder challenge, but I would learn English much faster.”

MPF didn’t know any English before coming to the U.S. The only thing he knew how to say was “Hi, how are you?”

When he first arrived in Somerville, he struggled with the high-cost barrier to English classes. Once he saved enough, he began to take English classes at a Brazilian school. But before he could finish that program, lockdown started. The school permanently closed.

Despite all of these setbacks, MPF still spoke about his experiences with gratitude, positivity, and hope.

“I joined Potencia with the goal of improving my conversation. Until 6 months ago, I couldn’t speak as much as I can now. I could understand most things, but my pronunciation and accent made speaking very hard and I wanted to improve.

I loved the English classes I took at the Brazilian School. But now Potencia is a great opportunity and I’m so grateful to join this program. It is definitely an amazing opportunity to change the lives of many people here. I had a lot of difficulty in the beginning because I didn’t have enough money to take English classes.

I used to be very shy. When I couldn’t speak as well as I can now, I didn’t want to go out. My English started to improve when I began to try speaking it more. I do not have a lot of American friends here, and that is hard.

If I want to learn more about American culture, then I need to make more friends and hang out. Now I feel confident enough that I can comfortably speak with people. I want to go out and speak more, but I can’t because of coronavirus.”

His growing confidence in his English abilities also translated to his confidence and happiness overall. English is more than just a language. For some, it is key for survival and employment.

“If I had found Potencia’s program back when I first came here, then everything would be different. I don’t know about the people who came from other countries, but our life here can usually be hard and lonely. Just going to work and going back home, every single day. This program gives us a chance to learn English and make friends as well.”

At Potencia, English learners have accessible and affordable English tutoring with small one-on-one or one-on-two classes. Scheduling is flexible, and Potencia offers a platform for both learners and tutors to find a time that actually fits into their lives. Learn more here.

Adapting to American culture is hard, and English is the gateway to doing so. Even 4 years after immigrating here, MPF states that he still is learning.

“In Brazil, people are more loving with each other. When you meet a friend on the street, you give a hug.”