Feliz Ano Novo!

A growing Brazilian community bonds around church,
a newspaper and an ambitious New Year’s Eve party.

Creative Loafing Tampa

TAMPA, FL, January 12, 2005

By Laura Fries

Rosileia Lima cannot stop moving. Her black sandals slap across the dance floor as she plugs in Christmas lights, checks on the contents of warming trays and zooms in and out of the kitchen. It is New Year’s Eve 2004. There are only a few hours left until the party begins. Lima has spent over $7,000 putting this night together: renting a hall, flying in a band from New York, splitting the costs with caterer Georgina de Souza of Mambo’s Café.

It’s a hallmark event: one of the first secular gatherings for the small but growing Brazilian community in Tampa Bay. It’s also Lima’s first big party to promote the Brazilian Post, the newspaper she and her husband run. They spent $7,000 they don’t have, and Lima has no idea how many people are going to pay the $100 admission price to get in tonight. She’s starting to get a little stressed.

In the long run, she hopes word will spread that the Post throws fabulous parties, and she’ll make her money back. But right now she’s hoping just to fill the rented 150-seat hall at Tampa Woman’s Club on Bayshore Boulevard.

How many people does she think will come? Her usually dulcet voice raises a pitch: ” I don’t know. I don’t know. Many persons come, but buy at the door. You understand?”

The caterers unload tray after tray of food from their truck into the rented kitchen, a room slowly filling with cases of Brazilian wine, fresh fruits, dessert trays, and ants nobody seems to notice. Out in the hall, Lima is adjusting yet another table, and straightening out a napkin one last time.

When Lima immigrated to Florida in 2002, she came equipped not with a plan but with a dream. She and her husband, journalist Zenilton Bezerra, were looking for a city with an emergent Brazilian population, a strong economy and a markatet for a Portuguese-language newspaper. Two and a half years later, she’s the frazzled hostess of a New Year’s celebration for the Brazilians she’s collected since she arrived in the city she and Bezerra chose: Tampa.

Not everyone is aware that there is a Brazilian population in the Tampa Bay/Suncoast region. The U.S. Census found only 3,000 Brazilians in Tampa Bay in 2003. There are several Brazilian families living in Sarasota, but the census didn’t find them that year. Mainstream publications have barely registered the existence of the small but growing community. But every month, Lima and Bezerra print 10,000 copies of their paper. While some are sent to different states and cities within Florida, the bulk are distributed in Tampa Bay and Sarasota.

Clearly, someone’s picking them up.

Like other ethnic populations that have shaped Tampa — the Cubans, the Italians — Brazilian immigrants have come here for opportunities they couldn’t find in their home country. Their struggles, economic and social, mirror those of other immigrant communities. But Brazilians also face unique challenges.

How does a community grow when its members are so different, and scattered throughout the Gulf Coast?

Everywhere, there’s the matter of identification; it’s often mistakenly assumed that they speak Spanish. (They don’t; Brazil was a Portuguese colony.) The largest country in South America, Brazil is a melting pot in which cultures don’t actually melt but rather coexist. There’s a large Japanese community in São Paulo, African societies in Bahia, and Polish people in Porto Alegre. When immigrants from Brazil meet each other for the first time in Florida, it’s likely that they have as much in common as a Vietnamese doctor from Orange County, a fast-talking Italian from Jersey and a lanky cowboy from Texarkana.

Recent immigrants are further segregated by class: between the executives who work for multinational chemical, steel and orange juice corporations, and the manual laborers who lay interlocking bricks.

Unlike other immigrant groups, Brazilians have not settled in particular neighborhoods; they are spread far and wide. How does a community grow when its members are so different, and scattered throughout the Gulf Coast?

“This is how America works.” Jefferson Michaelis, president and co-founder of the Tampa Bay Brazilian Greater Chamber of Commerce, is drawing a pyramid on a pad of paper to explain where Brazilians stand in relation to other immigrant groups.

The workers newest to the system, he explains, start at the bottom — like the Brazilians, doing the work that the others are too tired to do anymore, like cleaning houses or laying bricks.

If immigrants are smart and speak the language, they can quickly move up the hierarchy and become subcontractors.

Soon, he says, they will move higher up, like the Cubans, who are now politicians, and involved with the big construction companies.

At the top of Michaelis’ pyramid is Arnold Schwarzenegger: the ultimate example of what an immigrant playing by the rules can achieve.

But for now, most Brazilians are still on the bottom. To move up, he says, they’ve got to be smart, and take advantages of the many business opportunities available to them.

Michaelis himself is proof of his own theory. In 1996, he arrived in Sarasota with rusty English skills. Today, he has transformed himself into a young patriarch of the Brazilian-American community, shaking hands with Governor Jeb Bush on behalf of the BGCC. He’s a man who collects everybody’s business cards, adding them to his thick, three-ring binder.

He’s been connecting Brazilian businesses since he moved to Tampa Bay in 1997. In its seven years, the BGCC has amassed 250 members, 150 of which are businesses. The Chamber has done its job for the upper-class and executives with international business ties.

But Michaelis recognizes that the strength of his organization lies in its breadth, not its pedigree. He has watched other ethnic chambers of commerce falter and fail; the German chamber, the Mexican, and many of the Latin American chambers. He is not willing to let the same thing happen to the BGCC.

And so the impeccably mannered businessman from São Paulo, the NYC of Brazil, has gone about the business of connecting with the rest of his country. He can’t dance the samba, he’s never been to Rio, and some of the foods offered at Mambo’s Cafe, a Brazilian restaurant, are completely foreign to him. He grew up in a Italian/German neighborhood in São Paulo, and it took a move to Florida for him to learn that northern Brazilians greet each other with a kiss, not a handshake.

In Florida, he attends church services and community events whenever possible, actively seeking out Brazilian contacts. On Thanksgiving, he and his family piled in the car to attend a potluck at the Potter House Church in Temple Terrace. There, he found about 100 Brazilians, there for the food and the company.

At 9 p.m., as the party officially starts, the crowd is thin. The Brazilian New Year’s tradition is to wear white for good luck; Zenilton Bezerra figures a pinstriped button-down shirt with black pants is just as good. His contribution to the decorations is a Brazilian flag he illicitly pins on the wall: against the rules at the Tampa Women’s Club.

At 9:15 p.m., the doors have been open for 15 minutes, and about as many people have arrived. Three tables out of 15 have been reserved, and most of the guests sit at two of them, socializing among themselves.

Brazilians are always late; on that, every Brazilian seems to agree. And they don’t make plans in advance. No one has a solid count of how many of the $100 tickets have been sold: they were available at four different Brazilian retail stores, and no one’s compiled the figures.

By the time Lima emerges from the ladies’ room, now in a dressy sweater and peach lipstick, Bezerra has taken to making caipirinhas — a Brazilian drink of sugar, lime, and vodka or cachaca, a sugar cane liquor. Now, more than 50 people have arrived: a mixed group mostly of families, some with small babies, others with dignified elders.

After a while, there’s a line at the buffet for fruit-stuffed turkey, beef a Chateaubriand, roasted ham, veggies, rices and Brazilian dishes like farofa andbobo de camarão. Women dressed for dancing in swirly red and pink dresses sit sedately at tables, far apart from one another.

Across town, a few months earlier, it’s Thanksgiving.

The Potter House Church attracts a large group with its potluck, even those who do not ordinarily attend services. Michaelis, his wife Debora and their sons are in the crowd, as are Lima and Bezerra. After services, the congregation moves out to tables in the yard to eat.

The large turnout is the handiwork of Pastor José “Mazo” Dos Santos and his wife Pastor Vania, heads of the Potter House Church.

The Dos Santos offer a non-denominational Portuguese language service in Temple Terrace. When Dos Santos arrived in this country in 1989, he slept on a couch in a crowded apartment, hoping to find a job. He found work in construction, later moving up to become a contractor. Through his work, he met many people who would later become his congregation.

Dos Santos embraced Christianity in 1992, and began preaching in Clearwater, in other people’s homes, and then his own. Today, 100-plus Brazilians travel from Sarasota and all over the Bay area to be a part of his congregation.

Here, they have found community. On Sundays, there is a hot pot of Brazilian coffee, the thick, full-bodied beverage that makes American coffee taste like tea, with hot toast and plenty of margarine. Sometimes, there are soccer games in the field adjoining the church, and there is a group of men who routinely travel after services to a spot where they can ride their dirt bikes.

“What we know,” Pastor Mazo says plainly, “is that Brazilian people need help — spiritual help. When they come to a foreign country, they have difficulties understanding. God, in His divine nature, puts people in difficult situations. And the church shows people they are not there by themselves.”

Pastor Mazo’s eyes widen, his hands chop at the air, and when he smiles big enough, he reveals a missing tooth on the right side. His skin is the color of rye bread, flecked in places with sun damage. A graying goatee caps his jaw.

“In the church, we encourage people,” he continues. “There are no barriers on their dreams. If you don’t speak English, no problem. This country is great for foreigners, because it is based on God’s principles. In this country, widows, orphans, we take care of them all.”

At 11 p.m., it’s down to the wire. No one’s going to show up at a New Year’s Eve party after midnight. Finally, the band ditches the American pop tunes and sings in Portuguese, starting a peppy dance song similar to the Macarena. Skirts begin to swirl.

It’s a familiar scene at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and dance floors across America where families boogie down, young and old, to the sounds of songs that everyone knows the words to. But for Gulf Coast Brazilians, this is a first: the first big party, the first big gathering not connected with a church. The group looks small — a little over 80 guests — but “small” depends on how you look at it.

At 11:30, the lights dim. The band takes a break, and in the quiet there’s the sound of glass breaking, as a young girl in a long dress accidentally knocks loose a Christmas ornament.

In anticipation, folks in the crowd toot foil party horns. In a smaller venue, the Brazilians would fill the space with their anticipatory air. Here, the space is half-empty, or half-full, and the action is spread out. But when people begin to gather on the dance floor, some raising their hands, others swaying, there is a sense that things are coming together.

The Brazilian Post is a vital survival kit for someone who speaks only Portuguese. The newspaper offers clues on how to build a life: where to go to find a pediatrician, a church, a bookkeeper, a car dealer, a mortgage lender, or a place to buy cartões telefônicas in order to call home. For the savvy, each page is an opportunity to connect with a larger network of more established Brazilian immigrants; to start out following in their footsteps, then carve a path of one’s own.

As part of their job, Lima and Bezerra seek out other Brazilians who miss the same things they do: the ginger ale-like flavor of guarana soda, samba rhythms and the taste of coxinha, little dumplings filled with chicken. In building a readership for their paper, they’ve created a community resource.

But it hasn’t been easy.

Lima and Bezerra first came to Florida in July of 2002, settling in Boynton Beach. Lima had been offered a job with a friend who ran Rose Advertising Specialties; today, the company is an advertiser with the Post. The economy in Brazil was bad for small businesses, explains Bezerra, so the couple decided to move, taking with them paintings Lima had created, some statues, and Lima’s daughters Bruna, now 12, and Carolina, 18.

Bezerra, 58, is the kind of guy who’s always at a 45-degree angle in his chair, with the professional slouch of a career journalist and a palm firmly supporting a skeptical chin. His wife, 13 years his junior, couldn’t be more animated. Where he hedges, trying to find the right words in his second language, she can be ebullient, full of charming mispronunciations.

When Bezerra and Lima decided to start a Brazilian newspaper, they quit their jobs and sunk their savings into the project. Lima tracked down advertisers for a paper that didn’t yet exist, finding Brazilians who owned grocery stores and car repair shops, finding caterers, realtors, accountants and Portuguese-language churches with money to risk on the fledgling business. They found a printer, and secured spots to distribute the Post for free. In July 2003, they published their first edition: 7,000 copies of a 14-page paper, two months after they began working on the project full-time.

At first, the couple worked alone: with Bezerra writing most of the articles, and Lima selling all the advertising and designing the entire paper. Now, the Post is double its original size, prints 10,000 copies a month, and is available on the web. They’ve managed to hire their first employee, Mairde Guerrero, a part-time reporter with an engaging personality whose beat is Tampa.

But putting out the paper has been difficult for the couple. What savings they had soon ran out, and Bezerra began delivering pizzas, calling his wife for directions when he got lost in unfamiliar neighborhoods.

Financially, the couple has “very bad credit,” says Bezerra — spending $3,000 each issue to produce the paper. That’s not including the costs of distribution, running their office, paying their contributors and their bills. They have advertisers, yes, and about 500 subscribers, who pay $10 annually. The couple insists that the paper is doing well, though the numbers suggest they’re having a harder time than they let on.

They work out of their Brandon apartment, in an office packed with three computers, two fax machines, two printers, a scanner and several phones. An additional Dell computer waits in the closet for a space to be set up. The area is clean and well-lit, but when deadline approaches, normalcy flies out the window, with papers scattered everywhere. They forget to eat, to sleep and to kiss.

Inside their apartment community is a fitness center and a pool that they never use. Lima doesn’t have time for her painting; at 45, she’s counting on retirement for that. And Bezerra has postponed working on his other writing: a long narrative poem about the plight of people in the sertão of northeastern Brazil, stricken with drought and famine.

Culturally, Florida is very different than the world they knew. Their neighbors are polite, but not friends. Bezerra misses the parties around bonfires, with forro music: accordion and triangle ballads reminiscent of Spanish corridos.

This, this is the Brazil that Americans picture — with small children dancing next to diminutive grandmas, hugs and kisses, and bursts of energy out of the relatively sober crowd.

Revillion 2004/5 — the name of the New Year’s Party — was inspired by a successful business mixer the Post hosted with the BGCC. Lima has grand plans for parties in the future: a Carnaval party in Ybor in February, and more in the summer. Describing her plans, she digs out a small photobook in the couple’s shared office. She flips through photos of decorations from parties past — not parties she’s thrown, but examples of what she’d like to do someday. “Brazilian Post, Inc.” is what she imagines the name of her party planning business will be.

But the success of that dream depends on the success of that first party.

In the last few moments of 2004, nearly everyone at the party is out on the dance floor. In a big, pulsing mass, they wait. Marcio Mendes, the bandleader, points to the clock, and begins the countdown in Portuguese. Dez! Nove! Oito! Sete! Cinco! Quatro! Três! Dois! Um!

The drumroll pounds and then — screams! Confetti! Midnight!

Lights seem to come out of nowhere, skirts fly, and everyone starts to dance — crazy, Carnaval-style dancing where everything goes and nothing’s too fast. The beat is salsa, so the hips shake; it’s almost a polka, so legs hop up and down; and its definitely friendly, so everybody hugs. This, this is the Brazil that Americans picture — with small children dancing next to diminutive grandmas, hugs and kisses, and bursts of energy out of the relatively sober crowd.

Lima’s face is pure joy — all smiles, completely in the moment. And then — Conga! The line forms, snakes around the room quickly, loops through the tables and back to the dance floor, where it breaks down. Bezerra has stepped to the side of the room, sipping on his second caipirinha, swirling the straw to get at the sugar on the bottom. Lima dances around, wide, loose, graceful movements — then stops to talk to her husband. She dances near him for a second, hips shaking and swaying to the beat.

At 12:10, the moment passes, and most partygoers head back to their seats to listen politely to the raffle. Afterwards, Lima returns to the kitchen, and begins the cleanup with de Souza of Mambo’s. But for one, shiny, glorious, samba-soaked, horn-blowing, butt-shaking moment — they nailed it.

A room of 60 relative strangers got up and danced their hearts out, not caring who saw or how much they’d hurt the next morning. It was fast, furious, sexy, beat-driven, heart-pumping abandon, with shallow breaths and flying hair and big, fabulous, HAPPY NEW YEAR kisses: It was, for a moment, Brazil.

THIS STORY

was written after an immersive six-month experience interacting with Tampa Bay’s Brazilian community. The rather sizable gpopulation had previously flown under the radar of the local media. In the course of reporting this story, I had the opportunity to join the story subjects at Thanksgiving, a baptism, and New Year’s Eve party, as well as conducting numerous sit-down interviews with Brazilians who were making a difference in their community.