What Do Immigrants in São Paulo Have to Say?

Special gathers testimonials from people of various nationalities in São Paulothe city that receives the most foreigners in Brazil

Flávia Mantovani Bruno Santos
São Paulo

A Syrian who fled the war in 2014 and landed in a Carnival block where he gave his first kiss. A Japanese who migrated to Brazil 50 years ago and likes to go out in the street and sing Dorival Caymmi. A Portuguese woman who left her country in crisis to "live intensely" across the ocean. A Burkinabe who was not allowed to dance in his country, but takes samba and forró classes here.

They are some of the thousands of immigrants living in São Paulo who gave their testimonies to Folha in a special that began running on Tuesday (15).

Coming from all continents with the most diverse motivations—study, work, emotional reasons, or escape from conflict—they talked about how it is to be a foreigner in the city that receives the most immigrants in the country. They reminisced about what seemed strange to them abut Brazil and Brazilians at first.

There are no accurate statistics on the number of immigrants currently living in São Paulo, but it is possible to get an idea based on Federal Police records. According to PF data cited by City Hall, there were more than 360,000 in June 2019 - equivalent to 3% of the city's population. Bolivians, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Italians, and Haitians are the top nationalities.

Immigrants of São Paulo - folhapress


Sumio Takai, 80. (Foto: Bruno Santos/ Folhapress) - Folhapress

"Brazil is good for old people, there's a lot of free stuff; in Japan, it's not like that'

My name is Sumio, but it's not "gone," it's disappeared. People always joke, "Hey Sumio, are you gone yet?"

I have played harmonica since I was 15 years old. I learned at school in Japan. Here I learned to sing "It's Sweet to Die at Sea" by Dorival Caymmi. It's a sentimental song, right? I like that.

I wanted to learn country music, country music, but nobody teaches it to me.

Every day I ride the subway. I go out to buy food, talk. I still cook. Sometimes I go out in a kimono, but it's not to show off.

My son is a translator for the Kashima Antlers Japanese soccer team. But I do not like soccer. It's a mess, you know? I've played baseball, tennis, and ping pong too. I just like small balls, I don't like big shots.

Brazil is good for old people. There's a lot of free stuff for the elderly. In Japan, it is not the same.

But Brazil is getting bad. A lot of people messing up are stealing people's money. Brazil is sinking.


Shopkeeper Sumio Takai, 81, is from Japan and has been in Brazil since 1966


Nduduzo Siba, 31. - Divulgação

'I learned to speak Portuguese and sing in prison'

I can't tell my story and not talk about my beginning here. I arrived, and a week later I was arrested, accused of drug trafficking. I was in the female prison for three years and six months.

I learned to speak Portuguese in prison, learned to sing there in a church service. It's not that I learned to sing there, I think I was able to release my music there, my singing.

At night I would open my cell's mouth, the window where they delivered letters, and sing. Everyone sang with me. This soothed the babies who spent the night crying in the maternal ward.

I didn't find dangerous people in prison, as everyone says. I found mothers, aunts, daughters of someone. I walked into the system with nothing, and they shared everything with me: bra, panties, toothbrush.

What I lived through there would make a great book. Today I see why I went through all this.

Now I feel like I'm in a movie: I never imagined I would sing, make my movie debut, do a play on the amazing stages of São Paulo. These things do not happen in real life; it is not possible.

Back in my land, when we start walking, your parents and siblings already sing songs so we can synchronize the body with the Zulu dance. Then you start dancing.

But I wasn't so interested in Zulu dancing before I came here. When I arrived, I felt very disconnected from my roots, needed to identify with something. My parents still don't believe I became a good Zulu dancer.

Our surnames there carry all our ancestry, the names of our ancestors. Mine is Dlamini Sibal'khulu Sembatha Mkhonto Mfezi Emathe Mahle Khuze lwaka Ngobokazi Jama Kasjadu Mdlovu Magaduzela Wena Owasebukhosini. Got it?

Look, I love Brazil. I never thought a day would come when I was going to say: I, Nduduzo Siba, love Brazil.


The singer, dancer, and actress Nduduzo Siba, 31, is from South Africa and has lived in Brazil since 2013.


Abdoulaye Guibila, 30. (Foto: Bruno Santos/ Folhapress) - Folhapress

'There I was not allowed to dance; here I do forró class'

I was passionate about dancing, but a Muslim is not allowed to dance in my country. When I arrived in Brazil, I thought: why not do what I like and had no opportunity? For two years, I've been doing forró, sertanejo, samba de gafieira classes. I made this dream come true in Brazil.

When I say I'm from Burkina Faso, people ask me if it's a country because they have never heard of it. I explain that it is a small country that is on the Ivory Coast side, where French is spoken and over 27 dialects.

I'm a waiter and started working in the kitchen. Then the restaurant owner called me and asked, "Do you speak French? Do you speak English? Why don't you work as a waiter? When a foreigner who does not speak Portuguese comes, I attend them.

It is not very common for a man to cook in my country. In my culture, the man has things specifically just for him, and the woman only takes care of the home. And here it is not; everyone does their part. I think it's beautiful here.


Waiter Abdoulaye Guibila, 30, is from Burkina Faso and has been in Brazil since 2014


Hakam Elyoussef, 27. (Foto: Bruno Santos/ Folhapress) - Folhapress

On my second day in Brazil, I had my first kiss’

For better or worse, Syrian society is adapting to the rest of the world. We used to watch western shows, but now we feel like we are living in a western show.

The other day I went back to talk to a friend of mine from Syria, but now there is no more talk. It's all very different.

Here the craziest things seem much more logical. On my second day in Brazil, I entered a Carnival block without knowing what it was, without speaking Portuguese. I had the first kiss of my life.

The situation in Syria, even when I tell myself, to friends, is so different from my current life that it seems like an imaginary thing. My niece was born in war. Her first words were not "father" or "mother." They were: "They are shooting," "There are bullets outside."

The other day I was having lunch with a friend and showing pictures of my destroyed house. He didn't understand how we kept living in that house, but we lived in it well. Now I don't see myself living in that place.

The adaptive power of the human being is very strong. With the first bomb, you wake up in fear, and on the second bomb you sleep.

I only had the feeling of freedom in Syria about three times in the anti-government demonstrations. But here you can choose the clothes you are going to wear, what work you are going to do. Because even then, there is the family that decides. I can be who I want here. It is a lot of freedom. It's scary, and at the same time, it's very beautiful.

I dated a Brazilian for three years. She is an actress, feminist, and taught me a lot about respect for women. I try to be as open-minded as possible, but a lot wasn't even from my perspective: I didn't know the jokes we were talking about were so boring, and she explained to me why they're boring. Thanks to her, we are friends to this day.

I want to keep my tradition, remain a Syrian man, but at the same time I want to be Brazilian, go to a barbecue on Sunday, go out to a party with friends. I even helped to compose a samba, I already think in Portuguese. Here I can keep the Arab side and grow my Brazilian side.


Language teacher and engineering student, Hakam Elyoussef, 27, is from Syria and has been in Brazil since 2014


Mercedes Salgado, 67. (Foto: Bruno Santos/ Folhapress) - Folhapress

‘For Brazil, Central America is like another planet’

When I arrived, Brazil was not focused on Latin America. That has changed a bit, not entirely, but I also think language creates barriers. The Brazilian is more interested in what happens from Colombia and Venezuela down. Central America is geopolitically like another planet.

It was very hard to see Nicaragua retaking the dictatorship. We saw the signs; the thing goes on and on until we come to a moment when we wonder: what is this? Here we should be alert as well.

No dictatorship comes in, knocks on the door and says I'm the dictatorship. It enters cautiously. And it often scares because it goes so fast. And when it settles in with people's silence, it's very hard to root out.

I already have more time in Brazil than in Nicaragua. I never got rid of my roots, but my children were raised here, my grandchildren were born here. And Brazil is the country of my choice. This is even more important.


Sociologist, Mercedes Salgado, 67, is from Nicaragua and has been in Brazil since 1972


Maria Luísa, 31. (Foto: Bruno Santos/ Folhapress) - Folhapress

'They always ask what I'm doing here'

My intention when I came to Sao Paulo was to live. Portugal is a country that is just now emerging from bankruptcy. I was tired of the monotony and widespread apathy that people felt for many years. There was no joy, and I missed it.

The first thing they ask me is: what are you doing here? No Brazilian finds it attractive for people to come to Brazil. I thought that Brazil was a country that liked itself a lot, and it is not.

You have no idea what it's like to be a self-employed worker there. There is not even half of what it offers at CLT. It is an offensive precariousness. And I don't feel like going back to that.

From an early age, I was fascinated with Brazil, perhaps because I watched soap operas, the voiceovers, which we call dubrages. "The Lion King" was a milestone, the first movie I saw in Portuguese from Portugal. Until then, it was all in "Brazilian."

Always comes someone to play with Portuguese. There's no Brazilian jokes there, so I couldn't respond. Imagine what happened if there was anger at the Portuguese for colonization and its history.

The characterization of Portuguese as a dumb character, I think, has to do with this rancidity. So I don't laugh because I don't think it's funny, but I'm not upset.

The best decision I ever made was to come to Brazil. Knowing other cultures, how people think, feel, you can't change.

When you come back, you're in limbo, not anywhere, it's yourself. This is empowering.


Product designer Maria Luísa Caeiro, 31, is from Portugal and has been in Brazil since 2016

Translated by Kiratiana Freelon

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