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Brazucas (Brazilians in New York City)

Beth Myers and Ruchi Mital

     There are two main areas of New York where Brazilians are found. Astoria, Queens is the main residential area for Brazilians in New York City, however there is a small section in Manhattan rich in Brazilian commerce, located on West 46th Street, in between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. "Rua 46" as Brazilians call, it was officially named "Little Brazil," as the street sign on Fifth Avenue demonstrates. Along this bock we found Brazilian restaurants, a travel agency, a pharmacy, and a small department store call "Brasil Way." The sign boasted the colors of the Brazilian flag, even the carts selling hot dogs were green and yellow.

     The community that we studied in-depth was located in Astoria, Queens, around 36th Avenue and 30th Street. Our primary focus was the Brazilian community, who are native speakers of Portuguese. What we found there however, was not simply a community of Brazilian Portuguese speakers, but an ethnically and linguistically diverse community that included significant numbers of Bengalis, Pakistanis, Indians, Mexicans, and Arabs, as well as many Japanese, Koreans, Greeks, Dominicans, and Italians. This was evidenced by the variety of business establishments that catered to different ethnic groups, both in language and in content, in the makeup of the local elementary school, and the very people whom we observed and spoke to in the neighborhood.

LOTEs in use in our community

     Tony, a Puerto Rican immigrant employed at a deli told us that LOTEs were used extensively in the neighborhood; in fact they are more common than English. He said that the predominant languages he heard spoken were Bengali, Spanish, and Portuguese, in that order. He emphasized that within these languages there was much mixing, that to communicate with each other members of different ethnic groups used not only English, but also combinations of the various LOTEs. So while we were expecting to find a predominantly Portuguese speaking community (as the nature of the project predisposed us to think) we found ourselves in a place where many different LOTEs were in use. Just walking around the neighborhood for a few hours, we heard Spanish, Bengali, Arabic, and Portuguese, as well as English being spoken, and this by people of all ages. However, it seemed to be the older members of the community that used LOTEs most extensively. The younger people had less foreign accents, and said that they often spoke English, while their parents and grandparents mainly utilized LOTEs. A Brazilian born immigrant, Paulo, who was 30 when he moved to the US and is now 62, said that he does not feel the need to speak any language other than Portuguese, "that is what my friends, my family, everyone speaks. Only strangers I speak English to."

Primary school system

     The local elementary school in the neighborhood is P.S. 166, The Henry Gradstein School, which includes grades K-5. This school seems to embody the diverse nature of the community, which it serves. The school's mission statement, which is posted in the entrance says that it aims to "provide every student with a quality education, create a learning environment that builds on the multi-ethnic backgrounds of students...[and] our students will thus be able to become contributing literate members of our diverse society."

     When we told the security guard and a group of parents at the entrance that we were there to study the incidence of LOTEs at the school, they all commented that we had "certainly come to the right school." Out of the total 1400 students, a parent/ volunteer, Ruth, said that about 80% were in ESL (English as a second language) classes. These classes are all taught in English, with all of the children, regardless of their native language, in the same classes, with teachers who do not necessarily speak the native language of the students. They place a heavy emphasis on English language proficiency, but do not use the native languages at all. There are bilingual classes as well, but these are offered only in Spanish. The children that speak Spanish are the largest group, and are least likely to speak English also, according to Ruth.

     When asked if she thought that the ESL classes were effective, she made an interesting observation. She said that it seemed that within different cultures there was a differing degree of the emphasis placed on education. Some seemed headed for college, while others' parents "only needed them to be able to read a marriage certificate." We then asked if the children socialized within their ethnic and language groups or if there was evidence of mixing. She said that within school there was some degree of mixing, but that as soon as they stepped outside, this changed, and they stayed within their own ethnic groups. Describing herself as a white American, she said that her daughter had invited classmates of different ethnicities to her birthday party, but none of the children from other ethnic groups, especially the Bengali, Pakistani, and Mexican children came. This suggested to us that when left up to children, when they are in a mixed setting, they would socialize with each other without as much regard to ethnicity. But when they are back in the sphere of their parents, and the parents' own reservations and prejudices, they are separated. This was clear as we watched children stream out of the school when classes were over, a richly diverse bunch, and then disperse into their individual ethnic groups. This was a salient moment and it speaks to the idea that distinctions and separation are social constructions, and that children who have not had as much time to construct worlds and walls, do not see ethnicity as a barrier to friendship.

Business establishments in the community

     There are many stores and restaurants in the community that are owned and operated by speakers of LOTEs. On the same street, literally next to each other, there was a Mexican barbershop, Copacabana Pizza that sells "hot heroes, calzones, hamburgers, salgadinhos, brasilieros, calda de cana." We could converse with the worker only in Spanish, and he said that patrons were made up of everyone, especially "Americanos, Hispanos, y Brasilenos." Next on the block was the travel agency Rio Travel, the Espianal Deli, the Thaatri Bazaar, that sells Halaal meat and groceries, and a Bangladeshi restaurant. This truly seems to be a community that has a diverse population, and maintains that diversity thoroughly. The signs were often written in both English and another language.

     Rio Travel is a combination bookstore, video store, and travel agency. In the bookstore half of the store one can browse through hundreds of films in Portuguese as well as a variety of books printed in Portuguese. In the other half of the store one can find out about travel to South America and Central America. One can also pick up fliers advertising Brazilian dance parties and other cultural events, as well as advertisements for English classes. Inside Rio Travel the employees speak Portuguese and come from Brazil, so a Brazilian living in the area would feel extremely welcome inside.

     At the Michael Tax Service, we talked with the owner, Liaquat Ali, a Bengali first generation immigrant. He performs income tax services and immigration services. He said that all of the forms he has are in English. His main clientele is Bengali, like himself, but he has picked up some Spanish so that he can expand his customer base. He is also going to employ "a Spanish girl" to help on that endeavor. This is an interesting example of the ways in which languages meet and mix with each other. He says that while he works with mostly Bengalis, he has worked for people of all ethnicities in the neighborhood. Speaking with him was also interesting, as some stereotypes came to light. He said that he didn't want to speak ill of anyone, but he had found that Brazilians were typically "low-minded and cheap." He said that he found them generally less well educated than other Asians, and that often times they had not paid for services. Of course, he said, this was not everyone, but it had been his experience. It was an interesting insight into how stereotypes develop and become propagated.


     The Brazilian Missionary Church serves the Brazilian population of Astoria, conducting masses, Sunday school, youth and couples counseling, as well as Bible study in Portuguese. It is located on 30th Street. The church is important as a social center and meeting place. Unfortunately we were unable to speak to a member of the church, or it's leader, but this church seemed like a very positive resource for the Brazilians in this neighborhood.

Medical services

     To get a sense of the language services provided by medical institutions, we contacted three large hospitals in Queens. The first was the New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens, located at 56-45 Main Street. This hospital has a staff of interpreters that are always in the hospital. There is a heavy emphasis on Korean and Chinese, as the majority of the non-English speaking population at this hospital tends to be Asian. There is also a Russian and a Spanish interpreter. To accommodate those that speak other languages, there is a telephonic service made up of a pool of contacts that can translate, and this pool includes a Portuguese translator.

     The New York Flushing Hospital Medical Center, located at 45th Avenue at Parsons Blvd. has services that interpret Chinese, Korean, and Spanish, but no Portuguese. They said that they have no fixed interpreters on staff, but call when they are needed. This may point to the fact that speakers of Chinese, Korean, and Spanish are less likely to also speak English, or may simply be a reflection of the patient population. The hospital staff was unable to pinpoint an exact reasoning.

     The case with the Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, at 8900 Van Wyck Expressway, was similar. They do not employ permanent interpreters; there are some doctors who speak Spanish, but other than that they rely on AT&T language bank. This is another service that they call, and are put in touch with an interpreter of the desired language. When our acquaintance, Paulo, was asked on his opinion of medical services, he said that he though most Portuguese speakers would be able to manage enough English, and if not they would take a family member with them who did speak English.

     Overall, even though we found businesses, churches, and other establishments that cater to the Brazilian population in New York City, it is a very small population. Statistics from 1996 were the most recent census that is specific enough to give numbers on Brazilians. According to this research, done by the New York City Dept. of City Planning, in 1996 there were a total of 2,761 Brazilians living in the greater New York City area. Of this number, 1,182 live in Queens and 474 in Astoria. This population has undoubtedly increased, however they are still a very small percentage of New York City's population. We also discovered that the majority of Brazilian immigrants plan to return to Brazil after earning enough money, and send money back to their families while they are here. Because of this, many do not attempt to improve their English skills, sticking with Portuguese, as they are only temporary residents in the United States.

     Visiting Astoria gave us a sense of how the Brazilian community stays isolated because of their language, but also interacts daily with other immigrant groups, making for very interesting linguistic make-ups in their neighborhoods. Assuming that their language remains this isolated, they will have to adapt and incorporate English into their lives, and maybe the other languages around them. In another ten years the people of Astoria, Queens may have mixed so intensely that their languages will adopt aspects of each other and maybe even diverge towards creating a pidgin language.

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