“Beleza.” That’s how the 60-something man in a straw hat, red shirt stamped with a Coca Cola white, and pleaded khakis responded to my “Beleza?” The barrier had been broken; we were no longer strangers. Literally ‘beautiful’ in Portuguese, it’s more commonly used as a conversation starter that neither digs too deep nor wastes words when a firm handshake and shared beer are enough. No complaints, everything’s great, nothing new are all equally correct translations of this do-all word that floats between the worlds of adjective and noun.
His name was Jorge. His bus was late. His age, to be precise, was sixty-four. Everything about him was to the point, with a neutrality that dipped or climbed on his voice’s inflection. He was beleza incarnate.
Wanting to rest at the corner store (which doubled as a bus stop) just long enough for a water break, I appreciated the briefness with which our conversation unfolded like simple sentences from comic book bubbles. Jorge followed the normal sequence of questions: traveling by bike? All of Brazil? All of South America?!? So you’re Colombian? No? American?!? The first Portuguese words I learned revolved around these friendly interrogations.
Jorge continued, this time without tonally curving the last word of his sentence into a question. A declaration: “Your compatriots live not too far from here”—a strange comment given our location halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in a town called Salesópolis. The highway cut a deep silence through a remote countryside. In both directions the closest boondocks were of little interest to tourists. Copacabana’s overpriced, seasonal apartments were hundreds of miles up the coast.
With half a Nalgene inside me, I said goodbye and pedaled south thinking that Jorge’s beleza might actually be Alzheimers. Several days later though, I’m happy to report that Jorge was and is in full control of his mental capacities. My compatriots do live here—there are large numbers of American immigrants in Brazil. Wikipedia says so.
Wikipedia: The Confederados are an ethnic sub-group in Brazil descended from 10,000 to 20,000 Confederate Americans who immigrated chiefly to the area of the city of São Paulo, Brazil after the American Civil War. Many returned to the United States, but descendants of Confederados have intermarried in Brazil, live in many different cities, speak Portuguese and consider themselves thoroughly Brazilian.
At the end of the American Civil War an estimated 3 million Southerners left the South; most moved to other parts of the United States, such as the American West, but some left the country entirely. The most popular country of Southern emigration was Brazil.
Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil wanted to encourage cultivation of cotton. Dom Pedro offered the potential immigrants subsidies, cheap land and tax breaks…Many Southerners who took the Emperor’s offer had lost their land during the war, were unwilling to live under a conquering army, or simply did not expect an improvement in the South’s economic position…Most of the immigrants were from the states of Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina.
…Some 20,000 Americans entered Brazil from 1865 to 1885. Other researchers have estimated the number at 10,000. An unknown number returned to the United States when conditions in the South improved. Most immigrants adopted Brazilian citizenship.
Dom Pedro’s program was judged a success for both the immigrants and the Brazilian government. The settlers quickly gained a reputation for honesty and hard work. The settlers brought modern agricultural techniques for cotton, as well as new food crops, such as watermelon and pecans, that spread among native Brazilian farmers. Some dishes of the American South were also adopted in general Brazilian culture, such as chess pie, vinegar pie, and southern fried chicken.
In Brazil the Confederate flag has not been perceived as having the same political symbolism as it has acquired in the United States. Many descendants of the Confederados are of mixed race and reflect the varied ethnic groups of Brazilian society in their physical appearance. In the wake of then-Governor Jimmy Carter’s visit to the region in 1972, Americana incorporated the Confederate flag in the city’s crest. While in Brazil, Carter also visited the city of Santa Bárbara d’Oeste and the grave at the Campo of a great-uncle of his wife Rosalyn. Her relative was one of the original Confederados. Carter remarked that the Confederos sounded and seemed just like Southerners.
Click here to read the full Wikipedia article.