Friday, May 29, 2015

The Italians of Sao Paulo - Part 3

Martinelli Building, 1929
Samba Italiana - The historical journey of Italians in Sao Paulo

By Gabriel Riel-Salvatore - - July 2, 2014

Italian influence

Several “Little Italy” neighborhoods emerged and thrived, gradually colouring the local culture. Cooking habits changed too, with wheat flour quickly supplanting traditional cassava and maize. Pasta soon integrated the local diet, and “pastificios” and traditional trattorias appeared everywhere. Opened in 1917, the Carillo bakery in the Mooca neighborhood is still in business today, four generations later. Even the national language was influenced by Italian.

Indeed, Paulistanos came to integrate several Neapolitan and Venetian intonations and expressions into their Portuguese dialect. Now virtually disappeared, except for a few areas, this accent remains nevertheless forever immortalized in the songs of Adoniran Barbosa, a famous samba singer and son of Italian immigrants. In addition, the use of the word “tchau” (ciao) is widespread in the region.

The influence of the community was also manifest in social struggles, sports and religion. Italian elites and intellectuals were keen to make their voices heard, publishing the nearly 150 different Italian newspapers in the early 1920s, famous among them Il Piccolo and Fanfulla. In 1914, the Palestra Italia soccer club – to become in its latter incarnation a giant of Brazilian professional sports – was founded in Mooca.

Today the club boasts 17 million fans, including many Brazilians of Italian descent. Also common are Italian-inspired religious festivals, such as the popular San Vito and Our Lady Archiropita, which each continue to attract more than 250,000 visitors and hundreds of volunteers yearly.


In the 1920s, 80% of the population of Sao Paulo was made up of immigrants. Germans, Japanese, Arabs, Russians, Spaniards and Italians all intermingled in this multi-racial city. The diversity was so great that some Brazilians worried about upsetting the cultural balance of their country. Portuguese literacy policies coupled with laws barring immigrants from speaking their mother tongue were designed to accelerate the integration of newcomers. Many southern cities changed their names. Nova Trento and Nova Vincenza were renamed Flores da Cunha and Farroupilha respectively. These policies even went so far as to impose a new name onto the Palestra Italia soccer club, renamed Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras since 1942. The overwhelming popularity of Italian immigrants rarely made them feel singled out, except during the Great Wars when xenophobic attacks on them were more common.

Though inward-looking at first, the Italian community in Sao Paulo, which was mainly composed of men, quickly began mingling with locals. Intermarriage became common and accepted, except in rural communities, which were still subject to the dictates of the Italian patriarchal marriage model. Integration and assimilation of Italians happened relatively quickly. In two generations, most of them already saw themselves as Brazilians.

At a time when the concept of dual citizenship did not yet exist, debates raged between Mussolini’s Italy and the Brazilian government regarding the status of children of Italian immigrants. Italy, which championed the principle of jus sanguinis (based on blood), requested that they be given Italian citizenship, but Brazil refused, favouring instead a jus soli (based on place of birth) principle of citizenship.

Rossi Firearms, founded by a Venetian immigrant in 1889
Throughout the period, the Brazilian government’s goal was to grant citizenship to the largest possible number of immigrants. To facilitate the naturalization process, all immigrants who owned property in Brazil, who married a Brazilian, or who arrived in Brazil after 1889 and did not explicitly express a desire to retain their original nationality within six months of arrival, were automatically awarded Brazilian citizenship. A constitutional amendment in 1994 eventually allowed for dual citizenship. Ever since this decree, more than half a million Italian-Brazilians have taken steps to acquire Italian citizenship.

Italian-Brazilians today

While Brazil’s policies endeavored for decades to stifle any sense of Italian identity, the second post-war wave of Italian immigration gave new life to Italian culture and its local institutions, such as the Circolo italiano di San Paulo, founded in 1911. Since 1982, the primary and secondary school Eugenio Montale offers an Italian, Portuguese and English curriculum, which is simultaneously recognized by the Italian and Brazilian states. Still, for most fourth and fifth generation youths, Italian origin may mean little more than dining on the odd pizza at one of the many Italian-Brazilian restaurants still operating in Sao Paulo’s traditionally Italian neighborhoods. And even there, you can bet everybody will be cheering for the team in yellow and green during this summer’s World Cup.


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