Brazil on the Boulevard

Northeast Philadelphia is home to a fast-growing Brazilian community.

By Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Aug. 30, 2006

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Photographs by Jeff Fusco

When you first step into Brazuca, a bakery near the corner of Cottman and Castor, it's easy to forget where you are.

Cutouts of yellow and green palm trees and big silhouettes of soccer players in midkick adorn the walls. Harsh fluorescent lights shine down on cobalt blue booths and tables where people lounge, munch meat-filled pastries and sip suco imported from Brazil.

On this day a friendly counter server banters in Portuguese with customers while a Portuguese-speaking comedian on a prominently displayed widescreen TV elicits giggles from two friends with matching dyed blond hair.

The large Brazilian immigrant population in nearby Riverside, N.J., has received lots of national exposure in recent weeks, since town leaders passed an Illegal Immigration Relief Act modeled after one recently passed in Hazleton, Pa., that uses fines to punish businesses that employ illegal immigrants, along with the landlords who rent to them.

But the Northeast's Brazilian community lives and works largely under everyone's radar.

In the past five or six years community leaders estimate the Brazilian population in Northeast Philadelphia has grown to more than 15,000. By some estimates as many as 60 percent are illegal, but it's difficult to pin down an exact number. (Councilman Brian O'Neill, whose district includes the Northeast's Brazilian community, didn't return repeated phone calls.)

The Brazilian consulate in New York is hesitant to provide any exact figures, but according to estimates, there are around 400,000 immigrants living in its jurisdiction--which includes Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Bermuda.

After the crackdowns last fall in Riverside, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported some immigrants were packing up and moving to Northeast Philadelphia. More immigrants may also have come here following the passage of the Illegal Immigration Relief Act in Riverside in late July--although, again, exact numbers are elusive.

The Illegal Immigration Relief Act spurred large protests in Riverside two Sundays ago, and legal experts have questioned whether the law violates "preemption," which states only the federal government can make immigration laws. A Riverside church and the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders recently announced they were bringing a lawsuit against the township and its mayor.

An acrobat martial art created by African slaves in Brazil hundreds of years ago, capoeira is often described as "dance-flight." Photo by John Taggart.
Take a short drive down Castor Avenue from Rhawnhurst to Oxford Circle with a slight detour on Cottman and Bustleton avenues, and you'll find Brazil's national colors of green, yellow and blue bursting from signs offering cell phones, pizza and bikinis. Discreetly advertised Brazilian evangelical churches also peek out from abandoned-looking storefronts.

"The Brazilian community here has grown really fast," says Aiton Santos, 41, the editor in chief of Brazilian News Week, the Portuguese-language newspaper he founded four years ago. He's also the editor in chief of 100% Brazil, a bimonthly magazine launched this year for Brazilians in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

When Santos arrived in Philadelphia in 1999, there was one Brazilian store and one Brazilian restaurant. Now there are some 10 Brazilian food establishments--restaurants, bakeries, a supermarket--and at least 15 Brazilian stores, which in addition to selling everything from soccer jerseys to evangelical books, also assist with money transfers. There are seven Brazilian evangelical churches and a Catholic church with a Brazilian pastor.

"We've watched in the last six or seven months at least five or six Brazilian businesses come up--bakeries, restaurants, a clothing store," says Ryan Impink, 26, a Reading native who co-directs Uncle Sam English School on Castor Avenue with his Brazilian wife Maisa. "You can buy cars, fix cars, you can eat in a place owned by guys from your own town or city," says Santos.

"Once people at home see a person excelling at life, they see it's not so hard to succeed in America," says Luciana Menegati, 26, a director of Business Solutions, an organization that helps Brazilian startups with planning, tax returns and bookkeeping.

Santos believes Brazilian immigrants first settled in the Northeast because they were comfortable with how it felt.

"The Northeast is like a small town," he says. "The situation is like Brazil."

Face the nation: Brazilian influence is evident in the Northeast near Cottman and Bustleton avenues.
When Santos first moved to Philadelphia, other Brazilian immigrants would show up to gawk at him toiling away in construction.

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Comments 1 - 6 of 6
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1. james said... on Jun 8, 2008 at 03:32PM

“thats a very talented report! Wow, I lived here for 20 years and knew nothing!!”

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2. José said... on Nov 29, 2009 at 06:43PM

“The Brazilian population here in Philadelphia has been a positive. Whether it's their restaurants with their delicious food, or their beautiful women, they are one immigrant group that has many positive things to offer the region. Riverside's loss is our gain...”

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3. kiro said... on Dec 10, 2009 at 09:31AM

“This is cool”

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4. Pamlea said... on Aug 6, 2010 at 11:19AM

“Hi im an Au pair leaving in Wilmington delaware and im new to the area so i would like to learn a bit more about it....i've been looking for brazilian stores around here and i can't find any!
I whould like to know the address of at leat one brazilian store in philly where i could buy some brazilian suplies!!!
thanks pam”

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5. Christine said... on Dec 15, 2010 at 02:35PM

“I am looking for hair sallon where have Brazilian people working. And also, I love to drink chimarrao, where I can find erva mate, please help me......If someone knows please inform....”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jul 22, 2015 at 02:48PM

“Hair salons in Riverside, NJ. D&D Prima Donnas”


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