Brazil on the Boulevard

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

By Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 5 | Posted Aug. 30, 2006

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One story above 11th Street in Bella Vista on a recent Monday night, some 25 people dressed in loose-fitting white pants sit in a half-circle watching 28-year-old South Philadelphian Mike Rogan. An instructor and people playing traditional Brazilian instruments clap and sing in Portuguese, as Rogan, his blue T-shirt covered in sweat, spins and cartwheels around the small area, dodging kicks from the instructor.

This is a capoeira class at the five-month-old Philadelphia Capoeira Arts Center, and the occasion is a capoeira batizado (baptism). An acrobatic martial art created by African slaves in Brazil hundreds of years ago, capoeira is often described as a "dance-fight," but there's clearly more dancing than fighting.

After a few minutes Rogan emerges from the circle with a new dark green belt tied around his waist, proof he's graduated to the next level. "Everybody's really friendly. It incorporates music, dance, everything," says Rogan, who's been taking capoeira for only four months. "I want to learn all the instruments and all the songs, and start to take Portuguese."

But Rogan says he didn't even know there was a Brazilian community in the Northeast.

With the influx of Brazilian immigrants in the last five years, many Philadelphians outside the Northeast have begun to embrace Brazilian culture. Capoeira is being taught throughout the city. Brazilian percussion classes have sprouted up in West Philly and Northern Liberties. Two Brazilian stores have opened in Manayunk. And two Brazilian chain restaurants are planning to set up shop in Center City.

"The culture in Philadelphia has grown, but it's still almost a secret," says Philadelphian Chip Finney, 37, who in 2001, along with partner Lamar Redcross, 33, founded Diga Brazil Travel, a boutique travel agency that brings people to the Brazilian state of Bahia for Carnival and other festivals.

The leaders of the Brazilian cultural movement in Philly tend to be either American or from S�o Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, which is far from where most of the Northeast's immigrants are from. As a result, there are two Brazilian worlds in Philadelphia: the immigrant community in the Northeast and the "downtown" cultural community.

Adenilson Dos Santos, 42, who's known as "Master Doutor" (he says he was the first capoeira master to reside in Pennsylvania), founded the Philadelphia Capoeira Arts Center and has been teaching capoeira in the city for the eight years. He and the other instructors who are part of his group, the American Society of Capoeira and Arts from Brazil, teach a total of 140 students, only a few of whom are Brazilian-born.

The immigrants in the Northeast don't have time to come down to South Philly for capoeira, says Dos Santos. "They come here for the same reason I do--to try to live better, they're so busy working."

"It's two different communities," confirms Aiton Santos. "Probably because these types of immigrants [in the Northeast], work too much, they don't have a lot of time for a cultural exchange."

Al� Brasil, an Afro-Brazilian band at the forefront of the city's Brazilian cultural scene for the last few years, has successfully navigated both communities, although none of its musicians is Brazilian-born.

In July they played shows at both North by Northwest in Mt. Airy and the Felton Club on Rising Sun Avenue. They've also played at Brazilian summer block parties on Castor Avenue in years past.

But band member Alex Shaw, 28, who speaks fluent Portuguese and is the secretary for the Philadelphia chapter of the International Capoeira Angola Foundation (ICAF), says Al� Brasil's fan base is mostly American, and there will always be a "rift" between what they enjoy playing and what most immigrants in the Northeast want to hear. "We'd love to continue to develop our connection with the Northeast, but realistically it's just a really different type of audience."

Sounds of home: Live music energizes a Sunday-night crowd at the Brazilian club Copacabana in the Northeast.

He says while the immigrants are from Minas Gerais and Goi�s, Al� Brasil's music has its roots in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. "Just stylistically speaking, a lot of the music we do doesn't come from those regions," he says.

The geographical separation between the Northeast and Center City creates its own cultural distance.

"Folks who live downtown aren't going to go all the way to the Northeast," says ICAF president Kamau Blakney, 34, a Mt. Airy native. Poor English also makes it even more difficult to participate in the downtown Philadelphia scene, says Monica Ferreira, who sells jewelry, pottery and furniture at Brazilian Soul Handicrafts in Manayunk.

"It would be difficult for them to open up a store in Manayunk not speaking English," says Ferreira, 29, who along with her partner Crisalida Mata, 30, is originally from Portugal.

Brazilian Jeans That Fit, the other Brazilian store in Manayunk, is owned by an American. Both stores opened just a year ago.


While the popularity of Brazilian culture--its music and capoeira--will likely grow with increasing exposure, the status of the immigrant community in the Northeast remains fragile.

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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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