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From N.E. back to Brazil, with regret

Homeland's economy crushes dreams

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / July 8, 2009
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CONSELHEIRO PENA, Brazil - Gizele Prata sits gloomily inside the villa she built for her mother in this sleepy town in southeastern Brazil, unmoved by the views of verdant hills and the meandering Doce River.

It is the dream house Prata had imagined as she and a sister scrubbed floors in Boston to pay for it, and Prata returned last year intending to stay. But her homecoming has been a deep disappointment: The university where she studies pharmacy is more than an hour away. The long lines and bureaucracy drive her crazy. She cannot find a job - and is anxious that she will never have a real career.

Now she has a new dream: To return to the United States.

“I’m going back,’’ said Prata, a 29-year-old naturalized US citizen, as she sat in her mother’s living room, appointed in earth tones and comfortable chairs. “I’m not thinking about it. I’m going. Everything I want to do here, I can’t do.’’

Her frustration echoes among former immigrants in the state of Minas Gerais, one of the biggest departure points for immigrants to Massachusetts. Not long ago, they were living every immigrant’s dream, part of the tide of thousands of Brazilian workers who fled a sagging US economy to build a better life in Brazil with the money they made in America. Instead, many are struggling with low wages, unemployment, and even culture shock.

In Conselheiro Pena, a remote farming town of 21,000, a former immigrant opened Joe’s American Bar and Grill with great fanfare about two years ago, then went broke within months. The mayor’s sister came home to launch a supermarket, but failed and returned to Massachusetts to work illegally. A carpenter in town waxes nostalgic about Cape Cod, where he earned more than double his current pay.

The United States remains a powerful lure, especially from Conselheiro Pena, where horse-drawn carts still clop down the crooked streets, chickens dart around the tiny bus depot, and residents gather in plastic chairs on the sidewalk to sip sweet black coffee.

Migration from this region to Massachusetts can be traced to World War II, when a group of Boston-area engineers came here to work and brought their housekeepers back with them. Those early routes turned into a superhighway during Brazil’s economic crisis of the 1980s, when thousands left to work in America, according to “Becoming Brazuca,’’ a book on Brazilian immigration to the United States, published last year.

Roughly 1.4 million Brazilians now live in the United States, including about 336,000 in Massachusetts, and they send home more than $2.7 billion a year, according to the Inter-American Development Bank and Alvaro Lima, director of research for the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

In Conselheiro Pena, the results are on vivid display: Palatial homes tower from the hills, a giant billboard advertises the gift of plastic surgery, and the Volkswagen dealership expanded to a shiny glass showroom. A poster inside says, “Dreams exist so that they can come true.’’

“There isn’t a family in this town who doesn’t have a relative in the United States,’’ said the mayor, Neyval José de Andrade, whose sister is now an illegal immigrant in Massachusetts.

But immigrants said the United States’ allure faded in recent years as the economy soured. They lost their jobs, the dollar was worth much less in Brazil, and they could no longer justify spending years away from their families.

“I was tired. I wanted to come home,’’ said Jose Rodrigues, 46, who worked as a mechanic in Allston-Brighton before returning in 2002 after 12 years away. But now, he works long days on the dairy farm he started, and barely makes ends meet.

Knowing that many immigrants are struggling, government officials and others are trying to find ways to help them thrive, an effort that extends all the way to New England. Last month, Brazilian officials and the Inter-American Development Bank launched a series of seminars in 25 cities and towns, including Conselheiro Pena, to be repeated in Brazilian communities in Massachusetts in the fall. They will teach Brazilians how to write business plans, research the market, and invest smartly.

A 2006 study estimated that 70 percent of Brazilian immigrants who return home and launch businesses ultimately fail.

“We need something so that immigrants can return,’’ said Antonio Carlos Linhares, coordinator of a nonprofit that helps immigrants’ families create jobs in Governador Valadares, a city of 300,000 that is this region’s hub. “Otherwise they’re unemployed there and unemployed here.’’

Across the region, signs of a struggling economy abound. In Governador Valadares, nicknamed “Valadollars’’ for the money immigrants send home, “for rent’’ signs dot the downtown. The Volkswagen dealership in Conselheiro Pena sold 60 cars a month when the economy was stronger in 2004; now it sells 30 a month.

The immigrant who opened Joe’s American Bar and Grill had worked in a restaurant in Massachusetts but lacked business experience, town officials and neighbors said. Locals didn’t like his international menu, and the farm next door sent waves of manure-scented breezes into the dining room.

It closed within months and the owner left town.

Andrade’s sister made similar missteps.

In 2004, she opened a grocery store in Conselheiro Pena after a computer program declared that such a venture would turn a profit. But in small towns here, cash-strapped customers buy fewer goods, often on credit. She loaded up on merchandise but couldn’t sell enough to pay the bills, Andrade said. She went broke and returned illegally to the United States to find work. When their father died last year, she couldn’t attend the funeral because she feared she couldn’t reenter the United States.

“She went back to survive,’’ the mayor said, wiping away tears. “She’s not sure if she’s coming back.’’

Cleumar, the carpenter who used to work on Cape Cod, said his former boss in Massachusetts still offers him jobs, and he probably will return next year. He did not give his last name because he plans to enter the United States illegally.

“There’s a lot of work here, but not a lot of money,’’ said Cleumar, a strapping 32-year-old in a baseball cap who is fluent in English, as he stopped by the bus station.

Others say it is possible to succeed, as long as immigrants invest wisely.

Geneci Sabino, 40, who worked as a construction worker in the Boston area, returned to Brazil in 2005 and invested in beachfront properties in a popular tourist area. He also built a hamburger stand in the front of his renovated home in the town center. Now, his wife has two kitchens, and he has five motorcycles and two cars.

“Many people come back, and they don’t use their heads. They don’t know how to invest,’’ Sabino said as he washed his Volkswagen. “I’m one of those who returned, thank God. I wanted to live here. It’s peaceful.’’

Sueli Siqueira , the sociologist at Vale Do Rio Doce University who conducted the 2006 study on immigrant businesses, still recommends that they return to Brazil, especially if they are unemployed or undocumented. She said many immigrants are risking their lives crossing the border, losing their social networks back home, and suffering injuries at work.

“It’s not worth it,’’ she said. “At the end of the day, the money they send home comes at a very high cost.’’

But the United States remains a strong attraction, even for those who are making a living wage here.

Near the bustling market in Governador Valadares, Jose Lima, 60, loaded the truck he bought with money that he and his wife earned as caretakers of a home in New Jersey. They returned two years ago and his delivery business is thriving, because he had worked in trucking before.

But he misses New Jersey; his old yellow license plate is on display on his truck’s dashboard.

“I haven’t gone back only because my wife won’t go,’’ he said. “Otherwise, I would be there right now.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com.