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Brazilians showcase their rise in Boston

To host first ever trade show in US

Glaucia Silva of Medford set up clothing racks at her stall at the Brazilian trade show at the Seaport World Trade Center. Glaucia Silva of Medford set up clothing racks at her stall at the Brazilian trade show at the Seaport World Trade Center. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / June 5, 2010

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FRAMINGHAM — Pablo Maia’s first job in the United States was washing dishes in a restaurant. Almost three decades later, he is an American citizen who presides over one of the biggest Brazilian-owned real estate companies in the United States, from a former Woolworth’s across from town hall.

Maia’s rise is an often overlooked side of immigration that community leaders are eager to showcase this weekend at the first Brazilian trade show in the United States, to be held at the Seaport World Trade Center on Boston’s waterfront.

In selecting the trade center, one of the state’s largest immigrant groups is staking out a spot in the American mainstream, filling exhibition halls that more typically highlight shows for flowers, automobiles, or snowboard vendors. The exposition is a chance to show that Brazilians are highly entrepreneurial — more likely to own a business than the typical state resident — and that they pay taxes and create jobs.

“We want to be part of Massachusetts; we don’t want to be just ‘the Brazilian community’ in the state,’’ said Maia, sitting in an air-conditioned office filled with fliers selling real estate in Massachusetts and in Brazil. “We are making a difference. But if we’re more integrated, we’ll do much better.’’

Called expoBusiness America, the Brazilian trade show was created in 2003 to promote Brazilian immigrant-owned businesses in Japan and to increase trade with companies in Japan. It was also a way to promote exchange between the two cultures.

The American show has similar goals, which is one reason it is free and open to the public Saturday and Sunday. More than 50 businesses will set up booths publicizing their work. Business owners can network with other companies and attend workshops on ways to expand beyond their ethnic enclaves.

The trade show is taking place at a sensitive time for immigrants in Massachusetts and nationwide. Crackdowns on illegal immigration are dominating the public debate: Arizona recently passed the most restrictive state immigration law in the country, requiring police to question people they suspect are there illegally.

And last week, the Massachusetts Senate endorsed a slate of amendments to the state budget that bar access to government benefits for illegal immigrants.

Organizers of the exposition, which was in the works before the immigration debate exploded during an election year, say they offer a fuller portrait of Brazilian immigrants in Massachusetts. Immigrants are college students and scientists, as well as housecleaners and painters. They serve on city and town boards, pay tuition at state and private colleges, and own multimillion-dollar operations such as a Sudbury granite company.

Both the economy and legal immigration status are issues that loom large for Brazilians.

An estimated 336,000 Brazilians live in Massachusetts, part of 1.4 million nationwide, said Alvaro Lima, a Boston researcher who is also one of the exposition organizers. Nationally, he said, Brazilians create tens of thousands of jobs and contribute $58 billion to the economy. They pay about $7.5 billion in federal and state taxes, including more than $295 million in Massachusetts.

“This is a side that people don’t want to see, how many jobs are created by these companies, the taxes they pay,’’ said Lima, who said he is coordinating the show with businessman Sérgio Tinen, an organizer of the trade show in Japan.

“The jobs they create are not just for Brazilians,’’ he said. “They are for Americans, too.’’

Although many Brazilians are US citizens or legal residents, a significant percentage, from 40 percent to 71 percent, are estimated to be here illegally, having overstayed their visas or crossed the southern border.

Researchers differ over whether immigrants here illegally add to or subtract from the economy and society. Lima, research director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, said all immigrants benefit the economy.

Enrico Marcelli, an associate professor at San Diego State University who authored a study last year on Brazilian immigrants in Eastern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire, said it remains unclear whether the contributions of immigrants here illegally outweigh what they use in public services such as education and emergency health care.

But Marcelli, at the Globe’s request, revisited his study last year and found that almost 29 percent of all Brazilians in the region were self-employed, compared with 10 percent of workers overall. He said the trade show offers an opportunity to view immigrants’ contributions in a different light.

“It’s probably an intelligent thing to do, given that the general perception is that a large proportion are unauthorized,’’ he said.

Maia said immigrants are confused by the political debate, in which some politicians praise immigrants’ contributions, while others promote measures that drive them away.

He said he has tried to integrate his own business by learning English, serving on Framingham boards, and exhorting other Brazilians to remove Brazilian flags from their shop windows to show that they want to court all groups.

“I don’t want only Brazilians; I want everybody,’’ he said. “We’re a part of this economy that’s helping Massachusetts to grow.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.

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