Going Brazilian: The Guyanese immigrant experience by Achal Prabhala
Stabroek News
July 7, 2002

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The notion of the diasporic Guyanese is an established one; our everyday lives in Guyana would almost be incomplete without the opinions, influences and investments of Guyanese settled abroad. However, beyond the celebrated lives of Guyanese in the USA and UK, little is known of the other diaspora, especially in countries surrounding ours. Brazil, particularly, houses a large section of resident Guyanese. There has been an ongoing familiarity between the countries, through mining and general trade, and because of Guyanese Amerindian connections with indigenous communities on the other side of the border.

The biggest barrier in cross-border cultural transfer is naturally, language. Virtually every Guyanese person in Brazil speaks Portuguese, though Brazilians in Guyana tend to have a much more limited acquaintance with English. Balancing the language problem is that parts of Brazil (the states of Roraima and Amazonas) are much closer to parts of the Guyanese interior - like Lethem (Region 9: Upper Takutu/ Upper Essequibo), and its surrounding villages - than Georgetown.

Driving up from Georgetown to Lethem, and further, from Lethem to Boa Vista, only reinforces that. The first journey (in wet weather) took three and a half days and cost approximately $12,000; the second took two hours, and cost about $1500. It should come as little surprise to anyone then, that so many Guyanese orient their trade, business and culture towards Brazil rather than the Guyanese coastland.

As gleamed through a series of interviews, the general Guyanese ability to learn Portuguese is astounding and commendable. In that sense, the integration of this community into mainstream Brazilian society is deep and strong. Yet, there is a strong Guyanese identity that emerges from interviews conducted in Boa Vista and Manaus. So who then are these Guyanese who call Brazil home?

Little Guyana in Boa Vista

To say that there are 'plenty Guyanese in Boa Vista' is an understatement. This capital of Roraima state, two hours away (by excellent Brazilian road) from Lethem, is positively buzzing with the sights, sounds and flavours of Guyana. Back home in Guyana, wild rumours circulate as to the strength of the Guyanese population in Boa Vista; this reporter heard, from various sources, that a Kitty and Campbellville had been established there, and that a whole district had been renamed 'Little Guyana.'

Alas, there is no established area for the Guyanese. Instead, they are all around, in Sao Vecent, 13 de Septembro, Caseri, Bela Vista, Aparicida, Conavinho, Caluza, Nova Cidade, Asa Broca - all villages of the greater Boa Vista region. The Amerindian community is substantial and well-integrated; indeed, many have been there for so long that they consider themselves Brazilian in spirit (a distinct feeling one gets is that the Brazilian/Guyanese identity is a fluid, negotiable one). The East Indian/African Guyanese population is smaller, though visible, and integrated with varying degrees of success. The city centre is dotted with little shops selling Guyanese food - roti, cook-up rice, curry - and adds a distinct visual twist to the otherwise homogeneously Brazilian townscape.

And no, there is neither a Kitty, nor a Campbellville, except in the hearts of some residents who maintain connections with Georgetown and Guyana.

Home and away

Elisabeth Mathews was born in Georgetown, but moved to St Ignatius when she was five years old. At the age of 13, she 'moved' to Brazil; in fact, she decided to leave her parents, and simply ran away. Her father remarried, and she didn't get along with her stepmother. When she first got to Brazil, she only knew a few words of Portuguese. At first, she got herself a job in a household, working as domestic help.

Five years on (she is 18 now), Mathews speaks Portuguese fluently, holds a Brazilian passport, and enjoys a regular job, which is at a factory making cheese and butter. She had to engage the services of a lawyer to get her papers, but the wait, and the expense, has been worth it, as she can now travel between Guyana and Brazil with greater ease.

Her father recently took ill, and she is returning to Boa Vista from a visit home. Her two brothers and three sisters all live and work in Guyana. She is the only person in her family to have moved away. "It's good to go back to Guyana," she says. Interestingly, her mother was East Indian, and her father is Black/Amerindian; her middle name, until recently - taken from her father - was Mohammad, a name which she chose to drop.

And what does she like most about being in Brazil? The "freedom," she says vehemently. She likes the fact that she can "wear short clothes," and get away with it. She enjoys the fact that she is independent, renting her own room, spending her money and able to go out dancing whenever she likes. Lethem, she says, is "a small place, where everybody knows each other," making it a far more restrictive place than Boa Vista.

Mathews has a Brazilian boyfriend, who works in the police. She had no idea where he worked when she met him, and was quite perturbed to discover what he did - at first. Now, they are happily involved, but she can't see marriage in the near future. Having studied up to Form 3 in Guyana, she wonders if she will ever be able to go back to formal classes, or university. "Too many Guyanese coming in with drugs," she says, talking of the popular stereotype that people in Boa Vista have of young Guyanese men. She can't put a handle on exactly how many Guyanese there might be in Boa Vista, but every Guyanese she has met speaks Portuguese fluently and seems to be well settled and happy there. Firmly entrenched in Brazil, she can't think of ever working in Guyana, as she feels she simply will not be able to earn enough money there.

Donna James is a Wapishana Amerindian by birth. At 25 years of age, she works in a household in Boa Vista, helping with domestic duties. But she has only recently moved to the town, earlier, for several years, she worked on a facenda (which is a ranch/ farm), as do many Guyanese Amerindians.

There are many fellow Wapishana in Boa Vista, she says. She herself has no family in Brazil, but enough friends - Guyanese and Brazilian - and speaks Portuguese fluently enough to feel completely at home. It's been a long haul: she first came into Brazil nine years ago. Starting out as a babysitter, she moved to the facenda, and then, Boa Vista.

The journey has been hard. When she first started working in Brazil, she disliked it immensely - the language and culture was alien to her - and she felt lost. Now, she is more comfortable with the situation, but still misses home, primarily because her young daughter lives there. Having no legal papers, and a fairly low income, James cannot afford to bring her daughter across. Instead, she is left in the care of an aunt, and James manages to go across every month to visit her.

James hopes to acquire papers soon. Meanwhile, there are more problems. Her mother is unwell, and causes her much concern. The father of her child refuses to contribute to his daughter's support. In the midst of all this, James works on: she regrets that she has never been to school. However, she feels that it is never too late.

Diana Mitzy Da Silva was born in Guyana and moved to Boa Vista when she was just three months old. Her father is from Lethem, and her mother, from Aishalton. Her mother, who is of Amerindian heritage, currently works in the kitchen of a Brazilian Amerindian NGO, the Conselhio Indigena de Roraima. Her father is a miner, who currently works in Suriname. When in Guyana, he runs a small store in Lethem.

Da Silva says she "prefers Guyana people," because they are more easy going than Brazilians. Likewise, she finds Guyanese towns and cities more relaxed as well. She describes a recent visit to Manaus (which is where her Brazilian boyfriend lives), saying she was terrified of the traffic, and fed up with the bustle that characterises that city. She likes the sense of peace a town like Lethem exudes.

Da Silva's mother previously lived in Venezuela, and she says she has a "Venezulean sister." Currently, she works at the offices of Amatur, a major bus company plying the Boa Vista-Manaus route, a popular tourist run. She finds Brazilians far lazier than Guyanese: "they wake up late and does not work as hard," she says. Da Silva describes a typical day - work from eight in the morning to eight at night - and feels that the average Brazilian around her cannot keep up. She loves her work though; Manaus, being a major tourist hub for the Amazon region, she gets to meet a whole lot of new people, particularly tourists.

She would like to go back to Guyana one day, and perhaps work there. But, she worries, after having spent so long in Brazil, it might prove to be difficult to go anywhere else. The happy faces in Boa Vista belie the truth, she says, and people are in fact earning very little here. She cannot quite understand why so many Guyanese still come to Boa Vista, and bemoans the "Guyanese boys who come to Brazil to sell drugs."

Discontented and disillusioned

Right on the Avenida Das Guianas, one of Boa Vista's arterial roads, is a prominent roti-curry stall. Here, Sunil Ramkarran and his mother, Dolly Sukhdeo cook and serve food, beer and drinks. The story of their lives (they have been in Brazil for 21 years) is fraught with the problems of racism, intolerance and harassment.

Ramkarran's father started out by working at a drugstore, across the road from their stall. His mother worked in a household doing domestic duties, until recently. He has never been back to Guyana (he was born in Georgetown, and moved over when he was eight) since he got to Brazil. It is clear that his experience in Brazil has not been a happy one at all, and as a result, he now longs to go back home.

"Brazilians treat you weird," he says, and that the message he gets is, "You are Guyanese, you have no right to live here." Ramkarran says that he has been beaten up several times. One night, he was going home, when a policeman allegedly attacked him for no reason, taking his gold chain, and all his money. Ramkarran went to court, and got back the money and chain, but the policeman - having served in the force for a long time - wasn't dismissed from duty.

He has "no Brazilian friends." He finds the Brazilians, in general, "very racial," and wants to have as little to do with them as possible. This adamant posture comes from the hassles he has been subject to over the years, which include theft. He talks of the number of Guyanese in the Boa Vista prison - though whether he means they are unjustly being held is unclear - with bitterness. He particularly mentions one prisoner - whose name he knows only as "Smokey" - who he alleges is being held for no reason at all.

Thieves have broken into his shop several times, most recently, taking a brand new stereo system. His mother was accosted when she was carrying 1000 rials (approximately $85,000) and lost the entire amount of money. At his last place of residence, Ramkarran alleges, his Brazilian neighbours harassed him so much, he had to simply sell the house and move away. He - like Donna James before him - cannot really understand why so many Guyanese still want to come to Brazil. But they have stopped coming, he says, since the economy in Boa Vista (and Roraima) has become depressed, of late.

Ramkarran is a very upset man, and this anger is sometimes vented at Brazil (and Brazilians) at large: he decries their "culture," by talking of how women "wear small, small clothes shamelessly," and have no "respect for children and no decency." Ironically, what Ramkarran finds fault with in 'Brazilian' culture, is what Elisabeth Mathews (quoted earlier) particularly cherishes. As we talk, the music from the Hindi film 1942: A Love Story plays on in the background, and the juxtaposition is surreal: Bollywood on the streets of Brazil.

Dolly Sukhdeo, Ramkarran's mother, arrives with chicken curry that she has cooked in her house. The shop does a good business, being frequented by Guyanese and Brazilians alike, and yet, Sukhdeo shares her son's bitter experience, and views. "Anything you do," she says "they tell you that you is a stranger in de place."

She nostalgically reminisces on how it was 21 years ago. "That time nice," she says, "now I couldn't even walk down the road." Even then though, they had their problems with the police. When they came over, they weren't exactly legal, and thus, her husband was subject to police harassment. He was picked up and arrested once, and let go only after spending a few nights in prison. Now, of course, they all have Brazilian papers, and speak the language fluently.

And Sukhdeo's employers? "They were good," she says, though the she quickly adds that they didn't help in the least when it came to getting legalised. Bitterly, she says she knows exactly who stole her 1000 Rials. Yet, she can't do anything about it, as the boy's father, she alleges, is a serving policeman, and will either overthrow the case, or further harass them. "Best to keep quiet," she says, giving in to anger and resentment.

Now, Sukhdeo would like nothing better than to pack up and move back to Guyana. She's getting old, she says, and would like to be in a place where she is more comfortable. Her husband - she explains - is one she took, not the father of her children, and may decide to stay on in Brazil. He has a daughter in Brazil, and she fondly recalls travelling to Belem for her wedding. But it doesn't matter that he won't come; her heart is in Guyana, and she is set on returning there.

Jeremy Benjamin, a Makushi Amerindian from Yakarinta, North Rupununi, has been working as a mason in Boa Vista for the last two years. Now, he is preparing to return to Guyana, where he has a job with the Iwokrama Centre lined up, among other things. Things being bad with the economy, his profession has not seen much cheer. People are not building any more, and when they do, not in a manner that enables him to earn good money.

Benjamin has family in Boa Vista, and yet, he would prefer to live in Guyana. He finds Brazilians a little clannish in general - though he notes that due to his Amerindian features, it isn't like they can immediately identify him as being 'foreign.' He is concerned with the way Brazilians treat their indigenous populations, and Guyanese Amerindians, particularly on the facendas, where - he says - the hand of law rarely reaches.

The recent appointment of Paulo Velho, a Brazilian in Boa Vista, as Guyanese Honorary Consul, is perhaps an indication of the growing official acknowledgement of the Guyanese presence in Brazil. It is possible then, that with better representation, the issues that face some members of the Guyanese diaspora in Boa Vista and Roraima state, may be resolved.

The ones who made it

A larger number of Guyanese would seem to have made it in Brazil; most people are, indeed, entirely happy with their immigration decision. Among them is Ralph Benjamin, cousin of Jeremy (quoted above), and a shoemaker by profession. In a little shop right by the Boa Vista prison, he fashions such things as holsters, belts, wallets and shoes out of leather, for a vast Brazilian clientele under the banner 'Johny Leather/Sapataria Johny.'

Ralph Benjamin has lived in Brazil for 18 years, and he is now 25. Thus, he feels he is "almost Brazilian." First, he started out working as a waiter, and after that, apprenticed with a shoemaker. Some years ago, he managed to find the capital, and the initiative, to branch out on his own. He has plenty of relatives here, and those in Guyana are just across the border - making it self-evident why he can so easily call Boa Vista "home."

He hasn't been back to Guyana in three years now, but is entirely happy with his profession, and life, in Brazil. "I could not get this kind of work in Guyana," he says. He has four children, two of who are in school. His wife is Guyanese Makushi as well, and started out in Brazil working at a facenda.

"Most Guyanese Amerindians do that," he says, referring to facenda work "as most do not have the language skills for other work in the towns and cities. Also, they do not have capital, nor specific skills in a trade or profession as such." Ralph Benjamin tries to do his best to help other Guyanese he comes across in Boa Vista, especially those who appear to be in some form of financial trouble. Often, he says, the Indians and Blacks he helps don't really recognise him as being Guyanese. He thinks that Brazil essentially allows you to do what you want, and is grateful for the opportunity to live and work here. It is in that context that he seeks to help other Guyanese, so that they may make it like he has.

Granville Parks sells fruit juice - mainly, energy-giving Acai - in Boa Vista. A Makushi from St Ignatius, he has been in Boa Vista for two years now. Parks used to teach at a school in his village in Guyana, until he decided to leave for Brazil. Here, apart from the juice stall, he paints houses for a living. He couldn't do this in Lethem he says, because there is simply not enough work there.

His whole family moved with him, two daughters and wife. His third daughter is still in St Ignatius, he explains, as she is very bright and doing well in school. His wife works in a household. His children attend a public school, where - he glowingly recounts - they are given excellent food, books and education, a much better educational experience than what they might get in Guyana. Medical treatment and hospitalisation, he explains, is also free. He and his children learnt Portuguese very easily, and his wife already knew the language, even before they moved to Brazil.

Parks is ecstatic about the schooling system in Brazil; he is convinced that his children have a better future there. While he plans to go back to Guyana soon, he intends to keep his children there in the care of relatives. "For us Amerindians," he says, "papers are never a problem. We can walk in and out with any of these things." Yet, it is clear from our conversation that Parks' papers are not quite in order yet, and that he needs to work on that aspect of his Brazilian residency.

Raymond Da Costa runs a small shop on Avenida Eduardo Ribeiro in Manaus. This main road leads to the port, and is a key commercial and tourist area. Da Costa thus gets plenty of customers for the hand-made jewellery he produces with his partner Madalena. He is originally from South Ruimveldt in Guyana, and has been living in Manaus for seven years.

Da Costa used to be a gold miner in Guyana, and became acquainted with Brazil as a result of his work. Since, he has been in Peru (where he has a young daughter), before moving to Brazil. Though things are more expensive in Manaus, he says that life is very bearable here. He has "documents" now, and can move about easily. He makes enough money from his trade, to keep things going.

Yet, Da Costa cannot find regular employment in Brazil - even if he wanted to - as he has evaded his mandatory army term. He hopes to move on from here, perhaps to Canada, where he has relatives. Even so, he genuinely loves the people of Brazil. "They have love here," he says, "they give you food and place to sleep, everyone gets that."

Mohammad Jafar has been in Manaus for 13 years now. He didn't come here with "papers," but is legal now. He has been teaching English and conducting tours in the Amazon ever since he arrived. Apparently, English teaching is a key employment opportunity for Guyanese in Manaus. The money is good: he says, he can make up to US$300 a month from part-time tutorials.

Originally from Enmore, East Coast Demerara, Jafar has two children in Manaus now. "Brazilian papers are no problem once you have children here," he says. In Guyana, he used to work at a gasoline station in Georgetown, and found it difficult to start up something on his own. In Brazil, he claims, it is much easier to run an independent business. "Brazilians are not very clever," he says, "I can get them to easily work for me. In Guyana, it is not so easy. There, everybody run you down."

Rational explanations for liking (or disliking) a place are more difficult to place. It is the emotional reasons that stand out, even when - as in the case of some Guyanese interviewed - they are not necessarily expressed. Perhaps home, as somebody once said, is simply where the heart is.