Thursday, October 23, 2003

Keeping Dixie Alive — in Brazil

Reuters story on how descendants of Confederate soldiers preserve their culture.

SANTA BARBARA D’OESTE, Brazil, Oct. 13 — A handful of Confederate soldiers are loitering about on a breezy, sun-kissed day, chatting up a bevy of southern belles. The sounds of “Dixie” play in the background. The smell of fresh-baked biscuits and homemade fried chicken waft over a grassy field. And the red, white and blue Confederate flag flutters in the wind. The antebellum scene could have come straight out of “Gone with the Wind,” except that it is taking place somewhere more southern than the Deep South: Brazil.

“WE’RE TRYING to preserve our culture,” says
Frederico Padoveze, a 23-year-old dressed like a Confederate general whose name belies his southern U.S. heritage.
Like most of the 160 people who gathered on the outskirts of this town one recent Sunday, Padoveze is the descendant of a group of Americans who left their homes in the U.S. South after the Civil War.
Some died searching for better fortune in Brazil and many went back to America. But a small group overcame the perils of life in what was to them a strange, poor, tropical land and have become a small but important piece of its history.
“They wanted a new country, a new place to live,” said Noemia Cullen Pyles of her ancestors, who are known as the Confederados in Brazil.
“Everybody’s dream is to live in the United States. We wanted to leave,” she said.
Indeed, the Confederados’ exodus was one of the very few organized emigrations out of the United States, a country better known for receiving immigrants than producing them.

GOSSIP AND SOUTHERN CHOW

At least four times a year, a group known as the Fraternity of American Descendants gathers at a cemetery where their ancestors are buried to gossip, celebrate their roots and chow down on southern cooking.
Padoveze and his friends also put on a dance to tunes like ”The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and the group holds a church service in a small red brick chapel where the first Baptist ceremony in Brazil was organized in 1871.
Behind the church, the names on the tombstones chart
a web of intermarriages that followed the initial settlements and helped knit the community together.
Like the United States, Brazil is a country founded largely by immigrants. The Portuguese arrived in 1500, and later so did swarms of European, Japanese, Jewish and Arab settlers.
By comparison, the U.S. presence is small.
Cyrus Dawsey, a professor of geography at Auburn University in Alabama who coauthored the book “The Confederados,” estimates that between 5,000 and 7,000 southerners made their way to Brazil. About half went back.
Most of them were ordinary farmers or craftsmen worried about their prospects in the economic turmoil of the post-war South. Too poor to afford slaves in the United States, only a few bought them when they arrived in Brazil.

“There was a little bit of slave ownership in Brazil but it wasn’t very important,” Dawsey said.
“That’s not to say they were abolitionists, but [slavery] just wasn’t important to them.”
Brazil did not abolish slavery until 1888, 23 years after the United States.
Eventually most of the immigrants headed to the interior of Sao Paulo state near a town later named after them: Americana. The cemetery is located outside a neighboring city, Santa Barbara d’Oeste, about two hours’ drive northwest of Sao Paulo and where many of their descendants live.
Dawsey believes the Confederados’ geographical isolation in Brazil and their Protestantism in a mostly Roman Catholic country may have initially helped them preserve more of their culture than other immigrant groups.

“PERFECTLY INTEGRATED”

But on a Sunday, many of those mulling around are fourth-or fifth-generation Confederados, and they say they are just like anybody else in Brazil.
“We’re perfectly integrated,” said Allison Jones, the Fraternity’s official spokesman.
Indeed, just about everyone savoring fried chicken was speaking Portuguese and some don’t speak English. Like Padoveze, whose Confederate ancestor married a black Brazilian slave, many have also lost their American last names and pale Anglo-Saxon complexion.
But then again, few people in Brazil fly the U.S., Brazilian and Confederate flags side by side at mealtime.
In the United States, the flying of the Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag has sparked numerous controversies as a symbol of the racial hatred institutionalized in the the Confederate South.
But Cullen Pyles, the Fraternity’s treasurer, said the Confederate flag has a different meaning for the group.
“She is a reminder of our ancestry,” she says. “It doesn’t represent racism or any of that to us.”
Later on in the day, Padoveze is resting after having led his friends in a dance. He says his association with the Fraternity has helped him learn not only about U.S. history but about Brazil.
“One of the things I learned from Americans is to love your country,” he says. “And I do love my country: Brazil.”

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