Swapping Caipirinhas for Currywurst Immigration from Brazil to Germany Is on the Rise

It used to be that Germans headed to the New World in droves. Now, the New World, in the form of thousands of Brazilians, are migrating back to the old. Brazilians are one of Germany's fastest growing group of foreigners, and they're beginning to make their mark.

By Daniela Gerson

Germany is playing host to more and more Brazilians.
Daniela Gerson

Germany is playing host to more and more Brazilians.

Ana Paula arrived in Berlin last spring with her manicure kit, cleaning gloves, and a will to work. Her daughter back in Rio de Janeiro needed supporting and Ana Paula was prepared to do anything. Except become a whore.

She had thought it would be easy. A childhood friend who had emigrated years before lured her to Germany with promises of riches unattainable in Brazil. Ready for an adventure, Ana Paula sold her apartment in a working-class suburb of Rio, made arrangements for her 10-year-old daughter to stay with her mother, and bid farewell to her boyfriend.

The first thing she did in Berlin was look for work. "I needed to pay for my daughter's school," Ana Paula, 34, says, tears seeping from her hazel eyes. She called her mother soon after arriving in Germany. "When are you going to send me money?" her mother wanted to know.

Sensing Ana Paula's desperation, her friend had a solution: Prostitution can be a quick money maker and she knew of a whorehouse that was hiring. "She thought this was the only way for me to make money quickly. She thought she was helping me," Ana Paula says. The offer was turned down.

Twelve hours a day for €300 per month

Instead, with the help of a friend and a cousin in Hamburg, Ana Paula launched herself into a career in Germany's flourishing shadow economy and quickly found jobs cleaning, babysitting, and working in a restaurant -- all under the table. The work -- 12 hours per day for less than €300 per month plus board -- is hardly to her liking and not at all what she had thought Europe would be like. Now, she wants to go back to Brazil, but has overstayed her return ticket and dreads returning to Rio poorer than she left. There is, however, one silver sliver. Even with no German knowledge, she has found Berlin relatively easy to navigate. Brazilians, after all, abound in the German capital.

While still relatively small -- the Brazilian consulate reports some 40,000 -- Germany's Brazilian community is one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the country. It's a financially and socially diverse group -- ranging from academics to line cooks, au pairs to engineers. Those working illegally such as Ana Paula are in the minority -- not more than 1,000 according to Bianca Donatangelo, editor of the bilingual publication Brazine. And with Brazil's economy sputtering, and violence and corruption showing no signs of going away, Germany's growing group of ex-pat Brazilians is exerting more and more trans-Atlantic gravitation.

For many in Germany, Brazil means samba, Ronaldo and caipirinha. A growing immigrant community may be challenging the stereotypes.

For many in Germany, Brazil means samba, Ronaldo and caipirinha. A growing immigrant community may be challenging the stereotypes.

Already, the group is beginning to make its mark on Germany. With them, they are bringing a new texture to the German national fabric and new challenges to a country that traditionally hasn't considered itself a nation of immigration. But there is also an extreme gender imbalance among those coming over from Brazil: More than three quarters are women, according to German government statistics.

Coming for Love

A 21-year-old newlywed fresh from northeast Brazil, Ligia Paffenholz de Farias nearly went into shock when she arrived in her husband's hometown in 1967. The provincial north German town of Aurich, where she was the only Brazilian, was a world apart from her sunny native Bahia.

"It was a marvelous spot: clean, pretty," says de Farias, now a striking 59-year-old with smooth skin, four piercings and the lanky body of a much younger woman. "But it was difficult. Brazil is very open and emotional. We wear our 'hearts on our mouths,' as Brazilians say. Germans are more analytical, responsible, more closed, and more serious.... After a year I couldn't stand it. I cried with longing for Brazil -- and so we returned."

Her husband, a German engineer she had met in Brazil, found a job in Minas Gerais. For years, the pair bounced around the globe: first to Brazil, then to Nigeria and Iraq. When she returned to Germany in 1983, settling in Hilden with her three young sons, she noticed Brazilians were starting to arrive. "Today, it's normal to be Brazilian," she stated flatly last month at a concert where one son played bossa nova and samba percussion.

While de Farias, an artist, says she will never be fully accepted as a member of German society, the situation has improved over the past four decades. No longer is she belittled for her accent nor does she feel discriminated against for her skin color. "Today, I don't have any problems in Germany," she said, accidentally letting German slip into her Portuguese. "Germany got much better. The character is always going to stay, but the country has gotten much better."

A shift in immigration patterns

The wave of Brazilian immigrants coming to Germany only really got going about a decade and a half ago. And it marked the reversal of an almost 200-year-old trend. From the early 1800s to World War II, about 260,000 Germans went to Brazil seeking better fortunes in the New World. By 1929, roughly one million people spoke German in Brazil.

But in the early 1990s, with the potent combination of a crashing Brazilian economy, rampant corruption and cheaper air fares, Brazilians began to discover Germany. While the Brazilian consulate estimate plays it safe, and the German census even safer reporting 27,076 Brazilians in Germany in 2004, Brazil's foreign relations department has reported the community has already reached 60,000. If true, that would make Germany's Brazilian population one of the largest in Europe.

Aside from the economic benefits Europe has to offer, Germany has other carrots as well. Academic exchanges are common and numerous German businesses work closely with Brazil. There is a large Brazilian homosexual community, which is attracted by Germany's liberal attitude toward gays. Artists still consider working in Germany more prestigious than staying at home.

Signs of this influx are evident. Small shops have begun to carry Brazilian specialties like manioc flour and guaraná soda. The caipirinha, Brazil's national drink, is now Germany's national cocktail and Germany has become the top importer of cachaca, the mixed-drink's sugar-cane liquor. Samba is huge and capoeira, an afro-Brazilian martial art, is flourishing. Portuguese-language church services can be found in most major cities.

Divorce lawyer Katia Silva has a heavy case load.
Daniela Gerson

Divorce lawyer Katia Silva has a heavy case load.

But even as the community grows, the gender imbalance has remained. For the most part this is likely the result of love affairs between German men and Brazilian women. In 2003, marriages between German men and Brazilian women recorded in Germany reached 755 -- fully 10 times those between Brazilian men and German women. Some met their husbands abroad, others while on tourist visas in Germany. Adriana Nunes, a journalist based in Cologne and the author of "Brazilians in Germany," says it can be explained quite simply: Although it seems an outdated notion, women are more often able to leave everything behind and accompany a man abroad.

Marrying into a residency permit

Of course, Nunes notes, not all Brazilian women come to Germany on account of a man. There are also many who come alone as students or au pairs to try and find work.

For those, like Ana Paula, who are without work permits, the simplest solution is finding a German husband. "You have to marry to have papers," she says. "There are a lot of people here who marry to only have papers, to stay in this country." And finding a German husband would be easy, she thinks. "You go into a Brazilian bar, it's full of German men looking for Brazilian women. They think Brazilian women are from another world, they're so crazy about Brazilian women." For now, however, she is hoping to avoid it.

Kátia Silva, a Brazilian lawyer specializing in divorces, often counsels the women who have taken a different tack. Unfortunately, what seemed a perfect match on a beach in Pernambuco or a nightclub in Berlin, does not always hold up during a long, frigid German winter. In Cologne, Silva's desk is piled high with divorce papers and last year her law office processed about 200, nearly half for Brazilian women.

"From prostitutes to doctors, they come to me with the same problems," Silva says. First they struggle to understand the German mentality, then the legal system. "They trade a life in Brazil for a life in Europe," she continues. "Often they come from very small towns, often they're women of color, black women, and they have serious problems adapting."

Increasingly, Germany is seen by many Brazilians as a potential economic bonanza -- a temporary stopping point on the road to a better life back home in Brazil. But it's not an easy route. Even for those with work permits, Ana Paula's experience is not uncommon. Kitchen jobs, construction work or tending to Germany's growing number of senior citizens, are often all that's available. "Our life here in Germany is only work. We don't have time to enjoy," says Luciene Barros, 29, an immigrant from the northeastern coastal town of Natal. After her husband graduated from college with an economics degree and couldn't find work, they followed her sister to Berlin. "We saved in Brazil to live here like this," sighs Barros, who cleans two houses a day and whose husband spends the week working construction in the south. Still, she holds fast to her goal to save enough to return to Brazil within two years.

Ana Paula too thinks often about returning. She found work easily enough, and is able to send €100 per month back to her mother, but she is also worried about getting caught by the German authorities. After only four months in Germany, she is philosophical about the country.

"Between Brazil and Europe, of course I prefer Berlin," she says. "Rio has violence, here you can walk in the streets." Still, on a daily basis, she plots her return, even if it's not the victorious homecoming she had envisioned. Germany is clean and safe, but it's not home.

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