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Brazil

Brazil arguably has the largest Lithuanian community in South America. This migration peaked in the 1920s and 1930s. 35% of all emigrants from interwar Lithuania chose Brazil as their destination, 25 000 to 50 000 moved in. Unlike elsewhere in America, most Lithuanians of Brazil started of as rural workers (in coffee plantations), under contracts they pre-signed while in Lithuania. They had little rights and most were quite poor as was Brazil itself. Eventually, many of them drifted to the cities and became richer than the average Brazilian, constructing homes and establishing businesses.

Sao Paulo (Latin America's largest city) hosts the only true Lithuanian neighborhood in South America - Vila Zelina. Its construction was carried out ~1934 when the Lithuanian immigration was peaking.

The district is centered at the Lithuanian Republic Square (Praca Republica Lituania), so-named on 1976 10 31. The square is adorned by a Lithuanian Freedom Monument with the Columns of Gediminas symbol and lyrics of a song "Lithuanians we are born, Lithuanians we want to be" written on it. The Monument is a copy of a similar monument in Kaunas. When the Sao Paulo monument was unveiled in the December of 1985, the original had been long since destroyed by the Soviet Union occupational regime, giving the erection of the monument in the communist-free Brazil a symbolic meaning. The original monument in Kaunas has since been reconstructed, however. The Sao Paulo monument is currently covered by trees which are not peritted to be removed or trimmed as per ecological regulations.

Freedom Monument (right) and the Lithuanian church in the Lithuanian Republic Square ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanian Republic square is a convergence of 7 streets. One of them is named after a Lithuanian priest Pijus Ragažinskas (Pio Raganzinskas, 1907-1988). He had established a Lithuanian-Brazilian newspaper "Mūsų Lietuva" (Our Lithuania) that was published from the January of 1948 until 2016. Rising above the square is St. Joseph Lithuanian church, constructed in 1936 under a direction of priest Benediktas Sugintas. A Lithuanian wooden cross (UNESCO-inscribed art form) stands in front of the church. In the interior one may find various Lithuanian details and paintings. The St. Joseph Lithuanian community (parish) has been established in 1931.

It was the construction of the church that helped make Vila Zelina a Lithuanian district. The real estate developer of the district gifted a land plot to the Lithuanian parish. Soon afterward, the nearby plots were acquired by Lithuanians who sought to build homes not far away from a Lithuanian church.

Lithuanian Republic square with the lower part of Freedom Monument, adorned by the Columns of Gediminas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The interior of the church has many Lithuanian signs. Next to the entrance, there is a commemorative plaque for Benediktas Sugintas, the builder of the church (bilingual Lithuanian-Portuguese, adorned with his bust), as well as a commemorative plaque for priest Juozas Šeškevičius (Portuguese only, created 1998) who was a long-term leader of the Lithuanian Catholic community since 1954.

Commemorative plaque for Benediktas Sugintas inside the St. Joseph Lithuanian church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The altar of the church is surrounded by paintings of Our Lady of Vilnius (copy of the sacred painting on Vilnius Gate of Dawn), St. Casimir (the patron saint of Lithuania. The painting also includes an image of Vilnius castle). There is also an image of the Divine Mercy. The church has been decorated by a Lithuanian artist Antanas Navickas.

The interior of Sao Paulo St. Joseph Lithuanian church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Most of the holy masses in the church today are held in the Portuguese language. However, a bilingual mass is held on Sundays (with a Portuguese-speaking priest but Lithuanian-language Bible readings).

As the main period of Lithuanian migration to Brazil was in the 1920s and 1930s, most of the current Lithuanian-Brazilians are born in Brazil. Still, parts of the elder population speak Lithuanian. Other Lithuanian activities are more popular, including several ethnic dance groups (Nemunas, Rambynas), a parish choir (established in 1936). Those activities are taking place in the parish buildings behind the church, that were constructed under priest Juozas Šeškevičius (1921-2008), who also organized festivals for Lithuanian-Brazilian youth in the 1960s-1970s.

Some shops around the church still sell Lithuanian food (e.g. a shop at Rua Monsenhor Pio Ragazinskas 17, wich also stocks a uniform for Lithuanian sports team, traditional colored Lithuanian easter eggs and more).

Lithuanian food in a shop at Vila Zelina. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There is a multitude of Lithuanian motives in the nearby Bar do Vito (Avenida Zelina 851). It uses a stylized Vytis (Lithuanian coat of arms) as its symbol, while the interior houses many Lithuanian banknotes, postcards of Lithuanian song and dance festivals and more. Lithuanian beverages are also for sale there.

The logo of Bar do Vito. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main avenue of the Vila Zelina district is known as Avenida Zelina (it passes through the Lithuanian Republic Square). There are more Lithuania-inspired names on that street. Some of them are in fact not made by Lithuanians. Yet because the district is known as Lithuanian, some non-Lithuanians also named their businesses after Lithuania. There is an optician's shop "Lithuania", real estate agencies "Lithuania" and "Kaunas". One 22-floor apartment building in the area is also named "Kaunas" (in Brazil, each apartment block has its name).

Apartment building Kaunas (on the right) is surrounded by an electrified fence (as it is common in Brazil for security reasons). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As the years passed, the Lithuanian-Brazilian community has been active in suggestions to commemorate various people and events important to Lithuanians. In 1991, after Lithuania had restored independence, such lobbying was successful in achieving a renaming of one small street into Free Lithuania passage (Passagem Lituania Livre).

Street name sign of the Free Lithuania passage. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Historically, Sao Paulo had six Lithuanian schools.

One of them, the Vytautas the Great Lithuanian school, operated in a purpose-built building of the 1930s (Rua Santo Amasio 327, ~1 km away from Vila Zelina in Vila Bela). The building used to be adorned by a bas-relief of Vytautas the Great (the Medieval grand duke of Lithuania who ruled Lithuania at its largest territorial extent). Unfortunately, even though the building is still owned by the Lithuanian community, it is now leased out for a restaurant, so the bas-relief has been removed. Only the doors and windowsills remain authentic.

The former Vytautas the Great Lithuanian school. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another Lithuanian school in Vila Zelina itself has been established in 1938 by Lithuanian Franciscan nuns who arrived from Pittsburgh (USA). The monastery itself is still operational (Rua Campos Novos, 49) and the St. Michael the Archangel school is still nearby, now located in modern buildings. However, today it is attended by children of various ethnicities.

Three more former Lithuanian schools have no relations to Lithuania or schooling now (the buildings have been sold and now they do not operate as schools). Maironis school used to exist in the district of Parque das Nações. This district still has a Lithuania street (Rua Lituania), among the streets named after other nations. Dr. Jonas Basanaičius school used to operate at Vila Anastacio district in the western Sao Paulo (9 km away from the center), while the 5th Lithuanian school used to operate in Bom Retiro district.

Extant coats of arms on the door of Vytautas the Great Lithuanian school. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Sao Paulo has two secular Lithuanian organizations. In addition to the Lithuanian-Brazilian Community that operates in the parish house of St. Joseph church (est. 1958), there is also the Lithuanian-Brazilian Union (est. 1931). It operates in a two-floored building with a stylized Vytis. The street where that building exists is called Lithuania street (the address of the building is Rua Lituania 67). It is the larger one of the two Sao Paulo streets named after Lithuania.

The building hosts a library and archive with various Lithuanian articles and books both with origins among Lithuanian-Brazilians and interwar Lithuanians. The hall of the building hosts Lithuanian festivals. In the past, the building housed the 6th Lithuanian school named after Dr. Vincas Kudirka.

Lithuanian-Brazilian Union building. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although it is now harder to hear Lithuanian spoken in the Vila Zelina area, a significant part of the local population still consists of the descendants of Lithuanians. Unlike in the USA, Brazilians often spend their entire lifetimes in a single city or district, meaning that Vila Zelina is still largely populated by those, whose forefathers moved there in the interwar or postwar period. One may still often spot Lithuanian surnames adorning the offices of various specialists (e.g. dentists, brokers).

Real estate agency 'Lithuania' in Vila Zelina. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The single location that has the most Lithuanian surnames is probably the cemetery Cemiterio Ceramica of the São Caetano do Sul suburb. The cemetery is not Lithuanian-only. However, as it serves as the final resting place for people of the surrounding districts, a significant part of graves belong to Lithuanians. Like in all the Brazilian cemeteries, gravestones are large and often replaced entirely by family chapels (far from just the richest families own them). However, the cemetery has been damaged by vandals and drug addicts who have stolen a large share of metal plates listing the surnames of the dead.

Cemiterio Ceramica of the São Caetano do Sul suburb. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Sao Paulo hosts the only Lithuania's consulate general in Latin America (Avenida Irai, 438, cj. 34). It was established after the Lithuanian embassy in Argentina was closed down as a cost saving measure in 2013. The larger number of Lithuanian-Brazilians was cited as a reason for the move to Sao Paulo although the decision has received criticism from the Lithuanian-Argentine community which holds itself to be more lively and keen at safeguarding Lithuanian traditions.

The true number of Lithuanian-Brazilians is heavily disputed with various sources claiming 30 000, 150 000, 300 000 or even 1 000 000. Presumably, the larger numbers include everyone who had at least single grandfather or great grandfather from Lithuania. Lithuanian-Brazilian Community election of 1970 had 821 participants, while its counterpart in 1999 had 177 participants.

Cemetery. A close-up shot of one of the Lithuanian family chapels. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rural Lithuanian communities largely assimilated over a couple generations as they always lived intermixed with other larger groups. Lithuanian rural settlement was largely limited to the states of Sao Paulo, Parana, and the Rio Grande do Sul. In the Rio Grande do Sul, Lithuanians established Ijui city (pop. 100 000) where they were later joined and outnumbered by other European ethnicities. There is also a small Lithuanian community in Rio De Janeiro megalopolis. In 1954, there were some 50 000 Lithuanian Brazilians, of them 30 000 in Sao Paulo, 20 000 in the countryside and 300 in Rio. Most were interwar migrants, many once lured in by a free boat trip (in exchange for a long-term contract) and plantation company promises of "American riches" (some believed the entire American continent to be as rich as the USA, while in fact, Brazilian GDP per capita was 1/6th of the US one in 1929 and the wages in Brazil were lower than in Lithuania but cheap land compensated this to some).

500 post-World War 2 refugees in 1940s became the final major immigration of Lithuanians to Brazil. There had also been several thousand Lithuanians in Brazil prior to 1918 independence (immigrated in 1870s-1910s).

Interwar cups at the premises of Lithuanian-Brazilian Union. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuanians of Brazil attracted filmmaker interest. In 2002, Brazilian documentary Eldorado - Lituanos no Brazil (Eldorado: The Lithuanians in Brazil) was created, while in 2011 a group of Lithuanians traveled to Brazil for their own documentary on the local community. Several books on Lithuanian-Brazilians have been published in both Lithuania and Brazil.

More information about the imigration of Lithuanians and other nations into Sao Paulo may be discovered at the Immigration museum of Sao Paulo (Rua Visconde de Parnaiba 1316, Mocca).

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