Samba Italiana - The historical journey of Italians in Sao Paulo

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2014/07/02 - Written by Gabriel Riel-Salvatore
Samba Italiana - The historical journey of Italians in Sao Paulo
Samba Italiana - The historical journey of Italians in Sao Paulo
Renowned for its prestigious museums, great restaurants and its forest of skyscrapers, Sao Paulo, the economic heart of Brazil, is one of the largest cities in the world. With no less than 20 million inhabitants, this Brazilian megalopolis is home to a multitude of cultural communities that all contributed in their own way to its tremendous growth. 

Like many major cities in southern Brazil, such as Porto Alegre, Curitiba and Belo Horizonte, the impact of Italian immigration was such that many thought of Sao Paulo as an almost “Italian” city in the early 20th century. Given this, one wonders what legacy these millions of Italian-Brazilian “colonos” left behind and what has become of their descendants today?

An overview of the Italian Diaspora in Brazil

Today, the number of people with Italian origins in Brazil is estimated at 25 to 30 million, nearly 16 percent of the total population. Among them, 5 to 7 million live in the metropolitan area of Sao Paulo, making the Brazilian metropolis the third largest “Italian city” in the world after Rome and Milan. Not too surprisingly, after five generations on Brazilian soil, few “Oriundi” (descendants of Italian immigrants) have retained anything but their Italian names. And yet with nearly 4 million people still embracing their Italian origins, the community can be said to be doing quite well, all things considered.

Skyline, City of Sao Paolo, Brazil

Migration to cities

Though Sao Paulo eventually became the largest city in South America, it began as a humble trading post before leaping into modernity from the early 19th century onwards and overshadowing its neighboring rivals in size and importance. The more than one million Italians who initially settled in the state of Sao Paulo between 1880 and 1914 were crucial to the city’s development.

Coffee plantation, State of Sao Paolo, Brazil c. 1890

By the turn of the 20th century, the harsh working conditions in the countryside and on coffee plantations where Italian braccianti (farmers) had been encouraged to settle in the 1880s were inducing tens of thousands of them to migrate into bigger cities. By 1916, the 187 540 Italians living in Sao Paulo represented over a third of its population. Operating in all sectors of the economy, from simple shoe shiners to successful entrepreneurs, they gradually made their mark on their adopted country.

The industrialization of Brazil

At the height of the Roaring Twenties, in the wake of the industrial boom which took over the city, a few Italian investors accumulated colossal fortunes. Like the Rockefellers and Carnegies of New York, the Martinelli and Matarazzo families became some of the richest in the city and the country. Giuseppe Martinelli inaugurated the city’s first skyscraper in 1929. Ten years later, Indústrias Reunidas Francisco Matarazzo (a huge conglomerate) asked Marcello Piacentini, Mussolini’s official architect, to build its prestigious headquarters in a Fascist architectural style.

Martinelli Building, 1929

Today, that same building houses Sao Paulo’s City Hall. Of course, not all Italian immigrants made it rich, and today Brazil maintains the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s most unequal countries. In 1901, 90% of workers and 80% of construction workers in Sao Paulo were Italian. These proletarians settled by the thousands in the city’s central areas, founding neighborhoods like Bela Vista (Bixiga), Bras and Mooca (the latter being mainly composed of Neapolitan immigrants). Living in “cortiços” (row homes that line narrow avenues) in the shadow of factories, they worked tirelessly to improve their living conditions.

Italian influence

Several “Little Italy” neighborhoods emerged and thrived, gradually colouring the local culture. Cooking habits changed too, with wheat flour quickly supplanting traditional cassava and maize. Pasta soon integrated the local diet, and “pastificios” and traditional trattorias appeared everywhere. Opened in 1917, the Carillo bakery in the Mooca neighborhood is still in business today, four generations later. Even the national language was influenced by Italian.

La Mooca (Bixiga) neighborhood, Sao Paolo, Brazil

Indeed, Paulistanos came to integrate several Neapolitan and Venetian intonations and expressions into their Portuguese dialect. Now virtually disappeared, except for a few areas, this accent remains nevertheless forever immortalized in the songs of Adoniran Barbosa, a famous samba singer and son of Italian immigrants. In addition, the use of the word “tchau” (ciao) is widespread in the region.

Italian-Brazilian Samba Singer Adoniran Barbosa

The influence of the community was also manifest in social struggles, sports and religion. Italian elites and intellectuals were keen to make their voices heard, publishing the nearly 150 different Italian newspapers in the early 1920s, famous among them Il Piccolo and Fanfulla. In 1914, the Palestra Italia soccer club – to become in its latter incarnation a giant of Brazilian professional sports – was founded in Mooca.

Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras (Palestra Italia) Fan

Today the club boasts 17 million fans, including many Brazilians of Italian descent. Also common are Italian-inspired religious festivals, such as the popular San Vito and Our Lady Archiropita, which each continue to attract more than 250,000 visitors and hundreds of volunteers yearly.

Feast of Our Lady Archiropita, Sao Paolo, Brazil


In the 1920s, 80% of the population of Sao Paulo was made up of immigrants. Germans, Japanese, Arabs, Russians, Spaniards and Italians all intermingled in this multi-racial city. The diversity was so great that some Brazilians worried about upsetting the cultural balance of their country. Portuguese literacy policies coupled with laws barring immigrants from speaking their mother tongue were designed to accelerate the integration of newcomers. Many southern cities changed their names. Nova Trento and Nova Vincenza were renamed Flores da Cunha and Farroupilha respectively. These policies even went so far as to impose a new name onto the Palestra Italia soccer club, renamed Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras since 1942. The overwhelming popularity of Italian immigrants rarely made them feel singled out, except during the Great Wars when xenophobic attacks on them were more common.

Italian-Brazilian immigrant, La Mooca, Sao Paolo, Brazil

Though inward-looking at first, the Italian community in Sao Paulo, which was mainly composed of men, quickly began mingling with locals. Intermarriage became common and accepted, except in rural communities, which were still subject to the dictates of the Italian patriarchal marriage model. Integration and assimilation of Italians happened relatively quickly. In two generations, most of them already saw themselves as Brazilians.

At a time when the concept of dual citizenship did not yet exist, debates raged between Mussolini’s Italy and the Brazilian government regarding the status of children of Italian immigrants. Italy, which championed the principle of jus sanguinis (based on blood), requested that they be given Italian citizenship, but Brazil refused, favouring instead a jus soli (based on place of birth) principle of citizenship.

Throughout the period, the Brazilian government’s goal was to grant citizenship to the largest possible number of immigrants. To facilitate the naturalization process, all immigrants who owned property in Brazil, who married a Brazilian, or who arrived in Brazil after 1889 and did not explicitly express a desire to retain their original nationality within six months of arrival, were automatically awarded Brazilian citizenship. A constitutional amendment in 1994 eventually allowed for dual citizenship. Ever since this decree, more than half a million Italian-Brazilians have taken steps to acquire Italian citizenship.

Italian-Brazilians today

While Brazil’s policies endeavored for decades to stifle any sense of Italian identity, the second post-war wave of Italian immigration gave new life to Italian culture and its local institutions, such as the Circolo italiano di San Paulo, founded in 1911. Since 1982, the primary and secondary school Eugenio Montale offers an Italian, Portuguese and English curriculum, which is simultaneously recognized by the Italian and Brazilian states. Still, for most fourth and fifth generation youths, Italian origin may mean little more than dining on the odd pizza at one of the many Italian-Brazilian restaurants still operating in Sao Paulo’s traditionally Italian neighborhoods. And even there, you can bet everybody will be cheering for the team in yellow and green during this summer’s World Cup.

La Mooca district, Sao Paolo, Brazil



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