In a time of seemingly constant “crises” of migration, I read Paulo Fontes’ recent book Migration and the Making of Industrial São Paulo work with a mixture of historical curiosity and a sense that today’s migrants face many of the same challenges as they did a century ago. As countless Syrian refugees await a chance at resettlement and a better life, and as the future president refers to entire ethnicities as “criminals” and “rapists,” it is crucial to remember that anti-migrant rhetoric is nothing new. As our president-elect doubles down on promises to build a wall across our southern border, and to create a national registry of Muslims, it is more important than ever to be reminded of the pivotal role that migrants play—and have always played—in the building of communities, countries, and social movements.

With an impressively broad scope, Brazilian historian Paulo Fontes tells the story of a peripheral suburb of São Paulo—São Miguel Paulista—from the 1940s through the military coup in 1964. Throughout, Fontes also offers glimpses of what the area looks like today. He opens the book by adeptly establishing the stakes of migration in the Brazil of the 40s, presenting a story of rapid and untenable growth and aspirations of modernity that are the familiar story of twentieth-century Latin America. Brazil’s solution to the resulting workforce vacuum was to incentivize migration from the Northeast to the region of São Paulo, where the agricultural sector was in shambles. Far from a simple text detailing how Northeasterners came to call Saõ Paulo home, the text is most interested in the effects of a shared migratory experience on new forms of sociality and political organizing that would emerge in the following decades.

The early portions of the book work in chorus to paint an elaborate picture of the everyday lives of Northeastern migrants. Fontes skillfully weaves oral history with more traditional historiographic fare to present a portrait of the people—and through them the place—at the center of this work. He tells, for instance, the stories of several Northeastern migrants as they journey to São Paulo. Beginning in the Northeast, migrants traveled weeks on trains, boats, and packed pau-de-arara trucks—a sort of flatbed truck that would also become a derogatory nickname for Northeastern migrants. Brazil’s Northeast, particularly the state of Bahia, was the site of the vast majority of African slavery in the country, and thus is home to a high concentration of Afro-Brazilians. This heritage is the foundation of its regional identity—something I experienced personally during my time working in the region. It is not surprising, then, that Fontes makes the argument that baiano—or Bahian—quickly became the catch-all term for all Northeastern migrants, especially migrants of color.


He opens the book by adeptly establishing the stakes of migration in the Brazil of the 40s, presenting a story of rapid and untenable growth and aspirations of modernity that are the familiar story of twentieth-century Latin America.


Nonetheless, if there is one great deficiency in this otherwise well-written book, it is the lack of emphasis on race. This is certainly not to say that Fontes never addresses race, but the history is thin, and he seems reluctant to make the argument that not only were Northeastern migrants making the transition from rural to urban, but that they were in fact contributing to a radical change in the racial makeup of peripheral São Paulo.

The history of race in Brazil is critical to understanding the broken agricultural system of the Northeast at the time, perhaps the single largest motivating factor for migration to São Paulo. In 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery. A mere 40 years later, when Fontes’ narrative begins, the agricultural system is in shambles, but not simply because of recent spates of droughts and lackluster growing seasons. The agricultural system can no longer rely on the forced labor of thousands of enslaved Africans and Afro-Brazilians, a system gradually failed to provide a large enough labor force even before abolition.

Given the high percentage of Afro-Brazilians in Bahia even today, these people, and their children and grandchildren, were almost certainly heavily represented among those who migrated in droves to São Paulo in search of better life. One generation removed from the single largest slave trade in the Western hemisphere (roughly 40 percent of enslaved people in the Americas were brought to Brazil), and with the financial and cultural repercussions of abolition still fresh in the minds of the white populace, it is unsurprising that all of these migrants would be lumped together, under the racialized and stigmatized labels of “baiano” and “pau-de-arara.”

Fontes then familiarizes the reader with the inner workings of Nitro Química, the large chemical plant where the vast majority of migrants to São Miguel Paulista immediately found work upon arrival. Nitro, conscious of the dire conditions in the Northeast, purposefully recruited migrant workers through both formal mechanisms and the personal networks of their existing workers. This led to a steady stream of largely unskilled laborers from the Northeast, often tasked with the most dangerous and toxic jobs. This was especially true of women, who were afforded almost no possibility for upward mobility in the company. At the chemical plant, Fontes focuses on the role of newly formed social networks and interworker solidarity in both active and passive resistance, and argues that this same camaraderie allowed for the formation of powerful unions. This is all undoubtedly true. I would suggest that it is also likely linked to forms of solidarity rooted in centuries of African slavery and post-abolition sociality, perhaps not born but rather reshaped and renegotiated on the factory floors of Nitro Química.

Subsequent sections illustrate the intimate relationship between Nitro Química and the surrounding environment of São Miguel Paulista. While Nitro—like many large industrial operations at the time—provided leisure activities such movies, dancehalls, and a social club (in which paid membership was mandatory), sociality was also found in the streets. While São Miguel Paulista began as a small town with no schools, no electric lights, and dirt roads, as the area began to develop, the divisions between the strata of laborers became increasingly exacerbated. These divisions existed both among skilled and unskilled laborers and “traditional” and “new” migrants, according to who had gotten there first. Similarly, Northeastern migrants not from Bahia chafed at being lumped in with a group of people stereotyped as liking to drink, dance, and party, and who were referred to as “hot-blooded.”

It is worth noting that these particular stereotypes have a long and racialized history, and thus these migrants—more than bristling at a simple regional misidentification—may have actually resented being lumped in with an undesirable racialized Other. Fontes emphasizes that, rather than focusing on the discrimination they faced, many of the Northeastern migrants in São Miguel Paulista instead chose to emphasize what they viewed as the most positive aspect of their shared culture, such as their willingness to work and their propensity for building close-knit communities. This community building and solidarity would be the key for major organized labor action in the community in the years leading up to the coup.


It is only by reading and internalizing these stories of struggle, community building, and activism that we can hope to understand that there have always been—and perhaps will always be—people who are forced to risk everything in search of a better life for themselves and their families, and that they have much to offer.


The final portions of the book work in tandem, narrating a dizzying number of electoral successes, party formations and collapses, and candidates. To some extent, these chapters read as slightly disconnected from the previous three: occasionally, the people-as-people fall out of the narrative, replaced by the Marxian worker, and the nuanced and rich histories that brought them together—and which Fontes diligently and beautifully wove into the first part of the book—are unfortunately pushed into the background.

Nonetheless, these chapters present a thorough and situated account of the rise and fall of the Brazilian Communist Party and several other leftist factions in São Miguel Paulista, tying these happenings to both national events—the fall of the Estado Novo government in 1947, and the subsequent revolving door of leadership until the coup—and local frustration with a growing sense of alienation from both capital and the Capital, and the illegal labor conditions at Nitro Química. Fontes argues that certain leftist politicians had great success in São Miguel Paulista because of their ability to successfully integrate themselves into the unique forms of sociality that had developed among the residents, and because they genuinely addressed the specific needs of the population. For these same reasons, the workers at Nitro Química had some of the most powerful and effective labor unions and community organizations in the country–until the military government dismantled them.

Migration and the Making of Industrial São Paulo undertakes an ambitious project, endeavoring both to tell the story of an important and understudied wave of domestic migration in Brazil, and of a labor movement through the lens of this migration. The book does many things well: most notable to me is the emphasis on the personal circumstances and experiences of individual laborers when telling the story of the larger movement. Despite occasional analytical gaps—such as in the case of race—the author’s use of life history and interviews grounds what might otherwise be a general history of migration and labor activism in the situated knowledge, lived experiences, and social networks of those who lived this migration themselves.

Now more than ever, as the very personhood of migrants is debated in the public sphere, we must—unfortunately—still be reminded of the important roles played by migrants in shaping our communities, and as Fontes demonstrates, in shaping the modern labor rights movement. It is only by reading and internalizing these stories of struggle, community building, and activism that we can hope to understand that there have always been—and perhaps will always be—people who are forced to risk everything in search of a better life for themselves and their families, and that they have much to offer. Migration and the Making of Industrial São Paulo offers critical tools for understanding not just the understudied period of migration it takes as its subject. It should encourage us to take seriously the continuation of the cycles of poverty, unemployment, and uneven development—often stratified along lines of class and race—that drive ordinary people to leave behind everything they have ever known in search of something better.

Baird Campbell is a third-year PhD student in anthropology at Rice University. His dissertation research explores the intersections of queer activism, digital media technologies, and alternative archival practices in Santiago, Chile.


Image from Flickr via Janice Waltzer


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