From Minas to Massachusetts

A humanities-based seminar on Brazilian immigration

On November 12, 2003, the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life of Brandeis University, in cooperation with the Framingham State College Center for Global Education, sponsored a seminar on recent Brazilian immigration in the western suburbs of Boston. The "Metro West" region has seen an enormous influx of Brazilians in the last decade, the majority of them from the state of Minas Gerais. This changing demographic has created many challenges for Framingham and other Metro West towns. These include the accommodation of non-English speaking students by financially stressed school districts, the provision of targeted medical, library and other public services to this growing immigrant population, and the employment of Portuguese-speaking and culturally sensitive professionals in the domains of public safety, social work, and the local justice system. At the same time, the entrepreneurial spirit of many Brazilian immigrants has led to a revitalization of the Framingham downtown business district and the growth of commerce in surrounding Metro West towns, a contribution that is widely, if not always enthusiastically, recognized among native-born residents.

There were 20 participants in the From Minas to Massachusetts seminar, including facilitators, and they represented a wide array of both national and professional backgrounds. Eight participants were Brazilian-born, nine were American-born, and the remaining three were born in Portugal, Italy, and Cuba respectively. Participants' professional domains included public and private education (primary, middle and high school as well as university level), public safety, the district court system, journalism, public library services, state government, and community activism. Most participants come into contact on a daily basis with Brazilian immigrants or their children. They are acutely aware of both the difficulties that this population encounters in its attempts to establish and define new lives in Massachusetts and the limitations, both economic and social, that host communities face in receiving them.

From Minas to Masachusetts provided a space and time for creative reflection on various aspects of Brazilian immigration and how it affects both individuals and communities. The seminar format followed the model developed by the long-standing program known as Brandeis Seminars in the Humanities and the Professions.

Participants were provided beforehand with literary materials that suggested themes relevant to the topic of immigration, such as dislocation, marginalization, and cultural conflict. Seminar sessions, led by facilitators from Brandeis and other local institutions, focused on particular pieces of literature while encouraging participants to bring in the "secondary text" of their own professional and personal experiences. The Minas seminar used both poetry and short stories to launch discussion. The following poem is one of the pieces used as a basis for discussion. Participants spoke with great insight about the experiences and memories the poem evoked for them. These included how immigrants often feel stereotyped or pigeon-holed by their new society and how Americans make assumptions without being aware of this tendency.

THE MAID

I went to the movies.
A lady saw me and said,
"Why not work for me?
I need a maid."

I took my son for a walk.
They called me a nanny.
The kid was a doll,
But his mommy looked funny.

I did volunteer work.
They offered me a job.
"Poor thing," they clucked.
"She must be unemployed."

I taught a class. They said,
"Where is her director?"
"She's just a guest," they said.
When I came as school inspector.

"New tenant," they assumed,
As I showed off my own home.
"New typist," they presumed,
As I typed my new poem.

- Bracha Serri, 1983

Translated from Hebrew by Helene Knox and Smadar Lavie. Excerpted from "Border Poets: Translating by Dialogues" by Smadar Lavie from Women Writing Culture (1995.)
Participants also read two short stories, "Who's Irish?" by Gish Jen from Who's Irish: Short Stories (2000,) and "Refuge" by Lucy Honig, from www.doubletakemagazine.org.

The benefits of using a humanities-based approach in discussing topics of a thorny and complex nature were clear upon the completion of the Minas seminar. At the end of six hours, participants had reflected upon a wide array of important issues. These included how and when an immigrant belongs to a new society, what leads immigrants to invest in their new home, assumptions made by immigrants about the police and vice-versa, the tendency for undocumented immigrants to shun the public resources at their disposal, challenges in engaging Brazilian parents in their children’s education, cultural differences in child-rearing and discipline, and the problematic loss of authority that immigrant parents experience in their new country. All of these topics were discussed in an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation, as literary themes illuminated real life experiences, which further advanced the ongoing dialogue. At the end of the seminar, there was unanimous agreement that the productive spirit engendered during the seminar should be built upon by the creation of a Brazilian immigration network, with seminar participants acting as the core members. The possibility of future seminars on Brazilian immigration in other Boston area communities will also be explored by Brandeis University and Framingham State College.

Related story:

"In America: Words have the power to unite" by Miryam Wiley, Metrowest Daily News