Brazilians are often overlooked as immigrants in the U.S. They aren’t Hispanic, they don’t speak Spanish and don’t identify as Latino. A small church in Queens makes room in New York for Brazilians to feel at home.
Victor and Kimberly Pardo sit together on a pew at the First Brazilian Baptist Church in Astoria, Queens. She rests her head on his shoulder, their fingers interlaced, as they listen to a sermon about overcoming bad days and looking for God in the darkness.
“There is nothing like a bad day to make you vulnerable,” preaches youth pastor Lucas Izidoro from the front of the stage.
The young couple spends Friday evenings at church but they get more than their weekly dose of heartfelt faith. For starters, this is where they met and married. Today they continue to come to connect to their Brazilian heritage. A heritage that can be hard to hold on to in America’s melting pot.
“It’s easy to swallow us up,” says Victor Pardo, a New York-born Brazilian. “Brazil goes into that shared pocket.”
Brazil has a population of 200 million and is the fifth largest country in the world, but the U.S. is home to only about 450,000 Brazilians according to the U.S Census Bureau. Small change when compared to Latino communities, such as the 33.7 million Mexicans or more than one million Salvadorians that live in the U.S.
Brazilians aren’t just a small community in the U.S., they also don’t really fit in with the rest of their South American neighbors. Though Brazil is geographically considered a Latin American country by most, it stands apart in several ways. Most notably, Brazilians speak Portuguese while the rest of the continent speaks Spanish, a factor that can contribute to Brazilian invisibility. Latinos can connect through language to earn political standing, whereas Brazilians tend to walk alone.
But perhaps even more to the point many Brazilians simply don’t identify as Latino.
“We’ve become used to being called Latino,” Izidoro says, “but it doesn’t really represent us accurately.”
In fact, while preparing for graduate school Izidoro was surprised to learn that he could apply to Hispanic scholarships though he didn’t feel identified. “We don’t share a language but somehow we fall under the same umbrella,” he says.
At the Astoria Baptist Church services are usually in Portuguese for parishioners who were raised in the motherland and came to the U.S. as full-fledged Brazilians. But this weekly service is different. “Friday is in English,” says Victor Chicri, the church’s musical director, “because for young people it’s their native language.”
Many of the young Brazilians at the Friday service were born in New York or came from Brazil as children. Pardo was born in New York after his parents came in search of opportunity in the 80s, also known in Brazil as the “lost decade”, when the country suffered high inflation, slow economic growth and inevitable emigration. By the 1990s more than 1.8 million Brazilians were living outside the country according to the Migration Policy Institute.
There are a handful of Brazilian communities in New York. Astoria in Queens has been long known as a big enclave, but as the price of real estate goes up, more and more Brazilians are moving to the suburbs. Small churrascarias, Brazilian grocery stores and churches are now also a staple in pockets of Long Island and Newark in New Jersey.
The Friday service in Astoria draws a regular crowd of about 50 people, but casts a wide net. Brazilians around the Tri-state area make the trip out to Astoria to connect with their roots. “Some drive out from Connecticut or Eastern Long Island,” says Izidoro.
Some of them even find love. “We talk about Jesus and, of course, we start friendships,” said Chicri. “People have started relationships here.” Friday’s congregation is sprinkled with young couples that hold on to every word of the sermon and sway to the beat of Christian rock songs together.
“This year we have five weddings,” says Izidoro. “Last year we had a handful too.”
At this Brazilian church love stories are a common phenomenon that spans decades. “It’s funny,” Pardo says, “my parents actually met in this church as immigrants.”
Pardo’s parents, like many others, didn’t have legal documents when they arrived in the U.S. They were drawn to the services in Portuguese and sense of community. “The church would help people fresh off the boat find low cost housing and work,” says Izidoro.
As undocumented immigrants Pardo’s parents weren’t able to return to their home country. They attended mass regularly and brought Pardo to strengthen his ties to God and country. It was only when Pardo turned 18, gained his citizenship and accompanying green cards for his parents that they were able to go to Brazil for the first time in 25 years.
“We got the green cards in the mail,” explains Pardo, “and went to Brazil next Saturday.” It was the first time he ever set foot in his homeland and saw the family members he had heard so much about. He felt no culture shock, a blessing he credits to growing up at the church surrounded by Brazilians.
Once he and his wife Kimberly have children he says will bring them to church where he is sure they will connect to Brazil and his community in the U.S. “It’s in my bones,” he says.