The little part of Brazil that’s forever Ukraine
The Ukrainian community in Brazil is the third largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world.
Any traveler who goes deep into the state of Paraná in southern Brazil will likely encounter an unusual sight for the region.
Because there, on an expanse of 5,000 square kilometers of rural land lives most of the Ukrainian community in Brazil, 600,000 strong.
Ukrainian villages – known as settlements – function as a sort of time capsule of 19th-century Ukraine. Onion-domed wooden churches dominate the countryside, alongside typical Ukrainian peasant houses. On Sundays, churches are attended by congregations wearing the vyshyvanka.
Even the form of Ukrainian spoken in Brazil is frozen in time, identical to a dialect spoken in the historic region of Galicia over 100 years ago.
The district of Prudentopolis, which encompasses a large part of the territory of this community, is the focal point of the Ukrainian diaspora. In the eponymous capital of the district, about 75% of the population is of total or partial Ukrainian origin. At the beginning of October, the Brazilian federal authorities even granted the co-official status of the Ukrainian language to the municipality of Prudentopolis.
Ukrainians began to migrate to Brazil at the end of the 19th century. Then successive Brazilian governments have gone to great lengths to encourage European migration, even offering to pay for travel expenses in order to attract some of the poorest Europeans, including Ukrainians.
Most ended up moving to Brazil from Galicia. Now encompassing the Ukrainian oblasts of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil, the region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Ukrainians often found themselves marginalized by their reluctance to assimilate into the larger empire.
When they arrived in Brazil, after being promised food, clothing and access to fertile land, the immigrants quickly realized that this was not true. Instead, they were placed on wasteland far from urban civilization. Pushed into an unfamiliar environment, and not knowing how to cultivate the soil, in the early years many succumbed to disease and hunger.
This suffering has been immortalized in a series of poems entitled In Brazil by the famous Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko (named after the city of Ivano-Frankivsk).
Immigration slowed after these early waves, with Canada becoming a more popular destination.
However, many Ukrainians continued to arrive in Brazil every year, including tens of thousands of workers imported by the Brazilian government to build a railway from Sao Paulo to Rio Grande do Sul, passing through the state of Paraná. , dominated by Ukrainians.
A final wave of immigration occurred in the late 1940s, mainly from Ukrainian nationalists who feared persecution by the Soviet Union.
Preserve language and culture
In the 150 years since the Ukrainians first arrived in Brazil, the community has managed to preserve its language, culture and customs. This contrasts sharply with neighboring Argentina, where the Ukrainian community of around 300,000 people (including legendary football manager Jose Pekerman, who coached Argentina to the 2006 World Cup) has been widely assimilated.
According to Professor Gustavo Vizcaya de Lacerda, a sociologist at the Federal University of Parana, one of the main reasons for the preservation of Ukrainian culture in Brazil is the role of the church.
The majority of Ukrainian Brazilians belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, whose rites are almost identical to those of Eastern Orthodox churches, but who remain faithful to the Pope. Today there are at least 230 Greco-Catholic churches in the state of Paraná.
They are focal points of the community and offer regular courses in Ukrainian language and history, allowing the community to maintain its culture. In addition, Ukrainian Brazilians are known to be islanders. They stand out as “nashy lyudi” (our people), as opposed to “blacks”: their term for all foreigners, regardless of race or ethnicity.
This insularity and reluctance to mingle with the general population has certainly helped the community maintain its identity, unlike the myriad of peoples living and assimilated in Brazil.
Several Ukrainian Brazilians have nevertheless become prominent members of Brazilian society. Clarice Lispector, of Ukrainian Jewish origin, is one of Brazil’s most esteemed novelists. Rafael Sobis is a former Brazilian international footballer, who won the Copa Libertadores with the Internacional.
Then there is Hector Babenco, a naturalized Brazilian director of Argentinian origin who is known to have created the breathtaking, visceral and heartbreaking film. Pixote, on the street children of Sao Paulo.
Today, the state of Paraná is actively forging ties with Ternopil Oblast in Ukraine, where many Ukrainian Brazilians come from.
With Ukrainian now having official status throughout an entire district and public schools teaching in Ukrainian, the community has the opportunity to forge even deeper ties with its ancestral homeland.
Perhaps the Ukrainian government should also take an interest in this community, as the guardian of an old Ukrainian identity, largely lost in time.
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