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Brazilian immigrants in Newark wait for economic conditions to improve before returning home

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The restaurant Boi na Brasa sits on the corner of Clover and Merchant Streets in Newark's Ironbound district. About a 10-minute walk east of Newark Penn Station, the two-story Brazilian restaurant, whose name translates from Portuguese as “braised ox,” occupies almost the entire block.

On a Tuesday afternoon last month, all five flat screen TVs inside the restaurant were tuned to the European Champions League game between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, two professional soccer teams in Spain. There were only three empty seats at the bar, and Vanessa Matos, who loves to both watch and play soccer, hardly had a chance to glance at the screen between smiling and serving customers.

The 22-year-old dark hair beauty moved from Brazil to Newark three years ago to make extra money. Like many other Brazilians in the area, she believes economic conditions are right to return home. She cited the discovery of the Libra oil fields as a possible boon to the economy.

Brazil, South America’s leading economic power, is ranked 8th in the world in terms of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to the CIA World Factbook.  Helped by its well-developed agricultural, mining, manufacturing and service sectors, Brazil was one of the first emerging markets to rebound after the global financial crisis in 2008. But despite the country’s positive turnaround, there are signs that Matos’ optimism should be curbed.

James Green, a professor of history and Brazilian culture at Brown University, believes that the country’s economy is starting to weaken again. “The expansion of that economy over the first decade of the 2000’s was built largely two factors: increased export of raw goods and the creation of social programs within the country,” Green said. Since the worldwide recession of 2008, the need for iron ore and other natural resources by China (a major importer) has slowly turned down due to China’s slowing economy.

And internally, Brazil’s social programs, which provided minimum increases in the standard of living, have been eclipsed by the amount of money the government has been spending on the World Cup. “It’s stadiums, not factories," said Green.

"What do you do after you build a stadium? You play soccer in it but you don’t produce anything. Internally, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction and it’s very complex right now," Green added

Two of Matos’ customers, Helio Evangelista and Adrian De Andrade, moved from Brazil to the states 10 years ago to help a friend with a hardwood flooring business. Like her, they’re both waiting for the right time to move back.

They're both part of a much broader trend. By far, the United States is the world’s leader as a destination for immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center. Seeking better economic conditions is one of the main reasons foreigners move here, and this was particularly true of Brazilians emigrants to the United States starting in the 1980s.

During the last two decades of the 20th century, Brazil’s economy shrank dramatically as a result of the oil crisis, double- and triple-digit inflation, high interest rates, increasing foreign debt and withdrawal of foreign investments, the Washington Post reported. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians immigrated to the U.S. looking for a better life. Between 1982 and 2001, the number of U.S. permanent resident visas given to Brazilians rose 650 percent, according to research from Franklin Goza, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin.

At the start of the immigration wave, most Brazilians moved to California and New York. But by 1990, New Jersey accounted for over 10 percent of the total Brazilian American population, Goza reported. In 2010, Newark had the largest Brazilian population in the state, with approximately 9,000 Brazilian citizens, or 3 percent of the city’s total population, according to American Community Survey data.

Evangelista, 31, and De Andrade, 29, live in Long Branch, another New Jersey town with a high concentration of Brazilians.  The two men stopped in at Boi na Brasa after finishing some business meetings in the neighborhood. The restaurant is one of their Newark favorites. 

Watching the game from a seat at the corner of the bar, Evangelista finished the last of his churrasco (barbecue) with a few sips of red Monte Velho – a budget Portuguese wine.

When asked when they would move back, they shook their heads and were less optimistic than their server, Vanessa Matos. “The government might spend all the money on those games and forget about everything else,” he said. “We’ll see.”

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