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A drive along the Rodovia dos Imigrantes shows how much immigration has shaped modern Brazil. The winding expressway between Brazil’s Atlantic coast and the city of São Paulo follows the path taken by millions who arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Along the way, and in any bar in the country, Brazilians snack on kibe although few realize this croquette of bulgur and chopped meat arrived along with immigrants from the Middle East. Others read Japanese manga and practice “New Japanese religions,” illustrating the cultural influence of the world’s largest Japanese diaspora population. Brazil’s migration history also encompasses hardship and despair: slavery, racist policies, immigration restrictions, and financial strains have often burdened the lives of newcomers and their descendants, while economic crises have led many to emigrate.
From 1870 to 1930, between 2 million and 3 million immigrants settled in Brazil. While most came from Europe, significant numbers also arrived from the Middle East and Asia. In Portuguese America, where most colonial-era residents were African slaves and their children, immigrants joined a discussion about Blackness and Whiteness that continues to dominate popular and elite discourses today. In this sense, Brazil is like other countries in the Americas, including the United States. Yet in the Brazilian context, terms such as White, Black, European, Indian, and Asian are less fixed. As various groups flowed into and out of these ever-shifting categories, Brazilian national identity was often simultaneously rigid and flexible—with Whiteness consistently prized, though ambiguously defined.
As of 2017, roughly 736,000 immigrants lived in Brazil, the third-largest foreign-born population in South America. Millions more are descended from immigrants, and though they were born in Brazil, commonly define themselves or are defined as Japanese, Portuguese, Arab, German, or Italian. Brazil is also an important destination for migrants from the Americas, including Bolivians, Venezuelan asylum seekers fleeing economic and political crisis, and Haitians migrating for economic and humanitarian reasons. Rapid shifts in arrivals from around the region—including many unauthorized migrants—have repeatedly tested the ability of Brazilian local, state, and federal leaders to adapt.