São Paulo is a city built on immigrants; largely due to new arrivals, São Paulo’s population grew a hundred-fold in 75 years to make it the country’s second-largest city by 1950. Besides sheer numbers, the mass influx of people had a tremendous impact on the character of the city, breaking up the existing social stratification and removing economic and political power from the traditional elite groups at a much earlier stage than in other Brazilian cities.
Although there had been attempts at introducing Prussian share-croppers in the 1840s, mass immigration didn’t begin until the late 1870s. Initially, conditions were appalling upon arrival; many immigrants succumbed to malaria or yellow fever while waiting in Santos to be transferred inland, where they were to work on the coffee plantations. In response to criticisms, the government opened the Hospedaria dos Imigrantes in 1887, a hostel in the eastern suburb of Brás, now converted to a museum (see São Bento).
Immigration to São Paulo is most closely associated with the Italians, who constituted 46 percent of all arrivals between 1887 and 1930. In general, soon after arriving in Brazil they would be transported to a plantation, but most slipped away within a year to seek employment in the city or to continue on south to Argentina. The rapidly expanding factories in the districts of Brás, Moóca and Belém, east of the city centre, were desperately short of labour, and well into the twentieth century the population of these bairros was largely Italian. But it is Bela Vista (or, in popular parlance, Bixiga ) where the Italian influence has been most enduring, as catalogued in the Museu Memória do Bixiga. Originally home to freed slaves, Bela Vista had by the early 1900s established itself as São Paulo’s “Little Italy”. As immigration from Italy began to slow in the late 1890s, arrivals from other countries increased. From 1901 to 1930 Spaniards (especially Galicians) made up 22 percent, and Portuguese 23 percent, of immigrants, but their language allowed them to assimilate very quickly. Only Tatuapé developed into a largely Portuguese bairro.
The first 830 Japanese immigrants arrived in 1908 in Santos, from where they were sent on to the coffee plantations. By the mid-1950s a quarter of a million Japanese had emigrated to Brazil, most of them settling in São Paulo state. Unlike other nationalities, the rate of return migration among them has always been small: many chose to remain in agriculture, often as market gardeners, at the end of their contract. The city’s large Japanese community is centred on Liberdade, a bairro just south of the Praça da Sé and home to the excellent Museu da Imigração Japonesa.
São Paulo’s Arab community is also substantial. Arabs started arriving in the early twentieth century from Syria and Lebanon and, because they originally travelled on Turkish passports, are still commonly referred to as turcos. Typically starting out as itinerant traders, the community was soon associated with small shops, and many Arabs become extremely successful in business. Numerous boutiques in the city’s wealthy bairros are Arab-owned, but it’s in the streets around Rua 25 de Março, north of Praça da Sé, that the community is concentrated.
The Jewish community has prospered in São Paulo, too. Mainly of East European origin, many of the city’s Jews started out as roaming pedlars before settling in Bom Retiro, a bairro near Luz train station. As they became richer, they moved to the suburbs to the south of the city, in particular to Higienópolis, but some of the businesses in the streets around Rua Correia de Melo are still Jewish-owned and there’s a synagogue in the area. As the Jews moved out, Greeks started moving in during the 1960s, followed in larger numbers by Koreans. The area has long been known as a centre of the rag trade and in the Korean-owned sweatshops the latest immigrant arrivals – Bolivians and Chinese – are employed, often illegally and amid appalling work conditions.