In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European and North American companies were contracted to construct a rail line linking the state of São Paulo to Rio Grande do Sul. As part payment, large tracts of land were given to the companies and, as in the United States and the Canadian West, they subdivided their new properties for sale to land-hungry immigrants who, it was hoped, would generate traffic for the rail line. Some of the largest land grants were in south-central Paraná, which the companies quickly cleared of the valuable Paraná pine trees that dominated the territory. Settlers came from many parts of Europe, but the companies were especially successful in recruiting Ukrainians, and between 1895 and 1898, and 1908 and 1914, over 35,000 immigrants arrived in the Ukraine’s “other America”. Today, there are some 300,000 Brazilians of Ukrainian extraction, of whom eighty percent live in Paraná, largely concentrated in the southern centre of the state.
As most of the immigrants came from the western Ukraine, it’s the Ukrainian Catholic rather than the Orthodox Church that dominates; throughout the areas where Ukrainians and their descendants are gathered, onion-domed churches and chapels abound. While the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in general, is gradually becoming sensitive to the need to concentrate resources on social projects rather than in the building of more churches, new Ukrainian Catholic churches are proliferating in ever more lavish proportions, sometimes even replacing beautiful wooden churches built by the early immigrants. In Brazil, the Ukrainian Catholic Church is extremely wealthy, and its massive landholdings contrast greatly with the tiny properties from which the vast majority of the poverty-stricken local population eke out a living. Priests are often accused of attempting to block measures that will improve conditions: they are said to fear that educational attainment, modernization and increased prosperity will lessen the populace’s dependence on the Church for material and spiritual comfort, so reducing their own influence.
The Ukrainians’ neighbours (caboclos, Poles, Germans, and a few Italians and Dutch) frequently accuse them and their priests of maintaining a cultural exclusiveness. While intercommunal tensions certainly exist, the few non-Brazilian visitors to this part of Paraná are treated with the utmost civility, and if your Portuguese (or Ukrainian – the language is still universally spoken, in rural areas at least, by people of all ages) is up to it, you should have no problem finding people in the region’s towns and hamlets who will be happy to talk about their traditions and way of life.