The Deepest South

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I was expecting a dusty old museum or a weed-grown cemetery. Instead I have been dropped onto the set of Gone With The Wind . As I get out of my rental car in front of the old country compound the Campo, two other cars pull up, and out come seven teenage girls in white pink, and green hoop skirts and one young man in Confederate gray.

 

I was expecting a dusty old museum or a weed-grown cemetery. Instead I have been dropped onto the set of Gone With The Wind . As I get out of my rental car in front of the old country compound the Campo, two other cars pull up, and out come seven teenage girls in white pink, and green hoop skirts and one young man in Confederate gray.

Many Confederates dreaded living under Yankee occupation, but only a few actually left. Perhaps as many as ten thousand went to Brazil.

The girls wave their fans and giggle, shake their long hair in the wind, and then put their heads together and whisper. We are, I remind myself, below the Mason-Dixon line—five thousand miles below, to be exact.

The Campo is in a place called Santa Barbara d’Oeste, two hours north of São Paulo. It consists of a cemetery, a chapel, and a monument, but its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Campo is, in fact, the glue that has held together a loose community, descendants of refugees from the Old South, more than 130 years after their ancestors left the United States.

 

The teenagers are young Brazilians who on other days go to school, watch soccer games on TV, listen to the music of Djavan and Daniela Mercury on their Walkmans, and no doubt drive their parents crazy. But each of them has at least one ancestor who came to Brazil from the ruins of the Confederacy and has a keen interest in dressing up in old-fashioned clothes.

“I love learning about my heritage,” says eighteen-year-old Francine Weisinger, in clear but Brazilian-accented English. “My grandmother teaches me about foods and songs. I like to sing the songs, especially ‘Oh Susanna.’”

The presence of the youngsters has been organized by the Associação Descendência Americana, as the descendants’ society is known. It holds community picnics at the Campo four times a year (in January, April, July, and October), and it often sends out guides and teenage escorts when visitors drop by.

My official guides to the Campo are two more simply dressed women. “My ancestors came from South Carolina, Alabama, and Texas,” says a seventyish Luciana De Muzio, pointing to the rows of tombstones behind the chapel. “We also had one from Ohio, but we don’t talk much about him,” she adds with a smile. De Muzio, a white-haired widow with sharp blue eyes, is from the last generation that spoke English as a first language.

A generation younger, De Muzio’s fellow guide, Nancy Ferreira da Silva Padovese, is the mother of two of the teenage Scarletts. Her name, her dark features, and her hesitant English are indicative of assimilation into a population in which Portuguese families and Italian immigrants have far outnumbered Americans. As if to emphasize all the mixing and make another point as well, she stops at one grave and says, “This is my Aunt Justina [actually a great-great-aunt]. She was a slave.”

Many Confederates dreaded the idea of living under Yankee occupation, but only a few actually left the re-United States. Some crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. And others—perhaps as many as ten thousand—went to Brazil, whose emperor, Dom Pedro II, encouraged the immigrants with offers of cheap land.

Once there, however, the Americans encountered certain restrictions that ultimately aided in the survival of their community. For example, Protestants could not be buried in public cemeteries, so when Col. Anthony T. Oliver’s wife died shortly after her arrival in Santa Barbara in 1867, he buried her on his own land. Then, because of the injunction, he allowed other Americans to bury their loved ones beside her.

Within a few years the Campo was a communal burial ground; the immigrants built a chapel, and the site became a gathering point for the living as well as the dead. Americans had settled all over Brazil, and just about all the settlements died out quickly. People returned to the United States, or disappeared into the Brazilian surroundings, or relocated to the cluster of settlements around Santa Barbara. This was the only colony that developed a community center and the only one to survive.

If you ask the descendants of the settlers, however, there was another reason this Confederado community endured. Passing by the graves of the Campo, Nancy Padovesc makes a sweeping motion with her arm and says, “São todos teimosos” (they were all stubborn).