- Historic Sites
The Deepest South
Five thousand miles below Mason-Dixon line, a Brazilian community celebrates its ties to antebellum America
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
The Campo, shaded by palm and ficus trees, sits in the middle of rolling fields of sugar cane. The chapel is a simple red-brick building. Its spare interior—white walls, wooden pews—has just two adornments, a cross and a large portrait of Robert E. Lee. Religious services are held at the quarterly picnics; according to the Associação bylaws, services must be in one of the faiths of the original settlers—Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist. In front of the church a white stone obelisk rises from a granite base that bears the Confederate battle flag and the names of ninety-six families—names like Bookwalter and Carr, Dumas and Kennedy, Trigg and Yancey—that made the long journey.
The stubbornness of Nancy Padovese’s ancestors notwithstanding, I keep wondering what other factors—personal, cultural, or circumstantial—kept this community together. At one social visit (it is impossible to look for Confederado sites without paying a few house calls) I stand transfixed as two elderly Confederados discuss America. One is Luciana De Muzio, worldly, educated, fluent in English; the other is Sonny Pyles, one of the last Confederado farmers, who speaks little English and has never left Brazil.
“Have you ever been to America?” Sonny asks.
“A couple of times,” Luciana replies.
“How was it?”
“Fascinating, but I could never live there,” she asserts. “The people are too cold and objective.” This is the standard Brazilian stereotype of Americans. “They’re not like us.”
“It’s not America that makes people like that,” Sonny demurs. “It’s civilization. People from São Paulo are cold and objective too.”
Indeed, the hundred kilometers of highway that separate Santa Barbara and the city of São Paulo may be as important in explaining the survival of the Confederados as is the distance between Brazil and the United States. Communities can be built and nourished on shared isolation as well as on a shared past.
The pitted dirt road that leads to the Campo is much as it was when the first American immigrants arrived, but Santa Barbara itself is a thriving urban center with neat blocks of houses with tiled roofs. Out of the 161,000 residents, only about thirty families are of American descent, but they play a major role in the town’s history. Nowhere is this clearer than at the Immigration Museum, where about half the exhibit is dedicated to Santa Barbara’s American roots.
The museum is situated in one of the city’s few colonial buildings, a white stone structure with salmon trim that was once the local jailhouse. The American exhibit—which includes background on the United States, the Civil War, and the postwar South as well as on the immigrants who settled in Brazil—is on the second floor.
It is an Ellis Island in reverse, showing not what immigrants brought to America but what Americans took to a foreign land and used to preserve their culture: Confederate money, textbooks for the English-language schools the settlers founded, Thomas Alonso Keese’s wood and leather trunk, Ethel MacKnight’s wedding dress (white cotton with a high neck), the Minchin family Bible (opened to the first psalm), the Crisp family’s wall clock, a circa 1900 photo of a baseball team, and the music for “Home Sweet Home.”
The, museum offers history, but considering the community’s size it is also like a large family album. Spend a few hours in the company of Associação members at the Campo or in town prior to seeing the exhibit, and many of the family names—and some of the faces as well—will look familiar. One room shows various generations of Confederado descendants and includes childhood photos of people still active in the community. I found pictures of Luciana De Muzio and Sonny Pyles just a few hours after witnessing their exchange on the differences between Americans and Brazilians.
The former president of the Associação and now its treasurer, Noemia Pyles lives just a few blocks from the museum. She showers visitors with community artifacts, news clippings, photos of picnics at the Campo, and questions about the United States, which she has never visited. “We want to put together a tour of the United States, maybe even make it an annual tour,” she says, showing a letter from a travel agency that wants to handle the bookings.
Americans who seek out Brazil’s Confederados are often impelled by an interest in the Civil War, but time spent with a Confederado family yields something different. A Confederado gathering is a family affair. The Civil War is an important event in the communal saga, but it doesn’t always come up in conversation. The shared experiences of migration and assimilation into Brazilian culture loom larger.