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zieds1mazs.gif (257 bytes) The Balts in Brazil: A nothern minority in a southern country


This is a paper of Vivian M. Gruber about the settlements of Latvian Baptists in Brazil. The paper was published in an English language magazine Humanities and Social Sciences. Latvia. 1994, 3 (4). pp. 73-85. The copyright holder is the publisher - University of Latvia. The Academic network LATNET has a letter of the chief-editor Prof. Viktors Ivbulis with permission to LATNET to publish any texts of the magazine on the Internet.

The paper is published here as it is in the magazine. I omitted the diacritics of Portuguese in the names of the places and in the names of the authors of the referenced investigations.


Now the text of the paper.

The Balts in Brazil: A nothern minority in a southern country

Vivian M. Gruber


Until the recent dissolution of the Soviet Union and its military power, the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were occupied by that power that insisted that these republics were incorporated into herself. However, the United States of America and all Balts in exile or who have emigrated around the world disagreed and considered those lands occupied by a hostile force. Unfortunately these countries are not well known to the world at large, but they are becoming better known in this day of greater ease in communication, so that an incident that occurred at the end of World War I /1/ will surely not occur again. At that time a colonel in the British mission sent to serve in Latvia was instructed to draw 1,000 yen for expenses, because the clerk in the British Foreign Office thought that Latvia was a Japanese island! The ignorance is even greater in the world at large of the various immigrations to Brazil and of the colonies they formed there, the part they have played in Brazilian life, and what might be their future as Balts, as Brazilians, or as Baltic Brazilians. We shall attempt a brief overview to try to shed some small light on this by describing three groups of Latvians among the Balts who emigrated to Brazil.

The Balts have inhabited the shores of the Baltic Sea continuously since the Bronze Age /2/, when they had already established their identity as at least three distinct ethnic groups. Trade relations have existed with the Mediterranean area since the Phoenicians came looking for amber and honey. Amber beads from the Baltic Sea have been found even in the tombs of the Pharoahs. Pliny the Elder mentions a visit to the Amberland in 340 B.C. by Phyreas, a Massilian merchant, who called the land Balcia, land of the white people. Ptolemy, in the second century, refers to the Baltic area and calls one of the Latvian Rivers the Rubo or Red River. A part of the Daugava is still called by some sources the Sarkan-Daugava (Red Daugava).

The land seemed to be better known in that day to literate persons than today for its amber, honey, and blond inhabitants. Through the succeeding centuries it became a pawn between Germany and Russia in their rivalry to dominate the Baltic Sea, but, in spite of efforts to destroy the identity of the Balts either through genocide, deportation, suppression of languages and culture, the three Baltic peoples have maintained identity in language, literature, and more. /3/ It is an identity that has been kept viable by small groups wherever they have gone in the world and often under the most adverse circumstances. They are a proud people, cohesive of spirit when threatened, argumentative, and individualistic within the group. They are sure of their competence and value to mankind and to God. It is this that has given them the strength and resilience that has enabled them to maintain an ethnic identity in the face of those who, from the Teutonic Knights to the German Barons and Russian Communists, have tried to destroy this identity.

There is a third generation in Brazil, however, that may, by choice, lay down that ethnic identity to merge into a new homeland, but also to merge the qualities that have made them distinct.

Because of limited data, this discussion will concern one group of the Balts, namely the Latvians, and only a small number of those who left their homeland in the far north to travel weeks on the sea to finally land in the exotic port of Santos, Brazil. From there they traveled overland to the city of Sao Paolo and then on to the interior of the state of Sao Paolo or further south to Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. These settlers were of two varieties: those who came seeking a financial kingdom and rich lands and those who came to establish a spiritual kingdom. The first group is hard to trace and was either assimilated into Brazilian society, returned to Latvia, migrated to Argentina or went north to the United States of America and Canada. Those who came from spiritual motivation were more closely bound together, both ethnically and spiritually. Also, they were more literate and more given to keeping records and to communication between the colonies they established. They became in Brazil true Laetis or Latvis (forest-clearers) as the Livs had called the Latvians centuries before./4/

The Latvians who immigrated to Brazil impelled by religion were, for the most part, Baptists. They can be divided into three groups, according to the period of their arrival in Brazil: 1 ) 1890-World War I; 2) World War I-1924; 3) World War II and after {principally in the 1950s).

The first group was essentially a part of the general exodus from Europe to the Americas in the nineteenth century. Many came from Latvian colonies in Russia. They came inspired in part by the news from both Germans and Russians who had preceded them, especially the Germans, to South Brazil, and they came also inspired by the desire to create a new society in a free land. The Latvian Baptist leaders had their introduction to Baptist theology, beliefs, and practices through the German Baptists in Memel and had maintained close ties with both German and Russian Baptists./5/ Many of the Latvians who came to Brazil came with Russian passports and were declared, statistically, Russians. However, ethnically and by their own witness, they were and are Latvians.

Many of these settlers in South Brazil in the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul entered the country from 1890 to 1901. In Santa Catarina the first Latvian colony was established in Rio Novo in 1890. The colony no longer exists, but there are rich farms owned for the most part by descendants of those first settlers. Other colonies were established in the state of Santa Catarina in Rio Oratorio in 1892, in Rio Mae Luzia and Alta-Guarani in 1893, in Jacu-Acu in 1898, Rio Bravo in 1899, Tierra de Zimmerman in 1900, Bruderthal and Linha Telegrafica in 1901. In Rio Grande do Sul there was one colony in Ijui in 1893. In Sao Paolo the Latvians established themselves in Nova Odessa and in Jorge Tibirica in 1906, in Nova Europa in 1907, Poriquera-Acu in 1910, and in Sao Jose dos Campos in 1914. By 1922 there were fifteen Latvian colonies, predominantly Baptist, and thirteen Baptist churches with slightly over 500 members. /6/ Given the church custom of permitting only adult members at that time, this number would imply a considerably larger total Latvian population among the Baptists, without including those of other faiths and those who confessed no faith.

The largest group was the second group which came in 1922 and 1923. Those who still survive, and I have interviewed many of them, will insist that this was a religious immigration, not due to religious or political persecution in Latvia, but to divine inspiration. At any rate, the majority of these more than 2,000 northern immigrants left Europe's frigid winter to land in high summer in the Land of the Southern Cross and to go, first by train as far as the train went, and then on foot to lands bought by their "spies" /7/ - or scouts sent out by them, much as Moses in the Bible's Old Testament sent the men to spy out the land promised to the Hebrew children who had crossed the desert from Egypt (Numbers, chapter 13). They settled in the interior of the state of Sao Paolo, where they established two large communal style colonies, Vārpa and Palma, and later a satellite colony, Letonia. Vārpa colony soon divided its lands into private farms as did Letonia. Palma functioned as a colony modeled after the early Christian communities in the New Testament until the 1960s in an active, successful, albeit ever declining manner. From the beginning they were destined to disintegration into private lands and enterprises. In order to earn money to pay for the land and to buy farming equipment, cattle, food, seeds, etc., many of the young people went to the towns and especially to the city of Sao Paolo to work. Parents followed /8/ or went to join relatives and friends already established from the first group. Vārpa colony ceased to be privately administered and in 1934 became a public municipality. By that time there were churches from Pentecostal to Catholic for Russians, Latvians, and Brazilians. There are businesses from cantinas (bars) to electronic shops owned by Latvians, Brazilians, Italians, etc.

The Palma settlement functioned only as an agriculture community producing wood products, cotton, dairy products, fruits to consume in the colony and to sell. The butter of Vārpa, where a cooperative was formed, and of Palma became legendary in the city of Sao Paolo and was used exclusively by the Kopenhagen Chocolate factories {established by a Jewish businessman from Latvia). In 1963, however, there were no young people to work the lands, and Palma was deeded to the Brazilian Baptist Convention. It is now used as a summer retreat. The remaining settlers still live there and are well cared for.

These 2,223 Latvians /9/, who had come in 1922 and 1923, formed then and now the core of the Latvian minority in Brazil, but in the late 1940s and 1950s another group began to arrive. At this writing, the author has as yet been unable to acquire firm statistics on the number of these. They came from the Displaced Persons camps scattered over Europe as Latvians fled their homeland following the violent and ruthless occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union and the mass deportations of Latvians to the now notorious Gulag Archipelago. /10/

Whatever the number of those who came to Brazil, it must have been considerable. Thales de Azavedo in Social change in Brazil /11/ writing in general of Protestant growth during the same period says: "... their numbers have been increasing at an impressive pace which seems due materially to reasons that range from the augmented availability of preachers who migrated from Eastem countries under Communistic control to results of persistent educational efforts." Note the reference to "preachers from Eastern countries". The Baltic Republics and Poland were those that sent the larger number. The one of those with the larger number of Protestant preachers was Latvia, and even those were a small number of any group migrating from the DP camps. It must also be observed that the larger number of all of these went to North America.

The importance of this new influx of Latvians was, however, out of proportion to their numbers. Their presence was to reinforce the ethnic and linguistic identity of those who had been in Brazil for so many years. There was a renewal of publications and organizations (social, religious, and professional) of all Balts. Among the Latvian Baptists there was a renewed effort to maintain identity as Latvians even while cooperating with the Brazilians and to continue use of their language both in church services and in publications. Beginning in I938, the Brazilian government had imposed severe restrictions on immigration from Europe and on the use of languages other than Portuguese in Brazil. These restrictions were relaxed at the end of the war. They had been aimed at the large German colonies in South Brazil, who were open in their support of Germany, but the restrictions were applied to all foreign ethnic groups. This relaxation in these restrictions and the arival of the Latvians from Europe in this period gave to the Brazilian Latvians an impetus to renew their cultural and linguistic identity with their homeland and, with government permission, they began to publish newspapers, journals, and books to fill the void in their own lives and to assist the newcomers in adjusting to a new life in Brazil. Most of the publishing was done in Vārpa and Palma, where printing presses had been in operation since the 1920s. They were excited and thrilled to take out once again the Latvian type and begin printing. Although the group of newcomers from Europe in the 50's was not large, the influence in this activity was great, because the Latvian DPs were highly literate and were, for the most part, professional people. As indicated by Dr. Thales, many were pastors; others were teachers, musicians, poets, doctors.

Obviously a small Baltic minority exists in Brazil. We have described the Latvian Baptist group to some extent. They were a minority in Latvia and generally are a minority even among Latvians abroad. The Latvians were assigned the smallest quote for immigration from 1884-1933 by the Brazilians. /l2/ "Lettish people" for that period had 3,331; the Estonians had 4,218, and the Lithuanians had 44,803. The Latvian group of 1922-23 came outside the quota, but, if these quotas were all filled, this would still be a very minor part of the over four million immigrants referred to by Femando de Azevedo for this same period. /13/ How, then, could such a small group that insisted on maintaining its ethnic identity and isolating themselves in religious communities exert an influence on such a country as Brazil, so extensive in size, varied in cultures, and, in that period, scarcely aware of itself and its potential? Our belief is that this influence exists, in spite of the honored opinion of the great Brazilian historian, Jose Honorio Rodrigues, who has said, "Immigrants have not altered the basic Brazilian character, for the in South, in which first and second generation Brazilians are readily found, they are integrated into Brazilian culture and the Brazilian historical tradition. Under the administration which governed Brazil from 1956-60, officials of non-Portuguese descent included the presiding officer of the Chamber of Deputies, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and numerous senators, deputies, cabinet ministers, judges, and other persons of high rank." /14/ Perhaps the statement has lost something in translation, but it seems to contradict itself. None of those mentioned, however, were of Latvian origin, but their influence has been and is felt in various ways, principally because of educational and religious institutions.

The religious enclave is foreign both to the Baptist faith and to the Latvian personality. The Latvians of Vārpa and Palma were soon in direct contact with dozens of villages and the senzalas of the plantations in the area. They traded with them, but, more than that, being a literate people, they began to set up weekend schools to teach reading, writing, basic health care and sanitation, new farming methods, and, above all, the Bible and the choral music so much a part of the Baltic peoples. Many of these small communities have grown to sizable towns. There is in them always a Protestant church (one or more), a school and a clinic. This is the area in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo whose growth has been cited by so many for these several decades as an example of true growth and development. Preston James, well-known for his historical treatises on Latin America, has said: "... Sao Paulo is better off in its roads and railroads than is any other part of Brazil. Furthermore, the people are predominantly European ...." /15/

Not only did the Latvian group attempt to evangelize the native Brazilians, but in the cities they extended their work to other Europeans of German, Baltic, aņd Slavic origins. From 1925 to 1960 nearly 2,000 Slavs were evangelized into twelve churches; by the early 1930s more than 1,000 Brazilians in seventy villages had been baptized and organized into churches, most with its day school and clinic next to the church building. /l6/ The greatest successes continued to be among the native Brazilians in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo near Vārpa, Palma and Letonia, but also in an area that extended from the Parana River on the west to the city of Sao Paulo on the east, bordered on the north by the Paulista rail line and on the south by the Sorocabana rail line. /17/ The churches with their schools and clinics are mentioned as an evidence of the influence of these Latvians for some of the same reasons given below from Emilio Willems, Followers of the New Faith /18/ in which he discusses Protestantism in Chile and Brazil. He quotes one Protestant minister as saying, "A Protestant does not cheat the government. He pays his taxes religiously ...." /19/ Professor Willems quotes yet another Protestant minister, "Protestantism makes powerful contributions to the economy because a Protestant is sober, free from vices and a hard worker." A layman who is a native of the Sao Paulo region is quoted, "People like to do business with you (addressing a Protestant) because you pay your debts. They know they can trust you." /20/ In politics, Willems` research indicates a similar beneficent effect of Protestantism on the municipal councils (most were from the state of Sao Paulo). At least thirty-four of these councils had one or more Protestant members. The few federal deputies elected were also credited with having more moral responsibility than others. /21/

It seems permissible, even without evidence of direct linkage, to assume that the strong orientation of the Latvians to church, education, health, sanitation, and progress must have exerted considerable influence in other areas as well. Of the three groups of Latvian Baptists who settled in Brazil, we have the following statistics taken from various lists and interviews.

From Group I and its descendants who are presently active in professional and church life throughout Brazil, there are known to be fifty-three preachers serving Brazilian, Latvian, and other congregations, thirty-seven teachers of primary and secondary schools, one writer, four medical doctors, two dentists, one nuclear physicist, one lawyer, two engineers, one chaplain, ten university professors, sixteen musicians, and numerous businessmen, farmers and skilled artisans.

From Group II there are fifty-six preachers, seventy teachers of primary or secondary schools, five poets and writers, four dentists and oral surgeons, three medical doctors, three publishers, ten university professors, one army captain, one justice of the peace, five industrialists, one lawyer, one pharmacist, one psychologist, two chemists, one public relations manager, twenty-five musicians.

From Groups III there are six preachers, five teachers, one printer and three musicians. In addition to those who came from the religious groups /22/, there are others closely associated with them who are professional and highly skilled artisans. Among these are over 200 primary teachers, nearly 100 middle school teachers and several who teach in the upper school, technical institutes, universities, and professional schools. Further, trilingual elementary schools teaching in Portuguese, Latvian, and German were established early and still exist in all the Latvian colonies in the states of Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, and Sao Paulo. In medicine there are twelve other doctors, both men and women, in general practice and in specialized fields such as surgery and obstetrics. In law there are at least seven other men and women; in engineering, fourteen others in fields from chemical engineering and agronomy to electronics and architecture; in nursing and social work there are nine others; in economics, business administration, and civil service, nine; and in the armed forces, at least four officers of high rank are listed.

Surely this minority has exerted, and continues to exert, at least a small influence that may be lost, perhaps, to the eyes that focus only on tens of thousands of people and statistics. They are not a vociferous minority, but they are making a positive contribution to raising the level of the masses and to the democratization of Brazil, an influence that will be seen more and more in the future. To summarize, I quote from Dr. Osvaldo Ronis, Uma Epopeia da Fe A historia dos Batistas letos no Brasil (An epic of faith: The history of the Latvian Baptists in Brazil) on his evaluation of the cultural and sociological contributions of this northem minority in this southern country:

In the first place must be mentioned the fact that the Latvian Baptists did not contribute to illiteracy in Brazil, since among them there were not any illiterates and they did not consent to their children growing up ignorant of letters ... in our schools were being admitted children of colonists of other nationalities and of the Brazilians in the area. ... Many men in public life, in the liberal arts profession of professors, technicians, and businessmen who have been active and are active in Brazilian society in the states of Sao Paulo, Parana, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul were guided in their first steps in human knowledge in these schools .... /23/

He mentions further the social work of hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the aged built by the Latvians for all races and ethnic groups. Then he adds:

Still another cultural and social value to be mentioned is the assimilation of numerous Latvian elements by those married to Brazilians, transmitting to their children traces and psychological characteristics frequently determining their formation. /24/

The future of these Latvian groups may well be that of complete assimilation, as Dr. Rodrigues indicated, since for all the years of Communist occupation there was no reinforcement from the Latvian homeland, but who knows what will be the result of the interchange on many levels that began with glasnost and perestroika and continues with ever increasing frequency and depth in the 1990s. Even in the case of many third generation young people, who no longer use the Latvian language, there is renewed interest in learning Latvian. Classes are organized in many cities where Latvians live, and they still maintain cohesive social groups even though the communication is generally in Portuguese. In a recent visit with a group of handsome young, blond for the most part, Latvians, one said to me, "Not Latvians, Madame, but Latvian Brazilians." They revere and honor the maroon and white flag of Free Latvia, but never wear its colors or display it without the green, yellow, and white "Orden e Progresso" {Order and Progress) of the Brazilian flag. They may be a vanishing northern minority in a southern country, but they will leave their mark in the culture and the blood of the colossus of the future: Brazil.




1. Balabkins, N. and Aizsilnieks, A., Entrepreneur in a small counrry, 1919-1940, (New York: Exposition, 1975), pp. 3-4.
2. Bilmanis, A., Dictionary of events in Latvia, (Washington, D.C: Latvian Legation, 1945), p. 3.
3. Bilmanis, A., A history of Latvia, (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1968). See also Fr. Adamovics, et al., Die Letten, aufsätze ūber Geschichte, Sprache und Kultur der alten Letten, (Rīga: Aktien-Gesellschaft Walters & Rapa, 1930).
4. Bilmanis, A., History of Latvia, p. 5.
5. Osvaldo Ronis, Uma Epopeia da Fe: A historia dos Batistas letos no Brasil, (Rio de Janeiro: Casa Publicadora Batista, 1974), p. 74.
6. Ronis, loc. cit.
7. Ronis, pp. 223ff.
8. Ronis, p. 251.
9. Ronis, p. 217.
10. Bilmanis, A., Baltic States in post-war Europe, (Washington, D.C.: Latvian Legation, 1943), pp. 52-55.
11. Azevedo, T. de, Social change in Brazil, (Gainesville: University of Florida), p. 78.
12. Brazil, Instituto braseilero de geografia e estatistica, (Rio de Janeiro), p. 43.
13. Azevedo, F. de, Brazilian culture, an introduction to the study of culture in Brazil, translated by William Rex Crawford, (1950), p. 39.
14. Honorio Rodrigues, J., The Brazilians, their character and aspirations, translated by Ralph Edward Dimmick, (Austin: University of Texas, 1967), p. 99.
15. James, P.E., Latin America, (New York: Odyssey, 1942), p. 471.
16. Ronis, p. 326.
17. Ronis, Figure 114.
18. Willems,E., Followers of the new faith, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967), p. 198.
19. Willems, loc. cit.
20. Willems, p. 199.
21. Willems, p. 223.
22. Ronis, pp. 546ff.
23. Ronis, p. 557.
24. Ronis, p. 559.


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