The 2014 celebration of Lithuanian Independence Day took place on February 16. It was organized by the Lithuanian community in Brazil, chaired by Waldemar Maliska Sidaravicius. The event program began with placing flowers in the Republic of Lithuania Square in honor of all Lithuanians who fought for the independence of the country, and followed with a Mass and cultural performances. More than 300 people attended the celebration.
Vila Zelina is a neighborhood located in São Paulo, Brazil, where a great number of Lithuanians have been living since the early twentieth century. In fact, Vila Zelina has one of the greatest colonies outside Lithuania and is the sole neighborhood in the city to perform masses in Lithuanian at São José Church, founded by the Lithuanian community back in 1936.
Lithuanians have been immigrating to Brazil since the early 1890’s. They were people who hoped to find land for farming, as well as a more prosperous and freer life in the country. It is believed that the immigration to Brazil was triggered by Andrius Višteliauskas, the first know Lithuanian to set foot on Brazil soil in 1866. He was a colonel, and his mission was to aid the Brazilian armed forces in the Paraguayan War that was going on at that time.
In 1890, twenty-five Lithuanian families entered the land of Brazil.
The first place that Lithuanians settled was the Iljui colony, and later they also settled in Nova Odessa and other places. However, the conditions were much more difficult than the immigrants had initially hoped. The Lithuanian immigrants had varied success, some were able to acclimatize to the unfamiliar circumstances and became wealthy, others didn’t do so well. A number of the immigrants didn’t stay in the colonies, but settled in the large cities, most in Sao Paulo, or even tried to return to Lithuania.
In 1923 after successful propaganda by Brazilian agents in Lithuania, Brazil has opened the doors to many Lithuanian citizens, willing to immigrate in this country. According to Brazilian government records, at that time 6 000 of immigrant workers came to Sao Paulo state, in particular cities such as Ribeirão Preto, Araraquara, Colina e Barão de Antonina. All of them were attracted with promises of work and cheap land.
From 1926 some hundreds of Lithuanians also settled down in municipality of Caxias, in the State of Rio de Janeiro. Their main activities were related to commerce, industry and arts. The first shoe factory of the region was established by Petras Jonusis, in 1926. He was “a pioneer in shoe making industry, producing shoes from used tyres”. Brothers Girniai followed his example. Five other factories were opened in the following years. Other pioneer - Pranas Dutkus started ice-cream production and commerce, his example was also followed. This way were opened bars, restaurants, factories, groceries, photo studios etc. After the Revolution of 1932, the Lithuanian community in Rio de Janeiro started to grow because Lithuanians were coming from Sao Paulo. The Culture and Charity Corporation, called Vilnis, was created in Rio de Janeiro in 1932.
After 1940s the community stopped growing due to immigration restrictions in the country and Soviet occupation in Lithuania in 1944.
There were three Lithuanian immigration waves to the state of Sao Paulo: the first one between 1926 and 1929, that mostly attracted people from countryside; the second in1930´s brought people from cities, having some kind of qualification; and the third happened after the Second World War, when people were running away from Communist regime in the Soviet Union.
It is hard to say the exact number of Lithuanians that came to state of Sao Paulo because many of them crossed the border having Russian or other nationality documents. It is estimated that around 48 000 Lithuanians came legally to Brazil between 1926 and 1938. The biggest part of them stayed in Sao Paulo state, others moved to Rio de Janeiro state.
Most of Lithuanians that came in 1926, 1927, 1928 went to work in coffee, cotton and sugar cane plantations (fazendas).
Free tickets, good advertisement from shipping companies’ agents with promises of good salaries and given land in Brazil, were strong facts for those immigrants, although they gave the preference to North America.
Majority of Lithuanians that came during above mentioned period abandoned or escaped hard work in plantations and went looking for jobs in industries, established in capital city of Sao Paulo.
They became workers in industries such as: Antártica, Cotonifício Crespi, Indústria Matarazzo e Fundição Brasil – all established in the region of Mooca. They worked as toolmakers and mechanics for auto industries, in particular for General Motors (GM) company, that were established in cities around Sao Paulo. Some worked as dressmakers, helpers, tailors, some opened bars, bakeries etc. Lithuanians also worked in the Sorocabana railway construction.
Vila Zelina – Lithuania in East Zone of the city
At that time, Lithuanians living in Mooca, Bom Retiro, Vila Anastácio, Vila Bela, Santo André used to gather themselves in the church of Santo Antonio do Pari, were the religious celebrations were held by priest Benediktas Sugintas, called Father Bento. Father Bento came to Brazil on the 28th January 1931. He started his mission there at the age of 36 and managed to involve Lithuanian community in the first community church construction. The status of São José Lithuanian Roman Catholic community was registered on the 17th October 1931, under registration no 323.
Lithuanian families started to came to Vila Zelina in 1927. Thus Lithuanian community started to grow and construction works of the São José church were initiated.
"Lithuanian-Brazilian alliance for charity and social assistance", created in 1931 is still active. At the time it gathered together various Lithuanian sports and cultural organizations. Meetings of Lithuanian immigrants, balls and other reunions were having place at the premises of the Alliance.
With support of Lithuanian government Lithuanian-Brazilian Alliance started the construction of 5 Lithuanian schools: Vincas Kudirca primary school in Mooca, Dr. Jonas Basanavicius in Vila Anastácio, The Grand Duke Vytautas in Vila Bela, Bishop Valancius in Bom Retiro and Maironis in Parque das Nações, in Santo André. Those schools became centres of cultural activities, such as expositions and sports events.
Lithuanian immigrants used to gather after work in a bar called “Bar do Vito” (Vila Zelina) where they used to sing old Lithuanian songs and have a beer. At the time the owner of the bar was Vytautas Tijunelis. After the ownership went to his son Fernando Tijunelis, who started working with his father at the age of 8. Today, although the bar was sold, his owners still are Lithuanians that managed to preserve the bar in its original stage with marble desk bar and original wood shelves, made by Lithuanian immigrant. Still today the old tradition of getting together is being preserved.
The majority of Lithuanians settled down in Vila Zelina, region where the church São José was built and were Lithuanians are still gathering. The church had a crucial role as a social centre where members of Lithuanian community could keep their customs and traditions, others were receiving news from their relatives that stayed in Lithuanian under Soviet regime. This could be the reason why Lithuanian community managed to be active, united, dynamic and willing to maintain its culture.
Another Lithuanian community victory was creation of the square of Republic of Lithuania in 1976, that is situated in front of the church São José. The Monument to Freedom built in 1982 was also a symbol to commemorate 50 years of immigration (1926-1976) and homage to immigrants and their descendants. Every year The Independence day of Lithuania, 16th February, is commemorated in this place. The street name rua Monsenhor Pio Ragazinskas in Vila Zelina, was also given to honour the first pastor of the church.
The other important day for commemoration is 11th March when the Independence of Lithuania was re-established in 1991.
Lithuanian press also has an important role in immigration history. More than 20 periodicals (Pietu Amerikos Lietuviai, Brazilijos Lietuviai, Varpas etc.) were published in the capital city of São Paulo.
The journal “Musu Lietuva” still being published today is a monthly magazine that gives an update on Lithuanian political, cultural and sports events, also similar events in Brazil. This magazine counts 65 years, with his first edition published in 1948. Today the magazine is printed in 600 copies but 30 years ago the number of copies was around 3000.
Lithuanian community has been always active in preserving cultural heritage, teaching the young generation history and importance of it. The meetings of young Lithuanians are still happening today in the n
ational and international levels. Coral, Scout group and folkloric dance groups are the fruits of hard work of young Lithuanian community members.
Lithuanians not only managed to keep their customs and traditions but als
o to pass them over generations. Today the third generation of Lithuanian immigrants is celebrating traditional festivals such as Christmas, Easter and other religious celebrations being held in São José church.
- PhD thesis of Sônia Maria de Freitas: "Falam os imigrantes: memória e diversidade cultural em São Paulo", São Paulo University, 2001.
- Livro do Cinquentenário da Imigração Lituana para o Brasil – 1976.