Bom dia, y'all: Brazilian town loves its Dixie roots

The Brazilian "Confederados" of Santa Bárbara d'Oeste love to fly the Confederate flag in honour of their Southern heritage. But when it comes to defining their politics, it's not so simple — especially when it comes to their feelings about U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Descendants of Southern U.S. settlers wave Confederate flag, munch fried chicken. Just don't ask about Trump

Brazilians in Confederate Army uniforms celebrate their Southern U.S. heritage in the town of Santa Bárbara d'Oeste. Joao Leo Padoveze, right, is partial to blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes when he cruises through town in his black Chevy pickup. (João Leopoldo Padoveze/Fraternidade Descendencia Americana)

There's a place down south — way, way down south — where America's Confederate iconography exists in a blissful, non-politicized vacuum.

The Brazilian "Confederados" of Santa Bárbara d'Oeste, 140 kilometres outside traffic-choked São Paulo, treasure their Southern bloodlines.  

Townsfolk here wear belts emblazoned with the rebel Stars and Bars, the buckles glinting in the Brazilian sun. They hoist the Confederate flag outside a small Protestant chapel surrounded by corn and sugar cane, the crops their ancestors brought over when they fled post-Civil War America.

Residents of this town of 180,000 still taste the flavours of Dixie in 150-year-old recipes for fried chicken and biscuits.

They even belt out Dixie during their annual Festa Confederada, an April jamboree where women dress like antebellum Southern belles. The men, wearing Confederate Army finery, square dance with them on an alfresco floor painted like the Southern Cross.
Marcelo Sans Dodson points to the Keese family name, one of his Southern U.S. ancestral bloodlines, on an obelisk erected in the town of Santa Bárbara d'Oeste to mark 100 years of settlement by the Confederados. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! Hooray!" Marcelo Sans Dodson sings, standing near a white obelisk bearing another rebel flag motif. "In Dixie's Land I'll take my stand, to live and die in Dixieee…"

The 42-year-old agricultural engineer — a Confederado with a multi-ethnic mix of Syrian, American, Spanish and Italian roots — croons in Portuguese-accented English.

But Southern lilts can still be heard around town. Confederate descendants of an older generation, like 65-year-old Daniel Carr de Nuzio, retain the soft drawl imported by the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Americanos who settled here from 1865 to 1875.

'Good ol' boys' vs. a liberal

"My good friends in the States are all Republicans. They're good ol' boys," says de Nuzio, who notes that his paternal grandmother was of African descent.
Women in hoop skirts dance at annual Festa Confederada, which honours the Confederate roots of the Brazilian town of Santa Barbara d'Oeste. In April, 2,000 participants ate fried chicken, biscuits and creamed corn and drank draft Brazilian beers. (João Leopoldo Padoveze/Fraternidade Descendencia Americana)

"They hate Obama and they hate Democrats — but I like 'em! I'm liberal! So when I go out, I have to keep my big mouth shut."

As for his thoughts on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump: "Simply crazy," de Nuzio sighs. "Anyway, politicians are politicians."

In the same breath, de Nuzio, the fifth-generation descendant of Col. William Norris, the Southerner who helped settle Santa Bárbara, adds that he travelled to Georgia to picket in favour of keeping the Confederate battle flag emblem on the State House.
Children sport Confederate-era costumes during the annual celebration in Santa Barbara d'Oeste in honour of the town's history. Started in 1981, the event doubles as a fundraiser for the town's volunteer-run historical association. (João Leopoldo Padoveze/Fraternidade Descendencia Americana)

To North Americans, these may sound like contradictory remarks, particularly in a U.S. election year in which Confederate imagery has been a symbol of the radical right at political rallies.

But there's nothing unusual for the people of Santa Bárbara.

"The flag means something different to people in Brazil," de Nuzio says. "It means our heritage."

Descendants of the settlers often take visitors to their ancestral gravesites. They guide them through the Museum of Immigration, past the ruffled Gone With the Wind gowns, then past letters penned by rebel veterans describing 1880s agrarian life in exotic Brazil.

Trump? Trump who?

Costumed dancers, residents of the Brazilian town of Santa Barbara d'Oeste, perform at the annual Festa Confederada in April. (João Leopoldo Padoveze/Fraternidade Descendencia Americana)
What they shy away from, though, is talk about current American politics. Bringing up the Trump name can get downright awkward.

"We are a non-political organization," says Dodson, a volunteer historian and treasurer for the town's Fraternidade Descendência Americana, when asked about the candidate.

It's a sensitive matter. Surprisingly so, given Trump's dominance among Southern Republicans in the primaries. But some Confederados would rather not clash with American friends who helped trace their genealogies after their shared forefathers started this cotton-producing colony.

João Leopoldo Padoveze, a 35-year-old photographer and distant cousin of de Nuzio, speaks fondly of his "familia" in Georgia. His "American father," a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, lives in the Peach State.
Marcelo Sans Dodson stands in front of the open-air dance floor at the site of the annual April Festa Confederada in Santa Barbara d'Oeste, Brazil. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"I miss them," says Padoveze, who adds that he is a descendant of Southerners from the Carr and Crisp clans, as well as having some Italian and slave ancestry. "Everything those guys show to us and teach us, we try to emulate here."

For people paying attention to the U.S. election, though, this can be fraught. One proud Confederado confesses that a Facebook post admiring U.S. President Barack Obama once drew so much online scorn from relatives 7,000 kilometres away that he decided never to muse about politics online again.

The same anti-Trumper joked, anonymously, "Some Republicans will vote for a brick — if it's a Republican brick."

Domestic political drama

For the most part, however, Santa Bárbara d'Oeste is like any other Brazilian town too worried about domestic political drama to care about international affairs.
Joaoa Leopoldo Padoveze, a sixth-generation Confederado, tours the cemetery where roughly 600 other American descendents in Santa Barbara d'Oeste are buried. Padoveze is a descendent of Col. William Noris, who helped to settle Santa Barbara and also founded the nearbytown of Americana. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

A crippling economic crisis has cast a pall over the nation, along with the ongoing calamity over the impeachment of Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff and the corruption allegations against her.

"I don't go really deep into U.S. politics," says Natalia Cruz Novaes, 35, a descendant of the Weissinger Confederate family. "Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, I'm just not interested."

Around the corner, a black Chevy pickup bearing a Confederate flag bumper sticker trundles to a stop. Padoveze, wearing blue jeans, wears a Sons of the Confederate Veterans pin showing the Southern Cross emblem on his wool coat.

He's partial to blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd when he cruises through town.

"I like Sweet Home Alabama. I like Free Bird. I got these songs playing in the car all the time," he says.
Nanci Padoveze, who creates many of the costumes worn during the annual Confederate festival in the town of Santa Barbara d'Oeste, shows off her rebel flag wallet and a purse with the words "Lady Rebel" stitched in. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"But what makes me sad is that the band doesn't use the Confederate flag in their shows anymore," he adds, a trace of regret in his voice. "You know, because of all the controversy."

Confederados are tired of defending their reason for loving the rebel flag. If anyone will listen, they would much rather tell outsiders about how their ancestors brought watermelon seeds to Brazil, or how the Americans trained locals in new farming techniques using horse-drawn plows, promoted freedom of religion, and introduced school curricula later adopted by Brazil's educational system.

They're also more than happy to simply let their rebel flag fly freely and celebrate it for what it is: an emblem of their heritage.
Gean Carlos Costa, an administrator at the Santa Barbara d'Oeste historical centre, only has happy thoughts about the rebel flag. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Confederate flag is 'a symbol of love'

"A symbol of love," offers Dodson. Certainly not racism, he says. Not in a country where 50.7 per cent of the population describe themselves as black or of mixed race, according to the 2010 census.

And while Brazil was a slave-holding nation until 1888, historians say archival records show only about 10 per cent of the Southern immigrants were involved in slave farming.

Confederados cite oppression in the U.S. during the Reconstruction era, economic opportunities, an invitation from Emperor Dom Pedro II to help cultivate cotton on fertile soil, and the desire for liberation from "dictatorial" Yankees as more compelling reasons for the immigration.

But forget racial politics, says Gean Carlos Costa, who works at the town's historical centre.

Costa is so accustomed to the Flag of Dixie that when he sees images in newspapers, a much lighter thought comes to mind — one that makes the room erupt with good-natured laughter.

"To me, it's simple," he says. "When I see that symbol, I think of our parties."

About the Author

Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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