Bom dia, y'all: Brazilian town loves its Dixie roots
Descendants of Southern U.S. settlers wave Confederate flag, munch fried chicken. Just don't ask about Trump
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.
"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
"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."
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?
"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.
"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
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.
"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.
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.
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."