Renato Passos – slight-framed and serious-eyed – is talking to me in the front window of the recently opened Boteco Brazil on Ormonde Quay. When he decided to move to Dublin five years ago he was a philosophy graduate turned events organizer in Brazil’s Baixa region; a friend came back telling him Dublin was a party city, with opportunities for people with ideas. “When I first came here I was working as a kitchen porter for one and a half years. But I always had in the back of my mind new things, new ideas, new concepts of parties or food or… new ideas you know?”
Way back in 1999, the first big migration of Brazilians to Ireland had its famously unlikely destination in the small town of Gort, County Galway. The Little Brazil of the west was a trueborn son of global economics – a meat processing plant closing in suburban Anapolis coincided with one needing more staff in Galway – that rose and fell with our economic fortunes. When jobs began to dry up in 2007, many of Gort’s Brazilians – darlings of the popular imagination for the stories of masses told in Portuguese and Brazilian corner-forwards – were forced home.
In the basement of the Mezz, Dublin’s unofficial Brazilian ex-pat club, I talk to Adao Ribeiro, who set up Dublin’s first Brazilian restaurant from the kitchen of his house seven years ago. It might be lost in the Portuguese, as he speaks to me through a pony-tailed, ice-cube-tossing barman, but he remembers there being as few as twenty or thirty Brazilians in Dublin then. Now, according to the Central Statistics Office, some 11,000 Brazilians live in Dublin, with the actual number likely several thousand higher. Despite ever-diminishing job opportunities, it seems, the Brazilians kept coming. Adao now serves homesick Brazilians the national staple feijoada six days a week from the Mezz kitchen.
Renato got going with a weekly Brazilian party in the Turk’s Head (still running, under different stewardship, as Boteco Brasileiro), then created a series of boat parties in the bay, seeing an opportunity in Dublin’s post-3am vacuum of legal fun. Three months ago he dropped it all to open the Boteco Brazil with partner Gregory Passos. Renato seems genuinely grateful for what Dublin has given him: “I’m very suspect to say something about Ireland because I do love Ireland, so much. I always say, never slate Ireland. You have to give the country something, if you want something back. Because Dublin will, for sure.” In the background as we talk, a mix of Irish, Brazilian and staff from other nations prepare the restaurant for dinner. It is another bright June day in the improbable Irish summer.
In a small flat off Capel Street I am sitting on a couch, outwardly still but inwardly rocking, hypnotized by the movement of another man’s hips. It is a small flat with other people in it – the photographer, Samuel, as well as Anita the expressive one, Fernanda the mother figure, and Raquel the quiet one – but Marcio, a big guy with no right to move so well, is the one at the eye of this particular moment, samba-stepping in and out of a bar of evening sun. A round of the tune comes to an end and he stops dancing to catch his breath, laughing and panting. We all exult with him for a few seconds, before the tune starts again at a higher tempo, and his hips go with it.
On a Saturday evening a few days earlier, I’m in the basement of the Boteco with the same group. “Brazilians have this idea that every place around the world is better than Brazil,” Marcio says. They tell me a status obsession is fairly pervasive in Brazil; coming to Europe initially, they feel insecure that, being considered both “third world” and “new world,” they are somehow inferior. Anita adds: “And then we come here, and we can see that we are actually people.”
They all arrived, like the vast majority of Brazilians in Dublin, as international students. Our generous legislation towards international students – cheaper and more legally porous than the US, Canada, Great Britain and Australia – means that they can come to Dublin, attend English language classes and earn a living on the side. Though college-educated and working service industry jobs here, they often get more – money, time, freedom, than they would pursuing careers in Brazil, where taxes are very high and wages very low. Anita sees it as no coincidence that June’s historic protests demanded similar quality of life improvements: “People are travelling more, living more, they are seeing things. They want to have the same things they see abroad in Brazil.”
On Bloomsday this year, around 2,000 Brazilians gathered on O’ Connell Street to celebrate the Confederations Cup protests of their countrymen in Sao Paulo. Youtube footage shows a young crowd in fine form, hopping football fan-style and chanting the words O Gigante Acordou – The Giant is Awake – as bemused Dubliners pass by on their lunch-breaks. In very Irish style, the largest banner on display is an apology for any disturbance caused: “Sorry for the inconvenience”, the huge letters read, followed by, in much smaller type, “we’re building a new Brazil”.
Olivia, in Dublin 12 years, talks to me with both eyes on her daughter Maya, who disappears and reappears in the dings and screeches of the Stephen’s Green playground. She answers my tortuously broached question – do you think the Irish are emotionally and sexually repressed? – with seriousness: “Yes”. The photographer and me release some nerves in laughter. “Brazilians are warm people: we hug, we kiss, we don’t mind touching.” It had never before occurred to me that the Irish might on some level “mind” touching.
In the past few years, Irish immigration has started to get tougher on Brazilians entering the country. All the Brazilians I spoke to were aware of the rumours, and had a friend who’d been hassled. Julio, a 25-year-old whose great-grandparents met on the boat to Brazil, says he feels unwelcome after an experience with an immigration official:
“When I travelled to another country and came back and showed my passport, the guy at immigration asked me, what are you doing here, how long are you going to stay here in Ireland. But I already payed to stay here. I can stay here for one year. If I want to travel and go back here, I can do that. But the guy started to ask questions about that, like I’m a thief or a criminal. That’s why sometimes I prefer to live in Brazil. Because in Brazil I am free. It’s my land. It’s my country.”
“I feel free. I feel freedom”. Juan, 35, never had a boyfriend before he came to Ireland last June, and now lives with an Irish partner. Abraçando – Portuguese for embracing warmly is the word he uses to describe Irish people. “Because in Brazil… For example: sometimes my boyfriend asks to hold my hand here and I say no! But it’s not a problem here. If I did this in Brazil, maybe I could suffer some kind of violence. It’s very difficult.
As our interview draws to a close, we get onto a topic particularly close to Renato’s heart: the 3am late license, which he some day hopes to see change in Ireland. “The way I see it, it’s about freedom. Basically, you have no right to celebrate life after 3 o clock. Some day, somebody’s going to stress about that”, he says, drawing out the word like a rip in fabric. “Some day. Some day, somebody’s going to go to the street and say ‘Come on! Where is my right?’” He pauses and looks out the window towards the Liffey, perhaps imagining Dublin’s days of nightlife revolution to come. “Some day.”