The Brazilian Immigrants Who Saved a Dying Mill Town

South American newcomers opened businesses and brought back the downtown in Framingham. For their efforts, they were threatened and harassed.

National Journal

FRAMINGHAM, Mass.—Ilma Paixão wasn't going to let anyone force her to move out of Framingham. Not even with threats, intimidation, or harassment.

If she moved, she thought, other Brazilians would feel they should too.

"I felt that if I gave up, other Brazilians wouldn't have the courage to put one foot forward," said Paixão, general manager of WSRO, a local Portuguese-language radio station that recently expanded its broadcasts to Boston and Cambridge.

Paixão was part of the first wave of Brazilian immigrants who settled in this Boston suburb in the early 1980s. Back then, fewer than 1,000 Brazilian immigrants lived in Framingham, according to Census data. In 2010, roughly 6,500 Brazilians lived in town—10 percent of the population. The area is the heart of the Brazilian community in the United States, with the largest percentage of Brazilian immigrants in the country.

Most of them moved to the area to find jobs as housekeepers and housepainters for affluent Bostonians. But as the number of Brazilian immigrants settling in Framingham grew, so did the discomfort surrounding these newcomers.

Paixão arrived in 1984 to work as a caretaker for an elderly member of a Brazilian family. She left her hometown of Coroaci, in southern Brazil, because she felt she wasn't taken seriously as a nurse's assistant. Sexual harassment, especially toward mulatas (mixed-race women of black and white ancestry) made it hard for her to establish a career, she says.

"I would get hit on at every job interview," she says at her office at WSRO's main studio in Framingham. "I knew I had the potential to have a successful career and wanted to explore that potential."

Paixão says she knew things would be different in the U.S. So when a family from her hometown asked if she would move with them to Framingham and work as a caretaker for one of their sick relatives, she says she jumped at the chance.

Few Brazilians lived in Framingham at the time, but the old mill town had a history of attracting European immigrants to work in its factories. Italian and Portuguese immigrants had paved the way for Brazilians, Paixao says, but their descendants have not always opened their arms to subsequent immigrants.

"They told [Brazilians] to sit at the back of the church," Paixão says, recalling those Sundays when she attended mass at a local Catholic church.

In 2004, Paixão helped launch the Brazilian American Association, which opened an office in downtown Framingham. At the time, many Brazilian entrepreneurs had started opening businesses in the empty storefronts around town hall. Big retailers had long ago left the center of town for the suburbs, and Framingham had lost thousands of residents after the General Motors factory closed in 1989.

The Brazilian association started working with immigrants to help integrate them into public life and grow their businesses.

"The town was changing and there was no communication between town hall and the Brazilian community," Paixão says.

Soon Paixão and the group of Brazilian entrepreneurs would become the target of strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the town, specifically the Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement. The two Framingham brothers who founded the group constantly criticized the Brazilian Association on their weekly television program, accusing Paixão of orchestrating a foreign takeover of the entire town.

She remembers getting anonymous calls at the home she shared with her American husband and two American children. Police always downplayed the incidents as the antics of harmless, ignorant people.

"The authorities did nothing. They ignored us," she remembers. "I was scared. Thank God my kids didn't have the same last name as me."

In April 2005, someone smashed the rear window of her Jeep Cherokee with a 25-pound rock outside Paixão's house. Another time, she came home and found three dead birds in a noose hanging from a tree in her front yard. She never found out who did it.

"At that time I was even scared of the police," she says. "It gets to the point where you don't know who to trust."

The experience was so terrifying that Paixão considered leaving Framingham. But she didn't want to leave what she now refers to as "my town." Instead, she focused on helping a Catholic university in Brazil start an online program in Framingham and completed a fellowship at MIT's Community Innovators Lab.

In the last few years, Paixão says town leaders have finally started reaching out to Brazilian immigrants and acknowledging their contributions to Framingham. The new town manager has hired Portuguese-speaking staff and the police department has hired Portuguese-speaking officers. The downtown economic-development team also meets with Brazilian business owners to include them in redevelopment plans.

It's a promising start, says Paixão, who no longer receives threats.

"Now we live in a town that respects us," she says.