Last updated: 09:11 AM ET, Fri November 06 2015

Dispatch: Caxias do Sul, Brazil’s Little Italy

Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell | November 05, 2015

Dispatch: Caxias do Sul, Brazil’s Little Italy

PHOTO: A copy of Michelangelo's Pieta in São Pelegrino Church in Caxias do Sul, Brazil. (Photo by David Cogswell)

The trip from New York to Brazil started with a flight on TAM Airlines that took off at 7:30 Monday night. It arrived a 8:39 the next morning in Sao Paolo, Brazil, with a three-hour time difference (counting one hour for daylight savings time). From Sao Paolo I had a layover of a few hours for my flight to Porto Alegre, which left around 12:30 p.m. From there I joined a group that traveled by motorcoach for two hours through green, wet mountains in the wine country of Brazil to Caxias do Sul.

It was a long haul, but if you’re traveling from the northern U.S. to southern Brazil it’s going to take a day of your life to get there. Meanwhile, if you’re traveling to Brazil prepare to have your world turned upside down.

Fall turns to spring. And when you are talking about the north in Brazil, it’s as if you are talking about the south in the U.S. and vice versa. The south in Brazil is like the north in the U.S. It’s colder and things move faster than in the tropical side of the country.

At 3.3 million square miles, Brazil is slightly smaller than the U.S., which is about 3.7 million square miles, but the difference is not great. Brazil is gigantic, almost as big as the U.S. And it is oddly a sort of mirror image, similar to the U.S. in many ways but topsy turvy, all the elements mixed around.

Brazil makes up about half of South America, the Portuguese half. The Spanish half is divided into a number of countries. The Portuguese half is one country, but it is one country that is like many countries.

Like the U.S., Brazil is highly diverse in geography, culture, economics and practically anything else you can think of. And like the U.S. it is a rich melting pot of many different cultures from around the world, but it is a different mix. Brazil overall is a mixture of indigenous cultures and cultures of Europe, Africa and Asia. But Caxias do Sul in particular is weighted heavily toward the Italian culture.

The city was founded in 1875 by Italian immigrants, mostly farmers from the north of Italy, who left Europe to find more opportunity in the New World. Their colony emulated their homeland. Because of the lack of roads and the means of transportation in the area, the colony remained fairly isolated for a long time and its Italian heritage remained virtually untouched by outside influences. In rural isolation they continued their way of life for decades. In 1910 the first train connection came to Caxias do Sul.

In the 180 years since its founding, the Italian culture has been assimilated and Brazilianized. But the Italian culture is still the dominant immigrant culture in the region.

The language now is Brazilian Portuguese, though Italian influences remain, such as the use of “ciao” for goodbye. Italian culture heavily influenced the development of cuisine, not just in the traditional Italian restaurants, of which there are many good ones, but on the development of Brazilian cuisine. Italian culture influenced the music in the region, which Pedro Horn Sehbe of the Samuara Hotel described as a cross between tarantella and bossa nova.

The city’s main square is named for Dante Alighieri and many of the streets have Italian names, such as Avenida Italia and Rua Garibaldi. Italian immigrants turned the mountains around Caxias do Sul into wine country. For more than 80 years the city has celebrated a biennial festival called Festa da Uva, which celebrates the wine culture as well as Italian Brazilian heritage.

During World War II, the Brazilian government cracked down on things Italian and Dante Alighieri Square and some of the street names were changed, but were changed back after the war.

Like Little Italy in New York, Caxias do Sul has produced a beautiful hybrid culture with many of the best features of its various cultural parents, especially the Italian. It’s a unique part of Brazil and of the world.

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