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Booming Brazil lures immigrant workers

By Shasta Darlington, CNN
December 21, 2011 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Immigrants contribute to Brazil's economy
  • They also send money from their small businesses to their home countries
  • Amnesty program in 2009 allowed immigrants to be legal residents and workers

Sao Paulo, Brazil (CNN) -- In the heart of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, the Little Peruvian Corner turns out spicy lomo saltado -- or jumping sirloin -- for a fast-growing immigrant population.

Edgar Villar is the proud owner. After nine years in Brazil, often working illegally for next to no pay, he has opened his own restaurant. He sends $150 to $500 a month to his mother in Lima, Peru.

"Brazil has a strong economy, so you can make money if you are careful about what business you get involved in," he says.

Immaculate red and white tables dot the second-floor walk-up business that's usually full of Peruvian immigrants at lunchtime.

Villar arrived in Brazil from Lima on a tourist visa years ago. The money he had to live on quickly ran out. He took jobs sewing textiles and even worked for room and board so he could learn the jewelry-making trade. "It wasn't slave labor because I knew what I was getting into," he said. "And I really learned a trade."

Villar took advantage of a 2009 amnesty program from the Brazilian government to become a legal resident and worker.

He used his savings and legal status to open Little Peruvian Corner. Villar hired Peruvian immigrants as waiters and cooks, but he still dons an apron and fries up the popular dishes.

"I still do a bit of everything," he says. "It depends on the day."

For decades, it was working-class Brazilians who went abroad in search of opportunity, fueling the domestic economy with remittances.

But today more immigrants are coming to Brazil, Latin America's economic powerhouse. There are about 2 million foreign residents - both legal and illegal immigrants. Many are blue-collar workers from Bolivia, Peru and Paraguay. Some are from as far away as Angola.

They typically work in sweatshops, churning out textiles or stringing together costume jewelry.

The Center for Immigrants' Human Rights says Brazil's immigrant population will continue to boom. "We've got the World Cup in 2014 and then the Olympics," says Paulo Illes, a coordinator at the center. "So there are going to be opportunities in totally new sectors like civil construction."

And that will be positive for other economies as immigrants send money back home.

Sao Paulo's Bolivian immigrants tend to congregate on Coimbra Street, a couple of blocks from a bustling wholesale textile market.

Women sell Bolivian chairo stew and fresh bread on the street. On Coimbra, bus tickets to Bolivia for the holidays are offered in local shops.

While life has become easier for immigrant communities, there are still many struggles. They must learn Portuguese, work in often difficult conditions and, in some cases, avoid police raids.

But Chalo Mendoza says things have improved since he started working in Sao Paulo a decade ago.

"When I arrived I was alone. Now it's like the street is paved with Bolivians," he says.

Mendoza's popular Chalo Barbershop is a gathering spot for Bolivians. Dozens of job and housing notices line the shop's hallway.

"We have rights and obligations," he says. "We have to comply with Brazilian law. But we are also good for Brazil."

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