A Bit of the Confederacy Survives in the Deep, Deep South
''In the South, the past isn't dead. It's not even the past.''Skip to next paragraph
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UNDER fluttering Confederate flags and the gaze from an oil painting of Gen. Robert E. Lee, women in hoop skirts and bonnets dance the Virginia Reel with men wearing rebel army grays. Hundreds of spectators chomp on hot dogs, while giant speakers blare out ''Dixie'' and ''The Devil Went Down to Georgia.''
It could have been a gathering of Civil War buffs in Georgia or Alabama, but this picnic took place 5,000 miles below the Mason-Dixon line.
Each year, Brazilian descendants of Confederate veterans, who sought refuge in this tropical nation nearly 130 years ago, gather to celebrate their American roots.
''We have a tradition that we don't want to see die out,'' says Thomas Steagall, whose great-great-grandfather served under General Lee. At 21, Mr. Steagall is the youngest member of the Fraternidade Descendencia Americana (FDA), founded in 1954.
The FDA seeks to preserve ties to United States culture among an estimated 100,000 heirs of the original emigrants. Most descendants have little interest in the fraternity, speak only a few words of English, and prefer beans and rice to biscuits and corn bread.
''It's a challenge,'' group leaders agree.
''The attitude of my generation is: 'I'm Brazilian and I speak Portuguese,' '' notes Mr. Steagall, a computer technician. ''They ask me: 'Why should I care?' ''
In an effort to respond, the 350-member FDA publishes a newsletter, keeps track of births and deaths, and researches biographies of rebel ancestors.
''There's great satisfaction in knowing who your great-great-grandparents were,'' says FDA member Allison Jones, an engineer whose relatives came from Texas.
The original Confederate emigres were some 20,000 Southerners who preferred the Brazilian wilderness to life under Yankee rule after the Civil War.
Many believed they had no choice: Their property was destroyed, and the federal government took away their citizenship and levied new taxes. They represented a cross section of Southern society: plantation owners, merchants, lawyers, ministers, doctors, and poor farmers.
They were attracted to this sugar-cane growing region, 85 miles northwest of Sao Paulo, by its brick-red soil, which is similar to Mississippi earth and ideal for growing cotton. At the time, Brazil still allowed slavery, which was not abolished until 1888.
The expatriates were called Confederados and their community Vila Americana, or ''American Town,'' later shortened to Americana. Over the years, they introduced neighbors to the watermelon, steel-blade plow, kerosene lamp, sewing machine, silk weaving, pecans, and peaches.
Today Americana, pop. 200,000, is one of Brazil's leading textile centers and the only city in this nation with a coat of arms that has a Confederate flag as its centerpiece.
''I love their story,'' says Ney Carvalho, an Americana banker who is not a Confederate descendant. ''It's important to note that we Brazilians are now enjoying the results of their labor.''
Celebration in a cemetery
Confederado history is better known in Brazil than in the US, although some US historians have described the rebels' flight as the largest political exodus in US history. Historians say as many as 40,000 Southerners settled in Latin America after the war, with the majority choosing Brazil.
''Americans ignore this part of their history because they find it shameful,'' maintains FDA President Noemia Pyles, whose ancestors came from Waco, Texas. ''America is always the place people dream about going to, not leaving.''