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.''

William Faulkner

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.''

To ensure Confederado history is not ignored in Brazil, the FDA invited the public to a two-day picnic in 1985 to celebrate Southern dance, dress, food, and song.

Since then, the event has been held on the manicured grounds of the Confederate cemetery, 10 miles outside of Americana on a winding dirt road through a maze of sugar-cane fields. About 128 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church barred Protestants from using its cemeteries, forcing the Confederate veterans to build their own.

''When I come here, I feel at home,'' says Henry Smith, whose grandparents came from South Carolina.

''Once in the cemetery, we are in the Southern United States,'' adds Steagall.

Near the entrance, a 25-foot-high obelisk emblazoned with four painted Confederate flags carries the names of the first families: Buford, Clark, Cullen, Newman, Terrell, Whitaker, and Yancey. Behind a small chapel, more than 400 tombstones, most with epitaphs in English, are surrounded by palm, eucalyptus, and pine trees.

Among the buried: Robert Cicero Norris, who fought with Gen. Stonewall Jackson; John Barkley MacFadden of the South Carolina Infantry, who surrendered with Lee at Appomattox; and W. S. Wise, who died in 1877 and was Rosalynn Carter's great-uncle.

The tombstone that most represents rebel defiance belongs to Roberto Stell Steagall, a first-generation Brazilian who died in 1985. He was decorated with a medal of honor for fighting with Sao Paulo rebels, who attempted to secede from Brazil in 1932. ''Once a rebel, twice a rebel, forever a rebel,'' reads his epitaph.

The words ''Forever a rebel'' would also describe Americana's historian, Judith MacKnight Jones. Mrs. Jones, the granddaughter of a Confederate veteran who ran away from his Alabama home to fight in the war, has made it her life's work to keep Confederado lore alive.

In 1967, she wrote a historical account in Portuguese called ''Soldado, Descansa'' (Soldier, Rest). She has also been the driving force behind the local ''immigration museum,'' which is filled with Civil War artifacts she pried out of families who left the area.

Last November, Jones led a campaign to overturn an Americana City Hall decision to take the stars and bars Confederate flag off the city emblem. ''We told them that if they did that, they would also have to change the name of Americana,'' drawls Jones.

Well aware that US critics say the Confederate flag symbolizes slavery and segregation, Jones and others insist that problem does not apply here.

''People here know that it merely represents the history of our ancestors,'' Mrs. Pyles says. ''And besides, changing flags doesn't change history.''

Back at the picnic, Paulo Roberto dos Santos, a black Brazilian whose cowboy hat bears a Confederate flag pinned to its label, says he finds nothing offensive in the symbol. ''For me, it just represents the cultural roots of my friends,'' he says.

Awareness of FDA grows

There are signs the FDA- awareness campaign is working. In recent years, the Confederate picnic has become more and more popular, keeping Southern pride alive in the deep, deep South of Brazil.

Rose Lene Vaughan, a pediatrician, speaks little English and has never visited the US. But she emphatically insists ''I am a Southerner'' and adds ''all of us want to send our kids to the United States to learn English.''

Recently, some 20 descendants joined the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, the group's first chapter outside the US.

''We will keep our traditions,'' Steagall says. ''Perhaps in Portuguese, but we will keep them.''

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