The green and yellow Brazilian flag adorns many downtown shops in Framingham, reflecting the pride of the town’s dominant immigrant group. But as much as the waves of Brazilian immigrants have transformed Framingham over the past 30 years, the town has been a melting pot for generations — only slightly more than half of its immigrants are from Brazil. One in four Framinghamites is foreign born.
All the same, immigration continues to cause political friction even in a town seemingly accustomed to newcomers of all nationalities. For here a microcosm of the national immigration debate played out very intensely on the local level: Town Meeting members faced a vote to require the town-funded English as a Second Language program to check the immigration status of its students to qualify for two classes funded by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
It seemed like a retrograde vote, especially in light of the ongoing national immigration debate. But when the measure narrowly passed in May, it served to reveal the immigrant community to itself, capturing it in a moment of transition. The Brazilians of Framingham continue to slowly assimilate, but they had not yet obtained enough influence to help prevent the measure, which was non-binding, from passing.
It highlighted another political reality as well: hostility toward immigrants on the fringes, symbolized by the Rizoli brothers, Joe and Jim, former town meeting members and caustic critics of the impact of immigrants in Framingham. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center , the Rizolis have characterized the town’s ESL classes as similar to feeding wild bears, therefore encouraging undocumented immigrants to stay. Jim Rizoli has compared them to “gangrene” and a “cancerous growth,” and claims Framingham has been turned into a “Brazilian slave camp” and “a third-world country.”
But for some, the vote underscored a more common sentiment: the ongoing ignorance of many residents about immigrants with whom they rub shoulders, in one way or another, almost every day.
“When people say to me, well I support immigrants but not undocumented immigrants, I say, ‘Well, who are the undocumented immigrants?’ ” said Christine Tibor, director at the Framingham Adult English as a Second Language Plus program — now in its 30th year — that ultimately was at the center of the controversy. “And they go, well, not the lady that takes care of my mother in a nursing home, and I say, well, she could be. The vision of the undocumented that some people have sometimes is not real.”
Tibor said she talks to a lot of groups in Framingham about immigration, “and generally, there’s a lack of understanding.” People usually don’t understand that, she said, “there is no line to get into, and the system is broken for a number of reasons. And people say, I had no idea.”
The one line immigrants can get into is the ESL waiting list. The Framingham adult ESL Plus program has 700 students enrolled with another 400 on the waiting list, a mismatch of supply and demand that is consistent with ESL programs across the Commonwealth.
The lack of resources helps perpetuate ignorance on both sides of the immigrant equation. ESL teachers regularly encounter immigrants who have been in the United States for a decade or more without learning any English. Vanessa Desani, who has been teaching ESL in Framingham for seven years, was struck by the insularity of some immigrants.
“Because Framingham is not as close to Boston like Somerville or Everett, they just create this little Brazil bubble — they go to the Brazilian restaurant just down the street, they go to the gas station and somebody speaks Portuguese there, or anywhere,” she said.
Some immigrants would simply avoid English because they figured they wouldn’t stay long, Desani said. But now, she said, newer immigrants with more education are arriving and realizing the primacy of learning English. “They know that without English they’d have the worst jobs,” she said.
It may be that Brazilians have been slower to assimilate than other immigrant groups (some say the strong work ethic precludes time for traditional organizing), but in Framingham, Brazilians are assuming more political power, along with a stronger business presence. Ilma Paixão, general manager of WSRO 650, the local Portuguese-language radio station, is busy trying to establish the Brazil-New England Chamber of Commerce. Paixão, who possesses a rare combination of passionate community activism and sharp business acumen, said the world of Brazilian small businesses is very dynamic.
“You see towns like Framingham, Ashland, Marlborough — [Brazilians] are going to these towns and they used to be ghost towns,” she said. “We should be able to take ownership of this privilege and say we have here a group of businesses that brings a different flavor to our town and that should be good.”
Meanwhile, a handful of Brazilians have been elected to Town Meeting. The first was a graduate of the town’s Adult ESL Plus program.
The vote underscored the ongoing ignorance of many residents about immigrants.
“Now we’ve seen that first group of Brazilians who came over are so well-situated now, they’re leaders in the community,” said Timor. “Now I can’t tell you how many times I talk to someone in a store with an American accent, and they say, ‘I’m Brazilian, and I was born here and grew up here.’ ”Marcela García is a special correspondent at Telemundo Boston and a contributor to the Boston Business Journal.