EDGARTOWN — The nearly 50 Venezuelan immigrants who made national news last week ― as unsuspecting pawns in a cruel political exploit orchestrated by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida — ended up staying just two nights on the tony island of Martha’s Vineyard. On Friday morning, they were relocated to a military base in Bourne, where they sleep in dorm-style rooms and have access to nurses, legal aid, and other services.
With his political stunt, DeSantis, eager to show his “Trumpiness,” wanted to expose liberals’ hypocrisy when it comes to immigration policy. And if you watch Fox News religiously, you probably consider the stunt a success. That the migrants departed the island so quickly was somehow twisted and labeled in conservative media as a deportation and offered as proof that the liberal and elitist residents of the Vineyard couldn’t wait to get rid of the Venezuelans.
The truth is that the islanders didn’t shun the Venezuelans. On the contrary, they gave the migrants shelter, food, and other basic necessities. Nor is the Vineyard oblivious or hostile to immigrants in general. In fact, the island has been home, for decades, to a sizable population of Brazilian immigrants. They work in construction, landscaping, restaurants, housekeeping, you name it. Portuguese is even considered Martha’s Vineyard’s second language.
“The Venezuelans left, but the Brazilian immigrants are still on the ground,” Daniela Gerson, an associate professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, said in an interview. More than 10 years ago, Gerson set out to trace the rich history of Brazilian migration to Martha’s Vineyard, which started in the 1980s. In a 2009 article for the Financial Times, she wrote that an estimated 3,000 Brazilians lived on the island full time back then.
Because the US Census doesn’t count Brazilians as Hispanic or Latino (that’s a complicated debate for another day), it’s hard to get precise population numbers at a municipal level. But according to a group of scholars from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, there could be up to 6,000 Brazilians currently on the Vineyard. About half of them could be in the country illegally.
That there are many Brazilians in Massachusetts shouldn’t come as a surprise. After Florida, the Commonwealth has the largest population of Brazilians in the United States, at more than 100,000. “At some point there was a telenovela in Brazil about people leaving to go to Boston,” Gerson told me.
Vilson Faria is one of those Brazilians on the Vineyard. Faria has lived on the island for 16 years and is the head chef at the Golden Bull Brazilian Steakhouse in Vineyard Haven, “the only Brazilian restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard,” according to Faria, 52. There he serves coxinha, the little chicken croquettes, and rodizio-style grilled meats to a clientele that is approximately half Americans and half his fellow Brazilians.
Faria said he moved first to Cape Cod and then to the Vineyard looking for better job opportunities. “Brazilians do very well here economically,” Faria said. That’s the appeal of the island for Brazilians, who tend to be hard workers and entrepreneurial. “The only major problem we have is the high cost of housing.” A 2020 housing needs assessment on the island found that a quarter of year-round rentals were more than $2,000 a month. The problem is that there is no availability of such listings; and because of the high demand, some of those rentals can fetch about $3,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
The longstanding housing shortage on the island is, of course, legendary. From 2010 to 2020, the Vineyard’s full-time population increased about 24 percent, from 16,000 to 20,000. Meanwhile, the island added only 342 new housing units in the same period, a paltry growth of 2 percent.
Faria told me that, despite its numbers, the Brazilian community on the island doesn’t have political power. While Brazilians in other cities and towns in the state have been engaged politically — Priscila Sousa, a Brazilian immigrant who was the chairwoman of the Framingham School Committee, recently won the Democratic primary nomination to run for Framingham’s new state representative district; and Brockton City Councilor Rita Mendes, another Brazilian immigrant, won the Democratic nomination for another newly created district — they are barely involved civically on the Vineyard.
“We would make a huge difference if we were united, we’d be stronger,” said Faria. “There aren’t a lot of things to do recreationally for us — we don’t even have a public pool!” Gerson, in her 2009 article, wrote that “for the most part, the Brazilians have created a parallel society.” That dynamic remains true to this day.
That’s not to say there haven’t been efforts to organize them, according to Lenita Reason, the executive director of the Allston-based Brazilian Worker Center. But “one of the hardest parts of organizing [Brazilians] is that, when you reach out to them, they typically say, ‘oh, I’m only going to stay here for two years, I just want to work,’ ” she said. And yet, time passes and they make a life here.
When Faria heard about the Venezuelan migrants’ arrival, he went to visit them and brought them food. “We all wanted to help them,” he said. The Venezuelan immigrants came to the Vineyard. But immigrants were already there, nonelites driving the island’s economy from behind the scenes.