As supporters of Brazil’s Workers’ Party awaited the results of Brazil’s Presidential election at the People’s Forum in downtown Manhattan in early October, they hoped they were about to witness the fruits of their labor: helping oust incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in the country’s first round of voting.
They fell just short. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won 48% of the vote, to Bolsonaro’s 43%. In Brazil, if no presidential candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a second round. Lula and Bolsonaro will now square off again on October 30 in an election that may decide the future of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, and test the strength of one the world’s largest and youngest democracies.
“It was incredible,” said Natalia de Campos, a co-coordinator with Defend Democracy in Brazil, a U.S.-based advocacy group that supports Lula. As de Campos reflected, she was pleased by the turnout and competitive margin between Bolsonaro and Lula among expats who voted in New York City. The Workers’ Party, which has campaigned on a platform of progressive environmental, economic and social policies, saw a 600% increase in support in the 2018 election from Brazilians living in New York City. The close race, while not an outright victory, represented a dramatic shift in the electorate.
In recent years, the Brazilian expat vote in New York City has leaned conservative, sometimes by a landslide, contrary to the city’s broader liberal reputation. “That’s a mystery,” said Maxine Margolis, Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida and author of the 2013 book Goodbye Brazil: Emigrés from the Land of Soccer and Samba. “The same was true in 2018,” she added.
Defend Democracy in Brazil was founded in 2016 and took off in the wake of Bolsonaro’s election. Since its creation, the group has advocated for environmental protections and Indigenous rights in rallies across New York. Beginning in 2019, group members annually protested Bolsonaro’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. And this year, they marched to the consulate in midtown Manhattan, where Indigenous Brazilians condemned Bolsonaro and his environmental politics.
While some immigrants from other parts of the world might leave the politics of their homeland behind when they settle in the U.S., some Brazilians stay connected.
“Brazilians have very close family ties,” said de Campos, referencing the many immigrants living in New York who send money to their families back home. Religion can play a role, too, as the Evangelical Churches in New York City often serve as tethers to life back in Brazil. And, the popularity of platforms like WhatsApp and Signal mean that news from Brazil is only ever a click or two away. The key for organizations like Defend Democracy in Brazil is turning this connection to home into a sustainable political energy.
Ahead of the first round of the 2022 election, the group strove to close the electoral gap between Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party and Lula’s Workers party. To do so, the group focused on Brazilians living in Newark, New Jersey and Astoria, Queens, areas with some of the highest concentrations of Brazilian immigrants in the tri-state metropolitan area. They organized a non-partisan event to register Brazilians to vote, provided information about polling locations (there are ten polling sites in the U.S. serving Brazilians expats, each in a different city; expats in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, vote in New York City) and partnered with Brazilian celebrities to encourage young people to vote.
One of those young people who registered to vote was Zachary Brody, a 22 year old Brazilian-American whose mother, an activist and organizer with Defend Democracy in Brazil, was instrumental in getting him signed up. He was thankful for his mother’s involvement in Defend Democracy in Brazil, and their guidance throughout the process, referring to it as, “simple,” because they were “sending me everything I needed to do.”
Brody felt motivated to register because of the backslide with Brazil’s economy, which marginalized peoples have endured under Bolsonaro, he said.
Brazilian election returns from voters living in New York City showed that Brazilians in the tri-state area were less enthused about voting for Bolsonaro.
Correction: Defend Democracy in Brazil began protesting Bolsonaro’s speeches at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, not 2018.