It had all the trappings of a down-home country fair somewhere well below the Mason-Dixon line: Lynyrd Skynyrd medleys, mile-long lines for fried chicken, barbecue and draft beer, and a plethora of Confederate flags emblazoning everything from belt buckles to motorcycle vests to trucker caps.
But Sunday’s party marking the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War took about 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) south of the South, in a rural Brazilian town colonized by families fleeing Reconstruction.
For many of the residents of Santa Barbara d’Oeste and neighboring Americana in Brazil’s southeastern Sao Paulo state, having Confederate ancestry is a point of pride that’s celebrated in high style at the annual ‘Festa dos Confederados,’ or ‘Confederates Party’ in Portuguese.
Thousands turn out every year, including many who trace their ancestry back to the dozens of families who, enticed by the Brazilian government’s offers of land grants, settled here from 1865 to around 1875. They’re joined by country music enthusiasts, history buffs and locals with a hankering for buttermilk biscuits or a fondness for ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’
‘I don’t speak English and the only place I’ve been to in the U.S. is Disneyworld, but I feel the heritage,’ said 77-year-old Alcina Tanner Coltre, whose great-great-grandparents migrated from Mississippi along with their 15-year-old son. ‘My great-grandfather married a Brazilian woman, so he integrated into Brazilian culture pretty quickly, but it’s really important to me to come out every year to remember where we come from.’
The party takes place up a dusty dirt road flanked on both sides by sugarcane plantations, in a field that abuts on the ‘Cemiterio dos Americanos,’ or ‘American Cemetery,’ which began as the resting place of the wife and two daughters of one of the first Confederados and still serves their descendants today.
Amid food and beer stands bedecked with red-white-and-blue ribbons, extended families tucked into diet-busting barbecue and hamburger lunches as ‘Dixie’ played on a loop. Teenage girls pulled hoop skirts over their cut-off short-shorts and wiggled into bustier tops, taking to the stage painted with a giant Confederate flag on the arms of young men in grey and yellow Johnny Reb uniforms. The pairs solemnly presented the flags of the 13 Confederate states and square danced to raucous fiddle music.
But for the abundance of glitter eye shadow and the modern tattoos peeking out from beneath the uniforms, the stage had a convincing ‘Gone With the Wind’ vibe.
American visitors Rex and Gwen Gray, Civil War buffs who made the trip to Brazil from their home in Tucumcari, New Mexico, were sold.
‘It feels really authentic,’ gushed Gwen Gray, a 69-year-old retiree originally from Greeneville, Tennessee, explaining that she first read about the Confederados on a Facebook posting a few months ago. ‘It piqued my interest because I’ve read a lot about the history of the Civil War and I’d never heard about them and neither had anyone else I know. So we were real curious to see for ourselves.’
The history of the Confederate migrants is one of the lesser-known stories of the Civil War, said Casey Clabough, author of the 2012 historical novel ‘Confederados.’ It’s not even known for sure how many people made the arduous journey, Clabough said, with some historical accounts suggesting as few as 3,000, while others say there were as many as 10,000, predominantly from deep south states like Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia.
Most were lured by newspaper ads placed in the wake of the war by the government of Brazil’s then-emperor, Dom Pedro II, promising land grants to those who would help colonize the South American country’s vast and little-explored interior.
‘They were seen as desirable, educated colonists,’ said Clabough, adding the Confederados introduced the bull-tongue plow and other agricultural innovations to Brazil. ‘And from the point of view of American Southerners who had just gone through this catastrophic conflict and were looking toward an uncertain reconstruction period, it certainly seemed attractive.’
The fact that slavery was still legal in Brazil, where it was outlawed only in 1888, may also have been a factor, though Clabough said it was doubtful many of the Confederados would have been able to afford slaves either in the U.S. or in Brazil.
Legend has it that Dom Pedro himself was on hand at Rio’s port to greet the first batch of Confederados, mostly enlisted men and small family farmers who were then dispatched to rural areas of the surrounding states.
Difficult conditions in Brazil swiftly took their toll. Many succumbed to tropical diseases, while others were felled by sheer exhaustion. About half gave up and returned to the U.S., said Clabough.
Those who stayed ended up assimilating into Brazilian society, and very few of the Confederados’ descendants speak English today. Some are racially mixed — as is common in this majority Black and multiracial nation.
Mixed-race guests at Sunday’s party seemed unruffled by the omnipresent Confederate flag.
‘To me it’s a positive symbol of my heritage,’ said Keila Padovese Armelin, a 40-year-old mother of two who describes herself as a ‘racial milkshake.’ ”For us, it doesn’t have a negative connotation at all.’