BOA VISTA, Brazil
Settlers from across Brazil built this 20th-century city, creating an orderly urban space dotted with palm-fringed lawns and manicured parks. Its residents lived in relative isolation, with the most common outsiders being the anteaters wandering in from the Amazon jungle.
Then came the Venezuelans, streaming out of their country in Latin America’s largest migrant crisis in decades.
Waves of newcomers are overwhelming Boa Vista, inundating hospitals and sparking a 1,000-percent increase in emergency calls to police. Schools are scrambling to put up bilingual signs for Spanish-speaking students reaching Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Thousands of migrants are living on the streets, willing to work for a third of the wages of Brazilians. Refugee camps have sprung up in the urban core, giving rise to fears of long-term ghettos.
Boa Vista residents “are losing their city to people of a new culture, people they don’t know,” said the mayor, Teresa Surita. “If this continues, we will lose total control of this city.”
As their numbers skyrocket, Venezuelans fleeing hunger and repression in their collapsing socialist state are reshaping cities and towns across the Western Hemisphere. The sound of Caracas slang is now ubiquitous in some Miami neighborhoods. Thousands of miles to the south, the scent of Caribbean cooking wafts through streets in Santiago, Chile. In English-speaking Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuelans make up a new working class.
Aid groups estimate that between 1.6 million and 2 million Venezuelans will leave their nation this year, escaping hyperinflation and desperate shortages of food and medicine. Those numbers are on top of the 1.5 million Venezuelans who left between 2014 and 2017. Roughly 1 in 10 Venezuelans will have left their country in a four-year span.
Compared with the European nations receiving Syrian refugees in recent years, Latin American countries have few resources to cope with the deluge of migrants. In recent weeks, Peru and Ecuador started insisting that arriving Venezuelans have passports, not just national ID cards, effectively closing their borders to many.
Brazil has kept its doors open. But this week, President Michel Temer signed an emergency decree sending additional troops to the northern border to reinforce a military contingent there. The sudden migrant influx is raising concerns about crime and lawlessness, as well as deeper questions about identity in a country that was long culturally walled off by its distinctive language and habits.
As that change accelerates, initial sympathy for the migrants is turning to shock, and shock is turning to rage — bringing the global debate over immigration to perhaps its most remote outpost: the Amazon region.
“Trump should be our president,” said Marcos Pereira da Silva, 43, a house painter who joined an anti-migrant protest in Boa Vista one Saturday in mid-August. That day, hundreds of angry Brazilians in the border town of Paracaima went on a rampage, bulldozing a makeshift migrant shelter and burning its occupants’ belongings after the stabbing of a local merchant.
“We need a wall,” Pereira said.
A rarity no more
Boa Vista’s newest and fastest-growing migrant enclave is Rondon No. 1, a sprawling settlement of rows of durable plastic shelters that is home to more than 600 people. It is one of six emergency housing centers that have gone up here since March. Built by the army and operated with the aid of the United Nations refugee agency, the centers are bringing to Brazil an alien concept: refugee camps.
For those fleeing Venezuela, Boa Vista is the first big city south of the border, and the capital of Roraima state. Venezuelans began trickling in three years ago as their country’s petroleum-based economy slid into crisis because of plunging world oil prices and government mismanagement. By now, 800 Venezuelans a day are crossing into the state. Officials estimate 30,000 Venezuelans are living in Boa Vista, or 10 percent of the city’s population. By year’s end, they say, 1 in 5 residents could be Venezuelan.
On a recent afternoon, the city’s newest residents grilled arepas — Venezuelan corn cakes — on portable stoves. Salsa music, foreign in this country-music-loving city, blared on radios as residents chatted in Spanish.
It feels almost like a Venezuelan neighborhood, said Marisol Martinez, 38, who arrived here alone seven months ago. She has put on some weight after losing 20 pounds at home because of a lack of food and has picked up some Portuguese at a local church. “Falo bem, não, é?” — I speak well, no? — she joked, testing out the language.
She sends most of the money she earns cleaning houses home to her children. But she wants to launch an arepa business and earn enough to bring her children to Brazil.
This kind of regional migration was once exceedingly rare. No more.
“My children are not eating, they’re going to bed hungry, because that’s Venezuela,” she said. “Brazil is giving us a chance.”
The shelters are meant to be temporary, but many people in Boa Vista are dubious.
“This is the ghettoization of Boa Vista,” said Maria Suely Silva Campos, governor of Roraima state, of which Boa Vista is the capital.
She has gone as far as asking the Brazilian Supreme Court to close the border. Thus far, it has ruled against her, but she said she is determined to stop the influx.
Public services strained
Inside the gates of Nova Canaã Elementary School, the daily lunch menu is listed in Portuguese and Spanish. The bathrooms also have bilingual signs. A wall banner offers a “Welcome” in both languages.
Some U.S. cities coping with large numbers of immigrants took years to face the kind of challenges now confronting Boa Vista at lightning speed. In 2015, there were 53 Venezuelan students in Boa Vista’s school system. This year, the number is 2,261. And most Venezuelan children here are not enrolled in school.
To cope, the city is ordering 50 shipping containers to use as overflow classrooms.
“Most of our teachers don’t speak Spanish, so we don’t have a curriculum for the Venezuelan kids,” said schools superintendent Hefrayn Lopes. “At the same time, we think they need to adapt to our culture. We shouldn’t adapt to theirs.”
Boa Vista — the poorest state capital in Brazil — has not received enough aid from the federal government to handle a refugee crisis, local officials say. The majority of Venezuelans arriving, they say, are malnourished. With medicines scarce and conditions deteriorating in Venezuela, many are also ill — arriving with measles, malaria, HIV infection and tuberculosis.
At the 300-bed Roraima General Hospital, the largest in Boa Vista, Venezuelans now make up more than 50 percent of patients. With the hospital well over capacity, the sick lie languidly on beds in the corridors. On a recent day, one Venezuelan with complications of diabetes moaned as he lay on his side, waiting for doctors to amputate one of his legs.
“We’ve had to delay all nonemergency operations for Brazilians, some by months,” said hospital director Marcilene Moura. She added that the Venezuelan patients are arriving with startling illnesses.
“Today, we no longer see patients with just a fever,” she said. “They come with cerebral malaria, gunshot wounds and meningitis.”
Despite sharing borders with seven Spanish-speaking countries, Brazil stands apart in Latin America. The country looks toward the United States, Europe and China as economic and cultural touchstones. Brazilian students are more likely to study English than Spanish as a second language. Fashion, cinema and culinary trends tend to come from Hollywood and Paris, not Buenos Aires or Mexico City.
For Boa Vistans, the newcomers represent a culture shock.
On a recent afternoon at a town market, a Venezuelan musician picked up his guitar and began singing a Venezuelan folk song outside a restaurant. Venezuelan customers tapped their feet and sang along.
But the festive atmosphere soured a few stalls down.
“It’s like they have no limits,” complained Nelle de Maciel, 63, a Brazilian seamstress who has worked in the market for five years. “Their life is a party. Our market used to be calm, but now they get together to sing and dance. Sometimes they even clap their hands. We aren’t used to it. When you go to someone else’s house, you need to adapt to their way of life.”
Many in the city also fear the desperate Venezuelans will undercut them in the local job market.
Paulo Sergio Rodrigues, 58, a contractor in Boa Vista, lost half his income after Venezuelan day laborers came to town charging a third of his rate. But he said he will not lower his prices. “It would devalue my work,” he said. He has traded his car for a motorcycle to cut costs.
Others, like fruit vendor Valmor Saldenia, 49, blame Venezuelans for a crime wave that is spooking customers. Petty thefts — particularly shoplifting at grocery stores — have increased sharply, police statistics show.
“People are leaving the market. They are scared their bikes and food will be stolen,” Saldenia said.
Saldenia, who sells corn for the equivalent of 30 cents an ear, says his business has fallen by 50 percent since the Venezuelans began arriving in large numbers.
Just yards away at the entrance of the market, Robert Jimenez, 37, was selling corn for about 16 cents an ear. He earns only a few cents of profit per ear and measures success by survival. On a good day, he’ll eat. On a bad day, he won’t.
A former factory worker from the northern Venezuelan city of Maturin, he came to Brazil two months ago, almost starving. He rented a room with his brother, then they were evicted. The brothers had paid their rent, he said. “But I don’t think they liked Venezuelans.”
Now he’s sleeping on the street.
Despite his low prices, it’s hard to lure Brazilian customers. Many walk away, he said, when they hear his accent. One anti-migrant local threatened his brother with a gun.
“They fear us,” Jimenez said
At the end of a recent 17-hour workday, he had not sold a single cob or eaten a meal.
Asked how he was doing, he said: “Excellent. I’m still alive.”