Lyndon Johnson Pereira is all but forgotten. Just a handful of the Island’s some 3,000 Brazilian residents have heard of him. Other pioneering Brazilians who came in the late 1980s and early 1990s are now Island personalities, including Elio Silva, owner of the Tisbury Farm Market and other stores, and Paco Santana, a painter.

But the Brazilian who made the critical first step lasted only a year and a half and was gone before there was another countryman with whom to speak Portuguese or kick a soccer ball on the Island. Little did he know that his lonely move would trigger the Vineyard’s largest influx of immigrants since the Portuguese more than a century before.

My search to find the source of Brazilian immigration to the Island began 10 years ago. I was just back from a year studying at university in Rio de Janeiro, when I was surprised to hear Portuguese spoken on the ferry. Suddenly it seemed as if every cleaning lady, landscaper and housepainter was Brazilian. I would later learn that the immigration wave had begun more than a decade before that. By 1999, nearly 10 per cent of the babies born at the Vineyard hospital had a Brazilian mother.

Five summers later I returned to the Island as the immigration reporter for the New York Sun, a now defunct New York city daily. My assignment was to write about the burgeoning, mostly illegal, immigrant community on the Vineyard. By then Brazilians were undeniably putting down roots; evangelical churches were multiplying, every down-Island town had at least one shop, and in just five years, the rate of babies born to Brazilian mothers had jumped to nearly 20 per cent. Tensions had also bubbled to the surface, with overcrowding in homes and Department of Homeland Security sweeps of immigration absconders.

lyndon johnson pereira
Lyndon Johnson Pereira in Woods Hole, circa 1985 . . . — Courtesy of Daniela Gerson

My search for how this all started led me to the back office of Tropical, a restaurant at Five Corners. Antonio Silva, who was the owner at the time and one of the early Brazilian pioneers on the Vineyard, told me the name of the first to arrive. It was Lyndon Johnson, he said. But elation was short-lived; Mr. Silva also told me that Lyndon Johnson was long gone, living somewhere called Goiabeira.

It took five more years for me to meet Lyndon Johnson Pereira. On Jan. 1, 2009, I flew one hour north from Rio de Janeiro to the coastal town of Vitoria. When I told the clerks at the rental car company where I was going they looked dubious, warning that I would have to take a dirt road to get there, and it had been raining which could make it impassable. I shook off their concerns, but after nearly five hours of driving, and in encroaching darkness, I was worried. I saw a sign for Alto Rio Novo, a town I knew was home to many Brazilians on the Island. I asked some teenagers hanging out in front of a house if they knew Miguel or Tiago, two young men I had met on the Vineyard. With surprised expressions, they gave me directions. The last treacherous 30 minutes were down a dirt road riddled with holes. If it had not been pitch-black, I would have seen a valley surrounded by towering rock faces and verdant hills where mangoes litter the ground and zebu cows graze. Instead, I was just hoping to make it down alive.

Mr. Pereira’s hometown of Goiabeira was still half an hour down one more road, but I stopped first in another town that has been key in sending Brazilians to the Vineyard: Cuparaque. I parked my car at a plaza and within minutes found a couple who had lived on the Island. They led me to the stadium where Maxwell da Silva, who had once worked as a roofer on the Vineyard, had just become mayor of his hometown at the age of 29.

Nine years earlier Mr. da Silva was living with his wife and infant daughter in an extension of his grandmother’s home and lacking his own bathroom. Dreaming of opportunities, he paid a smuggler to fly him to Mexico and then crossed the border illegally. He was caught in McAllen, Tex., in a truck with some 70 other people and thrown in immigration detention for 29 days.

When he finally arrived on the Island, he felt like he was arriving in Cuparaque. Most of the members of his soccer team were already there. For the next three years he worked for a roofing company, first paying off $11,500 he owed for his trip to America, and then to provide for a better life back home. It worked. When he returned he had his own two-story house and a truck to start his own mango business. Five years later, tears of joy streamed down Mr. da Silva’s wife’s face as she watched him stand, movie-star handsome, addressing the crowd as mayor.

Maxwell da Silva, former island roofer, now mayor. — Courtesy of Daniela Gerson

Most of the approximately 4,300 residents of Cuparaque appeared to have turned out. The people of the town are descended primarily from a mixture of Krenak Indians, Portuguese, Italians and Africans. From tiny babies to old women with wrinkled skin, their hair pulled back in tight buns, they packed the cement bleachers and folding chairs of the gym. That night cheering children took pictures with cameras and cell phones. Fireworks exploded intermittently.

Following the ceremony, Mr. da Silva introduced me to the crowd as a journalist who would report on the day for “our brothers and sisters” back on the “Ilha,” Portuguese for the Island. I became an instant celebrity. Half a dozen former residents approached me wanting to share stories of living on the Vineyard. One man was taking a winter vacation before going back to his taxi business; another woman said she had been deported, leaving behind her baby daughter. A full-figured blonde, her skin pink from the sun, stopped me. Jess Nascimento had followed her Brazilian husband back to Cuparaque to try to sort out his green card. What they had hoped would be a quick process took months. Meanwhile, Jess had picked up Portuguese and looked perfectly at home, dancing with her baby to a two-step forro.

The next day fireworks went off at 8 a.m. as Mr. da Silva’s car, with a license plate that said Executive Power, pulled up to the simple government offices. His first official business was a visit to the health clinic; workers there reported problems with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, early onset leprosy, parasites and dengue. Without a hospital in town, health was the top issue, Mr. da Silva said. And with less money coming in from abroad, these problems and others became an even larger concern. “While three years ago the people were investing in the city, now it’s paralyzed,” he told me. “With all the difficulties that there are on the Island, the situation here is even worse.”

Despite the challenges, Cuparaque is a beautiful town and I enjoyed my time there, alternately tracing the first Brazilians to the Vineyard and discovering waterfalls and hiking spots. My unofficial guides were Aguimar Carlos of Ride on Mopeds in Oak Bluffs and Penny Wong, a teacher at the Tisbury School.

But I had come to meet Lyndon Johnson Pereira and needed to get to Goiabeira. After a few missed connections, I returned to my hotel to find a man standing in front of a black sedan. He had a full head of dark brown hair and medium build. He looked too young to fit my vision of Lyndon Johnson Pereira; I had thought about him in historic terms. But Mr. Pereira was still a youthful 46.

We drove to Goiabeira, and as we neared the town he pointed out the remnants of the one-room house without a toilet or glass in the windows where he grew up. He was born in June of 1963. A sickly baby, for months he went nameless. Then his mother heard on the radio that John F. Kennedy had died and a man named Lyndon Johnson would replace him. She liked the sound of the name.

Many island Brazilians came from these two towns. — Courtesy of Daniela Gerson

Mr. Pereira’s current home is a two-story pink Italianate off the main square. Often on the Vineyard, I heard stories from disgruntled Islanders about how the newcomers were saving all their money to live like kings back home. And it is undeniable that Mr. Pereira, now a teacher who runs a community radio station in his free time, resides in one of the grandest buildings in town — complete with a pool, two refrigerators and a Jacuzzi. His family did well, partly growing their money by loaning to others who wanted to make the illicit trip the U.S., but also finding a reliable profession to return to. Many others, I would learn, came back and spent their money and found that they could not find ways to sustain themselves.

As his wife and daughter prepared lunch, Mr. Pereira told me that growing up, he dreamed of a better future than tilling rice, coffee and corn. As a teenager, he heard about people leaving the nearest big city in Brazil for a place called Boston. “People were going to the United States and making lots of money. And that started the dream,” he said. The city was Governador Valadares, today one of the major source cities of Brazilian migration to the U.S, in particular the Boston area.

In 1985, presenting fake employment records and borrowing from everyone he knew, to his surprise he was granted a tourist visa on the first try. “It’s like God opened a door,” he said.

Fortune stuck with him. On the plane he sat next to two young migrants from his region; they helped him find a place to stay in an emerging Brazilian settlement in Allston. His tourist visa ran out after a few months, but he kept working, eventually taking a dishwashing job at a restaurant in a Boston suburb. He was happy and would have stayed there, but a chef he worked with offered him a job at a restaurant called David Ryan’s in Edgartown. One winter day he took a lonely ferry across the Vineyard Sound to the Island, worried he might have made a big mistake.

Mr. Pereira’s mother still has all his correspondence from his time in the commonwealth. Today Brazilians on the Island use e-mail, the social networking site Orkut or call home, but when Mr. Pereira was there that wasn’t an option. He picked up one letter he had written in decorative cursive script on sheets torn from a legal pad, just after his 24th birthday and a few months into his time on the Vineyard. He wrote: “It was a birthday different than any of the others, living on an Island where I’m the only Brazilian . . . Even as I’ve been here in the midst of strangers, they’ve made me feel like I’m in the midst of old friends. It’s a land full of millionaires in the summer, it’s full of artists, actors. It’s a beautiful Island and I hope to make good money this summer so that I can return as soon as possible.”

A year and a half later, with his father ill, and tens of thousands of dollars saved up, Mr. Pereira decided the time had come to return home to Brazil. Before he left he told his childhood friends Manuel and Edilson, who had trailed him to Boston, that a restaurant on the Vineyard was hiring and offering good wages. Word traveled fast: more than 20 Brazilians, almost all young men from his state, showed up to work on the Vineyard the following summer.

Most who came planned to stay just long enough to buy a truck and house back home. Anthropologist Maxine Margolis says Brazilians, like many economic migrants, come with the intention of returning home right away, but many delay their return for years as they put down roots and start families. The result has been a Brazilian population in the U.S. estimated between 300,000 and one million, with the largest concentration in Massachusetts.

Lyndon Johnson Pereira wonders what it’s like on the Island today. He would love to return as a tourist, see the changes and retell his youthful adventures to his son, who is at university studying to be a journalist, and his two teenage daughters. But obtaining a tourist visa is difficult.

I tell him that about a third of the babies born at the Island hospital today have a Brazilian mother. That you can buy the cheese typical of Minas Gerais and other delicacies in the local stores. And that there are now Brazilian soccer leagues. He has heard stories, but remains incredulous. “I couldn’t have imagined that so many people would go there,” he said. And he believes that, despite the economic downturn and border controls, it is not going to stop anytime soon. “I see people leaving from here,” he said. Much like a younger version of himself, he added: “They keep dreaming.”


Daniela Gerson is a journalist based in Los Angeles who has written on immigration from New York, Latin America, and Europe. Her family owns a home in Chilmark, and she has been a summer visitor to the Island for most of her life. She researched this story while a master’s student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, where she is now managing a local news initiative. Reporting for this story was supported by funding from the Institute for Justice and Journalism.