The city of São Paulo is known for its famous immigrant neighborhoods, founded by Italians, Lebanese and Japanese. However, few people know that in the Zelina Village, a quiet neighborhood in the eastern part of the capital, you can find a piece of Eastern Europe, inhabited by descendants of immigrants from this region who arrived in Brazil in the first half of the 20th century. These Eastern Europeans have preserved the culture and traditions of their ancestral nations until today.
The neighborhood was founded on October 27, 1927, by Claudio Monteiro Soares Filho, owner of most of the lands in the region who decided to subdivide and sell them. He delegated this function to a Russian immigrant, Carlos Corkisko, who had recently arrived in Brazil. Corkiso sold these lands to many Eastern European immigrants, including Russians, Lithuanians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Ukrainians and Bulgarians, among others, who had arrived in Brazil as refugees from the First World War in Europe (1914-1918) and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917).
Today, the neighborhood has about 15,000 inhabitants from 11 nationalities, who are descendants of Eastern European immigrants. Cultural traits of those nationalities are found in the streets and shops in the Zelina Village. Around the Lithuanian Republic square, for example, it is possible to find shops that sell typical Eastern European products such as black bread, traditional Russian dishes such as Varenyky (a kind of stuffed pasta) and pickled cabbage. In addition, there are shops that sell handicrafts from Eastern Europe such as Matrioshka, the famous Russian doll, or porcelain with Ukrainian paintings. There are also services focused on the immigrant communities, such as a travel agency specializing in tours to Eastern Europe, as well as a language school that teaches Russian.
In this neighborhood, there are also several churches frequented by the immigrant community, where masses in local languages are celebrated. For example, St. Jose of Zelina Village church maintains the tradition to celebrate mass in Lithuanian every Sunday morning, while the Ukrainian Catholic church celebrates masses in the Ukrainian orthodox rite on Sundays. There are a further three orthodox churches in the neighborhood.
Aiming to preserve the culture and tradition of Eastern Europe, residents of Zelina Village decided to found the Association of Residents and Merchants of the Zelina Village (Amoviza) in 2007. The association, which boasts 400 members, works to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood through cultural activities, in order to give greater value and visibility to this region.
Since 2011, a fair has been held monthly next to Vila Prudente Ecological Park, which offers crafts and traditional dishes from Eastern Europe. The first fair this year will be held in March. “Each month we work with one different theme. In April, we will celebrate Easter, and there will be workshops on painting eggs, a very traditional activity in Eastern Europe”, said Victor Gers Junior, cultural-partner director of Amoviza.
Gers Junior, who has lived for more than 40 years in the neighborhood, is a descendant of Russian parents, who were born in Germany and China, and is married to a Lithuanian descendant.
Aside from the monthly fair, an Eastern European party is held on October 27 to celebrate the neighborhood’s birthday. At the event there are performances of folk dance groups, as well as the serving of the typical dishes from Eastern Europe. “We want the party to be not only a celebration for immigrants and their descendants but also a way for São Paulo residents to discover these cultures”, said Gers Junior from Amoviza.
One of the oldest Russian cultural groups is the Volga Group Cultural Association, which was founded in 1981. The group has 150 members and offers Russian folk dance classes, taught by the Russian choreographer Irina Sazonova, who has lived in Brazil for three years. Apart from that, the group also has a choir conducted by the Russian maestro Victor Selin. The Volga group is also supported by the Russian Embassy in Brazil and the General Consulate of the Russian Federation, in São Paulo.
The dance and choir classes are performed every Sunday at the St. Michael Archangel Franciscan College, located in Mooca, a neighborhood near to Zelina Village. “About 90% of the Volga group members are Eastern European descendants,” said Tamara Gers Dimitrov, president of the Volga group. Her mother, daughter of Belarusian parents, was born in Germany, while her father came from a Russian community in China. Both arrived in Brazil in the 50’s. At that time, there was a significant immigration of Russian descendants who were born in China, as a result of the Japanese invasion in the country (1937) and the Second World War (1939-1945). They were immigrants with good technical training, who had worked in the construction of railways in China.
According to Tamara, the reason why the Russian community has neither its own headquarters, nor typical restaurants in the neighborhood is related to the persecution of communists during the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964-1985). “The community avoided any kind of business related to their cultural origin for fear of persecution by the military regime,” said Tamara.
Now, the Eastern European community is trying to rediscover its origins and keep its traditions alive.