By Molly Ball, author of Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo.
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Writing Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo was like finishing a jigsaw puzzle. Only instead of a box to show you the finished image, someone just gives you a bag of pieces and says, “it’s going to be a cityscape.” Examining each document carefully is like studying individual pieces, but instead of noting the contours and subtle color variations, you focus on the origins and implications. Just like a puzzle, at first you don’t know exactly where the individual pieces go, but eventually you start grouping together similar colors and themes.
In my first explorations into São Paulo’s archives considering the viability of dissertation topics, I was looking for evidence of corruption, but I kept coming across records with workers’ wages from the period of the Old Republic: private company balance sheets, employee entry cards, and state wage records. I was surprised because these records were not supposed to be available for the entirety of the period, but I kept encountering them. I started grouping them together, thinking about the larger cityscape I was trying to complete.
Between 1891 and 1930 the city of São Paulo experienced incredible changes: recent abolition, a transition from Empire to Republic, exponential urbanization, massive immigration, and industrialization. In the first decade alone, the city’s population grew sixfold, reaching 240,000 residents by 1900. Such dynamism has left much of the historical record in disarray. Scholars didn’t know how much money the typical worker made, the price of rice and beans, or how those numbers changed over time. Furthermore, a tendency of official records to use “foreign” and “native” as categories and a paucity of race observations within the same records complicated our ability to differentiate experiences. As I combed through these wage records, I realized I could find the information to illuminate the scale of discrimination and prejudice faced by Brazilians, Afro-Brazilians, women, and particular immigrant groups within São Paulo’s Old Republic labor market. And thus, a close analysis of the gendered, racial, and ethnic dimensions of labor became a central component of the puzzle.
When it comes to actually putting puzzle pieces together, you have to pay attention to both the color and the shape. In Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo, I melded qualitative and quantitative methods to piece together a closer understanding of the everyday lives of the people on the other side of these records. To understand the diversity of the city’s population, I delved into arrival records from the Hospedaria de Imigrantes immigrant receiving station, analyzing trends among the thousands of direct arrivals to the city. These records revealed a disproportionate number of unskilled Portuguese families arriving in the prewar era, a disproportionate number of skilled Germans coming in postwar era, and an unexpected high literacy rate among northeastern migrants settling in the city. But while these numbers could tell me about the shape, the passport applications and immigrant letters provided the color, revealing the expectations and experiences of individuals and families flocking to São Paulo.
Just like with any good jigsaw puzzle, sometimes I found myself stuck. In these moments I would focus on a different part of the puzzle. Sometimes it was working on the edges, providing context about São Paulo’s coffee economy in an era of export-led growth. Other times it meant looking for that one missing piece, and the elation that came with putting it into its place. As the different sections of the puzzle came together, people emerged in the foreground of the São Paulo cityscape. They often grouped in family units, dreaming of a better future as they confronted daily struggles and navigated the city. And they congregated around the Hospedaria de Imigrantes, which stood as the center of the puzzle. It was a place where migrants, immigrants, and city residents knew they could find work if making ends meet in the city became impossible, and it also served as a literal refuge when it became a haven for flood victims in 1929.
About halfway through finishing the puzzle, I noticed an important divide: World War I. On the pre-war side, a gleam of opportunity could be seen beneath the urban grime and people’s expressions often held hope. On the lackluster post-war side stood a more divided working class. There were some people who could aspire to be part of a laboring middle class, but many Paulistanos, particularly Afro-Brazilians and women, were pushed even further to the margins.
As I was finishing Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo (in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic), I started to look at the extra pieces that didn’t fit my study. When I started the puzzle, it seemed like they should belong, but as I got closer to finishing, I realized they were part of a different jigsaw puzzle. Hopefully that one won’t take quite as long to finish.
Molly C. Ball is a history lecturer at the University of Rochester and author of Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo.