Danubia Campos can remember back six or seven years ago when she knew every Brazilian on Martha's Vineyard.

"I knew where everybody lived and every phone number," said the 24-year-old from Oak Bluffs who is majoring in political science at Cape Cod Community College.

But not anymore.

The influx of Brazilian immigrants to the Vineyard which began more than a decade ago has snowballed in the last three to four years. While there is no official census data tracking their numbers, an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 Brazilians live year-round on the Island, accounting for more than 10 per cent of the year-round population.

The impact is considerable, and in many cases, welcomed. Vineyard employers have turned to the newcomers for what they now view as an indispensable pool of labor. Other Islanders have embraced facets of the Brazilian culture that have emerged on the Island, from Portuguese language classes offered by local libraries to the Brazilian music, dancing and food now available at a range of down-Island venues.

"I think it is a permanent cultural change on the Vineyard. I thought they were temporary, but they're owning homes and businesses and their kids are in schools," said William H. (Bill) Russell, a Vineyard Haven painting and flooring contractor who hires only Brazilians for his crews. "There's an unending amount of new blood coming in. They've all seen their relatives' success and think, ‘Why can't I have that, too?' "


But the melding of Brazilians into the Vineyard community has not come without strain. Not all Brazilians living here are legally documented, in compliance with federal immigration laws, and there is a public cost of meeting their educational and health care needs. Vineyard public schools will spend close to $325,000 this year on salaries for staff members hired specifically to work with students classified as English Language Learners (ELL), nearly all of them Brazilians.

The maternity ward at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital has seen the number of babies born to Brazilian parents rise more than 50 per cent in the last two years. Edgartown district court sets aside about one day a month for cases dealing with defendants who require a Portuguese interpreter, paid for by the state. The majority of the cases stem from a single infraction: the lack of a driver's license. Without proper documents such as a work visa or a green card and social security number, immigrants are unable to obtain a driver's license.

"We have not addressed the driver's licenses and work status for many years. Now that it's been condoned and because they think it's okay, more people are coming, and it's not okay," said West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey, who traveled to Brazil in 2003 to acquaint herself with the customs and culture of the country.

How many of the Brazilian immigrants here are legal? It's anyone's guess.

Ms. Campos estimates it might be one-third. Ezekiel Lacerda, a 40-year-old house painter in Edgartown who came to the Island in 1995, believes 40 per cent of the Brazilians are here legally with a green card or a current work visa.

"So few of them are fully legal," said Mr. Russell. "It's an ultra-sensitive topic."

Legal or not, the Brazilians' effect on the Island economy is unmistakable. They have opened their own retail storefronts, restaurants and businesses. They are also putting down roots, abandoning their status as tenants to become homeowners.

"Their big impact is that they're buying, and they are aggressively buying," said John Best, a real estate broker in Vineyard Haven. "They're a big element at the low end of the market."

As employees, the Brazilians play a pivotal role.

"The Island needs this labor force," Mr. Russell said. "Without it, the restaurants, the hotels, the painting world, the landscapers, they all grind to a halt."

Steven Bernier, owner of Cronig's Market, agreed. More than half of the employees at his Vineyard Haven store are Brazilian. Without them, he said he would be unable to keep his store open past 6 p.m. in the summer months.

Economic opportunity drew many of the Brazilians to the United States and to the Vineyard, in particular. Janio Reder, who is 44 and now a dual citizen of both the United States and Brazil, arrived on the Vineyard 14 years ago after running a pizzeria in his native country. He now works for Cronig's Market in Vineyard Haven and at the market's sister store, Healthy Additions.

To make a point, Ms. Reder grabs a pen from the counter and scratches down the exchange rate between a Brazilian real and the American dollar. One dollar buys 2.45 reals, he says.

"You can make $100 a month in Brazil," Mr. Reder says. "Here you can save $500 a month. It's much better in America."


A portion of the earnings are often funneled back to Brazil. In a newsletter written and published by employees at Cronig's, two personal accounts tell of the financial achievements.

"I can give money to pay school [for] my daughter," wrote Janio Lopes in the April 7 edition of Bom Dia (which means good morning). "Now, I am working in America. I was able to buy a new house in Brazil. I paid 13,000 dollars. Now my wife and daughter live in a new house."

Mr. Russell said the practice is commonplace and also a source of resentment among some Islanders.

"One of the slams against them is how much money is being extracted from the community and sent back to Brazil. But it's the same with any immigrant culture. The Mexicans do that . . . and the same is true of the guys coming over on the ferry," he said.

In Minas Gerais, the state in Brazil where many of the immigrants on the Vineyard are from, Mr. Russell said, there is a town called Dollar Town because so much American money is flowing in there.

"The housing prices there are listed in dollars," he said.

But as attractive as the economics appear, they exact a physical and emotional toll. Peter Palches, who was hired by Cronig's to teach English skills to Brazilian employees, said that one of the main things he notices about his students, beside their genuine smiles and deep religious convictions, is that they are tired.

"It's fatigue," Mr. Palches said. "You work 70 hours a week and wouldn't mind getting another job? What do you have left when some guy comes around and tries to teach you another language?"

Some arrive here $8,000 or $10,000 in debt, the cost of hiring a transporter to bring them illegally across the Mexican border and into the United States.

"There's interest on that. If they let it go for a year, you could probably double that," Ms. Campos said.

Mr. Russell said Brazilians on the Island who pay that cost to bring a relative or friend to the Island basically have what he termed an indentured servant for the amount of time it takes to pay back the loan.

When Mr. Lacerda moved from Boston to the Vineyard in 1995, he worked two jobs, painting houses by day and then clocking in at Lola's restaurant in Oak Bluffs for a night shift: 70 hours a week total. He also shared a house in Katama with nine other people.

Like other Islanders, the Brazilians are affected by the high cost of housing. Ms. Campos said her mother, who bought a house last year in Oak Bluffs, is providing shelter for a Brazilian woman who is pregnant. "She was living in a very stressful home. Too many people. Too much gossip," said Ms. Campos.

But both Mr. Lacerda and Ms. Campos said overcrowded houses, such as the one that caught fire three years ago on Curtis Lane in Edgartown, are becoming less common.

Mr. Lacerda smiled at the irony: "They keep building houses here. A hundred houses a year. Now, we have lots of houses to rent."


Working six days a week at this time of year, he said: "Now I have a normal life." He has one job, a coveted green card and an apartment he rents with two others. He will apply for citizenship in December.

But along with the stress of work and glimmers of contentment, there is also worry about how an increasing numbers of Brazilians arriving on the Island will affect the economy that brought them here in the first place.

Ms. Campos argued that the latest wave of immigrants from her homeland is helping to drive down wages. House cleaners who were earning $25 an hour are now bringing home $15 an hour, she said. Dishwashers who saw more than $12 an hour are now being offered $8.

At Mr. Russell's house painting business, there were no raises this year for the first time he can recall. "There is an unlimited supply of labor. Everyone's coming and keeping wages down. It's straight capitalism at work," he said.

More Brazilians on the Island could spark a backlash of negative sentiment, said Mr. Lacerda. "I'm afraid when you have too many Brazilians. If some Americans lose their jobs, Americans will ask why are they coming?" he said.

The larger numbers, he said, could also attract the scrutiny of immigration officials.

Ms. Campos distanced herself from the recent arrivals. "If you're drunk-driving, getting into fights, selling fake documents, you shouldn't be here," she said. "The Vineyard is a small place where you're not just another person in the crowd. You have a name. But now, you're Brazilian, you're labeled, you're no good. You're thrown into a pot."

Mr. Bernier said, "I've had customers chew me out and say ‘Why don't you hire Americans?'"

Understandably, Brazilians are sensitive to the negativity, and many are quick to point out that they are paying taxes and doing their share.

"There are people who think we are a menace," said Leonardo Sily, 32, and an employee at Healthy Additions. "But we are not here to take away jobs. The Brazilians should do the work Americans don't want to apply for. I think there's space for everybody, in peace."

At the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, members of the school council this year explored how some of their foreign students, including Brazilians, were being treated inside the school.

"We have found that many of them suffer from rudeness, insult and isolations at our high school," the school improvement plan, released this month, stated. The council decided to sponsor a two-day retreat this summer to devise ways to address the problem.

On the health care front, there are also new efforts to improve services to the Brazilian population. The Vineyard Health Care Access Program has just completed a study of health of the Vineyard's Brazilians.

Of the 1,500 people served last year by the county-run program, roughly 600 to 700 were Brazilians, said director Sarah Kuh. She estimated that about 80 per cent of the Brazilian population on the Vineyard is uninsured. The annual budget for the program is $180,000.

"It's a humanitarian thing," she said. "We have a long history of immigration in this country. For people not to get health care is a harsh way of dealing with economic reality."

At the hospital maternity ward, the number of Brazilians having babies is on the rise. In 2003, they accounted for seven per cent of the 150 deliveries, or 11 babies born. Last year, that number climbed to 12 per cent of total births, another 17 babies born there to women who identified themselves as Brazilian, said Dr. Patrick Donegan, an obstetrician-gynecologist.

"The advantage we have is our midwife Cathy Chase who speaks Portuguese," said Dr. Donegan. "That's fostered a sense of trust in our practice."

In district court in Edgartown, assistant Cape and Islands district attorney Laura Marshard is also striving to foster trust with the Brazilian community.

In other words, unless there's a serious crime, prosecutors do not ask the two dozen Brazilians summoned to the Edgartown courtroom on an average month about their immigration papers.

"We want people to feel the D.A.'s office is accessible to them when they need help," she said. "We don't want them to be afraid to seek help because they're afraid of deportation consequences."

Enforcing immigration laws on the Island also does not appear to be a top priority with the immigration officials in Boston. Last year's raid on the Vineyard targeted Brazilians who had already been ordered to leave the country and who had outstanding warrants.

"We are working to restore integrity to the immigration system," Paula Grenier, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Boston, told the Gazette.

"People are inclined to cast immigrant groups in a negative light," said Dr. Timothy Tsai, director of emergency services at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. "At one point or another, every group was brand new. The Brazilians are just another group in a long history that characterizes our country."