One man’s resolve to illegally stay in the UK says everything about the contradictions of Brazilian culture

Names were changed to preserve the subject's anonymity.

By Cilene Tanaka

“‘The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” This is Joao’s* confusing justification for his illegal status in the UK. “The English say, “This is our land.” But actually, it is not theirs,” he says “It’s not even the Queen’s. The Earth was created by the Lord. God made it, and the English are only living here.”

Joao is a construction worker in his early thirties, currently in lockdown with his family in the UK. Born in Brazil, having never learnt English, he persuaded his wife and child, three years ago, to enter the country as tourists. Other Brazilian undocumented acquaintances ensured he had a bedroom upon arrival and a job a week later. Joao’s ethos – a mixture of contrived religion with impromptu politics – mirrors that of many Brazilians.

It is common practice in Brazil, not least amongst intellectuals, to combine conflicting political positions and philosophical theories; an issue raised in the classic “Roots of Brazil” by Sergio Buarque de Holanda. For Holanda, Brazil’s culture has irreconcilable contradictions. On one side, a positive tendency to creativity and improvised solutions: the “jeitinho brasileiro” or “Brazilian way of doing things” is almost as charming as their carnival. On the other, a toxic inclination towards DYI anarchy which partially explains a long history of inequality and corruption.

The landlord has given Joao a payment holiday allowing him to worry solely about food. A diet based on rice and beans means that his £1,000 in savings is enough to sustain the family of three for up to six months. “If we don’t budget, then we spend around £100 a week, but we can manage on £70.”

There is a social prestige in coming to the UK so for Joao, simply living in ‘Europe’ is far more important than living in poverty. The Brazilian ‘jeitinho’ has, once again, proven its worth: Joao improvises his own modest job seekers allowance to get through lockdown.

The latest figures raised by Pew Research estimate that 800,000 undocumented immigrants were living in the UK in 2017. There are no recent figures on how many of those are from Brazil, but, according to BBC Brazil, it is estimated that half of the Brazilians currently in the UK are irregulars.

Statistics, however, have no bearing on Joao’s decision to remain here. Undoubtedly, avoiding extreme poverty should come before theoretical discussions.

“In Brazil, I was nearly £7,000 in debt. After just a year living in the UK, I had managed to pay it off,” Joao explains.

According to Holanda, Brazilians have an underlying conviction that the law should make exceptions specially tailored to their personal needs. In Joao’s case, the ‘personal needs’ just so happened to involve poverty and a massive personal debt.

Joao’s child attends a school and is registered with a local GP. “They do ask for your documents, but then you just say you didn’t bring it with you. You say, “can I bring it later?” and then never do.” He is currently owed an estimated £5,000 for work with previous employers in the UK. “Most times that’s what happens, they say “I’ll pay you in ten days”. But the ten days go by and nothing,” he explains.

What Joao does not realize, is that the excuse he gave to the school and the NHS is the same given by those employers who owe him £5,000. But who has never been contradictory? With sound, albeit improvised, logic Joao has drawn the moral line on expired visas.

*names were changed in order to protect the subject’s identity.