Community spirits

Migration and the Making of Industrial São Paulo
Paulo Fontes
2016, Duke University Press
280 pages, paperback

AS CITIES go, São Paulo is in a class of its own. The largest metropolitan area in the Americas (and 3rd in the world) with 33m people, it also comprises the largest municipal authority in the world, and is the 10th richest city on the planet (likely to be 6th by 2025) with a GDP of at least R$500 billion (£118bn).

There is a hidden story behind the city’s extraordinary industrial and urban growth, however, that the brash, bold and gleaming capitalist Brazil of today would perhaps like to forget. This marvellous city was built by poor hands far from home.

São Paulo’s expansion – and utlimately its success – was fuelled by wave upon wave of internal migrants from other parts of the country, particularly from the impoverished north-east, Minas Gerais and the interior of São Paulo state, whose sacrifices, hard work and stubborn endurance combined to build an unrivalled metropolis.

This book is about how those hands came together – São Paulo’s urban working class – and how workers confronted and resolved the many challenges they faced in an environment that was being transformed so rapidly: issues of infrastructure, transportation, sanitation, education, healthcare, high prices and remorseless competition as ever more migrants flooded into the metropolis.

Workers faced these challenges both politically – through trade unions and leftwing political parties – but also socially, through a plethora of community and civic associations that they created themselves in the city’s rapidly growing bairros.

Paulo Fontes zooms in on the neighbourhood of São Miguel Paulista, a village on the outskirts of São Paulo whose phenomenal growth between 1945–66 around the sprawling Nitro Química industrial works eventually transformed it into a virtual city within a city.

In this study the author is interested in the social history of labour and understanding workers’ relationships in the community itself. This approach reflects developments in social history that have moved beyond the more formal and organised realms of working-class identity such as factories, unions and parties – and to a certain extent the sociological frameworks imposed by 20th-century structural theory such as Marxism – to encompass other dimensions of the working-class experience and their everyday culture.

In an earlier book, Trabalhadores e Cidadãos, Fontes examined factory culture and political and union militancy. Drawn by the strong sense of community that developed in São Miguel Paulista, in this study he has extended his focus to broader relationships, both during the migration process endured by so many workers, and in their everyday urban community experience and social relations.

The author points out that this is not an attempt to depoliticize the process of class formation, but to demonstrate the vital importance of everyday reality in building social networks and a public space where workers could construct identities and fight for rights – thereby providing a more multifaceted understanding of the political experience of the working class.

This is a very valuable undertaking: one of the insights of this book is the very particular notion of “community” associated with a strong class identity. As a result, Migration and the Making of Industrial São Paulo makes an important contribution to our understanding of the concept of community, a term perhaps more taken for granted than almost any other in political analysis. As Fontes notes, in recent years many historians have sought to study communities not only as places, but also as sets of social relations, and critics have pointed to the indiscriminate use by labour historians of the term.

The process of class formation, he argues, therefore has a double dynamic: it involves the construction of social relations by means of unions and political parties, for example, but it also requires the construction of dense connections over time, not least in terms of personal ties that cumulatively result in social solidarity. This is much more likely to occur, inevitably, in a more homogeneous social setting such as that found in São Miguel Paulista.

As Fontes writes: “Neighbourhoods do not just turn into communities by themselves; social networks constructed and articulated by residents create them, and space is an important component of these social networks.” [p 6]