Xenophobia in Spite of Citizenship: Seasonal Migrant Workers in Brazil
Brazil’s robust sugar cane industry relies heavily on a domestic migrant labor force that travels seasonally from the poorer regions of the north and northeast to the more affluent south. Despite shared nationality and citizenship, tensions between migrant workers and the residents of the host communities where they temporarily reside suggest resentment on the part of the local communities against the influx of migrants who arrive during the harvest season. This resentment borders on xenophobia, yet it seems odd that xenophobia would be a concern within a context of shared nationality. The sentiments of local residents parallel those of some native-born Americans, Canadians, or Europeans, from whose perspectives immigrants are seen as an economic and social threat. Although the abundance of physically demanding work even in light of increasing mechanization of sugar cane harvesting suggests that there is no real competition for cane cutting jobs in Brazil’s southern states, there is still the perception of migrants as a threat to the local economy and culture. Migrant workers face discrimination and criminalization, and while discrimination against fellow citizens is not unique to Brazil, the complexities of the tensions between seasonal migrants and permanent residents transcend explanations that are based solely on race or socioeconomic class. Based on qualitative research with migrant sugar cane workers, this paper argues that inequality in Brazil is deeply rooted in Brazil’s colonial history, is connected to geographic region, and is related to such complex factors as race, ethnicity, color, kinship, class, and social capital. Together, these factors have produced an acutely hierarchical society that is proving to be unsustainable as the country’s global influence expands.