By Natasha Greenhouse

[Natasha Greenhouse]

São Paulo has long been an immigrant city. Today, Bolivians are the second largest immigrant community, only behind the Portuguese. While some began to immigrate in the 50s, it wasn’t until the 80s when significant numbers of people began to come for the promise of jobs in the garment industry.  And there’s no sign of slowing down. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of registered Bolivians in the city jumped 173 percent. However it’s estimated that the actual number is five times that, to over 100,000 people. With such a significant population, it’s strange that their presence seems to be largely ignored. São Paulo likes to highlight its immigrant heritage, especially when it comes to food, but it tends to celebrate select groups – namely those who have been here for at least a century but also have reached a certain socioeconomic class.  The only time Bolivians seem to be present is when the news reports on the garment industry – namely, the use of exploited Bolivian labor and modern day slavery. Last year the gunning down of a five year old Bolivian boy and the subsequent demonstrations against harassment and racism also temporarily garnered media attention.

bolivia-coimbraDespite their invisibility in the media, Bolivians have created spaces for themselves, particularly with two places: Rua Coimbra and Praça Kantuta. On Saturdays, the small street Coimbra in the bustling commercial neighborhood Brás is filled with vendors selling clothes, electronics, video games, makeup, and countless other items, over a blaring Latin Top 40 soundtrack. Barber shops tend to their customers, kids play with wooden foosball tables set up outside. Then there’s the food. Tiny shops and stalls carry a wide array of dried chilies, potatoes, grains, herbs and more. Modest restaurants are filled with families, and outside there’s people roasting chickens, serving savory salteñas and pouring cups of cool mocochinche.

Sundays are for Praça Kantuta. The industrial Pari neighborhood is largely deserted on this day, save for the square where food vendors and barbers set up tents to perform their services. In the center, families gather to watch kids play soccer, or occasionally there will be music or dance troupes performing. Like Coimbra, Kantuta acts as a communal space for celebrating culture as well as supporting local businesses.

With regard to food, there’s no shortage of Bolivian establishments, but they’re hard to discover on one’s own. Many restaurants are in nondescript buildings and often have limited hours due to employers also having to work in the garment industry. Few have websites or social media presence, and city food guides rarely mention anything Bolivian. (At most, they’ll highlight Andean food, which may or may not be Peruvian.) To find a Bolivian restaurant, the best source is word of mouth from those in the neighborhood. Despite the lack of attention, though, there are a number of Bolivians who’ve made their mark in their own way.

kantuta-menu2Doña Flora Fernandes considers herself a pioneer in introducing Bolivian food to the city. She came to Brazil in 1970, and after successfully selling snacks on the street, opened her restaurantRincón La Llajita in the Santa Cecília neighborhood in 1986. In the early days, she made the week long trek by train every few months back to Bolivia to get vital chillies and other ingredients, bringing back enough for six months at a time. Quickly attracting Bolivian and Brazilian customers, she worked seven days a week, preparing classic Bolivian dishes such as sopa de maní or charkekan, as well as feijoada. (“The Brazilians would tell me, “Your rice is delicious! I don’t know how you do it.”) Today, she’s had to scale back her work because of her health, preparing salteñas to order during the week and opening the restaurant on weekends.

She mentions the difficulties in the beginning because she had “the face of a foreigner,” but claims that things have gotten much better over the years. Still, many first and second generation Bolivians are hyperaware of the negative stereotypes associated with them: they’re poor, dirty, primitive, alcoholic, illegal, and here to traffic drugs and steal jobs.

Fighting these labels is Chef Erik Gonzales, son of Doña Flora. He runs La Cholita, a food stand that offers Bolivian street food like sandwiches de chola and salteñas. Through his food, he aims to change people’s preconceived notions about Bolivian people and get them excited about the culture. With dishes from various regions of Bolivia, he’s done his research so he can educate and engage his customers while he serves food. He’s even taken on the noble task of teaching Brazilians how to eat chilies with his own bottled hot sauces that combine delicious peppers with refreshing mint, a far cry from the vinegary sauces often found in botecos. His stand has taken off, with regular appearances at food and culture events all over the city. And his timing couldn’t be more perfect. With recent city legislation supportive of street food, Paulistanos have many more opportunities to try different foods without the time and monetary commitment of a sit down restaurant. One couple that took a chance on La Cholita later came back and told Chef Erik they did some research on Bolivia and ended up booking their next vacation there.

Checho Gonzales is another Bolivian success story, although his focus is slightly different than the others. He came to Brazil as a child and has since occupied a space between the two nationalities. With nearly 20 years in the business including opening several restaurants and working with Alex Atala, he’s made a name for himself in the city’s food scene. In 2012 he created the after-midnight food stand fair O Mercado, which has now evolved to a daytime food and activity event with themes like Lowriders or Tiki. During the week he runsComedoria Gonzales, a small but inviting food counter that sources its ingredients from the Mercado Municipal de Pinheiros, where Comedoria is housed in. He describes his food as “comida de imigrante,” or immigrant food, with roots from Bolivia but influence from other regions in Latin America, such as the Patagonia or Mapuche in Chile.

Chef Checho is outspoken about the hardships and discrimination that immigrants, particularly the poor, suffer from.  Calling Bolivians “the new nordestinos,” he points out that thirty, forty years ago, the city’s natives looked down on the food of the poor, working class immigrants from northeastern Brazil. Nowadays, their food is accepted, even hip, although anti-nordestino sentiment hasn’t completely disappeared.

For Bolivians, it may be a similar path. There are already innovative and dedicated people in the city working to create a delicious plate of food, but for the average Paulistano to recognize and embrace it, it will take time. One can certainly argue that a cuisine doesn’t need to appear in Veja São Paulo to be valuable, but food can play a vital role in breaking barriers and forging acceptance of others. At the very least, it’s a way to recognize that Bolivians are not a mysterious, seedy “other,” but rather an integral part of the city. This will take time.

The owner of the restaurant El Tronquito in Zona Norte said that when Brazilians come in looking hesitant, without a clue of what to order, she points them to the typical dish pique a lo macho. “Everyone eats fried potato. I show them the meat, the vegetables. It’s something that’s not strange.”

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