Brazilians in Utah

By Katherine Pioli

Sitting at a long steel commercial kitchen countertop in her chef’s apron, Perola Drogueti spoons a thick creamy pudding of condensed milk from a large metal bowl and smears it into the bottom of a plastic cup. Snapping a vanilla wafer cookie in half, she sets the pieces on the pudding and, picking up the spoon, starts another layer. The final touch to the pave (pah-vey), a traditional Brazilian dessert, says Perola, will be a layer of chocolate ganache.

It’s Saturday morning at Utah Sweet Spot in Sandy, and the entire Drogueti clan— including Perola’s parents Reinaldo and Vera, her twin sisters Daniela and Grazila, and brother Paulo—is busily readying for the weekend rush. As the bakery display case fills with Brazilian sweets, Vera begins assembling bags of garlic, bacon and smoked pork ribs for feijoada (fey-zhoo-ah-dah)—the day’s special menu item, and what most of the shop’s loyal Brazilian-born clientele come for.

For many Brazilian families, Saturdays are typically spent together watching a game of televised soccer and sharing a meal of feijoada, unofficially the country’s national food. That tradition lives on at Utah Sweet Spot. The Drogueti version of this smoky, salty, black bean soul-food stew has a reputation for being the best in the valley—everyone, says Reinaldo, wants to know their secret ingredient. It was on the recommendation of a friend, who heard about the feijoada from her Brazilian-born Portuguese teacher, that I’d made a trip to this one-room shop in a funky little strip mall in the middle of suburbia. The hot bowl of beans, rice and herbed yucca flour in front of me was my first exciting step into a world of Brazilian art, culture and food that can be found in Salt Lake City.

Brazil has a population of 210 million. According to a 2007 estimate, 1.2 million Brazilians live in the United States. The American Community Survey accounts for only 346,000, due perhaps to the undocumented status of so many. Still, that represents a tenfold increase in the number of documented Brazilians in the U.S. since severe hyperinflation in the 1980s sent many from the country’s middle class in search of more stable economies.

Though the largest congregations of Brazilian diaspora in the United States are found in Florida, Connecticut and Massachusetts, Utah also has seen a strong influx in the last 30 years. Gary Neeleman has run Utah’s Brazilian Honorary Consulate for the last 14 years. By his estimates, currently 16,000 to 20,000 Brazilians live in Utah and surrounding states; and while many of those are longterm and permanent residents with green cards, the number fluctuates as students and temporary workers come and go. “We mainly get people coming from [the states of] Sao Paolo and Bahia,” says Neeleman. “Most of the illegal workers I see are from Minas Gerais.”

For Reinaldo and his family, who left the house he had built across the street from his mother’s home in Sao Paolo, the motivations for leaving were that of comfort and opportunity. Reinaldo says Sao Paolo, a metropolitan area of 21 million, was becoming too crowded, too disorganized and too dangerous. When a family friend who’d already left told them about her quiet, peaceful, grid-planned new city in Utah, they decided to follow. She offered to help them settle in and find work. Of course, it helped that the Drogueti family were already members of the LDS church.

In 2001, the Droguetis applied for their visas to the United States and, surprising even to them, they were all approved. Although it’s not known exactly where immigrants from South America’s largest country are settling in Utah, or how many of them are Mormon, there are indications that, like the Drogueti family, many Brazilian immigrants to Utah are coming because of the LDS Church and are settling along the Wasatch Front.

The LDS influence on Brazilian immigration to this state begins with the first Brazilian converts, in 1929, and the establishment of a missionary headquarters in Sao Paulo, in 1935. The church’s foothold in the Amazonian country held on through the rest of the century, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it really started to take purchase. Brazil was the site of so much mission work that, in 1993, the Church built their second largest missionary training center in Sao Paolo. Presently, the country is home to nine temples, 34 missions, 1,602 wards and 1.3 million members, accounting for one-third of all Latter-Day Saints in South America.

In 2008, Orem became the site of the first Portuguese-speaking ward in the United States. Since then others have opened, including three in the Salt Lake Valley. Also in 2008, the Utah State Office of Education began a dual language immersion education program in select schools in the state. Today six elementary schools from Provo to Tooele to Logan offer Portuguese immersion programs.

Over the course of the last 15 years, the Drogueti clan has studied, worked, worshiped, bought homes and married in Utah. Their community here, both Brazilian and Mormon, is strong. Demand for the cakes and desserts that Perola brought to church functions, tasty little reminders of home, led to the opening of Utah Sweet Spot in 2010. Perola is happy to serve her customers, both Brazilian-born and those who have never been south of Saint George, a bowl of feijoada or a cheesy pao de queijo.

“We never gave up on our culture,” she says. But Utah is home. Visits to see Drogueti family members in Brazil are rare. Reinaldo Drogueti, for one, has never gone back and, with his parents now gone, he doesn’t expect to.

For centuries, the promise of the American Dream—or something close to it, like the success of the Drogueti family—has lured people to America’s shores. For many, that dream continues to entice. Young Brazilian men and women eager to immigrate to the United States often contact Pastor Valdison Neves of Utah’s Brazilian Assembly of God (a sect of the Pentecostal religion). They ask for advice and he’s honest with them about his experiences. “I tell them not to come.”

After 14 years in Utah, Pastor Neves is blunt about the difficulties of navigating a new language, new cultural expectations and the stress of finding work as an immigrant. “Jobs are poor, salaries are low,” he says, and even the weather in Utah can discourage people from staying. “They want it to be more like Brazil,” he says. “They don’t like the snow.”

In Brazil, the number of Pentecostal practitioners far exceeds the number of Mormon congregants. With 24 million members, the Brazilian Assembly of God is one of the fastest-growing denominations in the country, second only to the Roman Catholic Church. But, when Pastor Neves arrived in Utah, in 2001, at the request of his sister, he found a very small, loosely formed congregation numbering only about 15 families. Soon after the U.S. recession began, half moved back to Brazil. Of those who remain, he says, many have struggled to maintain work and marriages.

Still, Pastor Neves continues to be approached by “young people from Brazil who want to come here and leave their mother and father. That’s difficult for me,” he says. “I see that they lack maturity and the freedom here can bring problems.”

Making a new life in a strange place and navigating a foreign culture may be more work than it’s worth for some, but for 70-year-old Helena Seabra Levier the transition has gone well. “I have lots of friends from Utah, from other countries, but not from Brazil. My connection with home is staying in touch with family—you know, email and Facebook,” Levier tells me over the phone from her home in Salt Lake.

Twenty-five years ago, Levier followed her grown children to Utah —two sons, one who found work as a pilot for an American airline, and a daughter who came to study. “I intended to spend two years here while my daughter was in school,” she says. Now, retired from a career as a personal chef, she’s still living in her Salt Lake condo near her three kids and four grandchildren.

Levier admits that the sights and smells of her apartment could transport you to Rio de Janeiro. “I have plants everywhere, and I make Brazilian food every day. I don’t eat American food.” But being Brazilian isn’t the only thing that defines her. Her most meaningful friendships, she says, are with people “who share my profile, are interested in the same things I am,” things like history, philosophy and world travel.

At the downtown farmers market in Pioneer Park, Mestre Jamaika faces his opponent and completes a hunched capoeira-style cartwheel into the gathered circle. Staying low, he plants his feet wide and prepares for the first kick. A few minutes of powerful spins and leaps and the capoeira dance/fight is over. The mestre smiles at his student and the two touch hands before making room for the next pair.

Two Volta Miuda capoeira student practice their moves at Salt Lake's Pioneer Park
Two Volta Miuda capoeira student practice their moves at Salt Lake’s Pioneer Park

Mauro Romualdo—as Mestre Jamaika is known outside of the capoeira family—began practicing the Brazilian martial art at his home in Teixeira de Freitas, Brazil, in the northeastern state of Bahia, a place historically noted for agriculture and slavery and as the birthplace of capoeira.

Slavery in Brazil lasted for 300 years, during which time 3.6 million Africans were brought to the country—more than three times as many as were brought to the U.S. The practice finally ended in 1888 and the Brazilian government ordered the destruction of any recorded history of slavery in the country. Besides an attempt to hide the horrors of the past, this historical erasure also removed from record much of the culture developed by and within slave com­munities and very nearly eliminated one of Brazil’s most prized modern art forms, capoeira.

Because of this purge, little documentation remains of capoeira’s origins. It is believed that plantation slaves, who came from many different tribes and often could communicate only through dance, drumming and song, created capoeira as a ritual that strengthened social bonds. The dance was also a deadly tool. The movements disguised fighting skills that slaves could practice and hone undetected and use when escaping. Because of its use as a weapon, the art form was seen as a threat. It was outlawed and criminalized by President Marechal Deodoro Da Fonseca, in 1890, and was not legal again until 1930.

Growing up in the 1980s in Bahia, Mauro Romualdo recalls that capoeira was for his community like basketball is in most American cities. “Everyone knows what it is and how to do it,” he says. “The movement is rooted so deeply in Brazilian culture that it comes naturally to most people and a kid in Bahia can learn the basic moves in a single day and look pretty good.” But unlike Americans and basketball, Romualdo says, it’s unusual to find a Brazilian who wants to do capoeira. It’s an indifference that he chalks up to the long period of state-sanctioned suppression and the form’s Afro-Brazilian heritage, which, for many Brazilians, is often negatively associated with poverty and crime.

“There’s no incentive to learn capoeira. It’s not taught in the schools. Parents don’t push their kids to do it,” confirms Carla, a Salt Lake carpoeirista and a native of Sao Paolo, who learned the steps only after moving to the United States. Even though the form’s roots are deeper in Brazil, “there’s a different energy when you practice here,” she says.

For Mauro Romualdo, capoeira was a way out of a tough community. “The prosperity gap in Brazil is very large,” he told me. “Most of the Afro-Brazilian community is really impoverished and, even as a kid, I knew there were very few ways out. I had to dedicate myself to education and to capoeira.” So, at the age of seven he began selling popsicles in the street to pay for his lessons. Six years later, he transferred to a capoeira school a day’s travel from his hometown. Since then he’s returned home only to visit.

As a teacher, Romualdo traveled from Israel—where he was first surprised by capoeira’s apparently global popularity outside of Brazil—to Boston to Provo, where he guest taught at BYU. In 2009, Romualdo opened the Volta Miuda capoeira school in Salt Lake City.

At the Saturday farmers market, as the demonstration winds down, some of Romualdo’s students pass out flyers to the sizable crowd that has gathered to watch. There are families with wide-eyed youngsters. A group of teens is already trying out a few moves and a thickly muscled man in a Muay Thai t-shirt eagerly takes a flyer.

Given the ethnic diversity in Brazil there’s little chance of discerning national origin by external appearances. And since capoeira involves song as well as movement, everyone from Volta Miuda, who at some point sang quite adeptly in Portuguese, seems pretty darn Brazilian. Taking a break in the shade, two capoeiristas, Sapo and Agarrado, introduce themselves using their capoeira names. Both, they say, are Utah-born and not of Brazilian heritage. “Your background doesn’t matter here,” says Agarrado who, like many of the students present, has been practicing for close to a decade and has developed a familial closeness with the group. There’s no definition for the capoeira community, he says, “there’s space here for old and young, Mormon and non-Mormon.”

“Capoeira is so culturally rich that I see people from places like Salt Lake hug into it,” explains Mauro Romualdo. Once used for creating new families among displaced and suffering people, capoeira, in leaving Brazil, has become for many, he says, a way to unite in a modern world where people feel increasingly isolated even inside their own communities.

In the Salt Lake Arts Hub, the same Westside building where Volta Miuda meets for weekly classes, another Salt Lake-Brazilian institution, Samba Fogo, holds class every Thursday night. A nonprofit cultural arts organization, Samba Fogo runs drum and dance camps for kids, performs for the wider community on a regular basis and is Salt Lake’s home for Afro-Brazilian music and dance.

If there’s any example of, as Mauro Romualdo describes it, Utahns’ tendency to “hug into” the vibrant elements of Brazilian culture, it can be found in the story of Lorin Hansen, Samba Fogo’s founder and director. “I awakened to my wilder, bolder self through samba,” says Hansen, who before finding Brazilian samba, in 1999, was studying modern dance at the University of Utah. “We need samba to keep us feeling alive, especially here in Utah,” she says. “I’ve seen how it breaks people out of their boring, daily lives.”

Much like capoeira, samba music and dance has firm roots in Brazil’s communities of African descent and is traced back mainly to the Brazilian favelas, or slums. The earliest styles of samba also mixed, in the early 19th century, with Portuguese and Spanish dances popular among the country’s intellectuals and aristocrats. By the 1930s, samba as we know it was developing mainly in the Estacio favela of Rio de Janeiro and was widely shunned by elite classes for its association with the slums. Today, samba is recognized as a national treasure. And for many outside of Brazil, the samba music and dance performed during Carnival parades is the most iconic image of Brazilian culture.

For Hansen, Samba is most importantly a form of expression, and of reverence to the earth, but she is also reticent to withhold from her performance the exhibitionism and powerful sexuality that she feels are often shunned by Utah’s Mormon-Brazilian community. The feather headdresses, the high heels, the sequined bikinis, are all a part of the Samba Fogo costuming, though some occasions call for more modest covering.

“I get the message that we are supported in theory,” says Hansen of her company’s relationship with Salt Lake’s wider Brazilian community. “We are expected to be at Brazil Fest every year. But we only have one Brazilian-born dancer,” and, she says, the scanty costuming doesn’t go over well at the mixed Mormon/non-Mormon event.

In the end, though, Hansen doesn’t want the costuming to define what Samba Fogo and the Brazilian spirit brings to the Salt Lake community. “We celebrate each other,” says Hansen, whose classes attract both women and men—teens, retirees and every age in between. “The point of samba is to be present with your community and alive with them.”

Brazilian music soars with Os Corvos

Member from left to right: Ai Fujii Nelson, Jay Kirsch, Ashton Snelgrove, Jerry Parsons, Solange Gomes.
Member from left to right: Ai Fujii Nelson, Jay Kirsch,
Ashton Snelgrove, Jerry Parsons, Solange Gomes.

Before Solange Gomes joined Os Corvos (Portuguese for “the crows”), the Salt Lake band (originally two members, Jay Kirsch and Jerry Parsons) played a mix of world music along with Eric Clapton, some Whitesnake, and a dash of Brazilian bossa nova—mostly Antonio Carlos Jobim tunes. “Everyone plays Jobim [“Girl From Ipanema”], everyone knows bossa nova,” says Brazilian-born Gomes, shaking her hands in the air in mock exasperation.

“Brazilian music is way more than just Jobim,” she continues, listing the musical genres. There’s xote, choro, tropicalia, musica popular brazileira, pogeg, samba—and within samba, she adds, “there’s all kinds of variations.”

In fact, there’s so much Brazilian music to play, and so much variety, that these days Os Corvos is strictly a Brazilian music group.

Along with Kirsch (guitar, cavaquinho, accordion, piano), Parsons (bass, guitar) and Gomes (vocals, percussion) the quintet includes Ashton Snelgrove (saxophone) and Ai Fujii Nelson (percussion, vocals).

With a few shakes from Nelson on the pandiero, a Brazilian instrument not to be confused with a tambourine, and a few plucks from Kirsch on the guitar, the band launches into a joyful medley, Jack Soul Brasileiro. Gomes, ever the interpreter, explains it is a Portuguese phrase to say “as I am a Brazilian.” It’s hard not to move with the music, and why resist?

You can find news about upcoming shows on their Facebook page.

For a taste of Brazilian food and culture, visit the Brazilian Festival

2016 Utah Brazilian Festival, Saturday, September 10, 1-7pm @ Gateway Center (18 N Rio Grande St.) The Brazilian Festival, organized by the Viva Brazil Cultural Center, began in 2005 as a celebration of Brazilian heritage. The Festival grows every year as more Utahns establish a personal connection with Brazil, its culture and people. The opening event of the day, and the most danceable, is the parade—Samba Fogo will be there.


Also check out these restaurants.

Sweet Spot Bakery & Cafe—664 E. Union Square, Sandy. 801.207.2414. UtahSweetSpot.com

Bakery Street—Brazilian and South

American foods and bakery products, 1370 S. State St.

Braza Grill—5927 S. State St.



The Sweet Brigadier Online Bakery


Tushar Brazilian Express & Catering

1078 W. South Jordan Parkway ((10400 South)|


Tucanos Brazilian Grill—chain located in 10 cities throughout the U.S., including two in Utah Tucanos.com

Rodizio Grill—a chain located in 19 cities throughout the U.S., including three in Utah

Texas de Brazil

City Creek Center. TexasdeBrazil.com

Katherine Pioli is CATALYST’s assistant editor. She also teaches at Salt Lake Arts Academy and publishes Molly’s Nipple, “an outdoor magazine for adventurous women.”

This article was originally published on August 1, 2016.