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  • Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo by Molly C. Ball
  • Christian Brannstrom
Molly C. Ball
Navigating Life and Work in Old Republic São Paulo.
Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2020. xvii + 271 pp. Table, maps, references, and index. $90 hardcover (ISBN 978-1-68340-166-7); $35 paper (ISBN 978-1-68340-171-1).

São paulo, south america’s largest industrial mega-city, underwent rapid population, industrial, and financial growth between 1891 and 1930. The Old Republic period started with a new constitution and the abolition of slavery and was characterized by oligarchical rule alternating between political elites from São Paulo and Minas Gerais states, ending in Getúlio Vargas’s coup in 1930, with the First World War serving as an “inflection point for the working class” (p. 5). During the Old Republic, approximately 2.25 million immigrants arrived in the state of São Paulo, mainly from Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Nearly [End Page 217] 60% of arrivals were under state-subsidized programs. São Paulo’s population was 65,000 in 1890, and probably reached 580,000 in 1920, when two-thirds were foreign-born or first-generation Brazilians.

Molly Ball’s Navigating Life and Work focuses on the “working lives of Paulistanos” (p. 2), the residents of São Paulo city, through economic and cultural history methods, using “mini biographies of Paulistanos” (p. 15), to deepen the statistical analysis of large datasets. Her major conclusion is that a “fractured Paulistano working class” emerged during the 1920s as a result of opportunity for “individuals with greater social connections, the right skin color, and willingness and opportunity to work in growing industries” (p. 20). By contrast, workers in textiles (mainly women), Afro-Brazilians, and the informal sector were left behind at the bottom of the emerging working class. Moreover, the state’s key organization—the Hospedaria de Imigrantes— helped perpetuate workforce discrimination and inequality. The Hospedaria, an immigrant hostel and key processing center supporting state efforts to encourage and subsidize international migration to the state, and current site of the state’s Museu da Imigração, “incentivized employers” to “search for cheap labor rather than long-term solutions” that undermined broader economic development (p. 173).

The empirical richness and strengths of Ball’s work will interest historical geographers. She developed a representative sample of more than 2,000 immigrant arrivals (out of nearly 500,000 total) at the Hospedaria. She also developed a database on hiring, wage, and tenure patterns based on fichas de funcionários (employee records) of 5,000 workers at the Light (the electricity and urban transport company), the Paulista railway, the Jafet textile mill, and the Lojas Mappin department store. Ball supplemented these quantitative data by analyzing hundreds of letters sent by immigrants to families in Europe and Cartas de Chamada, which employers would use to directly call (chamar) a family member or potential employee to Brazil, bypassing the subsidized immigration system.

Navigating starts with an excellent synopsis of immigration into São Paulo and describes the Hospedaria’s role in receiving immigrants by train from Santos and linking families to employers. Important supporting arguments to her overall claims include the finding that immigrants who signed work contracts in São Paulo city had double the likelihood to be literate as compared to workers to went into the state’s coffee fields (p. 33). One may question the use of literacy as a proxy for human capital, and Ball notes the fact that previous work experience was not captured in the Hospedaria’s records. Her analyses of the Hospedaria data also support her finding of highly variable literacy rates among immigrant groups (highest among German, Polish, and Japanese immigrants, and lowest for Portuguese immigrants), and how literacy rates increased 39% for adult male immigrants settling in the city in 1903–13 to 93% by the 1920s. Another example is her claim that between 1903–1927, an unskilled, single, male Portuguese worker was 40% more likely to be illiterate than his Brazilian counterpart, while the equivalent German worker was 17% more likely to be literate.

Other important findings in Navigating include evidence for the role...


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pp. 217-219
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