Many migrate to the United States or Europe to send money back home.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
GONZAGA, Brazil -- At some point, it seems, every person in this small town hidden amid the rolling hills of southern Brazil confronts the same question: Is a better life waiting for me elsewhere?
Hundreds have answered by leaving, most for the United States or Europe. Their earnings, sent home to families and friends left behind, have transformed Gonzaga by funding new buildings and businesses.
Now the question burns more fiercely after the July 22 shooting in London of one of the town's native sons at the hands of police seeking terrorists. Police later admitted that Jean Charles de Menezes, who was working in London as an electrician, had nothing to do with terrorism.
"We were treated like dogs there, but there was no work here," said Vandelucio Pereira, who migrated to Portugal in 1999 and returned four years later practically empty-handed. "When people ask me, I say migrating is a bad idea. We're not wanted there."
Humberto Rabelo de Menezes, a cousin of Jean Charles, has a different view. He built a still-growing gas station on the town's western edge with dollars he earned during a three-year stint doing construction work in Philadelphia.
"Brazil just doesn't offer the kind of salary that lets a person dream," he said as he watched workers build an addition to his station. "I never had the opportunity to study here. To me, leaving was worth it."
Trouble at home
De Menezes' death has, for the moment, turned Gonzaga into a symbol for countless towns across Latin America that have lost their young and industrious to richer countries.
City leaders estimate that about one-fourth of the town's nearly 6,000 residents have left; government projections predict the town will lose 10 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. Meanwhile, the state of Minas Gerais, where Gonzaga sits, is expected to grow by almost 15 percent.
Gonzaga is filled with simple pleasures: leafy plazas, streams perfect for fishing and corner bars hopping with the sounds of conversation and the day's televised soccer match.
However, it also lacks the basics: well-paying jobs, a decent school system and, for some residents, hope for a better future. Census data underline the town's plight.
In 2002, average annual income in Gonzaga was less than $600 a year, compared with about $2,000 a year statewide. In 2003, only 197 people were officially employed. Illiteracy rates hover around 25 percent.
The pull of profit
Despite the bleak economics, some in town said they planned to stay.
With rents as little as $65 a month, the region's low incomes cover most costs, said Pedro Paul da Silva, 50, as he waited for a bus to a nearby town. He said he earns about $175 a month as a carpenter.
"I love this place too much," he said. "I prefer to live poor here than to be rich there."
However, he said the pull of home wasn't strong enough for four nephews and six cousins who live in the United States. They send back hundreds of dollars a month to relatives in Gonzaga.
According to the Inter-American Development Bank, overseas Brazilians remitted some $5.6 billion last year to friends and family back home.
Gonzaga resident Carlita Aparecida said she'd been planning to migrate illegally to the United States in January. Like many in the town, she was prepared to pay as much as $10,000 in installments to smugglers who would help her cross the U.S. border. Even the deportation of neighbors caught at the U.S. border didn't dissuade her.
"Everyone was leaving," Aparecida, 21, said. "Some people were telling me about all the work they had in the United States, and that put the idea of leaving into my head."
The death of de Menezes, a good friend, however, changed everything, she said.