Lebanese Entrepreneurs in Sao Paulo: A Success Story of upward Social Mobility
Dr. Elsa El Hachem-Kirby 18/04/2013
I grew up in Paris, having Irish and Lebanese roots. The history of Lebanon and Ireland throughout the last two centuries presents similarities. It is marked by large-scale migration often associated with lack of economic opportunities in the country. Today in both countries, at each economic crisis, emigration reflexes resurface. Emigration and immigration are therefore part of my family history.
A few years ago, while on a visit to Rio de Janeiro, my attention was drawn to a food-seller, wearing a white fabric covering his head evoking a Middle-Eastern style of dress. He was selling kibbe and sfiha. I found the familiarity of the local population with Lebanese food surprising. On further observation, I noticed that many shops and several streets had Lebanese names, in both Rio de Janeiro and in Sao Paulo. On realising how successful this population appeared to be, I decided to carry out an in-depth study of the apparent success of this immigrant group.
The number of success-stories, synonymous with economic and social ascension among the Lebanese community in Brazil abound. So much so that the story of the upward surge in social mobility experienced by Brazilians of Lebanese origin has imbedded the stereotypical image of the community in the collective consciousness of Brazilians at large. My doctoral thesis in Sociology entitled Lebanese Entrepreneurs in Sao Paulo: upward Social Mobility presented at the University of Sorbonne Paris in November 2012 investigated the factors leading to the success of this population in business and politics.
In Brazil today, there is a significant population of Lebanese origin. According to different sources, it is estimated at over 5 million (lack of precise statistics makes it difficult to get a more precise estimate). Sao Paulo represents their principal economic hub. It is a population formed by wages of migrants who came to Brazil in successive waves beginning around the end of the 19th century. This group organises its own collective space as if it were a society onto itself, with its places of worship, associations, clubs, reviews and magazines and many other kinds of social organization. The group set down roots in Brazil and its members diversified their areas of economic activity, investing in different sectors of the Brazilian economy. Originally, this population had started out as peddlers and set up small petty commercial trading outlets and small family businesses. Today, enterprise still remains their engine of economic, social and political aspirations in Brazil.
While it is true that on one end of the spectrum stories of success abound of how this relatively disadvantaged immigrant group, in comparison to their contemporary Italian, German or Spanish counterparts, has reached extraordinary heights of fame and fortune – some even entering the highest spheres of politics, both on the local and national levels, and international political and industrial networks – others at the other end of the spectrum, have remained on the borderline of society. The sociological study revealed that, in reality, however, the panorama is slightly more complex and some qualifications in comparable terms are called for.
The research study sought, in addition to shedding light on the factors explaining the evident success of this group within Brazilian society, to bring to light a set of issues the group had to face. By pursuing their ascending path of upward social mobility in this way questions arose as to the type of social configuration the Lebanese entrepreneurs of São Paulo would adopt in respect to greater opening up to Brazilian society at large or greater confinement from the host society. Would this group instead converge by degrees into a state of fusion with the society at large or alternatively would it remain in an intermediary state, in a society which was becoming ethnically mixed. Would it juggle between the first two alternatives mentioned or would it bypass both possibilities in a direction which needed to be identified? These are the questions raised in this research study on a segment of the Brazilian population of Lebanese origin in Sao Paulo and the answers will likely be the outcome of further sociological research.
Elsa El Hachem, PhD – Université René Decartes Sorbonne
Thesis entitled : Lebanese Entrepreneurs in Sao Paulo: Upward Social Mobility
On publishing this article Elsa El Hachem-Kirby would like to pay homage to the “Lebanese Heritage” of the WLCU-BC Council for its work in advancing research on the all aspects of Lebanese history and culture.