From poor immigrants to small industrialists: the formation of the industrial business class in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo/Brazil (1890–1960)

2. Small business as a form of social mobility for poor immigrants


In the previous section, we looked into the social origin of the Brazilian industrial business community. However, we believe that small industries, often formed using family labor or a few workers, served as an instrument of social mobility for poor immigrants. These immigrants, unlike the immigrant bourgeoisie, did not have many financial resources but brought to Brazil some kind of know-how (not possessed by the Brazilian poor, slaves, or ex-slaves). In Europe, during winter, the peasants took care of various chores, especially to meet their basic needs (including housing, transportation, clothing, shoes, and tools) through domestic production. Upon arrival in Brazil, many of these people had a wide range of skills, and some learned to take advantage of their know-how, because in their new surroundings few people, if any, had the same abilities.

As for references to foreign authors, when comparing the social mobility of Italian immigrants in Brazil, Argentina, and the United States, Herbert Klein[19] regards this phenomenon as directly correlated to those foreigners’ time of arrival at their destination countries. When the Italians arrived in the United States to participate in the industrial and agricultural revolution, Northern Europeans and many generations of workers had already set up there. Thus, there were not many options available in that society, as the best occupations had already been taken. For this reason, the Italians had to concentrate in old East Coast cities (Boston, New York, and Philadelphia), working in poorly paid labor-intensive occupations.[20] The time of arrival in the United States dictated how various generations stagnated into the working class. According to Klein, a completely different phenomenon occurred with the Italians who went to Argentina and Brazil. In these societies, there was little competition with other ethnic groups, and the conditions were in place for them to find jobs and accumulate resources, especially in the urban areas. Or in the words of Klein: “[…] os italianos nessas duas nações passaram rapidamente a compor as novas classes médias que estavam sendo geradas e, já na segunda geração, muitos deles se colocavam muito acima do status dos pais.[21]

Samuel L. Baily,[22] in a study similar to Klein’s, arrived at similar results when comparing immigrants from Buenos Aires and New York. Baily noted that in the late 1880s their participation was fundamental in setting up industries, commerce, and even port commerce, because there was no competition to occupy the best positions. However, in New York, all of the good job opportunities had already been taken, so there were only low-paid jobs left, such as barbers, shoe repairers, and peddlers.[23] Due to immigrants’ time of arrival in Buenos Aires, along with the dynamics of the local economy, they had the conditions to accumulate wealth and the wherewithal to become the majority of business owners of small industry and store chains.[24]

Unlike sustained by most Brazilians authors, a similar situation occurred in Brazil during the expansion of the coffee industry in the state of São Paulo. The immigrants found new communities that were only starting to develop, and for this all of the major occupations in the local economy – with the exception of those requiring great sums of capital compatible with the richness of the farming elites – were still available. For this, work in an urban occupation was not prohibitive to an immigrant with a certain skill, because all he needed was a roof, a few helpers, and most importantly, a market to sell his products. Those who moved to the cities of Ribeirão Preto e Franca experienced exactly that. In the first city, the industrialization process originated inside a colonial center, which was intended to attract immigrant laborers to work in the coffee plantations. Later on, the people of immigrant descent played a prominent role in the creation of the shoemaking cluster in the city.