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Raising little Brazilians in Chicago

You know those people who wish that there were more than 24 hours in a day? Mariana Sgarbi, 44, a restless Rio de Janeiro native who manages to juggle domestic life, her work as a jewelry designer and her volunteer work with the online group Mães Brasileiras de Illinois (Brazilian Mothers of Illinois), or MBIL, is definitely not one of them.

When she’s not helping he daughter Giovanna, 9, with homework, or encouraging her son Chris, 11, to speak Portuguese, Mariana is busy coming up with yet another way to support Brazilian families living in Chicago. For two and a half years, she and the 250 members of MBIL have been exchanging e-mails daily about subjects as varied as their children’s education, gathering donations for Brazilian families in need, upcoming weekend events, and cheese bread recipes.

A lawyer by training, Sgarbi launched MBIL as soon as she moved to Chicago in 2009 , but this wasn’t the first time she created an online group to support Brazilian families adjust to life in the United States. Married to Sérgio Sgarbi, an engineer employed by an American company, she realized there was a need for a support network to bring together Brazilian mothers — and fathers, and single parents — after living in three different countries in five years.

“We moved from Brazil to Argentina, because Sérgio was transferred to Buenos Aires, where my son was born,” Sgarbi recalls. “After that we came to the United States, where Giovanna was born and where we would live in three different cities in four years. With each relocation I needed to build a new life and I found it difficult, especially being alone [as a Brazilian mother] with two small children.”

Sgarbi’s sister, who also lives in the United States, was facing the same problem until she hooked up with the group Mães Brasileiras de Virginia (Brazilian Mothers of Virginia). “My sister told me about it and I loved the idea, because I know how difficult it is for a family to adapt to a new life in another country,” Sgarbi says. So she was inspired to found Mães Brasileiras de Indiana (Brazilian Mothers of Indiana), and online group with 145 members that she still administers.

MBL members watch 'Rio' at Regal City North in April
MBL members watch ‘Rio’ at Regal City North in April

Together the two groups have nearly 400 members motivated not only by a need for companionship, but also by a desire to ensure that their children learn — or retain their knowledge of — the Portuguese language. “I know it’s a struggle because I see it in my own children,” Sgarbi says. “While Chris loves to discover new [Portuguese] words, Giovanna refuses to, but maybe it’s just a phase and she will change her mind, as happened to him.”

Some of the mothers in the group have the opposite problem: Their children feel isolated because they haven’t yet mastered English. “Therefore, we organize parties for Christmas, Carnival and even trips to  movie theaters, as we did with Rio. We even observe dates like [Brazilian] Indian Day.”

All it takes is a few e-mails for Sgarbi and other MBIL members to collect clothes and strollers for mothers who need them, or find help for unemployed parents; they also exchange tips about nannies, manicurists,  doctors and just about anything the Chicago-area Brazilian community may need. “We maintain direct contact with other groups focused on Brazil, which allows us to create a true support network,” Sgarbi says. “We exchange important information about immigration, we discuss events in Brazil, and we mobilize the group to vote, among other things. Moreover, we meet regularly for dinner or just chatting. We build real friendships, and that makes our new lives away from home far more cheerful. ”

Brazilian moms living in Chicago have varied profiles, but most of them left Brazil to accompany their husbands, employees of multinational companies who were transferred here. That was the case with Cássia Melo, 38 — and according to Sgarbi, Melo’s relationship with MBIL faithfully illustrates the group’s philosophy.

“I knew the group even before moving here in June this year with my family,” recalls Melo. “I was concerned about how my children, who do not speak English, would react. So I made contact with the group even before my husband’s transfer was confirmed. And it made all the difference in this new life.” With the group’s help, Melo got her children in a good school and got in touch with a Brazilian realtor who found a home for her family. But the best of all was being able to take her children to a festa junina complete with traditional Brazilian music, food and costumes. “They were complaining that they were going to miss the party at their school in Belo Horizonte,” she says. “But before leaving Brazil, I already knew the group was organizing a party for the Brazilian kids here.

MBIL "Festa Junina" in July 2011
MBIL “Festa Junina” in July 2011

“My son was so happy to find other children who speak both Portuguese and English that he lost the fear of learning a new language and forgetting his first language,” says Melo, who was also aided by the group when her 3-year-old daughter fell ill days before a trip to Brazil. “I didn’t know what to do. If I was at home I wouldn’t have taken her to a doctor, but here I was scared. All it took was an e-mail and soon I had the phone number to a Brazilian doctor here in Chicago. It all went well and again I was saved by the group,” she adds.

Going forward, Sgarbi is considering turning MBIL into a non-governmental organization. “It’s just an idea,” she says. “I have discussed this with other mothers, but I would need a greater participation by some of them. The goal would be to turn this support network into something bigger, with an  MBIL headquarters and regional representatives, so that families who live in distant suburbs don’t get left out of our meetings. So we would also have festas juninas, for example, in Naperville or Schaumburg, where many Brazilians are living.” While that doesn’t happen, Sgarbi is backing Casa de Cultura Brasileira, an NGO being created to promote Brazilian culture in Chicago.

Having been directly involved with all matters involving the Brazilian community in Chicago for years, Sgarbi says there was never been a better time to be a part of it. “I sense that our image is very positive,” she says. “We are seen as happy, festive people. Our music is our main postcard in Chicago. It is what stands out most about our culture. ”  She is all optimism about the future will bring. “[The community] is beginning to take shape in a very natural way, which is the coolest. There are several groups with different profiles, but with the common goal of highlighting the best of Brazil, which is our people. ”

Originally published in our first website, Chicagoano.

Update (8/25/15): Sgarbi and family have moved to Connecticut, but MBIL is still very much active.

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Amanda Pinheiro

I was born in Rio de Janeiro, where I worked as a reporter for six years before coming to Chicago in early 2010 to study English and write a column for Rio daily "O Dia." I worked as Deputy Editor for Chicagoano from Sept. 2011 to June 2012; I am now working toward a Master's in Latin American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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