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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Fernández

Emigrants, Immigrants, and Migrants (Part 1)

It was around July 1969, and I was an intern at the central office of Montreal Engineering, at 90 São José Street, downtown Rio. During school vacations, engineering interns were sent to construction sites. My first assignment was at the Cimento Goiás factory construction site in Palmeiras de Goiás, about 80km southwest of Goiânia, on a dirt road, in the district of Cezarina, later emancipated as an independent municipality.

Engineer Ilmar was the "site manager" (or contract manager, as some said), and I was given a small desk in his office at the construction site, out there in the middle of nowhere. I think he wasn't particularly happy or unhappy; he just followed orders. He was a good engineer, experienced, knew how to get things done. Managing such an isolated construction site was no easy task. Compared to today, writing in 2023, the infrastructure back then was basic. To illustrate, the site had a telegraph and radio operator, things considered "cutting-edge" anywhere in the world at that time.

In such an isolated place, it was crucial to maintain good relations with the local police chief. So, Ilmar would visit the Palmeiras police station weekly, and the police chief would visit Ilmar's office at the construction site. Not just to keep up good relations, but for everyone to see.

Usually, the police chief would show up on Fridays, payday, with cash in carefully prepared envelopes for each of the 500 to 1,000 workers, all from distant places. Most were from the Northeast, mostly single, and most lived in collective accommodations at the site. Weekly payments were meant to prevent them from spending everything at once and to ensure they always had some money, akin to military service.

One Monday, the police chief surprised us by showing up unexpectedly. Seeing him enter, I thought it best to leave the room and stay outside. Later, Ilmar told me:

_"He came to ask for help in getting his stepson a job at Montreal. I'll handle that easily."

And I asked:

_"What can his stepson do?"

_"Nothing. It'll be his first job. The chief can't stand him doing nothing at home and around town."

After a few telegrams exchanged with the headquarters in Rio, the following Friday, Ilmar welcomed the police chief with good news and asked me to stay in the room:

_"Your stepson can start in 15 days. Send him over here right away to sort out the paperwork with the recruitment team, and I want to give him some instructions and prepare him for the journey."

_"A journey? What journey?"

_"He'll be working at one of two petrochemical sites: either in Goiana, which despite the name is in Pernambuco, or in Cubatão, near Santos, São Paulo. He'll start as an assistant 'checker' or storekeeper. We'll know for sure on Monday."

And the police chief, with a stern expression:

_"But his mother won't like this. We were thinking he'd work here."

_"Chief, let me tell you something, it won't work out here. As soon as the boy starts, clocks in at 7 AM, including Saturdays, clocks out at 4 PM, and at noon on Saturdays, eats a dusty, sweaty lunch in the mess hall with everyone (the food isn't bad, but it's nothing compared to what Mom makes, and he'll compare it every day with dinner), and in the evening when he meets his buddies in town, they'll start saying, 'You're getting paid for that?' He'll feel the blow, his mother will feel sorry, bother you, his colleagues at work will see him as the chief's protege, he'll want to show off and brag among his friends and may be contradicted. In short, it's not the path we advise in similar situations. Let him go; it'll be good for him, his mother, and for you."

As I looked at their expressions, I saw the police chief's face gradually change, as if understanding and agreeing. When he left, he was happy and smiling.

Indeed, what Ilmar said was true. The boy went to Goiana, Pernambuco, and everything worked out, as I later learned when I met Ilmar again. He told me the boy stayed at Montreal, quickly became a good storekeeper, sought after by project managers, and was studying engineering in Rio while working on the Rio-Niterói Bridge construction site with Ilmar himself. But the boy wanted to return to Goiás, become an engineer and a farmer in the region. He had a tendency to maintain his roots. Whether everything went smoothly or not depends on each person.

Could everything have gone wrong? It could have. Depression, and so on. But if he had stayed, everything could have gone wrong too.

Miguel Fernández y Fernández, engineer and chronicler, written in 2023/2024), 4,494 characters with spaces

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