HARTFORD — - It wasn't easy for Sirlene Rideiro when she moved to Hartford from her native Brazil in 1994.
She went to work cleaning houses and, at age 23, began learning a new language.
There weren't many Brazilians in Hartford then — fewer than 100 is Rideiro's guess — but she found a niche doing hair out of her Parkville apartment while she cared for her two young children.
In 2001, having earned a cosmetology license, she opened Brazilian Touch Beauty Salon on Park Street.
One day this week, as she meticulously layered a client's hair with long blond extensions, she said she was looking forward to Monday, when a little piece of her home country comes to Hartford with the opening of the Consulate General of Brazil at One Constitution Plaza.
"For me, it's like a dream come true," said Rideiro, who circulated petitions asking the Brazilian government to open the consulate.
The initial impact will be more convenience. Brazilians who need to obtain passports and other government documents, and Americans seeking travel visas, will no longer have to go to the consulate in New York, which often took a day or more.
But in a broader sense, many Brazilians say the consulate is a tangible symbol that they have a place in Connecticut.
"It means we have a voice," said Abigail Amorim, executive director of the Brazilian Alliance, an educational and referral agency that assists immigrants.
There is no official estimate of the number of Brazilians living in Connecticut, but officials from that country and community leaders says it's between 150,000 and 350,000, with concentrations in Danbury, Bridgeport and Hartford.
The Hartford community grew rapidly during the last 10 years as restaurants and shops opened alongside Portuguese businesses that were established by an earlier wave of immigrants. But the emerging enclave confronted a crisis in late 2007 that turned into a major setback.
Hartford police were after a suspect, a Brazilian, in a serious shooting in the city's Parkville neighborhood. Accompanied by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, more than 20 Brazilians were arrested when they couldn't produce immigration documents while being questioned about the crime. Hartford's Park Street went quiet. Once bustling restaurants were empty, and parties that once attracted hundreds were canceled.
"People were afraid to go places because immigration could show up anytime," Amorim said.
Immigration activists held protests, and city officials, including Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts, attended community meetings in an attempt to reassure Brazilians that they were not being targeted. (Moises Coutinho was arrested 2½ months after the October 2007 crime and eventually was sentenced to 15 years in prison.)
In the wake of the controversy, the Hartford city council passed an ordinance severely limiting when police could inquire about immigration.
But as fears began to recede, Brazilians suffered along with everyone else as the economy went into a tailspin. The jobs that many recent immigrants relied on to get a foothold, such as cleaning and construction, disappeared.
The rate of new arrivals slowed, and some Brazilians even decided to go home.
"In the last two years, a lot of people left," Rideiro said. "It's not been easy."
Still, Brazilians are here to stay. Long-term residents are having children or getting visas for relatives to come. And in May of 2008, the Brazilian government announced that a consulate would open in Hartford, joining outposts in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Washington, D.C.
Ambassador Ronaldo Dunlop, Brazil's consul general in Connecticut, said the city earned the honor over Danbury and Bridgeport — both with larger Brazilian populations — because it is the state capital and centrally located.
Dunlop, who previously was the Brazilian ambassador to the Dominican Republic for six years, said One Constitution Plaza was chosen because the ground floor space on a bus line would be easily accessible. The consulate signed a long-term lease on the 11,000-square-foot space that was long ago abandoned by a bank branch, bringing some life to a desolate downtown corner. Fifteen local people have been hired to work with seven Brazilian foreign service officials.
The consulate initially will focus on processing applications and issuing documents, although opening economic and cultural sections is a possibility in the future.
With memories of the Parkville raids still fresh, some Brazilians have high expectations for the help the consulate will provide. Dunlop said the consulate can make sure Brazilians who are arrested are treated fairly, but it cannot interfere with the enforcement of local, state and federal laws.
"It's always important to have channels of communication and share our concerns," Dunlop said. "But there's a limitation."
Beginning Monday, the consulate will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for applications and other business, and from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. only for the pickup of documents. Appointments can be made by calling 860-760-3100 or at email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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