Who is Paulo-Juarez Pereira

Passos, a major regional center.

Passos, a major regional center.

February 9, 1965 is my “American birthday.” That’s the day I arrived in the US, with a permanent visa (Green Card), a job, and admission to the University of San Francisco, California. In this article, I describe the reasons why I came to the United States. My path is filled with surprises, and all along I have found people that have helped me in so many different ways! My life is a path of gratitude.

Why I Left My Hometown–Passos, Minas Gerais, Brazil

I was about six years old when I began to think that I wanted to do something for my family. My family condition was actually not bad: my dad had a general store; we lived well. Still, I felt responsible: I was going to make it better. This desire to do something for “my family”–which later became “my country,” and then “my world”–has become like a north star for my life. It gives reason and purpose to everything I do.

I recall that, some time early in my life, there was a priest that would come to our home one evening a week, and he would invite us to go for evening prayers at the Church “Nossa Senhora da Penha” in Passos. His name was Padre Pires (Padre José de Oliveira Pires). He was a kind, hard-working man, who dedicated himself to the people under his care. Once a week in the evening, he would come to my home and say, “Vamos rezar!” (Let’s go pray.) We would all go up the hill to our local church, for evening prayers. Sometimes he would take me by the hand, and we would all walk together, including my parents and my sisters and brothers. I remember the many candles in the church, the strong smells, the hard benches, and the long prayers.

My dad would sell fresh pork once a week.

My dad would sell fresh pork once a week.

As I got a little older, my desire to help my family began to grow. I realized there were so many poor people around us, where we lived. My dad had a store, and we lived comfortably well compared to other people. They would come to our store to purchase rice and beans or a piece of pork.

Most of our customers had no money until the end of the month, when they would get paid. So, my dad would give them a small notebook that they would take home and bring with them every time they needed to buy something. My dad had a big book at the store, and each customer had a small book at home. If they needed one kilo of beans, one kilo of rice, and half a kilo of pork, my dad would write the items and the price both in their notebook and our big book.

Each customer had a separate page on the big book at the store. So, at home the customer would know how much they owed us; and at the store, we would know how much the customer needed to pay. At the end of the month, they would come in and clear the debt, and we would start a fresh page for them for the following month.

And for those folks who had no source of income, they would go to the back entrance of the store, and my mother would wrap up something for them, and they would not go home empty-handed. Thus, my home became a neighborhood center, with a constant flow of people, merchandise deliveries, customers at the store, workers coming by for a shot of cachaça at the end of the working day, people riding by on horseback, cattle passing by our street, a stream of guests for birthday celebrations for each one of us seven kids, and a constant flow of visits by relatives and comadres. In the evening, I’d escape to the street to play soccer or other games with ten or so other boys.

But it wasn’t long into my childhood when I discovered that my father had a heart condition. Folks called it “batedeira,” a form of tachycardia. I sensed that my mother was concerned about the hard work that my father did.

For example, each week a pig would be slaughtered for our store customers. My father would hire a slaughtering expert—and my father and this other man would start our at 3:00 AM on the slaughtering day. I would hear all the noise and commotion.

By the time I would get up to go to school, the pig would be all laid out and ready for our customers. When I came back from school in the afternoon, most of the pig had had already been sold. You could see in the eyes of our customers that it was all joy and celebration when they saw all that meat and all that bacon. I felt proud of my parents for providing that service to our neighbors.

But one day, when I was ten years old, the pig was particularly large and unruly. My father was having trouble controlling the pig the night before the slaughter. He did the work, but he came inside the house complaining of chest pain and an attack from his “batedeira.” He laid down in bed, and my mother went to the kitchen to prepare some tea. I felt anxious and unsure. It was going on 8:00 PM, and our routine in such occasions was that someone would go and get the doctor.

That night, things happened quickly, though.The tachycardia would not subside, and before long–even before the doctor arrived–my father was dead. I was ten years old.

A darkness fell upon my soul, as though someone had turned off the sun over the earth. I had a pain that I could not express. I was afraid of crying, in fear that, if I cried, I would die from tears. Word got around fast in our neighborhood, and within the hour our home was filled with people. That night no one slept. My mother sat quietly in the bedroom, surrounded by my sisters. The neighborhood women came and took over the house: cleaning, cooking, making coffee, serving. I stuck by my mother, trying to comfort her.

And things progressed one by one: Padre Pires came to our home; funeral arrangements were made; the funeral was conducted; life began to settle—but my mother had a handful of children to take care for and a store to run. Within a few months we decided to sell the store and move out of that neighborhood to another part of town. More than ever, I felt I needed to take responsibility for my family. About a year after my father’s death, I decided I was going to find a way to leave home and go in search of solutions somewhere in the world. I knew that, if I stayed, nothing was going to change.

When I was twelve years old, a Dutch priest by the name of Father Lambert came to my hometown and offered me a scholarship to go study in their new school, near Belo Horizonte, the State capital. I told my mom I wanted to go, and I said to her, “I go because I want to find something good. One day I will bring it back to you.”

When it was time to go, I kissed her hand, hugged her, asked for her blessing, and went on my way. I have gone back to Passos many times since then, but I have never lived there again.

Italy and a Permanent Visa to the United States

The Dutch priests who gave me a scholarship to study in the newly established school hoped that some of the students would go on and embrace the priesthood. I myself considered the priesthood career. I remained with them for ten years.

I did well with the priests and was sent to Rome for a doctorate in philosophy. I arrived in Rome in September 1963, to study at Collegio Internazionale Santo Alberto, not far from the Vatican. I immediately made friends with the American students, and they invited me to join their choir, as they prepared for a Christmas concert. But barely two months after my arrival at the Collegio, the world was stunned with the news of the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.

It was then that I lost all interest in continuing my studies of theology and philosophy. When the summer vacation came, I went to Ireland and took two months to assess what I wanted to do. At that summer in Ireland, I made my decision that I would not pursue the priesthood career. I went back to Rome and announced my decision, but the college director advised me to take more time to reflect. “Why don’t you take a year to decide?” he suggested. I thought that was wise, and after that one year had passed, I told the school officials that I continued with my resolve to seek a different path.

My intention was to go to Germany. I was going to work there and look for an opportunity to continue my education. But my American friends in Rome dissuaded me from that idea. “There is nothing in Germany,” they said. “Why don’t you go to the United States?”

Up to that time, the idea of coming to the United States had not occurred to me. That thought was as unrealistic as traveling to the moon. But with the assistance of my American friends, one by one the obstacles began to fall. I received a job offer at the University of San Francisco, working as a trilingual translator and interpreter (English, Spanish, Portuguese) at their International Student Office. With that job offer, I was able to secure a permanent visa (Green Card) to enter the United States. I had a ticket to travel to San Francisco, some pocket money, a job waiting for me, and admission to attend the University of San Francisco. I was young, healthy, and filled with hope. I needed nothing else.

So, on February 9, 1965, I landed in New York, in transit to San Francisco. And I have loved this country ever since.

Paulo-Juarez Pereira
Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA
February 9, 2015

Photo Credits:

Photo Credit:

Photo: Passos, Minas Gerais; Author: Fabien; Source: http://bit.ly/1HOBneT; Creative Commons License: Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Photo: Pig and Piglets; Author: Dave W.; Source: http://bit.ly/1QcNkNr; Creative Commons License: Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)).

2 comments on “Who is Paulo-Juarez Pereira

  1. Donald E. Behm
    February 10, 2015 at 8:24 pm #

    If you go back to Minas Gerais and want company, I am your guy. Went to a steel mill there once about 20 years. love all the gem stones that come out of that state.

    • Paulo-Juarez Pereira
      February 15, 2015 at 10:22 am #

      Don, you are a man of many surprises. Minas Gerais? Really!!? Wow… I had no idea you had visited my home state!

      You are right: Minas Gerais a good place to find great gem stones. In fact, the name “Minas Gerais” refers to that: General Mines. Maybe that’s what we should do: gather a bunch of vets and go for an adventure in Brazil….

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