Every April, the Fraternidade Descendencia Americana gather in the south of Brazil to celebrate a strange and incongruous shared history. “Stonewall Jackson’s Way” is piped out of speakers, chicken is fried, and girls in hoop skirts dance to old Dixie tunes. Men in Rebel-gray uniforms with yellow trim browse dozens of stands of Confederate memorabilia. The Confederados, as they’re known, are the descendants of Americans who fled after losing the Civil War. Now, 150 years later and 5,000 miles away, they continue to gather under the banner of the Stars and Bars to pay homage to their ancestry.
The setting for this festival is Santa Barbara d’Oeste, which abuts a 200,000-person municipality called Americana. It’s there that a long-forgotten enclave of Confederate descendants rebuilt their lives in the years after the War between the States. At a time when the Confederate flag has sparked tension and protests anew across the United States, this small community in South America still celebrates its controversial history with a fervor.
In the years after 1865, a wave of Southerners fled the newly unified United States and made their way down the continent in a vast diaspora. Between 3,000 and 10,000 Southerners are thought to have settled from Mexico to Brazil. Newspaper ads promised land to those who knew how to farm; Venezuela offered up the area of Guyana; Mexico gave free passage and 640 acres per newcomer; and Brazil greeted its arrivals coming off 30-day voyages at sea with huge festivals and land for pennies.
It wasn’t just the prospects of keeping their slaves that lured the bitter Confederates. In fact, Brazil at the time had a ban on importing humans in bondage and 20 years later it would enact a ban on slavery. But many Southerners were made destitute by the war and feared the Yankees’ revenge. They used South America as an opportunity for a fresh start, and settled into farms to grow crops like coffee and sugarcane. Some failed, some turned back, and a few succeeded, most notably the Confederados in Americana. This collection of small colonies was settled by Colonel William Norris, an Alabaman who landed in Brazil in late 1865 and began snapping up small chunks of land across a 250-mile area.
The first residents built wooden homes in the traditional Southern style, with wraparound front porches and entertaining parlors. “A circulating library and a Masonic lodge were founded,” wrote Eugene C. Harter, a Confederado descendant, in the book The Lost Colony of the Confederacy. “There in faraway Brazil they tried to duplicate the way of life they remembered in the Confederate states.”
The gravestones at Cemiterio dos Americanos, a Confederate burial site, still indicate American roots. “Born: Georgia,” “Born: Texas,” the markers read. Many have small flags planted near them.
A particularly vivid account of the community at its most insulated came from a reporter who arrived in the 1970s and was amazed by the time-warped cadence of the Deep South that hit his ears. “What I was hearing didn’t sound like it came from someone of this generation, even of this century,” Stephen Bloom wrote in a remembrance last year for Narratively.
Today, few of the Dixie descendants speak English and the families in Americana have long been assimilated into Brazilian culture. But once a year, the Festa dos Confederados gives them a day to recall their history. This past year, for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end, was particularly festive. Many there don’t associate the ceremony with racism, and they speak about the heritage with a pride that wouldn’t be politically correct in the country of their ancestors. But there have been past issues with vitriol tarnishing the celebrations, and as a result security guards searched attendees for 42 different types of white supremacy symbols before allowing entry, according to a Vice report.
“I am proud of the Confederate flag because it is a piece of history that I am directly connected to,” one of the festival organizers told Reuters this year. “For us in Brazil, it has no political meaning at all.”