Changing Boundaries and Redefining Relations: Migration and Work Experiences of Brazilian Women in Germany

Maria Lidola,

ZI Lateinamerika-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin


Since the 1990s, Brazilian migrations have not only become diversified in motivation, profile and destiny but display a noticeable feminization especially in the German context. There, Brazilian women have faced entangled gendered migration and labour regimes, with the consequences that many of them had to formalize bi-national partnership via marriage in order to ʹstayʹ and ʹworkʹ. However, ʹworkʹ turned out to be a highly contested field, structured by exclusionary practices and penetrated by multiple socio-cultural ascriptions and signifying practices, but which also provided space for ʺboundary workʺ (Lan 2003) on the part of the Brazilian women. By looking at three case studies, the paper explores their views and experiences on ʹworkʹ related to the intersection of their gender, race/ethnicity, class and nationality, and embeds them within the broader frame of the feminization of (Brazilian) migration and gendered/ethnicized labour contexts in Germany.


On 14 November 2009, the following incident occurred at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin at its annual Brazilian film festival Premiere Brasil. Director Joel Zito de Araújo presented his documentary Cinderelas, Lobos e um Príncipe Encantado (Cinderellas, Wolves and an Enchanted Prince), which deals with numerous aspects of sex work and sexual exploitation of Brazilian women in transnational contexts. With an approach that is both highly sensitive and unbiased, Araújo’s film documents types of sex work in Brazil (especially in the tourist areas of the northeast of the country) and introduces related protagonists and institutions. He also directs the viewers’ attention to the sometimes blurred lines between sexual services and temporary, vacation-related sexual encounters. His film then accompanies Brazilian female sex workers in Europe, bringing to light their experiential differences between self-determination and trafficking. As announced in the preview, the film finally presents Germany as one of its featured locations, specifically Berlin. Here, the members of the audience at Haus der Kulturen der Welt were able to observe a Brazilian woman in the documentary whom some, in fact, knew personally. The film shows her at home in one of the more upscale neighbourhoods of Berlin with her German husband, who is approximately fifteen years older than her. But, just at this moment, the film suddenly turned black, and remained so for ten minutes. This was then only followed by the closing credits. On the way home, many viewers were puzzled as to whether this interruption was a technical problem, or whether the film was deliberately cut at this point. It was only afterwards that word spread about the female protagonists of the last part of the documentary, who had apparently had the film’s projection stopped through a temporary court order. These women had supposedly been recorded and interviewed under the pretext that they would be participating in a film about bi-national marriages between Brazilians and Germans. They were never told either before or during the shooting that the movie was about sex work and trafficking. The women participating in the film, however, did not see their migration as connected in any way to these two subjects. In addition, they felt that their depiction in the film in this context and its screening before friends and relatives threatened their social standing in Germany, their migration destination.

The events described here are symptomatic of the current representations and related prejudices towards migrant women and their trajectories with which a large number of Brazilian immigrants in Germany must contend. These prejudices not only concern the supposed reasons for the women’s migrations and their particular circumstances, but also areas of employment which are either assigned, or referred, to the women. This paper thus examines the interdependent relationships and areas of tension in German society with regard to dominant gendered and ethnicizing representations and imaginaries of Brazilian migrant women. It further centres on the women’s migration trajectories and their experiences when seeking a job and at work. For this purpose, I will elaborate on the empirical and historical specificity of these issues, connecting them, first, to the globally discussed phenomenon of a feminization of migration and, second, more specifically, to the migration flows between Brazil and Germany. To illustrate the complexity of these linkages, three case studies will be presented of Brazilian women who have migrated to Germany. I have known these women since 2007, when I started fieldwork on the subject of Brazilian migrant women in Berlin. On the basis of an intersectionality analysis (Hill Collins 1990; Anthias 1992; McCall 2005), I will focus on gender, nationality and body-related categories and categorizations as part of their endeavours in seeking labour-market integration in Germany.

1. Migration Trajectories: the Cases of Angelica, Yone and Gildete

42-year-old Angelica is one of the women portrayed in the last part of Araújo’s film, which, again, was not shown at the Berlin screening due to her intervention. She met her future German husband in her home town of Fortaleza, located in the Northeast Region of Brazil, where he was visiting on business for a few months. According to Angelica, she felt attracted to him because she liked his looks, his demeanour and the way he treated her. After a brief romance of several weeks, he suggested before departing that she visit him in Berlin. She accepted the invitation and made the trip to Germany in 1995. Their relationship became more intense. She also grew to like Berlin, even if she had to get used to what she considered to be a very old-fashioned city. Before her tourist visa expired, she decided to stay and her boyfriend subsequently proposed to her. After a brief return to Brazil to get some bureaucratic matters in order and make further preparations for her marriage and immigration, Angelica managed to be back in Germany two months later with a family-reunification visa. In accordance with her decision to stay permanently in Germany, she decided to formalize her relationship with her German boyfriend through marriage.

Gildete, a 37-year-old woman, is also classified statistically as an immigrant due to spousal reunification. Nonetheless, both her reason for migrating and the course she took had little in common with Angelica. Because she is a Capoeira professional, she received an invitation from a German-led Brazilian dance school in Berlin to give a workshop. The invitation offered the prospect that she would be able to stay for an extended period at the school as a Capoeira teacher. The opportunity to establish her own Capoeira group is what convinced her to actually stay in Berlin. In interviews, she complained about the difficulties she had had for a long time in Salvador de Bahia as a professional wanting to establish her own Capoeira academy. Capoeira is still a heavily male-dominated field there. She sensed that she had greater opportunities in Germany, where a large proportion of the students are female. Thus, a short time after her arrival and getting to know her new environment, she decided to stay in Germany permanently. She met her current husband six months after her arrival and married him a year later.

Yone, who was 51 years old at the time of our interview, also worked in a more or less male-dominated profession in Brazil prior to her migration to Germany. As a journalist at a major newspaper, she documented the daily events in the outskirts of São Paulo. After a serious illness, she had to take some time off and decided to accept an invitation from a friend to visit her in Berlin. Yone, who appeared to have a keen interest in history, told me how her fascination for Germany, its people and the cultural landscape led her to the decision to stay after the expiration of her tourist visa. It became possible shortly afterwards, in 2002, for her to make her stay in Germany official. As a journalist, she received a work visa under the immigration law for highly skilled workers.

Despite of the differences of their origins and personal trajectories in Brazil, these three women made noticeably similar experiences in regard to their labour market integration in Germany due to the intersection of their gender, nationality and race (being classified as Black Brazilian woman in Germany) even though each of them embodies, and positions herself divergently to, these categorizations. By opting for an “ethnography of the particular” (Abu-Lughod 1991: 149), I will focus on these three women, who among others had been part of my research on negotiations on belonging and un-belonging of Brazilian migrant women in Berlin,[1] in order to relate more closely their circumstances and experiences in German labour contexts aiming at reconstructing “their arguments about, justifications for, and interpretations of what they and others are doing” (Ibid. 153). Much like these three women, few of the women with whom I have worked since 2007 as part of my empirical research came to Germany with the intention of taking up permanent residence. Most of them had come to Berlin after receiving an invitation from their boyfriend or a girlfriend. But many claimed to have first been motivated to ʹvisitʹ Germany out of curiosity, without having any intention at the outset of staying. It was only later on that they tried to legalize their permanent residence through different channels, which at first typically meant by means of marriage and a reunification visa.

At this point, two key observations can be made in summary: the women’s motivations for migration to Germany were varied and neither necessarily tied to a victimization experience in their country of origin nor to economic factors, even if they may have had aspirations to improve their respective living conditions. Moreover, the women in most cases did not make a decision to migrate permanently at the time of departing from Brazil. This idea instead gradually evolved after an initial phase of arriving and getting to know the new environment. They all, however, in the last instance resorted to marriage, as formalizing the relationship with the German partner in this way was one of the few options for establishing permanent legal residence in Germany.

2. A Brief Overview of Brazilian Emigration since the 1970s

A look at the Brazilian migration flows of recent decades reveals that Germany was indeed not one of the privileged migration destinations for a long period. In particular, those who belong to Brazil’s lower income groups, like most of my interviewees, tended to not take Germany into consideration. Until the 1980s, mobility in the direction of Europe or North America remained a privilege of the more affluent social strata. Similar to other Latin American countries, political reasons largely motivated emigration (this was particularly true for Brazilians during the period of the military regime in the 1970s; Freire 2010, Rollemberg 1999). Frequently, however, the ability to gain access to higher education in foreign countries figured more prominently in the decision to leave. Yet even with respect education, Brazilians preferred countries such as Great Britain or the United States. Nevertheless, since the late 1980s and early 1990s, the migrants’ profile, their reasons for migration, the migration conditions and the number of migrants have changed considerably (Patarra 2005). In the wake of the economic and political turmoil following Brazil’s democratization in 1985, the middle class was the first to leave the country. They chose well-established paths and left to the U.S. (cf. Margolis 1994; Sales 1998, “Introdução”; Martes 1999; Beserra 2005), Great Britain (cf. Torresan 1995; Evan 2010) or Japan (those migrating to the latter, for example, mostly were descendants of Japanese migrants to Brazil, cf. Tsuda 2003; Costa 2007). Southern European countries became particularly important as migration destinations, especially Portugal and Spain (Padilla 2007; Torresan 2012; Machado 2007, 2006; Solé et al. 2012; Cavalcanti 2004).

The migrant profile in this decade had a class-specific character that has been identified by anthropologist Soraya Fleischer, who writes that “(t)he Brazilians were distinguished from the norm of poor, uneducated and unskilled migrants” (Fleischer 2002, my translation). However, the integration into the local labour market in the U.S. was marked by the migrants’ legal and social disqualification and often occurred in segmented areas of employment typically assigned to Latin American migrants. The integration of Brazilian migrants in southern Europe in the 1990s, by contrast, proved to be more successful, at least in regard to the relevant labour markets. This was because of the special relations Brazil has maintained with Italy, Portugal and Spain as a result of the intensive migration flows into post-colonial Brazil (Padilla 2007: 73; Feldman-Bianco 2010). Up to third-generation descendants of European immigrant families have the right to apply for European citizenship in the respective country, in addition to their Brazilian citizenship. In terms of residency and employment, they were therefore able to attain an equal legal status with members of the majority society in their migration country. Furthermore, their professional qualifications were widely recognized. Connected to this was the polemical discussion in the Portuguese media in the 1990s about the ʹinvasion of the Brazilian dentistsʹ (Machado 2007). This development was considered symptomatic of the large migration of (highly) skilled workers and their integration into the local labour market.

By the end of the 1990s, the period in which most of the women with whom I worked had migrated, migration research identified a further change in the migrant profile. More and more, people from poorer social classes were now migrating from Brazil (Soares 2006; Tassi Teixeira 2007) by taking advantage of improved access to physical mobility and increasing interconnectedness, resulting from the rapidly popular information and communication technologies of an intensifying globalization process (see Appadurai 1996; Hannerz 1996). In general, stricter migration policies in southern Europe along with the backdrop of an emerging European Union ultimately contributed to the growing diversification of Brazilians’ migratory destinations. Germany, a country which Brazilians had earlier hardly taken into consideration, was now increasingly viewed as a site of migration.[2] Germany’s emerging multicultural consumer landscapes in the urban centres offered at least one incentive for Brazilians of the above-mentioned migrant profile to migrate, as new job opportunities emerged in this area. This is evident in Gildete’s case, for whom Capoeira schools and samba groups as well as ʹethnicʹ restaurants and night clubs became important spheres of transnational contact and employment.

The majority of the migration studies mentioned here have long dealt with the socio-economic profiles of the Brazilian migrants and their respective integration into the formal and informal labour markets, along with their social and cultural negotiations within the respective dominant societies.[3] Until the late 1990s, the reasons for migration were primarily contributed to political and economic discontent in the country of origin (Sales, “The Triennial”). By contrast, a body of studies focuses the specific situation of Brazilian and other Latin American women, their migration trajectories and integration into segmented work areas.[4] One particular focus here involves research on care and domestic work, trafficking and sex work (Agustín 2003, 2006; Fleischer 2002; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001; Piscitelli “Brasileria”, “Corporalidade”; Assis 2007).

3. Sex Work, Marriage Migration and Housewife Occupation in Migration Destinations

Joel Zito de Araújo’s filmic engagement, mentioned in the introduction, corresponds to a growing number of examinations of sex work in academic research, cinema, international civil society and politics. As a subject of investigation, the issue has gained increasing attention since the 1990s, when discussion was sparked concerning the integration of women into neo-liberal geographies and processes of globalization. Women are recognized, especially those in the global South, as being the most disadvantaged by these processes (see Sassen 2002). Araújo clearly did not select the geographic locations of his film randomly. Germany, for instance, is still a country with one of the highest rates of sex trafficking (Follmar-Otto & Rabe 2009; Vartti 2003).

In recent years, however, there has been less interest in using structure-centred approaches to understand these phenomena than in the possibilities of agency for the women themselves (cf. Kempadoo & Doezema 1998). Thereby, agency is not understood as a de-contextualized, unbound, consciously reflected capacity to realize one’s own interests attributed to a rational, unified, self-determined individual. In accordance with Stuart Hall who takes up post-structural approaches to power (Michel Foucault) and normativity (Judith Butler), agency is rather embedded within the very micro-physics of power and the reification of norms, but derives its strengths from the logic of subjectivation that constantly produces slippages inherent to the ʺʹplayʹ of différanceʺ (Hall 1996: 3, emphasis in the text; see also 1993). For Hall, then, the subject as agent is thus capable of acting against those powers. Furthermore, some feminist scholars do not exclusively link agency to ʹliberatingʹ practices– practices of subversion of or resistance to normativity and oppressive powers (see Mahmood 2005; Abu-Lughod 1990). They rather call for a perspective that also contextualizes agency within cultural and historical conditions and therefore ʺagentival capacities [that are] entailed not only in those acts that resists norm but also in the multiple ways in which one inhabits normsʺ (Mahmood 2005:15; emphasis in the text).

For the Brazilian transnational context, it is primarily the work of Adriana Piscitelli, which also raises the question about the problem of an unambiguous classification of sex work and of international trafficking. In her studies on European sex tourism, she shows how the lines with regard to what can be considered as sexual services are sometimes blurred. Women’s hopes for and perceptions of loving sexual encounters contribute to strengthening these encounters, which in some cases result in a promise of marriage and motivate Brazilian women to migrate (“Sexo tropical”). Piscitelli emphasizes that although this marriage may be viewed on the part of the women’s relatives and friends as an ʹupgradeʹ, the women themselves experienced a letdown following their migration to their new environment (726). In their marriages, they often see themselves as being forced to assume the ʹtraditionalʹ role of a housewife. This process is often also brought about and accompanied by ethnicized and, at the same time, sexualized ascriptions. The women’s occupation as a housewife would further restrict them in their opportunities to establish contacts and friendships. The restriction of the daily routine to housekeeping, according to Piscitelli in a personal interview, stands in considerable contrast to the women’s pre-migratory biographies with regard to work and everyday life. Their working activities in Brazil – even in such a precarious and controversial area as the sex trade – often would have given them more freedom and agency than what they experienced in their marriages and domestic lives in Europe.

Araújo also seized on this apparent contradiction. The controversy at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt film festival, however, broke out due to the apparently derivative generalization of these migratory circumstances and trajectories within Brazilian-European bi-national marriage constellations, which are associated with forms of sex tourism in Araújo’s documentary. This is evidenced by the reaction of the female protagonists on the aforementioned evening. There is, moreover, the presumption that Brazilian women in bi-national marriages married strategically with a view to benefiting from a social upgrade. On the other hand, observations similar to the ones made by Piscitelli regarding migrant women’s limited spaces of agency and their reduction to traditional gender roles within the household can be found in many studies dealing with bi-national marriages. They seem to apply to the German context as well.

Despite the fact that official statistics do not include information on former naturalizations, dual citizenships or undocumented forms of residence, they allow a remarkable trend to be identified, especially when compared to many other immigrant groups, including those from Latin America. Of the officially registered Brazilians in Germany and in Berlin, more than two thirds are female; they thus have the largest proportion of female migrants (Statistisches Bundesamt 2011).[5] In addition, the majority of the women obtained their legal status through a family reunification visa by predominantly committing themselves to a bi-national marriage with a German partner. The majority of the few studies that have been conducted in the German context hence show a specific interest in the daily forms of negotiation of immigrant women in bi-national marriage and familial constellations (see Kahrsch 1996; Engel 1998; Nunes 2001). Similar to what Piscitelli has described in reference to Brazilian-Italian marriages, Kahrsch (1996) and Engel (1998) have shown that women in Brazilian-German marriages often suffer from isolation and become “totally dependent on their husbands”, ” whom they neither understand well linguistically nor culturally” (Kahrsch 1996: 336). According to them, the husband is more interested in having his “vacation trophy” and an obedient and exotic souvenir for safeguarding at home. This situation would usually result in confrontations between the two spouses (Ibid.). In many cases, violence would come into play at this point. As a consequence, the woman would break out of her isolation by starting to look for assistance mainly at public institutions. In doing so, she would widen her social circle. From this moment on, she would begin to “take action” (Ibid. 337) and, as she did earlier in Brazil, look for low-income work, for example, as a domestic worker, nanny, kitchen help or in the entertainment sector.

4. Germany and the Issue of Work: Brazilian Migrant Women’s Perspectives

For the women I interviewed, the issue of looking for work in the migration country also only arose after the initial experience of living in Germany. They commonly combined this endeavour with the decision to settle down in Germany (at least for the time being). Unlike the subjects in Kahrsch’s study, for these women it meant less an emancipatory step or an attempt to free themselves from isolation and total dependence on their husbands. Rather, for many it was tied directly to their economic survival in their new environment. It was also a self-evident continuation of their labour biographies in Brazil, only in a foreign locality. Especially in cases where the (future) husband had a low income, they were immediately confronted as a spouse with the expectation of contributing to the household budget. When the partner had a sufficient income, the women felt motivated to earn their “own money” for spending on their own needs without having to justify it. Still, my detailed inquiries brought out another dimension that explains why the women sought employment even if their husbands had a sufficient income. This dimension has to do with women’s social positioning in German society, especially in response to the views of their partners’ families, but also to other Germans and to Brazilians who had already lived in Berlin for a long period of time. The German partners’ families almost equated “Arbeit haben” (having a job) with feelings of “true love” for the spouse. Having employment was in their view a decisive criterion for judging how serious the ʹforeignerʹ was about “integrating in Germany” and “contributing [her] share to the family”. Many of the interviewees saw themselves confronted with prejudices on the part of husband’s close circle of friends and relatives, which not only reduced them to being a foreigner, but a Brazilian. The women thus had to defend themselves against the suspicion that they only married for the sake of a social upgrade. In addition, they had to deal with the social imaginary of ʹBrazilʹ as it is advertised in Germany’s leisure sector and in the media. In accordance with a touristic ideal, Brazil and its inhabitants are associated with constantly seeking pleasure, frivolity and leisure, rather than with an ethic of hard work and diligence.

But even when interacting with other Germans, many of the women felt that ʹArbeit habenʹ was an important basis for determining their location in the social hierarchy, especially when comparing it with their experiences in Brazil:

“You’ll never meet anyone in Brazil who immediately asks: What do you do? [orig.: Was machst du hier] – IN-CRED-IBLE. This is a typical – I cannot even say European – but rather completely German question. After three sentences, the sentence ʹWhat do you do?ʹ comes up.” (Carminha)

Yone, for example, found this question on the part of Germans to be suggestive, either in a negative sense – insinuating that the addressee as a foreign woman was nursing on the ʹbreast of mother stateʹ – or in a positive sense – implying that the addressee was engaging in work related to her ʹhome countryʹ that could be classified as playing a part in Berlin’s “consumer multiculturalism” (cf. Steyerl & Gutíerrez Rodríguez 2003). In many situations, the women experienced this question as having a very ambiguous meaning. For some, as in Angelica’s case, it meant having to make a distinction between their situations in both countries: “I actually completed my training as a secretary in Brazil, but I can’t work as one here. That means that I have no profession.” Since the Brazilian professional degree is not recognized by German law, the constant repetition of the question ʹWas machst du hierʹ became a permanent reminder that the dominant society classified the women’s education as inferior. The German employment legislation, for instance, shows that an effort is being made to uphold this relationship as much as possible (Ha 2003; for EU-context cf. Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2005).[6] “Because, as a foreigner, you really have no chance. I only get a position when a German says: I’ll pass. So, you have to take what you can get” (Angelica).

5. Redefining the Boundaries in Gendered and Ethnicized Work Fields

In the case of many Brazilian women as well as other female immigrants, ʹtake whatever job you can getʹ refers to the domain of service work. This includes domestic and care work, the same fields of activity mentioned by Kahrsch. After dedicating the first few months intensively to learning the German language, Angelica at first tried to find a job through formal channels like the national employment office (Arbeitsamt). She described her deep disappointment to me at not even finding a spot in a retraining course. Through an acquaintance, she was eventually informally offered an opportunity to work as a nanny. From that moment on, she found work as a nanny and house worker through her own networks and her employers. According to Angelica, along with her gender, her nationality was an important hiring criterion. When she introduced herself to a new employer, they would often spontaneously mention their own vacation trips to Brazil and how nice and open people there were. This created a relaxed atmosphere in spite of the uncomfortable circumstance of having an important job interview in a strange apartment. Just the same, the positive German imaginary ʹBrazilʹ was not the deciding factor in her employment.

Angelica came to realize that being perceived as a Brazilian woman meant that future employers would attribute to her a particular vocation for emotional work, especially in the care work sector, and assume that she ʹknewʹ how children are cared for best (cf. Assis 2007:15). As a result of the intersection of gender, attached physical attributions (such as Angelica’s dark skin colour) and an as differently perceived corporeality with nationality, the imaginary was manifested as a stereotype, namely that of the female Brazilian.[7] Angelica was surprised at the confidence placed in her right from the start, because she has no children of her own, and until that moment had never worked as a nanny. Gender-sensitive migration research notes a relegation of migrant women to traditional gender roles in the areas of care work, similar to what occurs in bi-national marriages between Brazilian women and European men. These roles are closely related to ethnicizing ascriptions that are made in regard to migrant women’s nationality or geographical origin and/or to racialized attributions on the basis of, for example, skin colour (cf. Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001). In this respect, Helma Lutz speaks of an overlapping of doing gender, here understood as a relational category which mimics traditional gender roles, with doing ethnicity, understood as a relational category that constructs otherness. According to Lutz, doing ethnicity is the “mode of boundary work (Lan 2003) with whose help social positioning is negotiated between employers and employees” (Lutz 2007: 40). Precisely due to this intersection German women are able to emancipate themselves through their entry into and establishment in the labour market. Simultaneously, however, they do not actually question the division of domestic labour in terms of traditional gender roles. Rather, they now pass this role onto the other women. As an outcome of doing ethnicity, this entails more than a mere repetition of traditional gender roles: Specifically this “boundary work” (Ibid.)[8] allows German women to construe their own emancipation in terms of their domestic role as undoing gender, that is, as an overhaul of traditional gender roles. The other woman, instead, remains outside of the employer’s own familial, household structures and is initially discursively objectified and seemingly ʹungenderedʹ as externalized paid ʹserviceʹ. But exactly this objectification conflicts with the actual hiring criteria for the service employees, since the employers above all base their choice on gendered categories. German women resolve this contradiction by attributing a natural vocation to the other woman in the domain of reproduction and legitimate this by means of stereotypes (like that of the ʹBrazilianʹ female).

In addition to these attributions, however, Angelica told me that she was often treated like a little girl by her female employers, even though they were usually her own age. She experienced this, for instance, when employers exaggerated demonstrations or repeated work instructions and tips for improving work processes. When doing household chores, for example, Angelica was frequently shown how such work could be carried out more hygienically. Occasionally, her employers would comment deprecatingly that they did not know how certain chores were carried out in Brazil, but that, in Germany, things were done differently. They often used a grammatically simplified German when giving such instructions, even if they were aware through their daily interactions of Angelica’s good mastery of German. Employers invoked Angelica’s apparent vocation for domestic work and child care, thereby conflating doing gender and doing ethnicity in terms of the Brazilian female stereotype. By doing ethnicity, in the form of giving orders and instruction, the German employers assumed they had superior knowledge on the ʹcorrectʹ implementation of these tasks. At the same time, the female employers’ concomitant infantilization of Angelica can also be interpreted as a kind of preventive control of the stereotype’s (exaggerated) attribution of sexualization (compare Hall 1997: 262). Nevertheless, Angelica’s active positioning as a Brazilian female specifically when she applied as a nanny improved her chances of employment at interviews with new families. She therefore utilised this stereotype as a means to enhance her social positioning compared to a mere classification as a foreigner – Ausländer.[9] These classifications come along with constrained access to job opportunities even for those who entered the country as highly skilled migrants. The case of Yone exemplifies this most clearly. Despite an extensive work career that includes international awards for her photojournalistic work and employment at renowned Brazilian media companies, she was only able to get occasional jobs in Germany, typically at Brazilian news agencies and magazines. She thus saw herself forced to look for other job opportunities in migrant-dominated sectors such as care and domestic work. Even here she frequently experienced being turned down for employment by affluent households at the initial interview stage. She attributed this more to her categorization as a black person than to her nationality, and to the implicit attributions of being an Ausländer. Yone remarked that, despite its disadvantages in other social contexts, being black in Brazil had given her access in the context of her work as a photojournalist to places like São Paulo’s peripheral socio-economic communities. Thus she was able to access a sphere more commonly assigned to men. Having no German professional degree and being of Latin American origin, she was forced to accept work as a nanny – an occupation assigned to women – belonging to the limited working possibilities in which she as a migrant could engage (cf. Hernández 2007, 2000, Schäfer & Schult 1999; Gutierrez Rodriguez 2010). Just the same, her access to even this limited opportunity was made more difficult because of her racialized categorization and her unwillingness to appropriate the German stereotype of the Brazilian woman.

Yone sought to acquire room for agency without having to face the negative implications of the categorization Ausländer and also to avoid being subordinated to the stereotype of the Brazilian female. She therefore drew upon a repertoire of positioning practices from the social orders and cultural contexts that were familiar to her. She deliberately utilised them as a tool for boundary work. Yone explained to me that many male black Brazilians from the northeast first went to São Paulo before migrating to Berlin or Europe. Due to their “lack of work ethic” and “sluggish manner”, they would not have “made it” in this ultra-modern metropolis. Yone made these ascriptions on the basis of overlapping categorizations of race, regional origin in Brazil and gender. She continued saying that it was now precisely these men who, after they had come to Berlin under various circumstances, were at fault for putting “a bad light on us Brazilians” in a country like Germany, which its inhabitants see characterized by a very strong work ethic (they accordingly correlate the category nationality with work). Yone made similar arguments about other Brazilian women who would mimic or even incorporate the German stereotype. She likewise classified them according to their regional origin in Brazil (the northeast and Rio de Janeiro), but also their age. She judged these women against the yardstick of her own work ethic as being “too sexy”, “too cheerful” and “too unreliable”. And even though she was from São Paulo, she would have to deal with these negative effects. Hence, as she explained about her experience of seeking employment as a nanny:

“I have my own way of introducing myself to people […] Right at the beginning, I say that I am from São Paulo. Then I make the connection to the industry, to Lula. […] This already helps to give the person an idea. Only then do I say I’m Brazilian. Therefore, you know, this impression of an easy-to-have girl who is always nice and pleasant and always smiles does not surface. Being from São Paulo means that I’m not here [in Germany] for fun.”

In this way, Yone challenges the category of Ausländer, although not by positioning herself in relation to the ʹBrazilianʹ imaginary that predominates in Germany. Rather, Yone draws on a classification of imagined geographies (Massey 1995:3)[10] that she felt had validity in her place of origin. In reference to industry and then President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, who went from being a trade unionist to the head of state, Yone identifies commonalities between ʹherʹ São Paulo and what she recognizes in Berlin as being ʹtypical for Germanyʹ: work and work ethic. In our interview, she divided up a homogeneous imaginary ʹBrazilʹ into individual regions to which she classified other Brazilians by relating them also to categorizations of gender and skin colour as well as to socio-economic strata. It is worth noting that she sees herself actually associated with all the categorical attributions, except as regards regional origin inside Brazil. Hence, she derives her own differentiated positioning in her narrative by means of compartmentalizing the imagined geography of ʹBrazilʹ. She distinguishes her region of origin from regions that, for her, constitute Germany’s touristic image. These latter regions of Brazil were also highlighted in Araújo’s documentary on sex work. By distinguishing within the imaginary ʹBrazilʹ touristic regions – from which she distances herself – from other regions that are characterized by hard work – with which she identifies – she establishes commonalities with her imaginary ʹGermanyʹ. Supposedly shared values concerning work and work habits facilitate points of affiliation or even ways of belonging. Thus she is able to relegate the discrimination she experienced based on the perceptions of her as an Ausländer and a black woman. This kind of discrimination negates belonging and constrains agency in everyday life (for instance, by limiting the choice of work and profession). Yone made a claim for social acceptance and participation on the basis of a mutually shared work ethic with the Germans. She even did this in an area of employment that she felt was essentially beneath her intrinsic abilities and, moreover, meant the denial of her actual skills and professional qualifications.

In Yone’s case, this recourse to signifying practices that are common or relevant in the Brazilian context has proven to be a successful strategy for achieving a better positioning in the German context at the level of interpersonal interaction. For other women, however, precisely these references that mark their own social location in the Brazilian context – especially when these intersect with gender – were rather fraught with negative effects. Gildete told me that for this reason she had difficulty for some time being accepted or even respected in Berlin by other Capoeira professionals when starting up her own academy. In Brazil, it is still difficult for women to become Capoeira professionals. Gildete saw it as a problem that many of the (male) Brazilian Capoeira professionals had come to Berlin long before her. In her view, they still cling to the “old ideas” that they had brought with them from Brazil. When pursuing the goal of founding her own academy after her arrival in Berlin, Gildete was classified by these Brazilians under the terms of these “old ideas” and thereby rejected as a professional. These Brazilians, according to her, neither learned to open their minds in Berlin, nor did they notice the social changes that had occurred in the Brazilian society. Unlike in Yone’s case, Gildete did not find the signifying practices from the Brazilian context helpful as a means to open up room for agency for herself in the context of Berlin. On the contrary, she saw her agency as restricted by these references. Similar to Angelica, Gildete draws on the German imaginary ʹBrazilʹ for her professional success. Yet, more than Angelica, she also supplements this imaginary with her own images. In her work, Gildete also deliberately emphasizes that she comes from the north-eastern city of Salvador de Bahia – a touristic town which, along with its beaches and historical sites, is known as an important centre of Afro-Brazilian culture. When teaching Capoeira, she refers to it to characterize this martial art as an expression of liberation of the Afro-Brazilian people. This permits Gildete to also address the consumption interests of her German students’ with regard to multicultural exchange. Besides this, she also fosters an awareness of the ambivalent aspects of the respective imaginary ʹBrazilʹ as a place of joyful and carefree living, which is informed to this day by multiple forms of racism.

Gildete’s effort to situate Capoeira in terms of its historical significance in the Brazilian context has multiple meanings, however. Gildete transfers the idea of liberation in a society characterized by racism from Brazil to Germany in order to raise awareness of the various forms of persistent racism that she, like many other migrants, experiences on a daily basis in Berlin. She tries, in other words, to adapt this Brazilian process of raising consciousness to the German context. What’s more, in describing Capoeira to her students as an expression of gender equality, Gildete also relates the thought of liberation to traditional gender relations. Her work as a Capoeira teacher allows her to incorporate this liberation in two respects: on the one hand, she sees it as an expression of herself, specifically, as a woman who is establishing herself in a traditionally male-dominated field of activity – both in the Brazilian and the German context. On the other hand, her work as a Capoeira teacher in Berlin provides her with financial security. Unlike many of her Brazilian friends, she therefore does not need to rely on other fields of activity, like those in reproductive domain that have been attributed to women immigrants. Quite the contrary, she has gained employment in her chosen profession, which she has supplemented with her own representations and contents. She is not dependent on the ethnicized and gendered working niches migrants generally are assigned to by the majority society.

6. Summarizing Remarks

The migration and work biographies of Angelica, Yone and Gildete form part of the global phenomenon of a feminization of migration and, more specifically, the migration flows between Brazil and Germany. As a result, they offer insight into the different ways in which dominant ethnicizing and gendered representations influence the categorizations and positionings of women in their migration trajectories, especially with regard to their various work experiences. The paper has called into question generalized depictions of the feminization of migration by discussing critically recent studies of Brazilian migrants in the European context in general and by examining everyday struggles with stereotypical ascriptions in the German context in particular, where a feminization of Brazilian migration has been identified since the 1990s.

On the basis of my research, I track similarities and differences between the Brazilian migration to Germany and other migration flows between Latin America and Europe. In terms of the specific migrant profile and the migrants’ social embeddedness and experiences discussed in recent migration studies, similarities can be recognized. These include the labour market integration of many Brazilian women in the largely informal field of care work. This sector for migrants has grown ever since German women have increasingly been able to participate in and ascend in the dominant society’s labour market (cf. Lutz 2007). Even though the migrant women mostly belonged to lower-income groups before leaving Brazil, their reasons for migration cannot be merely reduced to financial motivations or survival strategies and the aim of integrating into international care chains. On the examples of three women, I showed that for most Brazilian women in Germany a feminisation of migration must also be included in the discussion, taking into account their participation in an increasingly globalized world and their intentions behind taking advantage of the opportunities for mobility. For this reason, migration in the form of a spousal reunification that is facilitated by transnational networks and contacts is not necessarily related to sex tourism or trafficking for the purpose of marriage migration.

By the same token, the decision to enter into a marriage cannot be assumed to be a strategic step towards a social upgrade and, in a subsequent step, migration. Many cases in my study indicate that marriage was rather a necessary formalization of a relationship for legalized residence, but, again, not the initial reason for migration. The motivations for migration are found rather in changes to the women’s individual life projects (as with Yone), aspirations to pursue a more successful career (as with Gildete), and also love (as with Angelica). They are situated beyond mere survival measures or responses to victimization (even though most women had suffered different forms of discrimination before migration). These kinds of motivations have typically been ascribed to men from the global North and at most some men from the global South. In regard to the Brazilian emigration movements of recent decades, these reasons for the migration of women from lower income groups are notable because in the 1980s and 1990s middle-class migration, by contrast, was primarily associated with economic motivations. A comparison of Brazilians’ inclusion into the respective labour markets, however, reveals clear differences between these migrant profiles. Brazilians lacking a European passport experience having their diplomas invalidated and their professional experiences disqualified, similar to the way this was experienced by Brazilian middle-class migrants in the USA in the 1980s.

With regard to many of my interviewees, it also turned out that the job search could not merely be explained as a financial necessity to secure a livelihood at the site of migration. Rather, the bi-national family constellation is an important factor. Many of the women saw themselves confronted with the prejudice that they were an idle Brazilian foreigner or had married strategically for their financial betterment. They sought to oppose this prejudice by taking up paid work, while at the same time considering this integration to the labour market to be a self-evident continuation of their labour biographies. Their possibilities in Germany, however, were restricted to a few work niches such as the highly informal sector of care and domestic work. In addition to the general invalidation of the migrant’s education, the disqualification of their professional experience and the primacy to German citizens granted by German employment law, there was a rise of demand for domestic and care workers on the side of the German employers (see Lutz 2007). The latter cultivated the stereotype that Brazilian women had a natural vocation for this job. Such ethnicized and gendered stereotypes of Brazilian women were highly effective, and the women themselves learned to deal with them in very different ways. Angelica took advantage of the imaginary ʹBrazilʹ as an affirming resource, although she discovered that she was immediately confronted with ambivalent stereotyped attributions. On the one hand, she was acknowledged as having a natural vocation for emotional work; on the other, she often experienced from her employers infantilized treatment, as an attempt to limit the sexualization that is attributed to her as part of the stereotype. Yone, by contrast, refrained from invoking the stereotype, specifically in relation to her work ethic. She saw more advantages in using the imaginary ʹBrazilʹ to distance herself from being categorized as an Ausländer. She therefore compartmentalized that imaginary by enhancing differences and classifications known to her in the Brazilian context. Besides socio-cultural attributions and gender categorizations, she resorted to regional origins in Brazil and distinguished herself above all from Brazil’s touristic regions such as the northeast. Simultaneously, she searched for attributions offering common ground to Germany and Germans. Work and work ethic were, again and again, shared features that Yone, like most of the other interviewees, was also able to connect with her pre-migration biography. But identity-establishing references to categorizations that were valid in the Brazilian context are only of help situationally, and depend on place and environment. They can also be characterized negatively in the migration context, as Gildete experienced when struggling for recognition among male Brazilian Capoeiristas in Berlin. Like Angelica, Gildete also works with the imaginary. Similar to Yone, though, she expands it with her own content and attributions. While this is done in response to multicultural demands of Berlin’s consumer market, this strategy also aims at raising awareness of the social and racialized disparities in Brazil and thereby also undermines a homogeneous image of Brazil. On the other hand, Gildete sees her own work as a form of emancipation, not only in terms of racialized, but also gendered attributions.

In summary, the paper proposes a nuanced research and careful perspective on migrant women’s agency in respect to their migration reasons, motivations and trajectories, even when they are located within the “countergeographies of globalization” (Sassen 2002; Pyle & Ward 2003). I have shown how Brazilian migrant women – in contrast to their own migration biographies – were confronted with stereotypic representations. These range from the generalizing assumption of victimization by ascribing them to the domain of Brazilian sex tourism industry and trafficking, to exoticising them within the German formal and informal labour market. In reaction, these women had to develop counter-strategies not just regarding their categorizations as Ausländer and as the other woman, but also concerning this spectrum of ambivalent stereotypic representations of Brazilian migrant women. The intersectionality analysis that focused on gender, nationality and body-related categories and categorizations in the course of their labour-market integration makes their specific struggles with discriminating practices in Germany and respective boundary work by their employers visible. But it would be short-sighted to attribute the potential of doing boundary work just to members of German dominant society. The focus on forms of boundary work on the part of the Brazilian women allows for a more complex picture. The migrant women took recourse to varying degrees not just in utilising the imaginary ʹBrazilʹ as a resource, but also in signifying practices they were familiar with in Brazil. They even put up with ambivalent outcomes of stereotypic representations, though at the same time were able to enhance their own positioning and to open up room for agency by enhancing shared values and classifications with Germans. This was exercised in both sectors, that of care and domestic work, which Encarnación Gutierrez Rodriguez perceives as marked by a continuing coloniality of power (cf. Gutierrez Rodriguez 2010), but also in sectors of entrepreneurial activity as in the example of Gildete.

By way of concluding, it is worth noting that Angelica established her own business in 2010, a Brazilian waxing studio. At first, she offered waxing as a service at private residences to earn some additional money after separating from her husband. But she then took the step of setting up her own studio in light of the growing success of other studios in Berlin. In this field of activity, she must still cope with ethnicized and gendered representations. However, like Gildete, she determines the specific content and points of emphasis when promoting herself and her services. It remains a topic of future research whether this type of entrepreneurship can be understood as conducive to greater agency, especially when embedded into dominant society’s multicultural consumption demands, or if it simply takes part in gendered, ethnicized or even colonizing consumer and labour-market patterns.

End Notes

[1] I started fieldwork in 2007 in the context of my MA-thesis on negotiations of belonging and un-belonging of Brazilian migrant women in Berlin. Besides ethnographic fieldwork, I worked with seven Brazilian women during fifteen months carrying out several in-depth-interviews on everyday issues of belonging and un-belonging. Yone and Gildete are two of them. Since 2010, I do qualitative research on Brazilian small-scale entrepreneurs in Berlin in the context of my PhD-thesis on Brazilian Waxing Studio owners. Concurrently I am working with 18 Brazilian studio owners with whom a series of in-depth-interviews on their migration and labour biographies are carried out. I got to know Angelica during my MA-research but started working with her since my PhD-research.back to text

[2] Germany did not only become a target of Brazilian emigration for the first time in this period but of Latin American emigrations in general, see: Hernández 2007, 2000; Garay 2000.back to text

[3] Drawing on critical migration studies and studies on racism in Germany, I use the common term dominant society, which references Birgit Rommelspacher´s (1995) conception of “Dominanzkulur”. In contrast to the concept of “majority society” widely applied in media discourses, dominant society does not emphasize a sense of a quantitative measurable consensus with regard to norms and values and a supposed cultural principle, but rather focuses on the diverse and intersecting regimes of power through which these social variables are constituted. The concept emphasizes the ability of its members to make use of resources to set and assert boundaries of social inclusion and exclusion.back to text

[4] Since the 1980s, feminist researchers increasingly emphasized the fact that women also migrate and should be given scholarly attention and made visible as a migration subjects (cf. Morokvasic 1984; Chant & Radcliffe 1992; Pessar & Mahler 2003). This focus on women should not be understood as a field of research that is simply to be added to the dominant migration approaches. In this regard, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (2000) identified three stages in gender-sensitive migration studies: the “add-and-stir” approach (since the 1970s/early 1980s, encompassing neo-classical as well as Marxist-structuralist approaches), the “gender-and-migration” approach (since the late 1980era/early 1990s, interrogating gender differentiated experiences in migration and shifting gender relations in the process of migration), and the “gender as constitutive element of migration” approach (since the late 1990s, focusing on how gender is constituted in the manifold daily operations, institutional political and economic structures, and how it constitutes processes of migration) (Ibid. 116, 117). Since then, researchers directed their attention to the reasons for migration, which often cannot be explained unilaterally by economic motivations or survival strategies in the context of international labour-market dynamics. Instead, they discuss motivations that are also based on experiences of discrimination based on gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality or perhaps religion in the countries of origin. In the same way that homogenizing notions about the reasons and motivations in the south-north migration have been put into question in recent years, the homogenized images of the migrant profile have been revised (cf. Lutz 2009; Kofman 1999; Piper 2008; Hernández 2007). Labour or marriage migrants were often sweepingly classified as poor, uneducated and lacking in any professional qualifications.back to text

[5] In 2011, about 34, 000 Brazilians were registered in Germany, of whom around 24,000 were female (71%). Almost two-thirds of them are or were married to a German (Statistisches Bundesamt 2011).back to text

[6] The possibility of recognizing the educational degrees and work experiences of non-EU members by law was concurrently discussed in Germany, each time a particular labour market sector suffers a shortage of skilled workers. In 2011, the so-called Blue Card was finally introduced to facilitate the recruitment and (temporary) immigration of non-European foreign skilled workers in general. It is based on the German Green Card model that was introduced in 2000 to attract foreign computer scientists, especially from India.back to text

[7] Stuart Hall discusses stereotyping as signifying practice that reduces, exaggerates and simplifies, essentializes and naturalizes “difference”. It aims to fix boundaries and thereby constitutes a practice of “closure” and exclusion (Hall 1997: 257, 258).back to text

[8] Pei-Chia Lan (2003) defines boundary work as a theoretical tool to identify, in references to Christena Nippert-Eng, “the strategies, principles, and practices we use to create, maintain, and modify cultural categories” (Nippert-Eng 1995: 7).back to text

[9] The German term for ʹforeignerʹ – Ausländer – has a literal meaning of exclusion and besides connotes a racialized and socially inferior imaginary of the Other who does not belong to the German nation (Jung et al. 2000; Räthzel 1997; Thränhardt 1984). In official discourse, this term has been substituted by ʹperson with migration backgroundʹ [ʹMenschen mit Migrationshintergrundʹ] as a reaction the blurring of the conceptions of ʹAus-ʹ and ʹInländerʹ due to second and third immigrant generations living in Germany and with the aim to avoid the negative connotations of the term Ausländer. Nevertheless, the latter term is still persistent in public and political discourse.back to text

[10] “Imagined geographies” are places constructed via signifying practices, emotions, belongings or their negation. They are not necessarily connected to physical places, but encompass a defining, interpretation and representation of places (see Massey 1995:3).back to text

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