The History of the Latvians in Urubici

Urubici today is on the list of best tourist destinations in Brazil. The small town, encrusted in the hills that form the mountain range of Santa Catarina, is known for its cold climate and beautiful natural landscapes. In the last decade the city has grown dramatically due to tourism, but most Brazilians or Latvians do not know the impact of Latvian immigration in the region.

The following article is an extract from the visit of the German-Brazilian historian and architect Angelina Wittmann. The full article can be read here (in Portuguese)

Latvians were one of the first to arrive in the region and estabilish the city, togheter with a few german and italian immigrants. In the pictures (ceded by Arvids Puriņš) we can see a little about Latvian life in Urubici.

After visiting Urubici in January 2015 – a city in the mountain range of Santa Catarina that received several ethnic groups from other regions of Brazil and Europe, we will tell you a little about one of the cultures that contributed to the development of this region, at least, in the last six decades. For a good observer, it is enough to take a closer look at the landscape, and realize that there is still the presence of this cultural heritage that was part of the formation and history of Urubici – the cultural presence of the Latvians.

The Latvians of Urubici, which besides being part of the city’s history and present, until the present day, have not lost contact with the larger group that immigrated to Brazil and also, with Latvia, its country of origin.

These immigrants did not come directly to Urubici. After disembarking at the port of Laguna, they settled in Orleans and surroundings in the south of Santa Catarina.
Before, however, in 1888, two young pastors, a Lutheran pastor and another doctor of philosophy and Baptist pastor: Karlis Balodis and Peteris Salitis, respectively, visited the State of Santa Catarina and European immigrant colonies in the city of Grão-Pará and Orleans. They were interested in knowing more about immigration and the advantages offered by the Brazilian government. When they returned to Latvia, they founded an Immigration Company to promote the emigration of lethal families to Brazil and, specifically, to the State of Santa Catarina.
In April 1890, 25 families led by Pastor Karlis Balodis embarked in Riga, the capital of Latvia, on their way to Brazil. After stopping in Germany, they arrived in Brazil – at the Port of Laguna, where they received the amount promised to cover travel expenses and 480 thousand m² of land. The land should be paid for with the production of crops and livestock. From Laguna, the families were taken to the city of Orleans, where the first colony of Latvians in Brazil was founded – on the banks of the Rio Novo and also called the Colony Rio Novo. The absence of primary infrastructure, the need to cut down the forest to rent the main equipment of a colony, made many of these first families seek other places with urbanity, leaving only 4 families of this first wave. But, later, as many families arrived, in other groups of Latvian immigrants to the region and settled in the colony.
As we have already mentioned, social, political and economic movements took place in the first decades of the 20th century, in Europe. Latvia was under the rule of the Russian empire and many were banned from practicing their religion. With this, some decided to flee religious persecution and emigrated to Brazil. The first Latvian Church, and one of the first Baptist churches in Brazil, was founded in Rio Novo – 1892.
The religion of Latvian immigrants was largely responsible for maintaining the group’s cultural hegemony in Brazil. It was important for the cohesion of immigrants, who suffered persecution, not only by the Russians – in Europe, but also on Brazilian soil, by Catholics from Orleans and later, in Urubici.
The old ones telll us that around 1920, not satisfied with the hot climate, very different from their homeland, the conditions and plans of the colonies, a group of Latvians decided to visit the Santa Catarina mountain range through the slopes of the Serra Geral. The climate of the mountains was similar to that of the native land and thus they could grow apples and wheat. They say that they went up through Serra do Engenheiro and along the Bispo river, between Morro da Igreja and Serra do Corvo Branco – current SC 350 highway, arriving in the District of Esquina.

The near 1km of mountain range formed an semi-impenetrable barrier for the colonists in the early 20th century. In 1970, the roads of Serra do Corvo Branco and Rio do Rastro had already been opened.

During the first half of the 20th century arrived more than 50 descendant families or Latvian immigrants. Some families, such as: Andermanis, Auras, Elberts, Feldmanis, Freibergis, Frišenbruders, Karkle, Karklings, Klava, Klaviņš, Lanka, Liepkalns, Legsdins, Leimanis, Paegle, Salits, Zēbergs, Slengmanis, Karklis, Ungurs, Linde, Ozols, Feldsberg, Maisiņš, Zalits, Karps, Grikis, Bruvers, Bumbiers, Očins, among others. The origin of most of these families in Latvia was from the capital of the country – Riga and the city of Ventspils –  a port city located in the Baltic.
Upon their arrival, the Latvian families acquired the land at the crossroads that arrive in Urubici, near the Canoas River. This crossroads (called “Esquina”, or Corner) is now a neighborhood in the city. More than 3 km were acquired along the street that connects Esquina towards Santa Terezinha. Currently, properties with descendants of the same families can still be found.
Many families who arrived at the end of the first half of the 20th century, also came from lethal colonies in the State of São Paulo, such as the Lanka family, and also immigrants directly from Latvia, such as the Ozols Family, who arrived in the city in 1930, São from the village of Sloka, current district of Jūrmala.

The climate in Urubici is very reminiscent of Latvia’s climate. With cold winters and snow. Here we can see some Latvians enjoying the blizzard that hit the region.

Until they built their Baptist Church, the Latvians met in a room provided by the Karps Family, who later donated the land to build it, in the form of joint efforts and donations. In the finishings of the church they had help from the Pentecostal Latvians, some skilled carpenters. Records say that in this period Pentecostal families converted to the Baptist Church, as well as the other way around. They lived in harmony, until the moment that Pentecostal pastors went to preach in the Baptist Church, creating a malaise that interfered in the good relations between the two churches. As the Baptist Church had not been registered as its heritage, it was appropriated by those who helped to build and donated the land – Pentecostal Church. The fact accelerated the steps to build the second church, now belonging to the Baptist Church Leta de Urubici, which is part of the city’s landscape to the present day and we visited this February.
Currently, the Baptist churches of Brazil maintain a tradition that has been going on since the middle of the 20th century. It promotes meetings of descendants and Latvians spread throughout the country in a great moment of harmony and prayer. In 2015, the event took place in the city of Urubici in July. Valdis Frišenbruders commented during his testimony, recorded and posted in this research. [A later article will touch on this subject]
We visited the Family of Ziedonis Frišenbruders and also, we talked with Valdis and João (Jahnis), his children. Patriarch Krišs Frišenbruders (Name is different due to errors during registrations in Brazil) and family, arrived in Urubici in 1931 from the Colony Rio Novo. Krišs was the father of Ziedonis and grandfather of João and Valdis. In the middle of our conversation, it was reminded again, that Latvia was the domain of the Germans, Russians and Poles.
Ziedonis told us that his grandfather, Juris, wrote to his family – nephews, who could come to Brazil without fear. He described a food from the land that “could be eaten and resembled saw dust and the shape of a candle”, referring to cassava. He also mentioned that wheat was plentiful. Ziedonis’ great uncle came to visit, and for political reasons he couldn’t leave Latvia. When they were able to leave the country, he sold everything and with his family, at first, they went to live in São Paulo, to work in the coffee plantations.

The Frišenbruders family in Urubici.

João Frišenbruders commented that the Latvians as well as farmers were excellent carpenters and many of the historical typologies present in the city are the result of his work, such as the typology of window with guillotine leaves and with certain designs from the layout of the panes.
João is a teacher of the Latvian language, for anyone who wants to learn and says it is very difficult. According to him, there are words that are written the same, but according to their placement in a sentence – which one is inserted, changes its pronunciation
It is very good to know that there is concrete, voluntary work, based on awareness of its importance for the longevity of this part of history, not only in the city of Urubici, Santa Catarina, but in the history of a people, who keep their identity even far away from their homeland.
Urubici’s first hotel was founded by the Andermanis Family, also known to the oldest in the city for the sweets they made and sold in the café and bakery.
We talked to Emils Andermanis’ grandson – Artus Andermanis. Emils was the founder of Hotel Andermann, the bakery and the sale located on the corner. The family arrived in Brazil in 1918. Emílio was 18 years old and his father no longer wanted to participate in the war and brought the family to Brazil. Artus commented to us that his father was disgusted with many [brazilians], that due to lack of knowledge, who harassed them, because they thought they were Russian communists. They owned amateur radio equipment and communicated with Latvia, at the time already under Soviet domination, which raised suspicions among people who were unaware that many of the Latvians came to Brazil to escape authoritarianism and domination, first from the Russian empire and after the Soviet.

The Andermanis Hotel and Bakery.

The Andermanns, very much related to their country of origin, received magazines and this was enough to raise suspicions. They spoke Latvian, German and Russian fluently.

Artus, told us that they intend to dismantle the building of the old Hotel Andermanis built by Emílio, which we regret, as it is part of the history of the Latvians of Urubici, part of the history of Urubici and Santa Catarina.

We also visited the Urubici Baptist Church and talked to the Pastor. The church is the same built by the first Latvians who arrived in the city in the first half of the 20th century and is located at Rua Adolfo Konder, N ° 2023.
The Urubici Baptist Church was founded on August 25, 1934, under the coordination of Pastor Karlis Strobergs and deacon Osvalds Aurass. At the time, the community had 40 members and was the 19th Latvian Batista Church in Brazil. There were also immigrants and descendants of Latvians who were Pentecostals (Assembly of God). The building of the church that still exists today, with some characteristics, was inaugurated on August 25, 1940.
Social and religious activities in the church are intense, ranging from prayer groups and singing. The singing groups are accompanied by musical instruments. The Pastor introduced us to some historic musical instruments, guarded with zeal, which were brought by the pioneers.
From history, culture, tradition, religion, language, we know a little more, from the scale of community. We learned a little more about part of the History of Santa Catarina. History that also received contributions from the Latvians. Our gratitude to everyone who, directly and indirectly, contributed to this work. In particular, to the Urubici latvian families.
Hugs from Blumenau!

Excerpt from the article written in 2015, by Angelina Wittmann, in her blog.

This Universal Disease Reached Our Home

How did the Latvians face the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in Brazil?

A week ago Brazil completed 100 days of lockdown. Our country is the second largest Covid-19 hub in the world, accounting 55,000 deaths. Latvian communities in Brazil had to cancel their events because of public health concerns. For the first time in 70 years, the LBBA will not hold the yearly Latvian Congress. The traditional Līgo party in Nova Odessa was canceled, as well as the Latvian Meetings in Curitiba.

Although alarming, 2020 is not the first time Latvian Brazilians face a global pandemic. 102 years ago, the dreaded Spanish Flu plagued Brazilian cities and piled up corpses on the street – and threatened the young latvian colonies in Brazil.

Thanks to the Letters from Rio Novo Archive, we can get a sense of what the colonists thought at the time. On the website are numerous letters exchanged between friends and relatives. In this article, we will only highlight the parts concerning the Spanish Flu, but the complete letters can be accessed by clicking on their respective headings (place and date).

As we have already discussed in previous articles, the first immigrants from Latvia arrived in Brazil in 1890, creating the colony of Rio Novo, in the state of Santa Catarina. In the following decades, several of these colonists spread throughout the south and southeast of Brazil, building cities like Ijuí, Urubici and Nova Odessa.

The epidemic was brought to Brazil by English sailors in Rio de Janeiro in September 1918. But the Brazilian authorities neglected the news of the alarming pandemic that engulfed Europe. At the same time, the population was ignorant of the danger that was to come. It didn’t take long for the disease to reach exorbitant figures. In Rio de Janeiro, 600 thousand fell ill, 66% of the city.

In the year of the pandemic, some Latvian students from the colony of Rio Novo studied in the capital. The first mention of the dreaded disease was in a letter written by Pastor Karlis Leimanis (Carlos Leiman) to his friend Reinalds Puriņš (Reynaldo Purim), who at the time studied at the Theological Seminary of Southern Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro.

Karlis Leimanis (Riga, March 7, 1880) was pastor of the Baptist Church of Rio Novo and director of the colony school.

Cachoeiro do Itapemirim, October 27, 1918

The rumors here, coming from Rio, are to frighten the world. What’s the reality there? Has the “Hespanhola” reached the College yet? Is it still working? We closed our school even without reasons of “bigger force”, because here the “one” does not inspire fear, but the people are alarmed and are the worst. What is your destination for holidays? Already decided? I am proposing a deal to Mr. Reno – If he accepts …? I don’t know – but I want to know your opinion – directly and frankly.

Reinalds Puriņš, born in the colony in 1897, attended the same school and church that Leiman was a pastor. Almost like a mentor, they were both great friends and discussed the issues of the colony. Reinalds had left Rio Novo the previous year, 1917, to study theology in Rio de Janeiro.

The next mention of the infamous disease was made by her sister, Olga Puriņa, in a letter from Rio Novo:

Olga Puriņa (Rio Novo, 1901), Reinalds’ sister, lived in the colony with her family.

Rio Novo, December 18, 1918

(…) It has been a long time since we heard from you, and that is why we did not know where you had been on vacation. The letter of 18 November was lost, as well as that of 7 October.

(…) The letters are probably lost, since several ships were not allowed to enter the port of Laguna because of many passengers with the “disease”. So, no wonder that so many letters were lost.

We are all healthy. None of us got this disease. Here in Rio Novo some caught the flu and in Orleans some have already died, but none of us. Some are so afraid that they will not leave their property to avoid getting the disease, but I often go to Orleans and I didn’t get anything.

Weeks ago the Griķi were sick, but nothing serious. Old Somers is very sick, but not with the flu. So Lūcija sent Dad to make the coffin. Dad was there with the Griķi all day and we were worried about the possibility that he got the disease, but nothing. Well, there would be again [the possiblity].

(…) [Jurgis Karklis] said that in Porto Alegre people die like flies and that vehicles walk around the streets picking up corpses – more than a thousand a day, which makes it impossible to bury everyone. In São Paulo and Rio it is also the same; he was saved because he carried a glass of cresol close to his nose at all times. But he is gaudy, very pompous. (…)

The colony’s relative geographic isolation – close to the coastal mountain range – delayed the arrival of the disease for only a few months. While entire Brazilian cities were devastated, the settlers only knew about the news from travelers. The first infections among Latvians began on Christmas 1918.

Olga Puriņa. Unfortunately, the letters sent by her brother have not been preserved.

Rio Novo, January 8, 1919

(…) This time I have nothing good to write to you. We would be doing well if it weren’t for this epidemic, this universal disease, which reached our home. You may have already forgotten about this disease, but it is only now that it has come this far.

This epidemic has been in Orleans for a long time and here in Rio Novo too, but here at home it started with a headache and tiredness, body slack. As the day was very hot, I thought it was because of that. The other day I had nothing more, just a little cough, and so my illness gave way with a good sleep. Lūcija had to lie down on New Year’s eve. Arthur and Mamma after the New Year. We are hardly bedridden, but only with a lot of cough. But with Papus [“dad”, Jānis Puriņš], who always held on while the others were sick, started on Sunday and he went to bed- and it’s longer than us all together. Today it looks a little better.

It seems that there was no home where no one was sick. Now the Klaviņi and Leimani are sick. Here in the colonies it is not so strong, but there in Orleans several Brazilians have already died due to this disease; also many, after having a hard time, came to recover.

In Orleans, two “hospitals” were improvised: one at the cinema and the other at Jurkis Jakobsons’ house. Some Latvians who went to visit these places said that in a place like this it is very likely that the patients will only get worse and will hardly be able to heal, as there is not the slightest ventilation: the windows are all kept completely closed and it gets hotter inside than a sauna.

(…) [About Christmas festivities] Visitors were not as many as the other years; one explanation is that due to the flu epidemic, several people have avoided gatherings, (…)

[Written on the side:]
9-1-19 – Today I received the newspapers from 12/14/18. Letter, none. I will have to wait longer. Sincere memories from Olga.

Fortunately, Olga’s family survived the epidemic. However, the disease took some of the older settlers. It is not known how many Latvians died due to the Spanish flu of 1918, but reports seem to indicate that colonies were not hit as hard as cities.

Olga passed away due to hookworm complications in 1926.

Rio Novo, February 5, 1919

(…) We are thankful now, thank God, all are healthy and we can all work again. As I already wrote in another letter, that “Spanish” [Spanish flu] settled in at home, but now he’s gone and not all of us were very affected. The one who stayed in bed the most was Paps who stayed a whole week.

Work, as always, we have too much. (…)

[Postcard dated with Orleans’ stamp: 12 February 1919]

Old Somers died on December 20 at the Griķi’ house and the funeral was the following day. Recently, he was so bad that he didn’t recognize anyone and couldn’t move.

Jurgis Karklin, as I already wrote, is at home, but now he doesn’t hear the great “pompe” telling those great things, nor does he talk about leaving. (…)

Then, by the end of 1920, the pandemic slowly loosened its grip. Without hospitals or any aid, the latvians survived the Spanish Flu. The Colony withstood this arduous test of resilience and continued to be the home of the many, many immigrants who had made Brazil their home. However, this was not the Latvian’ last encounter with the disease:

Karlis Leimanis, before being pastor of Rio Novo, had run away from home to live among natives. The rest of his life he was a missionary in Paraná and Bahia.

Castelo (ES), July 25, 1921

Yesterday I arrived back from Vitória, where I spent a whole month traveling, I am now leaving behind 9 more leagues on horseback [almost 60 kilometers], I will be home on Saturday to start classes on Monday.

The weather is very cold and rainy and the people are sick with the Spanish flu. (…)

So it leaves us – those who live today – the task to learn from our ancestors. No matter how desperate or worrying the following years become, we can always look back and see how different, but how similar, our lives are. In the future, it will be our turn to tell our stories to new generations. The Covid-19 pandemic will become one of many challenges in the history of Latvians Brazilians. So, it is up to us to learn and preserve these stories to be told in the future.

Cover image: 1918 field hospital set up at Club Athletico Paulistano in 1918 / Reproduction
Autor: Andreis Purim
Special thanks to Alice and Arvido Purim