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.


How plagues and grasshoppers changed the Latvian colonies in Brazil

So far, 2020 has been an absurd year. A cyclone in southern Brazil has temporarily prevented the arrival of a swarm of grasshoppers that destroyed Argentina. In the past article, we reported how the pandemic we face today is not much different than what the Latvians in Brazil experienced in 1918. Spanish flu, however, was only the smallest enemy of the decade: years before, locust clouds darkened the skies and they destroyed entire plantations.

For immigrants who left the old continent to make a living in Brazil, agriculture was everything. Your wealth, your way of life. Plantations destroyed in a difficult year could mean famine, and no enemy was as vile as the grasshopper.

Lizete Roze, in letter to her son.

We are doing well and everyone is healthy. But the plantations do not want to grow, due to drought and a complete lack of rain. The weather is still quite cold. The last rain was on the 16th of October, and just yesterday there was frost in the lowlands. The dry, cold wind blows all day, and if the locusts happen to arrive, there will be hunger.

In this article, we will again be looking at the archive of letters from Rio Novo. Due to the vast number of letters, the link to the original letters is in the descriptions. The swarm caused panic among the colonists. Some, like Arthur Leiman, even called them “little demons”, but soon they were given a more affectionate nickname: “Visitors from Argentina”.

The scientific name of the South American migratory locust is Schistocerca cancellata. Coming from the Argentine chaco, the absence of predators and hot winters can cause the population to get out of control. However, the year 1917 saw a plague of biblical proportions, affecting the lethal colonies of Ijuí and Rio Novo:

Olga Puriņa, in letters to her brother in October and November 1917.

The Kļaviņš property is infested with locusts: an immense amount, reaching, due to the weight, to break the branches of the trees.

A cloud of locusts passed by last week, but they did not land. The mountain people say that there are many locusts in the mountains, but they have not started to descend. In Mãe Luzia there are so many grasshoppers that it is a horror, they form a thick layer and they lay eggs. The Kļava [another family] wrote to Rio Novo asking if there is a possibility of them bringing the cattle, because there is nothing else to eat there and it is possible that they will starve.

Emils Andermanis, in his personal diary in 1917 and 1919.

In October, the locusts began to arrive in flight. The local people were very concerned. Some plowed the fields to bury them, but despite these efforts, a month later, they were born knowing how to jump and were the size of a fly. They stayed in packs and moved from side to side and where they arrived they ate everything that was vegetable. A hard fight against them began; ditches were dug and when they got there, we covered them with soil. We sprinkled the locusts with boiling water, beat with brooms, but despite this effort, many remained and became adults.

Again clouds of locusts arrived and destroyed our pastures and were jumping around looking for a place to spawn.

During the night I lit fires whose light attracted them and the flames burned; I also surrounded the candle fields to impede their progress.

Immigrant pushing away a cloud of locusts. Credits: Unijui

Roberts Klaviņš to Reinalds Puriņš in two letters: November e October 1917

You probably already have news through newspapers that in the Province of Rio Grande do Sul several colonies were literally destroyed, including Ijuí [a latvian colony] and its surroundings. The number of locusts would be so great that the railway traffic would be interrupted in the mountains of that province; there in the mountains the thickness of the locust layers would be more than one meter, in front of which the mountaineers and their troops would not be able to proceed, etc…

In the week of October 23, the first flocks began. (…) They devoured a large part of the cornfield and six liters of beans; thankfully, most of it was left, as many people lost everything.

On Sunday, the last day of October, I was going to Rio Laranjeiras, passing by the lower Rio Novo, when clouds of grasshoppers passed over the river. When I arrived in the land of the Paegles, there was even more, and in that stretch of forest side they had landed and were getting ready to lay eggs. (…) The grass of the pastures no longer exists, and poor cattle have nothing else to eat: they just remain immobile.

The Brazilians said that in Capivaras there were also immense clouds of grasshoppers that landed and laid eggs; when the ground is dug with a hoe you can see an immense amount of eggs, so calculate the damage they will do when they hatch in thousands of new locusts.

[The arrival] according to them was frightening, due to the immensity of the locust clouds, comparable to a devastating storm that made the heavens and the earth darken. The people there used everything to try to scare them and make them continue their route, and they think they got some results.

Near Campinas [Note: Araranguá] a large number of these animals, when flying to the sea, ended up drowning; now fishermen can no longer go fishing, as they get bogged down to the waist in the layer of dead locusts that the sea returns to the beaches. We also have news from Florianópólis, that there was so much locust drowned there that the sea returned to the beaches, reaching a layer of two and a half meters high …

Yesterday a white cloud appeared that moved to the sides of the Rio Pequeno and was moving away from the mountains, and it was nothing but another cloud of them. What else can happen only God knows.

There are many people saying that the locusts are attacking the Minadouro region. They say there are so many that they form thick layers. Here they also pass, but flying high and do not land; it happens almost every day.

Olga Puriņa, in letters to her brother in  December 1917.  Her younger brother also wrote briefly about them in other letter.

This year was a year full of tragedies. At the beginning of the year the floods, then the great frosts, the snow, the locusts, a month and a half of immense drought and then, to complete, the fire.

Grasshoppers appeared again near Orleans, also in Rio Laranjeiras, Rio Belo and Braço do Norte. Near Orleans, I had the opportunity to see a cloud of them, the edges of the roads so full that they wheezed; thankfully they’re not everywhere. Where they are they eat everything and start laying eggs. The government determined that people not affected should go to work for at least two days, killing the young; in the fields everything was easy, but in the woods and capoeiras there was nothing to do. If those who are left go up the Rio Novo, they will eat everything. Below Orleans they say there is much more, that on the railroad you cannot see the tracks.

Gazeta do Commercio, from 03/11/1917, instructing settlers to combat the plague. Credits: Jornal Retrô

Certainly, 1917 was the scariest year for the colonists. For many, who had never experienced such a natural catastrophe in Latvia, locusts were almost an apocalyptic sign. The combat was successful due to the colonists’ work and government action. However, swarms of locusts would still plague the colonies in the years that followed, until the late 1940s.

Olga Puriņa, in letters from June, August and October 1918, and one from April 1919

On June 6, just after noon, on the side of the hill of the Griķi [family], locusts started to come, but in an immense amount as I had never seen before. They did not land near our house; everyone headed towards the Liepkalņi [family] hill.

It was a cloud so dense that it darkened the sun and a noise that was a harbinger of a storm. They started to appear at 1:30 pm and ended at 3:00 pm;

This year we had visits from Argentina [grasshoppers]; few have appeared here on our land, but there have been immense clouds in the Klaviņi and Leimani.

Earlier this year we worked hard to eradicate locusts. We all had the opportunity to see an immense amount of these insects. When they passed, they provoked a snoring as dull as a storm, and they even shadowed as clouds do: not even the sunlight could be seen.

In a way, the locusts of 1917 represent the beggining of a change in the Latvian Colonization of Brazil. The beginning of its agricultural decline. The lands that the immigrants had bought from the Brazilian government were rocky, sandy and distant from civilization. At the end of the 1930s, it became clear that those colonies were not proper to mechanization. Factors such as tropical heat and shifting rains, in addition to plagues, have caused a brutal decline in agricultural activity.

When we look at history, we can understand why colonies like Rio Novo disappeared, and others like Vārpa, never became cities. The plague of locusts, that would ravage the colonies for decades to come, forced many to migrate to urban spaces, gradually dispersing the Latvians across Brazilian lands.

Emils Andermanis, in his personal diary in 1920


The locusts also devoured everything from the pasture and crops, and on agricultural activity I had no more hope and I was tired of insisting.


Another wave of locust attacking the colony in Ijuí, 1933. Credits: ´Unijui

Cover image: Ijuí memória virtual
Author: Andreis Purim