The history of the city of São Paulo largely mirrors that of the state. For the first three centuries after the arrival of Jesuits here in 1554, the city grew only gradually as a posting station for fortune hunters heading for the interior, and growers from nearby sugar plantations.
Upon Brazil’s independence in 1822, São Paulo was declared a state capital, a decision that in turn led to the founding of the College of Law – arguably Brazil’s first public institution of higher learning. An increasingly important political and intellectual center, the city was soon leading the fight both to end slavery and to found the republic.
The city’s fortunes began to rise in the late 19th century when the region’s planters began replacing sugar with the world’s new, favorite cash crop: coffee. Some of the coffee barons’ mansions still line Av Paulista today. The millions of descendants of immigrants who came to work those plantations – especially Italians and Japanese – are another legacy of the coffee boom.
When coffee prices plummeted at the beginning of the 20th century, there was enough capital left over to transform the city into an industrial powerhouse. Factory jobs attracted a new wave of immigrants from around the world, and the city’s population practically doubled every decade between 1920 and 1980. In the 1980s, foreign immigration slowed, but laborers streamed in from the drought-stricken Northeast. Many found work building the city’s new skyscrapers. Unfortunately, growth far outpaced investment in the city’s infrastructure. Today, traffic, crime and pollution still flummox city leaders and remain serious problems, but the dynamism of its culture and economy is still attracting the best and brightest from all over Brazil.
In recent years, São Paulo’s explosive population growth has slowed, though it is now firmly established as Brazil’s banking, industrial and cultural capital. As such it enjoyed the lion’s share of Brazil’s recent economic boom, and still sees a continuing influx of foreign job seekers looking to tap into the action. Post-2014 FIFA World Cup, Sampa continues to make strides toward modernizing its infrastructure, including significant expansions of its metro, suburban train and highway systems (the long-anticipated express train to GRU Airport debuted in 2018). That said, a very serious water shortage in 2015 brought water rationing to many parts of the city, including tourist areas, leaving taps dry for all but a few hours per day; and 2018 was barely any wetter – devastating water shortages seem to be a constant threat to the city.
Brazil’s Melting Pot
Brazil’s unparalleled racial and ethnic diversity means there is no such thing as a typical Brazilian face. That’s why Brazilian passports are highly sought after on the black market – many faces could pass for being Brazilian. For a deeper understanding of the history of immigration to São Paulo, head to the Memorial do Imigrante in the eastern suburb of Moóca. Built in 1887, it was called the Hospedaria dos Imigrantes, and functioned as a holding place – not always friendly – for immigrant labor before they shipped out for their first jobs in Brazil, mostly on large plantations.
The memorial is a five-minute walk from the Metrô Bresser.