April 30, 2015 / 6:51 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. Confederate kin keep controversial flag aloft in Brazil

SANTA BARBARA D’OESTE, Brazil (Reuters) - The U.S. Civil War ended 150 years ago, but once a year, deep in the sugar cane fields of southern Brazil, the Confederate battle flag rises again.

Descendants of American Southerners wearing Confederate-era uniforms pose for a photograph during a party to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War in Santa Barbara D'Oeste, Brazil, April 26, 2015. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

It would be an unlikely scene in the United States, where many consider the flag a symbol of racism, slavery and segregation. Public outcry over those connotations has led to the steady withdrawal of the flag from public display in recent years.

In Brazil, though, the banner is an integral part of the Festa Confederada, an annual gathering to celebrate the history of the roughly 10,000 Confederates who migrated to this South American country after their side lost the war.

Enticed by offers of cheap land from Emperor Dom Pedro II, who hoped to gain expertise in cotton farming, the so-called Confederados developed a small community in the countryside of São Paulo state in a place now called Americana.

Most married into the broader population, but many families, some of whom are also descended from African slaves, remain loyal to their Southern identity.

On Sunday, roughly 2,500 people converged on the Confederado cemetery in the nearby rural town of Santa Barbara D’Oeste to celebrate that heritage with loud country music, down-home cooking and hundreds of red-and-blue Confederate battle flags.

“I am proud of the Confederate flag because it is a piece of history that I am directly connected to,” said 34-year-old João Leopoldo Padovese, who came dressed in a gray Rebel uniform. As one of the festival’s organizers, he said he was well aware of the controversy.

“Imagine if I were to show up dressed like this in the middle of New York,” he said. “I would get beaten! But not here. For us in Brazil, it has no political meaning at all.”

Padovese’s philosophy was shared by nearly every Brazilian interviewed wearing the flag. Many were unaware of its significance in U.S. society.

Meanwhile, a smattering of curious American visitors expressed surprise at the imagery.

“In the U.S. these symbols are representative of the things we don’t want in the country,” said Clinton Jenkins, a 39-year-old conservationist from Bristol, Tennessee. “But here it’s all seemingly disconnected. Watching a girl sing ‘Amazing Grace’ on top of a giant Confederate flag is a hell of a contrast.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule this year on whether Texas discriminated against the Sons of Confederate Veterans by refusing to issue specialty license plates featuring the organization’s emblem, which includes a Confederate flag.

Daniel Coleman, a member of that group, traveled to the event in Brazil from his home near Atlanta.

“In the States, it’s kind of like people expect you to hang your head for being a Southerner,” he said.

Not so in Santa Barbara D’Oeste, as families in a range of skin tones skipped across the Confederate flag-painted dance floor to the sound of fiddles and banjos.

Editing by Todd Benson and Lisa Von Ahn

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