When school friends Alessandra Orofino and Miguel Lago were growing up here in the 1990s, their hometown wasn't where they envisioned getting an auspicious start to their futures. It was depressed, dirty, and violent. So like thousands of Brazilians with means, they headed abroad for college – both to Europe, and she, later, to the United States.
"When I left, people said, 'You are never going to come back,' " says Ms. Orofino, who graduated from Columbia University in New York City.
Both friends – like many immigrants around the globe – figured they'd have careers abroad, returning home much later. They were part of the classic brain drain in which human capital flows from developing to developed nations.
But as they began college in the mid-2000s, the Brazilian economy was starting to boom, with a rising middle – and consuming – class. Indeed, by 2009, when Rio won the bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil was an economic magnet for investment and "brain gain" migration. It was no longer a place to flee.
Now, not only is the Brazilian diaspora reconsidering its exile, but educated Europeans, fleeing economic recession, are flocking here.
Orofino and Mr. Lago returned in 2011 and started a nongovernmental organization – Meu Rio (My Rio) – to foster citizen promotion of transparency and good government in this era of explosive and lucrative growth in Rio.
"I saw the way that France's public services work, [and] for the first time in my life I experienced what was possible," says Lago, who studied at Sciences Po in Paris. "I thought, we have to fight for that in Brazil."
As Meu Rio opened its doors, Portuguese engineer Francisco Cruz saw firms around him downsizing as projects dried up. So he left his job in Portugal to relocate in Rio, which was drawing up blueprints for stadiums, bridges, and tunnels.
It was "riskier to stay in Portugal with a job than to move to Brazil without one," says Mr. Cruz, who got his first employment interview on his second day here and within a month was on the job at a firm designing Rio's bus transit system for the Olympic Games. The firm now is bidding on an Olympic Park project.
Cruz is hardly alone. There is Yiannis Chanis, from Greece, who landed in Rio de Janeiro a year ago, with a job in hand in the nation's booming energy sector and a sense of relief to be leaving the economic crisis of Europe behind. There is Rute Honrado, a Portuguese woman who couldn't find a job as an architect in Lisbon and was weighed down by pessimism all around her, she says. She arrived in February.
And there is Bernardo Fontoura, who left Lisbon last month with dreams of working at a mega event in business communications. He came for what he calls Brazil's "golden age."
Foreign migrants gentrify Rio slums
Golden age migration is palpable, says Helion Póvoa Neto, a migration expert at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "There is this sensation of Brazil as a new land of opportunity. There is something new happening."
Today, Cariocas navigate subways and buses to a din of Greek- and Spanish-accented conversation; they plow into heaps of lunchtime beans and farofa in downtown Rio restaurants alongside Portuguese workers; and Rio hillside favelas (slums) are being gentrified by foreigners daunted by the pricier beachside enclaves.
Many foreign newcomers are just trying to get ahead in careers stalled at home. But their very presence is changing Brazil.
Reverse migration is starkly visible, too, in the numbers of both returning Brazilians and international citizens gaining legal right to live and work here. From 2010 to April 2012, the number of regularized foreigners living in Brazil increased by more than 50 percent, to 1.5 million, according to the Ministry of Justice. And from 2005 to 2010, the number of Brazilians living abroad dropped from an estimated 4 million to 2 million: Some were unwilling returnees, amid harsher immigration enforcement in the US and a weakened economy; but many came because home is now where their best opportunities lie.
While Paulo Sérgio de Almeida, the director of the National Immigration Council of Brazil, hesitates to call Brazil a new country of immigration, as the national media has, he says it is certain more are coming home than leaving.
Immigrant wave pushes social openings
The internationalization of Brazil – by nationals returning with changed expectations of their homeland as well as the influence of new immigrants – could have major implications for the country as it grows, say some experts. In previous waves of migration to Brazil after World War II, European immigrants were mostly from the countryside. This wave is of young, highly qualified professionals.
"These are people from advanced democracies with different expectations about society," says Mauricio Santoro, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation here. "[F]oreign people who live in Brazil ... are very critical about social inequalities in Brazil. This is a very good thing."
Some see signs of Brazil adapting. Politicians are debating an immigration law to facilitate the entrance of high-skilled professionals. That, says Maria Luisa Castelo, head of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in São Paulo, is an example of the government creating a better business environment..
It was this new environment that prompted Lago and Orofino to start Meu Rio. "Brazil was changing so quickly, I wanted to be part of the change also," says Lago. "It was a good moment, when you can make a difference here, but when there are old problems that persist."
Amid Brazil's rise, pessimists argue that longstanding corruption, bureaucracy, and inefficiency will hold the nation back. That's where Meu Rio sees an opportunity: using social media to pressure politicians and question policies that don't make sense. Its most successful campaign to date was passage of a state constitutional amendment barring ministerial appointments of anyone ever accused of corruption.
If Lago's studies abroad shaped his notions of good governance, Orofino's got Meu Rio off the ground. She got a job at the Purpose in New York City, where she still works, splitting her time between New York and Rio. Purpose incubated Meu Rio, giving it the technical savvy to run a social media activist site.
The 'lost generation' finds itself in Brazil
The idealism of creating a new Brazil is not on the minds of Europeans coming here so much as financial desperation is, says Mr. Chanis, whose company chemically transforms natural gas to synthetic crude oil.
Desperation is clear in the message delivered repeatedly by Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho in the past year: The only solution to soaring youth unemployment is for the "lost generation," as the young are increasingly called, to emigrate. The Portuguese population in Brazil increased 20 percent between 2010 and 2011, from 277,000 to 329,000.
"As engineers, our only option is to leave the country" and go to the "old colonies" of Brazil or Angola and Mozambique in Africa, says Antonio Quintao, who arrived a year ago in Brazil, which lacks thousands of professionals.
Cruz says that 30 people he personally knows have lost jobs amid Europe's crisis. He knows 10 who have relocated to Brazil since he did a year ago. And so many others have asked for advice, even as Brazil's economy has cooled this year, that he has drawn up a template e-mail about the job market in Brazil, with information about average expenses and where to live.
Even for those with jobs in Europe, prospects for growth were a major factor driving them to Brazil. Chanis says when his company opened an office in Brazil last year and offered him a job as country manager, "it took me less than three seconds to say yes. I wanted to get as far away from Europe as possible." He adds: "You can help Brazilian companies in many more ways than you could European ones."
Though possessing no grand plan to change Brazil, Chanis admits the inherent back and forth in the mix of cultures can only benefit Brazil, from technology transfer to notions of best practices in business. But he, and scores of other foreigners, are really the ones with everything to gain, he says: "Brazil has huge amounts of resources, no enemies. It is a very young country that is uneducated, so there is a lot of room for growth. There is huge opportunity. [No] other country in the world ... can offer this kind of potential."