Volume 33, No.3 - Fall 1987
Editor of this issue: Vilius L. Dundzila
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1987 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



The preservation of the cultures of the Baltic peoples outside their Baltic homeland has been a primary focus of interest and concern for Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians alike, especially since the diverse migratory travails of large segments of their populations over the course of the last century. Essentially, the dispersal and resettlement of so many Balts all over the world has forced them to redefine their identity. As minority communities transplanted into host societies quite different in character and geographically remote from their native region, their history has characteristically been one of adjustment and adaptation to new political, socio-economic and cultural, not to mention ecological, environments.

Because a great variety of collective motivations brought about under distinct and historically separate circumstances have stimulated mass immigration from the Baltic, one can expect a corresponding variety in the settlement patterns and social organization of these groups in their new settings, especially when observed at different points in the procession and development of subsequent generations. This history of Vārpa, the story of a unique group of Latvian immigrants will, I hope, contribute to the study of Baltic immigration in general, and expand the reader's appreciation of the many different experiences we share as fellow Baltic immigrants, or at least as their descendants.

Vārpa is a Latvian Baptist colony in the southern Brazilian state of Sao Paolo, located on the relatively isolated "Coffee Frontier," 700 kilometers inland from the port of Santos. Only occasional patches of dense tree growth on a hilly landscape hint that there was once a virgin forest that was cleared to make way for agriculture and human settlement. Today only a few hundred Latvian families remain in Vārpa. At its peak during the 1930's and 40's, virtually all of Vārpa's population, which numbered almost 2,000 people, was Latvian. Most of the croplands surrounding the colony have been gradually turned over to native Brazilian cattle ranchers. The dairy, sawmills and dams which once marked Vārpa's prosperity have been in ruins for decades. Even a once neatly kept memorial at Vārpa's Pioneer Cemetery is overgrown with weeds and almost impossible to reach.

Though many aspects of daily life were meticulously documented by some Latvians in Vārpa, only two comprehensive histories of the colony exist, and these are in Portuguese. This accounts for Vārpa's virtual exclusion from the body of scholarship on Baltic immigration. The information in this article is based on a synthesis of documentary remains and oral history collected during February of 1986 as part of an independent research project.

The migratory wave which led to the founding of Vārpa had a very different origin and spirit than other movements of Latvians from their homeland. Like some stereotypes of the "classic" European immigrant, Latvian Baptists were pioneers who looked to the vast and undeveloped frontier of the Brazilian interior with great hopes for opportunity, self-sufficiency, and a free and harmonious existence. Like refugees from famine or war, Latvian Baptists were also under great pressure to "escape" to a safe place, far from the difficult conditions that threatened their well-being at home. Unlike the refugees and opportunity seekers, however, the Baptists who settled Vārpa left Latvia just as the turmoil of World War I, the struggles for an independent republic, the hopelessness of material privation and the indiscriminate destruction of land and property had finally come to an end.

It was 1922. In a sudden, hurried, not to mention conspicuous manner, several thousand people made plans that year to emigrate en masse to Brazil. Composed almost exclusively of Latvian Baptists, this movement stirred considerable public controversy. The causes of this exodus have been given varied interpretations by contemporary observers and participants alike. It is indisputable, however, that its primary motivation was religious.

The izceļošanas kustība, as the emigration "movement" was called, resulted from the messianic and millenarian expectations of a small, but vociferous segment of the Baptist population. The denomination, already well-known for its widespread evangelism, devotion to Scripture and overt forms of worship, was experiencing a "spiritual awakening," Garīgā Atmoda. Especially in rural congregations, but also in cities and towns, ceremonies of baptism and conversion became frequent and numerous. Traveling preachers animated entire congregations, often convincing parishioners themselves to join in warnings of impending doom for all of Europe and to contribute to exhortations that God's "elect" begin preparations for escape. The arrival of the Heavenly Kingdom, considered to be unmistakably imminent, demanded immediate practical action and tangible evidence of inner spiritual reform from every individual expecting to welcome the New Age.

Such preparation included the sale or donation of all personal property and the pooling of all material resources among the Atmodnieki (Awakened). This facilitated the collective purchase of a one-way liner passage across the Atlantic for the entire group.

Traveling on separate ships in groups of several hundred at a time, almost 2,000 Latvian Baptists had arrived in Brazil by the end of 1923. Settling in a virgin forest deep in the state of Sao Paolo, on land just recently scouted out and purchased by an advance party, the immigrants, with superhuman effort, cleared the jungle, erected a camp and began the gradual and painstaking task of creating a new community.

Before we turn to the founding of Vārpa itself, it is important to account for the religious revival which sparked the emigration to Brazil. The Garīgā Atmoda, as the Baptists called their revival, was probably first considered a healthy manifestation of the new freedom of religion and assembly proclaimed by the Latvian Republic. Baptist churches were crowded and services inspiring. People genuinely felt that the time had come to reform their inner selves, if not, indeed, to undergo a revolutionary transformation of the soul. They consulted the Scriptures for guidance in every aspect of their daily lives. The New Testament, in particular, became their blueprint for the present and the future, rather than just a record of the first Christians who belonged to the past. In fact, the writings of the apostles served as a direct example and practical model for the Atmodnieki, in which they sought literal parallels to the events and experiences of their own congregations.

Though it is no longer easy to verify, it is likely that warnings of the world's imminent end, which were frequent and perhaps essential components of sermons and speeches delivered by evangelists during the revival, attracted many people to the Atmoda. The war had been but a trial period, the main revivalists insisted, just a hint of the forthcoming wrath and devastation God intended to inflict upon fallen humanity. Indeed, the world was following John's Book of Revelation with remarkable scriptural accuracy, according to the Atmodnieki. One only needed to consult the unmistakable "signs of the times" to experience this revelation in all of its immediacy. Suffering had "purified" the Atmodnieki, who claimed they now had to demonstrate their purity through the revival. To be "awakened" meant that one could expect to welcome the Second Coming of Christ, and participate in the establishment of the Heavenly Kingdom, while the rest of the world would perish.

On weekends, chapels filled beyond standing room, and people spilled out the doorways. Crowds swelled around windows, perhaps to hear a well-known evangelist's fiery sermon. Perhaps they gathered to hear a large and impressive combined choir assembled from neighboring, visiting parishes or perhaps not to miss the fantastic imagery and captivating delivery of the most compelling visions and prophecies. All three possibilities are probably true.

Prophecies were delivered with vivid symbolism and allegory, at first departing little from the structure and substance of John's Book of Revelation. Nevertheless, visions of doom for the world and splendor in the afterlife soon began to diverge from their biblical context. Gradually, they came to be accepted as forecasts for the current world situation, corresponding to political reality and geographic logic. Creatures and beasts rising from the East, so common in the prophecies of the Atmodnieki, eventually developed into the standardized Sarkanais pūķis, or Red Dragon, which was seen spreading the final plague of fire and disaster over all of decadent Europe. In the public consciousness, the figure represented the Soviet Communists. As Latvia's immediate neighbors to the East, they were notorious for their ruthless policies and atheist doctrine (Godlessness). Communism was still fresh in the minds of many Latvians who had personally experienced the Red Army's temporary occupation just a couple of years ago. Furthermore, "boats heading into the ocean," another common image in many prophecies, indicated to the Atmodnieki that the Holy Spirit was preparing the "awakened" congregations for some kind of escape. It did not take long for the concept "escape" to become rearticulated into "emigration."

By far the most famous and charismatic leader of the Atmoda was Jānis Iņķis. He had been a prominent figure in the Latvian Baptist Association since his days as a successful young evangelist. He had several years of evangelical experience, even family ties among earlier Latvian immigrants to Brazil. Though Iņķis, at the beginning of 1921, departed Latvia to head a congregation in Nova Odessa, a thriving Latvian Baptist community in Sao Paolo, there is no doubt he continued to play an active role in the revival back home, preaching and prophesizing through the Atmoda's main publication, Kristīgs Draugs, which he founded and edited for many years. Indeed, there is little evidence to refute that the Iņķis family's departure set the example for the Baptists who were to emigrate a year later.

Brazil, in any case, became the place designated through prophecy as the land to which the chosen must go. By 1922, emigration had become a practical concern. Arrangements had to be made with shipping companies, passports had to be processed and approved, money had to be collected for travel expenses. These activities began to attract widespread public attention. Soon even the Latvian government grew suspicious of Baptists. To the rest of Latvian society, the busy preparations of thousands of Atmodnieki to emigrate were as odd as they were disturbing.

No one was as alarmed by the Atmoda as the Latvian Baptist Association itself, which faced a state of crisis that resembled virtual mutiny. The official opinion of the Atmoda was that it was a fanatical splinter sect embracing Pentecostalism, though the Atmodnieki made no attempt to break away institutionally from the Baptist Association. Still, the emigration sparked heated differences of opinion in Baptist leadership circles, caused discord in many parishes, and even split up a number of families.

The Latvian Baptist Association began to feel pressure from the Latvian government. The general public had been less hesitant in labeling the Atmoda outright fanaticism. Many of the active traveling evangelists and pastors of awakened congregations were under suspicion for agitation and fraud. Some were detained and imprisoned. Unfortunately, suspicion fell on the entire Latvian Baptist population. This forced the Association to cooperate with the police and the Ministry of Interior in collecting names and Information about the Atmodnieki, The Atmodnieki, in the meantime, considered such actions traitorous acts against God's will that were even more inexplicably committed by their own brothers in Christ. The government's handling of the matter, which itself provoked some questions about possible religious discrimination and proper use of force, strengthened the revivalists' aversion to politics and their conviction that godless Europe, with all of its false ideologies, was doomed.

The government, through the Ministry of the Interior, felt obliged to take certain measures against what had by late 1922 become popularly acknowledged as "Emigration Fever." The minister himself directed all districts and municipalities to follow closely the actions of the Atmodnieki, to "call the evil-minded preachers to responsibility" for their fraudulent and criminal exploitation of gullible citizens. Police in some areas tried to infiltrate parish gatherings or interrogate prominent Baptists, but could not seem to avert the spreading of the "epidemic." These, along with most other tactics, were in vain. Finally, on Sept. 11, 1922, the Interior Ministry ceased the issuance of all passports to Baptists and refused to consider any request for emigration to Brazil, "until all doubts about this movement have been cleared." Needless to say, by this time, the Latvian government had failed to prevent the bulk of Baptist emigration from taking place.

On November 1, 1922, the first groups of colonists, under the leadership of Jānis Iņķis, arrived at the banks of the Rio de Peixe (Zivjupe, River of Fish), after a grueling 30 kilometer trek through virgin forest from the remote railroad outpost Sapezal. Henceforth, November 1 would be commemorated as the day of Vārpa's founding. By all accounts, it was a day of jubilation, gratitude and relief. The Baptists sang songs, said thankful prayers and rejoiced.

The following months required backbreaking and ceaseless labor from the colonists. A large part of the jungle on the river banks had to be quickly cleared, tents had to be raised that could serve as adequate temporary shelter, paths had to be cleared and improved for those who would follow, and a bridge had to be constructed, across which new arrivals could reach the camp more easily.

It is difficult to overemphasize the natural obstacles the colonists faced during these first months. Arriving in the middle of the Brazilian summer, they strained against the unaccustomed heat of the tropics, the tenacious undergrowth which had to be cleared, the illnesses and exhaustion brought on by incessant hard work and the torment of insects and other creatures they had never encountered before. Rice and beans had to be purchased outside the camp and brought in, and were of necessity strictly rationed, leaving a large part of the colony population malnourished and weak. Hygiene, or lack of it, also caused problems for the colonists, with dysentary and other afflictions contributing to their physical discomfort and material privation.

It took about three years for the colony to transcend its precarious formative stages and achieve a reasonable level of stability. During this time, Vārpa experienced a number of crises, both economic and political. At the very beginning, while the camp was in its most primitive levels of organization and development, the colonists attempted to live according to God's will, but constantly found themselves at odds with their natural surroundings. Reconciling the harsh realities of the Brazilian jungle with the splendorous visions of the Atmoda proved to be no easy feat.

Prophecies, for instance, continued in the spirit of the Atmoda, but underwent certain modifications in content and style to fit the colonists' new surroundings and new state of affairs. To help make the great physical exertions more tolerable and to maintain a high spirit among the exhausted people, the prophecies urged sacrifice of mind and body in total obedience to God, and purification of the soul through the death of all physical desire. Any plans for long term achievement or material progress were deemed contradictory and self-defeating against constant reminders that the world was in its final hours. Indeed, the colonists' meager circumstances were even glorified in deference to God.

Under the charismatic leadership of Iņķis, a group of five pastors assumed spiritual and, in essence, political control of the colony. These men then assembled about 100 persons into the draudzes padome or council. Most members were men who had been parish elders or lay preachers or perhaps gifted in certain practical skills which were essential to the functioning of the colony. The council met whenever the leaders needed to announce certain decisions or discuss important matters. These would then be passed on to the rest of the colonists during regular prayer meetings. This mode of social organization and decision making remained essentially the same as Vārpa developed.

From the start, Vārpa faced divisive issues which threated the foundations of social cohesion in the colony and sparked schisms which were to linger on for decades. Such conflicts would ultimately become a factor in Vārpa's eventual and gradual decline. For instance, a dispute over land distribution actually resulted in the formation of two adjacent "colonies", each organized according to opposing "ideologies." While Vārpa remained the primary center of Latvian Baptist activities, a small commune modeled in the spirit of the original Christians was established at the periphery of colony land by the "theocratic regime" of Iņķis and his associates.

The split between the Christian commune, Palma, and the Vārpa colony center can be traced back to arguments between two "camps." The "revolutionaries," Iņķis and the more radically inclined pastors, claimed to uphold the spirit of the Atmoda in their plans to keep the colony organized communally. But "reformists" or "grumblers," as the leadership called them, represented impatient and discontented colonists who opposed the continuation of the heavy and unproductive labor of camp life. Contrary to Iņķis' accusations, they did not recommend the dissolution of the community. Most had registered with Brazilian immigration authorities as "individual farmers" and did not see why dividing the land and distributing it among the colonists should conflict with what God had intended for his selected people. They recommended the immediate formation of a commission to supervise the survey and distribution of land among individual families as private property.

Ultimately, the land distribution issue was rendered somewhat moot by a more urgent need. One day, Iņķis and the colony directorate announced that the collective cashbox was empty and that the colony could not support itself any longer. At other times, Iņķis had threatened the colony with ruin, especially when his policies were being questioned or disputed. But this bankruptcy was no idle threat and certainly not something which Iņķis or any colonist, for that matter, felt comfortable acknowledging in front of the entire community. This crisis marked a significant turning point in the history of the colony. The leaders presented the congregation with two options. The people could stay put and await a miracle, duly leaving the matter entirely in God's hands, or they could rely once again on their own human wisdom. This meant straying out of necessity from the place which had been prepared for them, to look for ways of replenishing their material resources. Though some did not wish to betray their trust in God, the general consensus was that plans should immediately begin for colonists to seek employment at coffee, fazendas in neighboring areas. Alas, almost 200 persons had by this time perished, mainly infants and the aged, who had succumbed to famine and disease. Their loved ones had immense difficulty maintaining their faith in this promised land where such bitter realities confronted them daily.

After about a decade, Vārpa came close to becoming a dominant cultural and economic center in its region of Sao Paolo. The colony probably prospered most during the 1930s and early 1940s. Its most conspicuous accomplishment as a community during this time was the grooming of a rank of very active and influential theologians, missionaries and teachers, who performed many services for the local Brazilian population, especially in the fields of economic and evangelical relief and social work. Some of the most prominent leaders and participants in the Brazilian Baptist Association have been Latvians who were raised in Vārpa. The Latvian colonists also achieved distinction for their economic productivity. For a time, Vārpa excelled in its dairy and poultry industries and in the cultivation of silkworms, but its range of agricultural production was nothing if not diverse. Latvians operated the only sawmills in a wide area, further demonstrating their engineering skills in the construction of small dams and bridges. Vārpa's economic cooperative "Latvia" conducted extensive trade with local markets and with distant merchants in the city of Sao Paolo despite the colony's remoteness and relative inaccessibility.

Nevertheless, Vārpa did not thrive for more than a generation. By the 1950s, it was clear that Vārpa's location would not be significantly affected by Brazil's great material progress. The most obvious reasons for this decline are geographic and economic. The soil beneath Vārpa's croplands revealed its true sandiness after 20 years of cultivation wore away the fertile humus left over from the virgin forest. Sandy soil in the region also encumbered the development of an effective transportation network. To this day, streets and roads in and around Vārpa have yet to be paved. The building of a railroad through Tupa, a nearby city, both enhanced Vārpa's isolation and hastened its loss of population.

The economic aspects of Vārpa's decline are contingent on its geographic situation. Along with the railroad came easier access to Brazil's booming industrial centers, which absorbed many of Vārpa's young people, limiting the potential of future generations. Education in Vārpa ended after the 8th grade, and, more often than not, much of the professional training available elsewhere in Brazil was not practically applicable to Vārpa's rural lifestyle. For this reason, Latvian immigrants in Vārpa wound up migrating again to pursue job opportunities and education in Brazil's cities.

But far more revealing than the economic or geographic factors are the social dynamics which accompanied and, perhaps, also partly caused Vārpa's decline. For a society whose members shared the same language, religious denomination and who had survived the same trials and hardships together, Vārpa was indeed a sometimes remarkably fractious community.

Much of the factionalism that developed in Vārpa grew out of conflicts within the very group of leaders who tried so hard to unify the community into "one heart and soul." Colonists sometimes had to choose between conflicting prophecies, a situation which occasionally led to further splinterings into smaller sects and separate congregations. And material disputes were at least as large a threat to Vārpa's unity as spiritual dissension. Furthermore, information was also an often bitterly contested political commodity. Mūža meža maldi, (The Great Virgin Forest Delusion), by Jūlijs Lācis, a journalistically sensationalized historical novel about the colonists, appeared in Latvia in the mid-1930s. Immensely popular at home, Mūža Meža maldi caused a virtual inner mutiny in Vārpa. It was based on letters sent to the editorial board of Jaunākās ziņas (The Latest News), Latvia's main daily newspaper, by disgruntled colonists who considered their Brazilian venture an enormous blunder.

Still, the most profound schism undermining the future of the Latvian Baptist colony was its problems with youth. Young people showed remarkable initiative, starting projects like the Vārpa literary group, a pan-Brazilian Baptist youth organization, and, of course, taking part in more short term diversionary events like picnics, hikes, bonfires and the like. Iņķis and other colony leaders pitted themselves self-destructively against such activities far too often to keep from dampening significantly the resolve and spirit of V5rpa's youth, who chafed against rigidly imposed Baptist codes of behavior.

It should be kept in mind that punitive measures against parish members were not an uncommon occurrence in Vārpa. Any number of transgressions could jeopardize a person's standing in the community. While expulsion from the draudze (congregation) was the most extreme response to violations of the Baptist code of behavior and strict Christian standards, milder reprimands and disciplinary actions were less rare. Adultery, marriage with a non-believer, alcohol consumption and smoking have been documented on the agendas of certain sessions of the draudzes padome. It is reasonable to assume that such issues were the concern of the entire community and that rehabilitation was supported both by public scrutiny and public encouragement.

Lest the reader receive an overly negative impression of life in Vārpa, it might be necessary to point out that on the whole, colony life was indeed harmonious and cooperative. The same intimacy and neighborly proximity which sometimes caused friction between colonists also brought them together in friendship, toward their ideal of true Christian brotherhood. Vārpa may at first strike the reader as an almost exotic society among Baltic immigrant groups. It is, however, actually further testimony, on the one hand, to the industriousness and spirit of cooperation, and, on the other, to the self-defeating tendency toward factionalism and conflict displayed at times by all Baltic communities. Perhaps these attributes are not at all that unfamiliar to our own immigrant communities.