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Framingham

Website building new bloc of voters

Seeks US citizens with ties to Brazil

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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Whether in the national conversation or comments sections on news articles about Framingham, debate on immigration is routinely dominated by heated comments on illegal immigrants. But in Massachusetts, where a sizable number of Brazilians have settled, a rapidly expanding number of them have earned American citizenship and with it, the right to vote.

Hoping to inspire these new US citizens into showing that they are a political force, local musician Antonio Massa Viana and furniture store manager Joao Oliveira have set up a website, www.nosvotamos.com — nos votamos is Portuguese for “we vote’’ — with the goal of registering 5,000 fellow Brazilian-Americans so they can take part in elections.

“Sometimes what happens is that yes, they are American citizens, but since they are first-generation citizens, they don’t get involved,’’ said Massa Viana. “First-generation immigrants, they sometimes don’t exercise their full citizens’ rights.’’

The importance of the Brazilian-American voting bloc in Massachusetts can be traced through federal statistics.

In 2003, 248 Brazilians in the state became American citizens. In 2009, that number jumped to 1,336, bringing the total over the seven-year period to 5,723, according to Department of Homeland Security records.

Massa Viana, a Millis-based classical guitarist and teacher who has lived in the United States for 15 years, said that although he, Oliveira, and other volunteers are setting up the framework to organize Brazilian-Americans politically, they don’t want to dominate the project, and are looking for people to spread the word in their own communities.

Since the website was launched last May, they’ve registered about 300 people, he said.

“I think we’ll start affecting things locally better than on the state level. Marlborough, Framingham, Everett — those communities will be important,’’ he said. “What we want eventually is that those people in those communities to start looking at issues themselves.’’

Massa Viana said the idea for a database of the state’s Brazilian-Americans has been around for awhile. It started with a Framingham-based Brazilian-American association, BRAMAS, that disbanded a few years ago. That’s where he met Oliveira.

“They had a concept that if they had a database of citizens, they could influence policy,’’ said Massa Viana. But, the idea didn’t get off the ground, he said, adding, “the timing wasn’t right.’’

Their new website’s primary mission is to register Brazilian-Americans to vote. When visitors enter their information and indicate they’re not yet registered, volunteers will mail out the form for their community and follow up with phone calls, said Oliveira.

Volunteers also hold workshops to help immigrants navigate the complex citizenship process without having to pay for a lawyer.

Soon, volunteers will start tracking political candidates, and use their position statements and websites to inform Brazilian-Americans about where they stand on issues of particular interest to the community, such as in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. And when they get enough people registered to vote, they’ll use the database as proof that they’re a formidable political constituency, Massa Viana said.

“We try to be as impartial as possible,’’ he said. “I don’t really care whether they become right-wing Republicans or left-wing liberals.’’

Oliveira, who moved to the United States in 2000 and manages a small furniture store in downtown Framingham, said, “We’re more about involvement, looking at what a politician has to offer the community. In 20 years, we’ll be different.’’

Pablo Maia, a Framingham realtor who is Brazilian-American, said he applauds the effort and plans to help in any way he can.

“It’s very important what they’re doing,’’ said Maia. “It’s very important to participate, to be plugged into what’s happening.’’

Another volunteer has been Ilma Paixao, who works at a Brazilian radio station in Framingham, WSRO 650 AM. The radio station, along with local Brazilian newspapers, have been promoting the project.

Oliveira said they’ve already set up a page on Orkut, the social networking site favored in Brazil, and will soon have a Facebook page.

Getting people to buy into the project isn’t without hurdles.

Massa Viana said that compulsory voting in Brazil sometimes makes people less inclined to vote as American citizens. He speculates that since Brazilians are required to vote in their native country, they don’t give the act as much thought as people who have the option.

But he said his community’s time has come.

“We want good and affordable health care. We want the chance to have good education. I think the issues — those are common goals, those are goals in the community,’’ said Massa.

“But the Brazilian community is a significant community. I’d love to see a Brazilian-American legislator, just like the Irish did in Boston in the late 1800s . . . I’d love to see a Legislature that’s more representative of what our community looks like.’’

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.