Today's São Paulo—South America's largest metropolis—would not exist without an influx of migrants. By 1970, 60 percent of the city's inhabitants had been born elsewhere—unsurprising given that from 1940 to 2000 nearly 40 million Brazilians left the countryside for urban areas, especially São Paulo state.

Paradoxically, both the popular imaginary and the academic literature did not do justice in describing the nordestinos who moved to São Paulo. Locals stripped these migrants of their cultural markers and homogeneously referred to them as baianos (people from the northeastern state of Bahia). Prejudice put the finishing touch, marking the nordestinos as inferior. Deeming these migrants' way of adjusting to industry as typically limited by their rural origins and the experience of patriarchy, sociologists of work in the 1950s and 1960s were surprised by the 1978 emergence of a vigorous union movement that confronted the military...

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