São Paulo:

a thousand cities in one


Some cities are easy to fall in love with at first sight. São Paulo isn’t one of them. There is no Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, or Christ the Redeemer. The beauty of Latin America’s biggest city is less obvious, dispersed in its 12 million inhabitants.



This is so because there is no one phenotype that defines the Paulistano. People born there tell stories of grandparents and great-grandparents who came from afar: Europeans, Japanese, Syrians, and Lebanese. And to this day the city continues to welcome all sorts of immigrants – over 385,000 foreigners from nearly 200 countries, according to the Federal Police. Recently, even more nationalities have joined this melting pot, resulting in a cultural kaleidoscope.


In the following pages, learn about the events that brought four immigrants to SP. The visions of people from abroad of the city whose allures are dispersed in millions of stories. This is the beauty of São Paulo.


Bienvenidos, hermanos

“Pepper. It needs more pepper,” says Checho Gonzales, barely raising a spoonful of ceviche to his lips. At his Comedoria Gonzales, the Bolivian from La Paz cooks with “Andean inspirations.” He came to the city in 1977, after a stopover in Rio de Janeiro. Today, he’s part of one of the largest foreigner communities in São Paulo: over 100,000 people, according to the Bolivian consulate.


The fish and veggies he serves come from neighboring stands, being that the establishment is located inside the Pinheiros Public Market. In his kitchen, he’s almost a rockstar observed by the audience at the counter. His face sports tattoos and indigenous features. Semblances common to the vendors who run the stands at the traditional Bolivian market Feira da Kantuta, in the city center neighborhood of Luz, the port of entry for recent arrivals.


Feira da Kantuta — Rua Pedro Vicente, Brás




It’s no surprise that Brazil, bordered by nearly all other countries of South America, is an attractive spot for its neighbors. And that São Paulo, its economic center, is the main destination. In the neighborhood of Barra Funda, the Memorial da América Latina recalls this union in buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the country’s most famous architect. Around the city, you can hear all types of Latino accents.

You can probably guess which is most commonly overheard at the restaurant Rinconcito Peruano’s six locations. The servers and kitchen staff receive support to come work at the houses run by Edgar Villas, now a Peruvian food celebrity in the city. In his dining rooms, they serve ceviche, as well as arroz chaufa and chichas moradas.


After dark, when São Paulo’s vibrant night scene comes alive, a Cuban house lights up in neon in the energetic neighborhood of Itaim Bibi. At Rey Castro, the cultural references range from Shakira to the lambada. With margaritas in hand, the clientele doesn’t care if you don’t know how to dance or sing along in improvised Spanish.


A piece of Syria

The dome of Mesquita Brasil, the oldest mosque in Latin America, is decorated inside with arabesques and Arab writing. Below it, Syrian-born Anas Hafez reproduces the same art on paper with a reed pen and Egyptian ink.



Arabs, along with Europeans and Japanese, were one of the main immigrant groups to São Paulo. The first generation dedicated themselves to commerce. In 2011, due to conflicts in the Middle East, more immigrants came. Since then, 2,000 more Syrians now reside in the city, according to the Federal Police. People like Hafez, who shows his work at the Arab Festival in Brás, among the food stands. Incidentally, Arab food has become a traditional cuisine in the city. Restaurants serving shawarmas (rolled sandwiches), kibbeh, and sfihas, such as Talal al-Tinawi, have multiplied. Having arrived in 2013, the engineer was able to open his first house, named after him, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign online. Today he has two locations.


In the neighborhood of Pinheiros in the city’s west zone, the big attractions are sweets like halawi, made from sesame seeds. At Damas, Khaldoun Mourad serves culinary treats that he learned to make from his mother. Speaking in coarse Portuguese, he offers a Middle Eastern version of Brazilian coffee – which fills the room with the scent of cardamom.


Damas — Rua Cônego Eugênio Leite, 764, Pinheiros

Arab Festival — Rua Elisa Withacker. Saturday: 3 pm to 10 pm. Sunday: 10 am to 10 pm.


Korean beauty

Yoo Na Kim strolls the sidewalks in high heels. Her hanbok dress (a typical Korean garment) was purchased in Seoul, the city she left in 1988. “I was 6. When I arrived here, the sky was cloudy, and the city was like this: white, black, pastel tones,” she says.


She came with her grandparents, who run a small factory in the Brás neighborhood. But it is Bom Retiro, formerly a Jewish district, that is home to 15,000 Koreans, who started arriving in 1963. Some of them dedicated themselves to the textile industry and own such shops as Malagueta.



Yoo Na no longer lives in the neighborhood, but her roots remain there. She opened the Hallyu Cultural Center in the region, offering exhibits and classes in the Korean language, dance, and cooking. The space’s name is the same as the wave of Korean culture consisting of k-food, k-pop, and k-drama, which has won over young people like regulars at the ice cream shop Snowfall, where they can enjoy bingsu (iced milk) just like their TV idols.


At the restaurant Seok Joung, Yoo Na presides over a grill installed in a table surrounded by preserves that accompany the bibimbap (mixed rice). Korean food is synesthetic: the colors matter just as much as the flavor, which is characteristically spicy. Komah, owned by Paulo Shin, has contemporary décor but is no exception to the rule. A bright yellow omelet is brought to the table atop a bed of bokkumbap (fried rice) with kimchi (spicy preserves) made by his mother, Myung Yul Shin Lee.


After all, Korean establishments are family businesses. The shop Amore, owned by Clara Choi, for example, sells facemasks made with snail extract and pearl powder imported from the country, a powerhouse in cosmetics. Nearby, her sister committed herself to aesthetics. The clinic Queen attracts a clientele of Asian women who go for instantaneous lifts and treatments against blotches. And they exit with clear skin, fine chins, and almond eyes, parading around São Paulo just as if they were walking the streets of Seoul.


Amore — Rua Correia de Melo, 23, Bom Retiro

Snowfall — Rua Prates, 547, Bom Retiro


Mama Africa

With an Afro, balangandã amulets, and a rainbow on her clothes, Fanta Konatê is a walking one-woman show. She sings. She dances. She plays instruments. Always with a smile, always chattering, at times in Portuguese, at times in French. She apologizes, pardon, mon chéri. In Guinea, where she was born, the daughter of a famous master of the djembê drum, music is omnipresent – even at work. 


As musical as she is, she radiates her colors all over the city. We’re at Praça da República, where African vendors sell multicolored cloths. A year ago, we would have run into Cheikh Gaye Seck here. But since then, the Senegalese man gathered products that he brought over from Dakar to open his own store, Coração d’África. São Paulo is home to around 6,500 Africans from 50 countries.



A few blocks away, Melanito Biyoua cooks bananas in dendê palm oil to serve with ndolé, peanut butter, and boldo leaves. The chef who runs Biyou’z comes from Cameroon, but she serves dishes that are familiar to any Angolan or Mozambican. And even Paulistanos, who know of similar cooking brought by migrants from Northeast Brazil.


In the end, the similarities are staggering. And no one knows that more than Fanta. “There is a strong cultural mixture. I sing of this equality.” And just as her father played for young people in the fields of Guinea, today she provides a soundtrack for beleaguered Paulistanos.


Biyou’z — Alameda Barão de Limeira, 19, Campos Elíseos


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