Unexpected German-ness in the Americas
Most of our readers will know that I’m German born, so it might not come as a surprise that I’m writing about German towns in South and North America. Yet we are certainly not going out of our way to visit these places, but if located along our way we usually stop and explore. Right now we are in Villa General Belgrano, south of Cordobá in Argentina.
Luckily, since we don’t like big crowds, we have arrived a couple of weeks before their annual “Oktoberfest”, when thousands of revellers flock into town to celebrate with German style beer. The local “Oktoberfest” is currently ranked the third most important in the world, right after Munich, and Blumenau in Brazil.
It seems to be a common theme among most places we have visited, that they exploit their ‘German-ness’ for economic gain – by exaggerating clichés to a point that the towns almost look like ‘theme parks’. Our photos will give you a better idea.
German speaking people have always made up a significant segment of migrant waves reaching new continents. Most either came from poorer regions, or were fleeing religious persecution. A few were successful entrepreneurs looking for new and unexplored markets to gain an early foothold.
Although many individual German migrants integrated quickly, larger minority groups seem to have settled in closed communities, and thus retained some of their German-ness. In some pockets you will find German schools teaching a German language which would be almost unrecognisable in the modern ‘motherland’, or they hold on to German dress codes and traditions which are long forgotten in Germany.
Villa General Belgrano, Argentina
In 1929, this fertile valley south of Cordoba attracted the German settler Don Pedro Heintze, who recognised the potential of the fertile land, and fostered the idea of “cooperativas agricolas” following established German models.
In a rare twist of WWII, the battle ship “Admiral Graf Spee”, was sunk in the mouth of the Rio de la Plata off Montevideo. The surviving crew deserted and tracked inland until they reached Villa Gral. Belgrano, where they integrated into the already established German community.
Today the town seems to be rather wealthy by Argentinean standards, and certainly well-maintained. There is evidence of a mixed population – when wandering along the side streets you often find German names on letter boxes or gateways. Much of the wealth seems to be derived from tourism. Shops along the main streets all seem to sell the same mix of beer steins, artisan beers, chocolate, baked goods, silly T-shirts, felt hats, and ice cream.
The South of Brazil
The south of Brazil, in particular, attracted a lot of German migration. The first wave of migrants was lured with financial benefits from the government to encourage the development of the new country. The hardship endured by the working class, after the failed revolution of 1848 in Germany, attracted many to foreign shores. Overall, Germans are the fourth-largest group of foreign ethnicity in Brazil, and still form a strong backbone of its industry.
This city of over 300,000 people, is named after its founder – Dr. Hermann Bruno Otto Blumenau. When we visited in 2008 we didn’t discover much German-ness in this town, apart from a row of fake half-timbered houses along the main street. On closer inspection they were modern concrete structures with some ‘framing’ painted on or tacked on afterwards. Yet it’s home the the second largest “Oktoberfest” in the world.
To quote Michael Palin from his book ‘Brazil’ (produced alongside the BBC television series):
If Blumenau is proud of its German heritage then nearby Pomerode is obsessed with it.
We have now stayed in Pomerode and have added a dedicated blog post to this ‘small Germany’ in Brazil .
We spent Christmas 2008 in Gramado, a town in the mountains which looks a lot more German than Blumenau. The Christmas decorations were very “German”, the chocolate was sort of “German”, and many houses looked kind of “German”. All done for the benefit of tourism.
Nearby are countless other settlements with German roots. The “teuto-brasileiros” are certainly a notable number in this part of Brazil. Even the German cake, “Kuchen”, made it into the local language as “cuca”.
South of Chile
Whereas in Brazil the word was integrated into the local Portuguese, “Kuchen” is a popular item on the desert menu all across Chile, in its original German spelling. People of German origin are the fifth-largest population group in this country. The first wave of migrants here also arrived after the failed revolution of 1848. Specifically, the rich pastures of the southern lakes district attracted many Germans.
Puerto Varas & Frutillar
Puerto Varas doesn’t look very German, although in the centre of town you find a large German Club and several German sounding business names. Frutillar, on the shore of the lake, displays some of the German ‘neatness’ and attracts many tourists for its scenic beauty. There is also a museum showing early settlers’ houses and equipment of German roots.
Besides Bolivia, the only other land-locked country in South America, is still attracting many German migrants. The first to arrive here were Mennonites, who developed wealthy farming communities.
The capital of Paraguay features German supermarkets, owned by Mennonites, offering all sorts of German delicatessens, cheese, bread, and small goods – many imported. For us it was a paradise to buy decent bread and some odds and ends. Yasha also celebrated her birthday at the Club Aleman with German style cuisine.
In the east of the country, this town carries a very German name. Many of the large farms around are owned by families with German roots, but we found the town itself to be nothing very special.
The United States is still attracting immigration from Germany – the legendary ‘American Dream’ isn’t dead. A lot of well established American family names clearly show German roots. During, and even after WWII, most European Jews saw the USA as the safest port of call.
We found one strange place, cashing in on its “German-ness”, in Minnesota.
Since it was only a few miles off our chosen route and the name of this town made us curious, we drove in. It looked like a typical American country town except that there was German oom-pah-pah music piped from speakers along the main road. We bought some, not so exciting and over-priced, German bread and laughed about a funny T-shirt print. There wasn’t anything else that was really German about this town.
Did you expect this many ‘German’ towns in South America?
Can you think of another national culture which is so widely exported and used to attract tourists?