São Paulo (City)

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São Paulo (City)

Located on a plateau over the sierra about 30 miles from the coastal port of Santos, the city of São Paulo was founded in 1554 by a group of Jesuit priests who decided to build a school to proselytize among Indians who lived in the region. Through most of the colonial period São Paulo remained an isolated, impoverished town with no more than a few thousand inhabitants. It was the base from which the famous bandeiras—slave-hunting expeditions into the unexplored interior—were launched during the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century the city lived off the gold trade of Minas Gerais. With the decline of mining, São Paulo became a modest commercial entrepôt for trade in mules, cotton cloth, and sugar.

In the nineteenth century São Paulo underwent a dramatic transformation as it became the center of the world's largest coffee exporting economy. Early in the century, with a population approaching 20,000, its primary product was tea, won with great effort from the infertile land surrounding the city. At mid-century it was a thriving if modest city of 25,000, with a prominent law school and a number of colleges. By the 1860s proliferating coffee plantations in the northwest of the state were fueling the growth of São Paulo, as all export shipments had to pass through the city on their way to the port at Santos. This relationship was strengthened in the 1870s and 1880s as coffee surpassed sugar and cotton in Brazil's export portfolio and as railroads were built to transport coffee from the hinterland to São Paulo and then on to Santos.

After mid-century São Paulo's importance also grew in other ways. The law school, founded in 1827, was by the 1870s a cynosure of intellectual and political thought, and turned out a substantial number of Bacharéis, many of whom were destined for careers in politics or the government bureaucracy. With an eye turned toward European political currents, Paulistano landowners founded a republican party in the early 1870s that espoused the end of monarchic rule. By the 1880s the city was the headquarters of the São Paulo State Republican Party, the largest and most important republican organization in Brazil.

Also in the 1870s, a new group of professionals and military officers began to discuss the ideas of positivism, a doctrine of "progress" in human affairs derived from the writings of the Frenchman Auguste Comte (1798–1857). São Paulo also became a center of the abolitionist movement in the 1880s. By the late 1880s paulistano abolitionists were able to persuade the Republican Party to condemn slavery outright, which it had been unwilling to do initially because so many Republicans were themselves slave owners. When slavery was abolished in 1888 and the Republic was declared in 1889, members of the Paulista coffee elite, many of whom lived in the city of São Paulo, were poised to take control of the nation's political apparatus. They established a political alliance with their wealthy counterparts in Minas Gerais. Their shared dominion lasted for the next forty years, during which time São Paulo underwent yet another remarkable transformation.

The character of the city changed dramatically in the three decades after the turn of the century. Between 1890 and 1920 its population mushroomed from 65,000 to nearly 600,000. Much of this growth was due to the arrival of immigrants from Italy, Portugal, Spain, Japan, and the Middle East. Industry made enormous strides during the period, financed by coffee magnates who were willing to invest because of a continuing price-production crisis in coffee. The growth of industry created a true urban working class, which in 1917–1920 launched a series of general strikes that were brutally repressed by the government, and a population of nonmanual employees who formed the embryo of a salaried, white-collar middle class.

After the Revolution of 1930, which removed the paulista oligarchy from power, economic momentum in São Paulo passed from coffee to industry. Between 1920 and 1940 the number of industrial firms increased from 4,000 to over 11,500. The city's population exploded from roughly 600,000 to nearly 2 million. In the 1950s the pace of change accelerated even further, and São Paulo became the engine of Brazil's modernizing economy, producing textiles, shoes, furniture, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, and electrical equipment. As a part of this process, São Paulo industrialists became a political force unto themselves, industrial workers organized into powerful unions, and a salaried middle class was incorporated into political life and enjoyed the benefits of a consumer economy.

In the years after 1960 São Paulo attained the status of a megalopolis. In 2006 it was the fifth most populous metropolitan area in the world, with an estimated population of 19.7 million. Population growth in the last two decades has been the result primarily of rural-urban migration that has made São Paulo a focus of the country's social and economic ills.

Like many other cities in Brazil, São Paulo is full of contrasts. Although São Paulo is famous for hosting cultural events that attract visitors from all over the world, such as the twice-yearly São Paulo Fashion Week and the São Paulo Art Biennial, 55.4 percent of its population in 2000 lived in poor conditions.

See alsoBrazil, Political Parties: Republican Party (PR); Brazil, Revolutions: Revolution of 1930; Mining: Colonial Brazil; Slavery: Brazil.


Richard Morse, From Community to Metropolis: A Biography of São Paulo, Brazil (1974), is a standard work on the growth of the city and the culture of urbanization. The collection of essays Manchester and São Paulo: Problems of Rapid Urban Growth (1978), edited by John D. Wirth and Robert L. Jones, provides a comparative perspective. Warren Dean, The Industrialization of São Paulo, 1880–1945 (1969), is the standard text on the early period of industrialization. See also Joseph Love, São Paulo in the Brazilian Federation, 1889–1937 (1980), for a study of regional politics. A very personal vision of São Paulo's poorest can be had from Carolina Maria De Jesus, Child of the Dark, translated by David St. Clair (1962).

Azevedo, Elciene. Orfeu de carapinha: A trajetória de Luiz Gama na imperial cidade de São Paulo. Campinas, Brazil: Editora da UNICAMP (State University of Campinas), 1999.

Lesser, Jeff. Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Owensby, Brian Philip. Intimate Ironies: Modernity and the Making of Middle-Class Lives in Brazil. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Porta, Paula, et al. História da cidade de São Paulo. São Paulo, Brazil: Paz e Terra, 2004.

                                           Brian Owensby