- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Police Commissioner David Chong has made a new addition to the department’s wish list - a Portuguese-speaking officer.

It’s just one sign of the changing demographics of this old suburb just north of New York City. Brazilians might constitute as much as 10 percent of Mount Vernon’s 72,000 residents.

“We really want to have someone here who can speak that language, who can really relate to that community,” the commissioner said. “I would like a handful, but one would be a great start.”

So Commissioner Chong has launched a recruiting campaign in Portuguese-language newspapers and TV stations.

The influx of Brazilians in Mount Vernon is evident in the cluster of shops and restaurants that cater to the population.

At a store called the Bradeli, shopkeeper Helio Martin, 46, sells Brazilian foods, perfumes and CDs. He also arranges airline tickets and money transfers to Brazil. He has lived in the U.S. for 26 years and says Brazilians have no difficulty acclimating to life here.

“Brazilians are very warm people. It is easy for us to get used to other backgrounds, other cultures,” he said.

Most of the customers at Onda’s Brazil, a hair salon, are Brazilian, but proprietor Marisela Concepcion is Puerto Rican and Dominican.

“I had to learn the Brazilian styles,” she said. “The women see the telenovelas and the Brazilian magazines, and they want those styles. They like to look good, and they’re not afraid to spend money.”

She feels Brazilian immigrants have improved the city, “with the shops and the restaurants, it gives a little bounce.”

At the modest Brazil 2000 restaurant, owner and chief cook Francisca Silva Villela prepares the national dish of feijoada, a stew of beans, beef and pork. She also serves sandwiches named for Brazilian states and a chocolate fudge cake known as bolo brigadeiro.

She said in Portuguese that she’s seen the number of Brazilians in Mount Vernon grow greatly in the 14 years since she left Pocos de Caldas.

In a spare office at the Brazilian Civic Center, executive director Ricardo Braxtor teaches English and encourages the local Brazilian community to join blood drives, school groups and soccer leagues.

“We want to participate and give something before we ask for anything,” said the 46-year-old Sao Paulo native. “We want to change people’s ideas of what immigrants are like.”

Mr. Braxtor praises the police department but says many Brazilians in Mount Vernon are in the country illegally and fear that an encounter with an officer could lead to deportation.

Commissioner Chong wants to dispel that fear.

“If you’re a victim of a crime, your immigration status is not going to come into play,” the commissioner said. “We are trying to overcome this lack of trust because it hurts the people.”

Commissioner Chong has recruited about a dozen Brazilian residents whom he can call when an interpreter is needed, and he has issued a crime-prevention brochure in Portuguese.

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