Lisbon — Plastic artist Lenne Russo, 51, is on her way to fulfilling a dream: to obtain Portuguese citizenship. More than having the desired European Union passport, which allows free transit through more than 120 countries around the world, she wants to regain the original surname of the family, which was lost in the bureaucracy of the Brazilian public service at the beginning of the last century. Between 1907 and 1908, her grandfather, Eduardo dos Santos Russo, then three years old, disembarked in the port of Santos with his family, who were looking for better living conditions in Brazilian lands.
Lined up, each of the Portuguese who arrived in promising Brazil was registered for federal control. But the rush and negligence of the servers at the time ended up resulting in gross errors in the notes. Surnames were changed without any objection from immigrants, many of whom were illiterate. In the case of Lenne’s grandfather, Russo disappeared from the register. Only Eduardo dos Santos remained. “So much so that, officially, my name is Edilene Aparecida Mora dos Santos”, he says. It remained for her to use the Russian surname when she took up her artistic career.
A change in legislation by the government of Portugal in 2018, however, brought a breath of hope to Lenne. In order to attract descendants of Portuguese people who left the country – many to escape poverty –, the possibility was opened for grandchildren of these citizens to apply directly for their original nationality. Until then, grandchildren of Portuguese born abroad could only apply for derived citizenship. That is, they received the right from their parents, but could not pass the benefit on. With the change in the law, Portuguese nationality became an inheritance right, and they will be able to pass it on to subsequent generations.
But let’s be clear, warns lawyer Renato Martins, CEO of the Lisbon-based office Martins Castro: “If the grandchildren of Portuguese people don’t apply for citizenship, their descendants won’t be able to apply for it. It’s as if the rope was broken.” Therefore, it is important to apply for nationality while those who qualify are still alive. This is Lenne’s case. “I don’t have children, but my sister, Elaine Aparecida, has three. So, she and I are applying for Portuguese citizenship so that my nephews and their children can benefit”, she emphasizes. “Better: all documents issued by the Portuguese government will have Russo as our surname”, she celebrates.
There are no up-to-date estimates on how many descendants of Portuguese born in Brazil are entitled to citizenship of the European country. Data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), from the mid-2000s, indicated that 21 million Brazilians were of Portuguese origin. Most of these citizens are spread across Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Pará and Goiás. Not everyone, however, is able to prove the connection with the ancestors, even out of ignorance. “Therefore, serious professional monitoring is necessary”, recommends the lawyer Joana Nunes, from the Garcia, Silva, Nunes e Associados office.
The biggest difficulty, adds Renato Martins, is collecting all the documentation required by the government of Portugal. He recalls that, until 1911, there was no civil registration in the country. Births were cataloged in churches. And a lot was lost along the way. Thus, a thorough search is required. “There are people who have been in this process for more than 10 years, without success”, says he, who set up, with Martins Castro’s partners, an artificial intelligence program capable of identifying information in a shorter time.
“We have, today, more than 1 million metadata, within a genealogical bank, which can be read and searched”, explains the lawyer. The process involves locating information in churches and conservatories (notary offices), in Portugal, and in ports, municipalities, as many Portuguese went to work in agricultural activities, and even in hostels, in Brazil. With this information, we cross-reference the data and we can arrive at what we are looking for”, highlights Martins. He emphasizes that not everything is digitized, but digitization itself is not a guarantee of success in the endeavor of those who are claiming Portuguese nationality.
According to the lawyer, it is necessary to transform each piece of information — name, gender, parents’ names, location and date of birth — into searchable data. “We call this metadata. From there, artificial intelligence does its part, as it can read the documents”, he details. He adds that the time required for the entire citizenship process to be completed depends on the quality of the information. When they are more readily available, within five working days it is possible to locate the necessary documents. The whole process, however, can take about two and a half years. Important detail: no candidate for Portuguese citizenship can have been sentenced to three years or more in prison.
Foreign trade analyst Maria Lígia de Melo, 35, has been looking for the records of her Portuguese ancestors since 2019. Her case, however, is more complicated. She claims to have links with Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Portugal by the Inquisition in the 15th century. A significant portion of these Jews moved to Recife, with their names changed so that they could live in peace. The benefit of the nationality of Sephardic origin was created in 2015, but this year, there was an amendment to the Portuguese Nationality Law, to make it difficult for those who intend to obtain citizenship in this way.
In addition to the records of descent, it will be necessary to demonstrate a real and lasting bond with Portugal through regular travel around the country or to have the document of ownership of real rights over real estate, in the case of inheritance. Maria Lígia has been in Portuguese territory for three years, where she works and studies. Despite the difficulties, she does not give up. “My family is from the interior of Pernambuco, which has very bad documentation. That’s why I haven’t been able to locate the data I need yet. But, God willing, I’ll have my Portuguese citizenship because I’m of Sephardic origin”, he says.
Lenne Russo even thought about giving up Portuguese citizenship when her parents died in 2014. Last year, however, a friend convinced her to resume her dream of applying for nationality, recovering her surname and living in Europe. And she went to fight. After much searching, she found records of the arrival of her great-grandfather, Augusto Cesar Russo, with his grandfather, in the National Archives. “It was all there, his full name and the woman’s,” she says. “As soon as my citizenship comes out, I want to visit my family’s places of origin, in Trás-os-montes”, she reinforces, who will pay R$ 11,200 for her and her sister’s nationalization process.
marriage and children
Lawyer Joana Nunes says that Brazilians married or in a stable union with Portuguese people can also apply for citizenship in Portugal. The relationship, however, cannot be less than three years. All documents must be authenticated and apostilled by The Hague, which guarantees international recognition. Children of foreigners born in Portugal are others who are among those who can transfer citizenship, in this case, to their parents, as long as they live in Portuguese lands for more than five years.
“There are many advantages of having Portuguese citizenship”, says the lawyer. “Portugal’s identity document (citizen card) allows free movement and the possibility of residence in all European Union countries. It also facilitates access to bank credit (including for the purchase of a home),” he adds. She reinforces, however, that the naturalization process is not easy, mainly because of the bureaucracy and lack of personnel in public bodies, such as the Foreigners and Borders Service (SEF). “The demand for citizenship is growing, but the government infrastructure cannot keep up with this movement.”
Joana makes another warning: “Before applying for citizenship, it is necessary to seek the help of serious professionals, registered with the Portuguese Bar Association”. The warning makes sense. The government of Portugal is investigating at least 22 Brazilian digital influencers who have been selling facilities to obtain nationality, but in fact, are scamming the unsuspecting. “Professionals registered to provide this type of service can be denounced to the courts if they harm someone and are liable for it. In the case of false consultants, the punishment is more difficult and the losses are certain”, he says.
Estimates indicate that at least 1 million Brazilians live in Portugal, including those with dual citizenship. Among those classified as legal foreigners, there are almost 300 thousand, of which 47 thousand obtained authorization to put down roots in the country in the first half of this year. In addition to these groups, of descendants of Portuguese and Brazilians who obtained residence permits, the government of Portugal wants to attract labor to the country and boost the economy. For this, it created a temporary 180-day visa so that those interested can look for work in local companies. The new law should come into effect by the end of August.
Economics and xenophobia
The facilities created to attract descendants of Portuguese and foreigners are not restricted to Portugal, says lawyer Renato Martins, CEO of Martins Castro. He notes that Spain, Germany, France and Luxembourg, which recently naturalized 15,000 Brazilians, are on the same path. And this is a result of what is being called by the authorities the “demographic winter”, when the elderly become the majority of the population and young people in the labor market are no longer enough to guarantee the support of Social Security systems. “I, like scholars from the European Union and the United Nations (UN), prefer to call this reality demographic suicide,” he says.
For him, the countries that are easing immigration rules have been seeing the problems arising from the aging of the population in a very concrete way, adopting policies so that they can be repopulated. “No nation can sustain itself when its working population shrinks,” he says. In Portugal, even with the arrival of foreigners, the number of inhabitants has been falling year after year. There are just over 10 million.