When they write the definitive history of the Great Brazilian Lottery Rumor, its authors may not be able to get much closer to its precise origins than the notebook of Leonardo Ferreira, a reporter for The Brazilian Voice newspaper, which is published here.
Skip to next paragraph It was Mr. Ferreira who, in the newspaper’s July 26 issue, first printed the gossip that the winning ticket in New Jersey’s Mega Millions lottery drawing of July 22 had been purchased by a Brazilian immigrant at a supermarket in the Ironbound neighborhood, which has large Brazilian and Portuguese populations. The jackpot was $126 million.
The source of Mr. Ferreira’s tip was nebulous: a supermarket employee whose name he never learned. But in short order the scuttlebutt got increasingly rich and more colorful.
One version held that the immigrant was illegal and was afraid to step forward for fear of losing the prize and being deported. In a retelling, the woman had entrusted the ticket to a friend, a legal immigrant, who now refuses to give it back. A variant maintained that the woman gave the ticket to her boyfriend who ran off with both the ticket and another lover.
The rumors of the Brazilian multi-multi-multi-millionaire even became big news in Brazil, as they zipped back and forth between the continents via Internet, telephone, television and the jet streams of aspiration that connect the two countries. Within days, Brazilian television stations and newspapers, following up on Mr. Ferreira’s article, were tracking the story.
“Brazilians from all over Brazil have been calling me,” said Mr. Ferreira, who immigrated to the United States from Rio de Janeiro in 1995. “Everybody went crazy.”
Problem is, it may not be true.
Antonio Seabra, owner of A & J Seabra Supermarkets XII in Ironbound, where the winning ticket was sold, said in a telephone interview late Thursday that he knew the winners. And while he declined to disclose their names, he said the winners were a married couple, legal Portuguese immigrants who had been shopping at his chain of supermarkets for 35 years and who were putting off claiming the prize until they could get their legal affairs in order.
“They’re wonderful, wonderful people,” Mr. Seabra said. “They are so humble, a hard-working family. One of the American dreams.” The husband, he added, “actually went to work the next day.”
But the tale of the Brazilian lottery winner has become a great example of a world made small by modern telecommunications, media, trade and travel, where rumors in one immigrant corner of one American city can quickly reverberate back home, even if home is thousands of miles and a hemisphere away.
For the Brazilians of the Ironbound neighborhood and their relatives and friends in Brazil, a miraculous windfall of this magnitude represents the perfect get-rich-quick scheme, the ultimate expression of the American dream.
“People have been dreaming about the money and saying, ‘Oh my God! If I win this money, I can buy whatever I want! I can have the American dream!’ ” Mr. Ferreira said.
One elaboration of the rumor that gained currency during the week was that the ticket buyer was from Governador Valadares, a city in the south-central Brazilian state of Minas Gerais from which tens of thousands of people have migrated to the United States. Governador Valadares’s ties to the United States are so strong that it has come to be known as Brazil’s most American city.
“People here went nuts,” Raimundo Santana, a journalist in Governador Valadares, said about the rumor. “Wherever you go, all you hear is people talking about who this lottery winner might be, and what she might do with all this money.” The $126 million lottery jackpot is equivalent to nearly half of the city’s operating budget.
The rumor comes at a time when the Brazilian community in Ironbound seems in need of a boost. After years in which the Brazilian population here multiplied and Brazilian-owned businesses proliferated, the slumping American economy has compelled some residents to return to Brazil, where the economy is buoyant.
The rumors have provided immigrants a distraction from economic woes, and seems inspired in part by a feeling that a victory for a Brazilian here would, in some way, be a victory for the entire community.
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It has also spurred unbridled fantasizing. One evening this week, employees and guests at the Casa Nova Grill, a Brazilian restaurant in Ironbound, were riffing on their dreams.
“I would travel the whole world and let people forget about me and settle down,” said Mariana Dias, who is from Belo Horizonte in Brazil and was visiting the restaurant’s manager, Rogerio Santos. “Then I would go back to Brazil.”
“I’d move to Miami Beach, I’d buy a Lambo,” said Mr. Santos, a native of Rio de Janeiro, using shorthand for a Lamborghini. “Bling, bling!”
But Francisco Sampa, the president of the Brazilian American United Association of New Jersey and a leader of the Brazilian community here, was more circumspect about the whole thing. He wasn’t buying into the rumors.
“I’m a man with the feelings,” he said while sitting at the restaurant’s bar sipping a Brazilian soda. “Everybody say it’s a Brazilian. But maybe not. I search already. I made a lot of phone calls, visit a lot of homes. Where is she? I know everybody.”
Still, the rumor of an illegal immigrant’s winning the lottery raised a question that hung in the air of Ironbound’s rodizio grill joints and choperia taverns this week: What’s an illegal immigrant to do if she suddenly finds herself holding a $126 million lottery ticket?
Dominick DeMarco, spokesman for the New Jersey Lottery, said that a nonresident foreigner, illegally in the country or not, could claim a prize provided that the person could show an official document that proves identity and country of origin. But the nonresident foreigner would face a 30 percent federal tax rather than the 25 percent that a legal resident would face.
He said a nonresident foreigner had not won the lottery’s jackpot “in recent memory.”
Richard Rocha, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said if the agency investigators received “credible information” that a person was in the country illegally, they might start investigating.
Mr. DeMarco said the kind of self-propelling theories that have been the buzz of Ironbound are not unique. “There are a lot of rumors swirling around when a winner doesn’t immediately step forward,” he said.
But he seemed amused by the increasingly colorful details of the rumors surrounding the July 22 drawing.
“I got to tell you,” he said, fighting back laughter. “There are probably as many stories out there as there are combinations of numbers.