Mosaic Stories

    Carolina Holtmeyer

    Carolina Holtmeyer, born in the interior countryside of Brazil, came to the United States for one year and to learn English. Today, she boasts a master’s degree from Webster, 22 years in different departments at Nestlé Purina as well as over 6 years as President and co-founder of Viva Brasil. Not without its challenges, a plan to spend just one year learning in an English-intensive program has transformed into a successful life for Holtmeyer in St. Louis.

    After studying computer science in Sao Paulo and working at a job developing software, Holtmeyer decided to pursue her goal to learn English in the United States. Through various family connections at University of Missouri, Columbia (Mizzou), Holtmeyer was able to spend six months in an intensive English learning program before taking the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), and six additional months taking classes in biology and computer science. During that year, Holtmeyer met her now-husband who was also studying at Mizzou at the time, but still did not waver in her commitment to her previous plans: “I was just fulfilling the plan. I would spend my year and then come back. I stayed one year at Mizzou, finished my degree, and then went back to Brazil.” The couple kept in touch with each other for the next three years while Holtmeyer worked at a Brazilian truck company through letters and annual visits.

    With her first job back in Sao Paulo after completing the TOEFL program, Holtmeyer had the opportunity to travel, moving from capital to capital in northern Brazil where the company had branch locations and installing computer systems for them across the country. After three years of working and staying close with her would-be husband, they decided to marry and move to St. Louis with a fiance visa. Initially, the process of getting the fiance visa was a nightmare for Holtmeyer. “They said you get the visa in about 3 months, so I came here and we started planning for a January wedding the next year. Then that visa didn’t happen and paperwork took longer. So from January we started changing to March, from March to April and then July, and finally September. A lot of things waiting for the day we could get the visa.” Holtmeyer and her husband were married in Brazil and then again in the United States to be able to celebrate with both of their families. The troubles with paperwork and visas did not end there, however. When she landed in Miami on her way to St. Louis with her husband, Holtmeyer was supposed to receive her visa and working permit along with other information about her immigration status. Instead, she discovered they had lost her paperwork and would receive it later. After three months back in St. Louis, Holtmeyer went to the immigration office asking for her work permit and relaying how she had not been given any information in Miami. With more lost paperwork, Holtmeyer remarked that “luckily we had hard copies of everything and then we started the process again and automatically got my green card, working permit, everything.”

    “But starting here, no one knew my background. I started looking for a job, but I started brand-new, as if I just got out of college.” Holtmeyer describes her first search for a job in St. Louis as somewhat frustrating, immigrating with almost 10 years of work experience from Brazil and having to start from scratch. Keeping a positive outlook, she decided the sooner she started the better. The following February, she began a position at Merits where she stayed for two and a half years before switching to Purina’s International Group.

    Even having studied English and lived in St. Louis for almost three years, Holtmeyer still remembers her nerves speaking English on a professional level with vocabulary she had not yet become familiar with. Now with a career in the computer science field, working and traveling internationally, Holtmeyer found a stride within the company. Since her first position, she has moved within Purina from boarding their international department to web development, technical system development, business analytics and project management. “It’s when I start getting too comfortable I start being uncomfortable. When I really know I know things, it becomes boring and I need change. Everytime you change it has always been a completely different experience.” With every transition and adjustment, Purina has been able to give Holtmeyer the flexibility she needed, and still awarded her the chance to work with international institutes and partners around the globe.

    Although she loved the traveling her career previously allowed her, she was able to request more time in St. Louis taking care of her children. Holtmeyer still enjoys traveling, especially an annual trip or two with her family to Brazil. Holtmeyer dedicates much of her time and energy caring for her family and fostering Brazilian culture in their home. Every day, Holtmeyer and her family enjoy the time they have to spend with each other and will share at least one meal all together everyday. Family dinners also create another cultural space in Holtmeyer’s household: Brazilian food. Unfortunately, Holtmeyer says she was not able to keep her kids practicing fluent Portuguese because of a struggle between languages at a young age. However, she maintains that family time and good communication allowed them to grow together and see the value of both of their cultural backgrounds. “Now that my kids are both getting out of the house, they are, in small gestures, showing how they embrace the Brazilian culture and their heritage. I am so proud to hear them say ‘That is from my Brazilian side.’”

    Whether that Brazilian culture manifests itself in family time together, food or speaking the Portuguese language to please mom, Holtmeyer works hard to cultivate these cultural relationships - not just in her family, but also in the greater community of St. Louis. The Brazilian community was rather small when Holtmeyer first moved to St. Louis. Along with a friend similarly in a mixed Brazilian-American family, they each initially felt that their kids were not acquiring and interacting with Brazilian culture as they would like. In the beginning, there would be a weekly meeting of Brazilians. Holtmeyer remembers how Moacyr Marchini and some friends (now a group called Sambabom) would go and play together, and Jorge (who opened the Brasilia Bar & Restaurant) used to cook feijoada for everyone who would come just to meet each other, share their background and mutual traditions. Feeling that someone needed to take on an organizational lead to draw this group closer together, Holtmeyer created Viva Brasil.

    Founded in 2012, Holtmeyer and her associate, inspired by the need to pass their cultural traditions to their children, created the non-profit with the mission to promote Brazilian culture by integrating individuals and institutions. Since its founding, the connections among the Brazilian community in St. Louis have grown immensely as Brazilian individuals find they can now encounter an authentic representation of their culture in the US. Currently, Viva Brasil offers Brazilian Portuguese language classes year round and recently introduced the option for private lessons. They visit different schools, institutions and events with a program called Show Brazil, and do presentations of different Brazilian cultural aspects such as Capoeira (a type of Afro-Brazilian martial arts) and children’s literature like Sítio do Picapau Amarelo by Brazilian author Monteiro Lobato. Each year they host a Festa Junina, a traditional Brazilian folk festival during the month of June, with authentic food, drinks, music, games and dancing. Still, Holtmeyer continually explores new ways to bring her Festa Junina experiences from her hometown here in St. Louis, hoping to recreate the “correio elegante,” or love letter, tradition from her school days in a fun way for the families that participate in the event. For the previous two years, Viva Brasil has been part of the Mardi Gras parade in St. Louis, taking this opportunity to connect the American holiday with more traditional Brazilian Carnaval. The executive board of the organization is now hoping that their annual community Taste of Brazil dinner in October, connecting with Brazil’s patron Nossa Senhora Aparecida, will be changed to a gala celebration. Holtmeyer outlines their goal to raise funds for the organization to eventually open its own headquarters to host events and create a thriving multicultural space by 2025. “The idea is to have a gallery where Brazilians or Latinos or anyone can go and have exhibitions. It will be a cultural space for teaching, cooking, dancing and so many other things.” Holtmeyer also hopes to create a professional quadrilho dance group and perform at the Festival of Nations multicultural celebration in the future. Viva Brasil began as Holtmeyer’s desire to live out her Brazilian culture in a new community, and it continues to grow and execute this dream.

    “We decided to make Viva Brasil as a way for us to bring our culture to St. Louis, have our kids be proud of and carry on our culture and to give back to the community that accepted us here. We are working with the American culture and we can give something back to them.” Not only does Viva Brasil introduce Brazilian culture to the American community of St. Louis, part of Holtmeyer’s wish for the non-profit was to demonstrate the American culture of community volunteering to Brazilians. Holtmeyer explains how one hundred percent of the workforce behind Viva Brasil, excluding the Portuguese courses taught by official language teachers, is run by volunteers. Even Holtmeyer’s mother-in-law, who does not speak any Portuguese, is always there to help with every event. Acknowledging its challenges, she admits that the effort she gives the organization is quite like that of a second job, “I do what has to be done to make things happen, but I think it is one of the things that you do with your heart and you do with a passion.”

    Holtmeyer says she now she truly feels at home in St. Louis: “It’s so natural to be here and to feel a part of it.” She especially applauds the growth of diversity and variety in the St. Louis community and hopes for a future St. Louis to be increasingly multicultural and internationally connected. Aligned with similar goals as the St. Louis Mosaic Project, Holtmeyer wants to be a part of that growth herself, and continue developing the culture, education and philanthropy of St. Louis through Viva Brasil.

    Interviewed and written by Julia Cogan