Interviews with three generations of Neelemans
Interviews by Cory Leonard
What is the Neeleman family legacy with regard to Brazil and Latin America?
I went to Brazil on an LDS mission when I was twenty years old. When I got the call to go to Brazil, I was flabbergasted. Rose was my girlfriend at the time. We both had to look Brazil up in the encyclopedia.
It took me twenty-three days to get there, because in those days no airplane traveled to Brazil. I went to New York and traveled down by boat. I stayed there two years and nine months. There was one mission and nineteen hundred members of the Church in all of Brazil.
When I stepped off the plane almost three years later in Los Angeles, Rose claims I said to her, “Will you go back to Brazil with me?”
She said, “You just got home.”
I said, “I’m not finished there.”
After I had been home for sixteen months, working for KSL and the Deseret News while I finished school in journalism at the University of Utah, I got a call from United Press International (UPI). They said, “We had a guy in Brazil who met you and said you were interested in going back to Brazil. We have no Portuguese-speaking correspondents.” UPI had ten thousand international correspondents, and none of them spoke Portuguese.
They flew out their vice president from Argentina, and he met me at the Hotel Utah. He asked me all kinds of questions and then said, “Now I want to talk to [your wife,] Rose,” and he asked her all kinds of questions.
Finally he stood up and said, “As far as I’m concerned, I’ll see you in São Paulo, Brazil, in October.”
Rose looked at me like she’d just been shot. Our baby, John, was only two months old. We went to Brazil.
I was the writer—the correspondent—for UPI in São Paulo. A month later, after they found a discrepancy in the books, I also became the bureau chief. I was twenty-three years old. There were twenty-five people in the bureau, because we didn’t only cover the news but translated the entire UPI news report. They all thought, “Who is this crazy gringo that’s coming in here to take over?” Most of them had been with UPI longer than I was alive. Gradually I gained their confidence, and they all became dear friends.
We had three more kids while we were there: David, Julie, and Pamela. After seven years, we decided our kids were speaking better Portuguese than English. We finally made the decision to return to the States when we came home on vacation in 1964 and John said, “Mom, when are we coming back here? The United States is one of my favorite countries.”
I continued with UPI in the States for another twenty years. In 1985 I was hired by the Los Angeles Times to be the Latin American director for their syndicate, and then I became their vice president, covering the whole world.
We traveled to 120 countries and opened up syndicate services in every major newspaper center. When I finally retired from the LA Times in 2002, I joined the Washington Post and was the Latin American or Brazilian contact for the Post’s writer’s group for ten years.
While working for UPI, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, I traveled to Brazil every year, and I had amazing experiences. I was in a room with Haile Selassie of Ethiopia when his government toppled in Addis Ababa. I was probably the last person to interview Fidel Castro in 1960 when he came through Brazil as a triumphant dictator after toppling Fulgencio Batista. I traveled with Charles de Gaulle when he visited Brazil trying to organize his force de frappe. I interviewed Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian astronaut, when he came to Brazil. I traveled with Che Guevara when he received the Southern Cross—a Brazilian medal. I covered the Brazilian military upheaval in 1964 and was in house arrest for a while. I traveled with Juscelino Kubitschek, the famous Brazilian president who built Brasilia.
We believe the Brazilians are fabulous. Of the fifteen missionaries we’ve had in our family, nine of them have gone to Brazil. We have had seventy-five Brazilian exchange students over many, many years, and all of our kids—and now our grandkids—have known them. Our kids love Brazil and Brazilian history; they have become attached to Brazil through us. And now we’re in the third generation. They speak the language; we all joke in Portuguese; we tell stories in Portuguese. They all love Latin America.
My grandson said yesterday, “They’re so easy to love, Grandpa. It doesn’t take much to love them.” And it doesn’t take much for them to love you. The Brazilian friends we have have been enduring friends. Rose and I send three hundred Christmas cards every year. The majority of them go to Brazil and some to other Latin countries.
When I got back here in 1966, I was asked to be part of the Partners of the Americas group, which was an organization formed by President Kennedy in 1963 in which countries were matched up with states in the United States as volunteer partners. Even though Utah was a partner for Bolivia, I could always stop off in Brazil, going and coming.
Then in 2002, the ambassador for Brazil to the United States, Rubens Barbosa, called me and said, “I would like you to be the honorary consul of Brazil.”
I said, “What does that entail?
He said, “There’s no money in it, but we give you stuff.”
I said, “What do you give me?”
“We’ll give you a Brazilian flag, a Brazilian coat of arms, and ten thousand headaches.”
I said, “I’ll take it.”
“Do you have to sleep on it?”
“No. As long as it has to do with Brazilians, I’ll take it.”
Later I discovered that we have 20,000 Brazilians in this area—in Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and western Colorado.
For sixteen years now I’ve been the honorary consul of Brazil. I couldn’t do it without Rose. She’s been right there by my side. We hire interns, most of them from BYU, but for the most part it’s a free job. But we deal with these amazing people whom we have learned to love over all these years.
That’s part of the structure that we’ve created with our family. They accept it, and they love it. Brazil is part and parcel of the Neeleman family existence in every way you can imagine.
AS LONG AS IT HAS TO DO WITH BRAZILIANS, I’LL TAKE IT.
What is the Neeleman legacy in Latin America?
(son of Gary)
My dad was not that active in the Church, and then he met my mom and started going back to church and decided to serve a mission. After he returned, we lived in Brazil for seven years, and I was born there. I’m a dual national—I have a Brazilian passport—which has allowed me to do a lot of things. First off, I served a mission in northern Brazil. Then I went back and started a business in Brazil. The airline business there is one that you have to be from Brazil to own, so because I had a Brazilian passport I could start Azul. It’s a company that has really transformed air travel in Brazil. My kids also all have Brazilian passports, so we’ve got Latin America running in our blood.
You have built an airline in Brazil that now has 10,000 employees. What have you learned in the process of creating this new airline?
David: One of the things I noticed as a missionary that made me a little bit upset is that Brazil’s economy was made for what they call the A and B classes, which would be the upper and upper-middle classes. It’s a group of about 30 million people who participate in about 85 percent of the economic activity of the country. There are all these people on the outside looking in. I always knew I wanted to try and break that barrier.
About eight years ago, Brazil was going through this resurgence and was doing well, and it had just been announced that they were going to have the World Cup and the Olympics. I thought it was important to get the lower-middle class flying. I was chairman at JetBlue and a little bit bored, and I noticed the fares were twice as high as they should be, and there were only two carriers. So we built an airline that serves 105 cities today in Brazil. The number of people traveling went from 50 million a year to 100 million. We took half of that traffic, and the other half was generated because we lowered fares and stimulated traffic among our competitors. We actually think the market can go up another 50 million people, and we want to take most of that business going forward, because we’re well positioned for it. I always tell everybody, “This is the land of milk and honey. The challenges are big, but the opportunity is bigger.”
What experiences have you had or insights have you gained regarding doing ethical business in Brazil?
David: I was on this program when I first got down there—and I don’t even know why I accepted to do this—where I was in this pit and journalists were all around me. They would spin my chair around as they fired questions at me left and right. I could hardly understand what they were saying at the time.
One guy used the word propina, which means “bribe.” He said, “How are you going to keep from giving people bribes?”
I didn’t really understand the question until they explained it, and then I answered that we wouldn’t pay or accept bribes. If you start out saying to everybody, “We don’t pay bribes,” that’s it. They don’t ask. They know we would never do that.
We have never done any of that stuff for the sake of doing right, but functionally it works great for your business too. And fortunately for us, we were doing so much good for Brazil.
What advice would you give to students, particularly those who learned Spanish or Portuguese on a mission?
David: Don’t shoot too low if you have the opportunity to work for a multinational company and be in Brazil. I think that’s one of the great things our family experienced—and my mom and dad have always advocated this. When you’re newly married and you’ve got young kids, go off and be in a foreign country. It really solidifies your family and brings you together. Don’t be afraid to go live in a foreign country and to let your light shine in those areas. Use the talents you learned on your mission with your language skills. You can always come back here, and you’ll have better opportunities here if you go out and see the world.
Life in Latin America is a little different than in the States, and there’s a perception that everything’s corrupt. How do you deal with that?
David: Latin America has its challenges, obviously, but the greatest thing that took my mom and dad back to Brazil and took me back there certainly wasn’t the government or those difficulties; it was the people. The Brazilian people are the most amazingly warm-hearted people I know, and I would do anything to help them. It’s a Latin trait. That’s one of the greatest things about going to Latin America. My kids just loved being among those humble people, so it’s really the human part of the experience that is the most amazing.
What is the Neeleman family legacy in Latin America, and how do you fit into it?
Hilary Rose Neeleman McFarland(daughter of David and granddaughter of Gary; Latin American studies, ’12)
The legacy started out with my grandpa when he served a mission in Brazil. I think everything in our family points back to him and that good decision he made. Our lives have been greatly enriched and have become more colorful and more fun. I’ve come to know new people and new cultures and new ways of life.
My first recollection of being in Latin America was when we went with our family to Cancún when I was ten. I remember thinking that these people are wonderful—they’re so kind and they’re so outgoing. I saw my grandparents speaking to the waiters and to everybody around them—anybody they came across. It was amazing to me how my grandpa could relate to people he had never met before.
We’ve since traveled to the Caribbean a few times on a cruise and to Brazil. That was an incredible experience I will never forget. We went to Rio and São Paulo, and I felt like Brazil was an incredible place. The culture was so rich, and I loved it, and I loved the people. They were so good to our family. We didn’t know them, and they didn’t know us, but they were welcoming and warm. I felt like these people lived with their hearts on their sleeves; they welcomed anyone and everyone.
Later I served my mission in San José, Costa Rica.
How did Costa Rica affect you?
Hillary: Going to Costa Rica was an extension of this love I had started to gain for the Latin people. Going there was eye-opening, and I saw diverse ways of living—people living on dirt floors, living in cement houses, having bars on their windows. I loved how they painted their houses different colors. And they were very good to me.
After my mission I majored in Latin American studies. I originally wanted to go into business, but I felt this draw to study the Latin American culture, people, and language. My desire just grew to learn more about Latin America, and that helped me to learn the language. I loved majoring in Latin America studies.
You did a study abroad while at BYU. What was the program, and what was it like?
Hillary: I did my study abroad in the Dominican Republic in Puerto Plata. It was a dream project. We had a summer camp for underprivileged children where they could have more opportunities to learn science, math, English, and art instead of just being on the streets. I really didn’t speak that much Spanish—hardly anything at the time—but I was made the art teacher. I taught seven classes a day, twenty to thirty kids at a time. I wasn’t prepared for that, but it was a really good turning point for me to learn the language, because I was forced to speak.
For lunch we would make sandwiches with ham and cheese and put them in garbage bags, and we’d pass around these garbage bags of food. It was kind of funny, but we worked our guts out at these camps with these kids. It made me really sad to see these poor kids who were working at such a young age—just six or seven years old. We told these kids that this is why they needed their education. Don’t stop learning; keep going. We were there to encourage them to progress in their education and to try to change this cycle of poverty.
My DR experience solidified my love for the Latin people, because it showed me it didn’t matter who I was; these people sacrificed for me. They loved me, and they had hard lives, but despite that they were still happy. That gave me a desire to learn more about them and to be a good friend to them, like they were to me.
We’re always encouraging students to get out of Provo and go abroad. What would be your pitch to go to Latin America and study?
There is so much opportunity in Latin America that the surface has just been scratched. When you go there to be with these people, you see how many needs there are. You see that maybe the infrastructure isn’t as good as it could be in certain areas, and you can help with that, and you can be a part of that.
They’re the warmest people. They’re some of my closest friends, and I haven’t gotten close to people that fast before in my life, except for with my Latino friends. There’s this barrier that’s just not there, and I don’t have to climb through differences. There’s this connection you can have with these people that will bless you the rest of your life. It will bring you opportunities that are unimaginable. There’s so much down there that’s just waiting for people to go do or see. It’s so rich that you won’t regret it, and you’ll just be reaping the benefits for the rest of your life.
Learn more about the Neeleman legacy in Latin America, read more from the interviews, see favorite recipes from their Brazil family cookbook, and watch a film short featuring Gary, David, and Hilary at kennedy.byu.edu/neeleman.