NEELEMAN FAMILY LEGACY IN LATIN AMERICA

For three generations, one part of the world played a central role in their family.

Reporting on Brazil’s History

Before becoming Utah’s Honorary Consul for Brazil, Gary Neeleman spent a long career in Latin America.

“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.”

Building a New Company

His son, David Neeleman, may be more well known as the founder of Jet Blue airlines in the United States, but in Brazil, he built Azul Airlines—a company that now has more than 10,000 employees.

“About eight years ago, Brazil was going through this resurgence and were 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 then 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.'”

Learning about Latin America

As one of the grandchildren, Hilary Neeleman McFarland enjoyed a constant exposure to a wide variety of Latin American cultures—and loved every minute of it. She also served a mission in Costa Rica, majored in Latin American Studies at the Kennedy Center, and studied abroad in the Dominican Republic. 

“We grew up going on ‘grandchildren trips’ with Grandpa and Grandma Neeleman who would let us tag along on their work travels. In Argentina, we visited Calle Florida where we bought leather coats and ate dulce de leche and dined on the best steak we had ever eaten at a renowned Argentine restaurant, followed by a tango show in the evening. As grandchildren we saw firsthand all that Latin America had to offer with its diversity in architecture, arts, music, cuisine, racial diversity, culture, urban design, natural resources, and much more. We were always filled to the brim with new experiences that Latin America’s rich diversity had to offer, and we couldn’t get enough of it.”

Read more from our interview with the Neeleman Family in this Latin American issue of Bridges alumni magazine

Coming soon: top recipe picks from the Neeleman Brazil Family Cookbook and a short film featuring interviews with Gary, David, and Hilary in Salt Lake, Austin, São Paulo, and across Latin America.