Once a month, Paula goes out into the night to find her husband, to show him that she knows he is not just playing cards as he claims. Since she does not have a car, she gathers her baby daughter in her arms and carries her through the streets of Bragança, a remote mountain town in northeast Portugal, stopping at one brothel and strip club after another, sometimes until dawn. Paula marches under the high stone walls of Bragança's medieval castle and along winding roads into the hills to reach the clubs, where neon signs cast a pink glow on the cars belonging to the men of Bragança. "Some of the places I have walked, if you knew, you would say I am crazy," says Paula, who spoke on the condition that her real name not be used. Once she spots her husband's car, she waits. She glares at the brothel door, daring him to come out, imagining him inside with what she calls the "bitches and whores" some of the 300 or so Brazilian prostitutes who have moved into Bragança in the past few years. But when he finally stumbles out the door, all she can do is stare at him. She cannot find the words. He looks back, and then he gets into his car and leaves.
Bragança's meninas brasileiras, or Brazilian girls, are part of the estimated $50 billion global sex trade that profits from the hundreds of thousands of women transported across national borders by human traffickers often through coercion, sometimes willingly to be sold or rented on the other side. A tiny fraction have found their way to Bragança, a town of 27,600 tucked into the corner of Portugal's isolated Trás-os-Montes (beyond the mountains) region. But there's nothing small or insignificant about the effect the meninas have had on the town, which for 800 years was known mostly for its storybook castle, complete with a "Princess Tower" where at least one heartbroken maiden is said to have jumped to her death. As Paula and an activist band of other wives see it, the meninas have invaded and degraded their town. To explain the hold these Brazilian women have over their husbands, the wives tell themselves stories, accusing the prostitutes of using drugs and even witchcraft to seduce the men. "The men are the most guilty, but the meninas are the most dirty," says Paula. And earlier this year, as seven strip clubs and countless private brothels opened in Bragança, the wives decided to fight back.
In May, they drew up a manifesto and brought their grievances to the mayor and the police chief, calling for a "war on prostitution." Over the summer, there was a flurry of action official statements, police raids, camera crews. The spotlight on Bragança widened to include neighboring villages, where locals suddenly felt emboldened to complain that their children couldn't sleep at night because of the noise in the street, and violence has been on the rise including a case in which a jealous wife is said to have beaten up a prostitute.
Now it's becoming clear that the Brazilian women are not leaving Bragança. Like cities and towns all over Europe, Bragança has been snapped into place like a Lego town, becoming one stop along the endless networks of migrant prostitutes and the men who move them. The only difference is that in Bragança, which could not be reached by major highway until the 1990s, the recent appearance of hundreds of young, dark, tightly dressed and extremely available meninas was harder to ignore. People would have tried to look the other way, but Paula and her small crew of wives dragged the mess out into the town square. And so everyone was forced to talk about what happened here about the dozens of unexpected ways that Bragança has been altered by its own small piece of the global trade in human beings.