[“The Education of George Monteiro” was delivered as the keynote address at the “Conference on the Portuguese-American Experience,” held at the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, N. Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on Oct. 12, 1996. It is published for the first time in the Portuguese American Journal.]
By George Monteiro
I do not feel quite like Admiral Stockdale—”Who am I? Why am I here?”—but I am nevertheless not entirely sure of what my role, at this time and in this place, should be. It’s a little late in the course of this conference to deliver a keynote address; yet it’s still too early in the proceedings for an after-dinner speech that might prove amusing or even instructive.
Given, then, my understanding of the aims and purposes of this conference and given, too, my reluctance to generalize or moralize about such interesting matters, I have chosen to speak almost entirely autobiographically out of personal history in the hope that my perspective on the political education of one Portuguese-American, born in the early years of the Great Depression, raised during the years of World War II, and educated in the 1950s and beyond, is not entirely atypical of the experiences of my generation of Portuguese-Americans. I do not draw morals or lessons from what I have to say, leaving the decision as to whether doing so is warranted or worthwhile to you.
The only politician unabashedly admired in my family, on my street, when I was growing up was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The politician most hated–including, I now think, such beasts as Mussolini and Hitler–was Herbert Hoover. It was all a matter of economics. I was born into the Great Depression and this simple form of politics prevailed. Hoover stood for big business and big money, Roosevelt for the people. The stock market crashed, banks failed, people lost their houses to the bank. That was Hoover. Social Security, the N.R.A., the C.C.C., the many other unpronounceable acronymic social programs, along with a reassuring, paternal, comforting smile (a cigarette in a long holder angling upward from the newspaper caricatures and the newsreels showing the irrepressible president riding in an open car)–that was F.D.R.–“o grande Roosevelt.” On the state and town level, there were no heroes among the politicians. Politics was a way to get ahead, a means to a job that might mean getting something profitable thrown your way.
In Valley Falls, when I was growing up, everybody understood the principle of the “insider”–trading and worse. But the “insiders” were politicians, not investment brokers or bankers. The state and town politicians were thought of as pretty much self-interested, self-promoting individuals, for whom whatever esteem we could manage for them diminished in proportion to the talk that issued from their mouths. There was party loyalty–which really mattered only on the election day–and that loyalty, in my neighborhood, went to the Democrats. Politicians weren’t much, but at least the Democrats were better for the working man and the poor.
But politics was inescapably all around us and in ways, sometimes, that we did not and perhaps could not imagine. My personal situation was that I was raised largely by women–my aunt, my father’s distant cousin, and, of course, my mother. One of the attitudes they shared was that, always excepting Roosevelt of course, politicians were only out for themselves. It didn’t much matter who got into office. When they got there they would feather their own nest. And, of course, nepotism was the name of the game. “Not what you know, but who you know”–or better still, who you are related to, for “blood is thicker than water.” Still, vote for the Democrats, or see what happens–what always happens–when the Republicans get in. The values taught by my women were honesty, humility, industry, and cleanliness. “Pobre, mas honrado. Could any politician meet those standards? The question was rhetorical, of course, requiring no vocal answer.
But if my people were not in politics, politics, of course, impinged on them. There existed enough Portuguese voters in Valley
Falls, the lower end of the town of Cumberland, to swing a vote in the election of the members of the school board and the town council representing that area of the town. Since 1932, with Roosevelt’s national election, the Democrats had run the town (a Democratic party run by Irish-Americans). A decade later, now sensitive to a slowly increasing Portuguese voting populace concentrated in Valley Falls, they allocated a seat on the school board to the Portuguese. They recruited their candidate from the Clube Juventude Lusitana, which this year celebrates the eightieth anniversary of its founding, advertising itself in the nearest local newspaper the Portuguese Times as “O cathedral da nossa cultura.” On the principle that if the Portuguese have a leader he must be the president of the club. They ran Sal. But the problem was how to get the Portuguese voter to turn out on election day, not just to elect Sal but to support the rest of the Democratic ticket in the town and the state.
“Montalegre” would show up at the door, in the early evening of the first Tuesday in November, talking, cajoling, arguing, ranting, and offering a ride to the polls and back. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. At the time he seemed to be the only Portuguese politician in the town. No one called him by his real name but only “Montalegre,” derive from the fact that he hailed from a place called Montealegre. (More than once—speaking parenthetically now—I discovered real family names only when I encountered them on the obituary page.) Sal (Salvador) was elected, served for many years on the school board and later the town council, never speaking out, never causing any waves, and always voting with the Democratic leadership. While Sal was in office no other Portuguese-American was permitted to run on the Democratic ticket, which of course was the only game in town (or, for that matter, in the state).
Over the years the Democrats maintained their hold on the Portuguese-Americans in other ways. A spot on the town zoning board went to the store owner, whose grocery was located next to the town hall (which also housed the police department and, in the basement next to the holding cells, the public library). The grocer’s daughter also became the first Portuguese-American school-teacher in town. The first Portuguese-American policeman–a canny choice–a well-known athlete, whose high-school exploits (he still holds the schoolboy record for home-runs in a single season) made him palatable, in a sensitive, town-wide, position of authority to the other populations in the town. There were no other Portuguese-Americans appointed to the police department for years. Tokenism was understood and practiced in Cumberland well before there was a name for it.
In Valley Falls the politics of exclusion worked in wondrous and sometimes and secret ways that might well have remained hidden forever, if not for a luck accident. Like tokenism, the tracking of school children was practiced in Valley Falls long before there was a name for it. Students from the lower end of the Valley attended a single four-room, four-grade school we all called the “Chicken Coop.” After that these students attended Clark Street School, sometimes called, ungenerously, the “Pig Pen.” Since Clark Street also hosted students from the Garvin Memorial school, there were two fifth grades. One was taught by a Miss Fanning, the sister of the Democratic Party’s town chairman, and the other by Miss Lightbrown. Miss Lightbrown’s fifth grade was populated by all the “tough,” “difficult,” loutish boys who were just marking time until their sixteenth birthdays when they would be forever freed from school, and the Portuguese-Americans from Valley Falls. The other fifth grade was populated by the children of the old Yankees who hadn’t prospered enough to move out of town, the few Irish-American children who weren’t attending the parochial school attached to St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church (“Sisters School,” as we accurately called it), and a few other relatively clean-cut strays–Polish or French.
I never heard of a Portuguese-American in Miss Fanning’s class. If we thought about it at all, we thought that it was just luck of the draw or maybe a placement solely based on geography. Not so. It was years before I found out how it was done. It seems that the young widow of an Irish-American politician and the possessor of a grade-school education, was given the one clerk’s job in the office of the superintendent of school’s office, a job she held from the mid-1920s until she was 80 or so. She told me once how much she enjoyed the task of assigning students to their next grades. I never learned whether she did it on her on or whether she was under orders to put all the Portuguese-American fifth graders in Miss Lightbrown’s class, a lost year for most of her students since Miss Lightbrown was, simply put, mad. When the war ended a year or so later, the poor woman lost her job and was institutionalized. Such “tracking” carried through the sixth and the seventh grades (where another, neurotic teacher one day of obligation ordered all the Portuguese-American kids to march over that minute to mass as St. Patrick’s church–another instance of clerical politics). Only in ninth grade did such behind-the-scenes tracking come to an end, when we moved on to the high school building and were allowed to chose our own tracks–“College Preparatory,” “Commercial,” “Trade,” or–as I ended up–“General,” which was neither fish nor fowl, but did enable me to get to college.
But return to Montalegre. If there is a Portuguese-American political “dynasty” in Valley Falls (a ludicrous notion, I know) the founder of that dynasty is Montalegre, a comic, if somewhat genial, figure. The story is simple. When Montalegre got old and his frenzied, near-kidnapping of Portuguese voters in the service of the Democrats became a thing of the past, there emerged, to act the politician, his older son Charley. Disdaining his father’s political shenanigans, Charley went in for education. Not his own, to be sure, but that of the Portuguese immigrant. He became a kind of Stanley Kaplan for immigrants seeking naturalization. In his basement he set up a blackboard in front of three or four chairs and instructed want-to-be citizens in the ways and whys of answering questions about the government and simple civics necessary to pass the so-called “citizens” test. It naturally followed that eventually Charley, having showed them the way to citizenship, became the one Portuguese-Americans went to see to get “problems” taken care of. One presumes only the ingrates did not vote the straight Democratic ticket, and maybe one can’t even be sure about that. I don’t know what has happened to Charley, but his nephew is neck-deep in local politics even as we speak, having just run for the mayor’s office, pulling out of the race at the last moment to turn over his support to an opponent, pasting-over the news of his mid-stream change of horses on signs stuck in lawns all over Valley Falls.
Another way in which politics impinged on the Portuguese-Americans is that the Democrats kept an eye out for “talent.” Having a degree, rare among the Portuguese-Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, singled out Tony. With a law degree, he clerked, of course, for the Democratic party chairman. The Democrats took care of him. He became the town solicitor, its probate court judge, and ultimately he served on the bench at the state level. He was, of course, a thoroughly political animal. But the Democrats made certain that he got enough of what he wanted and when he wanted it so that he would never become an office-seeking candidate. He never became a political leader among the Portuguese. Perhaps it was only that he didn’t want to. Perhaps.
In time I, too, had a degree. In my case it was probably held against me, for I had not attended Providence College but that god-forsaken, atheistical Ivy League school on the hill, the East Side of Providence. I had not gone on to law school as Tony had predicted I would, had decided to get an advanced degree, and shortly thereafter moved out of town. But I was fated to move back into just a few years later, to stay with my mother, who was ill. By that time I was teaching in Providence. My temporary return to Valley Falls brought me in a curious way to my first and only contacts with the town boss of the Democratic party. It became part of my politics when I tried to get it down in words. I borrow here from the account I once wrote down.
On my way home from work I would stop at Pop’s Liquors to pick up a six pack or, on Fridays, a bottle of Gordon’s gin. Pop was always there, alone. A neighborhood store with not much passing trade, Pop’s seldom required the help of a second clerk or, for that matter, the whole of Pop’s attention. You might call it a mom-and-pop operation, except I never laid eyes on anyone who might have been mom. I knew Pop had a son but I never saw him the store either. It was always just Pop, wearing a tan clerk’s cloth jacket, the kind that towel and linen suppliers rent out by the week.
Pop was an Irish-American in his mid-to-late fifties, his white hair always carefully combed, a cigar hanging from his mouth. Even had I not known that he had come to clerking late in life, I’d have guessed the fact from the quietly impatient, if not rude, way he served his customers–that is, the way he served me, for there was never anyone else in the store when I was there. He didn’t mind talking, I could see, but he didn’t want to waste his time making small talk. So for the first few times I came in, it was ‘hello,’ ‘nice weather’ (or ‘some rain’), ‘six-pack of Schlitz’? and, as I left, ‘have a good day.’ It was clear that Pop did not invest in occasional or passing trade. He didn’t pay much attention the customer who, just driving through town, stopped on a whim. He must not have the noticed, I later surmised, that I always got off the Broad Street bus, crossed over and back to his store, or that when I left the store I doubled around the Titus Street corner on my way to my mother’s house a couple of streets away where I was living on a week-to-week basis to help care for her during her illness. If Pop saw me walk out and turn the corner, he might have figured that I had a car parked on Titus. He would have had to come out of the store to confirm this. He must have taken me for passing trade. I couldn’t be a local. He didn’t know me.
And he was right about that, of course. But there were signs that piqued his interest. I always showed up in his store at the same time, weekdays between five and six, in a suit coat and tie, a trench coat–rain or shine. Sometimes I carried an umbrella. And there was the brown attaché case that I plunked down on the floor so that I could dig into my pocket for the buck twenty to pay for the beer. To Pop that attaché cried out for explanation. Valley Falls was definitely blue-collar.
On Monday of the third week he went to work. “See you in here a lot, lately,” he started out. “Yes,” I agreed. “Do you live around here?” he asked, adding before I could answer him, “You don’t look familiar.” No, I didn’t live around there. But I was staying on School Street.
“What’s your name, then? I should know you, shouldn’t I?” I told him my name, but couldn’t tell whether or not it rang a bell. I suspect that it hadn’t.
I see you take the bus every day,” he said, shifting gears. “Where do you work?” In Providence, I told him, but withholding (but only temporarily, I knew) the information he really wanted, forcing him to put the question directly.
“What do you do for a living?” he asked, going right for it this time, while glancing at my attaché case, all the while looking away from me. I told him that I was a teacher and when his raised eyebrows nudged me into going further I told him where I taught.
“Oh. And you used to live around here. And you’re Portuguese.” Good to see someone doing well! Hey, if you ever decide to move back to the Valley, let me know. We’ve always worked pretty well with your people. Sal, from the club, is a councilman, and Tony, a good smart boy, had done alright in this town. Keep me in mind. Have a good day.” He bagged my six pack, scooped up the dollar and change, and rang up the sale.
Well, I never did move back to Valley Falls, and I never did call on Pop to see what he would do for me. But then I didn’t have to do either since, in essence, I have never left Valley Falls and there was nothing I wanted from Pop or any other politician in my home town. Let the truth be known. My first teachers–my mother, my aunt, my father’s distant cousin–were excellent teachers. And I, of course, was their very good student.
George Monteiro, professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of books on Henry James, Henry Adams, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, and Luis de Camões, among others. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–São Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteen-Century Anglo-American Literature and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A poetic Career Transformed. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot. More…