Portuguese American Journal

Memoir: The pain and gain of growing up Portuguese – By Kayla Faria

By Kayla Faria, Contributor (*)

The daughter of two Azorean immigrants, I grew up in a city with the largest percentage of Portuguese descendants in the United States. One study published by the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth in 2005 reported that 49.6 percent of the city’s residents were primarily of Portuguese ancestry. Born and raised in the enclave of Fall River, I had no chance of sidestepping the obligation to walk in the annual parish procession for the Holy Ghost Feast, a tradition carried over from the islands.

In the sweltering August heat, the pine greens, yellow, hot pink, and turquoise flowers carpeted the streets in intricate designs adorned with similarly colored sawdust. The colors bled into a mixture on my cheap white Payless sandals and blistered feet. I itched around the wings strapped to my body that weighed heavily on my tiny back. “I hate this costume,” an elementary-school age me complained. “It hurts to walk. Mom, why couldn’t I just wear sneakers?” My mother didn’t hesitate. “Ay, Kayla, please,” she said in her thick Portuguese accent. “Angels don’t wear sneakers.” I had never said that I wanted to be an angel.

I remember staring at the dilapidated mill buildings, walking faster and faster — until a grey-haired Senhor José Rego — a church committee leader, ordered me to “keep the space,” as he paced the procession route in a black suit carrying a walkie-talkie, so he could contact another church committee leader – his brother Luis – with updates. My family lived at the bottom of the hill in a unit between Rego families on the second-floor of a triple-decker apartment. On our way to the church, as Jose motioned his hand to hold me back, I kept thinking, “I need to get out of here. I have to get out of here.”

I kept thinking, “I need to get out of here".

I kept thinking, “I need to get out of here”.

Public performances of Azorean-American identity are mainly organized among religious-based institutions — church committees and Portuguese-American clubs. The Holy Ghost Feast celebrates Pentecost, that is, the start of the Catholic Church as well as the Portuguese relationship with God and the saints. Villages in the Azores honor different patron saints. Celebrated in New England since the 1920s, the feast’s origins trace back to Queen Isabel of Portugal in the Fourteenth Century.

During a terrible famine in Portugal, the queen used all of her funds buying food for the people, so she had no financial resources left — only her crown, according to United Portuguese S.E.S, a website chronicling Portuguese history and traditions. Legend has it that the queen promised the Holy Spirit the crown in exchange for a miracle to relieve the famine. Then, just as the queen exited the church, she saw ships coming into the harbor loaded with wheat and corn. Isabel “the peacemaker” was ultimately canonized for her devotion to the poor — feeding the hungry, establishing orphanages and providing shelter for homeless persons.

Portuguese-American clubs celebrate feasts that honor different patron saints. About 180 Portuguese festas (feasts) take place each year at different times throughout the United States, according to an article published by the Journal of the Association as for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism in 2014. These feasts preserve an Azorean cultural imprint of saudade — a concept of nostalgia for home that defines Azorean identity — Bunny L. Souza explained in her thesis titled, “The shaping of an Azorean Portuguese American landscape,” published by the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2007.

— “Look at my feet, mom,” I said. “Next year, I don’t care; I’m wearing sneakers.”

— “Oh, sure,” she said. “You just won’t go to the festa. No procession, no festa.”

— “Well, if I have to do this next year, can I be something other than an angel then?”

— “Sure, it’s what they want. But if the Senhora wants you to be an angel, you’re an angel.”

When the next year rolled around, my mother told me I was going dressed as Saint Michael.

— “Can I wear sneakers?” I asked, eyeing my indoor soccer shoes.

— “Look at all of our statues, all the pictures. What is Saint Michael wearing?”

— “A sword,” I said.

— “Don’t be a pain indi ass,” she said. “On his pés (feet)!” My mother’s poor sense of humor – perhaps partially informed by blending two languages and an intermediary of neither – was never tolerant of smart aleck commentary.

— “Sandals,” I said reluctantly.

— “Oh, well you have to wear sandals, then.”

— “But mom – ” I groaned.

— “Ay, Kayla, that’s the way it is. Saint Michael is very important.”

My family were practicing parishioners at Saint Michael Church. With my brother and three cousins, I attended Saint Michael School for elementary education. And, years later, Saint Michael Parish hired my father as a janitor.

Saint Michael is very important...

Saint Michael… very important…

The Azores is an autonomous archipelago of Portugal made up of nine volcanic islands on the North Atlantic Ocean — between Portugal’s mainland and the U.S. East Coast. The archipelago is roughly 900 miles west of the continente, 2400 miles east of Fall River. Born in different villages on the largest Azorean island, my parents emigrated from São Miguel (Saint Michael) to the United States as pre-teens.

More than 1 million Portuguese immigrants live in the United States, making the country the largest host to Portuguese immigrants. Most of these immigrants are from the Azores. But the Portuguese are primarily concentrated in eight states. The greatest numbers reside in California and Massachusetts, but the percentage relative to state population is greatest in Rhode Island, where more than 9 percent of the entire state is of Portuguese ancestry. In Southeastern Massachusetts, also known as the “Portuguese Archipelago,” the Portuguese more than double the next leading ancestry.

I wanted to be around different kinds of people. As a young child, I always felt like I was in a rush. I was rushing to get out of Payless sandals. And I was rushing to grow up and get out.

For me, Maryland was the farthest place that didn’t require expensive plane tickets or feature Confederate flags. So I escaped the enclave of familiarity, spending four years near the flagship campus followed by the two longest years of my life in Baltimore City.

The first Portuguese person I had met in Maryland noticed my Lisbon Benfica soccer jersey: “Are you Portuguese?” he asked, hopping on the university transit bus I drove to help pay for college. I grinned wide and uttered an emphatic “yes” in excitement. We talked about our families — and for a brief moment I felt truly connected, until I told him my parents were from the Azores. “Well, you’re not Portuguese,” he said. His parents were from the continent.

Unlike the mainland Portuguese population, most Azoreans don’t return to their homeland after emigrating. This is attributed to the “chain migration process” that characterized most Azorean emigration, scholar Carlos Teixeira explained in his 2011 book review of “Between Two Worlds: Emigration and Return to the Azores.” Chain migration refers to how social relationships give rise to immigration. This happens when prospective migrants learn of opportunities and receive support from family or friends who have already emigrated from the shared homeland.

I felt half-outraged, half-betrayed. I had always identified as Portuguese. Personality clashes were one thing — but outright rejection by our own blood was indefensible. I knew this interaction was distinct. It wouldn’t transpire among others in Southeastern New England — not without blood being shed, anyway.

In my feminist theory course during my sophomore year of college, the class discussed Achy Obejas’ “Memory Mambo,” a story about a light-skinned, working-class Cuban-American. It was the closest I had gotten to my heritage. Cuba is 5,272 kilometers from the Azores.

Writing about how Obejas brought syntax and visibility to a displaced culture, I was reminded of how invisible my heritage had become in the state nicknamed “America in Miniature.” The nice-enough girl sitting beside me talked to me about how the immigrant experience was “interesting.”

“My parents are both immigrants,” I told her. She looked at me like I was pulling a fast one. In six years in Maryland, I’ve noticed that this response is the same, regardless of the education level of the social circle. Accent-less and white with immigrant parents has that effect on people.

— “No way. Where are they from – Ireland?”

I giggled, remembering my high school teammates asking if I knew the “Mexican scout” at our soccer game. When I looked back into the stands, I saw my dad: Eduardo Manuel Faria, a full-blooded Portuguese man, who has never stepped foot in Mexico. It was one of the few times that my dad had time in his janitorial work schedule to come see one of my high school home games in Providence, R.I.

— “No. They’re from the Azores.” I said, looking into her blank stare. “They’re islands off the coast of Portugal.”

— “Where’s that?” She asked.

— “Portugal is in Western Europe – near Spain,” I said.

 

I stopped short of a rant about the Iberian Peninsula; how Infante Don Henrique of Portugal (Prince Henry the Navigator) had created navigation schools that led to Portuguese “explorers” colonizing the world, how Vasco da Gama found a direct sea route from Europe to Asia, and how Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world. It seemed socially repulsive.

One day working in the newsroom for my university capstone course, I had tried explaining the difference between white culture and white skin tone as a way to think about socio-economic class and cultural experience. It was a point I had refined after several discussions with my new Maryland friends: Christian-Korean and Sunni-Muslim roommates, Ethiopian, Latina and “peanut-butter” (biracial) rugby teammates, and black and white African immigrants.

But the Master’s student with lawyer parents — a friend who often made Jewish jokes at his own expense — told me I was white. Period.

— “I’m first gen,” I said. “Both of my parents are from the Azores.”

— “The Azores? What’s that?” He scoffed.

— “Islands off the coast of Portugal,” I said. At this point of my senior year, the identifier rolled off my tongue like a chart-topping lyric.

— “That sounds fake,” he said.

— “Google it,” I snarked.

Portuguese persons first immigrated to the United States in the 1820s. But it wasn’t until 50 years later that significant numbers immigrated to the United States in search of economic opportunities. Most of these immigrants were Azorean men who labored as whalers and fisherman on American vessels, settling in port towns like New Bedford, Mass. Azoreans were not traditionally a “seafaring culture,” but whaling companies sought them in high demand because Azoreans “could be hired for lower wages than domestic workers,” according to “The New Blue Islands,” an article, published in 2011, about Azorean-American settlement.

From 1890 to 1910, more than 96,600 Portuguese immigrants entered the United States, working in the region’s booming textile, apparel and fishing industries. They mostly settled in Southeastern Massachusetts communities, including mill towns like Fall River and Taunton, Mass. Many worked as industrial laborers in Providence and Pawtucket, R.I.

Soon after this wave of immigration, the U.S. curbed Portuguese immigration by passing the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that used the 1890 population benchmark calculation to place a restrictive quota on Portuguese immigrants. As a result, from 1931 to 1940, less than 4,000 Portuguese immigrants were admitted to the United States.

The more time that passes since leaving the enclave, the more that number feels real.

“… growing up

on massa, chouriço

and

maracujá-flavored Sumol…”

I had felt so terribly lost at the Baltimore law school. In the mornings before class, I often found myself staring at the building’s glass-paneled façade, feeling like I was sneaking in again, wondering if I was ever going to be “caught.” The glass box of opportunity came at a hefty cost beyond tuition. And that cost was me.

I hadn’t spent a full month in the Northeast in about three years. And, despite growing up on massa, chouriço and maracujá-flavored Sumol, the last time I had gone to a Portuguese feast, I was a teenager. After a semester of intermittent couch surfing surrounded by Wonder-Bread law students, I came home in the summer before my third year of law school, mostly convinced of dropping out.

I applied for an internship through the Rhode Island State Government. In an office adorned with college pennants and thank-you cards, Robert “Bob” Gemma, the long-time internship director (read: gatekeeper of government internships in the Ocean State), looked me up and down, then placed me with Rhode Island Legal Services. “With your background and demeanor, I’m thinkin’ legal aid,” he said. I wasn’t sure if the placement reflected my torn khaki pants or the family law clinic experience listed on my resume.

Legal services assigned me to the Family Preservation Project — the child welfare court calendar. A senior law student certified to litigate cases pursuant to Rule 9 of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, I practiced law for $20 a day with legal services. I interviewed, retained, counseled and represented parents indicated for abuse and neglect of their children. Most of my work was conducted at modest counsel tables and inside the hallways of the gritty Providence courthouse where I litigated one to 10 cases each weekday.

On weekends, I cleaned storm windows in affluent homes with my father in Middletown and Bristol, R.I. The homeowner’s daughter — a young undergraduate — walked by me wearing a Brown University sweatshirt. I looked down at my worn-out, ripped sneakers that my dad had called “holy.” Pain radiated through my sore triceps. I scrubbed the bird shit from the glass window to make the inside visible to the outside.

Natural disaster prompted a change in U.S. policy that spurred the third wave of Azorean immigration. The U.S. opened its gates to Azorean immigrants in the summer of 1958 by passing the Azorean Refugee Act — a bill, cosponsored by senators John F. Kennedy (D – Mass.) and John Pastore (D – R.I.), which authorized non-quota visas for displaced Portuguese citizens, according to timelines published by the Library of Congress. It required that migrants have a “minimal education, no criminal record, a successful medical examination and a sponsor in the United States who was prepared to take financial responsibility for the first five years of an immigrant’s life in America,” according to a study published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research in 2010.

The refugee act admitted more than 4,800 persons from the Azorean island of Faial in the aftermath of its volcanic eruption in the village-turned-civil parish, Capelo. Large volumes of volcanic ash destroyed homes, covered agricultural lands and decimated crops in Faial. Although the eruption did not cause any deaths, it forced more than 1,700 persons to evacuate, according to the volcano study.

When we weren’t cleaning on the weekends, we were reveling in Portuguese feasts. I thought I had to leave an enclave of familiarity to find myself. But as I stood behind the swaths of Azorean-Americans gathered at the Trinity Club’s Holy Ghost Feast in “heavily-Azorean” East Providence, R.I., I knew that I was finally at home. In East Providence, more than 30 percent of the population claims Portuguese ancestry, according to an article on the Portuguese community in East Providence published by the University of Massachusetts in 2000. It had been so long that I had forgotten what being home had felt like.

Seven years after the refugee act, the U.S. abolished the quota system by passing the Immigration and Nationality Act, legislation that stimulated Portuguese immigration as nearly 200,000 came to the United States in the next 20 years, according to an online encyclopedia website titled Immigration to North America.

The Faria Family; Kayla in the center holding the Holy Ghost crown.

The Faria Family celebrating the “Primeira Dominga”; Kayla in the center holding the Holy Ghost crown.

My eyes watered as I watched the smiling over-gelled, gold cross-wearing 20-something-year-old snap-dancing with his grinning overweight mother. Music emanated from the stage where a grey-haired, white-pants-wearing singer clapped his hands. I could feel the live cover band’s pop-folk blend beating in my heart. The insularity no longer felt ignorant. It felt empowering. The people in the crowd looked like my aunts, uncles, parents and cousins. I took a bite of the sugar-loaded malassada (fried dough).

I closed my eyes, suddenly remembering the overwhelming sense of pride when my mother placed the polished silver Holy Ghost crown in my hands. The marching band had played “Hino do Divino Espírito Santo” — the grand anthem of the Holy Spirit — as we prepared to march to the church from our second-floor apartment home. When I was a young child, my family hosted the Primeira Dominga, the first Sunday among the seven Sundays celebrating the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge and piety and fear of the Lord. For an entire week, my parents, acting as Mordomos — a word that, in this context, does not have an equivalent English translation — opened our home to the community, gathering to pray the rosary and sing hymns. I started the prayers, standing aside the wooden backdrop of pombas (doves), clouds, and flames that Tio José Soares — my uncle, the artist who also worked as a janitor — painted as a display. In those days, following along in prayers books at the Portuguese Mass service was the most formal Portuguese language education I had received. Weekly Portuguese school classes had only taught me that kids my age seemed more interested in making the best spitballs and paper airplanes than learning how to communicate with our grandparents.

Years later, I was crying, but felt a sense of renewal, belonging. It was a second baptism. The cover band was playing a song made popular by Jorge Ferreira — the St. Michael, Azorean-born “U.S.A.’s Portuguese King of Pop,” but I could still hear the marching band.

Vinde, ó vinde entre nuvens de Glória…Entre anjos de eternal vitória.

(O come, o come among the clouds of glory… between eternal victory of angels).

On the way back to our house, my parents complained about the quality of the malassadas. My father said it was too sweet. My mother talked about how it should have been made.

I smiled and shook my head, looking out the window at a street filled with Portuguese business signs. They had no idea how sweet it tasted to me.

Submissions: To share a memoir about growing up Portuguese in America, contact Carolina Matos/PAJ/Editor at editor@portuguese-american-journal.com

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Kayla_FariaKayla Faria, 25, a third-year law student and product of Azorean immigrants, was born and raised in the Portuguese enclaves of Southeastern New England: Bristol, R.I., Fall River, Mass., and East Providence, R.I. Since entering college, Kayla has done everything from selling books door-to-door in 80-hour Illinois workweeks to driving 40-foot transit buses. She has testified before the Maryland legislature, lobbied Congress with the National Women’s Law Center, and practiced family law with Rhode Island Legal Services, the Bronfein Family Law Clinic, and the Mediation Clinic for Families, handling child welfare, divorce, custody, protective order (domestic violence), and child-access mediation cases. As a reporter and photojournalist, Kayla worked for several community and student-powered news publications, focusing on education, sports and government. Her journalistic work was published by news outlets across the country, including the San Jose Mercury News, Sacramento Bee, Kansas City Star, and Maryland Daily Record. While in law school, Kayla has clerked for the Truancy Court Program, held a judicial internship within the Baltimore City Circuit Court, led a mediation workshop at the Baltimore City Detention Center, served as a research assistant for the Community Development Clinic, facilitated medical students’ discussions of legal cases at Johns Hopkins, and developed legislative testimony and statewide school discipline policies with Advocates for Children and Youth. Kayla holds a degree in journalism and women’s studies from the University of Maryland, College Park and will graduate from the University of Baltimore with a J.D. and family law concentration in May of 2016. More of her work can be found here.