Portuguese American Journal

Essay: Holy Ghost Feasts in the California Diaspora – By Reinaldo Silva

This essay aims at analyzing the traditions associated with the observance of the Holy Ghost celebrations in the California diasporic communities and the way in which these festivities have been an impulse for some of the literary writings produced by three American writers whose ancestors hailed from the island of Terceira, namely the following ones: 1) David Oliveira, in his poems, “Stations of the Cross” and “Why is there anything?,” in the collection In the Presence of Snakes (2000) and in A Little Travel Story (2008) as well as “Festa,” in his most recent volume of poetry, As Everyone Goes (2017); 2) Katherine Vaz, in her short story, “The Man Who Was Made of Netting,” in her collection, Our Lady of the Artichokes and Other Portuguese-American Stories (2008); and, finally, 3) Anthony Barcellos, in his inaugural novel, Land of Milk and Money, published in 2012.

I will endeavor to provide a detailed analysis of how each one of these authors addressed these cultural and religious manifestations, which are truly related to issues pertaining to the Portuguese migrations and the diasporic communities in North America, namely the preservation and/or erasure of their ancestral culture, memory and identity. Revisiting these manifestations through their literary texts will, undoubtedly, contribute to our understanding of the relations between these writers and their linguistic and cultural heritages, taken there by their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents upon emigration.               

Lastly, the intent of the study under review is to highlight the lingering ethnic footprint, transmitted from one generation to the next, in the aforementioned works by these American writers of Portuguese descent. Moreover, I also attempt to analyze how  these texts mirror the preservation of their national identity within a much wider American cultural and linguistic framework.  

Before delving into the writings at stake, I will first provide a historical framework in order to understand the origin of these rituals associated with the Holy Ghost, how they were adapted within the wider Christian church and, eventually, adopted in Portugal in the Middle Ages. Afterwards, I shall trace their introduction in the Azorean islands, mostly in the island of Terceira, after their discovery and subsequent peopling of these Atlantic islands. I will then go on to discuss the religious and cultural importance imbued in these  feasts – especially as markers of identity in the Azorean/Portuguese diasporic communities in California – the place where these writers were born, reared and came of age. And, lastly, delve into the literary contributions these three contemporary voices left for posterity regarding their family’s observance of the religious and cultural festivities associated with the Holy Ghost and how they were shaped by them.                      


Historical Background of the Holy Ghost Feasts in North America

When writing about the Holy Ghost feasts in “Festas do Espírito Santo,” João Leal notes that in the United States of America and Canada, the Holy Ghost feasts were recreated by Azorean immigrants in the course of two distinctive phases. The first one developed between the years of 1870 and 1930, when the first wave of Azorean emigration to the USA took place (as well as to Hawaii). In the particular case of the USA, these immigrants settled down in California and New England. Although whaling had been the initial motive luring this first group to the whaling centers, New Bedford and Nantucket, the decline in this activity after the turn of the nineteenth-century determined their embracing other professional activities such as the following: agriculture and cattle-raising, in California, and blue-collar work in the New England textile mills. With the Immigration Acts of 1917-1924, followed by the Great Depression of 1929, Azorean emigration to the USA was interrupted, and it would only resume between the years comprising the 1960s and the 1980s. In the United States, California and New England continued to attract these new waves of immigrants. Concurrently, this second wave of immigration would also include a brand new set of destinations, more specifically Canada (and Bermuda). In Canada, most of these immigrants engaged in construction work, mostly in building new railroads while others took on farm work. Shortly afterwards, they relocated to the big cities (Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver), where they started working in factories and construction (men) or in housekeeping and cleaning-related services (women). Because of both waves of immigration, the estimated number of people with a Portuguese descent currently living there is about 1.8 million: 1.4 million living in the United States (90% of which mostly from the Azores) and 420.000 in Canada (70% of which originally from the Azores).

As we can observe, Leal provides us with relevant, concise information regarding the immigration patterns, settlement and economic pursuits of these Portuguese. In this section, I am indebted to his work and find it extremely useful for our understanding of how the three American writers – David Oliveira, Katherine Vaz, and Anthony Barcellos – confirm these historical realities.    

With both migration waves, the attempt at recreating these feasts in the diaspora followed quite shortly given that the first feast was held in Carmelo, in 1865. In the following decades, the number of feasts increased considerably in California; by the end of the nineteenth-century, at least twenty-six were held each year. But it was mostly during the first decades of the twentieth-century that the number of feasts, which kept up with the pace of growth in immigration figures, became far more evident: between 1910 and 1930 the rhythm of growth in these festivities was at least thirty per decade. Because of this, at the end of the 1920s, the total number of Holy Ghost feasts in California was one hundred and thirty. In New England (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire) the first feast took place much later, in 1877, in Fall River. The growth in these feasts throughout the nineteenth-century was also slower: only five feasts were held in 1910. But in the beginning of the twentieth-century, the rhythm associated with the launching of new feasts increased; and even if the numbers are not as representative as in California, in 1929, there were at least a total of thirty feasts in New England.                      

This momentum in founding new feasts – which also includes a feast in Hawaii – slowed down after the 1930s, mostly because Azorean immigration came to a standstill. Both in California and in New England, the number of new feasts that were created between the decades of 1930 and 1950 became residual. Along with the assimilation of second generation Azoreans within the larger American society, there was, in fact, a decrease in the number of feasts, which is well documented in California. There, the total number of feasts that were actually discontinued from 1860 until 2000 was forty-five, with the majority having probably ended during the years after World War II.

After 1960, with the second wave of Azorean immigration, the movement to recreate these feasts was renewed. Moribund festivities or feasts that had been interrupted were, then, revitalized and new feasts were soon created. Meanwhile, in opposition to what had occurred in the period between 1860 and 1940, the rhythm of starting new feasts  was more manifest in New England than in California. Between 1960 and 1990 – when this second wave of immigration also ended – nine new feasts were, in the meantime, launched in California, in contrast to thirty-four in New England. After 1990, the creation of new feasts has been residual, but even so, it was more significant in New England – with fifteen feasts – than in California, where only two new ones were started. To compensate for this decline, in the meantime, new feasts were launched in other American States, where many Azorean immigrants have relocated to, especially those originally from California and New England. Such is the case with Florida, where many retired immigrants – the majority hailing from New England – have been settling down in the course of the past few decades and where six feasts are held every year. Such is also the case with the States of Idaho and Colorado, where new feasts were launched by groups of immigrants originally from California.

The first Holy Ghost feasts in Canada date back to the 1960s. The first one began in 1962 in Cambridge, Ontario. Throughout the 1960s, five new feasts were also launched, but it was mostly during the 1970s and 1980s that this momentum accelerated: fifty new feasts were then created. After 1990 – with the ensuing decline in Azorean emigration to Canada – the movement towards recreating feasts became – just as had been the case in the United States – more residual, but, nonetheless, nineteen new feasts came about during this period.

Currently, there about two hundred and ninety Holy Ghost feasts in North America.  In the United States, the total number is 202: 99 feasts are held in California, 91 in New England, 6 in Florida and 5 in States close to California (Colorado and Montana). On the other hand, in Canada, eighty-seven feasts take place every single year: 59 in the province of Ontario; 11 in Quebec, 7 in British Columbia and 10 in other Canadian provinces (Manitoba and Alberta). There are also feasts in Hawaii and Bermuda.

Although some of these feasts – especially in the United States – are organized by third- and fourth- generation descendants of Azoreans, the vast majority of feasts in North America is organized by first-generation immigrants, who structure them, initially, according to the different models prevalent in the islands where they are originally from. Hence, in California, where most Azorean immigrants living there came from the central group of islands composing the Azorean archipelago (Terceira, Pico, São Jorge, Faial, and Graciosa), most feasts might have initially followed the pattern prevalent in these islands, but it seems as if later on they evolved into a more standard pattern. This shift may have emerged and, actually, been facilitated by the existence of a common framework which brought these different feasts together, the so-called IDES (Irmandade do Divino Espírito Santo or The Brotherhood of the Divine Holy Ghost) in the State of California. In New England and Canada, where most immigrants residing there are originally from São Miguel, most feasts tend to follow the Saint Michael’s model. This tradition, however, does not necessarily invalidate the possibility of organizing these feasts according to other models prevailing in other islands.      

While these feasts tend to follow the model prevalent in the islands where these immigrants were originally from, these Holy Ghost feasts have also undergone important changes in the North American diaspora. One of the most prominent was the introduction of the so-called queens and their subsequent accommodation in the ritual sequence: children or adolescents from the female gender dressed up in luxurious attire, who have taken on a central role in these festivities. First introduced in California during the first decades of the twentieth-century, this innovation quickly disseminated among many feasts in New England and Canada and, as such, added an additional North American touch to these feasts. In addition to these queens, other significant innovations were also included, namely those pertaining to the dates and the types of organization of these feasts, the ritual’s script, as well as their religious, cultural, and social meanings. Because of these changes, the Holy Ghost feasts in North America took on a distinctively American character. As such, these Portuguese individuals with an Azorean heritage were gradually shaped by these new forms of religiosity, sociability, and identity. Furthermore, they used these important instruments as a means to negotiate their cultural and social integration within the multicultural landscape of their new country of adoption.                                                     


A Historical Perspective of the Origin of the Feast of the Holy Ghost

and How it Is Still Celebrated in California

Before moving on to a lengthier discussion of these matters, the information in this section was adapted from Tony P. Goulart’s essay, “The Holy Ghost Festas: A Historic Perspective of the Portuguese in California,” published by the Portuguese Chamber of Commerce of California, in San Jose, California, in 2002.  

Goulart notes that each year in the Portuguese communities, especially those with an Azorean background, there are held Festas do Espírito Santo (the Holy Spirit feasts). They involve a dressed parade with some paraders carrying baskets of bread on their heads, the crownings of queens of the festivals, and a community meal in each community. Prominently displayed during each festival is a crown topped with an image of a dove. This festival is usually held on Pentecost Sunday (Whitsuntide or Whitsunday), the seventh Sunday after Easter, but could be held on any Sunday between Easter and Pentecost Sunday.

The participants and onlookers think of the festival as a quaint manifestation of Portuguese community spirit. It is usually organized and presented by a local non-church organization but utilizes church facilities. Little do the onlookers know that this festival had its origins in a radical theological movement that was widespread in Europe, but survived largely only in Portugal because the King and Queen in Portugal moderated its radical elements and supported its observation.

The Distant Origins of the Festival

There was a widespread belief throughout Europe as the year 1000 AD and a change in the millennium approached, that something significant would happen that year. Some, called Millenarians believed a new era would begin, perhaps even the Second Coming of Christ. When nothing like a new era happened in 1000 AD the Millenarians shifted their projected time for a change in the era to sometime in the future.

In Italy there was a monk named Joachim who was born in 1132. He became the abbot of a monastery in Fiore, Italy. He considered what might be the implications of the concept of God as a trinity; i.e., the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit They were of equal importance. Joachim then reflected that the Old Testament of the Bible concerned the Father and the New Testament concerned the Son. He then reasoned that there must be three eras for humanity: 1) The Era of God the Father lasting from 1260 B. C. to the time of Christ; 2) The Era of God the Son lasting from 0 AD to 1260 AD; 3) The Era of God the Holy Spirit to commence in 1260.  

According to Joachim, based upon his reading of Revelations and the Book of St. John, the Era of the Holy Spirit would bring peace, justice, equality, tolerance and brotherly love. People would lead lives of simplicity, innocence, happiness and freedom from sin. It would be the Empire of the Holy Spirit. Abbot Joachim died in 1202.

Joachim’s idea of a utopia on Earth captured the minds of many, notably many monks in the Franciscan Order. This utopian philosophy, however, also intrigued members of the royalty. The intellectuals of the time, including Dante, were taken by the beauty of Joachim’s image of paradise on Earth. Intellectuals throughout history have been captivated by plans or prescriptions for utopias.

Some of the followers took the ideology of the Era of God the Holy Spirit a step further. They reasoned that the Catholic Church was an institution of the Era of the Son and should therefore disappear in the Age of the Holy Spirit. This was too much for the Catholic hierarchy and the Church commenced a program to suppress the ideology of Joachim and his followers. In 1256, Pope Alexander IV condemned as heresy all writings promoting the ideology of Joachim. Subsequently the movement concerning the Era of the Holy Spirit was wiped almost everywhere in Europe. Groups of Franciscan monks resisted the condemnation of the concept of an Era of the Holy Spirit as did the Order of the Knights Templar.


The Survival of the Holy Spirit Movement in Portugal

In Portugal, the Queen Isabel, originally a Princess of Aragon, was an enthusiast for Joachim’s vision and her husband King Dom Dinis also became one. They, however, saw no need for the disappearance of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy. Isabel was accepted by the populace as a saint in her own lifetime and made officially a saint by the Catholic Church after her death.

So the King and Queen of Portugal promoted the celebration of the Festival of the Holy Spirit throughout their kingdom. Sometime between 1296 and 1325 they established a church in the city of Alenquer dedicated to the Holy Spirit. It was staffed by Franciscan monks. Later a hospital was built in Alenquer along with the church.

The Royal Couple also created a lay brotherhood to organize the Festivals of the Holy Spirit. The Festivals included a ceremony for crowning a commoner as the representative of the Emperor of the Holy Spirit. The crown used in the coronation initially had a cross on top, but later that cross was replaced or superseded by a dove. The cross was a symbol of the Era of God the Son whereas the dove was the symbol of the Era of God the Holy Spirit. So the Festival of the Holy Spirit was thoroughly a celebration of Joachim’s concept of the Era of the Holy Spirit. It survived in Portugal due to the support of the King and Queen of Portugal with their accommodation of the Catholic Church.

Several elements of the festival stem directly from the life of Queen Isabel, such as the distribution of bread. There was a famine in Portugal. Queen Isabel began to take food from her table to the poor. Her husband, King Dinis, admonished her to stop doing so. One time he saw her with something under her cloak and suspected it was bread and thus evidence of her disobeying him. Isabel said a quick prayer and when she opened her cloak it was roses, which tumbled out instead of bread. The use of a crown in the festival stems from Queen Isabel praying for the suffering of the people to be alleviated and promising that she would give her crown to the ceremony if the people’s suffering were  reduced.


The Establishment of the Devotion to the Holy Spirit in the Azores Islands

The Azores were discovered by Portuguese ship navigators spotting in the distance hawks soaring over the Islands. The name Azores means goshawk in Portuguese. The Azores consist of nine major islands in three groups. Officially, they were discovered in 1427, but they apparently were spotted by passing ships before that because they appear on some maps created before 1427. First sheep were brought to some of the islands and freed in hopes that they would multiply and provide food for passing ships and later for settlers. In the 1430s there were settlements made on two of the islands. However, settlement of some of the islands did not begin until two decades later in 1439.

The settlement of the islands was under the administration of the Knights of the Order of Christ, the organization that was the successor to the Knights Templar. Prince Henry of Portugal was the Grand Master of the Order of Christ. Franciscan friars were involved in the early settlements. Those friars promoted the creation of brotherhoods to organize the Festivals of the Holy Spirit. The brotherhoods were also devoted to the building of hospitals.

There were many Flemish people involved in the early settlements partly because too few Portuguese were interested in migrating to distant volcanic islands. The Flemish were people of Dutch language and culture who lived in Belgium. The Flems had revolted against their ruler, Duke Philip of Burgundy. Duke Philip’s wife was the sister of the Prince Henry of Portugal. She asked Prince Henry to allow the rebellious Flems to settle in the Azores. Prince Henry agreed and supplied transportation. Those transported Flemish families adopted Portuguese family names.

There were also Portuguese Sephardic Jewish families who had been forced to convert to Christianity who migrated to the Azores to escape the surveillance of the Inquisition.

The Festival of the Holy Spirit survived in the Azores and became a distinctive element of Azorean culture. Therefore, the Festival was brought to America and preserved as a treasure of their culture. Thus a remnant of a radical utopian ideology created in the 14th century was preserved as a cultural heritage without the participants being conscious of its radical origin. As noted earlier, and confirmed by Leo Pap, these feasts became a distinctive trait of diasporic life and, through time, would inevitably become Americanized. “Over the decades,” writes Pap, “the Holy Ghost festival as celebrated by Azorean-Americans […] naturally underwent some modifications that may be loosely characterized as ‘Americanization,’ or perhaps simply as a weakening of tradition.” Some of these changes or even the “purpose of the ceremony,” argues Pap, “is all but forgotten” (Pap 196). With this historical information as a backdrop, let us now move on to the writers themselves and ascertain how each one of them fleshed out these  historical, sociological, and cultural realities in  their stories and poems.     



The Holy Ghost Feast

by Portuguese American Writers from California


David Oliveira’s poems

Stations of the Cross and Why is there anything?

In David Oliveira’s (1946-) poems on ethnicity and how it was shaped or conditioned by the larger mainstream Anglo culture, to which he is comfortably accommodated and of which he is an integral part, is perhaps where he comes close to his Azorean heritage. This includes the poems where he touches upon the foods, the customs, the poet’s Catholic upbringing, his parents and grandparents who opened the doors to these ancestral ways. The poem, “Stations of the Cross” is a case in point.  In these writings, however, we witness a residual presence of this Old World past which, in America, has become filtered and whose vigor has been lost through successive generations. In essence, in layman’s English, it is a watered-down version of the real thing. Possibly one of the most riveting poems where ethnicity is brought into the fore, but keeping the focus on the poet’s via dolorosa in life, is “Stations of the Cross” (Snakes 2-8). It consists of a sequence of fourteen poems focusing on the main points or phases in Oliveira’s life paralleling Christ’s carrying of the Cross to Golgotha. Briefly, and without focusing on all of these pieces, the sequence spans the poetic voice’s birth, the choice of name, growing up as a child, attending school, sex and masturbation, religious values and praying the rosary, Catholic guilt, his upbringing and his college days, making choices in life, etc. In the section “David Assumes His Mission,” we are introduced to an inquisitive boy who feeds on stories from the Old World told to him by his grandparents: “I am in bed begging for a story / between two grandparents who want to sleep. / It’s here I receive the holy gospel / of the Portuguese: Saints Isabella, / Anthony, the children of Fatima” (Snakes 2). This suggests that the future poet would later shape these stories, which were conveyed to him by his grandparents, and from which he drew spiritual sustenance. As in so many ethnic literatures, the figure of the grandmother (and the grandfather, as well) is emblematic, for she is the liaison between the ancestral culture and the grandson. Presumably, as religious persons, they are the ones who give shape to the stories they had narrated to him much earlier. On this issue, Fred L. Gardaphé has noted that

The key to reading the literature produced by third-generation Italian American writers is observing the role that the grandparent plays in connecting the writer to his or her ancestral past. A significant difference between second- and third- generation writers, then, is this presence of a grandparent figure who serves to reconnect the protagonist to a past out of which the protagonist fashions an ethnic identity. (120)

In the section “David Encounters the Sorrowful Woman,” Oliveira recalls having been introduced to Our Lady of Fatima and why his parents want him to join them in praying the rosary: “The conversion of Russia and world peace / have become the responsibility / of our family. We do what we can, / Monday through Friday, kneeling in front of / the television to say the rosary / with Bishop Sheen” (Snakes 3). These recollections from the past clearly attest to the poet’s Catholic upbringing and, as potential materials for the craft of poetry, would be later shaped into poems such as the one on Henry Simas, who, we learn in “Why is there anything?” “spent a year at seminary wondering why he / wanted to be a priest” (Travel 62). This poem contains a few references to the community’s Holy Ghost feast such as the time when Henry was “driving the homecoming king and queen in the town’s annual / parade” or at “Another time, at the Kings County Fair, Henry spent forty dollars to / win five-dollars of plaster shaped like Our Lady of Fatima.” This poem is clearly about finding answers for some particular issue and, most of the time, Henry Simas is said to have one.

This poem has a few “ethnic signs” and even if the poet’s intention was to not elaborate on them, these references point to a few traditions that are kept alive in the Portuguese diaspora in a few Californian communities. To name, the crowning of the Queen and the food that is served during the luncheon, which is reminiscent of the traditions Azorean immigrants brought with them to the diaspora. These traditions, however, originated in their devotion to the Rainha Santa Isabel (1271-1336), saint and queen (the wife of King Dinis), who assisted the poor and needy. Catholics believe that she performed the miracle of the white roses (unavailable in the month of January, as we learn in the legend), which, some believe, were transformed into bread, and later given to feed the poor. This tradition of distributing sweet bread or providing a meal for the community is still observed every year, especially on the island of Terceira, from where Oliveira’s ancestors came from. For the reasons pointed out earlier, the scope of this poem is simply another one, but these allusions are, nonetheless, embedded within it. The reference to Queen Isabella or the Our Lady of Fatima also appear in the previous poem, “Stations of the Cross” (here within the context of childhood), but they are nowhere fleshed out either in these or in any of his other poems. Furthermore, poetry also has its limitations regarding this possibility, something a narrative does not. It is quite understandable that, as a third generation American of Portuguese descent, these references may not have even been given to him by his ancestors. Presumably, they may not have been well versed in Portuguese history given their condition as immigrants who had to leave behind a world of poverty and just a basic three- or four-year elementary education or even illiteracy (some of his grandparents). Not to mention the parents’ generation, most of whom sought to Americanize as quickly as possible for several reasons ranging from shame, erasing their ethnic background to being accepted in America. One can, therefore, ask: So how can these matters be dealt with in an adequate manner given these realities? This is why I view some of these ethnic poems as mirroring this reality – of mere references without much cultural substance – even if we, as readers would enjoy viewing these connections being established more forcefully in some of the poems under review.

David Oliveira’s poem, Festa

Compared to Oliveira’s previous collections of poetry, In the Presence of Snakes and A Little Travel Story, his ancestral Portuguese/Azorean culture and upbringing are residual in As Everyone Goes. His relocation to Cambodia in 2002 might also explain this reality. In this volume, however, references to Oliveira’s ancestral Portuguese/Azorean culture are even thinner. There is no reference to the inspirational grandfather/grandparents figure, their stories from the Old World, the religious and cultural echoes they brought from the Azores at the end of the nineteenth- or early twentieth- centuries and passed on to the grandson. So what is actually here in this volume that the writer tries to hold on to as an anchor of a distant ethnic past and upbringing, in California?  

The poem “Festa” is perhaps as close as the reader may get in this volume to the poet’s ancestral culture – not language, however. Starting off with a few recollections of the author’s College days as an undergraduate in 1969, the first two men on the moon and Nixon’s inauguration, the poem “Festa” gradually narrows down to focus on the poet’s immediate family and life in Hanford, California, where he grew up in a Portuguese community: his brother’s being drafted into the Vietnam war; his father’s carrying the banner “for the Knights / of Columbus, and the honor of America, Portugal, and the Holy / Ghost”; the Espírito Santo procession through the streets of Hanford; the traditional meal during this festivity which had been brought to the communities by Azorean immigrants from the island of Terceira, like Oliveira’s own grandparents; to the dancing of the chamarrita and the traditional music played on such festive occasions; to the endless list of Portuguese last names (some of which Anglicized such as Perry/Pereira), to allude to the “Centuries before this morning’s sunrise, Dom Henrique’s proté- / gés sail wooden ships laden with sweet tastes from the Malac- / cas to the Fraternal Hall kitchen” and the role of the Portuguese navigators in charting the world during the Age of European Discoveries and the spices and gold they brought along with them. The poem also takes the author back in time to recall the hospital where he was born, his father’s “dark hair and handsome smile” and his mother’s talent as a seamstress: 

………………………………………Behind Dad, the parade

of Portuguese queens and their courts, radiant in rhinestone ti-

aras and weeks of sewing. My young sister is stunning in white

satin sheen, her carmine cape trimmed in imitation ermine, 500

seed pearls stitched to the velvet by our mother’s hand…” (18). 

A Little Travel Story was dedicated to his parents, Frank James Oliveira and Mary Alice Souza Oliveira, but these nostalgic images invite us to ponder the poet’s recollections of his progenitors and his fondness for them.

 Katherine Vaz’s story, The Man Who Was Made of Netting

Katherine Vaz’s (1955- ) carefree ways with the divinity in her collection, Our Lady of the Artichokes and Other Portuguese-American Stories evince a different approach towards the divine compared to her previous writings. In my view, they mark a different relationship with Catholicism and its representation in Portuguese American writings. Some of the stories are quite comical such as the story, “All Riptides Roar with Sand from Opposing Shores,” where Lara Pereira writes funny letters to sister Lúcia.  Published in 2008, the major theme around which most of the stories composing Our Lady of the Artichokes revolve is the issue of generational differences and cultural assimilation. Possibly the best story in the entire collection, “The Man Who Was Made of Netting,” happens to be about the Holy Ghost festivities in the California diaspora. It narrates the story of Manny Cruz, who had “bought his daughter a cape that would stun everyone into silence. It cost him ten thousand dollars, half of which he had taken from the Miscellaneous account at his brother-in-law’s furniture company, where Manny kept the books” (67). He “planned to replace the money as soon as humanly possible” (67). Gemma, his daughter, would wear it at the annual Portuguese Holy-Ghost Festival in Monterey and it was simply exquisite, a piece of art: “The cape had a lengthwise gold weave with rusts and reds that looked like tongues of fire, and the opposite weave was brilliant white. On the whole sweep of it sequined doves held ribbons attached to fishes in a sea that was a froth of lace” (70). He hopes it will assist her in attracting some Hollywood scout who would be attending with some producer intent on turning the Monterey Portuguese community and their religious rituals into a movie. Manny has his hands full. For one thing, he is terrified of being caught. Almost as bad, he is a single dad – the child’s mother vanished with an older, richer man – and he has promised to stop gambling, while trying to cope with raising a moody teenager. The story abounds with minute descriptions of the procession and is rich with references to the origin of the Holy Ghost festivals and Queen Isabel of Portugal, who had “declared that each year, at Pentecost, the poor and hungry to be fed for free, and the nobility should give them robes and crowns and sit down with them” (75). Gemma’s remark to her father as she was parading down the street with the other girls, “Wouldn’t Grandpa love to see me now?” brings a flood of recollections and feelings of nostalgia for his father while reconnecting with his ancestral roots in Vila de São Sebastião, on the island of Terceira, in the Azores, where his father had been a “gardener and expert grafter” before immigrating to the Portuguese diaspora in California. This story is replete with feelings of ethnic pride while zooming in on this annual Holy Ghost festival, which functions as an anchor for ethnic identity.                

Family Conflicts in Anthony Barcellos’ Land of Milk and Money

From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Depersonalization

Anthony Barcellos’ novel, Land of Milk and Money (2012) revolves around the biblical passage featuring Cain and Abel – but within the contemporary context of family feuds and greed in the Portuguese diaspora in California. This piece aims at highlighting this saga, which covers a few generations of the Francisco family, an immigrant family, while showing the gradual, but inexorable, assimilation of their Azorean traditions into a new and overwhelming American culture. The three or four generations in Land of Milk and Money follow the customary path of assimilation – from immigrants, to hyphenated-Americans, to hybrids plunging into the vast Crèvecoeurean melting pot. In this   generational saga, they become this depersonalized American, this “new man” with all the traits that this assimilation entails – egotism, greed, envy, and nasty family feuds – and with the concomitant loss of a simpler, humanistic way of life, marked by genuine feelings of brotherly love towards one another.     

In a book review titled, “California, or God’s Country,” Vamberto Freitas has shown that most of Anthony Barcellos’ novel, Land of Milk and Money updates this biblical passage – but within the context of ugly family feuds and greed in the Portuguese diaspora in California. “It is a universal portrait of greed and feigned love,” writes Freitas, “an almost biblical retelling of the oldest of human themes, brother against brother, clan against clan: there is nothing like the dividing up of property and money to reveal all our venom and envy and, once again, the greed that drives the world of business and prosperity.” Barcellos’ novel tells the story of the Francisco family, Portuguese immigrants from the Azores, who settle on a dairy farm in California’s Central Valley. Their plans to eventually return to the Old Country fall by the wayside as their success grows and their American lives take root. The legacy of one generation becomes a point of contention as the members of the next generation begin to compete to inherit and control their heritage, which includes herds of cattle and tracts of farmland.

The death of Teresa Francisco, the family’s matriarch, sets off a string of battles (both personal and legal) between brothers, spouses, in-laws, and cousins. A courtroom confrontation over Teresa’s will is at center stage as the contending factions discover that the old lady had plans of her own for securing her legacy.

This piece aims at highlighting this saga, which covers a few generations of this immigrant family, while showing the gradual, but inexorable, assimilation of Old World traditions into a new and overwhelming culture. Like many other similar stories, this one is no exception. Paulo and Teresa, the patriarch and matriarch of the dynasty remain throughout their lives more Portuguese than American. 

Land of Milk and Money is a splendid contribution to this emerging field of Portuguese American studies and an invaluable fictional representation of the Portuguese contribution to California’s dairy industry. In my view, it is the best fictional work to date on this theme, the process of acculturation, assimilation, the erosion of Portuguese “ethnic signs” (William Boelhower), etc. Not even the references writer Katherine Vaz makes to these matters in Saudade (1994) and Fado & Other Stories (1997) or Sixty Acres and a Barn (2005), by Alfred Lewis, have such depth. Like his predecessors, Barcellos fictionalized one of the most lucrative activities the Portuguese from many decades ago ever engaged in in the United States – the dairy industry – and, hence, confirms Leo Pap’s contention that “it was the dairy industry more than gardening that produced the relative wealth of California’s Portuguese ethnics” (144). Around 1915, notes Pap, the Azorean settlers there “owned about half of all the dairy land in the San Joaquin Valley, and together with compatriots in coastal areas were then producing well over half of all the milk, cream, and butter (but not cheese) in California” (145). Moreover, writes Pap, in “the early 1930s the Portuguese in California were estimated to control 60 to 70 percent of the state’s dairy industry” (145).      

In this story about assimilation, Paul and Teresa Francisco, the old-timers, are the ones who uphold Old World values and ways in America. In the chapter “June 1943- Chico Is a Citizen,” we learn that his wife Teresa would remain loyal to her Portuguese ancestry and nationality. After declaring on oath that he renounced his former Portuguese citizenship, thinking to himself, “Adeus, Portugal! Goodbye, Portugal” (116), for Teresa, this “was too much” (117). Even if it was a hassle for her dealing with bureaucracy every year, she renewed her alien resident status without complaining. By refusing to learn the English language, this will force her children and grandchildren to continue speaking in  Portuguese to her, but “ever more rudimentarily,” notes Julian Silva, “until by the fourth generation the old language has been almost completely subsumed by American English, though some ancient customs, such as the festival celebrating the Feast of the Pentecost, continue to be observed.”   

 In contrast, the second and third generations exhibit little or no interest in the Old Country or what it represents. On occasion, some of Chico’s and Teresa’s children or grandchildren speak some Portuguese or display a few ethnic signs on special occasions involving festivities or family gatherings, but often, some of them do not necessarily know what they mean. They engage in these rituals because it is merely a custom, a tradition – like asking for their grandmother’s blessing, attending the Pentecost feast, or eating certain sweets or meals. In “May 1947 – Boys meet Girls,” we learn how the two Avila sisters, Odile and Odette, met Paulinho and Candido at the Pentecost feast. The “Avila girls were dressed in long pink gowns because they had been attendants to the Queen of the Pentecost festa. They had marched in the parade, attended the High Mass, dined on sopas at the long trestle tables in the Holy Ghost hall,” but it seems that what they really wanted was to wander freely and “check out the other young people in attendance” (30). Whether they actually knew or understood the religious and cultural meanings of this event we, as readers, do not know, but the narrator immediately provides the reader with the following information:

Many Portuguese families traveled for miles to attend Pentecost celebrations in various towns. The Holy Ghost was revered in the Azores as the special guardian of its nine islands, and most of the Portuguese immigrants in California were islanders. The characteristically Azorean celebration of the Festa do Divino Espirito Santo had become an indispensable part of maintaining the immigrant community’s unity and identification with the homeland. (30)

Perhaps, this is what this feast meant for the older generations, but for the younger ones, the more Americanized, it “was also a meat market” (30). The parents of this younger generation tried to “herd” their “unattached sons and daughters…to the annual festas in hopes of finding ethnically and religiously suitable partners” (30). The next generation, that is, Mary Carmen, the daughter of Paulinho (Teresa’s granddaughter), is dating a young man from the mainstream, Gerry Chamberlain. From one generation to the next, ethnicity inexorably dissolves into the wider American mainstream.

What really matters at the end of this novel now is finding some family member who might be willing to carry the family legacy and business when most of the family is either dead, scattered or has pursued another career other than the family’s dairy business. (Paul through higher education or Paulinho fixing TVs). In “January 2006- Legacy” – the hope lies in Paulinho’s grandson, that is, Hank’s son, for the baby’s first word was neither “mama” or “dada.”  The boy’s first word was ‘cow’” (324). When this boy becomes a grown man it is quite probable that he will have no Portuguese ethnic signs to display. In this sense, Julian Silva confirms my view of this novel as a story focusing on assimilation, a “saga covering many generations of an immigrant family” in which the “obvious objectives is to show the gradual, but inexorable, assimilation of old world traditions into a new and overwhelming culture.” This novel traces the gradual, that is, generational disappearance of one’s country of origin to create what J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, in Letters From and American Farmer (1782) has postulated as this “new man,” who is quintessentially American. Worth keeping in mind, nonetheless, is that with Land of Milk and Money we are given a truly unique and the most up-to-date fictional piece of writing about the role of the Portuguese in the California dairy industry.

As this exposition and discussion have shown, I attempted to pinpoint in this essay the origins, development, adaptation and dissemination of the Holy Ghost festivities into the wider Portuguese diasporic world. What started in the Middle Ages as the Friar Joachim’s  response to biblical exegesis to King Dom Dinis’ and the Queen Saint Isabel’s  accommodation of charity and a miracle to understand the Holy Trinity’s sacred ways to this ritual’s of feeding the poor in the Azores after it having been peopled and much later on carried to the North American diaspora – and elsewhere – we witness in these writers’ accounts of the Holy Ghost feast in California a more mundane attachment. Whether it was a means to feed the imagination of a grandson, who thrived on stories from his grandparents to help him fall asleep, to the showing off of the Queen’s luxurious outfit to attract an all-American boyfriend or simply to have fun; or simply eat a Holy Ghost meal at a yearly gathering at the feast and find a suitable mate to marry, we have come to the conclusion that from one century to the next  or from one generation to the next, the original meaning of the Holy Spirit has undergone a radical change and may have completely eclipsed from what it was originally understood as. With these writers, at least, we can witness how it is slowly being dissolved into the huge American cauldron of ethnic depersonalization.                          


Works Cited

Barcellos, Anthony (2012), Land of Milk and Money, Dartmouth, MA: Tagus Press,

University Press of New England.  

Boelhower, William (1987), Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature, New York: Oxford UP.

Freitas, Vamberto (2015), “Califórnia, ou o país de Deus.” Açoriano Oriental Web. 10

March. <http://www.acorianooriental.pt/artigo/california-ou-o-pais-de-deus

“California, or God’s Country”. Trans. Katharine F. Baker and Bobby J.


Gardaphé, Fred L (1996). Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian

American Narrative. Durham and London: Duke UP.

Goulart, Tony P. (2002), The Holy Ghost Festas: A Historic Perspective of the

Portuguese in California. San Jose, CA: Portuguese Chamber of Commerce of

California. Web 4 July 2019 http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/holyspirit.htm. Leal, João (2019), “Festas do Espírito Santo.” Centro em Rede de Investigação em

Antropologia, FCSH (UNL). Web 5 July 2019. http://festasdoespiritosanto.pt/mapas.  

Lewis, Alfred (2005), Sixty Acres and a Barn. Ed. Frank F. Sousa. North Dartmouth,

MA: U of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Oliveira, David (2017), As Everyone Goes, Cambodia: TreeHouse Press, 2017.  

—— (2000), In the Presence of Snakes, Santa Barbara, CA: Brandenburg Press.

—— (2008), A Little Travel Story, Brownsville, VT: Harbor Mountain Press.

Pap, Leo (1981), The Portuguese-Americans, Boston: Twayne.

Silva, Julian (2011), “Review by Julian Silva of ‘Land of Milk and Money’.” Comunidades Web. 29 Nov. <http://www.rtp.pt/icmblogs/rtp/comunidades/?k=


Vaz, Katherine (1997), Fado & Other Stories, Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P.

—— (2008), Our Lady of the Artichokes and other Portuguese-American Stories,

Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P.

—— (1994), Saudade, New York: St. Martin’s.

About the Author 

Reinaldo Francisco Silva was educated in both the United States (Ph.D., New York University, in 1998; M.A., Rutgers University, in 1989) and Portugal (Licenciatura, University of Coimbra, in 1985) and holds dual citizenship. He has lectured at several American universities and is currently a Professor of English at the University of Aveiro, Portugal. His teaching and research interests include nineteenth- twentieth- and twenty-first century American literature and contemporary emergent literatures, with a special focus on Portuguese American writers. At this point, he has published about seventy essays, sixty of which in international peer-reviewed journals, encyclopaedia entries, chapters in books, and has also authored two books: Representations of the Portuguese in American Literature, published by the University of Massachusetts in 2008, and Portuguese American Literature, in the United Kingdom, by Humanities-Ebooks, in 2009. He co-authored Neither Here Nor There, Yet Both: Portugal and North America In-Between Writings, in 2016, and has also collaborated in the translation of Adelaide Freitas’ novel, Sorriso por dentro da noite (Smiling in the Darkness) into English, published in 2020 by Tagus Press (University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth). His forthcoming two books are tentatively titled, Hybridity in Portuguese American Literature and A Short History of American Culture.

**Photo: Holy Spirit Queen

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