Portuguese American Journal

Lara Gularte: Her sense of identity is rooted in the middle of the ocean – Interview

By Millicent Accardi

Lara Gularte lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of California where her poetry often depicts Portuguese culture and heritage. During the California Gold Rush, her relatives traveled from the Azores for gold mining, but, instead they turned to ranching. Kissing the Bee is Gularte’s first full-length poetry collection and depicts her family’s heritage as fruit growers and farmers.

Her individual poems can be found in The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Poetry, and Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora anthologies. She earned an MFA from San Jose State University where she was a poetry editor for Reed Magazine, and received the Anne Lillis Award for Creative Writing, along with several Phelan Awards.

In 2017 Gularte traveled to Cuba with a delegation of American poets and presented her poetry at the Festival Internacional de Poesia de la Habana. She is currently an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine.

In her travels to Portugal and the Azores, she discovered how her own identity is connected to her family’s roots:

Visiting these islands where my family came from gave me a greater sense of my identity and clearly showed me how their choices influenced my life. These were extraordinary people hanging onto life on volcanoes in the middle of the ocean.

 

Q: What’s your relationship with being Portuguese? With the language? The country?

A:  I am a 4th generation California Azorean with descendants from Pico, Faial, and Flores. My mother’s side of the family, the Neves, Cabral, Cardoza’s, were whalers from Pico who came to California to find gold in the Scott Valley near Ft. Jones California during the 1800’s to early 1900’s. Gold was discovered in the Siskiyou Mountains during this time. My great grandmother, Maria Cabral-Neves, and my great, great aunt, Maria Neves-Cardoza, were mail order brides. 

Father Manuel Francisco Fernandes, a historical figure in California, accompanied my great, great aunt, Maria Neves-Cardoza as a bride to California. I am told he was a cousin. Not finding gold, my family became ranchers. Today the Neves’ homestead is a local landmark.

The paternal side of my family, “Gularte’s,” were descendants from Faial, and became fruit ranchers in the Santa Clara Valley. My father, Henry Gularte grew up in the Portuguese pocket community of East San Jose. He did not learn English until he started school. He attended a one room school house with all Portuguese children, and his education ended by the 8th grade. Children were needed to work the family ranch and hard work was more important than going to  school.

Q: Did you participate in Portuguese events as a child?

A: I have developed a strong connection to the Portuguese-American Community in California through the years. There was church, festas, and family. I was a little queen for the Holy Ghost Festa in Mission San Jose California in the 1950’s.

I was born in 1947 after World War II. During the period of my early years, my parents wanted to be more Americanized and did not speak Portuguese in the home. Portuguese was spoken only at family gatherings or at church. Sadly, I know very little Portuguese today.

However, as a very young girl, I spent summers with my maternal grandmother, where my great grandmother, Maria Cabral- Neves, lived in her later years. My great grandmother refused to speak English all her life. She claimed that only speaking Portuguese made her less lonely for her home in the Azores. I began to learn a little Portuguese during this period of time.  However, my grandmother spent much time translating for me my great grandmother’s Portuguese words. 

Q:  When did you first consider yourself a writer? Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?       

A:  I first began writing poetry when I started high school and discovered free verse and the Beat Poets of San Francisco. I wanted to be a “Beatnik.” The “Beats,” represented adventure and personal freedom. Lawrence Ferlinghetti  was my first favorite poet. During my high school and early college days I wrote in a rambling stream of consciousness style.

I have never been a fulltime writer. I mainly write for pleasure whenever I can as writing sustains my spirit. I am a retired Superior Court Investigator and worked much of my life as a Public Employee.

Q: Do you teach writing?

A: These days, I teach poetry at Mule Creek Prison, for the Arts in Corrections Program through the William James Foundation. For several years I was the poetry instructor for the non-profit organization, Women’s Wisdom Art in Sacramento. The organization’s mission statement reflects the belief that the images and words women create to express their lives empower themselves, their families, and the community.

I am pleased that some of my talented women students went on to become published poets and many have become active in the large and thriving poetry community in the Sacramento area.

I host a monthly poetry reading in my community which has been very successful. In addition, I coach high school students for the Poetry Out Loud competition in my county each year. I am a member of the Red Fox Poets Collective of the Sierra Foothills.

In 2017 I traveled to Cuba with a delegation of American poets and presented my poetry at the Festival Internacional de Poesia de la Habana. I am humbled to be part of Escritores del Sol/Writers of the New Sun, this group with their mission to honor and advance the literary and artistic traditions of Chicano, Latino, Indigenous, and Spanish Language peoples.

Q: There are farms and ranches in your poetry collection Kissing the Bee did you grow up in rural area?

A: I grew up on a ranch in the Santa Clara Valley, then called, “The Valley of Heart’s Delight,” an area known for fruit ranches and fertile soil. Later, the area gained a reputation for high tech and is known today as “Silicon Valley.”

During early times, all my relatives either owned or worked on fruit ranches. I lived close to nature with animals, and orchards, and hard work. My dad and his family lost their ranch during the depression and became share croppers. As a young girl I worked on the ranches of relatives who became prosperous after World War II. At three years old I worked beside my mother picking fruit or working in the drying shed. I was six when I got my social security card.

Q: Did you spend time with your grandparents?

A: I have fond memories of my grandparent’s walnut ranch. I am thankful to the natural world which has given me comfort through the years. I believe we have an innate relationship with the land sharing the seasons and cycles of life and death. My family was dependent on the land for their physical and spiritual sustenance.

After my retirement, I returned to live in a natural setting at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lots of ranches and rolling hills with a view of snowcapped mountains. This kind of landscape brings me peace.

Q: Broken wings, sealing wax, chickens, cows, pickling fruit, canning, mushrooms are images in your poetry, what makes them stand out?

A: These are real life images I use in my poems to better show my family heritage and their way of life. I like to use lots of images in my writing.

Q:  “What Matters in the Morning” is this a portrait of your father?

A: Yes, this poem could be seen as a portrait of my father, and our connection to each other, and the land. When I wrote it, I was thinking of the poet, Edwin Markham, and his famous poem, “Man with the Hoe.” My father was a man of the earth. He liked to spend time in the outdoors roaming, hunting, fishing, planting, and cultivating. 

Q:  I love the line, “Life is no sugar” what does it mean for you? Does it describe your grandmother?

A: My great grandmother cried a lot in her later years. Memories came back to her. I don’t know the complete details of her life. Leaving her home and crossing the ocean to marry a man she didn’t know must have been difficult.

She mourned her husband, her two dead babies, a son who died during his teenage years, and all her family who were gone. She remembered as a young girl, her brother who was lost at sea whale hunting. My great grandmother worked hard raising her family of nine children. Despite her sadness in her later years, she managed to have built a good life with my great grandfather. They were pioneers.

Q:  How important is it to you as a writer to tell your family history, to document it?

A: Our histories are important to remember for future generations. Who our family was, are missing parts to who we are.

With great grandmother Maria and older cousin Diane

I was the oldest grandchild in my family. I believe it was this that made me bridge the generations. I was an inquisitive child and was too old to play with my younger cousins and not old enough to engage with the adults. This put me in a position where I paid attention to the adult conversations and stories about the old country.

Some of my cousins did not have Portuguese mothers and for that reason, they didn’t grow up knowing about Portuguese food, and culture. For this reason, I meet up with many of my cousins each year at Dia de Portugal Festival, in San Jose. All are invited for a day of Portuguese food, culture, and reunion. As the oldest, I have become the keeper of the family photos and family lore.

Over a year ago, I was surprised to discover my poem about my great, grandmother, on the Azores Genealogy Face Book group. In this way, I discovered a new cousin from another family line. Suzanne Romaine was deep into researching her family history and part of that history was mine.

Q:  Can you describe any research you did for your book?

Lara the Holy Ghost Queen

A: The research for my book, and for my family history in general, was over time and took more than a few years. I got information from my cousins, Norman and John Cardoza, who had knowledge of relatives I had not known.

They had a brief family history that they shared and other information. I interviewed those old ones who were still alive. I visited family ranches in the Siskiyous as well as museums, cemeteries, libraries, and more.

Q:  When did you venture to the Azores?  Was it as an adult?

A: My family, who emigrated from the Azores, never returned. Four generations later I was the first to return with the mission of finding my roots. Before I explored these islands, they were only an abstraction. I had seen photos and post cards, but nothing prepared me for the natural beauty and complexity of the landscape.

I first visited the island of Faial, where my paternal family was from. Such a thrill to find my grandfather, Antonio Goulart’s baptismal record in the library at Horta. I visited the village of Cedros where he grew up and said to be the oldest parish.

The island of Pico where my maternal grandmother was from was a ferry away from Faial. In the village of Santa Cruz, I met a man who told me that Neves and Cabrals still lived there. He pointed out their homes. However, the irony was on me. I was told they were not home and gone for the summer to visit family in San Diego.

In 2008 I was a resident, poet/writer, at the Footpaths to Creativity Center on Flores Island. This island was the birthplace and early home of my maternal grandfather, Antonio Henriques. The island was other worldly. There were mists and sudden storms, howling winds, and crashing waves. The sun and moon seemed larger. Rainbows were frequent and awesome. The island landscape was green, and decorated with volcanoes, caves, waterfalls, hot springs, and native species. An amazing place for me to write. Some of the poems in my book, Kissing the Bee, were written while I lived at the artist’s house.

Q:  Who are your mentors?

A: I have been lucky to have amazing mentors. At the top of the list is Vamberto Freitas, who encouraged me to keep writing my poems and has always supported my poetry work. I believe he understands and explains my work best. In a review of my book, Da poetica ancestral, in nas duas margens, he quotes Fernando Pessoa, “I am a foreigner here as everywhere,” and then Vamberto goes on to say, “All literature, dare I say, is that: the search for our being and place that we can call home, or recreate our imaginary and interior homelands.” 

Thank you, Sue Fagalde Lick, author of “Stories Grandma Never Told,” who inspired me to write about family, and for bringing my poetry to the attention of Vamberto.

I must thank Frank X. Gaspar, for the editing of my poems in an earlier version of the book. He helped make my words shine. To Katherine Vaz, I say thank you for your books that inspired me and your wonderful magical realism. Darrell Kastin, who writes with his heart and soul, I value highly as a friend. 

I am indebted to The Bitter Oleander Press, and my editor, Paul B. Roth, for his artistic support and friendship. I thank Al Young, for his encouragement of my poetry over the years and pointing me in the direction of writing about my family. To the late, Lucille Clifton for her inspiration and friendship. Also, Alan Soldofsky, whose passion for poetry was contagious.

Q:  What do you think of the #MeToo feminist movement?

A: I am glad to see this feminist movement going forward to uphold women’s rights in what seems of late, a backward movement as supported by our current government. The time is well overdue for women to stand up and empower themselves. For me, my choices as a woman are between myself and God, and not the government.

In my younger years of the 1950’s and 1960’s a woman’s place was in the home. I was not cut out for that role. I yearned for a different life. I was determined not to marry and wanted an education. I got myself through college by working long hours in the canneries. I was a teamster’s union member and got union wages. Although college was more affordable in those days, I could not have afforded to pay for my education by working for the few low wage jobs open to women in retail, as a nurses-aide, secretary, or waitress.

I lived during the times of the counter-culture movement and as a “free spirit,” I fit right in. During the period of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, I lived in a commune with other college students and participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam war and marched with Cesar Chavez. My female inspiration at that time was Dolores Huerta, activist and labor leader who co-founded the United Farm Workers along with Chavez. She was never distracted in her mission and always stayed true to herself as woman. Today she continues to be active in the “Dolores Huerta Foundation,” at 87 years young.

Q:  How did this book come about? Was it part of a thesis? Was it a long  journey?

A: I believe I was first inspired to write about my family and heritage from the influence of the Indian-American Author and poet, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I took several poetry workshops from Divakaruni, and always appreciated the poetry about her homeland.

It became important for me to write about my pioneer Azorean California family beyond family history, as I came to realize that in most mainstream California history books the absence of the Portuguese contribution to the state was missing. To the vast population of California, it seemed the Portuguese were invisible.  I hosted several Portuguese Literary readings at the Sacramento Poetry Center in the last few years. Many in the audience were surprised to discover there were Portuguese communities in the state. Those who had lived side by side with the Portuguese in Sacramento hadn’t realized this. The California Heritage Publications of California, has done much to showcase our history, and make known the important contributions the Portuguese have made to California. However, to the general population, and all of California’s other ethnic communities, this history is mainly unknown.

It became my idea to write about my own family in poetic form, not only its factual history, but its folklore and mythology to best describe a physical and cultural legacy. My early poems grew to be a collection which I used for my MFA thesis. More time passed, more poems written, with travels to the Azores, to Lisbon Portugal, and my participation at the Disquiet International LITERARY Program in Lisbon where I workshopped my work with Frank X. Gaspar, Katherine Vaz and other participants. A result of the above, my finished manuscript, Kissing the Bee was published.

Q:  Katherine Vaz’s novel, Saudade appeared in Portuguese in 1999 and was a best seller.  What does saudade mean to you? How would you define it? 

A: I believe the Portuguese word, saudade, describes an emotional loss, a longing, a wanting of something that is gone. Perhaps a yearning for someone or wanting to make real again a memory. It can be homesickness like my great grandmother had for the old country and missing her family. She lived till age 95 and in her later years would become tearful suddenly, from a memory of her mother, her brothers, and sisters. Perhaps a memory of her home in Pico.

I feel that when you inhabit a place for a long period of time, you come to embrace the landscape and find comfort from the natural environment you become familiar with. My family from the Azores had deep roots in the islands. With their relocation to California, and their dependence on the land for their physical sustenance, they soon established a deep connection with their new landscape. They took hold of the new homeland in California establishing a continuity between past and present. This continuity of the people and the land encompasses cultural heritage. We never forget where we came from, and where we hope someday to come to rest. For these reasons we have deep saudade.

Q:  What books are on your bedside table right now (in other words, what are you reading currently)?

A: I have five books on my side table right now. I am rereading  Where I Was From, by Joan Didion. I love her writing and that she’s a native Californian. I am also reading Ray Keifetz’s new book of poetry, Night Farming In Bosnia. In the stack is Javier Zamora’s book of poetry, Unaccompanied. Just in today’s mail, I received  capricornucopia (dream of the goats) by paulA neves. I have the new spring, issue of The Bitter Oleander journal, which I am a contributor of.

———————-

Millicent Borges Accardi,  a Portuguese-American writer, has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, CantoMundo, Fulbright, the Corporation of Yaddo, and California Arts Council. Her most recent book is Only More So. Find her @TopangaHippie

Lara Gularte lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of California. Her writing may be found in The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Poetry, and in Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora in the United States and Canada anthologies as well as various literary journalsThe esteemed critic Vamberto Freitas has reviewed her work in Da Poética ancestral Luso-Americana in Açoriano Oriental and  Nas Duas Margens . Gularte earned an MFA degree from San Jose State University. She is a poetry instructor for the California Arts-in-Corrections program at Folsom, and Mule Creek  prisons. Kissing the Bee is her first full-length poetry collection.

 

 

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