Portuguese American Journal

Memoir: How I got my name and learned about Portugal –  By Diogo Teixeira

This is a story about how I got my Portuguese name and learned about Portugal as a child.

It begins with my parents, who met in New York City, in 1943, during World War II. He basically picked her up one hot August day on a returning beach train. Each thought the other was attractive. The next day he called her at a boarding hotel, where it was then the fashion for young unmarried ladies to live. Two weeks later he proposed – a very short courtship – even by the standards of the day. And two months later they were to be married in the chapel at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

It could have been a fairy tale, but it was not. Certain situations existed. He even telephoned her the night before the wedding.

“Marie,” he might have said, “I want to discuss something. Are we perhaps rushing things? Just a little, I’m worried. This ceremony is a very small affair since neither of us has any family to speak of; there’s just your mother and that’s it. Surely it could be put off?”

My mother might have expected this, she was no fool. On the other hand, doubts the night before could be a bad sign.

“My mother has already come up from Bethlehem,” she said. “We need to go ahead. I don’t know if we are truly compatible, but we can find out. The announcement is in the papers tomorrow.” That part at least was right, a small notice was in the New York Times the next day.

It may have been unsaid, but another complication was that there had been, as yet little true intimacy. The war had created enormous demand for living space. He had some roommates he hardly knew, and her hotel was strict. Sex before marriage was certainly known in those days, just not always practiced.

He didn’t know it at time, he later complained, but she had been born out of wedlock. “So what?” he told me later, “It wasn’t her fault. I didn’t care about her pedigree.” She might have been mum about it but was probably thinking, “I am goddamned if I am going to risk getting pregnant and be a single mother like my mother.”

In the end, divorce offered an escape clause. “If things don’t work out, we can always get divorced,” she said, ironically the one of the two who would later fight the hardest to avoid just that. He was a bit of a free spirit and divorce, illegal in his country, sounded delicious. He smiled and they went ahead.

What were those situations? For starters, he was not American, and she was. He wasn’t exactly “right off the boat” but close. He’d arrived two years before on a cargo ship disguised as a 3rd class apprentice seaman. But his English was good and by the time they met he had an impressive but time-limited job broadcasting Allied propaganda about the war over short-wave radio to Portuguese speaking countries.

In her case, she had attended the Moravian College for Women, while she continued to live at home. She’d moved to New York two years before to work at Bergdorf Goodman, switched later to a ship design firm and was taking art classes at Cooper Union.

Other differences included lifestyle, politics, and religion. He’d been raised upper-class, she middle class. He was Catholic, if non-practicing, but she disliked all religion and crossed her fingers during the ceremony. She was liberal, a lifelong New Yorker reader; he ranged from apolitical to conservative. She had a 1940’s view of the modern woman’s role, he had a more traditional and slightly chauvinistic view.

Of course, there were commonalities. Both were artists, he writing, she painting. Each thought the other very intelligent, a quality each admired. Each liked the other’s looks: he handsome, she beautiful. Both disliked where they came from, leading them voluntary to seek a more cosmopolitan life in New York.

When I was born two years after the wedding, the divorce hadn’t yet arrived. It’s unknown if their pre-child years were totally happy, but they were still living together. She helped him a little in polishing his English, he gave her friendly critiques of her artwork.

My arrival did shake things up a bit, however.

He was very excited – and a little nervous. She was determined to follow modern best practices which, at the time, meant bottle feeding and an honorable retirement from her job. Aside from that, and resolving my colic, they had to pick a name.

A fateful moment for yours truly as they picked “Diogo Bernardes” as ethnic a Portuguese name as one can get. (Bernardes means son of Bernardo.)

Time spent with my parents

Even at that early moment in my life, my mother foresaw my father’s lack of domestic qualities. She knew by then he was an ex-pat living here in America, maybe for a long time, but not someone who would fully embrace American culture. She knew he would never be a close and supportive father or husband. So, she felt a Portuguese name would be a sort of anchor, a manipulative way to tie him closer to his son (and to her) than otherwise.

Once I was Diogo, and brought home, another issue rose up, namely who would help? He was the type who couldn’t or wouldn’t boil water. True in spirit if not literally. His upper-class Portuguese family had employed many servants. He could take care of himself, but a baby? Change diapers? Perhaps in the very beginning but it wore thin quickly. “Your responsibility” he said.

In her case, all she had for help was her mother, my grandmother. In his case, he had a father and sister back in Portugal, but he wasn’t speaking to his father. Moreover, they were far away and not the immigrating type. Unlike most immigrants, my father came here all alone – not even a distant relative here.

So, as a very young child I quickly became familiar with Bethlehem PA, where “Gramma” lived, and got to know her quite well. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the historic Bell House, circa 1745, located on the Moravian Church campus. Gramma became a third parent to me. About half my formative years were spent there.

Money was also a major problem. My mother was taking care of me and had stopped working. Gramma worked as a cashier and could support us while we lived with her but there was no room for my father. His broadcasting job vanished when the war ended. Neither parent had any savings, and no remuneration was coming from Portugal. My grandmother there was dead, and my grandfather had spent all of his son’s inheritance chasing cabaret dancers, which was why they weren’t speaking.

My father sat down and assessed how he fit the American job market.  The verdict was a bit bleak. He was educated and literate, but mostly self-educated. They had sent him to a Catholic boarding school at age 8 but that didn’t go very far there. He’d been at Coimbra, Portugal’s leading university of the time, but never graduated and hardly went to class. He’d wanted to be a writer since he was 6 years old and had even published one book of fiction in Lisbon in 1940, a year before he emigrated. He’d written for a Lisbon movie magazine. His childhood hobby was reading 19th Century French novels. None of it helped.

The only thing he really had to sell was his Portuguese language and his knowledge of Portugal, both of which were excellent. But the market for this was very small, and it turned out mostly restricted to the Portuguese government itself. We spent 1948 in Montreal helping start a consulate there. Otherwise, it was just hit and miss until 1950, when I was 5, and he finally got a permanent situation at the Portuguese Embassy in Washington.

What’s in a name anyway?

My name marked me as Portuguese, but no one I knew as a child had ever heard my name. I never knew anyone who spoke Portuguese, father excepted, until I was totally grown up. In Bethlehem, where my father never stayed, there were no Portuguese. My grandmother was at least 3rd generation from some German immigrants. She could speak some Pennsylvania Dutch, although I never heard it. The building next door was the Gemeinhaus, so I could say that German word. I liked the local breakfast food scrapple. My mother would make a dandelion salad in the summer.

I had no idea what Portuguese culture was like, what their holidays were, or even where they lived in the US. As a child, I probably didn’t even know there were Portuguese-American communities.

I grew to dislike my name because people couldn’t say or spell it. I’d mumble and I began to shrink from introducing myself.

Here’s what nameberry.com has to say about Diogo in 2021 when unusual names are much more in fashion than in 1950:

The name Diogo is a boy’s name of Portuguese origin meaning “supplanter”. Diogo is the much-less-known brother of Diego, both forms of James, which is itself a form of the Biblical Jacob. And Diego itself probably started life as a short form of Santiago, aka Saint Jago, aka Saint James. That’s a lot of variations for one name. In Diogo’s case, Americans will forever mistake it for Diego, which was used for nearly 3000 baby boys in the US last year, while Diogo was given to fewer than five

I got called “Diego” a lot, even by people who knew me well. The awkward social question was whether and how to correct them if it persisted, a conundrum I never really resolved.

The next question in an introduction was usually “Where are you from?” But did they mean my name or me personally? It was confusing and I got very tired of saying, “My name is Portuguese but I’m not from there.” Or “What kind of name is that?” a question my friends Bill and Ted never got. If I was feeling sarcastic, I might say, “Oh, it’s an old American name,” but I have to admit very few people got it.

A third sally might be “What does Diogo mean?” or, “How do you translate that?” I thought those questions were stupid. I didn’t want to say “Well, it translates as James” and get called “Jimmy.”

Occasionally I’d get, “What do they call you for short?” as if five letters are too long. But I never adopted a nickname and there is no diminutive. Both parents always used “Diogo” and I just went along. And don’t even ask me about Teixeira, with five vowels and an “x” that’s not pronounced “ex” but “sh”. Americans are suspicious of too many vowels.

It was very queer. My father, the ex-pat who lived his life with other European ex-pats, always went by Tony, short for Bernardo Antonio de Pinto Coutinho Soares de Albergaria Teixeira de Silva.  Anyone can understand Tony. Yet I had to put up with “Diogo” while being raised American!

In today’s world, Google has 41 million hits for “Diogo” many of them famous football players. I’ve even met another Diogo Teixeira, who, amazingly enough, worked for the same firm I did, although in the Paris office. These are proud old names, there is nothing wrong with them, and what’s in a name anyway? Unless it marks you in some way, which I felt it did. I was different and it showed, I felt, the minute they knew my name.

In the very beginning they told me I could speak as many Portuguese words as English. I even have a small paper in my childish writing about my escola. But I don’t remember any of it. My father receded steadily from my day-to-day life as I grew from age 2 to age 5. Then there was a marital resurgence up to about age 10. The three of us lived together at least most of the year, augmented by my brother Ruy’s arrival in 1951.

Fun with my father, 1951

For a year in 1st grade, I drove downtown with him and he dropped me off at a school near the Embassy. Maybe I was new to cars, I got car sick in the beginning. Or maybe I was just nervous, I wasn’t used to spending time alone with him.

Most of his life was always very private. He never brought anybody home, for example one of Washington’s numerous ex-pat or diplomat couples with bilingual children. So, I was never exposed to that. What I learned was hearsay or from his stories. Interesting but never from direct experience.

In the car, I would pester him about his (my) Portuguese family that I had never communicated with.

“Poppy,” I’d say, “What does it say on those postcards? Who are they?” We had several faded black and white postcards with a photo of a woman and two girls on the front. I couldn’t read the writing on the back.

My father would just gesture dismissively, “It’s nothing, just greetings from my sister and her daughters,” and change the subject.

Learning about Portugal

Other than periodic rants against his father, he usually drew a wall around discussion of his life in Portugal, either his family or what he had done there before he came here. Trying to understand why just made him mad and further questioning, as if we, mother, brother and I had no right to know about him, just made him even madder.

I would not learn the whole story until he and I were much older and even then – across an ocean, a language barrier, and four or five decades – I could never be sure if I was getting the real, true complete story. Because he was not a true immigrant seeking to rise from poverty by coming to the land of opportunity. He was more like a penniless aristocrat escaping from something. But what? It was one of my goals to find out.

In the 1950’s, the Portuguese Embassy was a very sleepy place where nothing much happened. It was a smallish, converted brick mansion on Kalorama Rd. off Connecticut Ave. The far more imposing French Embassy was next door.

My father worked in the Chancellery, reached by going down the small driveway on the right side and entering through what I always thought of as the back door. There was a tiny waiting room with two chairs and a glass window with a slot for passing documents underneath. A brass plate announced they were open from 10-12 four days a week.

My childhood impression of Portugal was a small not-so-important country – even if it had had a glorious past. It was in Europe, right at the edge, surrounded by Spain, kind of cute but underdeveloped. We had this battered old kids’ picture book showing old, cobbled streets, an old trolley on a hill, peasants’ houses, and colorful fishing boats the size of a large rowboat.

There were some monuments on the water, a farmer leading his donkey cart in the fields and people hauling fishing nets in to shore by hand. It wasn’t impressive. I knew some basic empire history, Henry the Navigator, India, Brazil, Angola and so on. My mother once told me that Ferdinand Magellan had had two brothers named Diogo and Ruy and if she had had a third son – highly unlikely – that’s what he’d have been named.

My father’s own attitudes toward Portugal were ambivalent. He thought it was a backwater, the poorest, least modern country in western Europe. The people were just as bad, ignorant peasants who had contributed nothing to the advance of western civilization in 400 years. It was being strangled by the church and by the dictatorship he worked for. He would tell me all this in a very offhand way, waving his hands in the air, as though he wanted me to understand this was just one side of the story.

Tony, sister Adelina and mother, c.1930

There were exceptions. His own father was an intelligent guy, if a bastard. His cousin was a beautiful actress on the Lisbon stage and could have succeeded anywhere. In fact, many of America’s cultural attributes that it extolled were so much rubbish compared to the developed and much older European culture. Like theater, classical music, or the great writers. And he meant European, because you could get it in Portugal even if not made in Portugal. This was of a piece with how he thought of himself as a citizen of the world, not a Portuguese-American. I myself was neither, just a plain old “American.”

That he never fully broke away from Portugal was probably a surprise to him. Through having this family and living here, he had ample chance to form an opinion.

“It is a religion,” he once told me. “Americans think they and their country are so different, so special, so unique, so better than the others,” clearly expressing his disbelief. In his later years, he would joke that he belonged in the Bermuda Triangle, that halfway Atlantic region where people and ships mysteriously disappear. He couldn’t go back, although he once tried, but he was never completely at home here.

Family Christmas , 1955

My father had a huge influence on me. I loved him and I suppose he loved me in his own way, even if he wasn’t very demonstrative. He was a charmer, very witty, and had great stories. His personality fit the diplomatic world.

Most people who met him liked him. He was almost always polite, even if he had absolutely nothing to say, which was often. His mysterious private life, which he blocked me out of until I was much older, seemed to carry over to his Portuguese background. It intrigued me in a way I never was with my mother’s background which seemed boring compared to his. Of course, I loved her too. She was far more familiar, I lived with her, she had total control, custody was never an issue between them. Almost all my culture and thinking came from her. I became American in reality, but some melancholy Portuguese spirit continued to lurk within me.

My parents’ fights got more serious and frequent. They fought about money, about his never being home, and about her overbearing self-righteousness, her attempts to remold him as a better man. Even as a child, far before the final separation, I knew they shouldn’t be together. My mother made some heroic save efforts, but in 1955, when I was 10, she announced he would move downtown. Ruy and I would see him on weekends and he still loved us and would support us. He rented a bohemian ex-stable in the middle of a block in Georgetown, Washington’s toniest neighborhood, and began his new life. And he did pick us up many Sundays for a ritual lunch at the Hot Shoppes.

In junior high, I would sometimes go and have lunch with him at the Embassy. I’d take the bus from Rock Creek Gardens to Chevy Chase Circle and transfer to another bus going downtown. I’d walk down the driveway when I got there and ring the small bell at the back door. A voice over the intercom would say something I couldn’t understand, and I would timidly say my name and was my father there? They all knew me; children were a rarity back there. The voice would turn friendly, and I’d hear excited shouting inside that, I assumed, meant “Bernardo, your son is here. Hurry up, he’s waiting.”

Sometimes I would have to go inside and sit while my father finished whatever he was doing. The secretaries were all very nice and would ask me questions about school and so forth. I didn’t understand it at the time but partial assimilation from an American marriage (even if divorced) and having American children was pretty unusual at an Embassy. It could have been part of his value proposition.

He was much better equipped to explain America (when needed) to the rotating cast of diplomats who came, stayed a few years, and moved on. His American English was far better, too. He had no accent and knew all the slang and curse words. Once he took me into the Ambassador’s office when his Honor was away. He was trying to impress me with the big office and fancy trappings but I’m not sure I was.

We would walk around the corner to a small drug store that had a lunch counter and get a sandwich. It was very simple. I’d get asked some questions about school, about my mother, “How is she?” he’d say with no real interest, and about Ruy. The truth is, he wasn’t particularly interested in our school life out there in suburbia. He’d never gone through the American school system and couldn’t relate to it. I was a math & science guy, and he had no interest in that at all. Standardized tests were alien, no such thing back in his time.

Maybe 60% of Portugal had been illiterate when he was born, and college was almost entirely for certain elites. The fact that I wasn’t taking any spoken language was an irritant. He always felt if I spoke Portuguese – or maybe French – I would be more European and we’d get along better. As for Portuguese, I felt he had no one to blame but himself. If he’d been more present in my life, he could have taught me. As for French, I’d been diagnosed deaf to high tones in one ear and avoided learning spoken languages then and now.

By the time I entered high school, he’d been out of the household for five years, our contacts generally limited to a Sunday lunch treat. Americanism had taken over my culture and mindscape completely. Once a year, my mother would serve bacalhau for dinner, an effort to keep us in touch with our Portuguese heritage. She was acutely aware of how we two boys missed having a father.

My high school, in Bethesda, was filled with the sons and daughters of government and military parents. Being from the diplomatic corps was unusual, with a certain cache. If I said my father worked at the Portuguese Embassy, especially with my very ethnic name, many assumed my father was a diplomat. They’d say, “My, your English is so good!”

“No,” I’d confess for the nth time, “he’s not a diplomat, he just works there. He’s an American citizen. I’m all-American myself, born and bred here. I don’t speak Portuguese, never been there.” I was kind of defensive, this type of speech made me feel somehow out of place, as if I didn’t belong here – or anywhere.

Sometimes I got this follow-up question, “Well, what does he do?”

Embassy reception, 1950

His title was “Press Officer,” and later “Cultural Attaché” was added. He answered queries and demands from newspapers or TV about Portugal, like “What’s going on with the Azores’ military base negotiations?” He might have to consult with the Ambassador or Home Office to learn what he could and couldn’t say.

But he also just helped out, like rewriting a diplomatic note. Once he gave a speech fostering better cultural relations with Portugal. In 1968, he accompanied the Ambassador on a formal visit to Governor Ronald Reagan in California. He was an informal counselor and social butterfly, who could be counted upon to attend formal diplomatic dinners as needed.

Between 1956 and 1962, they sent him in the winter to the Portuguese mission at the United Nations in New York. He’d drive up, stay in a hotel and come back occasionally on weekends. He took me with him once during school holidays, my first time in a hotel room.

The next day, he gave me his press pass and told me I could go anywhere in the UN. He was busy. When I tried to enter the huge General Assembly auditorium, the guards noticed me. I guess at age 15, I didn’t look like a delegate. They escorted me to a dreary press room where I did nothing for the rest of the day. But still it was exciting to have dinner and walk around with him. It was the closest I ever got to feeling I was part of his Portuguese professional life.

Portugal wasn’t headline worthy in the 1950’s and 60’s except for one thing: colonialism. All the other European nations had one way or the other committed to independence for their parts of Africa. But not Portugal, not for Angola and Mozambique. Part of my father’s job was to defend this policy. He was certainly an elitist and had no particular sympathy for popular causes. On the other hand, he would say Salazar had maybe done a good job before the war but had lived too long.

On December 19, 1959, India invaded Goa, Portugal’s 400-year-old enclave on the Indian sub-continent. It made headlines everywhere, symbolic of the unaligned world taking back its own from the wicked Western oppressors. But would Portugal defend its property? Would it fight back and re-invade? It was a big deal at the time.

A few days later my mother just happened to be entertaining her liberal friends, when my father dropped by to take Ruy and I for a Christmas lunch. These liberals had known him for years. Relations were cordial but distant. He had never liked her friends, they were too middle class – too American, too boring, too married.

After some polite “How are you’s,” someone inevitably wanted to know what he knew about it. “Hey, Tony, what do you think about this Goa takeover? Is Portugal going to do anything about it? Will they invade?”

I knew my father hated it when people assumed he knew secrets, it just made him mad. Putting him on the spot was a way of saying what they thought about Goa, which was good riddance.

He went into the standard spiel, “The people of Goa are Portuguese, it’s part of our country. There has been lots and lots of intermarriage over the centuries, there aren’t any second class or enslaved locals. India violated every international law. Goa hates the Indian government.”

He proceeded to get worked up. “Worst of all,” he went on, “You goddam liberals have never been there – or to any colony – and don’t know a damn thing about it!”

He got so angry he stormed out unceremoniously and that was the end of our Christmas lunch. It was actually very embarrassing, but unclear if Ruy and I regretted the lunch. Conjugal visits weren’t always fun – especially when he was in a bad mood.

Portugal maintained the same arguments about Angola and Mozambique. Lots of inter-marriage, the whites have been there a long time, etc. Then, in March 1961 insurgents attacked and massacred hundreds of people along Angola’s northern border with the Congo. Black and white alike were killed with no mercy. It set off 14 years of war that was a financial and political disaster for Portugal and Angola alike.

My father went there and interviewed survivors. The result was his first book published in America: Fabric of Terror, a series of vignettes describing the massacre through the eyes of survivors. It became the Conservative Book Club of the Month selection in April 1964, and sold some 25,000 copies. Although not at all a political treatise, who could sympathize with terrorists who ran innocent people through a sawmill? He was very proud of his first English book, which encouraged him to write many more over the years.

By 1963, I had left home for college in Boston. Aside from my name, the degree of Portugal left in my life was very modest. It would have never occurred to me to consider myself as Portuguese-American. My fraternity brothers sometimes teased me as “4th in line to the Portuguese throne” making fun of both me and a country, I had no reason to visit and no expectation of doing so. I could never have imagined what would happen when I got older and how this all-American boy would end up knowing his Portuguese relatives very well, traveling there many times, and, as I write this, applying for Portuguese nationality.

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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Diogo Teixeira is a retired businessman and consultant who lives in Belmont, MA and winters in Hawaii. He was educated at M.I.T. and Harvard Business School and worked in the banking industry. He is married with 4 adult children. His interests include travel, outdoor recreation, and duplicate bridge.

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