Portuguese American Journal

Memoir (II): How I Found my Portuguese Family – By Diogo Teixeira

I had an aunt in Portugal I had never met. She was my father’s only sibling, older than he, about 70, and lived in Vale de Cambra, my father’s hometown about 50 km southeast of Porto. She was married, had three grown daughters, and one of them still ran the family business, Farmácia Teixeira da Silva, started by my now-deceased grandfather in 1913. I had never been to Portugal nor had I ever communicated with my aunt. She didn’t speak English and I spoke no Portuguese.

Nevertheless, I had decided to meet her and her family and see this hometown. The main reason was that I had no extended family at all; my American mother had no siblings, aunts or uncles. Her only relative, my grandmother, was dead. My aunt’s family was literally all I had outside father, mother and brother. Christine and I had gotten married the year before and she had a large extended family. I began to think “Why couldn’t I have one as well – if I just tracked them down.” I had also recently read Alex Haley’s “Roots” and was seized with a desire to know more about my own.

Beyond that, I was constantly being asked if I spoke Portuguese, if I had been there and if I had relatives there. My answers were, “No, no, and yes but never met them.” These answers seemed kind of lame. Why on earth shouldn’t I do something about it?

So, Christine and I decided we would take our deferred honeymoon in Portugal and Spain and while there look up my aunt.

Naturally, I needed to discuss this with my father, who had worked his entire career for the Portuguese government and had moved back there for several years in the early 70’s. He was Mr. Portugal in background, experience, and language. He knew everything about the country but was now retired and living in Washington DC.

My father was an intelligent guy, very charming, witty, and handsome. People liked him; he was a ladies man. But, he was not a family man, he didn’t like children particularly, and his three marriages had all failed. He had mostly kept my brother and I at arm’s length, keeping much of his life private.

For example, he never once suggested that we visit him in Portugal when he went back.  As children, when he was still married to our mother, a family visit to Portugal would have been unthinkable. In those days, Portugal was like the other side of the moon. Deciding to go to Portugal on my own initiative felt like a small scale intra-family revolutionary act. It was as if Portugal was his own personal property and I had finally thrown down a gauntlet. “Enough! I am going to go there on my own and learn about it without you!”

So, when I told him what our plans were, his reaction was not completely unexpected but still somewhat of a surprise. I was prepared for him not caring that we intended to visit Portugal. But he had always seemed on good terms with his sister. I thought he might like my interest in her.

But he had a disapproving tone of voice, “You won’t enjoy seeing my sister. I’d rather you not visit her. They don’t speak English. They are provincial.” He was equally unhelpful on our residual requests like where to stay. He said, “I never stay in a hotel when I am there.”

I tried to convince him, calling him back several times in the months before we went. “Maybe we could get an interpreter,” I told him. In my fantasy world, he would have said, “I’d love to go with you, Diogo, then I could show you around, introduce you to my sister properly and do the translating for you.” But it was to no avail, he just kept repeating his arguments, always framing it as if I was the one who wouldn’t enjoy the experience, while I was increasingly positive I would.

He refused to explain what he meant by “provincial”. If he meant not as world-traveled and multi-lingual as himself, so what? By that standard, I was provincial myself. Besides all I had in mind was a visit. One can visit anyone, right? 

I upped the pressure each time I talked to him. It was crazy to be going to his home country, for whom he had worked his entire career, and he was doing nothing to help us. He finally relented enough to pass on two Lisbon woman friends of his, perhaps old lovers, but all he would say was they spoke English. His one real concern was about the roads, “Be careful, the Portuguese are the worst drivers in the world.” I listened to that one.

Arriving in Lisbon and meeting Louisa

Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon

My wife and I flew to Lisbon in June 1982 and checked into a hotel near Avenida da Liberdade. Like the immigration at the airport, the hotel clerks did a bit of double take at this obvious American with the fully Portuguese name. They almost always looked up, smiled a little more genuinely and asked me if I spoke Portuguese. I had to decline, of course, and the smile went back to normal. I tried saying “Bom-dia” when I got to the desk but that just made things worse. They would speak back to me in Portuguese and I would have to shrug in embarrassment and say, in English, “Sorry, I don’t speak Portuguese.”

We wandered around Lisbon for a few days, looking at the ancient trolleys, the peculiar stone mosaic-like calçada pavement and rode the archaic but wonderful downtown funicular. There was a gratifying lack of steel and glass skyscrapers. Many buildings in downtown dated from the 19th century with elegant trellised balconies. We went to hear some fado, visited Sintra, saw the harbor and soaked up the historic atmosphere in the Alfama.

Then we drove to Estoril to visit one of his contacts who had kindly agreed on the phone to receive us. Louisa was in her mid-40’s, blonde, cheerfully outgoing, and very bilingual. She had married a Brit, was now divorced, and her children were in boarding school in the UK. She gave us a quick tour of her big house, including her childhood bed she still slept in. Bridge tables were set up permanently in her basement and there were dirty dishes piled everywhere. “The maid’s day off,” she explained, as she served some quail eggs and we sat down to talk.

“I haven’t seen your father in years,” she exclaimed. “How is he?” She appeared to like him a lot, something common to any of his women friends I met over the years. She was anxious to help us so we went through our plans. Eventually I mentioned how we had wanted to meet my aunt but he had refused to help us.

Louisa was outraged. She promptly picked up the phone and called him in Washington.

She started yelling at him in a way I couldn’t. “Bernardo, how could you be so crass as to not help? What is wrong with you, anyway? Of course, your son and his wife should meet your sister if they want to.” We listened in astonishment, she was scolding him like a child.

There were silences while he talked, then she would repeat the arguments. I knew I should not get on the phone myself. In the end, nothing was accomplished except that Louisa seemed to have decided that she would call the Farmacia Teixeira herself. We would just bypass my father. Who was he to decide what we could and couldn’t do?

Louisa got the number from information and placed the call. Of course we couldn’t understand the discussion just my name would periodically appear. There were long periods of silence while something was happening at the other end. Periodically Louisa would give us a thumb’s up.

I felt like a kid sneaking into his parents’ private things. Once as a teenager I’d gone into my father’s house in Georgetown and snooped around. The only thing I found was a pistol that I didn’t know he had. I felt like that now but I also felt justified. If he didn’t want us there for no good reason, what was I supposed to do? This phone call would decide the issue, his sister could say yes or no and if no that would be the end of it.

Louisa finally hung up and debriefed us. It had taken time to locate my aunt, who lived next door to the pharmacy. Yes, she’d like to see us. We should drive there the next day and go to the central square where she and her husband would be waiting for us. They would recognize us and any time was OK. Apparently, the call had been a real shock, a bolt from the blue. Bernardo’s son here, in Portugal? And with no warning?? And without him???? It seemed Adelia had never expected to meet any of his American family.

We left early the next morning, but the main road north was just 2 lanes filled with trucks, wandering pedestrians, and roadside stands. We stopped in Coimbra for lunch and when we finally arrived about 6 PM, I was totally exhausted. My father was right, driving in Portugal was not for the faint-hearted.

My aunt and uncle were standing there by the curb. Their house was right next to this central square. We heard later they waited outside all day afraid to miss us. It was a very emotional moment. I felt immediately close to this woman. She represented a piece of my Portuguese heritage I’d never really gotten to know but had wanted to know better all my life. I gave her a gift of a pin I’d earned for scholastic excellence, a memento of myself and America. I got it back years later after she passed and wear it as a ring today.

My aunt was of medium height with dark, greying hair and a kindly smile. She had the Teixeira uni-brow that my father and I have. Ems was shorter than she, with white hair and a similar smile. They both seemed overjoyed to see us. Christine and I both leaned over and gave them a kiss on both cheeks. I held her hand a long time and she held mine.

We parked the car and went inside with our luggage and she showed us to a bedroom and where the bathroom was. We took some time to unwind and freshen up. It became immediately clear that communication would be an adventure. We smiled a lot and used hand signals and maybe they could understand just a few words in English. Ems had been a French teacher when young and he and Christine went back and forth with her very rusty French.

Sorry! I dont speak Portuguese!

I was sure my aunt had heard I didn’t speak Portuguese but she had to see it to believe it. I could imagine her thinking “How could Bernardo’s son not know any? Surely he knows just a few words. And he’s named Diogo!” Had I had an Anglo-Saxon name common in America (Tom, Dick, or Harry) the presumptions that she and others naturally made would never have been so strong. One thing we did understand was to call them Tia and Tio. They pointed to themselves and said it and we got it. Christine was much better than I at deciphering some of the other things they pointed out.

There was a big dinner at night with much of the family including quite a few children. She had 8 grandchildren. We all sat around a big table with a lot of smiles, lots of handshakes but also a lot of silence. We couldn’t catch all the names, who was who was obscure that night. They all knew us though, we’d become famous instantly.

Christine or I would ask a question in English and maybe get a brief and hesitant answer from the older kids. The little kids were too shy. Christine asked if they had all studied English in school and they all answered “yes”, even including Tia and Tio. But speaking English is different than studying it.

Tia gave me her card, which read Maria Adélia Coutinho da Silva Ribeiro Martins, not including my father’s surnames Teixeira de Albergaria. My first exposure to the Portuguese naming philosophy wherein people pick multiple names from each parent and grandparent and every woman’s first name is Maria and they never use it.

At Farmácia Teixeira da Silva

Both Tia and my father had lived in this house for parts of their childhood. Originally the pharmacy had been in the lower level, open to the street, and living was above. There was one bath and three bedrooms but no central heat, instead a large fireplace in the kitchen. The spacious vegetable garden in back had everything from tomatoes to apples. Her 3 daughters had grown up there. Cristina, the oldest, now lived in another town as did Guida, the youngest. Helena, the middle daughter, now ran the pharmacy and lived in an apartment above it.

It turned out Tia did not have a phone in her house. It had always been in the pharmacy in the lower level and when it moved just a few doors away, they just kept using the pharmacy’s phone. So it was a good thing we had called there.

The next day, Tia and Helena took us over to the pharmacy, which was a modern looking store in a 4 story apartment building. It was just medicine with a few beauty products, not at all like a CVS. I had never seen my last name on a storefront (or anything) so Christine took a picture of me standing in front. Helena offered to give us anything we might need.

The Muradal ancestral home

Then they took us to Muradal, the family solar, about a kilometer out of town. The old house, now a wreck, had a stone lintel from 1609. The current house dated from 1800. It was 3 stories high and covered with azulejos. It had about 15 large rooms filled with old furniture and pictures from the past, almost like a private museum. A small chapel was attached at the end of the house. We went in through the main door on the ground floor, which led to some store rooms and went upstairs to the living areas. One of Tia’s first cousins and her husband lived there. They didn’t speak any English so we just smiled a lot as Tia and Helena walked us around. We had no trouble understanding when they said “Bernardo” and pointed to a bedroom. That was his as a child.

Muradal had once controlled many quintas (fields) for miles around, rented out to tenant farmers. The family was very well off, but over the years most of the quintas had been sold off as Vale de Cambra grew. The town had been an early center of the dairy products and canning industry. Factories had been built, development had encroached, and the house itself now sat in some faded glory amongst more current houses.

Muradal really moved me since I had never had any locational roots. I was raised in various rental apartments and spent many years as a perpetual student moving annually from one cold water Cambridge flat to another. Standing in such an old family property was enchanting. I felt connected to something bigger than myself, a genealogical chain going back through time, a proof that my ancestors had lived and died here. I was also curious about who had lived here and when and what had happened. The house was filled with old photos and memorabilia and there had to be hundreds of stories just waiting to be told. But I could learn nothing without someone who was bilingual.

Later that day, Tia and Helena drove us to the famous Abbey of Arouca, which dates from the year 1154. We went in to a dark cool silence and enjoyed the historical significance. Noticing a brief English sign, I discovered that the beautiful 400-year old retable panels had been painted by an eponymous Diogo Teixeira. Of course, why not? Two common Portuguese names, just another step in my discovery of what Portugal was like.

My newly found cousin Guida

After two days, we needed to move on but Tia had a command for us: we must visit Maria Margarida Coutinho Ribeiro Martins Negrais de Matos (Guida), her youngest daughter, whom we had not yet met. Guida and her husband Ernesto and 2 young children lived in Maia, a suburb to the north of Porto. She taught French and he was a manager at a steel mill. Although she had never taught English, she was reasonably fluent, and we would finally be able to talk and get some answers to all of our curiosity. So of course we agreed, packed up, kissed Tia, Tio, and Helena goodbye and drove away.

At the last minute, Tia took us aside and showed us something. It was a photo my mother had sent her 35 years ago when I was 2. It had my mother and myself and was inscribed in English, “Dear Sister-in-Law, we are hoping to meet you someday. Love, Marie” I read that out loud to Tia and told her how happy my mother would be when I got back and told her that I had met her and that she still had this photo.

Tia and Tio, wife Christina, cousin Helena

Guida lived in a very nice three bedroom modern house with a rose garden in back, quite different from Tia’s. She invited us in, introduced us, and sat us down to dinner. Her kids, Cati and João, were too shy to talk much but they listened carefully. Guida explained, “They study English in school starting in first grade. But we’ve never had English speakers at home! It’s very different.” Around midnight, after hours of questions and talking, she served toast and tea. João moved into Cati’s room and Christine and I finally collapsed in his double bunk bed. My feet stuck out over the end. It was uncomfortable but I didn’t mind.

Christine and I hit it off immediately with Guida. I was like the brother she never had and she like the sister I never had. Guida was very outgoing and interested in many things. Aside from teaching, she also enjoyed writing, just like my father and myself. Christine and she were both gardeners and fabulous cooks. She asked almost as many questions about our life in America as we asked her. It turned out my father was her favorite uncle and she showed us a picture of him and her when she was 12.

Guida told us my father was practically a celebrity among his family. During World War II, they would gather to hear him whenever he broadcast news from the US on shortwave radio. Up to 1951, he would occasionally do the same. He would send a telegram and they would sit around the radio in the family room at the appointed time. They were all extremely proud of him. I wondered if he had refused to help because I did not hold him in such high regard. Maybe he had been afraid I would talk trash about him.

Like most of the relatives, Guida assumed I could easily pick up a few words of Portuguese. But she broke into hysterical laughter as I butchered the sounds of the numbers. Apparently I could say one to ten in Spanish but not Portuguese. We both agreed I should learn some Portuguese, a promise I regretfully never fulfilled.

Going to Porto and meeting more cousins

The next day, we moved to Helena’s empty Porto apartment but still went to Guida’s for meals. They had to work and the kids were in school. But in the afternoon, Ernesto gave us a tour of his steel mill. We learned Ems’ brother and son were the leading ophthalmologists in northern Portugal. The family was educated and middle class, not exactly what I had thought my father had meant by “provincial”. They were good people and – being very middle class myself – I liked them.

In a few more days we had to leave for the rest of our vacation. Christine and I tearfully said good-bye to Guida and her family. She and I promised to

My Portuguese family

 write each other. I left feeling like I had made a real expansion of my family, that this trip would be more than just a one-off visit.

I determined to try and learn more about Portugal’s history. Although it had been a whirlwind unplanned trip, the results greatly exceeded my expectations. A deep feeling about lack of family had been partially satisfied. One of my earliest childhood desires had always been to have a bigger family and now I could feel that I had that, even if I hardly knew them and couldn’t talk to most of them. But that was for the future, maybe that could change.

Back in the US, I didn’t call my father right away. I waited for a family report card to filter back. Of course, he may have guessed I would do this. Conceivably, Louisa’s conversation tipped him off. Maybe he had wanted to be blameless had our impromptu unannounced visit backfired. But, when we did talk after a month or so, he grudgingly acquiesced that the whole family liked us and enjoyed the visit. But, he never explained his refusal to help and I never asked. There wasn’t much point in telling him how wrong he’d been.

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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.