A Luso-Millennial’s Story on Netflix’s ‘Trial By Media’ and the Big Dan’s Rape Case

It was a family party at the Crystal Palace Restaurant, which served traditional Portuguese cuisine at the downtown corner of South Main Street and the heart of Portuguese culture in Fall River: Columbia Street. No older than 10 years of age, I moseyed over to the next room, following one of my tios to the bar, hoping to score a maracuja-flavored Sumol or a non-alcoholic Shirley Temple cocktail. Unlike the white linens that had adorned the banquet, the bar seemed casual, approachable, and, in a word, cool. I think there was even a pool table or a foosball table. But when my mother found out I had been at the bar, she reamed me out. 

“The bar is not a place para raparigas (girls),” my mother scolded. “Don’t ever go there again.”

The bartender was a man and only men were at the bar. It didn’t faze me. I was accustomed to entering predominantly-male spaces. Many times when I went to a family party and the men and women were segregated, I joined the boys and men without a second thought, feeling something of a gravitational pull to the games of futebol.

Side note: Not that this particular story is about sports, but it’s no wonder why so many high-level women executives in business – some of the most successful and wealthy persons in society – were once girls who played sports; they’re well-acquainted with operating (and thriving) in historically male-dominated spaces. 

I remember thinking: What is her problem? Even when my aunts didn’t want me playing soccer with the men, she didn’t stop me. How was this any different? It wasn’t like the women were praying at the restaurant. 

I remember my dad not appearing all that angry, so, ever the negotiator, I tried making my case to him. It didn’t get very far. 

“Mom won’t let me go over there, but dad-” 

“Listen to your mother,” he said.

There are so many things that happen before we take our first breath that will influence our lives in ways we may never know. I was born eight years (to the very day) after Cheryl Araujo was gang raped on a barroom pool table Mar. 6, 1983. Crystal Palace was a mere 16 minutes away from Acushnet Avenue, the very street in which the rape took place in a New Bedford bar all those years before. 

The bar was known as Big Dan’s. And the “Big Dan’s rape case,” as it was called, happened long before the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial. Known at the time only as “the O.J. case,” the criminal trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman is considered one of the first to cause a media explosion. It was broadcast on major public news networks, bringing the American public into the courtroom where one of the country’s most popular athletes (running back Orenthal James Simpson) was being defended by a larger-than-life lawyer, Johnnie Cochran. With unequivocal rhetorical skill, Cochran delivered the case (and the story) a catchphrase that cemented its legacy forever in the collective American consciousness: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

When I locked myself in my parents’ house for two months studying for the Bar Exam, I became delirious. Days before the exam, I rambled, “If the glove don’t fit -” My mother interjected, “Don’t wear it.” I laughed. Even though I was only 4 years old when Cochran gave his closing argument, I knew the famous line. But she legitimately had no idea how to finish the phrase. Sometime thereafter, I asked my Tia Grace if she could finish the line. Her answer: “You can’t wear it.” What had started as a joke became something of a point of reflection for me. It made me wonder if my professors and colleagues would be able to understand that, for certain immigrants, the O.J. case didn’t stay with them in the same ways. 

In the years between the Lizzie Borden and Aaron Hernandez trials, Fall River served as the backdrop for the “Big Dan’s trial.” Airing in 1984, the “Big Dan’s trial” was one of the first trials broadcast “gavel-to-gavel” for cable subscribers. The result was a firestorm of publicity, becoming something of a soap opera for television viewers all over the country. The Superior Court in Fall River, a courthouse that had been designed by a New Bedford architect, would host, arguably, the most famous case in New Bedford history. 

In a sentence, the national news media framed the story as follows: Portuguese men gang rape an American woman on a pool table at Big Dan’s Bar.

For Portuguese Americans who lived it, this case seems to be something akin to the dynamic: “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” My mother remembers the television at Disney World’s Epcot theme park broadcasting the trial when she vacationed in Florida in her early 20s.

My mother was living in Fall River, working at an insurance company during the day, and taking business courses at night at Fisher College. If you ask her about the case, she will admit, “I was embarrassed to be Portuguese during that time.” Part of the Baby Boomer generation, my mom was born the exact same year as Araujo. And her youngest sister (then just 3 years old), named Cheryl Aguiar, was, like Araujo, born in America. My mom wanted the men to go to jail. 

The first person in her family to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen, my mom took the oath in 1980, just a few years before the trial. Her friends protested in support of the Defendants, but she refused. They accused her of being anti-Portuguese. Nevertheless, in the days when the trial was broadcast, she experienced discrimination and ostracization at her work. She believes her colleagues lumped her in with the rapists because she was Portuguese, and thus guilty by national origin. Eventually, my mother would leave the insurance gig for retail where she worked her way up to become a retail manager in a company where the vice president only referred to her as “the Portagee.”

When I recently asked my aunt, another immigrant from Sao Miguel, about what she remembers, the words that followed were “vergoha (shame),” “porcarias (shit),” and “dirty, dirty shit.” She recalls her coworkers at the “shop” (i.e. the Fall River sweatshop) going to join the thousands marching in protest on behalf of the Defendants. “I went home,” she said. “Ninguem disse a esses homens ‘get involved in porcarias.’” (No one told these men ‘get involved in shit’).

The men on trial for aggravated rape were Victor Raposo, John Cordeiro, Joseph Vieira, and Daniel Silva. Two other men, Virgilio Medeiros and Jose Medeiros, were charged with “joint enterprise” (i.e. encouraging an illegal act and not acting to stop it) as they were alleged to have cheered on the rape. All six were in their early-to-late 20s, older than Cheryl Araujo. Three (John, Virgilio and Jose) were said to have been unemployed, but Virgilio and Jose were, respectively, a shipyard laborer and a landscaper by trade. Raposo worked as a handyman and painter. Silva was a factory worker and agricultural laborer. And Vieira was a dairy farm worker and former Portuguese soldier. None had been sworn in as U.S. citizens. And all six were immigrants of Portuguese ancestry. Vieira lived in Connecticut, but the other five were living in New Bedford: “an economically depressed industrial city that had served as a magnet for waves of Portuguese emigrants.” 

Some brief context about the Portuguese-in-New-Bedford landscape

In the 1830s, Azoreans and Cape Verdeans settled in New Bedford to work as whalers. Immigration steadily increased to the region with Azorean, Cape Verdean, Madeiran, and mainland Portuguese migrants populating New Bedford and nearby Fall River. These immigrants “fulfilled a demand for unskilled labor in Massachusetts factories,” according to a 2018 article written by Mia Michael and published in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts by the Institute for Massachusetts Studies at Westfield State University

Having adopted a belief that cultures of southern Europe were not compatible with American society, and that immigrants from southern Europe, with their low education levels, were “unfit to contribute to American society,” the United States enacted restrictive immigration laws in the 1920s, according to California State University professor Jerry R. Williams, who chronicled Azorean immigration in a study entitled “In Pursuit of their Dreams.” Portuguese Americans in the region were “viewed as nonwhite” and “subject to employment and housing discrimination and even segregated in movie theaters” during the early 1900s, according to the aforementioned Historical Journal of Massachusetts article published in 2018

Then the Depression hit in the 1930s and the textile industry plummeted, limiting economic opportunities for immigrants. During the “hyper-patriotic war years” of the 1940s, many Portuguese persons living in America “sought to downplay their ethnic identity,” by Americanizing their names and avoiding speaking Portuguese, according to Williams’ article.

Decades later, the last big wave of Portuguese immigration took place between the 1960s and 1970s, following the 1965 amendments to the quota laws. All of this meant that, around the time of the trial, a whopping 60 percent of New Bedford’s population was of Portuguese descent. 

Now you might be asking: What does that matter? And it’s a good question. It doesn’t appear that the background of these men had anything to do with the underlying facts of the case.

The O.J. case brought the Defendant’s race front and center, but the Defendant’s case theory hinged on it. That O.J. was Black allowed Cochran to argue that Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Furham (the officer who found the bloody glove), a white man who used racial epithets in describing Black persons during recorded conversations (some of which were played to a jury to impeach his testimony, thereby evidencing perjury), had a racial motive to plant or otherwise manufacture a key piece of evidence. The case theory was particularly effective given the Los Angeles Police Department’s rich history of failures with respect to the Black community. The extent to which the man’s race played a role in the police work is debatable, but there is no denying that race is connected to the underlying facts of the case.

But the Big Dan’s case? It’s hard to say. The only thing I can think of – and this is a real stretch – is that one case theory could have been that a possible language barrier might have played a role in falsely interpreting something as consent. But I haven’t found any of that in the literature or news coverage. So really, what does these men being Portuguese have to do with anything? 

Of those charged with the rape, two men (John Cordeiro and Victor Raposo) were alleged to have forced Araujo into performing oral sex, and the other two (Daniel Silva and Joseph Vieira) were alleged to have thrown her on a pool table and raped her.  

National news media were apparently quick and steadfast to characterize these men as Portuguese. English-speaking media published photographs of the suspects that featured personal summaries that included details about the suspects’ status as immigrants, English language proficiency, employment backgrounds, and criminal histories, according to doctoral student Mia Michael who contextualizes the case in an article entitled, “New Bedford’s Infamous 1983 Rape Case: Defending the Portuguese-American Community.” But these same media outlets persistently characterized the person who survived the rape as an “American woman.”

Earlier in 2020, as part of Trial by Media, Netflix released an episode called “Big Dan’s,” which attempts to pull back the curtain of this case. The show reveals the extent to which the criminal justice system sought to protect the victim’s privacy. Her attorneys had her wear a floppy hat into the courthouse to cover her face from news media and protesters. The judge disallowed her face to be shown on the news broadcasts while she was testifying on the stand. But, as the episode points out, her name and address were identified and revealed on audio broadcasts all over the country, thereby opening the door for her name to appear in print.

It wasn’t just her face that was hidden from the American public. Even with a name as Portuguese as Araujo, her Portuguese ancestry was not widely covered in national news media. Born in New Bedford, Araujo was dubbed an “American woman” living in a heavily-Portuguese concentrated, working-class neighborhood in New Bedford. Even now, the Netflix episode, while going to great lengths in highlighting an outraged Portuguese community, fails to identify the woman as being of Portuguese (Azorean) descent and growing up in a house where Portuguese was spoken. 

The Accused, a 1988 film loosely based on the rape story, stars the immensely talented Jodie Foster. The film’s producers exercised much creative license (e.g. swapping the pool table for a pinball machine) for fear of being sued, so Foster’s character is not named Cheryl Araujo, but, in some ways, America remembers Cheryl Araujo as Jodie Foster’s character, Sarah Tobias. If you google Cheryl Araujo, what appears to be her high school photo pops up. Juxtaposing this photo of Araujo and Foster’s character in The Accused reveals a sort of whitewashing that is more than notable if one has any idea of the traditional physical traits and features associated with Portuguese descendants.

Above photos retrieved from Google images

Foster’s ethnicity is reportedly English, Scottish, Irish, and German. During her Oscar win speech for her performance in The Accused (which beat out performances by Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Glenn Close), Foster said, “Cruelty might be very human and it might be very cultural, but it’s not acceptable.” I wonder which culture she was speaking of. None of the characters in The Accused are explicitly Portuguese.

Though I have known about the case for years (first hearing about it from my Portuguese parents sometime between high school and law school), I had apparently never discussed it with my younger brother. Born more than five years after The Accused film’s release, my brother is a millennial whose birthday is only a few months away from making him part of “Gen Z.” When I recently asked him what he knew of the case, he asked, “What case?”

My parents had never talked to my brother about it; maybe because he was younger (the case was a decade old when he was born) or maybe because he was a Portuguese boy and not a Portuguese girl. In any event, I relayed the basic facts and he read more about it on his own before commenting. 

Once he finished reading, the first word out of his mouth: “Wild.” 

Wild, indeed. In 1983, Hustler magazine ran a fake postcard of a naked woman on a pool table with the caption, “Greetings from New Bedford Massachusetts, the Portuguese Gang-Rape Capital of America.”

I told my brother how I thought it was interesting that the coverage sort of painted Portuguese culture as hyper-sexualized (knowing that my experiences growing up in a big Portuguese family have been so far from such a picture). Curious if our experiences matched up, I asked him if he remembers how many times he saw our parents kiss on the mouth. “Never,” he answered. “I was talking with a friend the other day, like, ‘my sister and I were raised the perfect asexuals.’” I laughed, flashing back to my mom’s castigating after she found Trojan “condominiums” in my brother’s college dorm.

My brother, being one of the funniest people I know, continued his rant, “We’re like the most sexually repressed culture – it’s like us and the Amish.

“Please – in a culture where widows wear black (for years) and don’t even think about remarrying,” my brother said. “My first thought when I read this was: ‘What the f*** did their mothers say?’” My brother believes that, while Portuguese culture is seen as masculine, women (more specifically, mothers) are the “backbone” of Portuguese culture. More serious, my brother reflected, “You took advantage of a Portuguese woman.”

“What the f*** did their mothers say?”

I wonder how the story may have been framed (and whether it would have been publicized at all) had Araujo herself been a Portuguese immigrant woman, rather than a Portuguese woman born in the United States. I wonder if my own mother would have received such treatment at her American workplace had Araujo’s ethnicity been published with the same voracity as her assailants. Or if Portuguese Americans would have lined the streets by the thousands in Fall River and New Bedford in protest had the violent rape of a Portuguese-American mother not been manipulated to embolden an anti-Portuguese, anti-immigrant sentiment. 

Scholar Mia Michael paints an interesting portrait in her review of articles published by the New Bedford Standard-Times, Fall River Herald News, O Jornal, Providence Journal, Boston Globe, and Boston Herald at that time. Michael’s work suggests that it wasn’t until after news outlets gravitated to the widespread characterizations of the assailants as Portuguese immigrants (and thus, the ensuing anti-immigrant and anti-Portuguese backlash) that members of the Portuguese community were quoted as questioning the victim’s moral character. Such sentiments were absent in the initial news coverage of the case, Michael writes.

Like the disclosure of the victim’s name and address, the media’s juxtaposition of the Defendants as Portuguese and the victim as American is, of course, a paradigm ripe for criticism of journalism ethics. And the slut-shaming and victim-blaming associated with the public discourse surrounding this legal case is a clear-cut example of the barriers women face in coming forward when they are victims of rape, assault and abuse. 

So you would think, my majoring in women’s studies and journalism, and then studying law, that I would have dissected this case in great depth in school. The truth is I don’t remember any instance in which this particular case was discussed. And something tells me I would have remembered

Though now a concept in vogue, the term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a black woman lawyer, in 1989. I first came to learn of the term by way of a college women’s studies class in which we analyzed Anita Hill’s testimony (and the coverage thereof) during the Senate confirmation hearings for United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Whereas Clarence Thomas was portrayed as Black, Anita Hill’s blackness was erased. She was depicted only through the prism of being a woman (rather than a Black woman) alleging sexual harassment against her former supervisor, the then-prospective Black Supreme Court Justice.

Intersectionality didn’t exist as a term during the “Big Dan’s rape case,” but it is interesting to think about how the application of an intersectional approach (by news media and the legal system) during that time may have changed the entire landscape in the lives of Cheryl Araujo and other persons of Portuguese descent living in the United States. 

A comment from one member of the New Bedford Women’s Center, Joan Outlette, illustrates how some felt torn between the dimensions of their identity. “I’m Portuguese. But this (rape) has effected me much more as a woman,” Outlette said. 

My dad said they were taught not to say “I’m Portuguese, but…” because “there was a lot of that going around at the time.” Today, my mom, naturally, interjects saying, “I’m Portuguese, but…” 

My parents hadn’t met yet. And my father, born in the final year of the Baby Boomer generation, had not yet been sworn in as a United States citizen. He was studying at Rhode Island College to become a teacher and working as a professional cleaner for a Portuguese man named Bob Motta, the owner of Baystate Cleaning Company.

Around this time, as part of my dad’s college Portuguese class, he traveled to the Rhode Island State House to show opposition for the legislature’s “English-only” bill that, if passed, would not have allowed Portuguese, Spanish or any other language other than English to appear on certain government documents. He remembers that, in this same course, his Portuguese professor, Lisa Godinho, showed footage of the “Big Dan’s trial” during class.

“Those guys deserved to go to jail,” my dad reflects now, “but give them a fair chance.” The translation during the trial was “so bad,” he said that he remembers his professor urging students to become well-paid translators, and telling the entire class, “Anyone in this room could do a better job.”

“Those guys deserved to go to jail…but give them a fair chance.”

Similarly, among the many things that stick out to my mom is the work of the translators in court. “The translation was awful,” she said. “It wasn’t even translating.” 

Given just how different my parents are by way of personality (seriously, they’re so different it really is astounding my brother and I were even born), I expected that the court translations would be a focal point for Trial by Media, a series that examines “how media have impacted verdicts.” It wasn’t.

The episode does not make a single mention of the poor translation services in court that the entire nation was privileged to see and hear on broadcast television. The more people I talk to about it, the more profound it is that this part of the story is erased.

More than the events of the rape, my aunt remembers the televised trial. “I remember more the trial in Fall River, you know, the translators for Portuguese in the court,” my Tia said. “It was all backwards.” All six Defendants spoke in Portuguese through interpreters. 

Court interpreters are, admittedly, engaged in challenging work; high quality work in this field sometimes goes unnoticed, but even minor mistakes are ripe for weighty criticism. My experience with Portuguese-language interpreters in court is exclusively related to Providence Family Court where I practiced law, pursuant to Rule 9 of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, as a student attorney with legal services. From my standpoint (i.e. having a limited working knowledge of Portuguese), the actual mechanics of the interpretation did not appear to be an issue when I was working in Providence.

To me, the issue was just how few Portuguese interpreters were employed by the Courts in a state that has boasted the third-largest Portuguese-American community in the United States. Oftentimes, my client would show up early for their court date and all the parties and respective counsel would be present and prepared, but the interpreter was in another courtroom with other parties, which meant the clients had to wait (sometimes several hours after the scheduled time) until they were able to go before the judge, forcing low-income Portuguese-speaking parents to take more time away from the jobs that fed their families.

I wanted to change this, but there was no way that I could, in good faith, interpret for these persons in the necessary legal and ethical ways. My Portuguese language skills were (and, unfortunately, still are), quite simply, not good enough. I didn’t want to short-change poor Portuguese people of justice. If I’m being honest, it made me angry that I was forced to take Spanish in high school because now I couldn’t work with my Portuguese-speaking clients or my Spanish-speaking clients without a translator for either language.

Now a licensed attorney, I was interested in the identities of the defense lawyers in the aggravated rape case. Where was our Johnnie Cochran before Johnnie Cochran became Johnnie Cochran? It came as no shock to me that three of the four attorneys were men and all four attorneys had culturally-white sounding names: Edward Harrington, Judith Lindahl, Kenneth Sullivan, and David Waxier. It is possible that these attorneys were of Portuguese descent, but I would bet very good money just based on how some of them pronounced Jose as “ho-say,” in addressing the jury, that it is highly unlikely. 

Quick PSA: Trials are rare in the United States. If you’re an attorney who gets to a closing argument and still cannot pronounce your client’s name correctly, please revisit why you got into law in the first place.

Before I was born, my paternal grandfather, who worked in a mill in Pawtucket, R.I., was arrested for drunk driving. The arresting officers in Rhode Island failed to read him his Miranda rights in Portuguese, the only language he could understand. The Miranda rights language requirement was something I didn’t have to review in law school. The story, passed down to me through oral history, stood with me forever.

Certain memories of studying at “the old Durfee” and “the new Durfee” High School in Fall River have stayed with my mother for decades. My mom recalls being looked down on by non-Portuguese students and Portuguese students born in America, both of whom would make fun of the clothes (down to the socks) that she and her friends would wear. “But we (Portuguese immigrants) had our own group,” my mother explains. “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” 

My mother’s standpoint illustrates just some of the complexities Portuguese Americans faced at the time of this case. Here was a woman who had immigrated less than 10 years before the case began, had gone to great lengths to protect her fellow immigrant friends when they were ridiculed, had eagerly become an American citizen, but who simultaneously recognized a major access-to-justice issue (e.g. poor translation services) in the “Big Dan’s trial,” believed a Portuguese bar was not a place for women, and condemned the actions of these men. 

Some, like the Committee for Justice, argued that the judge’s decision to ask jurors about their opinions of Portuguese Americans (instead of their perceptions of Portuguese immigrants) failed to adequately remove anti-immigrant bias among jurors. Some pointed to inconsistencies in the testimonies of Araujo and other witnesses.

Some not merely questioned the media frenzy and the amount of negative press at the time, but questioned why Portuguese Americans’ positive contributions in New Bedford and Fall River did not receive the same amount of press. After all, it seemed the fabric of New Bedford and Fall River had been built, quite literally, on the backs of Portuguese immigrants – their sweat equity poured into the textile mills as well as the historic whaling industry.

Some proud Portuguese immigrants, like my mom, didn’t protest because they didn’t want to support rapists. Some proud Portuguese descendants, like Manuel Ferreira, rallied in marches alongside and with thousands of Portuguese Americans, but maintained these protests were not in support of the Defendants.

These complexities seem evident in the range of visual signs held by protesters marching alongside one another in New Bedford and Fall River. Messages on the signs varied greatly, including:

  •  “One Nation Under God, we too are this Nation”
  • “Railroading Portuguese Men Won’t Fight Rape”
  • “Where are our rights?”
  • “We Are Here for Justice”
  • “Justice Crucified” 
  • “Overturn the Verdict”
  • “It wasn’t rape. It was consensual sex.”
  • “We Oppose Rape. We Also Oppose Convicting Men Because of Their National Origin”
  • “Was She Willing?”
  • “Too Much Publicity Hurts Our Community”
  • “Were the men tried by the media before they got to trial?”
  • “Why does WBSM (radio station) allow callers to put down the Portuguese?”
  • “Be Proud to Be Portuguese”
  • “We Love America But We Are Proud to be Portuguese.”

But nuance is sometimes lost in news stories. My mother was a Portuguese immigrant and U.S. citizen who didn’t protest. My father was not yet a U.S. citizen, but always believed the men deserved jail time. 

None of the nuance mattered then or years later when, in my final year of law school, I lived with a person employed by a federal agency that required the disclosure of all persons with whom she resided. The agency took a second look into my background because, even though, in the past six years, I hadn’t resided with my parents, who had both been sworn in as U.S. citizens for more than a decade, never been arrested, and lived more than four hours away from me, my parents weren’t born in this country.

At the end of the day, they were still immigrants – part of the “last big wave” of Portuguese immigration to the United States.

And, as immigrants, especially Portuguese immigrants, their morals were being attacked, as Immigrants’ Assistance Center Executive Director Helena DaSilva Hughes said. “Inexcusable amounts of racial prejudice and discriminatory innuendos have surfaced against the Portuguese throughout the area,” read a statement released by Portuguese Americans United on Mar. 17, 1983. 

Some scholars argue that Portuguese Americans’ status as “working-class immigrants” contributed to the “institutional discrimination and bigotry” that permeated the New Bedford and Fall River area for years, according to doctoral student Mia Michael. 

For many Portuguese Americans, the community was scapegoated for the actions of a few men.

“The whole Portuguese community has been put on trial and it is unjust,” one Portuguese woman protesting said.

A radio caller at the time said, “They (Portuguese immigrants) contribute nothing to this country. They don’t understand our ways nor do they want to understand, but this country is not like Portugal.” Another said, “They buy a broken-down house and they fix it up beautifully, but they don’t try to learn the law of the land. They don’t try to become involved in the community.”

“There were people on radio talk shows and in letters to the editor of the local newspaper calling for all of us (Portuguese persons living in the United States) to be put on a boat and shipped out of here,” said Alda Melo, an organizer for the Committee for Justice, a group that helped raise bail for the Defendants. 

These comments illustrate the sentiments of Charles Horton Cooley expressed in his 1922 book Human Nature and The Social Order. “The immigrant has, for the most part, been treated purely as a source of labor with little or no regard to the fact that he is a human being with a self like the rest of us,” Cooley wrote.

Of course, as utterly grotesque and downright offensive as these views are, none absolve the brutal crime inflicted or rubber stamp victim blaming. Slut shaming, for example, remains a problem in Portuguese-American communities (as does it in various communities in America and throughout the world). Some comments at the time illustrated various types of slut shaming and victim blaming with respect to public opinions of this case, including:

  • The men “did nothing to the victim” and “her (Araujo’s) rights are to be home with her two kids and be a good mother.”
  • “If she (Araujo) had been home with her children, this would not have happened.”
  • “I’m also a woman, but you don’t see me getting raped…If you walk around naked, men are just going to go for you.”
  • “I think she got what she deserved.”

I’ll be honest: it’s just as hard to read these sexist comments as it is those laced and dripping with xenophobia. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but for the record:

You can celebrate motherhood and honor modesty without: precluding women from certain spaces; demanding that women stay at home or “in the kitchen” (which, by its very nature, limits possibilities for women and girls); judging mothers for choices they make in raising their children; adjudicating the sexual permissiveness of girls and women for what they wear or don’t wear; or blaming a person (in literally any way) when they are the victim of a sexual assault.

I do it all the time. And it’s incredible how little energy is required for this sort of basic decency, which leaves me more time to focus on me and my family, so I just wanted to throw that out there, you know, in case anyone needed motivation.

Facing harassment and death threats, Cheryl Araujo eventually moved to a trailer park in Miami. She died in a car accident less than four years after the rape. Initial reports were that no drugs or alcohol was involved. Publications later reported that she was under the influence of alcohol before the car crashed into a cement utility pole on her way to a show with her two daughters. She had registered the same blood-alcohol content level (.17) as the night when she was attacked, according to an article in the Taunton Daily Gazette. My dad said he remembers, at the time, some people thought her death was a byproduct of voodoo. 

The two men charged with joint enterprise for allegedly cheering were found not guilty. 

The four men charged with aggravated rape were convicted. But none of them served more than 6.5 years. This meant the last of the convicted rapists were released from prison more than a year before I was born. 

The judge’s comments regarding sentencing were seen as controversial. He refused to reduce the sentences based on Araujo’s mere presence in a bar, stating that to do so would, “Virtually outlaw an entire gender for the style of their dress, the length of their skirts, or their choice to enter a place of public refreshment.” How those words were viewed as controversial is mind boggling to me. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be. Eight years after it happened, I was told that the “place of public refreshment” was no place for my gender. My mom still feels some type of way about me spending time in a bar late at night or sitting at the bar. For anyone doing the math, I’m 29

The idea that sexism, xenophobia, and racism are issues solely relegated to a past America is a seductive one. But it is undeniable that deep threads of these structural issues have been woven – not just in cities like Fall River and New Bedford where towering textile mills give us a window into the past, but – so deep into the very fabric of America and persist in our everyday lives.

My mom didn’t want me to write about this case. But I did because, sometimes, I want to sit at the bar and enjoy a “pinguinha.” We can look at this case as a black spot in the history of Portuguese Americans that we sweep under the rug with a vassoura (broom) or we can extract the lessons of this history to continually re-inform and reshape our future – lessons that might allow us to challenge our communities to be:

  • better in our treatment of women and girls, both in deed and word; 
  • better in the ways we discuss collective social movements; 
  • better in the ways we speak of race, ethnicity, gender, citizenship, and culture; 
  • better in our political, social, and legal advocacy; 
  • better in our translating; 
  • better in our collective messaging; 
  • better at authoring and framing our own narratives; and 
  • better at reclaiming what our culture should represent. 

We do enough cleaning. I’d rather us learn for a better future – a future we can toast together at bars and, more importantly, celebrate together in our everyday lives. That would be something to rally around and cheers.

3 thoughts on “A Luso-Millennial’s Story on Netflix’s ‘Trial By Media’ and the Big Dan’s Rape Case

  1. Definitely going to watch the Trial by Media episode tonight. I remember this case quite vividly. I was 25 years old at the time and was in my third year serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in San Antonio, TX, teaching in a school for undocumented children. I had lived in Holyoke, MA, surrounded by my Portuguese family and community, my entire life up until graduating college in 1980. I was following the case closely, but had not discussed it with anyone. One night at a school function a lovely Mexican American woman I barely knew quietly leaned toward me and said, “I am so sorry for you and what your community is going through. As a Mexican American, I really understand how hurtful it is to be blamed and looked down upon when someone of your ethnicity does something wrong. If you ever want to talk, I’m here for you.” She gently squeezed my hand and rejoined the conversation at the table. I was shocked that she knew about the case and a bit surprised that she knew I was Portuguese American. I have always thought it was one of the kindest things anyone ever said to me. Thank you for this article. It is so well researched and beautifully written!

    Like

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