Two Times Portuguese Americans Taught Me Not To Diss Healing: A Luso-Kid’s Spiritual Skepticism

We pulled up to a house in an unassuming working-class neighborhood in East Providence, R.I. Like so many times in my young Portuguese-American life, I was going to someone’s house I didn’t know. My Portuguese family more often than not just shows up at someone’s house, the notion of calling ahead seen as a very unnecessary American formality.

But, this time, it wasn’t to pray the rosary or, as was the second-most common occurrence, to enter a cramped room, in a basement or the third floor of a triple-decker apartment, filled with various fabrics, needles, and clothes lines strung up in criss-cross arrangements like John Nash equations in “A Beautiful Mind” – all markings of the unsung assiduous and creative designer(s) of our culture – the Portuguese seamstress, who would wrap a fabric measuring tape around me; the words “pequena maminhas” inevitably falling from her lips causing my face to turn a shade deeper than the ubiquitous tomato pin cushion that always seemed to be just barely within the older woman’s reach as she tightened the tape around my bust for what felt like hours.

This time there would be no poking and prodding at my bust or my body image, so I was at least thankful for that.

I was going to see an “homem” (man) that was supposed to help me. See a man about a dog, as people say. That dog was my neck. I was about middle-school age and something like two days away from a Massachusetts State Cup game. Shortly after my mom’s car got rear-ended by a trailer on our way to school, I had problems moving my neck, which is to say that I couldn’t turn my head to the side. This made playing soccer fairly difficult as there was almost no range of motion. At practice, I tried peeking over my shoulder before receiving a ball and ended up having to literally move my entire body to see the play.

I had visited with a chiropractor, to no avail. The pain of the stiffness and rigidity had gone on for something like two weeks.

My Portuguese soccer coach saw how much I was in pain and how it was affecting my game as I continued to play through it, so he gave my parents an address to see this “homem.” As we approached the man’s ranch-style home, my skepticism (and anxiety) mounted. When I walked in, there were no diplomas on any walls, no sign that the man was a specialist of any kind. It was just a regular Portuguese home: tight-knit and clean. I had to keep reminding myself of who I knew my coach to be because I was about ready to turn my heels and walk out. 

Coach was old-school and no-nonsense. He wasn’t shy about calling our goalkeeper “preguicosa” (lazy) straight to her face after she cut a corner during a warm-up lap. He once turned to a player, who had been coughing uncontrollably and apologizing for her diagnosed “exercise-induced asthma” during one of his team chats, furrowing his eyebrows that appeared, in that moment, to raise almost to the point of his hairline, and said, “Stop coughing. That’s enough.” He wasn’t the type to flatter people with compliments. If I got a “good job” from him after the game, I knew I had laid more than everything out on the field. So whoever this man was, who had gotten Coach’s stamp of approval, must have been legitimate right? 

My mom accompanied me into the man’s house to ensure there was no confusion in the translations and, well, my mom figured this man would likely be touching me in his own house, so, even though she trusted my coach, trust has its limits. 

Was this man a doctor? Physical therapist? Chiropractor? Masseuse? Nope, just a man. I had my doubts (which is to say I kept mumbling the refrain, “This isn’t going to work”), but I was desperate.

The man, known as something of a healer, was more quiet than any other Portuguese person I had ever met. I couldn’t tell you three words he said to me – and that had nothing to do with English being my first language. He barely said anything.

I sat down, in a normal, basic-looking kitchen chair, still and quiet. The man put his hands on my neck. Just sort of chillin’ and slightly moving his hands on my neck in silence. To be honest, as someone who grew up in a Portuguese home where “quiet time” never existed, I was a little freaked out. He wasn’t massaging or “cracking” (i.e. adjusting) my neck. I tried to focus on my breathing, taking deep breaths in and out. Still, I just kept thinking, “What kind of bullshit is this that Coach got me doing?” 

Well, I kept thinking it, that is, until whatever he did actually worked. Now, I don’t know if his laborer-type hands simply triggered a pressure point or if he really was given a special gift from God. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what the man did. I don’t even know his name. All I know is that I walked out of that house, able to turn my head for the first time in something like two weeks. And I couldn’t have been more thankful. 

We weren’t in his home very long – maybe less than a half hour. He didn’t ask for favors or money, but my mom put something like $20 in a jar that was on a small table by the door on our way out. “I can’t believe it worked,” I said, hopping into the car and rolling my neck. “Like, holy shit, what was that?” My family didn’t really have an answer for me on the uncharacteristically quiet ride home.

“I can’t believe it worked,

like, holy shit, what was that?”

Something of a socialized chatterbox (I was the kid being separated from her friends in seventh grade math and high school freshman English classrooms for talking too much) as a child, I struggled with staying quiet during Catholic masses.

I remember getting dragged to church more than once a week when I was about 8 years old in elementary school. In addition to the weekly Sunday Mass, my mother and I would go on Tuesday nights to this hybrid-type Mass in which Portuguese was the exclusive language.

These masses were filled with mostly Portuguese women, all of them older than me. And, to my young eyes, only one other person who looked like they were younger than 30 years old, a Portuguese girl from my school who was two grades ahead of me (she later informed, her mother had dragged her, too). Though I could follow a traditional Portuguese Mass, this wasn’t an average Mass. 

To my young ears, this woman was speaking way too fast for me to catch up, so I sat there trying to pick up on context clues. What was going on?

I had never seen a woman talk this much in church. Sure, the Portuguese masses were mostly filled with women. And sure, most times when someone “had” the Holy Ghost, a Portuguese woman was leading the prayers and hymns in the home. And sure, every time there was a festa or any other Church event, Portuguese women were the ones slaving away cooking in kitchens without air conditioners and sewing procession costumes.

But to stand up and speak in front of the Church for this long – without being used as a filler in the moments until the platform could immediately feature the “important” speech of a male priest?

This unassuming woman held the microphone without any intention of giving it up. And what was more: the entire congregation was silently listening, captivated by words I couldn’t translate fast enough in my head. Was I unknowingly sitting in a pew before the Portuguese Mother Teresa? 

Save for the older woman lector who uttered the words “Leitura de” in the most enunciated, thin, old-sounding voice before delivering the first and second readings and the score of women dressed in black “whispering” in the audience (side note: everyone can hear the “essa rapariga…” and “aquela mulher..”), women didn’t really ever seem to command the attention of the congregation in Church.

Indeed, in my family, when Portuguese women spoke amongst each other, they were (and still are) loud talkers, “with tongues quick and sharp,” but outside the kitchens or other tables where women congregated separate and apart from men (e.g. in the next room over from men-only games of Dominoes), the speech of Portuguese women, in my childhood experience, was not unlike what Gloria Jean Watkins (better known as “bell hooks”) described as the speech of Black women in her 1989 book Talking Back.

“Our speech, ‘the right speech of womanhood,’ (i.e. the sexist sign of woman’s submission to systems controlled by men) was often the soliloquy, the talking into thin air, the talking to ears that do not hear you – the talk that is simply not listened to. Unlike the Black male preacher whose speech was to be heard, who was to be listened to, whose words were to be remembered, the voices of Black women – giving orders, making threats, fussing – could be tuned out, could become a kind of background music, audible but not acknowledged as significant speech,” hooks wrote.

Replace the bold words “Black male preacher” with “white male priest” and “Black women” with “Portuguese women” and this was generally my perception growing up in a Portuguese-American community. 

Though she had been addressing a congregation of mostly women, this short, thin woman seemed to ooze a power that demanded her speech be heard in a space where THE voice demanding to be heard was always and forever, in my experience, that of a male priest. For me, this was unheard of. 

Amidst my regarding the petite person I perceived to be the Portuguese Superwoman, almost suddenly people shot up from the pews and began walking up the aisles to the altar. Seeing this for the first time, I was so confused.

The tabernacle wasn’t even open. I didn’t see hands blessing bread or wine. Can a woman bless the Eucharist? She isn’t holding anything.

“Mom, what’s going on?” I whispered. 
“Shhh,” my mother hushed.

I remember standing on my tippy toes, peering from side to side in an attempt to figure out what was going on – the way one does when one is young.

The woman talked some more, then would approach each person standing at the altar, placing her hands above them as they bowed their heads. And then they fell back. I don’t mean this in a figurative sense; I mean these people literally fell to the floor. Someone even passed out and remained unconscious for a few minutes. I remember my head jerking back in shock when I first heard the thump.

What the-” I paused. 
“Shh,” my mother said.

The woman’s name was Maria Rocha. Born on the Azorean island of Sao Miguel, Rocha moved to America as a 14 year old. Just about the same age as my mom. And like my mom, Rocha suffered from a heart condition early in life.

Legend has it that Mary (the Mother of Jesus) appeared to Rocha in a cloud two times (the first when she was doing laundry in a basement; the second when she was at a kitchen sink), telling her not to be afraid because Jesus would bless her with gifts. The story goes that, soon thereafter, while Rocha was in her prayer room, Jesus appeared to the homemaker saying he would bestow her with the healing ministry and other gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that all she had to do was pray for healing, and He would do the rest. A few months later, Rocha’s heart condition was reportedly healed. 

Rocha then formed the “Mission from God” ministry, devoting her life to God, traveling the world as a healing minister in service to Him. My mom remembers her healing a young boy with arthritis and hearing about her healing others who suffered from heart conditions, intestinal issues, and cancer.

“God was truly at work transforming her (Maria Rocha) into the instrument he wanted her to be,” Rocha’s daughter wrote in her book titled, My Mother, the Wife, the Grandmother, the Mystic, which was published in 2008.

Though I remember many people going up to stand before Rocha, my mother says that only about five persons (those “pure of heart,” in a “state of grace,” my mother recounts) would be healed at a service performed by Rocha. Apparently, Rocha didn’t get a salary for this work, but received “offerings” from those whom she served.

My mom describes Rocha as “very simple,” “low-key” and “in tune with God,” remembering, “She (Rocha) always said, ‘I’m not the one who does the healings. God does the healings, but he’s just informing me that he healed you.’” My mother’s memories match up with the account of Rocha’s daughter, Ann Rocha-Pierce.

“She (Maria Rocha) is a quiet person who speaks softly of Jesus and speaks out God’s word of knowledge as Jesus tells her the different diseases, or addictions, that he is healing, from spiritual to physical,” Rocha-Pierce wrote.

Sometimes, Rocha informed, she wasn’t aware of who God was calling through her, so she would tell the congregation that she was being reminded, through the spirit of God, of some characteristic of a person who had received the healing, asking the person with that characteristic to come forward.

My mom’s heart was never healed. She never even walked up the church aisle to the altar. She hadn’t felt that God was calling her to come forward. But we still went every week that Maria Rocha performed the healing ministry services at our church. My mom went to thank God for the healing she had already received: having two children when doctors told her she couldn’t have any. She said that merely attending Rocha’s services made her feel healthier longer.

“Some people are full of shit,” my mother reflects now. “Her (Maria Rocha), I believed.” 

As someone who grew up watching the television “psychic” known as “Miss Cleo” on, what felt like, every other commercial that aired during the summers spent at my Avo’s house, I found it very easy to poke fun at things associated with paranormal or religious belief whether it was Tarot cards and Ouija boards (things some in my Portuguese family associate with Satan) or healing rituals (something many in the Luso-community hold sacred). And in many ways, it is easy to ridicule the rituals I’ve described experiencing. But there is healing power in ritual. 

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski suggested that people are more likely to turn to rituals when they face situations when the outcome is important, uncertain, and uncontrollable.

The transformative power of belief is real. And its effects are not merely hypothetical.

Portuguese people in Brazil perform “simpatias” (formulaic rituals) for everything from quitting smoking to curing asthma to warding off bad luck. Researchers have found that people perceive these simpatias to be more effective depending on the number of steps involved, repetition, sequence and timing, which illustrates the power in the very act(s) of the ritual itself.

“Performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true,” according to behavioral scientists and Harvard Business School professors Francesca Gino and Michael Norton – coauthors of  “Why Rituals Work,” an article, published by Scientific American in 2013, which summarizes simpatias and Malinowski’s work. Such rituals even appear to benefit people who claim not to believe the rituals work. 

“You don’t have to even have to believe that the ritual will have some magical or spiritual effect – just taking time to think about and perform the ritual seems to be enough to ease your pain,” Yale psychology professor Dr. Laurie Santos explained in an episode on her podcast, “The Happiness Lab.”

Hailing from a biracial home in “working-class” New Bedford, Mass., Santos earned her doctorate at Harvard University, received a Genius Award for the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, and heads the largest residential college at Yale University where she integrates cognitive psychology with economics, business, neuroscience, biology, public health and public policy.

Santos credits her ability to appreciate the values of a wide array of insights to her experience growing up at the intersection of two cultures and races (her father is of Cape Verdean (Portuguese) descent; her mother of French-Canadian descent). She urges people to perform rituals when confronted with an upsetting or challenging event, and teaches, as part of her Yale “happiness class” (Psychology and the Good Life), that meditating for 10 minutes a day and making lists for things you are grateful for can help you feel happy

I didn’t believe that a man without medical degrees or medical training would be able to provide relief for the pain in my neck after the car accident, but he did and I was both grateful and elated.

I also didn’t believe people in the congregation fell down because of God or the Holy Spirit, but being surrounded by others’ deep belief in Rocha’s gifts (an almost superpower) and witnessing how Rocha’s true devotion made so many people take her words seriously, gave me insight into my own power. It showed me that my words could hold power in spaces where women’s voices were traditionally secondary if I was truly devoted to my craft.

Rocha’s spiritual healing services made my mom feel closer to God, which gave her a better quality of life.

And, I would venture to say, that these healing services gave the woman homemaker and the man with hardened, calloused hands something beyond the financial offerings – maybe empowerment and a renewed sense that, despite their modest circumstances, they could make a difference in people’s lives.

My mom told me that Rocha, herself, once admitted that she had questioned why it had been her who received such a gift because, in Rocha’s words, she had never been really religious before the visions.

Our disparaging skepticism is oftentimes rooted in scientific rationalism, but perhaps opening our minds outside the painful rigidities of such rationalism, that is, figuratively and literally turning our heads toward it and, if even for just a moment, allowing our entire beings to breathe in and feel something bigger than ourselves, can:

  • give us a deeper appreciation of experiences outside our own personhood;
  • enrich our critical thinking skills by embracing different beliefs to build understanding within and outside the Luso-American community; and
  • allow us to believe that we can achieve more in our lives than what may seem possible based on present hardships or immediate circumstances.

When levied against the potential benefit, the diss isn’t worth it. Why hate when you have a chance to heal and be happy?

One thought on “Two Times Portuguese Americans Taught Me Not To Diss Healing: A Luso-Kid’s Spiritual Skepticism

  1. I am extremely impressed with your writings relative to the Luso-American experience. I appreciated your style. Direct, frank, sharp, and very real. Thank you!

    Like

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