If one thing is true about Portuguese Americans, it is that we love a good party. Almost any reason for a festa is a good enough reason. Make no mistake about it — we do it up. And everyone is invited. It’s one of the things I love about our culture.
A baby is born? Send everyone to the hospital. Kids receive their First Communion? Let’s make it a joint party with the cousin and call the cake lady who does that “Portuguese frosting.” Teen is affirming their Confirmation? Cue the Portuguese-American DJ. It’s a beautiful thing.
Most people who know me know that I am, without question, a “holiday person.”
When Christmas rolls around, I wear an entire week of “ugly” sweaters, use a Santa hat instead of styling my hair, and do silly things like dress up as a “Portuguese Elf” and deliver a homemade food basket (featuring literal hanging chourico) to my grandmother.
During our most recent New Year’s Eve, I played the role of bartender, serving my aunts, uncles, and cousins a mix of maracuja-flavored Sumol and J. Faria & Sons maracuja (passion fruit) liquor, the latter which I received from my Portuguese-American colleague and friend as part of the office’s secret Santa gift exchange.
In my second year of law school, my professor (a former federal district chief judge with a humor so dry it rivaled the air in Nevada) made some crack, urging us to come to class in Halloween costumes. Pumped that the old-school guy wanted us to rock costumes, I showed up for his Evidence course as the revolutionary (controversial, countercultural symbol of rebellion) Che Guevara with a green military-style top, black jeans, black boots, a beret with a silver star, and my hands painted red. What can I say? Motorcycle Diaries is an excellent film. Only one other person in that entire class dressed up. I thanked her even though the extent of her costume was wearing a low-key headpiece that was some sort of animal ears.
It didn’t stop me. Last year around Halloween, not many in our law firm even dressed up, but I decked out in a full-on Edward Scissorhands costume for the office.
In short, when it comes to the holidays, I can be extra. And I don’t care. Of course, there are some holidays I am indifferent about e.g. Groundhog Day and Presidents’ Day.
Despite being Catholic, Saint Patrick’s Day confuses me: a person kidnapped, forced to become a slave, becomes a shepherd, finds God, becomes a priest, converts people to Christianity, and we celebrate him with leprechauns and getting drunk? I feel like I missed something in my religion classes.
Irrespective of its peculiarity, I won’t lie. I had fun rocking a green get-up walking with colleagues and friends in the Saint Patty’s Day parade in Providence, R.I. in support of the Olivia Deaton Foundation, which aims to “break the silence” surrounding depression and suicide. And I had fun bar hopping with my best friend’s crew in between watching the Irish-American parade in Newport, R.I. and decking out in green for a house party as an undergraduate in College Park, Md. Otherwise, my Portuguese family and I don’t really observe Saint Patrick’s Day, other than remembering to wear green on the day.
It is funny to me when people assume I’m Irish, which I suppose is because I share the sort of pasty skin color that Vitamin D loves to turn firetruck red. If they only knew, I love the smell of chinchards so much I asked my mom to pack it for my lunch in kindergarten, but that corned-beef-and-cabbage smell turns my stomach.
I suppose it’s similarly odd that Italian Americans commemorate Saint Joseph’s Day with zeppole dessert. But does that stop me from patronizing LaSalle Bakery (in Providence, R.I.) or Vienna Bakery (in Barrington, R.I.) for zeppole when March 19 rolls around? That’s a hard no. I assure you my weakness for fresh sweets knows no cultural prejudice. The Italian malassada-meets-quejada is worth a try if you haven’t had one, my friends. I’ve roped my mom into a cafe date on more than one occasion, so to my Italian friends: You’re welcome. Just kidding.
Side note: There’s probably a joke in the “All Saints’ Day” versus Saint Patrick’s Day or Saint Joseph’s Day, but I’ll leave that to others.
Make no mistake, we have our own quirks, too:
- tucking literal palms from Palm Sunday under the mattress;
- baking whole eggs hidden inside sweet bread for Easter;
- putting chocolate and money on a newlywed couple’s bed; and
- hanging a literal pig for the festa from a chain on the ceiling of the salao, which, of course, was the same space my Portuguese-Catholic school held indoor physical education classes.
I’ll be the first to admit it: It’s weird.
“O Menino mija” has to be one of my favorites, though. The tradition of “O menino mija” began in the Azores around the mid-eighteenth century. The phrase literally means “the little boy pees.” If you’re unfamiliar, I’ll explain via example.
A few years back, one Christmas Eve, shortly after walking through the door to my grandmother’s basement (the upstairs is immaculate, untouched and not lived in), I turned to my grandmother and, with a half-grin said, “Avo, menino mija?” Her eyes lit up as she said, “Sim, menina! Vai buscar a garrafa em cima. Esta escondido em cima. Vai, vai!” It’s funny how even young kids who barely know any Portuguese can tell you what garrafa (bottle) and escondido (hidden) means if they’ve spent any time around Portuguese people. I’ll leave the rest of that for another blog post.
That night I got drunk with my grandmother is one of the best memories ever. We took shots of Vice Rei Anis Escarchado and, like the true O.G. she is, she drank me under the table, despite being in her 80s.
When I visited my other side of the family and my cousins asked me about how it was going, I said, “It was great. I got drunk with my grandmother. We were taking shots of Portuguese anisette — and that baby was pissing all over the place!” To which some snorted, saying, “Oh, my God.” And I replied, “Oh yeah, it was a vergohna (shame),” rocking a full-toothed smile on my face. And anyone within earshot couldn’t hold back a laugh.
I always love to hear how parents navigate Christmas with their children. It didn’t faze me that Santa came to our house when we were at Midnight Mass, and visited the homes of my non-Portuguese friends later.
I was recently trading stories with this Portuguese-American teen who said her mother (born in mainland Portugal) used to tell her when she was growing up to do her prayers in Portuguese, rather than English, because God hears those first. I have to laugh, but I suppose that’s one way to keep the culture alive. I mean I won’t even lie, sitting in the testing room the day of the Bar Exam, I did prayers in English and Portuguese because, I figured, I needed all the help I could get.
No older than 3 years old, flipping through photo books with my mom, I told her that Santa had Tio Claudio’s eyes. But, in elementary school, when a boy named Austin Brown told me that Santa wasn’t real, I didn’t believe him. First, I believed I was smarter than Austin.
Second, my mother’s refrain throughout my childhood anytime my cousins, brother or I would ask for anything (even if just a candy bar in a store) was “Can’t afford it, can’t afford it,” so the notion that my parents could give us a multi-tabletop game or a family desktop computer was inconceivable. I had no idea that my parents would buy Santa’s gifts “Rent-A-Center” style with monthly payment plans and high-interest credit cards.
And third, Austin claimed that parents put your gifts under the tree when you’re asleep, but that wasn’t how Christmas worked in my house. Santa came while we were at Midnight Mass. My parents spent the entire night with us; they didn’t have time to do it. Only later, did I start to question just how long it took my mother to put on meias and how these nylons always seemed to rip on Christmas Eve, delaying our commute to my aunt’s house as my father, brother and I sat waiting in the car.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he yelled at me when I waited, in hiding, on the upper landing of the triple-decker apartment, determined to catch her in the act. He didn’t have to tell me anything. I knew just from his face. I remember sitting in the car, my younger brother complaining about how long it always takes mom to get ready (the same gripes I had made years before), while I stared out the window, silently shaking my head, feeling betrayed.
My non-Portuguese friends woke up to receive their gifts on the morning of Christmas Day. My brother and I were guilted into being well behaved (and thus awake) at the bilingual (though always debated just how bilingual) Midnight Mass, so Santa wouldn’t change his mind and we could arrive home to gifts immediately thereafter.
Christmas Day is big in America. But, for my family, Christmas Eve (which obviously extends into Christmas Day after mass at midnight) is the big day where you dress up, exchange gifts with the family and all that. After we go to bed (sometimes turning in as late as 4 a.m. because, again, O Menino mija or our families otherwise just decide to get together again after mass), waking up Christmas Day is nothing like the American movies. On Christmas Day, we may do some “visitas” with more of the family, but, mostly, we lay around in pajamas or some other low-key outfit the entire day.
If not for American films and television, I wouldn’t even question that we always wished our relatives “Boas Festas” or “Feliz Natal” as we walked into the homes of our avos, tias and tios, on Christmas Eve, delivering and receiving what felt like 70 beijinhos (the natural summation when you have a big family and everyone gets two kisses apiece). American films show children waking up Christmas morning wishing “Merry Christmas” for the first time that holiday. Non-Portuguese people seemingly don’t wish you “Merry Christmas” until Christmas Day.
Meanwhile, my family honors Christmas for seven days. And, in Portugal, Immaculate Conception Day, which is celebrated December 8, serves as an extension of the Christmas holiday. I can’t help but feel like all of this just circles back to the same conclusion: We love to party.
I know some Americans who take down their Christmas decorations before New Year’s Eve. If you even tried to do this in my home, you might be on the receiving end of a chapada (slap) because, for many Portuguese Americans, it’s still Christmas. The Three Kings, bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh, haven’t gotten there. You have to wait until January 7, at minimum. This is very serious business for my mom, who will place the biblical Magi some distance away from the nativity scene until the date of the Epiphany (January 6). Most years, she wouldn’t put the baby Jesus figurine in the manger until Christmas Eve.
I have this joke that, through Jesus, we’ve all shared spit. Sorry mom, if you’re reading this. Apart from it being something of a tradition to get small children to kiss the baby Jesus at the nativity scene in your home, many Portuguese-Catholic churches, following the conclusion of Midnight Mass, will encourage a line in which parishioners assemble to kiss the church’s baby Jesus statue, often held by the priest.
At one point in my life, I once believed the following to be an undeniable truth: If you never kissed a statue of baby Jesus or the dove wings on the scepter of a Holy Ghost crown, you’re not Portuguese. I’m not a germaphobe, but, even as a child, wiping the scepter down with the designated cloth napkin, I rubbed it so hard, thinking every time: THIS IS SO NOT CLEAN.
Our culture is so touchy-feely-kissy in every way (seriously, the anthem of growing up as a Portuguese child might just be the phrases “dar beijos,” “dar beijinhos”) that, I admit, it is very challenging to envision certain aspects of Portuguese-American life in a post-coronavirus world.
One tradition I hope continues is visiting the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Mass. What can I say? I’m a sucker for Christmas lights and appreciate the myriad of different nativity scenes reflecting cultures around the world.
Our nativity scene often features trigo (wheat) and ervilhaca (vetch), which my grandmother grows around Christmas. On Facebook, I once joked that the number of plates filled with trigo and ervilhaca — and how tall each grows — might be the most accurate way to measure “levels of Portuguese.” My friend from law school informed me that her family grows wheat and vetch for Persian New Year’s. It’s funny how, in such spaces, people find each other. We always talked about our families and it was hilarious just how much our cultures had in common — and just how much of a departure it felt from the culturally-white glass box of law school.
While studying at the University of Baltimore School of Law, I read a Supreme Court case captioned Lynch v. Donnelly. The case originated in Pawtucket, R.I. Naturally, I was intrigued. The city put up a Christmas display in the shopping district that was challenged in Court. The lower court ruled the creche (but not the Santa Claus, holiday tree, or “Season’s Greetings” banner) violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — a ruling that the Supreme Court overturned.
First, I made sure to remind myself that the Establishment Clause prohibits Congress from establishing religion. Next, I thought, one more important thing: “What the hell is a creche?” Once I looked it up and saw that the word referred to a nativity scene, I had to laugh. “Oh, it’s a presepio,” I said aloud.
Every Christmas as a child, I helped my mother set up the Christmas tree and the presepio (sometimes, armed with super glue, performing surgery on at least two kings that had been beheaded in storage) and decorated an entire winter village. It was always a “presepio” or, as my brother and I used to shorten as children, “a zap.” I had never even heard of the word creche. There were so many times I felt like I was sneaking into the law school, just waiting to be caught, and this was definitely one of them.
Holidays have this special way of existing both within the context of everyday life and outside of it. For this reason, I have such a special place in my heart for the holidays.
Nonetheless, I do take unequivocal exception with Columbus Day (see previous blogpost that discusses some reasons therein) and Rhode Island’s V-J Day, the latter as it celebrates the surrender of the Japanese after the United States dropped atomic bombs i.e. those weapons of mass destruction that made no distinction between Japanese military and civilians, but, other than these, it’s hard to find a holiday I don’t like.
I am highly critical of the colonialism and social injustice embedded in the holiday that is Thanksgiving (see: “Thanksgiving,” a blogpost I wrote for my sports journalism class in college), but there is something to be said about breaking bread together and taking a moment to say what (and, more importantly, who) we are thankful for in our present-day lives; coming to a table with no intention to exchange presents, earn profit, or otherwise advance some other intensely-commercial motive.
Still, I grow increasingly weary each year as Black Friday shopping times bleed earlier and earlier into the day. As I get older, I realize just how important it is to take time to reflect in appreciation of all the people in my life who love and support me.
Though we have days like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, it seems Thanksgiving, as it stands now, might be the only recognized United States holiday that acknowledges relationships outside the nuclear family. In this sense, it is a holiday embraced by my Portuguese-American family. A conversation between the “Azorean Green Bean” Maria Lawton and Portuguese-American entrepreneur Angela Simoes during the “Our Portuguese Table” podcast may shed insight into some of the reasons why.
“There is no Thanksgiving in Portugal,” Lawton said, but “we have embraced Thanksgiving because, again, what does it involve? Family around a table, all kinds of food, all kinds of, you know, desserts — that’s a –”
“That’s a Portuguese holiday if I’ve ever heard one,” finished Simoes.
One theory seldom expressed, in my experience, outside the Portuguese-American community is that some American natives were of Portuguese descent. Every year around Thanksgiving, my mom tells me that the man known as Tecumseh was part Portuguese. On the food podcast, Lawton questioned, “You think those Indians were really Portuguese? I don’t know.” I have scoffed at this idea for as long as I can remember, but, since so much of what I had once learned as “American history” seems to be factually inaccurate, I’m not completely ruling it out these days.
Even though the origin of Thanksgiving is a serious problem, I try my best to relish that time with my big Portuguese family, and, in that sense, genuinely find it to be one of the most rewarding times of the year.
I’ve been single my entire life, but I gift myself something nearly every Valentine’s Day. Does that contradict how deeply I feel about not commercializing Thanksgiving? Maybe. Does it make me feel less shitty having grown up in a culture that heralds marriage tertiary among any achievement one can accomplish (the first being: giving birth to a child; the second, having more than one child) and never having a date? Unequivocally, yes. February is too early in the year to start killing my vibes.
In my experience as a Portuguese-American child, nothing could kill my vibes quite like Easter. First, as a girl, it wasn’t even a debate: I was going to have to wear a dress.
But, hey, at least the bunny will bring chocolates. I could live under that delusion until my Uncle Johnny held a mysterious black trash bag, opening the gate to my grandmother’s backyard, and an Easter egg fell out. That’s how I found out the hunt was a farce. And, then, of course, there was this one time — well let me back up…
I was once a true lover of animals (some of you will be surprised to know this given just how jumpy I am around dogs and cats; I swear they smell anxiety). I won goldfish from the festa by playing what can only be described as the Portuguese version of beer pong, sinking a ping pong ball into a jar of water. That fish “fell” down the toilet, as my mother described, to go back to his home in the sea. I won another one. That one went to sleep forever (i.e. my parents neglected to buy fish food). I won another one. And this one really did accidentally slip down the drain in the kitchen sink.
One year, we got a pair of real-live birds at the festa. I don’t even remember how, but I imagine my parents bought them at the festa auction where the man with the perpetually garbled, pop-filter-less microphone spoke so fast all I heard was “trinta, trinta dolares,” then “cinquenta, cinquenta, cinquenta dolares!” I was so excited. Finally, a real pet! My bird was the green one; my brother’s, the white-accented-blue one. One day we went out to buy birdseed and when we came back to feed my bird it was gone. It wasn’t in the cage. But neither I nor my brother had let it out. My parents told me that my brother’s bird had eaten mine. I was heartbroken. I cursed that white bird for years. I never really talked about it, but a couple of years ago it came up while I was working alongside a vet technician-turned-paralegal and she told me straight up: no way that bird ate the other one.
Returning to the original story: Both my paternal and maternal grandparents had bunnies. And I loved those bunnies. Every time I visited, I had to see them, waddling over to the cage, feeding them, petting them. They were so cute! Then, one Easter, we went to my grandparents’ house. I ventured outside to the cage. It was empty. When I came back inside, I turned to my cousin. “Where did the bunny go?” I asked. “On the plate; they’re eating it,” he said. Absolutely mortified. To this day, I won’t eat rabbit.
Suffice to say: Despite my affinity for fresh massa (especially from Tony’s Bakery, Cornerstone Bakery, or homemade from my Tia Grace’s kitchen) dunked in a glass of milk, Easter was not my favorite holiday.
As I got older, Easter became a job. As “head altar server” (a title deemed by the pastor), I spent more hours in Church during the week of Easter than some people spend in a lifetime.
Altar server practice for Holy Thursday Mass. Then Holy Thursday — where the priest literally scrubs the feet of parishioners and I’m thinking, “Are they really that dirty? Her toes are manicured. Let’s get a move on.” Practice for Good Friday mass. And then the solemn, interspersed with silence, Stations of the Cross.
Practice again. And then the mass that felt like it was three masses in one: Saturday late-night Easter Vigil where we held candles that dripped onto the affixed white, paper bobeche, then later followed the priest around the aisles of the church holding a basin of holy water as he blessed parishioners.
Was I finished? No. My mother dragged us to Mass on Easter Sunday where, even though I was an altar server, wearing a cassock (i.e. a robe), I still had to wear a dress. My mom loves Easter. She never drives fast, but I’ll never forget this one time when we were running late to Holy Thursday Mass and she made the normally-half-hour commute from East Providence, R.I. to Fall River, Mass. in 7 minutes.
When I was younger and we ventured to Columbia Street in Fall River, I could almost guarantee that one of four things was going to happen:
- We were getting the best fresh massa in the city (again, shoutout Tony’s Bakery);
- We were about to score some fantastic Portuguese pastry (likely pasteis de nata) at Europa;
- We were going to Confession at Santo Christo; or
- We were visiting a Portuguese shop for Portuguese clothes and/or Portuguese gold jewelry to celebrate a Baptism, a Communion, or, really, any celebration.
If you grew up in a Portuguese family, you are likely abundantly familiar with Portuguese gold jewelry that, in our culture, is more of a necessary tribute than an accessory. Giving a child Portuguese jewelry in the Portuguese-American community might be the ultimate expression of the gift-giving language of love. I remember spending what felt like hours standing around these stores as my mother examined the fine, pint-sized items as though she, herself, were a jeweler.
We are obsessed with wearing our heritage, not only on our sleeve, but on our very beings. Although I’ve sketched a tattoo that I’ve wanted for years (which includes, among other things, a caravel and the words “My limit is the horizon line”), I am terrified of the pain. People have told me, “It’s just like getting your ears pierced, that didn’t hurt did it?” I wouldn’t know. My ears were pierced before I could remember. I was two-months old when my ears were first adorned with Portuguese gold earrings. My non-Portuguese friends are always shocked by this.
Our celebrations have been memorialized in images, often captured by Portuguese photographers like Tony Avila, Jennifer Neves, or an uncle with the maquina (shoutout Tio Tony). And you would be hard-pressed to find an image where the child is not wearing some sort of Portuguese gold — whether it’s a cross, a necklace, earrings, or a bracelet, bought from places like Columbia Jewelers, Baby World or Casa-something-or-other.
When I look at old photos, I always find it interesting that these photos illustrate a rather odd paradox in our culture. Over the years, I’ve recognized a certain masculinity that many Portuguese men seem to both internally possess and perform. Sometimes, it feels so over-the-top masculine that it borders on absurd. I often wonder if this masculinity, at least in America, stems from their childhood celebrations being captured in photos in which they are seen in what can only be described as dresses and dress-like outfits, rocking Portuguese gold jewelry all the while.
Whenever I see Portuguese men around my age, performing various acts of such over-the-top masculinity while regularly wearing gold jewelry in their 20s and 30s, I think of what their Baptism and other baby photos must look like. I venture to assume their photos are more effeminate than that of my brother — nowadays a brawny-looking biomedical engineer, who designs medical devices and rocks cardigans that won’t have people assuming, as they have in the past, that he works construction.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Portuguese men — the dark hair, the names that make me roll my tongue, the deeper understanding and connection, the shared love of futebol, the height that doesn’t make me feel like I’m being abducted when we walk together, the thoughtful eyes, and, those who can play the accordion, well, hand me a Sumol because it just got hot in here (seriously, it’s a thing).
I just wonder how much constantly needing to assert a certain masculinity weighs on (and potentially holds back) the boys and men of our culture. For example, while I support and deeply appreciate the landscapers, construction workers, and laborers in our community, I hope that young Portuguese men, who go on to pursue these trades, do so because they enjoy working with their hands or physically creating something, not because it is the only thing they think is possible or within their grasp.
I know how much having to outwardly display femininity physically pained me at times around the holidays and various celebrations, hyperventilating and inconsolable with tears pouring down my face in the salon as an elementary-school student when, despite how gentle the Portuguese-American hairstylist was, all the pins inserted into my then-long hair felt as though they were burrowing through my scalp and into my brain. And I know just how absolutely freeing it felt to take the bobby pins out and massage my scalp at the end of whichever day we were celebrating: a Communion, a festa, whatever.
It is ridiculous to me that certain performances of masculinity and femininity – and your capacity to deal with them amidst holidays and celebrations – sometimes get coded as sexuality in our culture. When I was younger, I used to feel insulted that people in my Portuguese family said I was gay — not because it is an insult to be gay or lesbian, but because I felt as though those who made this claim exhibited a condescension that conveyed: I know you better than you — after I had made it very clear that I was heterosexual. Now, I recognize it for what it is: ignorance.
We have to acknowledge that Luso-American culture is slow to the LGBTQ party. And I sometimes wonder how much it has to do with immigration and timing. The first Pride celebration in the United States is traced back to New York City in 1970. Mainland Portugal didn’t celebrate Pride until 1997 in Lisbon. The Azores first celebrated a Pride Festival in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel in 2012. And Madeira waited until 2017 to celebrate a Gay Pride Festival.
Indeed, it took Madeira almost 50 years after the United States to get onboard the rainbow train! I feel as though that obliges me, on behalf of my Luso-LGBTQ friends, to take the opportunity here to help some people find this party in spirit, despite having not yet attended the actual celebrations myself. Side note to the LGBTQ peeps, especially those within the Luso-American community: Invite me and I’ll rage with and for you, assuming I’m not in quarantine.
There is nothing wrong with being gay. And I don’t mean that in a “we-should-tolerate-them” sort of way. Some of the best people in my life are members of the LGBTQ community. Our culture is better when we embrace people for who they are — all parts of them — including the part that allows them to find love and share their lives with people of the same sex. We can, and should, love them for that.
And, if you’re only getting on the train now, it’s okay. Your sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren probably still loved you when you hated that part of them. And they can teach you how to be a better person if you let them — not unlike how you raised them (as part of the Portuguese village we recognize as family) to be good and kind human beings.
“Maricas” isn’t an insult to be lodged at the boys and men in our community. In a similar vein, playing soccer didn’t mean I wanted to be a man. It meant I love the game, the competition, and how it made me feel alive.
I know a heterosexual (and now-married) person whose Portuguese mother would say that she was gay whenever her friend (a girl) came over to hang out, but insinuated she was a whore when she brought her boyfriend around because he was the second boyfriend the family had met. It really, honestly and truly baffles my brain.
It confuses me that, in a culture in which women kiss women so regularly, especially during holidays; a culture where men kiss their teammates on professional futebol pitches broadcasting around the world; and a culture that has completely normalized women pairing up to dance with other women at any and all celebrations — people can simultaneously exhibit such homophobia.
Having close friendships with women doesn’t make them romantic partners. It means loving them as friends: the ride-or-die people in your life who chose to ride with you even though neither they nor you has ever harbored intentions of sharing romantic kisses or getting in one another’s pants.
Wanting to wear pants and sneakers, instead of a dress and heels, so, when we’re at a family party for an inordinate amount of time (because that’s what we do), I can stretch my legs without hearing, “Feche as pernas; podemos ver sua cuecas,” doesn’t mean I’m attracted to women. It means I want to feel comfortable around my family. It means I’m not about to suffer through knee pain, so other people can be assured of what I know to be fact: I still dig the dudes. It means that my objective is to have fun, not prove anything.
I have real reservations about the institution of marriage (which, apart from the divorce rate, is a ritual whose genesis is rooted in property transfer), but if you find me at a Portuguese wedding reception, I’ll be the one rocking the sort of full-toothed smile that makes babyface cheeks hurt, either holding a drink in my hands or showing off what my best friend once deemed “rhythmic and intimidating” dance moves.
It’s a lot of snap dancing, two-step-hopping, carioca (sometimes referred to as the “karaoke” soccer drill), rolling hands, punching air, and never — not for one second – grinding (no judgment if you grind on the dance floor; it’s just not really my style). I get the dance moves from my dad. I’ll be honest: I can’t dance, but that hasn’t stopped me from dancing at any family party.
- The “Chicken Dance?”✔
- The Twist ✔
- Cha Cha Slide? ✔
- Chamarrita? ✔
- Mambo No. 5? ✔
- Don’t Stop Believing? ✔
- Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family?” ✔
- Michel Telo’s Ai Se Eu Te Pego? ✔✔
- Backstreet Boys’ anything? ✔✔
- Jorge Ferreira anything ✔✔✔
Side note: In my family, you are equally likely to jam out to Iran Costa’s “E O Bicho” as you are “Sweet Caroline,” the latter which was belted by my Confirmation sponsor (I knew I made the right choice) whilst gripping a microphone in the middle of the dance floor at my surprise Confirmation-meets-Sweet-16-Birthday party. And I love that.
The last wedding I went to was that of my cousin and her Armenian-American husband. Both of them are sort of band geeks in their own way — incredibly talented musicians and teachers of the craft, so you just knew the music would be on point. At the wedding reception, Portuguese music played: I danced. American music played: I danced. Armenian music played: And, yes, you guessed it, I danced.
Was that the first day I had heard Armenian music? Yes. Did it stop me for one second? Absolutely not.
I had clearly not prepared. I was in law school, out of shape, spending most of my days huddled over a book in a library, forgetting to eat, never being able to find the time to work out, then eating something cheap and wholly unhealthy before turning into bed and restarting again.
Pro Tip: If you find yourself dancing to songs in which you don’t know the language, don’t make the mistake of saying, “I’ll break right after this song.” You might not know when that song ends, believing it’s a medley, then only forcing yourself to break 20 more minutes in.
Days after the wedding, my roommate tilted her head at me when I practically crawled up the stairs of the Baltimore row home. “You okay? What’s wrong?” She asked. “Damn Armenian music is no joke; my legs are killin’ me,” I joked. She laughed, “Did you have fun at least?” “Of course.”
On the 2019 Fourth of July, my cousin Nathan was hit by a drunk driver while he was riding his motorcycle, sending him to the hospital where he later died at age 30.
We didn’t have too many memories together, but I could never forget the time he and I were paired in my eldest cousin’s wedding party. I was wearing a mango, off-the-shoulder, two-piece dress with shoes that had enough of a heel to make me literally trip on the runner that ran along the aisle. Even though Nathan towered several inches above me, which forced my elbow at an angle, he still somehow managed to grab hold of me — saving me from physically falling on my face and tumbling down the church aisle — something that, at the time, would have resulted in complete and total embarrassment.
Even though we weren’t very close, Nathan’s death taught me that life is too short.
The only set of great-grandparents I knew died before I can remember. The only memory I have of the people I referred to as “Vavos velinhos” is eating “Portuguese cookies” on their couch.
I lost both paternal grandparents, Avos Eduarda and Manuel, before I turned 7. My memories of them are fragments, incomplete moments: eating Octopus at their apartment for the holidays; seeing the (now retro) boxes of Corn Flakes while running through their kitchen with my cousin; joining a sleepover on the floor of their tight living room; my grandparents handing out the same Christmas gifts to me as a cousin two years my senior — once a plastic Aladdin-magic-carpet toy; and hiding under their dining table with my cousin during the holidays, our legs up and our laughter incessant — the origin of what was later deemed “The Hyena Club” in honor of the characters on the Disney’s 1994 hit-classic, The Lion King.
Those memories are real. Much of the rest I’m not sure if it really happened or if I saw photos and my brain filled in stories over time, from things I’ve heard and images I’ve seen from footage captured by another set of eyes.
Avo Abel, my maternal grandfather, died the first year I went away to college. He had nine children and 10 grandchildren (including me). One of my earliest memories of him was watching him answer questions my mom grilled him on as the three of us sat together in my parents’ second-floor apartment. My mom had to verbally quiz my grandfather to prepare for the U.S. citizenship exam because he didn’t know how to read or write in Portuguese or English. The last picture I remember taking with Avo Abel was for my high school graduation party. He didn’t get the chance to see any of his grandchildren graduate from college. And, though he never seemed big on celebrations, every time we visited him for the holidays, he would try to sneak cash to my brother and I behind my mom’s back.
My maternal grandmother is my sole, remaining living grandparent. Avo Laurinda suffers from dementia, but refuses to live anywhere else but her home. Earlier this year, she left a candle burning in a closet that caused a fire. It was estimated that, if she remained in the house for another five more minutes, she would have died from smoke inhalation. For obvious reasons, my Avo can’t really handle cooking anymore. But there was a time when she would feed all the neighborhood kids.
On Halloween, we would walk into my grandmother’s basement dressed in our costumes and my grandmother would wear the unofficial costume of Portuguese women at feasts: farinha (flour) splattered across her cheeks with a blue-and-black-almost-tiger-print bandana tightly wrapped around her head, which was peeking out behind two sleep-sheet-covered panelas (pots) that could have served as mini swimming pools for our tiny, childhood selves. If you grew up around Portuguese people, I don’t have to tell you what’s next, but I will. In addition to chocolates, my Avo handed out malassadas for all trick-or-treaters and their parents.
In the Azores, my grandparents and parents never celebrated Halloween. I have always been fortunate to enjoy the American privilege of celebrating Halloween, but the holiday was at its best when it had that Portuguese twist. I miss those days.
The days when my cousins and I traveled from house to house, ganging up to trick-or-treat in the neighborhood, then hopping in the car, driving up to the wealthy Highlands neighborhood to get the full-sized chocolate bars and, of course, to visit the one Portuguese relative who lived in the Highlands, but gave out candy so hard that you never quite knew when it was first bought.
Those days were long before I got sworn in as a lawyer, earned my own dough, and became Party City’s biggest fan. As a child, my mother sewed costumes for my brother and me from material she purchased at Jo-Ann Fabrics.
These days, I try to make the best of the Halloween holiday, creating Halloween playlists, catching the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I., and partying in Salem, Mass. when October rolls around. Of course, no matter how drunk hungry you are, fried Oreos in Salem (even for a massive Hocus Pocus film fan), don’t seem to compare to the childhood malassadas nostalgia, but, in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, the small pleasure of celebrating with fried Oreos kills a craving you might not know existed.
As much as I have an affinity for drinking, which seems to be THE thing to do for Cinco de Mayo, which one journalist traces to beer companies seizing the day as a commercial opportunity in the late-80s to increase revenue, I don’t ever remember celebrating Cinco de Mayo with family or friends. I think there was a part of me that felt like the holiday wasn’t “mine” to celebrate.
Of course, I support the Mexican-American holiday fully in theory. It’s is an interesting holiday because, though it celebrates the “Battle of Puebla” wherein outnumbered Mexican soldiers defeated French forces (directed by Napolean III) that had sought to conquer Mexico, it simultaneously honors the celebration of Mexican Americans who celebrated their homeland’s victory with fireworks and drinks.
Celebrating a celebration: It’s beautiful.
The victory is also said to have delayed French occupation for a year, making it such that the French could not set up a base that could have otherwise helped the Confederacy against the Union Army in the American Civil War. Had it not been for the “rag tag” Mexican army in 1862, the history of America might have been even more plagued by the injustices of slavery.
As bad as things are right now, I’m not sure I can even envision how much worse it could have been if not for our Mexican brothers and sisters in 1862. I’m not sure I can honestly say that my parents would have been welcomed here from the Azores when their respective families immigrated to the United States more than a hundred years after the Battle of Puebla. I literally might not have existed. I guess what I’m saying is: If any Mexican American wants to invite me to a Cinco de Mayo party (God willing I won’t be in quarantine next May), I promise to buy the first round and not show up in a sombrero.
Similarly, it feels equally impossible to imagine where this country would be without the face of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, though not the only Black person responsible for finding some semblance of justice, is more than deserving of a holiday in remembrance. Still, apart from reading articles and watching television specials honoring the Civil Rights, I don’t ever remember “celebrating” MLK Day outside of school assignments and the like.
In school, I learned that, in America, people of color were emancipated in June of 1865, but I’ll be honest, despite feeling like I could connect with people of color in a way deeper than most white persons in academia (both as an undergraduate and in law school), I was entirely unaware of the celebrations surrounding Juneteenth until this summer.
Upon reading more about Juneteenth, though, I’m with it: the barbecue, fireworks, cookout, red drinks (reportedly symbolizing the perseverance and blood shed by people of color, and more specifically, African Americans), shopping Black-owned businesses, learning some history, etc.
To my Black friends (including those within the Luso-American community), you know I’m always down to party and honoring the lives and stories of Black people in American history feels like more than enough reason to celebrate. Invite me for Juneteenth celebrations and I’m there (post-quarantine life). Until then, please know that you have my solidarity.
And now to “Independence Day,” something that I don’t ever remember saying unless I was quoting the Will Smith-Jeff Goldblum film. In Southeastern New England, we just call the day to celebrate America “the Fourth.” But Portugal recognizes several days for independence and national pride: Day of Portugal, Day of the Azores, Madeira Day, the Restoration of Independence, and, of course, Freedom Day. Yet another illustration of the salient truth: We love to party.
With more than 1.3 million persons of Portuguese descent living in the United States, Day of Portugal is celebrated in many United States cities, including: Providence, R.I., Fall River, Mass., San Jose, C.A., Newark, N.J., Mineola, N.Y., and Philadelphia, Pa. Celebrated June 10, it marks the death of, arguably, the greatest writer in Portuguese history, Luis de Camoes.
The national poet of Portugal, Camoes wrote lyrical poetry, but he is most known for the epic “Os Lusiadas,” a multi-part poem centered on the Portuguese “explorations,” namely Vasco da Gama’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to the African East Coast and across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India. Camoes was heralded for his skill in capturing Portuguese history in a way that is said to have “reflected the humanist tendencies” of the era.
Camoes was a real one. Legend has it that he was once exiled from Portugal. An impoverished aristocrat, Camoes exchanged “the vanity and superficiality of court life” for that of a soldier’s life in Africa and India. And it elevated his writing to, quite literally, epic proportions. His artistry reflects genuine anguish, deeply sincere thoughts and emotions, and saudade. It blends the classical and practical, showing command of language and a multiplicity of styles. Camoes transcended the conventions that characterized much of the literature of the era both in style and content. I hope now you can see why his face is the perfect logo for this blog.
However, Camoes’ legacy, as a blind-in-one-eye adventurer, fighter, shipwreck survivor, humanist, and poet, was later exploited by the corporatist, authoritarian Estado Novo regime, headed by Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar who ruled Portugal in the twentieth century and made Camoes a symbol of Portugal for nationalistic purposes.
Though it has been reported that most people of Portuguese descent in the United States have Azorean roots, “Day of Portugal” is much more widely celebrated than Day of the Azores (observed in the Azores on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday, which kicks off the cycle of the Azorean Holy Ghost feast). I suspect part of this has to do with immigration patterns. Though the Azores became autonomous in 1976, the Day of the Azores was only established by the legislative assembly in 1980, thus many in the “last big wave of Portuguese immigration” to the United States may have never recognized this holiday in the homeland.
Day of Portugal is also more widely celebrated in America than Madeira Day, which is officially honored in Madeira on July 1. Like the Azores, the island of Madeira became autonomous in 1976.
Despite the Day of Portugal’s connection to Salazar, Portuguese Americans are not celebrating Salazar or the oppressive Estado Novo regime on June 10. Most, I would venture to say, are not even celebrating Camoes.
For many, Day of Portugal is simply about celebrating Portuguese culture. It is meant to be inclusive. Portuguese Americans are fully aware that the Azores and Madeira became autonomous regions, but celebrating Portuguese culture — the similarities and differences therein, whether it is between the continent and the islands, between the different islands, or between the different villages on an island — together is what differentiates that day from the others.
The inclusive celebration of heritage in America is particularly important in Portuguese-American enclaves where the ridicule, erasure, anglicizing, exploitation and appropriation of Portuguese culture is not told in history books, but through our very parents’ oral histories of immigrating, attending school, and even working in sweatshops in the same cities that we stand in celebration. That Luso-Americans from the Azores and Madeira honor Day of Portugal in this way serves as a recognition that our culture is more robust together when we embrace our Luso- brothers and sisters from all around the world. It is only fitting that this is the common chant in such celebrations:
MC: “Viva os Acores!”
MC: “Viva Madeira!”
MC: “Viva Portugal!”
The country of Portugal recognizes the “Restoration of Independence,” which honors the Portuguese revolution against Spain that brought an end to the Iberian Union on December 1, 1640. The restoration refers to how the revolution restored Portuguese monarchy within its borders, replacing the Spanish House of Habsburg and establishing the House of Braganca. I’m unaware of any celebrations that take place in the United States in honor or remembrance of this independence day.
My favorite Portuguese holiday is Freedom Day. Celebrated April 25, Freedom Day marks the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution.
The Carnation Revolution is remembered in history as a “bloodless” rebellion that ended a 50-year dictatorship (the Estado Novo), resulted in less than six total casualties, and re-established democracy in Portugal.
The authoritarian government had long championed colonialism and prevented citizens from speaking out against the government. But on April 25, 1974, a military coup known as Movimento das Forcas Armadas “MFA” (Armed Forces Movement), which consisted of politically left-leaning officers who opposed the conservative Estado Novo, removed Prime Minister Marcelo Caetano and demanded that Portugal abandon its colonial wars in Africa.
Portugal’s wars in Africa (primarily in the then-Portuguese colonies of Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola) had reportedly caused the deaths of more than 108,000 persons over the course of about 13 years, starting in 1961 (the year when my mother was born). Aiming to end the colonial wars, the MFA strategically (using music played on the radio as signals) overthrew the dictatorship with troops and tanks in the streets, storming “key” buildings, including, but not limited to, the headquarters of the Lisbon Military. Yes, you read that correctly, the Portuguese revolution was, like my dance moves, rhythmic and intimidating.
In mainland Portugal, civilian crowds called for the taking of the former headquarters of Portugal’s secret police (the violent, torturing arm of Estado Novo) Policia Internacional e de Defensa do Estado (PIDE) then known as Direccao-Geral de Seguranca (DGS).
DGS agents opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators from the building’s first-floor windows, taking the lives of four men (some believed to be as young as 18 years old) outside the former PIDE headquarters on Antonio Maria Cardoso Street. The MFA reportedly later lodged a bullet that killed one DGS agent. But this is the extent of all deaths that have been recorded, reported, and considered part of the Carnation Revolution.
People in Lisbon flooded the streets to rejoice in the overthrow of the dictatorship, celebrating with what would become the symbol for democracy: red carnations.
The Carnation Revolution and its aftermath showed how working people can take an economy into their own hands, and how people can reimagine the societal status quo.
“The Portuguese revolution was based on the working class, not peasants or a militarized party,” labor historian Raquel Varela said. “What happened in Portugal in 1974-5 was the last revolution in Europe to call into question the private ownership of the means of production.”
The author of “A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution,” a book published in 2019, Varela, estimates that 3 million persons (30 percent of Portugal’s population at that time) belonged to sectors involved in the revolution.
Post-Carnation Revolution Portugal saw national income transferred from capital to labor; the guarantee of the right to a job, living wages, and equal access to education, health and social security; a rent freeze that lasted decades later; transportation rerouted to ensure distant housing districts would be served by public transit; and the holding of elections where 95 percent of people turned out to vote, Varela explained.
Varela characterizes the time shortly following the Carnation Revolution as a “social revolution,” stating,
“Never in Portuguese history have as many people spoken for themselves as they did in those months. Politics ceased to be separated between elites and people, and there was a close connection between manual and intellectual work, between Africa and Europe, between doctors (and) nurses, men and women, students and teachers.”
The Carnation Revolution and the events in its wake ultimately resulted in the full independence of Guinea-Bissau (Sept. 10, 1974), Mozambique (June 25, 1975), Angola (Nov. 11, 1975), and the islands of Cape Verde (July 5, 1975) and Sao Tome and Principe (July 12, 1975).
I first learned of the Carnation Revolution when I was in high school, but, like a great deal of my education about Portuguese culture, that learning did not occur in the classroom. My high school teacher assigned us to interview someone in our family about a historical event and write a short essay, blending the personal and historical. Talk to your grandfather about his experience fighting in Vietnam, he suggested.
My only living (at the time) grandfather was never in the U.S. Military. “He was in the tropa,” my mother explained, “but he peeled potatoes in (the Azorean island of) Terceira.” Required to serve under the mandates of Portugal’s Estado Novo Regime, he worked food prep for the Portuguese military, but had been stationed far from combat, my mom said.
Otherwise, my Avo Abel worked on a farm and, apparently, was known as something of a cow whisperer in the village of Santo Antonio alem Capelas in the district of Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel, Acores. He emigrated with his pregnant wife and six children, arriving in the United States on April 4, 1975. Historical records show the Vietnam War ended just 26 days later. My father’s family came to America even later in 1978.
The Vietnam War just wasn’t a part of their lives in the same way that it had been in the families of my teacher and classmates. I needed something else to write about.
I talked to my mother, then did some research (online material, written in English, was scarce, at the time, for a then-unskilled researcher) to confirm what she was telling me (the recollections of her childhood eyes) really was real. The teacher was shocked when I wrote 10 pages connecting my mother’s immigration experience and the Carnation Revolution.
I remember my history teacher showing my paper to my homeroom teacher (the then-Social Studies Department Chairperson), who kept reading then looking up at me as I sat there, in all likelihood, barely able to keep my eyes open at something like 8 a.m.
Sometimes, I still wonder about that look. I don’t think he had any knowledge of the Carnation Revolution, either. He never said anything, but, I imagine he was thinking about how this jock kid, who showed up to school late or slept in his homeroom and wasn’t even in Honors History classes (much less his Advanced Placement course) could have just taught him — the accomplished, well-read history teacher — a department head, no less — about a major historical event.
I guess my teacher assumed our essays would feature some blood-filled battle that centered a male perspective. I guess he assumed the historical event would be something he had learned about while sitting in some lecture hall at his progressive Northeast college. I guess he assumed everyone would write about American history. I guess he assumed that an accent-less, white student, enrolled at the overpriced private high school, couldn’t be the product of immigrant parents — perhaps especially one who, though not much of a reader, could write like eleventh-grade me.
All these years later, I’m not upset with my history teacher. He was, after all, an exceptional teacher. An “American history” curriculum is sanitized to tell us whose stories we should value. I suppose I don’t “sound” or “look like” an immigrant’s kid. What does an immigrant’s child look like? I turn to the words of Charles Horton Cooley, which prove informative in this regard:
I’m thankful for my teacher because, in real ways, the experience prepared me for the assumptions I would encounter in higher education and then later as a young professional.
When I speak or write of these encounters, I never seek pity or sympathy because I am proud of my Azorean roots and Portuguese heritage. Nonetheless, this experience illustrates why assumptions are belittling and why diversity (in faces, backgrounds, and views) is critical within and outside our community.
As Portuguese Americans, it also shows us that we are the purveyors of our history. We cannot wait for or expect others to teach us about our histories. We have the responsibility to: learn from the generations before us, conduct our own research, and share this knowledge with persons of different backgrounds. And, in an ideal world, they’ll teach us something about their socio-cultural histories, which will, in turn, not only open new pathways to empower us to re-conceptualize issues, but also give us a deeper sense of connection both within and outside the Luso-American community.
Freedom Day is celebrated in Portugal through culture, music, and architecture. One of Portugal’s most notable landmarks is a suspension bridge (“Ponte 25 de Abril”) renamed in honor of the Carnation Revolution. Many business and public buildings close for the day, but some museums remain open, showing documentary films that depict the initial days following the revolution and/or encouraging visitors to share stories of the revolution. At least one cinema has held a political festival series with workshops, debates and films during the weekend preceding the holiday. In the past, Lisbon’s City Hall (Camara Municipal de Lisboa) has offered free tours on April 25. One of Lisbon’s largest parks features games, concerts, and urban art to celebrate the Carnation Revolution. And, in Commerce Square (“Praca do Comercio”), an outdoor music concert has featured “Songs for Revolution” (“Cancoes para Revolucoes”).
I am not aware of any celebrations for Portugal’s Freedom Day in the United States, but every year I take the opportunity to learn more about it by reading articles and watching videos. I bring attention to the day on social media, changing my profile picture in honor of the day, and sharing educational information about the revolution. It’s a small thing, but if one person can understand where you come from and who you are just a little bit better, then isn’t that sort of the point of life — making us feel just a little more connected to each other? And isn’t that really what all celebrations are meant to do?
I never feel more connected to America than the Fourth of July. Unlike Veterans Day or Memorial Day, the Fourth of July isn’t a celebration of an American military for which, though I can deeply respect and appreciate, none of my family has been part. For me, it is a celebration of the United States and so much more.
The daughter of immigrants, the underlying historical events of the July 4 holiday (namely the Continental Congress’ voting for independence and the Thirteen Colonies adopting the Declaration of Independence — events that took place centuries before my family came to the United States) mean far less to me than the history I have observed, created and come to know through my family.
I have sat alongside the Fourth of July parade route in Bristol, R.I. damn-near every year of my life (with the exception of one year in college when my brother and I spent it together in Washington, D.C. in addition to the most recent holiday due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
If you find me on the parade route, it’s likely I’m decked out in red, white and blue. On the Fourth, I’m sometimes wearing a shirt I designed; sometimes a shirt (my Portuguese family wants us all to wear as we sit together) that reads something like “I love Bristol” or “Red, White and Bristol”; sometimes (read: most often in my youth) a $5 T-shirt from Old Navy; or sometimes a red-white-and-blue jersey (e.g. No. 17 U.S. Women’s National Team jersey featuring Tobin Heath (a two-time World Cup winner whose on-the-ball footwork has been deemed “reminiscent of Brazil’s best”) or No. 10 Boston Minutemen jersey featuring the Mozambique-born, Benfica and Portugal Men’s National Team legend, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira). It’s also more likely than not that I’m rocking face paint and pouring a mimosa for someone in my family or maybe for yours truly.
Though I was born and raised in Fall River, Mass., I lived in an apartment on Wood Street in Bristol, R.I. for roughly the first two years and three months of my life. I don’t really have memories of living in the town, so when asked about my “hometown,” I point to Fall River, but I still feel a sense of deep connection with Bristolians.
I went to junior high at Saint Elizabeth School (a school no longer in operation) on Wood Street after my mother got a job doing payroll for a Portuguese-owned construction company that was a little more than a half-mile from the school. Getting ready for middle school dances, I would walk a tenth of a mile to the Portuguese-owned Golden Shears hair salon on Wood Street where my father’s cousin Barbara Soares would paint my nails in a French manicure and a design tailored to the celebration.
On the Fourth of July, my dad parks at Goglia’s Market — the market (located on Wood Street and known for making grinders) that he has cleaned at least once a year for something like two decades. The owner, Victor Goglia, always saves a parking space for my dad.
If you ask me what the Fourth of July means to me, I have to start with my father. As much as my mother adores Easter, it doesn’t even enter the same universe as the love my father exudes for the Fourth of July. Every year, he says the same thing: “This is my holiday.”
My father’s family emigrated from Lagoa, Sao Miguel, Acores in 1978 and made their lives in Bristol, R.I. They lived in a modest apartment on Wood Street — a short walk from the parade route. For as long as I’ve known my father, he has been Mr. Fourth of July, frequently decked out in a flag-waving-printed polo shirt — the latest becoming something of a trademark of his. My dad has so many red-white-and-blue shirts that my cousin once joked that he doesn’t own shirts in any other colors.
Some of my dad’s affinity for the holiday stems from his Bristolian pride. He is the guy in Bristol who takes the longest backroads to avoid the main road traffic on the Fourth even when the traffic is minor, reminding us, “I know all the shortcuts; this is my town.” My dad immigrated as a teenager. I was 10 when my family moved to East Providence and, even though I love the city, it isn’t in the same stratosphere as my father’s love for the Town of Bristol. We went to “Fall River Celebrates America” once and my dad bemoaned, “There’s nothing like the Bristol Fourth.”
As a child, on the day of the longest-running parade in our country’s history, my father would walk with me, hand-in-hand down the patriotic tri-color street line (that features in place of the double yellow lines), adorning Hope Street, to find a coffee for him and an “American malassada” (a doughboy) for me, waving and making chit-chat with many Bristolians along the parade route — the men and women of Hope Diner whom he has cleaned for, people he met at what he called “Bristol-for-the-High” (i.e. Bristol High School, which later was renamed Mt. Hope High School), and seemingly everyone and anyone.
My dad isn’t a social guy. While my mom can be someone who hasn’t found an ear she didn’t like, my dad is generally the person at the party who is separated at a distance from all partygoers, sleeping or otherwise just making the occasional wisecrack, answering “yes,” when someone in my big Portuguese family inevitably asks him, “What are you – antisocial or something?” He doesn’t even deny it. So, it always struck me that the red-white-and-blue day was like his busting out of a cocoon to become this social butterfly that I had never seen.
A few years ago, my father and I rode along the scenic East Bay Bike Path from East Providence to Bristol, taking in all the sights and sounds that mark the Fourth with each push of the pedal. I remember transporting a cooler filled with alcohol for the family (and also, for me, let’s be honest) in the basket of my adult tricycle, playing a Fourth of July playlist on my phone.
You’ve never seen someone rock out to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” like my dad. “That’s a great song!” He exclaimed. As though I couldn’t tell he was a fan after seeing him belt it out. It is weird to think about. For a guy who wasn’t born in this country and doesn’t even vote, you’ve never seen someone so psyched to be American.
You’ve also never seen a man who never votes gush over a politician like he has at the Fourth of July parade. But not just any politician: the man he always referred to as “Mr. Texeira.”
For years, I wondered why my dad and my godmother regarded this man and his presence during the parade in a way unlike anyone else. There were others with more clout, including United States Senators and the Governor of Rhode Island, who marched in the parade every year. And yet their adoration for this man in my childhood even preceded his garnering an official political position. What made this guy so special? For a long time, I chalked it up to him being Portuguese.
Albeit ignorant and tribalistic, for a long time, I grew up questioning: “The Italians have Buddy (Vincent Albert “Buddy” Cianci, the Mayor of Providence); the Irish, Jack Reed (U.S. Senator); and, Portuguese people get a super-local guy running for a low-level position in a small town — and we’re psyched about that?” It was only after many years that I came to fully understand my family’s affinity for one Antonio “Tony” Texeira.
Long before he became Bristol’s Town Administrator, Mr. Texeira was a foreign language and E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) teacher and soccer coach at Bristol High School. In those days, before nerd culture became fashionable, my father was apparently something of a nerd, evidenced, in part, by his 1983 high school yearbook where he appears only in one photo under the caption “Art Club” and the signatures of his peers are accompanied with scribbled words in gratitude expressing thanks for letting them cheat off his tests so they could graduate.
Though my brother and I were dual-sport varsity athletes in high school (our main sport both soccer), neither of our parents played high school sports at even jayvee level (my mother, a girl with a heart condition that disallowed her participation in physical education classes; and my father, a boy who skipped physical education classes to earn money cleaning dishes at an Italian-owned family restaurant).
Phys-ed wasn’t the only thing my parents skipped, though. Both of them skipped a grade in high school, managing to graduate from high school in three years. My dad went from junior year of high school to Rhode Island College, contributing to his parents’ household income all the while. I knew that. What I didn’t know for a very long time was how he was able to become the first in his family to enroll in college classes. The answer? Mr. Texeira.
My paternal Avo did not always support my father’s pursuit of a college degree. Like many working-class fathers, he believed in working hard to earn a living; studying was a luxury. But Mr. Texeira convinced my grandfather that he should let my dad pursue college.
The then-teacher showed up at my grandfather’s house. He sat and spoke with my grandfather, in Portuguese (the only language he knew), asking him why he brought his family to America to give his kids a better life, if he wasn’t going to give them the chance to make that better life.
With that, my grandfather acceded. And, having received my grandfather’s understanding, my father signed up for part-time classes with the aim of becoming a teacher, working as a cleaner all the while. My dad was the first in his family to graduate from high school, but he never finished college. My godmother (my dad’s younger sister) became the second in their family to enroll in college and, eventually, became the first to earn a degree. That degree was in Education. My godmother became an elementary school teacher and worked her way up to become a school administrator.
Neither my father or godmother have said this, but, if I had to guess, it wasn’t by accident that they both had sought to become teachers; they had a role model. Tony Texeira wasn’t just a Portuguese politician. Contrary to what I had believed, my family wasn’t celebrating him for being Portuguese and/or serving as Bristol Councilor, Bristol Administrator, or any of the other political (or quasi-political) positions he had held. My father and godmother celebrated Mr. Texeira on the day known as “America’s birthday” because he had given them a chance to make their dreams a reality in America.
People talk about the American dream a lot. And a lot of people have different ideas about what it means. People (some Portuguese, some not Portuguese) have called me the “American dream,” which, if I’m being completely honest, makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I’ll joke, “If you only saw my student loan debt.” Other times, I can’t help but internally reflect, “My God, there has to be more to life than this; if I’m the American dream, it’s a nightmare.”
I do this entitled, childish thing sometimes where I complain about where we live in meaningless ways. It typically manifests in bitter-cold New England winters after an exhale makes it such that I can see my own breath exuding itself in a puff. “Why didn’t you guys immigrate to California?” I ask, followed quickly by what has become something of a refrain. “My body was not made for this,” I say through uncontrollably chattering teeth, “I belong on an island!” Of course, I do this knowing full well that had my parents’ respective families immigrated to California (where the Portuguese population is less concentrated than Southeastern New England), my parents may have never met and I may have never been born.
But, sometimes, I am more genuinely curious. “Mom, I know you didn’t have a choice, but do you ever regret it now, like, moving here?” And then my mom responds simply, “My heart probably wouldn’t have made it.”
My mother has been a heart patient all my life and even before that. She underwent her first heart surgery at 20 years old. Having grown up working on a farm and living in a house (in Santo Antonio alem Capelas, Sao Miguel, Acores) that did not have indoor plumbing or electricity, she doesn’t believe that the medical technology or sophistication would have existed for her in Ponta Delgada at that time in the ways it did in Boston, Mass. After all, no medical doctors even lived in her village.
Much of my life, I have felt a sense of existing in between cultures, languages, technologies, and generations.
In some ways, Americans acknowledge the obvious hardships and obstacles that immigrants face (e.g. language barriers, culture shock) even if some of the most self-proclaimed progressives sometimes lack the framework to grasp that, yes, my pale-skinned mother grew up without electricity in 1970s “Portugal.” The Azores only technically secured political autonomy via the 1976 Constitution of Portugal, which was adopted about a year after my mother’s family arrived in the United States.
But the experience of being first generation is not without its own struggle. Of course, I would never be so ignorant as to even remotely suggest that I’ve had to overcome more than my immigrant parents; our experiences are incomparable. I only note that the hardships endured by children of immigrants are, in some ways, less obvious and exist on the fringes, invisible to many Americans.
One day when I came home from school as a child, my dad was holding a letter that had arrived in the mail stating that he would be deported if he did not become a U.S. Citizen within a specified timeframe. This is how I found out what it meant to be deported. My dad made a joke (as adults, my brother and I are very much like him in this way — using humor as a coping mechanism). But, at the time, I couldn’t stop crying – and, when I returned to my elementary school classroom, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
When I was in fifth grade, my mom told the school principal that my brother and I would be taking the day off. The principal objected. My mom didn’t care. She wanted us to see my dad get sworn in as a U.S. Citizen. Before I was born, my mom, itching to vote, became the first in her household to be sworn in as a U.S. Citizen. For her, it was important that we see my dad take the oath. I didn’t travel much when I was young, but that day in Boston, Mass. was one of the most formative experiences of my life.
I haven’t shared that story with many people in my life, but it is something I think about every Fourth of July.
As a senior in college, working for a news wire service, my colleague and I were on our way to cover the pro-immigration rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. We talked a bit about the angle she was going to take and our own opinions on the issue. I shared that deportation story and, even though I took hundreds of photos that day, the look she gave me has stayed with me to this day. We had worked together in the newsroom for months, but it was as though she was seeing me for the first time. Our editor later said my photos from that day were my best work of the entire semester.
The Fourth is a celebration that, while amped in many respects, is a bit more chill, than say Christmas or Easter in my family, so it is often when someone new is introduced to the family – a boyfriend, girlfriend, or, if you’re like me, your best friend that your extended family assumes you’re dating in secret or the manager at your work (with two kids) who dates your boss, but your extended family still assumes you and the manager are dating in secret.
Side note: If and when I bring a romantic interest around, it won’t be in secret.
When I was younger, we played soccer on the Fourth for hours, mostly barefoot and using two trees as one goal and the bushes as another. As my uncles have aged, the game turned to volleyball with a flip flop marking the boundaries and barely any spikes taking place (not because my family isn’t competitive or my family is afraid of someone getting hurt, but because most of us are short and don’t have a vertical jump that can reach 7 inches).
One Fourth of July, after the parade at my aunt’s house, we were playing volleyball when my cousin Filipe popped his shoulder out of its socket. It was so bad that the ambulance had to be called. As he was lying in pain on the grass “court,” his then-girlfriend, Rachel, checked on him quickly before the ambulance arrived, then said something like, “Okay, he can get off the field, we can keep playing.”
Though I had been skeptical of the Caucasian girl hailing from an Illinois suburb, I can tell you with 1,000 percent certainty that I knew, at that moment, she would be part of the family. She might never be Portuguese, but she understood the ethos: keep the party going. They’re now happily married with two kick-ass, beautiful boys.
At our last Fourth of July party, she asked her son Anthony if he wanted her to make him “a butter sandwich” (a papo seco com manteiga). My brother and I laughed. “Never in my life,” I joked with her. “Who calls it that?” She’s a great sport.
Nowadays, most of us are so out of shape that we’re lucky to get a volleyball game going for a continuous hour without someone calling for a “hydration” break where the adults reach for a wine cooler or beer and the kids reach for Sumol. Some tap out to score a second or third round (there’s always so much food) of the clam boil, hamburgers, quahogs, hot dogs, or sardinhas (sardines) right off the grill. But the party always keeps going.
One Fourth as a child, Bristol experienced torrential downpour. Of course, my big Portuguese family was not deterred in the slightest. We all showed up like we always do (a notable exception, of course, the most recent pandemic). My family hadn’t yet sprung for a tent, so we huddled together as a family, sharing one hugely oversized tarp (like the one serving as a floor mat in the picture below) over everyone’s heads.
I was sitting at the bottom right corner edge of the tarp holding the tip of an umbrella through the hole at the corner of the large tarp. If you’re visualizing this, picture it as the epitome of Portuguese ingenuity. Every so often, the tarp became so water-logged that the whole family would push the water downward so as to make it easier to hold. Sure enough, despite the brilliant ingenuity, I was holding an umbrella and a tarp and managed to get soaked with all the water that had accumulated over the course of something like a half hour. And it was still an amazing Fourth.
My memories of the Fourth are much like that of every Portuguese festa — the good times so blended that I don’t remember what year or which feast — and some traditions so prevalent that it’s difficult to say when it started.
Some things, of course, are easy; we have records to remind us. I was 5 years old when my cousin Filipe won the Bristol Fourth of July button design contest — a feat, I believed to be, the coolest thing ever — his design being touted throughout town July 4, 1996.
Other things are a blur: when my Godfather first became “The Real MVP” waking up at some ungodly hour on the Fourth to lay enough blankets down on Hope Street for our big Portuguese family to sit down together when the parade kicked off hours later; the time a man marching as part of the Navy handed my young cousin Madison a sailor hat that her curls surrounded in a way that made her look too cute to be real; my young cousin Matthew’s look of pride after he caught and tossed a baseball back that had been thrown his way by those marching in honor of the historic Rhode Island baseball club; and, of course, when my family started a custom of cheering so hard to embarrass our family in the parade.
One year, my cousin Nicole marched in the parade as a sort of conductor for the Mt. Hope Marching Band, unfazed by the cheering in a way that felt like a badass ownership of the band geek stereotype and rejection of it all at once; one year, my cousin Bethany played the flute blushing deep crimson when my family (including her sister, Nicole) took the cheering to the absolute next level; one year, my uncle and aunt decorated a float for their home daycare from which my cousins Allison, Kayleigh, and Madison waved to our over-the-top cheering from the bed of the truck; one year, my cousin’s husband Jose (a native of Furnas, Sao Miguel, Acores), in lighthearted jest with an energy that simultaneously exuded and provoked laughter, dodged the security for “Miss USA” Olivia Culpo just to shake the hand of the Rhode Island-born pageant star who would later be crowned “Miss Universe”; and another year, it seemed that half my family was riding on the Portuguese-American float (which garnered the award for “Best in Parade”), including, at least once, my cousin’s dark-bearded, first-generation, Armenian-American husband, Raffi (not pictured) dressed in full-out folklore garb.
“He looks Portuguese,” I said, quickly realizing after the words left my lips that I sounded like Aunt Voula in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
My family is huge — both for what they mean to me and in numbers. There is something beautifully chaotic about our celebrations and the holidays. The voices sifting through the air are loud; the conversations, always and forever unapologetic. And while things have changed over the years: the cardio-inducing soccer games becoming more stationary volleyball games; my mom no longer attending the Fourth of July parade due to the limitations imposed by her health; my grandmother’s house no longer the malassada hub on Halloween, the Portuguese-American enthusiasm remains. And rightfully so.
We must have twice the enthusiasm because twice the work is required. We must acknowledge the issues in origins we inherited with so many of these holidays, and, when necessary, hold accountable an America that fails to celebrate the peoples who make up its melting pot. And, as we challenge for a better America, we must also challenge ourselves to continually find new ways to keep Portuguese culture alive — ways that do not serve as superficial performance, but instead bring our truest selves together and inspire the next generation.
Revolution is a part of our history and it can be part of our present and future celebrations.
We exist in between. As such, this work necessitates personal sacrifice, risk, and the collective celebration of our loved ones and all those who supported them along the way.
For me, more than anything, the holidays are about sharing the heart of Portuguese culture: the love of family. It transcends the boundaries of geographic borders, ethnic background, citizenship, age, race, gender, sexuality, and, even, blood lines. In this way, the holidays become moments to savor.
After all, we never know how many celebrations we have left with the people we love most. I just hope the party keeps going.
Disclaimer: This post doesn’t cover all the various Portuguese celebrations because that’s really a book all on its own. And, like anything I write, this does not represent how these holidays are viewed, celebrated and/or otherwise honored by all Portuguese Americans.
One thought on “A Luso-Kid’s Complicated (and Uncomplicated) Relationship with Celebrations and Holidays”
Kayla, another great post that explains so much about Portuguese culture. As an American married to a Portuguese man, I have witnessed so much of what you have written about without understanding the reasoning behind it. Last year we visited Sao Miguel and I marvelled at the people, food, customs and just the island itself. I felt such an emotional connection to it all. Every village more beautiful than the last. I kept asking my husband why in the world would his parents leave this paradise. Your post has given me more understanding why so many immigrated here. Thank you. I am so happy to have cone across your blog. You are a wonderful writer.