Portuguese Americans

views updated May 23 2018


by Ernest E. Norden


Portugal, officially called the Portuguese Republic, is the westernmost country of continental Europe. It is bordered on the east and north by Spain, with which it shares the Iberian Peninsula, and on the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean. It is about the size of Ohio, having an area of 35,553 square miles (92,082 square kilometers), and measuring 360 miles at its longest point and 140 miles at its widest. Portugal also includes the Azores (Açores) and the Madeira Islands in the North Atlantic Ocean and Macao, a tiny territory on the southern coast of China.

Portugal's current population of roughly 9.9 million people is decreasing. Major cities are the capital Lisbon, Porto, and Amadora. However, twothirds of the people live in rural areas. Nearly 99 percent of the population is of Portuguese origin; the largest ethnic minorities include Cape Verdeans, Brazilians, the Spanish, British, and Americans. Although there is no official religion in Portugal, 94.5 percent of the people are Roman Catholic. Other Christian groups include Protestants, Apostolic Catholics, and Jehovah's Witnesses. There are small minorities of Jews and Muslims. The country's official language is Portuguese, and the national flag has a field of green on the left with a wider field of red on the right; the national emblem is centered on the line dividing the two colors. Portugal's chief products are grapes, potatoes, hogs, beef cattle, corn, sardines, tuna, textiles, paper products, electrical machinery, cork products, ceramics, and shoes.


The early history of Portugal saw occupation by Iberians from North Africa and then by Celts who migrated from France. Phoenicians and Carthaginians later established themselves in southern Portugal. After the Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.) the Roman domination of Portugal began. The Lusitanians, a warlike Celtic tribe under the leadership of Viriathus, fiercely opposed the Roman armies, but the latter triumphed. Roman contributions to Portugal included roads, buildings, and the Latin language, from which Portuguese developed. Portugal's name derives from Portus Cale, a pre-Roman or Roman settlement near the mouth of the Douro River, where Porto is now located. In the fifth century a.d., as Roman control of the peninsula weakened, the land was overrun by Suevi who were followed by the Visigoths. In 711 the Muslims invaded the peninsula, and Christian forces spent the next 500 years trying to expel them. To fight off the African Almoravids, King Alfonso VI of León and Castile enlisted the aid of Henry of Burgundy, whom he rewarded with the title of Count of Portucale and the hand in marriage of his illegitimate daughter Teresa. Henry's son, Alfonso Henriques, claimed the title Alfonso I, King of Portugal, in 1139. By 1179 his kingdom, occupying the northern third of present-day Portugal, was recognized as autonomous and separate from Castile.

Alfonso I and his son Sancho I reconquered the remaining Portuguese territory from the Muslims. When Sancho II died in 1248 without leaving an heir to the throne, the Count of Boulogne declared himself King Alfonso III. He was responsible for moving the capital from Coimbra to Lisbon, for lessening the power of the church in his land, and for convoking the Cortes at Leiria (1254) at which the commoners were represented for the first time.

Alfonso III's son Diniz, who ruled Portugal from 1279 to 1325, built a navy, founded the University of Coimbra (1290) which was first located in Lisbon, and showed interest in literature, shipbuilding, and agriculture, for which he came to be called the rei lavradór (farmer king). His wife, Elizabeth, who worked to maintain peace in Portugal, was known as the Holy Queen (rainha santa ) and was later canonized as St. Elizabeth of Portugal. After the death of Ferdinand I in 1383, his wife Leonor Telles married their daughter Beatriz to the King of Castile. There was disagreement as to whether Beatriz should be heiress to the throne, and in 1385 the Cortes chose John, an illegitimate son of Peter I (the Cruel), a former king of Portugal, to rule as John I. John was Master of a religious-military order, the Order of Aviz.

John's son, known as Prince Henry the Navigator, utilized the resources of geographers and navigators to launch a series of explorations beyond the frontiers of Portugal. With the peninsula now reconquered from the Muslims, the Portuguese drive for expansion continued out of a desire to explore unknown lands, to seek a trade route for transporting spices from India, and to spread the Christian religion. Henry financed the expeditions that discovered Madeira and the Azores; these islands were uninhabited but were quickly colonized, and they still belong to Portugal.

Under Manuel I (1495-1521) Vasco da Gama reached India and Pedro Àlvares Cabral discovered Brazil. Manuel, who married Isabella, the eldest daughter of Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella, never realized his dream of uniting Spain and Portugal under his power. As part of his marriage contract with Isabella, he was required to rid Portugal of the Jews who had taken refuge there after being expelled from Spain. A few were allowed to emigrate, but most were forcibly converted to Christianity. Manuel's son, John III (1521-1557) established the Inquisition in Portugal. In 1580, when Portugal again found itself with no heir to the throne upon the death of Cardinal Henry, last of the House of Aviz, Philip II of Spain seized control as Philip I of Portugal (1580-1598). Portugal remained under Spain's control for 60 years until John, Duke of Bragança, defeated the Spanish and founded his own dynasty as John IV in 1640. The Portuguese had increasingly resented Spanish rule because of taxation and because the promises Philip had made to maintain Portugal's autonomy and to name only Portuguese to government posts were soon broken. Spain finally recognized Portuguese independence in 1668.


During the eighteenth century, wealth from Brazil began to pour into the country. Gold was discovered in Minas Gerais in 1693, and Brazil became a source of diamonds beginning in 1728. Great wealth was extracted by the Portuguese, and a 20 percent tax on it maintained their monarchs. John V (1706-1750) sought to establish an absolute monarchy. His son Joseph (1750-1777) was weak and allowed his minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal, to run the government in a more enlightened fashion. The latter is credited with the competent governmental response to the earthquake that leveled Lisbon in 1755. Pombal also ordered the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759 and the consequent reform of the educational system. In 1762 Spain invaded Portugal, and peace was not achieved until 1777 through the Treaty of San Ildefonso.


When Napoleon declared war on England, Portugal, allied by treaties, was drawn into the struggle. In 1806 Napoleon issued a decree intended to close all continental ports to British ships, and he later invaded Portugal to ensure that his decree was carried out there. As the French army neared Lisbon, the royal family boarded British ships, which carried them to Rio de Janeiro where they remained for 14 years. Meanwhile, the Portuguese and British armies, under the Duke of Wellington, drove the French from the country. Portugal made peace with France in 1814. In 1815 Brazil's status was elevated to that of a kingdom united with Portugal. The royal family did not seem anxious to return to Portugal, and when William Carr Beresford, the British commander in charge in Portugal traveled to Brazil to convince John VI to return, the Portuguese drew up a national constitution and would not allow Beresford back into the country. John VI returned in 1821 and swore to uphold the constitution. His eldest son Peter declared Brazil independent from Portugal in 1822 and became its emperor. John VI recognized Brazil's independence in 1825. John's death in 1826 marked the beginning of a period of political strife that lasted until after mid-century, when party government was established. The main parties were the Historicals and the more moderate Regenerators. The latter part of the century was occupied with disputes over Portugal's claims to territories in Africa.


In the early twentieth century, the republican movement grew in strength. In 1908, King Charles I and his heir, Louis Philip, were assassinated. King Manuel II (1908-1910) was to be the last monarch, for a republican revolution began on October 4, 1910, and Manuel was forced to seek refuge in England until his death in 1932. The revolutionary government gave the vote to adult males and drew up a constitution. It expelled religious orders from the country and disestablished the Roman Catholic church. It founded new universities in Lisbon and Porto. But the republicans were divided into many factions, and there was great political instability. Within 15 years, 45 different regimes held the reins of government. Portugal's bad economic situation became even worse through joining the Allies in World War I (1914-1918). In 1926 the army overthrew the government and set up a dictatorship under General António Oscar de Fragoso Carmona who named António de Oliveira Salazar, an economics professor at the University of Coimbra, as his minister of finance. After his successful handling of the budget, Salazar was named prime minister in 1932. As dictator he managed to keep Portugal out of World War II; he improved the country's roads and its means of transportation; he promoted new industries and other development. However, his government was very conservative; the people enjoyed few rights and were under surveillance by the secret police. The rich enjoyed economic advantages under his regime, but the poor got poorer. Salazar suffered a stroke in mid-1968 and died two years later. Marcelo Caetano then became head of the government and liberalized many governmental policies, but he did not go far enough or fast enough for many Portuguese. Emigration increased, inflation grew, and the country faced a grave economic crisis.

In 1974 a group of military officers, under the leadership of Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, overthrew Caetano's government; this is often called the "Captains' Revolution" because it was planned by military officers dissatisfied with Portugal's long wars to retain possession of her colonies in Africa. One of the first things accomplished by the new junta called the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas) was the granting of independence to Portuguese colonies in Africa. The government also reestablished democratic freedoms. General elections were held in 1976; the government became more stable but had to face the problems of rapid inflation and high unemployment. The constitution was revised in 1982 to limit the powers of the president. Portugal is a member of the United Nations and of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In 1986 Portugal became a member of the European Common Market.


The Portuguese came to America very early. In fact, Portuguese explorers may have reached the Antilles before Columbus. João Rodrigues Cabrillo arrived in San Diego Bay on September 9, 1542, and was the first European to explore the land that is now California. Portuguese Jews emigrated early to America as well as to other countries to escape persecution in their native land. Mathias de Sousa is the first Portuguese immigrant on record; he arrived in Maryland in 1634. Aaron Lopez, another Portuguese Jew, played an important role in introducing the sperm-oil industry to the Newport, Rhode Island, area in the eighteenth century, and Abraham de Lyon introduced the cultivation of grapes into Georgia in 1737. Portuguese from the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands manned New England's whaling ships. They signed on as low-paid laborers in order to avoid military service and to escape the poverty in which they lived at home. Many of them settled in New England, especially around New Bedford, Massachusetts.


Portugal has one of the highest rates of emigration in Europe; and until the middle of the twentieth century, most Portuguese emigrants (about 80 percent of them) went to Brazil. The Portuguese began to arrive in the United States in relatively large numbers around 1870. The majority of early Portugese immigrants were men from the Azores, a group of islands and islets in the North Atlantic Ocean. These men were largely recruited to work on American whaling ships. There was also immigration to the Sandwich Islands (now the state of Hawaii), where the Portuguese went originally to labor on sugar plantations. The majority of the immigrants came to the United States seeking a higher standard of living; they were not drawn by educational opportunity or political or religious freedom. Besides wanting to escape poverty, high taxes, and the lack of economic advancement at home, many males emigrated to avoid eight years of service in Portugal's army. Natural disasters also stimulated many to seek opportunities to live and work elsewhere. The drought in the Cape Verde Islands in 1904 and the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in the Azores in 1958 sent waves of people abroad. Most of the early Portuguese immigrants to the United States were from the Azores; continental Portuguese did not start arriving in large numbers until the beginning of this century.

Once substantial immigration to the United States started, it increased steadily, peaking between 1910 and 1920. In 1917 the United States government instituted a literacy test requiring that people over the age of 16 had to be able to read and write some language at a basic level in order to settle here. Since the literacy rate in Portugal was extremely low, this test effectively barred many Portuguese from entry; of the Portuguese immigrants admitted shortly before the literacy test was instated, nearly 70 percent were illiterate. In addition, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 established a quota system that allowed only a small number of Portuguese immigrants to enter per year. The Great Depression further discouraged immigration to the United States because economic advancement was the Portuguese's main goal. Emigration from the Azores increased in 1958, however, when the Azorean Refugee Act allowed 4,800 to emigrate after the volcanic destruction that took place there. Later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the quota system and consequently spurred a sharp increase in Portuguese immigration. At that time the Portuguese began to enter this country at the rate of 11,000 to 12,000 per year. This rate started to decline in the early 1980s and has now stabilized at 3,000 to 4,000 per year. Some of these have returned to Portugal either because they preferred living there or because they were unable to adjust to their new environment. Of those who returned to live in the Azores, at least, the impressions of their life in this country, which they have related to their friends and families, have created a favorable attitude toward the United States. The many Portuguese immigrants who remained here have contributed substantially to American society.


At first the Portuguese tended to settle near their ports of entry. The greatest number made their homes in New England (especially in Massachusetts and Rhode Island), New York, central California, and Hawaii. A small group settled in central Illinois. The Homestead Act encouraged some Portuguese to go west to obtain ownership of land. Those who settled on the East Coast also spread into Connecticut and New Jersey, and most recent immigrants find homes in Connecticut, New York, or New Jersey. The number of Portuguese immigrants now settling in California or Hawaii has been greatly reduced. Because so many Portuguese arrived without skills or education, they tended to remain for a long time in the lower middle class or middle class unless they attained the background necessary for advancement.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The Portuguese who settled in Hawaii tended to lose their ethnic identity fastest. From the sugar plantations they moved to the large cities where they became involved in trades and service industries. Others went into farming. They tended to intermarry with other ethnic groups and quickly lost their feeling of Portuguese identity.

In California there was a greater effort to maintain ethnicity. The Portuguese immigrants generally settled in rural areas where they farmed or operated dairies. They hired other Portuguese as hands on their farms, and under these semi-isolated conditions, it was easier to preserve their old customs. Fathers were the decision makers of the household. They allowed their daughters to attend school only as long as the law required; after that they kept them at home. Boys enjoyed more freedom than girls, but they also tended to quit school as soon as possible to work on the farm or dairy; and they were expected to marry Portuguese girls. When the rate of arrival of new immigrants slowed and American-born descendants far outnumbered the foreign-born Portuguese, assimilation began. Organizations such as the Cabrillo Civic Clubs, however, were formed to preserve pride in the Portuguese heritage.

The situation on the East Coast was different. There the Portuguese, mainly of rural origin, settled in urban areas. This change in environment forced family life and attitudes to change. When times were bad at the mills, women had to go to work to help support the family. In general, children were expected to leave school at the first opportunity to go to work to contribute to the family's maintenance as well. This tended to keep the Portuguese in the lower middle class, but it freed the women from their traditionally subordinate role and granted them more independence.

Wherever they settled, Portuguese immigrants had to face many disconcerting changes in their new environment. Rather than living in the same town or even the same neighborhood as the rest of their familygrandparents, aunts, uncles, cousinsupon whom they could depend for help when they needed it, they found themselves alone and without the support system that the extended family could provide. Unlike the milieu to which they were accustomed, in the United States education was compulsory for children, women were more emancipated, young people were freer to select the mates of their choice, families were more democratic rather than being dominated by the father, and a generation gap often existed within families because the young had developed better language proficiency and had attended public schools where they were exposed to the attitudes of their American peers.


The Portuguese have a variety of folk beliefs, many of which coincide with those of other cultures. Some believe that certain people have the power of the evil eye, which endows them with the ability to cast evil spells on others by the use of their eyes. One may ward off the evil eye by making a gesture called "the fig" in which one closes the fist and sticks the thumb between the first and second fingers. For many the devil is real and has the power to work evil. The word "devil" (diabo ) is avoided for fear of evoking him; he may also be kept away by making the sign of the cross. Fridays and the number 13 are considered bad luck. Some people trust their health to witch doctors called curandeiros, who attempt to cure illnesses with herbal medicines or magic. These beliefs disappear or are looked upon as superstitions as immigrants are absorbed into American society.

When people are far from their native countries, they long to preserve some of the customs from their youth that had special significance to them. Early in the twentieth century, Portuguese immigrants revived three celebrations from their homelandsthe Festival of the Blessed Sacrament, the Festival of the Holy Ghost, and the Senhor da Pedra Festival.


This celebration from the island of Madeira was initiated in 1915 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. This four-day festival, which takes place the first weekend of August, has grown to be the largest Portuguese American celebration, attracting over 150,000 visitors to New Bedford each year. Throughout the festival there is entertainment, including Portuguese and American music, singing, dancing, and famous entertainers. Decorative arches are erected in the festival area and are covered with bundles of bayberry branches. Colored lights and banners are also used for decoration. Vendors sell American and Madeiran foods including carne de espeto (roasted meat on a skewer), linguiça (sausage), cabra (goat), bacalhau (codfish) in spicy Portuguese sauces, favas (beans), and Madeiran wine. Local groups perform Portuguese folk music and dances; fireworks and raffles add to the festivities. On Sunday, the final day of the festival, its organizers march with a band to the church for the 11:00 a.m. mass. At 2:00 p.m. there is a colorful parade that includes children in native costumes, bands, floats, and beauty queens. Although this festival includes a mass and a procession, it is basically a secular celebration meant for socializing and having fun.


This festival, celebrated in California and in New England, is modeled after an Azorean prototype. Depending on the location, it is celebrated on some weekend between Easter and the end of July. The celebration originated with Queen Elizabeth of Aragon, wife of Portugal's King Diniz, in 1296. As an act of humility, before a mass to which she had invited the poor, she gave the royal scepter to the most indigent and had the royal crown placed on his head. After the mass, the queen and other nobles served a sumptuous meal to the poor. In the modern celebration, the crown is kept in the church throughout the year. Details of the celebration vary from place to place, but sometimes a drawing is held to determine which families will have the honor of keeping the crown at their house for one of seven weeks leading up to the festival. The child of the first winner is crowned as the child-emperor/empress. Amidst a week of feasting and celebration, he keeps the crown in a place of honor in his house, surrounded by candles and flowers, and at the end of the week, he walks in a procession to the house of the second winner, and the second child-emperor/empress is crowned. The crown passes through seven successive households. A few days before the final Sunday of the festival, the priest blesses the food that has been collected for the poor, although today this food is more commonly used for a community banquet. On the final weekend there may be a special mass, procession, and a carnival or fair that includes fireworks, charity auctions, music, ethnic food, and dancing the chamarrita, an Azorean folk square dance.


This festival, begun in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1924, is celebrated the last Sunday of August. It is also based on an Azorean festival. Its promoters emphasize the religious aspect of this celebration. After mass the image of Senhor da Pedra and those of nine other church figures are carried in procession on floats through the streets on the shoulders of the faithful. They are accompanied by a band, other church members carrying crucifixes and banners, and children wearing their first-communion outfits or dressed as angels; children also carry six smaller floats topped by the images of saints. The priest marches in the procession carrying the sacrament. As the figure of Senhor da Pedra passes, onlookers attach money to his float. One neighborhood decorates its street with sand paintings and flower petals over which the procession will pass. A carnival with public entertainment, ethnic foodscaçoila (marinated pork), bacalhau, and linguiça, and raffles are also part of the festival.

Other regional celebrations include the Santo Cristo festival in Fall River, Massachusetts, the Festival of Our Lady of Fatima, which commemorates the reported appearance of the Virgin in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, and the Festival of Our Lady of Good Voyage in Gloucester, Massachusetts, during which the fishing fleet is blessed.


Proverbs are popular in Portuguese culture, and many have been passed on from one generation to the next:

Não ha rosas sem espinhos You can't have roses without having thorns too; Amar e saber não póde ser Love and prudence do not go together; Mais quero asno que me leve, que caballo que me derrube I'd rather have an ass that carried me than a horse that threw me off; A caridade bem entendida principia por casa Charity begins at home; A Deus poderás mentir, mas não pódes enganar a Deus You may lie to God, but you cannot deceive him; Da ma mulher te guarda, e da boa não fies nada Beware of a bad woman, and don't trust a good one; Aonde o ouro falla, tudo calla When money speaks, all else is silent; Do mal o menos Of evils, choose the least.


Portugal's cuisine shows great variety because each of her provinces has its own specialties. Along the coast a shellfish açorda is popular. This is a type of soup made from soaking country bread in a broth used to boil shellfish. Just before serving, hot shell-fish and chopped coriander are added, and the dish is topped off by the addition of raw eggs that poach in the hot liquid. The city of Porto is famous for its tripe recipes. Tripe stew, for example, contains tripe, beans, veal, chouriço or linguiça, presunto (mountaincured ham similar to prosciutto), chicken, onion, carrots, and parsley. The city of Aveiro is know for its caldeirada, a fish and shellfish stew seasoned with cumin, parsley, and coriander. Around the city of Coimbra one might find bife à portuguésa (steak prepared in a seasoned wine sauce and covered with thin slices of presunto ham) and sopa à portuguésa (soup made of pork, veal, cabbage, white beans, carrots, and macaroni).

Cod is the most commonly served fish, perhaps as bolinhos de bacalhau (codfish cakes), or bacalhau à Gomes de Sá (fried with boiled potatoes, onions, eggs and olives). Indeed, since Portugal is surrounded on two sides by the ocean, seafood is fresh and plentiful throughout the country. Escabeche consists of fish pickled with carrots and onions and stored in the refrigerator for several days before serving.

The Portuguese, like the Spanish, use olive oil and garlic generously in their cuisine, but they use herbs and spices more widely, especially cumin coriander, and paprika. Caldo verde (green soup) is made of fresh kale, potatoes, garlic-seasoned smoked pork sausage (either linguiça or chouriço ), olive oil, and seasonings. It is served with pão de broa (rye bread) and red wine. Tender slices of lamprey eel prepared in a spicy curry sauce is also a typical dish.

Cozido à portuguésa is a stew made of beef, chicken, and sausage boiled with chick-peas, potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbage, turnip greens and rice. Chicken, roasted suckling pig, lamb, and goat are also important in Portuguese cuisine. Massa sovada, a delicious Portuguese sweet bread, is even commercially available in parts of the United States.

Typical desserts and confections include pudim flan (a baked custard topped with a caramelized sugar sauce), toucinho do céu ("bacon of heaven" almond cake), and ovos moles (a sweet mixture of egg yolks and sugar syrup), which may be served as dessert or used as icing on a cake. Figos recheados (dried figs stuffed with almonds and chocolate) are often served after dinner accompanied by a glass of port wine.

Portuguese wines have a good reputation. Some of the best red wine comes from Colares, the only region that still produces grapes from native European root stock. The best white wines are from Carcavelos and Buçelas. Although they are really either red or white, the so-called green wines (vinhos verdes ), made from grapes picked before they are fully ripe, are produced in the north. They are crackling wines and have an alcohol content of eight to 11 percent. Portugal is famous for its port wine (named for the city of Oporto); it is a fortified wine whose alcohol content is 20 percent. The best ports are aged for a minimum of ten years, but some are aged for as many as 50. Madeira wine, coming from the Madeira Islands, is similar to port.


The clothing worn in modern-day Portugal is similar to that worn in the United States. However, for certain festivals, traditional costumes are worn. These vary from region to region, but men often wear black, close-fitting trousers with a white shirt and sometimes a bright-colored sash or vest. On their heads they might wear a long green and red stocking cap with a tassel on the end that hangs down to one side. Women wear colorful gathered skirts with aprons and cloth shawls over their shoulders. During the festival of tabuleiros in the region around Tomar, the harvest is celebrated by girls clad in ankle-length, long-sleeved white cotton dresses adorned by a wide colored ribbon that goes around the waist and over one shoulder. On their heads they wear a tall crown made of bread and weighing more than 30 pounds. The crown, which is at least as tall as the girl herself, is decorated with paper flowers and sprigs of wheat and is topped by a white dove or a Maltese cross.


The fado is a melancholy type of song from Portugal. It is performed in certain bars of Lisbon late at night and in the early hours of the morning. These songs are believed to have originated among Portuguese sailors who had to spend months or even years at sea, away from their beloved homeland. The fado, meaning "fate," praises the beauties of the country for which the singer is homesick or of the love that he left behind. Regional folk dances include the chula, the corridinho (a polka-like dance from southern Portugal), the fandango, the tirana, and the vira.


The Portuguese celebrate the traditional Christian holidays. Their celebration of Christmas (Dia do Natal ) includes attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve (missa do galo ), getting together with the extended family to share a meal and converse, singing carols outside friends' homes, and displaying a manger scene. New Year's Eve is celebrated by picking and eating 12 grapes as the clock is striking midnight in order to assure 12 months of happiness in the new year. On January 6, Dia de Reis (Day of the Kings), gifts are exchanged. Families share a ring-shaped cake called a bolo Rei which contains toy figures that bring good luck if found in one's portion. During Holy Week there are processions through the streets carrying portrayals of the passion of Jesus. The most famous processions are in the cities of Covilhã and Vila do Conde. On Easter, after attending mass, the family enjoys a special meal. This may include folar, a cake made of sweet dough and topped with hard-boiled eggs. On Pentecost (50 days after Easter) Holy Ghost societies in the Azores provide food for the poor in the community. Véspera de São João (Saint John's Eve), on June 23, is a celebration in honor of St. John the Baptist. The traditions associated with this festival have to do with fire and water. People build bonfires, dance around them, and leap over their flames. It is said that water possesses a miraculous quality that night, and that contact with it or dew can bring health, good fortune, protection to livestock, marriage, or good luck. On the thirteenth of May and October, people throng to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima in search of miraculous cures or the granting of a prayer. In the United States, all these celebrations have become Americanized or have been abandoned for American equivalents (for example, the Dia das Almas has been replaced by Memorial Day), but certain traditions may be retained by some families out of ethnic pride.


Portuguese Americans have no specific health problems or medical conditions that afflict them. They take pride in their sturdiness and longevity. They have a reputation for hard work and diligence. The birth rate of Portugal is high compared to the rest of Europe and to the United States, but it has dropped in recent years. Mutual aid societies are an established tradition among Portuguese Americans. Many workers have health insurance through their employer's benefits plan; the self-employed often insure themselves at their own expense.


Portuguese is a Romance language derived from Latin. Today it is spoken by people on five continents, including about 300,000 in the United States. Linguists see its development as consisting of two main periods. The language of the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries is called Galician-Portuguese; it was essentially the same as that spoken in northwestern Spain. The language of central Portugal, between Coimbra and Lisbon, came to be considered the standard dialect, and this language, from the sixteenth century on, is called modern Portuguese.

Modern Portuguese is characterized by an abundance of sibilant and palatal consonants and a broad spectrum of vowel sounds (five nasal phonemes and eight to ten oral ones). Portuguese has an uvular "r" similar to the French "r." On occasion, unstressed vowels tend not to be pronounced, for example, professor is pronounced "prufsor." Portuguese has a northern and a southern dialect. The northern dialect is more conservative and has retained more traits of Galician-Portuguese; the southern one has evolved further. The Portuguese spoken in the Azores and in Madeira might be considered a third dialect. Brazilian Portuguese differs from continental Portuguese in sound (diphthongs in final positions are not nasalized, and unstressed vowels are not omitted in pronunciation), in vocabulary (words from indigenous languages have been incorporated), and in syntax.


Common Portuguese greetings and other expressions include: Bom dia ("bong DEE-uh")Good morning; Boa tarde ("BOH-uh tard")Good afternoon; Boa noite ("BOH-uh noyt")Good night; Por favor ("poor fuh-VOR")Please; Obrigado ("obree-GAH-doo")Thank you; Adeus ("a-DEH-oosh")Goodbye; Desculpe ! ("dush-KOOLP")Excuse me!; Como esta? ("KOH-moo shta")How are you?; Saúde ! ("sa-OOD")Cheers!; Feliz Natal ("Fe-LEEZ na-TA-o")Merry Christmas; Próspero Ano Novo ("PRAHS-pe-roo UN-new NO-voo")Happy New Year.

Family and Community Dynamics

In the earliest years of Portuguese immigration to the United States, most of the new arrivals were young, single males or married men hoping to bring their families over when their financial condition allowed. Most Portuguese immigrants came from rural villages and were illiterate; those who settled in urban areas had great adjustments to make. Their poor educational background and their lack of marketable skills condemned them to unskilled labor. They brought with them an anti-intellectual attitude derived from their belief that the father ruled the household and the children worked under his supervision to contribute to the common good by working on the land that their family was farming. Allowing their children to spend time in school was a luxury that these immigrants could not afford. In their new environment they resisted compulsory education for the young. When they were required to send their children to school, they sent them to public schools rather than to parochial ones. After a generation or two, however, families were more financially able to allow their children to continue their education. As a result, Portuguese American families have produced many physicians, lawyers, and university professors.

Immigrants also had to make adjustments to their diets. Since many of the early arrivals lived in boarding houses, they had to acclimate quickly to American food which generally represented an improvement over the bread, codfish, beans, and wine that were staples in Portugal. On the negative side, it was more difficult and more expensive to obtain fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish in the United States than it had been in Portugal. Children had to adjust to cow's milk after having been used to goat's milk. Immigrants who settled in rural areas, however, were not subject to such sudden changes in diet and could preserve their traditional eating habits more easily.

Because they could no longer depend upon their extended family for support, Portuguese immigrants formed mutual aid societies in the United States. The first was founded around 1847. The early societies were established for men only. Each member would pay a monthly amount into the treasury of the society or periodically would be assessed; in turn he would receive benefits if he lost his job or was unable to work because of illness or disability. These societies sometimes afforded the opportunity to socialize with other Portuguese. Similar organizations for women began to appear about 20 years later.

Women, who traditionally held a subordinate position in the family and in society in Portugal, gained greater equality with men in the United States. Many of them had to leave the home to work in industries in order to help support the family. Their progress is reflected in their participation in organizations founded by Portuguese Americans. At first they did not participate at all; then they established organizations for themselves. Later they served as auxiliaries for men's organizations, and now they enjoy equal membership with men in many of these clubs.


Portuguese immigrants tended to differentiate themselves from other Portuguese-speaking immigrants of different geographical backgrounds. The continental Portuguese, the people from the Cape Verde Islands, those from Madeira, those from the Eastern Azores, and those from the Central Azores felt little affinity for the other groups, and often rivalry existed among them despite their common language. Except for the continentals, they did not think of themselves as Portuguese but as citizens of a particular island. And Azoreans often identified with a particular city rather than with the island as a whole. In the United States, each group tended to settle in clusters to be near others with whom they felt kinship and allegiance. The various groups did not know one another well, and prejudices grew among them. They wanted little to do with one another and even ridiculed each other's dialects. The groups with lighter skin looked down upon those with darker skin. Fraternal organizations founded by one group would not admit members of the other groups. The well-educated Portuguese who belonged to a higher social class felt little in common with those of the lower classes. This internal fragmentation has lessened with time but has inhibited Portuguese immigrants from presenting a united front for their own betterment.


Nearly all Portuguese immigrants to the United States are Roman Catholic. However, whereas the Roman Catholic church was protected by the Portuguese government for many years, church and state are separate in the United States. Immigrants came into conflict with the church because its laws made it difficult and frustrating to try to establish a Portuguese Catholic church in a community. The church, which had to be built with money contributed by the Portuguese immigrants, could be stripped of its Portuguese identity at the discretion of the bishop. Although none was ever built in Hawaii, the mainland United States has several Portuguese Catholic churches in California and about 30 in New England. There are also a few Portuguese Protestant churches in existence. The first was a Portuguese Presbyterian church established in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1850. It was founded by about 130 newly arrived Madeiran Protestants who left their native land because of religious persecution and settled in this region, after having spent several years in Trinidad. Within a few years, their numbers had grown to 400. There are Portuguese Protestant churches in New England, California, and Hawaii. Many people of Portuguese descent have found a church home in nonethnic Roman Catholic churches and in mainstream American Protestant churches.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Portuguese immigrants who settled on the East Coast tended to find work in factories, especially in the textile mills, in whaling and fishing, and in truck farming. Some found jobs as itinerant farm workers, picking cranberries and strawberries. Women worked as seamstresses in garment shops. In California, early Portuguese immigrants participated in gold mining as well as in whaling and fishing. Many there went into various types of farming. The first Portuguese in Hawaii worked on sugar plantations but soon moved to the urban centers to work in more skilled jobs. At first the Portuguese were assigned some of the most undesirable jobs, but as their proficiency in English and their work skills and educational level improved, they rose to higher, more responsible positions. Their success in farming is demonstrated by the fact that, by 1974, 34 percent of all market milk produced in California came from Portuguese American dairies. Many Portuguese American entrepreneurs went into business for themselves and opened restaurants, hotels, and banks. Others took advantage of educational opportunities in the United States and went into the professions. They now occupy a broad spectrum of jobs and careers and are found at all social and economic levels of society.

Politics and Government

Portuguese Americans have assimilated quietly into American society; they have tended not to use politics as a means of promoting their own welfare. They have also tended to avoid political and social protest. They are self-reliant and avail themselves of welfare programs only as a last resort. They have organized themselves, however, through mutual aid societies as well as civic, educational, social, and fraternal organizations. Some of these include the Portuguese Union of the State of California, the Portuguese American Civic League of Massachusetts, the Portuguese Civic League of Rhode Island, the Portuguese Educational Society of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the Luso-American Education Foundation, the Luso-American Federation, the League of Portuguese Fraternal Societies of California, and the Cabrillo Civic Clubs of California. They also have served in elected governmental positions. Their political influence began early in Hawaii; in 1894 three of the 18 elected delegates to the Constitutional Convention were Portuguese. In California the first Portuguese American was elected to the state legislature in 1900. This did not happen in Massachusetts until the early 1940s.

State governments have formally recognized the contributions that some Portuguese have made to the United States. Since 1935 California has celebrated Cabrillo Day on September 28, honoring the discoverer of that state. In 1967 the state of California further proclaimed the second week in March of each year Portuguese Immigrant Week. In 1974 Massachusetts set aside March 15 as Peter Francisco Day. Peter Francisco was a boy of Portuguese origin who, during the Revolutionary War, enlisted in the Continental Army at the age of 16; his courage and patriotism earned the respect of General George Washington. There is a Peter Francisco Park in the Ironbound district of Newark, New Jersey. Portuguese Americans have served with distinction in the United States armed services since the Revolution.

Individual and Group Contributions

Although most of the Portuguese who arrived on American shores lacked education and skills, and therefore had limited ability to make significant contributions to their new land's popular culture or to its arts and sciences, there have been exceptions. Descendants of Portuguese immigrants, having had greater educational opportunity in America, have gone on to make their mark on American society. In considering their contributions, it must be remembered that Portuguese Americans constitute only a fraction of one percent of the population of the United States, and that they have achieved success in areas besides those listed below, such as business and dairy farming.


Dr. Joaquim de Siqueira Coutinho (b. 1885) was a professor at George Washington University and at the Catholic University of America. From 1910 to 1920 he was in charge of the Brazilian section of the Pan-American Union. Francis Mile Rogers (1914 ) was professor of Portuguese at Harvard University where he chaired the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. He also served as Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and authored a number of books.


William L. Pereira (19091985) is an internationally known architect and city planner. He designed or planned such complexes as Cape Canaveral, CBS Television City, the Los Angeles Museum of Art, the Crocker Citizens Bank in Los Angeles, the Central Library at the University of California (San Diego), and the Union Oil Center. Henrique Medina and Palmira Pimental were painters in the 1930s.


Harold José Pereira de Faria (Hal Peary) (1908-1985) achieved fame in the title role of the series "The Great Gildersleeve," which he played for 16 years on radio and television. He also appeared in motion pictures. John Mendes (1919-1955) performed as a magician under the name of "Prince Mendes." He was also a stage, screen, and television actor. Other Portuguese American motion picture actors include Rod de Medicis and Nestor Pavie. Carmen Miranda (1914-1955), although known as "the Brazilian bombshell," actually was born in Portugal. She was a popular film star of the 1940s known for her humor, her singing, and her extravagant hats piled high with fruit. She popularized Latin American dance music in the United States. Henry da Sylva established a ballet school in Hollywood, acted in films and directed them as well.


Joseph F. Francis and Mary L. Fonseca were senators in the Massachusetts State Legislature. João G. Mattos served in the state legislature of California. Helen L. C. Lawrence became chair of the City Council of San Leandro, California, in 1941. In that position she exercised the power of mayor. Clarence Azevedo was mayor of Sacramento, California. In 1979, Peter "Tony" Coelho of California was elected to the United States House of Representatives; he is probably the first Portuguese American to serve in the national congress. Ernest Ladeira served as President Richard M. Nixon's advisor on social welfare. He was also an assistant to John Volpe, Secretary of Transportation. John M. Arruda was mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts, for six years.


Some Portuguese immigrants recorded their experiences in their adopted country: Laurinda C. Andrade (1899 ) gives a young girl's impressions in her autobiography, The Open Door ; Lawrence Oliver (1887-1977) wrote an autobiography titled Never Backward ; and Alfred Lewis (1902-1977) wrote an autobiographical novel, Home Is an Island, as well as poetry. Onésimo Almeida, who completed his university training in Portugal and then earned a Ph.D. at Brown University where he later served as professor, wrote Da Vida Quotidiana na LUSAlândia (1975), Ah! Mònim dum Corisco (1978), and (Sapa)teia Americana (1983). Immigrants who tell of their experiences in poetry include Artur Ávila in his Rimas de Um Imigrante and José Brites in his Poemas sem Poesia and Imigramante (1984). John Roderigo Dos Passos (1896-1970) is the only American novelist of Portuguese descent who has an international reputation. His works include Manhattan Transfer (1925) and the trilogy U.S.A. (1937), for which he is best known. It comprises the novels The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936). He published a second trilogy titled District of Columbia in 1952. Jorge de Sena (1919-1978) came to the United States from Portugal via Brazil. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, he was chair of the comparative literature program. He was a well-known literary critic, poet, playwright, novelist and short-story writer. His works include the novels O Físico Prodigioso (translated into English as The Wondrous Physician ) and Sinais de fogo as well as the short story collections Génesis and Os grao-capitaes. English readers can obtain his work By the Rivers of Babylon and Other Stories. The novelist and short-story writer José Rodrigues Miguéis (1901-1980) wrote fiction such as Saudades para Dena Genciana and Gente da Terceira Classe.


John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was director of the U.S. Marine Band from 1880 to 1892. He then founded his own Sousa Band in 1892 which, in its over 40-year existence, became the world's most famous concert band. At the outbreak of World War I, Sousa, at the age of 62, joined the navy to train bands at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. He is famous as the composer of such marches as "Stars and Stripes Forever," "Semper Fidelis," "The Washington Post March," and "Hands Across the Sea." He also composed several operettas including The Captain, The Charlatan, and The Queen of Hearts, as well as several suites for piano. Ilda Stichini and Maria Silveira were opera divas in the 1930s. Raul da Silva Pereira was a composer and conductor. Elmar de Oliveira (1950 ) is a violinist who, in 1978, was the first American to win the gold medal in Moscow's Tchaikovsky competition; he is now on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. In the field of popular music, the vocalist Tony Martin (1912 ) produced many hit records between 1941 and 1957. He had his own radio show and also appeared in films. His best role was probably in Casbah (1948). He appeared in nightclubs in the 1970s. A general contribution the Portuguese people have made to American music is the ukulele, which originated in Madeira and is now popular in Hawaii.


The charismatic religious leader Marcelino Manoel de Graça (1882-1960), also known as "Sweet Daddy Grace," founded the United House of Prayer for All People in the Harlem area of New York. His congregation, made up mainly of African Americans, included over three million people. Humberto Sousa Medeiros (1915-1983), who had been bishop of Brownsville, Texas, was named to succeed Cardinal Cushing as Archbishop of Boston in 1970. He was the first non-Irish American to fill that position in 124 years. He was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1973.


José de Sousa Bettencourt (1851-1931) earned degrees in both law and medicine. He practiced medicine and taught at the San Francisco Medical School. João Sérgio Alvares Cabral (d. 1909) practiced medicine in Oakland, California. He gave free consultations to the poor and ones at reduced rate to Portuguese. He also served as editor in chief of A Pátria, a Portuguese newspaper published in Oakland. Mathias Figueira (1853-1930) founded the American College of Surgeons. M. M. Enos (1875- ) was head of the Portuguese Association of the Portuguese Hospital of Saint Anthony in Oakland, California. He was also director of the Portuguese American Bank and taught at the National Medical School of Chicago. Carlos Fernandes (d. 1977) was director of St. John's Hospital in San Francisco.


Bernie de Viveiros played baseball with the Detroit Tigers and the Oakland Oaks. Manuel Gomes also was a baseball player as was Lew Fonseca (1899-1989) who played for the Cincinnati Reds, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cleveland Indians, and coached the Chicago White Sox; he was a pioneer in the use of film to analyze players' performance during a game. In boxing, Al Melo participated as a welterweight in the Olympics in 1924. George Araujo, Johnny Gonsalves, and Babe Herman were contenders for the world boxing championships. Justiano Silva was a professional wrestler. Henrique Santos won the United States fencing championship in 1942. Tony Lema (1934-1966), also known as "Champagne Tony," was the winner of numerous professional golf tournaments. At the time of his death he ranked tenth in all-time earnings in the PGA. Tennis star Vic (E. Victor) Seixas, Jr. (1923 ), won the U.S. Open Championship in 1954.


Abilio de Silva Greaves invented a fire-alarm system as well as devices used in aviation. In the field of textiles, Steve Abrantes invented a wool carding device, and José Pacheco Correia invented one for combing cotton. Sebastião Luiz Dias patented an irrigation control system. John C. Lobato developed a new type of army tank.


People who are interested in Portuguese cultural topics and would like to communicate with those having similar interests may do so through the USENET news group called soc.culture.portuguese. A game or pastime called "MOOsaico" can be played through Telnet by contacting moo.di.uminho. pt 7777. Participants explore a virtual world and talk to other players. The game may be played in Portuguese or English.


Jornal Portugues/Portuguese Journal.

Published every Thursday in Portuguese and English; circulation of 2,500.

Contact: Maria Leal, Editor.

Address: 1912 Church Lane, San Pablo, California 94806.

Telephone: (800) 309-0233; or (510) 237-0888.

Fax: (510) 237-3790.

E-mail: [email protected].


Established 1928 and published every Wednesday and Friday with a circulation of 36,000the largest outside Portugal and Brazil.

Contact: Antonio Matinho, Editor and Publisher.

Address: 88 Ferry, Newark, New Jersey 07105.

Telephone: (973) 589-4600.

Fax: (973) 589-3848.

E-mail: [email protected].

The Portuguese Post.

Established 1986 and published every Monday; circulation 20,000.

Contact: George Valante, Editor.

Address: 283 East Kinney Street, Newark, New Jersey 07105.

Telephone: (201) 344-5652.

Fax: (201) 344-0675.

E-Mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.uspn.com/post/.

Portuguese Times, Inc.

Published every Thursday; circulation 15,000.

Contact: Manuel Ferreira, Editor.

Address: 1501 Acushnet Avenue, New Bedford, Massachusetts 02740.

Telephone: (508) 997-3118.

Fax: (508) 990-1231.

Online: http://www.webx.ca/Ptimes/.

Portuguese Tribune.

Published bi-monthly. Circulation: 1,800 subscriptions plus sales in more than 250 vending locations.

Contact: Armando Antunes, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 3477, San Jose, California 95156-3477.

Telephone: (408) 971-1615.

Fax: (408) 971-1966.

Portuguese-American Newspaper.

Semiweekly newspaper founded in 1928; for Portuguese Americans in Portuguese.

Address: 88 Ferry Street, Newark, New Jersey 07105.

Telephone: (973) 589-4600.

Fax: (973) 589-3848.

Voz de Portugal/Voice of Portugal.

Semi-monthly magazine published in Portuguese.

Contact: Lourenco Costa Aguiar, Editor and Publisher.

Address: 370 A Street, Hayward, California 94541.

Telephone: (415) 537-9503.


WINE-AM (940).

Radio Portugal.

Address: 1004 Federal Road, Brookfield, Connecticut 06804-1123.

Telephone: (203) 775-1212.

Fax: (203) 775-6452.

WJFD-FM (97.3).

Radio Globo.

Address: 270 Union Street, New Bedford, Massachusetts 02740.

Telephone: (617) 997-2929.

Fax: (508) 990-3893.

WRCP-AM (1290).

Radio Clube Portugues.

Contact: Anthony A. Cruz.

Address: 1110 Douglas Avenue, Providence, Rhode Island 02904.

Telephone: (401) 273-7000.

Fax: (401) 273-7008.


Full Channel.

Address: 57 Everett Street, Warren, Rhode Island 02885.

Telephone: (401) 247-1250.

A Nossa Gente.

Address: Heritage Cable Vision, 1636 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose, California 95116.

Telephone: (408) 258-2800.

Portuguese American Hour.

Address: Channel 38, 46921 Warm Springs Boulevard, Fremont, California.

Telephone: (415) 656-3232.

The Portuguese Channel.

Address: Channel 20, 1501 Acushnet Avenue, New Bedford, Massachusetts 02740.

Telephone: (508) 997-3110.

Fax: (508) 996-2151.

Portuguese Television.

Address: Channel 38, P.O. Box 51, Fremont, California 94541.

Telephone: (415) 797-4219


This Portuguese television channel can be received from the Hughes Galaxy III satellite. This is a C-band satellite with a horizontal polarization. Its position is 93.5 degrees west, and its transponder number is five.

Address: R.T.P. USA, Adams Street, Newark, New Jersey.

Telephone: (201) 344-8888.

Organizations and Associations

American Portuguese Society.

Founded in 1959. Promotes friendship, understanding, and cultural relations between Portugal and the United States through exhibits, seminars, and cultural exchanges. Publishes the Journal of the American Portuguese Society with articles in English about Portuguese culture.

Contact: Michael Teague, Director.

Address: c/o ISSI, 2 Wall Street, New York, New York 10005.

Telephone: (212) 751-1992.

Fax: (212) 688-7082.

Luso-American Education Foundation.

Seeks to perpetuate the ethnic and national culture brought to America by emigrants from Portugal; assists qualified students and others in studying and understanding Portuguese culture. Develops high school and college courses for the teaching of Portuguese language, history, and culture.

Contact: S. Bettencourt, President.

Address: P.O. Box 2967, Dublin, California 94568.

Telephone: (510) 828-3883.

Fax: (510) 828-3883.

Online: http://www.Lusaweb.com/laef/

Portuguese Continental Union USA.

Founded in 1925. A fraternal organization serving the Portuguese community.

Contact: Francisco Mendonca, Supreme Secretary/CEO.

Address: 899 Boylston Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02115.

Telephone: (617) 536-2916.

Fax: (617) 536-8301.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://members.aol.com/upceua.

Portuguese Historical and Cultural Society.

Works to promote Portuguese history and culture.

Contact: Joe Souza, President.

Address: P.O. Box 161990, Sacramento, California 95816.

Telephone: (916) 392-1048.

E-mail: [email protected].

The União Portuguesa do Estado da California (UPEC).

Fraternal insurance society founded in 1880. Maintains the J. A. Freitas library with 8,000 volumes dealing with Portugal and Portuguese Americans.

Contact: Carlos Almeida.

Address: 1120 East 14th Street, San Leandro, California 94577.

Telephone: (510) 483-7676.

Online: http://www.upec.org/.

Museums and Research Centers

The Oliveira Lima Library.

Located on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., this is the oldest and most extensive library of materials specializing in Luso-Brazilian history and culture.

Contact: Maria Leal, Librarian; or Thomas Cohen, Curator.

Address: 6 Mullen Library, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. 20064.

Telephone: (202) 319-5059.

E-mail: [email protected].

Society for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies.

Address: Department of History, SSB 215, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721-0027.

Contact: Helen Nader.

Telephone: (520) 621-5860.

Fax: (520) 621-2422.

E-mail: naderh@u.arizona.edu.

Sources for Additional Study

Almeida, Carlos. Portuguese Immigrants: The Centennial Story of the Portuguese Union of the State of California. San Leandro, California: Supreme Council of U.P.E.C., 1992.

Anderson, James Maxwell. The History of Portugal. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Cabral, Stephen L. Tradition and Transformation: Portuguese Feasting in New Bedford. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1989.

Cardozo, Manoel da Silveira. The Portuguese in America: 590 B . C .-1974: A Chronology & Fact Book. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1976.

Gilbert, Dorothy Ann. Recent Portuguese Immigrants to Fall River, Massachusetts: An Analysis of Relative Economic Success. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1989.

Pap, Leo. The Portuguese-Americans. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

Ribeiro, José Luís. Portuguese Immigrants and Education. Bristol, Rhode Island: Portuguese American Federation, 1982.

Wolforth, Sandra. The Portuguese in America. San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, Inc., 1978.

Portuguese Americans

views updated Jun 08 2018

Portuguese Americans

ETHNONYMS: Luso Americans, Portages, Greenhorns


Identification and Location. Portuguese Americans are a diverse group whose social identity is emotionally tied to Portugal's colonial and postcolonial history. Most families can trace their family trees and migration routes back to the Azores, Madeira, or the European continent. During Portugal's colonial era Cape Verdean immigrants of Luso-African descent were included among the Portuguese. Their archipelago was granted political independence in 1975 after the Portuguese Revolution of the Carnations. Cape Verdeans have mobilized themselves as a distinct ethnic group in the United States since that time.

The terms Portuguese American and Luso American are commonly used as labels for self-identification. These terms also can be used to identify entire Portuguese communities that may include Azoreans, Madeirans, Continentals, and their descendants.

Strong regional and local identification distinguish and separate Azoreans, Madeirans, and Continentals. Some scholars consider this extreme regionalism and these traditional rivalries as residues of bairrismo. This social process shaped the residential settlement patterns of Portuguese American communities. Immigrants from the same islands and continental districts and villages tended to cluster and live together in the United States.

The epithet Portage is a bastardization of the formal Portuguese. Outsiders use this expression to insult and stigmatize immigrants and their descendants. Greenhorn is another derogatory label used by outsiders and insiders alike to stigmatize, antagonize, and insult the most recent immigrants and their children. Luso American descendants of the first wave of immigration use this label more commonly and vindictively than do outsiders.

Demography. The U.S. Bureau of the Census recorded 900,060 persons of Portuguese ancestry in 1998. The median age of this population of 453,120 women and 446,940 men was thirty-three years old.

The majority of Portuguese Americans reside in California and Massachusetts. In 1990, 275,492 (31 percent) lived in California and 241,173 (27) percent lived in Massachusetts. Sizable communities also exist in Rhode Island: 75,773 (9 percent); New Jersey: 56,928 (6 percent); Hawaii: 39,748 (4 percent); Connecticut: 35,523 (4 percent); New York: 34,455 (4 percent); and Florida: 23,975 (2 percent). The remaining 115,993 (12 percent) are scattered throughout the other states with the exception of the Dakotas.

Linguistic Affiliation. Portuguese is a Romance language derived from Latin and is part of the larger family of Indo-European languages. The earliest form, which was spoken between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, was called Galician Portuguese and resembled the language spoken in northwestern Spain. The language variety from Coimbra and Lisbon emerged as the standard form in the sixteenth century.

Modern Portuguese still has northern and southern dialects. The northern dialect retains its ancient Galician roots, and the southern dialect has some Arabic influence. The forms of Portuguese spoken in the Azores and Madeira are distinctive regional dialects.

Most immigrants from the Azores, Madeira, and the Continent arrived speaking Portuguese and continued to speak their native language to their children at home. While immigrants in the work force struggled to learn English by immersion, older people relied exclusively on Portuguese. Many acquired some English comprehension from radio and television but depended on bilingual relatives, especially children and grandchildren, for English translations.

Few traces of Portuguese speech survived past the second generation of the first wave of immigrants. The major exceptions were family names, kin terms, food names, names of folkloric objects, and swear words. The Portuguese of most first-generation immigrants incorporated English influences, mostly in vocabulary rather than pronunciation or grammar. There was also a great deal of code switching back and forth between English and Portuguese at home, at the workplace, and in public.

History and Cultural Relations

Scholars identify four historical periods of Portuguese immigration to the United States. The earliest immigrants sailed between 1500 and 1870. The first mass migration crossed the Atlantic from 1870 to 1921. Portuguese immigration declined during the dormancy period from 1922 to 1958. The latest wave of mass migration began in 1958, expanded in 1965, and peaked after the Portuguese Revolution that began on April 25, 1974. Immigration declined during the final decade of the twentieth century.

The Portuguese explorer João Roderigues Cabrillo anchored in San Diego Bay on September 9, 1542, and was the first European to explore California. Sephardic Jews emigrated to America in the eighteenth century to avoid religious persecution. Abraham de Lyon introduced grape cultivation to Georgia, and Aaron Lopez promoted the sperm whale oil and candle industry in Newport, Rhode Island.

The Portuguese Atlantic islands of the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde became ports of call for Yankee merchants and New Bedford whalers in the nineteenth century. Portuguese islanders signed on as crewmembers when whalers, schooners, and clipper ships took on provisions. Most young sailors preferred the risks at sea to boredom, poverty, and military conscription at home. Many disembarked and settled near the waterfronts of established whaling seaports in New England, California, and Hawaii.

The annual reports of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service documented 35 Portuguese immigrants in 1820 and an incremental growth up to 5,272 over the next fifty years. The earliest immigrants were Azorean men and boys from Pico, Fayal, Saint George, and Flores who sailed on New Bedford and Nantucket whalers. Many landed and settled in the whaling ports of New Bedford and Edgartown, Massachusetts; Sag Harbor and Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York; Stonington, Connecticut; and San Diego, Monterey, and San Francisco, California. Those who abandoned whaling for commercial fishing moved to Provincetown and Gloucester, Massachusetts, where their descendants still form the backbone of the local fishing fleets.

The first wave of mass migration by Azore an families began in 1870. Those families relied on the direct steamship passage established between Boston and Horta, Fayal. Most sought employment in the emerging textile industries in New England and were hired as unskilled laborers. Azorean immigration from Saint Michael, the most densely populated island on the archipelago, surpassed that from Fayal in the 1890s after the construction of a sea wall and deep harbor for transatlantic steamers. Migration from Saint Michael rose dramatically when the U.S. consulate moved to Ponta Delgada.

Madeirans and Continentals arrived between 1900 and 1920. Many were political refugees who feared the republican forces that overthrew the monarchy on October 5, 1910. This wave of 189,941 immigrants established ethnic enclaves in New Bedford, Fall River, Lowell, and Lawrence, Massachusetts, and the Blackstone River Valley from Cumberland to Providence, Rhode Island.

Azoreans implemented a chain migration in which the earliest migrants facilitated the immigration of the remaining family members. Islanders from Pico, Fayal, Saint George, Flores, and Terceira continued westward to California. Portuguese Americans in Hawaii experienced a fate different from that of their mainland cousins. The Hawaii Sugar Plantation Association recruited Madeiran labor to work the plantations, as did the American Hemp Company from Illinois in the 1840s. Nearly twenty thousand Portuguese had settled in Hawaii by the turn of the twentieth century.

U.S. immigration policies and legislation dramatically reduced Portuguese immigration during the 1920s. The Johnson Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 established a quota of 440 visas a year for Portugal. Only 46,746 immigrants entered during that period.

Portuguese mass migration resumed in 1958 after the passage of the Azorean Refugee Acts. This legislation assisted 4,800 immigrants displaced by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in Fayal. The U.S. Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the quota system, and Azorean chain migration resumed. Migration peaked at 101,710 during the decade of the Portuguese Revolution. Although migration has slowed substantially, more than a quarter million immigrants had come to the United States by the end of the twentieth century.

The recém-chegados (recent arrivals) expanded and revitalized the earlier settlements in New England and California and established new communities in Connecticut and New Jersey. Many recent arrivals were largely unaware of the history and traditions of the earlier group. The newer group was also better educated than its predecessors. They exhibited an ethnic pride that stood in sharp contrast to the attitude of a generation that grew up ashamed of its heritage.

The ease of modern travel and Internet communications have sustained contact with the old country. Ethnic heritage and bilingual education programs have cushioned the assimilation of the second wave and stimulated fresh interest in Portuguese language and culture.


Most close-knit family groups settled in small cities and suburbs where they could own a mortgage-free home. In New England the typical Portuguese immigrant home assumed two distinct forms: casa velha and casa nova (the old house and the new house). The casa velha was located in the old tenement neighborhoods. These pastel-colored vinyl-sided tenements with verdant grape arbors and vegetable gardens added color and life to drab mill towns. Casas novas were built by upwardly mobile immigrants in the suburbs. These classic Mediterranean stucco houses with red tile roofs are accented with traditional masonry, tiles, and black wrought-iron fencing. Lawn shrines to Our Lady of Fatima and tiled icons of patron saints decorated the doors of both types of homes.


Subsistence. The domestic economy of Portuguese immigrant households is based on the mutual support of an extended family of parents, working-age children, and other family members living under the same roof. Their family organization originally developed on village farms in the Continent and the Atlantic islands. The majority of Azorean whalers and Portuguese fishermen acquired their new skills in the United States. Some of these people continued to work the soil in small truck gardens and dairy farms in the suburbs beyond the seaports. Itinerant farm workers picked cranberries, blueberries, and apples in New England and grapes, lettuce, and fruit in California.

Commercial Activities. Merchants set up small shops in the neighborhood business district to meet the workers' needs. In California the Portuguese became miners, farmers, and ranchers. They established large-scale dairy farms in the San Joaquin Valley and pioneered tuna fishing in San Diego. The Hawaiian Portuguese abandoned the sugarcane fields for service jobs in the city early in the twentieth century.

Industrial Arts. Skilled and experienced carpenters and masons entered the construction trades. Unskilled laborers worked on highway and landscape crews. In New England women joined men in the textile mills and garment industries.

Division of Labor. Half the Portuguese American population is gainfully employed. Nearly 20 percent of this work force holds managerial and professional positions. Another 30 percent holds technical, sales, and administrative jobs. The service sector and the production, crafts, and repair trades each employ 14 percent. Another 19 percent work as operators, fabricators, and laborers. The remaining 3 percent are employed in farming, forestry, and fishing.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Portuguese maintained their traditional extended family structure in the United States. The earliest immigrants were young single males and married men hoping to sponsor their families' passage when their finances permitted. Entire families arrived during the first wave of mass migration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The 1965 U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act reinforced this trend by granting priority to close relatives who settled with their families in established communities. The households of second- and third-generation descendants usually are occupied by nuclear families with strong emotional ties to distant kin and members of the extended family.

Kinship Terminology. Portuguese Americans still reckon kinship descent bilaterally, and most use Portuguese kin terms. Those kinship terms have Latin roots: mãe e pãe (mother and father), filho e filha (son and daughter), irmão e irmá (brother and sister), avó e avô (grandmother and grandfather), bisavó e bisavô (great-grandparents), madrinha e padrinho (godmother and godfather), primos e primas (cousins), and compadres (fictive kin). The Greek terms tia and tio (aunt and uncle) are the sole exception.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Portuguese Americans tend to be endogamous in terms of class and ethnicity. Immigrant parents prefer that their children marry someone from their natal village, but island endogamy is acceptable. Island exogamy is common but is considered problematic. Most ethnic exogamy occurs with other working-class Catholics from the Irish, French Canadian, Polish, and Hispanic communities. Nearly 60 percent of the 722,513 persons over fifteen years of age are married. Another 6 percent are widowed. Less than 2 percent are separated, and only 8 percent of Portuguese marriages end in divorce.

Domestic Unit. Many Portuguese Americans tend to remain in the communities in which they were born. Even upwardly mobile descendants build new single-family homes in suburbs close to the old immigrant centers. The concept of a dominant male head of household still prevails among Portuguese men. The entrance of Portuguese women into the American labor market challenged and diminished traditional male authority. Older women maintained traditional gender roles. They resigned themselves to their factory routines and domestic obligations to their husbands and children. Many of their daughters, however, resented this double standard and rebelled against the suppression of women.

Inheritance. Portuguese American families generally maintain the tradition of partible inheritance. Firstborn adult children frequently are designated as the executors of the parents' final will and testament. Portuguese American women have the right to receive and bestow property.

Socialization. Maternal grandmothers are important child care providers in bilingual and bicultural Portuguese American households. They often introduce children to Portuguese language, cuisine, and religious beliefs and practices. Grandfathers, godfathers, aunts, and uncles also provide emotional guidance and fiscal support to young parents.

The children of working-class families were not always encouraged to stay in school beyond the required age. Many were urged to seek gainful employment and contribute to the income of the extended family. While immigrant parents clung to familiar customs, their children encountered an American way of life that produced a dramatic generation gap. English-language proficiency, American schools, and peer influences alienated many Portuguese American descendants from their immigrant parents.

The earlier immigrants and their descendants endured the Depression and Americanization programs that stigmatized Portuguese language, customs, and identity. Many members of that generation abandoned their native language and denied their ethnic identity out of shame. The children of Portuguese immigrants who arrived in the 1960s received advocacy and support from the bilingual and bicultural staff of immigrant assistance centers. Their children enrolled in bilingual education programs at school.

The traditional emphasis on family welfare still inhibits Portuguese students. Only a minority seek higher education beyond the local community. Most enroll in local community colleges and state universities.

In recent years successful Luso Americans from both waves of immigration have reaffirmed their Portuguese identity and heritage. Despite their historical and cultural differences, recent immigrants and Luso American descendants are bridging the gaps that originally separated them. Together they have reconstructed their immigrant history and legendary past to preserve and promote their communities across the country.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Portuguese immigrants settled in ethnic neighborhoods and organized themselves for economic protection, recreational activities, and preservation of their language and culture. They established five types of voluntary associations to ease their entry into the mainstream of American life: protective associations, social clubs, religious confraternities, band clubs, and educational associations. Membership usually was determined by one's regional identity.

Protective associations provided insurance benefits in case of unemployment, illness, or death. Social clubs resembled village taverns in the old country, and several fielded soccer teams. Religious confraternities celebrated patron saint feasts in their Catholic parishes. Brass band clubs led processions and performed at the local church feast. Educational associations ensured that the language, literature, and cultural history would not be mistaken for Spanish. More than fifty American universities offer Portuguese studies programs.

Political Organization. Ethnic newspapers, radio, and television provide a communications network and forum for Portuguese American merchants, educators, and community leaders to serve their constituents in their native language. Until recently the Portuguese media focused primarily on immigrant issues rather than the Portuguese American community as a whole. Air mail, transatlantic telephones, jet travel, and personal computers have provided reliable channels to sustain ties with relatives in the old country. RTP (Radio Television of Portugal) beams instantaneous satellite dispatches from Lisbon and the entire Portuguese-speaking world directly into immigrant households.

Recent immigrants and their descendants are more involved with their homeland than the earlier arrivals could be. Portuguese American folklore groups, brass bands, and soccer teams engage in an active cultural exchange with their counterparts in the islands and on the Continent. The development of modern travel and communications technology has sustained and strengthened Portuguese American social identity.

Conflict. The two waves of Portuguese immigration encountered different political climates over the course of their histories. The earlier immigrants were viciously assailed by American nativists and Know-Nothings, and restrictive quotas and Americanization programs were imposed on their families. All things Portuguese were stigmatized. The Great Depression, World War II, and the 1950s further Americanized their children. Many people married into other ethnic groups and lost their linguistic and cultural identity.

Portuguese immigrant families in the 1960s arrived seeking new economic opportunities and encountered the social and political turmoil of the civil rights and antiwar movements and a recession. Portugal had its counterpart in the African colonial wars. The Portuguese Revolution of April 25, 1974, heightened the political consciousness of Portuguese Americans.

American schools and social service agencies mobilized Portuguese Americans to confront discrimination and stigmatization. They offered citizenship programs and voter registration drives to naturalize citizens and introduce them to the political process. Portuguese immigrants and their descendants currently hold local and state political offices in New England, California, and Hawaii.

The circumstances and experiences of the recémchegados were dramatically different from those of the immigrants and descendants of the first wave. These two groups live in close juxtaposition but not in harmony. The Portuguese American community is quietly and slowly resolving the conflict of loyalties between the third- and fourth generation descendants of the original immigrants and the latest wave of recent arrivals.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Portuguese are Roman Catholics with a legacy of anticlericalism. Their ethnic parishes became focal points of community life at the turn of the twentieth century. The historical emergence of Portuguese American neighborhoods is dated by the times when their churches were built. The first Portuguese American parish, Saint John the Baptist, was established in New Bedford in 1869. Five more Portuguese churches were built in Boston, Fall River, and Gloucester, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and Oakland, California, before 1900. These national parishes offered spiritual solace and comfort by ministering to Portuguese families in their native language. The churches incorporated familiar religious icons and sponsored traditional celebrations.

Portuguese immigrants retained ancient, pre-Christian folk beliefs in the supernatural. They attributed most of their ills and the bad weather affecting crops and livestock to witchcraft practiced by bruxas and feiticeiras. Many people were believed to have the power of mau olhado (the evil eye). These witches could cast an evil spell on others with a simple gaze. Villagers warded off psychic attack with a figa, a clenched fist with the thumb stuck between the first and second fingers. Gold charms and religious talismans were worn around the neck and wrists for spiritual protection.

The Portuguese regard the Devil as a real and menacing force. The taboo word diabo is avoided for fear of invoking his sinister and evil presence. Portuguese Americans still protect themselves from evil with holy water and the sign of the Cross.

Religious Practitioners. Portuguese Americans recognize an important distinction between the clerical hierarchy and the congregation during festas (feasts). Priests are responsible for coordinating liturgical rituals and interpreting religious dogma. Religious brotherhoods (irmandades ) sponsor festas at the congregational level. The Holy Ghost Brotherhood, the Holy Rosary Sodality, and countless feast committees have perpetuated the Portuguese ritual calendar.

Ceremonies. Portuguese immigrants and their American-born descendants express their regional collective identity through celebrations of folk religious festivals. Azoreans observe Holy Ghost festivals from Easter to July in New England and California. The most notable celebrations are held in Fall River, Massachusetts, and Gustine, California. Azoreans also celebrate other patron saint feasts, including Santo Cristo in Fall River and Senhor da Pedra in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Azoreans often schedule vacations so that they can attend the feasts in the islands. They sanctify and transform their homecoming into a religious pilgrimage.

Madeirans have celebrated the Feast of Our Lady of the Mount in the mountains behind Honolulu since 1901. They also established the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1915. The Madeiran feast committee promotes this event as "the largest Portuguese feast in the world." Their public extravaganza held on the first weekend of August draws more than 250,000 visitors to New Bedford.

The postcolonial Portuguese government has recruited bilingual Americans to serve as cultural brokers between Portugal and the United States. Immigrant community leaders collaborate with their Portuguese consulates to celebrate the Day of Portugal, Camoes, and the Portuguese communities. The Day of Portugal, held on 10 June, honors Luis de Camoes. His epic poem of Portugal's Age of Discovery, the Lu-siadas, has become the embodiment of the national culture.

Arts. Portuguese Americans mark ritual space and time with colorful displays of ephemeral art. The festival grounds and streets leading to the church often are decorated with arches of greens festooned with colored lights, flags, and flowers. The procession routes are outlined with pasadeiras das flores (flowered carpets), and the statues of the saints are adorned in their finest raiment. Household shrines for the Holy Ghost crown are often more elaborate than creche displays at Christmas.

Religious rituals are always accompanied by a secular festivity called an arraial. Ceremonial eating, drinking, singing, and dancing occur on the church grounds after the religious services. The Portuguese prepare traditional food for their feasts. The menu invariably includes linguiça (pork sausage), chouriço (spicy pork sausage), favas (beans), cacoila (marinated pork), massa sovada (sweet bread), and sopa de couves (kale soup). Brass bands, folk musicians, and folkloric dancers in regional costumes provide entertainment. Portuguese fado can be heard at ethnic restaurants on weekends.

Medicine. Portuguese Americans make use of modern medical and mental health services. In New England many Azoreans still rely on folk healers called curandeiros. who use a mixture of traditional herbs, prayer, and spiritual rituals during their healing sessions. These remedies are considered as important as a medicine cabinet full of drugs and pills prescribed by a physician.

Public health and medical professionals have designed outreach programs to treat Portuguese Americans for hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, alcoholism, drug abuse, and depression. Portuguese immigrant women refer to their symptoms of anxiety, depression, and mental health disorders as "nerves."

Death and Afterlife. Death marks the ritual end of an individual life and the reconfiguration of the surviving family. Portuguese Americans call on ethnic morticians and funeral directors to deal with their grief. Bodies customarily are placed in an open casket for a single day at the funeral parlor. Floral rosary beads, a broken heart, and a clock marking the time of death adorn the casket. Immediate family members openly express their grief with continuous sobbing and wailing. The seating arrangement by the casket indicates family rank and relationships. Everyone wears black outfits. Visitors customarily embrace and kiss the entire extended family in the grieving line. Family members and close friends of the deceased often are selected as pallbearers. They carry the coffin into the church where the person was baptized for their final Mass of the Dead. The ritual concludes with burial in the family plot and a ceremonial meal. Portuguese Americans meticulously maintain their family grave sites every Memorial Day rather than on All Saints Day.

Widows customarily wear black for the rest of their lives. Other relatives wear black for variable lengths of time, depending on their relationship to the deceased. Devout women create little altars on their bedroom bureaus. Photographs of the deceased are added to this sacred space decorated with crucifixes, images of saints, and burning candles. Relatives perpetuate this cult of the dead by offering masses and prayers for the soul of the deceased on the anniversary of his passing.

For the original article on Portuguese Americans, see Volume 1, North America.


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