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ETHNONYMS: Ilhéus (oceanic yokels), Insular Portuguese


Identification. Discovery of the uninhabited archipelago of the Azores was a starting point for Portugal's fifteenth-century overseas empire; five centuries later Portuguese Culture continues to dominate its economic, social, and political life. The Azores are named for a seabird (açor ), displayed on the regional flag beneath an arc of nine stars representing the archipelago's inhabited islands: Sao Miguel, Terceira, Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Santa Maria, Graciosa, Flores, and Corvo. Most islanders continue to think of themselves as Portuguese. Some push (clandestinely) for independence and some suggest becoming America's fifty-first state.

Location. The nine islands of the Azores straddle the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between 36° and 39° N and 24° and 31° W, some 3,200 kilometers east of New York, and about 1,300 kilometers west of Portugal. Proximity to the Gulf Stream moderates a climate characterized by narrow temperature range, ample precipitation, and dense mists. A prevailing anticyclone (high-pressure) system, which deflects storm fronts, engenders weather stability. A diverse ground cover of Indigenous and imported flora is uniformly verdant. Periodic volcanic activity has endowed the land with natural attractions.

Demography. Soon after discovery, crop and stock raising were introduced as members of Portugal's underclass and donatários (grantee/landowner class with royal connections) began to settle the islands. The still-pervasive class system originated at that time. Italian, German, and English merchants, Spanish priests, a scattering of Moors and Blacks (slaves), baptized Jews (Conversos), and Flemish peoples came later. The Azore population is around 240,000 and declining. The three major ports are also population centers: Ponta Delgada (22,000), Angra do Heroísmo (14,000), and Horta (7,500). Azoreans emigrate to find employment, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to Brazil, more recently to Canada and the United States.

linguistic Affiliation. The language of the Azores is Standard European Portuguese (SEP). SEP follows Romance Language Family conventions, is spoken by continental elites, and is classified as inflective, synthetic, and stresstimed (Brazilian Portuguese is syllable-timed). SEP is used by the media and literati and overlies Azorean regional "folk" speech. Distinctive accents and intonations often mark social status in the class-stratified society.

History and Cultural Relations

Settlement began around 1440 on the eastern islands under the absentee proprietorship of explorer Prince Henry, infante of Portugal, also known as the Navigator. São Miguel and Terceira, in the central island group, soon led in agriculture, producing exportable cash crops (wheat, dyer's woad, oranges, flax, wines and brandies) by the end of the century. Abundant harvests and strategic location made the Azores an important focus of Atlantic maritime trade well into the eighteenth century. During the seventeenth century, Terceirathen the center of Portuguese authorityled in Population and prestige, a historical legacy manifest in its persistent interisland rivalry with the Michaelese. After eighteenth-century penetration by American shipping, tourist, and whaling interests, the port of Horta (Faial) became the archipelago's main distribution center and a vital nexus of Atlantic commerce. Telegraphy brought cable stations to Horta and Ponta Delgada, linking the Azores to an international communications network. In 1939 transatlantic flights by Pan American Airlines' "Yankee Clipper" stopped at Horta en route to Lisbon and Marseilles, enhancing Horta's already cosmopolitan image. Today Horta's marina attracts yachters from Europe and the Americas, and the port has a considerable tourist presence. World War II construction of major airports at Lajes (now an American base) and on Santa Maria and the advent of transoceanic planes ended the clipper-ship era. Despite glistening waterfront buildings, busy harbors, and sailboard resorts, the visitors to the Azores see themselves stepping back in time. A country way of life persists: the people hand-cultivate, creaking windmills grind maize, there are tiny walled gardens everywhere, the pigpen is located just outside the kitchen, and black-shrouded widows abound. Also, the presence of the Catholic church is pervasive and remains inextricably linked to state interests.


Typically each island has a major perimeter road from which secondary roadssome barely passablelead into a Mountainous interior or down to coastal sites. Settlements follow the road, and cultivated fields and pastures are located behind a strip of contiguous houses. The few small interior Villages (each about 500 people) are found at intersections of the roads; dwellings outline a central area of tilled fields, parish church, mill, and café or tiny shop cluster near the main crossroads. In larger settlements (1,000-3,500 people), administrative and commercial sites (café, bus/taxi, hotel, Market, bank, farmácia, post office) circle a central praça, often next to the island's port of entry. At festa time, parades, music, and feasting fill the streets and strings of lights identify parish neighborhoods. Rural farmsteads are built of stone and have whitewashed stucco exteriors, with structural features brightly outlined in red or black. Broad eaves, lowpitched roofs of russet pantile, and a large wedge-shaped chimney are designed to ventilate the interior oven workspace. Outside is a small open barn with a cruciform frame under thatch for drying maize. Urban doors and windows are framed by black basalt in fifteenth-century Manueline (Romanesque) style of heavy masonry construction of black and white lava stone. Multistoried townhousesresidues of the colonial erahave wrought-iron balconies, ornamental shutters, and painted facades.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Azore economy is basically one of household subsistence. Islanders engage in crop, dairy, and stock farming or fish for their livelihood; industrial workers (food processing, textiles) represent only 4 percent of the workforce. Service jobs (in sales, health, tourism) relate to the urban sector or to government employment (civil service and public works). Much of the total land area, primarily hill and upland terrain, is in pasturage. Limited arable acreage is planted with staple crops (wheat, maize, white potatoes, vegetables, and fodder), orchard trees, or vineyards on Terceira, Graciosa, São Miguel, and Pico. Dairy products (meat, milk, cheese) are exported in significant quantities.

Industrial Arts. Azulejos (glazed ornamental tiles), Moorish in origin and a former handicraft product, are manufactured locally. Cottage workshops produce needlepoint, embroidered linens, handwoven rugs, bedspreads, counterpanes, pillows, and decorative items of feathers, paper, and fish scales. Many of these creations are sold in local shops. Cachalot (whalebone) carving was important until the mid-twentieth century; one workshop remains on the island of Pico.

Trade. The supermarket (supermercado ) has arrived in major population centers; a daily open market for homegrown produce is found in most villages, as is the miller. Wines are produced and distributed locally. Portugal is the Azores' major trading partner.

Division of Labor. Traditional sex roles still persist. Women care for children, run the household, and work in farming operations and cottage industries. Men farm, fish, and provide labor for associated commercial activities. They also dominate the urban service sector (roadworkers, bus and taxi drivers). In a society where male emigration remains the norm, it is not unusual for rural women to lead lives of hard agricultural labor (plowing, hauling loads, and harvesting).

Land Tenure. Nearly half of all acreage is in absentee ownership. Land has been fragmented over time into noncontiguous walled plots, as in curraletas used for viniculture. Sharecropping and absentee ownership remain fairly Common. Many small farms are privately owned or rented, but pasturage is frequently shared. On Corvo, pasture land above 350 meters is communal, grazed by herds in common ownership; below, a public/private ownership combination exists. Limited access to land has long been a major incentive for emigration.


Kin Groups and Descent. Azoreans retain the family structure and living arrangements of traditional peasant Culture. The nuclear family core is extended by generation, by collateral and spiritual kin. Shared and proximate dwellings indicate ubiquity of close kin. Naming patterns reflect bilateral descent: two surnames are given to each child, the mother's first, then the father's. Male emigration strengthens bonds of kinship among women. Residential proximity to a bride's kin is preferred. Residues of patriarchy, historically a class phenomenon, are observable in the social standing and commercial prominence of original donatario families (e.g., Bettencourt, Silveira, Souza).

Kinship Terminology. Kin terminology is formally Eskimo in type, although cousin (primo ) terms may be extended to include friends and in-laws. Traditional respect for elders is implicit in the important role of padrinho/a (godparent).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Village or island endogamy has been customary. Girls are protected by close surveillance until an arranged marriage. Cousin marriages are not uncommon. Postmarital residence with or near the bride's or groom's parents is customary. Padrinhos traditionally attend the couple at the sacrament of marriage. Because of absent men and husbands, spinsters and "living widows" (viúvas dos vivos ) are critical to family and property maintenance. When the Azorean government gained regional autonomy in 1976, it assigned spouses equal rights and duties for the support and education of Children. Job opportunities and fertility control for women, better schooling, improved communications with the outside world, and the loosening hold of the church have also expanded choice for men as well as women. Divorce is still uncommon.

Domestic Unit. "Family members" are those who share a domicile and contribute to its survival. As few as two to more than a dozen people may constitute a family, depending on how the nuclear core is extended. A domestic unit is, in effect, a subsistence (usually farming) unit, with labor shared according to traditional sex roles. 1f children opt to leave school at age 12, they normally remain in the household and are employed locallygirls in craft workshops and boys in farming or trade apprenticeshipuntil marriage.

Inheritance. Property is inherited without regard to Gender. An unmarried daughter, the usual caretaker of aging Parents, may be designated the major heir and is the likely legatee of the parental home. Upon her death, the home reverts to the family line.

Socialization. Child care has been the overwhelming responsibility of domestic women living in the household (mother, cohabiting sisters, aunts, grandmothers) and of female kin living in close proximity. Church and family exercise strict control over major rites of passage, but secular education and widening access to European-American culture are loosening many traditional ties. Vestiges of the old ways remain, such as debutante daughters of prominent families and rigid surveillance of adolescents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Azores remain a two-class Society, although the advent of regionalization and university-level institutions is weakening ascriptive and patronizing features of the social hierarchy. Continental Portugal remains the wellspring of high (literary) culture, as reflected in museums, libraries, the theater, and Manueline architecture. Folk culture is manifest in the aesthetics of the festa and its traditional music, dancing, costumes, and food. Social stratification is marked linguistically.

Political Organization. Since 1976 the Azores have been designated an "autonomous region" (reguío ) within greater Portugal, and are administered under the constitution of the Portuguese republic. Autonomy is limited in two ways: Portugal's sovereignty may not be compromised, and regionally based political parties are prohibited. Governance is by a Regional assembly made up of freely elected deputies who choose its presiding officer. A Lisbon-appointed minister of the republic names the president of the regional government. Nine governmental secretariats are divided among cities (Ponta Delgada, Angra, Horta) of the three Azorean Districts. Local officials are elected at the level of the municipality (município, concelho ) and the precinct (freguesia ). The archipelago participates in, and may benefit from, international agreements having direct local impact (e.g., revenues from the American military presence at Lajes).

Social Control. Portugal very effectively controls the Azores from afar. Interpersonal conflict is held in check by the parish church and by village gossip. Conflict at any level has traditionally been suppressed rather than openly resolved.

Conflict. During centuries of cultural and geographic isolation, warfare rarely occurred in the Azores. Internal conflict was largely avoided by restraining freedom of expression and promoting illiteracy. Limited autonomy has lent some support to underlying political dissent.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Catholicism is pervasive in Portuguese insular society and, through the agency of the parish churches and their patron saints, the Catholic church is an accessory to affairs of state. The Azorean publicly marks his or her faith by ceremonial display and by ritual performances (festas). Folk superstition typically penetrates the tenets of state-sponsored religion.

Religious Practitioners. The parish priest is the spiritual and liturgical leader of his flock, local agent of the church hierarchy, and earthly representative of divine intercession. He is assisted in his healing mission by removers of the evil eye, midwives, folk curers, herbalists, and, importantly, by the romeiros (pilgrims).

Ceremonies. The liturgical calendar is replete with Ceremonies for subsistence events, patron saints, and Christmas and Easter rites, the last culminating on Sao Miguel island in the week-long Senhor Santo Cristo festa and the Espirito Santo (Holy Ghost) feasts, which are held from April through June. The penitential journeys of groups of pilgrims (ranchos dos romeiros ) during the seven weeks of Lent are uniquely Azorean. Romeiros, a group from each freguesia, visit island churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Nossa Senhora). Membership is open to men in good moral standing and spiritual health and willing to submit to specified terms of obedience. Romeiros are identified by their wooden staffs and by their dress; they move as a unit, chanting, singing, and praying.

Arts. Crafts not directly designed for household use (e.g., pottery, rush mats, embroidered items, wicker basketry) have a religious dimension (e.g., azulejosglazed ornamental blue-and-white tilesdisplay scenes of religious devotion and are widely used in churches). The living arts, instrumental music from a twelve-stringed violão, dances such as the chamarrita, and ballads (cantigas ) are all prominent in the festa.

Medicine. Government-run district hospitals are Gradually replacing small dispersed clinics operated under religious auspices (misericórdia ). Outlying clinics now service mainly maternity cases. Rural folk curing has its counterpart in the urban farmácia where professionals diagnose, prescribe, and dispense medication. Deficient diet and sanitation, heavy smoking (among males), alcohol abuse, environmental stress, lack of education, and poverty account for the bulk of islander health problems. Dentistry is virtually nonexistent.

Death and Afterlife. Beliefs are grounded in Catholic theology. Salvation is for true believers. Protracted mourning by black-draped widows and bereaved males with black armbands has been the norm; however, males are much likelier to remarry. Funerals are formal ceremonial occasions, and well-tended village cemeteries display elaborate accoutrements.


Bryans, Robin (1962). The Azores. London: Faber & Faber.

Cortes-Rodrigues, Armando (1974). Voz do longe. Vol. 2. Ponta Delgada: Edicão do Instituto Cultural de Ponta Delgada.

Duncan, T. Bentley (1972). Atlantic Islands: Madeira, the Azores, and the Cape Verdes in Seventeenth Century Commerce and Navigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laytano, Dante de (1987). Arquipelago dos Açores. Porto Alegro: Escola Superior de Teologia e Espiritualidade Franciscana, Nova Dimensão.

Ludtke, Jean (1989). Atlantic Peeks: An Ethnographic Guide to the Portuguese-Speaking Atlantic Islands. Hanover, Mass.: Christopher.

Rogers, Francis Millet (1979). Atlantic Islanders of the Azores and Madeiras. North Quincy, Mass.: Christopher.


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