From the Spinner Archives
The selection below, “The Portuguese in Fall River” was included in Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts: Volume IV. The essay was part of a larger chapter entitled “The Portuguese in New England,” which was originally planned as a standalone book by the Federal Writers’ Project prior to World War II. To read more from “The Portuguese in New England” and view many more historic photographs and essays check out the Spinner IV eBook now available for download from the iBook Store.
The excerpt below provides a sketch of the writers’ interpretation of Portuguese life in New England. The stories, which are in no way scientific, illustrate attitudes of the time toward the presence of the many ethnic groups.
The Portuguese in New England
The Portuguese in Fall River (edited and abridged)
by Joseph J. Welch and Michael Regan
The true Portuguese farmer seems to have an innate love of flowers. Doubtless the beautiful flowers of his native Azores have helped to stimulate this aesthetic sense within him. When taking a trip through Fall River’s farming suburbs, one cannot see even the smallest farmhouses without their well-kept dooryard plots of sweet peas, nasturtiums, lilacs or gladioli.
Well-kept vegetable gardens near the home of the Portuguese truck-farmer bespeak his frugality, his ability to get the most out of the smallest amounts of land. Often a fairly large family is supported rather comfortably on two or three acres. The work of the Portuguese farmer appears to be a family enterprise. About each farmhouse, one can see a number of youngsters, all busy with the work of the farm. Into the fields, too, go the mother, the father and in some cases the grandfather and grandmother to aid with the general farm work. It is not unusual to see an old grandfather, his eyes dim, his face seamed and lined, his back heavily stooped from years of toil in the Azores, working side by side with the youngest member of the family.
There is little time for rest and recreation for an industrious truck-farmer. He must work not only all day but often long into the night, marketing his produce. And the return is not at all in proportion to time, labor and money invested. To talk to one of these farmers is indeed a revelation. They complain bitterly (and not without cause) about the manner in which they are pressed on both sides—one by the mortgage-holder, with interest often running as high as eight percent and, on the other side, they are faced with falling market prices for their produce and unscrupulous middlemen who quote unfair prices on the farmer’s goods. Crops are disposed of readily in Boston and Providence as well as in this city.
Universally speaking, Portuguese in Fall River have adopted the American mode of dress. Occasionally, however, one can see an elderly Portuguese woman with a long, black shawl, the ends of which are bedecked with tassels. These shawls are drawn tightly over the head and fastened under the chin by a brooch. Their dresses are usually black, reaching down to the tops of their heels.
Among the men in Fall River there is no appreciable difference between their dress and American dress except for the headpiece—the “carapuca,” whose use is confined more to the rural districts, and the little knitted caps worn by some Portuguese in Fall River. This little headpiece is scarcely larger than a skull cap, fitting snugly over the head of the wearer. As a sort of decoration there is a little tassel at the top of the hat. It is said to be the kind of hat worn by fishermen in some sections of the Azores and is often seen worn by the Portuguese fishermen at Provincetown.
As to customs among the Portuguese in the rural sections surrounding Fall River, Christmas is celebrated as it is in the city. The day before Christmas, the Portuguese farmer kills the choicest pig in his pen for the Christmas celebration and invites his less opulent relatives, neighbors, and friends. Among the all Portuguese in America, their festival days—Christmas, New Year, Santo Christo, there is “open house,” where unstinted hospitality is the rule. Relatives, neighbors, friends, acquaintances, even total strangers may call at a Portuguese home and receive a cordial welcome.
There are seven Roman Catholic churches in Fall River, the oldest being Santo Christo, which was founded in 1892. The first Portuguese church in the area was mission church which was established in 1876. Prior to that time the religious needs of the Portuguese people were administered by a New Bedford priest who drove every Saturday night to Fall River and celebrated mass on Sunday.
The most well-known Portuguese clergyman, an assistant at Santo Christo parish, John B. DeValles, became a hero of the First World War. He was never long absent from the firing line. Repeatedly he was in mortal jeopardy in meeting the bodily and spiritual needs of his charges irrespective of their beliefs. He did not emerge unscathed to safety always. On one occasion he was wounded badly and though hospitalization was necessitated, the patriot could not be held back long from the scene of action.
Though he escaped death by gunfire, soon after the war he was stricken with disease. In the evening of March 12, 1920, he breathed for the last time. His body was taken from New Bedford to Fall River, to be received by a military pageant and borne to the cemetery of St. Patrick, there to be laid in a grave beside his mother. His possessions, including the medal and the French cross, were entrusted to a Boston council of the Knights of Columbus.
The first soldier from Fall River to lose his life on a French battlefield was Joseph Francis, whose father was a native of the Azores. In recognition of his sacrifice, as a tribute to his memory and an object lesson to the developing generation in fulfilling their bounden duty to the nation, in peace and war, as loyal sons and daughters by reason of birth—or by adoption through the medium of naturalization, a post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars was named for him.
The naturally sturdy, healthy body with which the average Portuguese has been endowed lends itself admirably not only to the gaining of a livelihood but also to athletic endeavors. The race has produced several outstanding professional athletes and some of the finer types of amateur sports-leaders have been of Portuguese origin.
Fall River is regarded today as the leading soccer city in America. At the present time, there is a Fall River team, the Ponta Delgadas, who are contending with a Boston team for the New England final championship in an effort to capture the Dowar trophy, the symbol of amateur soccer supremacy in America.
There have been several Portuguese boys from Fall River who have achieved national prominence in professional soccer. Foremost of these is William (Billy) Gonsalves. There are some soccer enthusiasts who say that Gonsalves is the greatest soccer player ever produced in America. He has often been styled “the Babe Ruth of Soccer.” Young men of Portuguese extraction predominate in membership in the Boys’ Club of Fall River which is devoted to physical improvement among boys and men of the city.