From the Spinner Archives

The essay, “The Construction of Immigrant Identity” written by professors Bela Feldman-Bianco and Donna Huse was originally published as part of Portuguese Spinner: An American Story. The book, edited by Marsha McCabe and Joseph D. Thomas, was first published in 1998 and features stories of history, culture and life from Portuguese Americans in Southeastern New England. While currently out of print, Portuguese Spinner, is planned to be re-released in ebook format for both Kindle and iBook in 2018. To see other past Spinner projects now available as ebooks visit our main site.

The Construction of Immigrant Identity: Part 1 of 3
by Bela Feldman-Bianco and Donna Huse

Backyard in Fall River, 1988. Ronald Caplain photograph.

Saudade: Memory and Identity
The Portuguese are a world people, the discoverers and colonizers of new lands; they are also immigrants who settled in different parts of the world. This wanderlust, marked by the great age of discoveries and subsequent labor immigration, has been constitutive of the Portuguese experience.

Saudade, a word that originated in the sixteenth century, has been associated with the

A Fall River woman observes the procession during the Feast of Santo Christo. Ronald Caplain photograph.

Portuguese unending wanderlust. While loosely translated as “longing” or “nostalgia,” saudade is in fact a dynamic cultural construct that defines Portuguese identity in the context of multiple representations of space and (past) time.

Saudade, on the level of the self or the person, has been viewed as “the uprooted experience located between the desire of the future and the memories of the past” or simply as “the memories which touch a soul—not only longing, it is also belonging,” as one New Bedford young immigrant put it. These memories are associated with the layers of time and space prior to emigration, that is to say, with saudade da terra, or saudade for the homeland. Symbolic representations and social practices of the homeland’s everyday life further shapes differentiated Portuguese regional identities.

Saudade, as the collective memory of Portugal, has been narrated as the basis of the Portuguese imagined national community. Temporally, this collective national imagination dates back to the discovery era and to the history of immigration; encompassing, spatially, the maritime explorations and the long separations from relatives around the world.

Popular immigrant poetry, as well as philosophy and literature, often portrays saudade as central to the Portuguese collective experience. Consider this poem by the late poet João Teixeira de Medeiros of Fall River:

the word saudade
who felt it who made it
made it fit the Portuguese heart at large
saudade has happiness and sadness
feeling and voice
saudade is very Portuguese
it is an offspring of all of us
saudade gives flavour to entire nations
it is part of our daily life
saudade will be present
in any place where there are Portuguese flags
saudade travelled with us in the sea
as well as in the thousands of hinterland
saudade traveled with us on the air
it is with us in the airplanes
saudade god help us
has such a deep power
it is like a hurricane spreading us
in the little corners of the world

Azorean man in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel. Ronald Caplain photograph.

The dynamic cultural construction of saudade is certainly a constitutive part of the everyday life in southeastern Massachusetts, one of the oldest Portuguese “little corners of the world.” Portuguese immigration began in the whaling era with mostly Azorean males. Mass immigration of Portuguese families from the Azores, the continent and Madeira, and the formation of Portuguese neighborhoods in a network of New England towns began at the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, the Portuguese were among several immigrant groups, including English, French-Canadian, Irish, Polish and Italians, which settled in the region as a result of the demand for cheap labor in the flourishing cotton mill economy. Since the 1920s, the Portuguese have become the predominant ethnic group of the area. Later, between the late 1950s and the mid 1980s, with the arrival of new immigrant contingents from the Azores, continental Portugal and Portuguese Africa, the Portuguese neighborhoods of southeastern Massachusetts were renewed and expanded.

Immigration to southeastern Massachusetts has changed the rhythms and the ways of life of

Portuguese women and men. In contrast to their experiences in an agrarian world, the majority of these immigrants were confronted, for the first time, with the time-discipline and the physical confinement of industrial work; first, as workers in the mills and later in the needle trades or garment assembly, as well as in fishing and other types of industries.

What are the meanings of the cultural construction of saudade in the lives of Portuguese immigrants? We present the voices of fifteen women who have narrated their life experiences at the intersection of Portuguese and American cultural borders, in the context of three dramatic events: the decision to leave Portugal; the first years of settlement and work in southeastern Massachusetts; and the decision (with its accompanying ambivalence) to stay in the United States. These moments, epically narrated, bring to the fore the juxtaposition of lyric and realistic narratives, interposed by the endless search and construction of utopias.

These women were born in the Azores and came to the United States in the course of the second major Portuguese mass immigration to southeastern Massachusetts, from the late 1960s to the mid 1980s. Their ages range from their 20s to 70s. Most of them came from rural settings and, despite their varied social backgrounds prior to emigration, most started their lives in southeastern Massachusetts as factory workers. A number of them became professionals in later years and have since served as cultural brokers between Portuguese immigrants and American institutions.

Home interior, São Miguel, 1990. Ronald Caplain photograph.

Saudade in the Immigrant Neighborhoods
While dramatic experiences have marked the lives of immigrants, in the Portuguese enclaves of southeastern Massachusetts, there is a sense of a certain immutability of time; different representations of time and space seem to unfold into the present. Saudade, as the collective historical memory of Portugal, has been reconstructed as part of political mobilization by community leaders through community rituals and the ethnic media.

Symbols of earlier layers of Portuguese time include the many caravelles (the sailing ships of the discoverers) displayed in storefronts and homes, the Prince Henry Monument in Fall River, the fifteenth century costumes of the regional Prince Henry Society (a type of Portuguese Rotary Club, formed in the 1980s) and the Dighton Rock in Taunton, the inscriptions on which suggest that Portuguese explorers arrived in America before Columbus. The annual celebrations of the “Day of Portugal, Camões and the Portuguese Communities” invariably bring the memory of the great age of the discoveries back into the present.

Other layers of time and space refer to the ways in which immigrants have reelaborated symbolic representations and social practices of their past prior to emigration as a way of resisting total submersion in industrial America. These are reflected in the spatial organization of homes, with an American upstairs (represented by the symbols of consumption in the United States), a Portuguese downstairs filled with Portuguese artifacts and photographs of relatives living in different parts of the world (which is the major setting of everyday interaction and of social practices associated with the homeland) and the yard reproduction of Portuguese gardens, indicating how immigrants adapt their rural traditions to an industrial setting. In the neighborhood outside the house are Portuguese stores.

Leisure-time activities include the continuance of the serões, storytelling and musical

In a graveyard in São Miguel, a montage of images of the deceased is placed on or around the tombstone. Ronald Caplain photograph.

gatherings out of a strong oral tradition. The use of time and seasons may also place immigrants within a Portuguese world. Industrial work shapes the lives of many during the entire year but, during the summer, immigrants continue to ritualize their collective memories of the homeland in a succession of regional folk-religious festivals, reminiscent of the harvest season in rural Portugal. Discussions between family members, neighbors, and coworkers are filled with stories from the ethnic media (newspapers, radio, television), bringing the homeland into the everyday life of immigrants.

The incorporation of the past into the present is characteristic of immigrant enclaves. In a way, these neighborhoods resemble still photographs of a past that was already lived and does not exist anymore in the homeland. Yet, these multiple layers of Portuguese time and space are dynamic representations of the ways in which immigrants cope with changing conditions of existence.

Continue to part 2…

What does ‘Immigrant Identity’ mean to you?
Keep the conversation going, leave your thoughts and feedback in the comments below.

About the Authors

Bela Feldman-Bianco teaches anthropology at UNICAMP, Brasil, where she also directs the Center for the Study of International Migration (CEMI). She is a research associate at University of Coimbra’s Center of Social Studies (CES), Portugal. She earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University and was a Fulbright Scholar at Yale University. For five years, she lived in New Bedford’s South End and worked as visiting Professor of Portuguese Studies at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMassDartmouth), where she founded and directed the Portuguese Oral History Project (1987-1991). As one of the outcomes of her projects, she produced and co-directed an ethnographic video documentary, entitled Saudade, distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA, and CES, University of Coimbra, Portugal.

Donna Huse is Professor of Sociology at UMass Dartmouth and earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from Brandeis University. She helped organize the Portuguese Oral History Project at UMD in which her students were sent into the community to record the stories of immigrants. An expert on the Portuguese gardens of southeastern Massachusetts, she is a co-founder, editor and consultant with Spinner Publications.


Continue to part 2…


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