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 2 of 3
by Bela Feldman-Bianco and Donna Huse

Azorean woman, tending her family’s laundry, 1990. Ronald Caplain photograph.

“America” as Utopia
While the multiple representations and symbols of Portuguese past seem immutable, personal testimonies reveal dramatic changes­—the movement from the known to the unknown, the encounter with new cultural codes and values and the process of living at the intersection of Portuguese and American cultural borders.

America is present in the everyday life of the Azores just as the Azores is present in the everyday life in America. Immigrant women narrated histories of chain migration and the constant movement of people back and forth between the U.S. and the Azores; relatives living in America who helped them to emigrate and so forth. The experience of living in the Azores was marked by the constant emigration of relatives, friends and neighbors to the U.S. (as well as to Brazil, Canada and elsewhere) and encompassed the ever-present possibility of their own emigration. “Hello… Goodbye… my time to leave has come,” is the beginning sentence of a song that narrates how emigration was constitutive of daily life in the Azores. From the perspective of constant emigration, an abstract image of America as the land of opportunity emerged as a promise for the future. America will solve all problems, but no picture of the future came to mind. The formulas were simple­—better opportunities, jobs, money, schools. But America was still unseen, yet to be manifest.

A young woman and her children in São Miguel watch a procession pass by their door, 1989. In the towns, street residences often have the top door panels cut away so that people can interact more easily with street events of the day. Ronald Caplain photograph.

Almost invariably there was one terse announcement pronouncing sentence on the old country. One disabled factory worker said, “I decided to come to America because there was no future for me in the Azores.” A young social worker elaborated about life before emigration: “In one way…I think it was easier (in the Azores). It was easier because there were no options!”

Images of “no future” and “no options” set limits to life in the Azores. For some, the limits were set by extreme poverty—two-room houses with dirt floors, no electricity, no bath or toilet, no matches to light fires, plenty of food only some of the time, shoes maybe if you were lucky. The one-room schoolhouse had no pens and little paper; the child had to leave school early to work in the fields or as maids to help the family survive. But the volcanic nature of the islands was also experienced as a limit to building a future, as when a woman remarked, “There is something of life there being so uncertain that it doesn’t matter where you are… If there was a hurricane, we’d accept that. I think that being a child and living with this, you were so powerless toward nature.”

Since women’s reminiscences tend to be intertwined with their female conditions, this “lack of options” may also be linked to the rigid construction of gender roles. The younger women, particularly those who pursued professional careers in the United States and became cultural brokers between immigrants and the American institutions, perceived gender roles in the Azores as being fixed by inflexible limits:

Household chores in the Azores usually include taking care of livestock as well as family. Ronald Caplain photograph.

All the girls always dreamed of being teachers…but the possibilities were few…and we ended up doing housework and working the fields. Then we waited…to get married and start our own lives. That starting was nothing new; it was just an impression of starting something new. Once married, life was the continuation of the life we had living with our parents.”

Given these multiple limits for a future in the Azores, these women turned their hopes for a future in America. And America burned brightly with a promise both material and spiritual, yet completely abstract.

The Homeland turns into Utopia
Just as a great new event such as a conquest, a revolution, a new leader can rewrite the history, so the great event of leaving and arriving often rewrites the history of the immigrant. Initial reactions to America varied, but almost no one reported that reality met their dreams. Contrasting with the Azorean paradise, industrial America appeared shockingly gray! “The houses were all gray,” remarked one woman. “I didn’t like that.” Another said, “I got to…Boston and all I see is gray! Gray smog, gray buildings, everything was gray! And I’m like, ‘What is this? Limbo?”

Stitcher working “piece work” at Calvin Clothing in New Bedford, 1982. Joseph D. Thomas photograph.

The move from the Azores to southeastern New England was particularly dramatic because it was from the countryside and village to the heart of old industrial cities and from agricultural work, cottage labor and domestic chores to the factory. Although in the Azores these immigrant women had learned from childhood to work hard, sometimes from dawn to dusk, their work followed the rhythms of agriculture.

In America these women were immediately confronted with the rigid time discipline of industrial work. Work dominated life and the images that unfolded were “gray.” Women reported starting to work in the factory a day or so after arrival. The day started as early as 4:30am, getting breakfast for the family members that made the 7am shift. Some family members made a second shift as well. Wives and husbands worked in different shifts. One woman remarked that for the winter months she never saw the light of day, and another said, “My life in America has been constantly to work.”

A characteristic chronicle of the first years in America followed: they did not speak the language; they moved from tenement to tenement; they got a car or made do without; they worked in this factory or that at so much a week; they encountered prejudice both outside and within the Portuguese community. To describe the opening years, realistic stories were told in the spare language of survival:

Our first decision was to look for work…we found jobs quickly at Columbia Cable…my husband and I found jobs there in different shifts…my husband worked during the day; I worked nights. Then I enrolled my children in school and at church, and I started to learn English, five days a week from 9 to 12. With all those chores, life was not easy and I am not ashamed to tell you that I used to cry a lot, that I was disappointed, nervous because life was so difficult and I had to make so many sacrifices to take care of four children, cook, attend English classes and work from 3:30pm to midnight.

The village of Furnas, São Miguel. Milton Silvia photograph.

In reaction to their specific experiences of life and work in the depressed industrial towns of America, immigrant women reconstruct utopian images of the Azores. The new images bring to light a romantic nostalgia or saudade da terra for a timeless time of childhood or youth of non-industrial labor. A woman whose immigration experience is marked by her fragmented life between Brazil (where her Italian husband, who did not adapt to life in the United States, lives) and the United States (where she was a factory worker before retiring and where her children reside) elaborated upon the meaning of saudade da terra in her life:

I left São Miguel forty years ago, immigrating in 1949 to Brazil and, later, in 1972, to Fall River. I always remember the farewell… I had the feeling I never would return and in fact I never went back. Then I try to remember my childhood, bringing to my memory everything that happened as if it were an image writ large on a screen.

The center of this image writ large or, in the words of Bachelard, the poetic “space of memory and imagination” may be simply the childhood house.

If I were to describe my home to you, it’s…a dream or a paradise. It’s set in such a way that I would wake up in the morning with the sun rising in the east. We had a verandah which was very high, and we could actually look across and see a little island…the view was just absolutely gorgeous. The ocean was right in front of my house, so I could see it all the time. And to the north of the house were the mountains.

In these nostalgic recollections of a timeless time of childhood or youth spent in the farms or small villages of the Azores, the abstractions on America and the terseness of the descriptions of Azorean working life and poverty disappeared and the females’ autobiographic memories expanded and pulsed in a lyric fashion. The island appeared on those women’s memories to be seen, felt and touched, and some narratives sounded like a poem dictated by sensations. A social worker who immigrated to the U.S at 14 remembered:

What I loved most was looking through the grapevines at the pretty designs the leaves would make with the sky. I used to say, “My God, that is absolutely fantastic…” the beautiful colors, the blue sky with the white puffy clouds and the green from the green leaves…” I would try to peak through the leaves to catch a ray of sun, trying to see just how much sun I could catch.

Sturdy, hard working oxen plow through fields of Kale on Sao Miguel in 1979. Milton Silvia photograph.

For some, but not for all, these new images emerged from a romantic nostalgia for “a time when time did not count.” Women (as well as men) whose migration history includes the transition from pre-industrial task-oriented activities in the Azores to industrial work in the United States, developed a romantic nostalgia, or saudade da terra, for their immediate past of non-industrial work. This saudade da terra tended to be absent from the testimonies of those who either experienced conditions of extreme poverty in the homeland or managed to leave industrial work and become businesswomen in the United States. Accordingly, the most lyric reconstructions of the past prior to emigration were present in the narratives of female factory workers of rural backgrounds who worked and liked to work on their family’s farms. In an explosion of sensory memories, these women recalled how agricultural work was intermingled with sociability and aesthetic dimensions of life. “It was fun working the fields, especially if we were a group of girls. Sometimes we sang. Other times we laughed about anything. Life was happier.”

These new images hardly ever mentioned the collective historical memory of Portugal. Even for women involved in community affairs, the images of Portugal that came to mind reflected mainly their everyday life prior to emigration. Their saudade was for the pleasure, the colors, the sensuality of the community life they left behind when work was part of, rather than separated from, life. “But I miss those walks in the morning and the smell of that pure air which was the mixture of wet grass, beech and incense.” Weaving a tapestry of sensory memories, these women recalled the rhythms of non-industrial work: “We could hear the young people singing or whistling…while they were working in the fields. That was the sound of the new day, people singing along with the noise of the hoes digging and cutting the fields.”

A young boy heads out for morning chores. His friend is a unique animal bred for herding cattle, called cão de fila or cão de vacas. Ronald Caplain photograph.

Two women make preparations for chicken dinner. Ronald Caplain photograph.

From the intercrossing of these multiple memories on their experiences of immigration and confrontation with industrial America, there emerged a shared memory which brings to the fore the human dimension of a time of non-industrial labor. More than a romanticization of the past of a mere fragmented operation of remembering, this collective memory is directly related to their struggles in the United States. As they recalled their first and hard times in the depressed industrial towns of southeastern Massachusetts, they tended to remember, in a lyric and sensorial fashion, only those beneficial aspects of the homeland they would like to see restored.

This lyrical reconstruction of the homeland represents a strategy to resist total immersion in industrial time and, at the same time, provides the basis for the reconstruction of the self. Saudade da terra made them forget the multiple and fixed limits of life in the Azores which made them emigrate in search of the American utopia.

Continue to part 3…

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 3…


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