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 3 of 3
by Bela Feldman-Bianco and Donna Huse


Living in-between Utopias
In the process of living in-between the Azores and the United States, immigrants continue to pursue their share of the American Dream which in most cases is symbolized by house ownership, American consumer goods and the possibility of providing a “future” for their children. The ownership of a house allows them to juxtapose symbolically America and the Azores as utopias. Invariably, in these immigrant dwellings, the upstairs tends to concentrate symbols of American consumer goods, representing the attainment of at least a share of the American dream. In contrast, the downstairs, including the yard, represents the (utopian) reconstruction of the communal life lived once upon a time in the homeland.

On the parapet of Castelo de São Jorge, the old fort overlooking Lisbon, 1967. Milton Silvia photograph.

This dual organization of time and space in the immigrant dwellings often masks changing relations between women and men, as well as between generations. These changing relations are a result of women’s entrance into the industrial labor force as well as the increasing dependence of non-English speaking parents on their bilingual children. The reinvention of Azorean times and spaces allows women and men to recreate, in somewhat exacerbated fashion, cultural values associated with the construction of gender which were transmitted to them through generations. Older women, in particular, functioned as the extremist arbitrators of the moral values constantly reaffirmed by the traditional Catholic Church which (at least until the 1974 revolution and subsequent acceleration of social change in the Azores), were recurrently passed on from mothers to daughters.

Younger women are dramatically confronted with changing roles and power relations in the domestic sphere. These experiences are particularly painful for those who act as translators for parents who do not speak English. As a woman recalled, “When you came here, as the oldest, you were literally the spokesperson for the family. You went to doctors when you had privileged information that you shouldn’t have heard or known. You had to translate for financial matters, for all types of problems that were not really meant to be, as a teenager or as a young girl, to be worried about…”

Extended family, São Miguel, 1990. Ronald Caplain photograph.

Young immigrant family in New Bedford, 1980. He is a fisherman. She works in an office. Joseph D. Thomas photograph.

But while delegating responsibilities to their daughters, parents continued to demand from them gender behavior that limits their insertion in the American milieu. The same woman remembered, “My parents were very strict. I could not date. I couldn’t go to evening events at the school. That was a no-no. And I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that. That was America, but they were bringing me up the way they knew, especially my father…

Women who were still children or teenagers when they came to the United States, and whose life experiences were marked by simultaneous exposure to diverging cultural codes, dramatically remembered their confrontation with the “clash of cultures.” A woman who emigrated at 12, recalled her intense feelings of loss of identity and sense of fragmentation of the self: “If you come (to the U.S) at an age when you already had quite an understanding of your culture, and now you have to learn a whole new set of rules, and a totally new language. It sometimes gets to the point when you don’t know who you are.”

These younger generations of women tended to make diverse choices. Some opted to break free from family traditions and to live only in the American milieu. Others adjusted to family pressure and to the traditions transmitted to them through generations. Bilingual and bicultural women, in particular, who play brokerage and translation roles for their parents tend to live double and parallel lives—one in the Portuguese domestic and communitarian sphere, another as members of American society. This duality of lives, which magnifies self-fragmentation, comes to the fore in personal memories and poetry:

The world that we discover
Cannot be revealed just by chance
It is made of electrifying contradictions
The continuous reconstruction of identity in America

Fall River women view the procession along Columbia Street, 1992. Ronald Caplain photograph.

The meanings created by the immigrants for both their Portuguese and American experiences continued to unfold as they became established in the United States. As more of the conditions of the American dream were fulfilled—the language learned, the house purchased, the children educated, the career advanced, older immigrant women began to give voice to a new contentment, phrased in a realistic style:

My sons already completed military service (in the United States)…they are married to wonderful girls…I have a granddaughter who is a gem. We are already teaching her to speak Portuguese. We are now preparing the wedding of my daughter who is about to finish college. And I will pray to God at the altar for her to be a good wife and mother for her children…I think, today, that my mission as a mother is more or less complete since I did everything I could for them.

Other women began to assess the meaning of their achievement in America in a new vocabulary which defines success not so much in material terms as in terms of the evolution of the self—independence, a sense of competence and self-determination. One professional woman with a family commented that her life in the United States has always been a continuous rush and strenuous labor. However great the price, she embraced her passage between cultures:

I wouldn’t change my life right now. I’ve learned too much in this country. I’ve learned a lot about myself. I like working and I learned to be independent. This is one thing it took a while for my husband to accept. I learned a woman has a lot of rights…I’ve got more self-confidence. I speak more openly, especially because I was in the union. I spoke at conferences, at a lot of meetings and with the media. I learned how to have confidence in myself.

Those who worked hard, founded families, made homes and sometimes rose to positions of authority in business, labor or politics enjoyed this new sense of empowered self. As the same woman put it, “You learn how to make your own world…in this country.” The individual power to make a world is for some sufficient compensation for the loss of a soulful connection to nature and community.

Other women, however, continue to live in-between cultural codes and values:

Living in between cultures, I try to maintain a balance…I can grow in different directions…It is not easy! There was a time when I did not know which direction I should follow. I do not have problems now.

For many of the younger immigrants who became cultural brokers between the immigrants and the American institutions, the reconstruction of their personal identities resides precisely in the junction of their Portuguese and American experiences. For them, as Manoela da Costa sings in Os sonhos de Dona Dores (The Dreams of Dona Dores), biculturalism and bilingualism became the basis of their individual growth:

I have two cultures
and two languages
two paths to choose
a woman’s virtue is in her growth

An intense feeling of belonging to Portugal can be resolved by returning. What is the fate of those who tried to go home again? The statement of a well-known community leader traced out several stages in perception of her experience in the homeland, all evolving after a 16-year conviction that she belonged in Portugal and not in the United States.

Peeling onions in the late afternoon sun, 1988. James Sears / Donna Huse photograph.

I felt I belonged in Portugal. I mean that was where I was brought up. I had all my friends I’d grown up with there…But actually when I went back in 1976,…things were just the same as they were. My friends were still there…married now with their own children, and we tried to carry on conversations…but it was a very strange and superficial relationship. They could not comprehend where I was coming from, what I had experienced…It made me realize that I didn’t belong there either. So I was like a child without a country, you know.

As is the custom, spectators along the route of the procession adorn their perch with their best blankets, tablecloths, rugs, linens, etc., Fall River, 1992. Ronald Caplain photograph.

This woman was confronted with the stereotyped images of America which prompted most immigrants to come, and she realized that these stereotypes were completely inadequate to encompass the complexity of her own long voyage in the United States—the initial hardships, the struggles with bosses, priests, husband and father, the increasingly responsible positions of authority which she accepted and developed. Her old friends were unable to fathom her hard-won maturity and her real achievement was hidden behind the old slogans.

However beautiful her islands, however dear the old community, there was no one there who could understand the self she had become. The old country had not provided avenues for the particular kinds of growth which had made her the person she is. Her conclusion was that she belongs to both countries. She is born of two mothers:

Portugal is the mother that gave me my birth and America is the mother that adopted me and nurtured me and brought me up to what I am today. And I love them both dearly. Very dearly.


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


About the Authors [From the original publication]

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.

1 Comment

Brian St. Pierre · March 5, 2018 at 6:54 pm

Interesting, but I’d have liked to see some discussion of food and cooking as a bridge to understanding identity. For those of us who were not of Poruguese descent, discovering Portuguese cookery and ingredients (including simple food, of course) was extraordinarily inclusive, bringing us effortlessly into the tent, a doorway to understanding. Fifty years later, I can still remember meals, still use some ingredients when I can find them, still enjoy listening to fado while I cook.

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