From the Spinner Archives

“Coming to America: Interview with Maria Tomasia” by Paula T. Beech was originally published as part of Portuguese Spinner: An American Story. Beech’s interview covers various topics in Maria’s journey; her upbringing on São Miguel, experiences as a young immigrant in New Bedford, and her career in public service. 

Portuguese Spinner: An American Story, edited by Marsha McCabe and Joseph D. Thomas, was 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.

Coming to America:
Interview with Maria Tomasia
Part 1 of 4
by Paula T. Beech

Looking toward Vila Franca from Ribeira Cha. Milton Silvia photograph.

Maria Tomasia’s journey to America is one of struggle and triumph. It is also a journey of great beauty. She left her island paradise, São Miguel, at age 12 and found only hardship in her new country. She was humiliated by being put in the third grade because she didn’t speak English. She graduated from high school at age 20. “I don’t know where I got my determination,” she says. Later, she began to feel her power when she became involved in public service.

Today Maria says: “Portugal was the country, the mother, that gave me 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.”

Island Paradise
My mother tells me it was exactly 12 noon, February 15, 1948, when I was born because the bells were ringing during the ceremony in church. She remembers the time specifically because it was so vivid in her mind—the bells, and at the same time, I started screaming myself! That was a good start for me—Maria do Anjos Silva Souza Couto.

Oh, I remember everything. I lived in a small town in São Miguel called Ribeira Chã, between Agua d’Alto and Agua de Pau. Most people just pass it by because you have to go up a steep hill on both sides of the village. It’s better known now because it has the second most modern church on the island, built with funds from immigrants in Canada, Bermuda and the United States. It’s very beautiful.

When I lived there, the population was 600. It is now down to 350, the result of emigration, not only to the United States but to Canada and Bermuda. A lot of outsiders have come in and established residency there. When I went back, I felt like a stranger because the majority of the people I knew just don’t live there anymore.

If I were to describe my home to you, it’s…a dream or a paradise. I would wake up with the sun rising in the east. We had a verandah that was very high and we could actually look across and see a little island off the ocean and see practically the next town. The view was just absolutely gorgeous. A little to the east, on the other side of the house, the ocean was right in front of my house so I could see it all the time. To the north were the mountains. So I had everything, just looking out from this balcony.

From the back of the house, I could see the sunset and the fields and it was beautiful. To this day, I can close my eyes and picture myself in my house, looking at this blue ocean, blue sky, green mountains and the scenery. When I went back, I just stood there for half an hour and looked. Everything was the same except for scale. As a child, I envisioned these streets as huge or very wide and in fact they were tiny. I was disappointed. It was very small compared to being in the United States.

Maria and her father’s prized watermelon. Courtesy of Tomasia family.

When I was eight, I began embroidering small things like napkins for about 25 escudos a month. The Madeira Embroideries representatives would bring the work to the villages and one responsible individual would distribute it to different people. As long as you could do the work well and neatly and within the deadline, you could earn a specific price. As time went on, I was given more work. Though the work was tedious and tiring—you’d just sit there, I enjoyed it and worked at it until I was ten. Then I went to the liceu, comparable to a junior high and I didn’t have time to do embroidery.

I was 11 when my mother decided to emigrate. She was born in the United States and went back to the Azores when she was 11. My grandfather, who lived in the States for quite a few years, would not allow my mother to return while he was alive. When he died around 1955, my mother decided she wanted a better future for her children. She wanted to return to the area she grew up at Coffin Avenue, New Bedford.

Out of a Child’s Eyes
My mother emigrated in April 1960. She left before the rest of the family because our documents weren’t ready. We were separated for five months and it was horrible. I thought I would never see her again. Looking back, I think my father had quite a few reservations about us going. He was born in São Miguel and, except for being in the service, had never been off of the island. I think he worried about my mother being by herself, even though she came to family.

The first letter my mother sent back made me cry. She was at the airport in Boston and no one was waiting for her. A lady was waiting for a plane that had been delayed and saw her standing there alone for four hours. She asked my mother her name and where she was going. Fortunately, my mother spoke a little bit of English and said a family member was supposed to be there to take her to New Bedford. Incredibly, this lady was also from New Bedford and offered to take her. It was late at night when they arrived and called my mother’s cousin. They had gotten the dates mixed up!

During those four hours, my mother said she died a thousand times. She was in a foreign country with no one to turn to. She didn’t even knew her cousin’s phone number, just the address. When I got that letter I thought—do I really want to go to this country? But everyone was like: Oh, America, that’s the place with streets paved with gold and golden opportunities and you can have everything you ever wanted. It was everybody’s dream to go to the United States.

Why Are We Here?
We arrived in America on September 13, 1960 and it was a nightmare. We left this very lush green place, blue skies, green ocean. I mean, it was beautiful but you don’t know what’s beautiful until you leave it. And then I get off the plane in Boston and all I see is gray! Gray smog, gray buildings, everything was gray! And I’m like, What is this? Limbo? Then I’d think, well, maybe this is just the airport—things are going to get better. Little did I know. Things got worse!

My mother was waiting for us and it was a joyful reunion. Portuguese parents don’t really show that much affection but, at that point, we were just so glad to see each other. I think it was the first time I actually saw my parents kiss! We made several stops on the way to New Bedford because they were clearing the roads from a hurricane the night before. And I thought, what the hell have I got myself into? This is America? I don’t want to stay here! I was petrified. A hurricane? I’ve been through an earthquake in my village before but never a hurricane! In New Bedford branches were everywhere and windows were taped.

My mother had an apartment ready for us at 33 Nelson Street. Nice beds, a couch and tables. My village in the Azores was so remote, we didn’t have electricity so it was strange to actually have a lighting switch to just turn on. For the first few days, we stayed in the house and did nothing. During a thunder storm, the noise sounded like it was rattling inside of a can and I thought it was the end of the world.

Continue to part 2…


Do you or your family have stories and memories of immigrating?
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