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 2 of 4
by Paula T. Beech

Maria, (first left, second row) with 9th graders at Roosevelt Junior High, 1963. Courtesy of Tomasia family.

Nightmare at School
We were here a week before we actually went to school. Though some old friends from my village were there, as well as other Portuguese kids, I was the newcomer and literally an outsider, even to them. They didn’t want to associate with me. I was a greenhorn. Even more humiliating, at age 12, I was put into a third grade class. Can you imagine a 12-year-old with third graders? It was a small room with small desks and I could hardly fit in the chair. I’d learned the material they were covering eight years ago. But I didn’t know English. After three months, I was put in the fourth grade, then got a double promotion.

When I was ready for Roosevelt Junior High School, they told me I still could not be with my age group so I attended Mt. Carmel, a Catholic school. Here they took us out of class each day for an hour to teach us English, which benefitted me quite a bit. The center of our world was the Mt. Carmel church and school. My only outlet was the church. The nuns asked me to help record the funds that were donated to the church every week. I used to go once or twice a week to record it in the books. I was allowed to teach CCD. Then I made friends who had the same interests and I participated in school plays. I also got involved in a religious debating team.

Maria with her mother, Hilda, and sister, Maria de Lourdes, 1960s. Courtesy of Tomasia family.

Though the school was helpful, they did not prepare me or other Portuguese kids for public school. About 13 of us transferred in September from the Catholic school to the public. By December there were only four or five of us left. The rest dropped out. Portuguese kids with accents were considered intruders into their system. They made fun of us. If you brought a linguiça sandwich or something, they would make fun of you. They laughed at the way we dressed. For a long trime, only my mother was working because my father’s job didn’t work out until later. New clothes were a luxury. The public school kids were already into designer stuff.

All they had to do was go to school; they had few responsibilities at home. I was more mature. I had to clean house, iron and help my mother. We didn’t get a car or TV for five years. When we went shopping, we pushed one of those little carts from the store to the house. On Sunday, the entire family walked around Fort Rodman and got ice cream! This was our big day. I began to go into a shell. I didn’t have that many friends. If you were not into the same things they were, they did not want to associate with you. My other Portuguese friends decided to embrace the system. Eventually I did too. It was a matter of survival.

During the 60s, when federal programs were helping minority students, I had a counselor in high school, a woman yet, who said she didn’t think it’s advisable for me to take the college course considering my background. At the time, I didn’t question her and just took the business course. I really wanted the college course but thought, hey, she’s a person of authority, she knows. Now I know better.

I was determined to get my high school diploma. Don’t ask me where I got the determination. I was 20 when I left high school, one of the oldest in the class. If I had my way, if my parents could have afforded it, I would have gone to college right after that, but I didn’t. That would come later.

Coming of Age in America
I could not date—my parents were strict about that. I couldn’t go to evening events at the school. This was a foreign country to my parents. Something could happen to me. I was not allowed to learn how to ride a bike—it was not ladylike. I wasn’t allowed to wear pants. They were for men and not becoming to a young lady. I couldn’t wear lipstick for a while. I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. My parents were literally living in two worlds. This was America but they were bringing me up the way they knew, especially my father who was the man of the house.

Maria’s dad, Joao Couto. Courtesy of Tomasia family.

Everything had to be the way he said. Though my mother was more understanding, he was the one that ruled. Naturally, trying to be a good daughter, I obeyed. I should have been more rebellious. My sister was totally different. She went out even though they told her not to. They had a lot of fights. Then my brother came along and he was really bad. He did everything he wanted. But, of course, he was a boy and that’s a different story.

As the oldest child, I was literally the spokesperson for the family. I had to go to the doctor and the bank with my parents and translate for them. I was uncomfortable knowing so much about family problems but I just dealt with it. I was the only one my parents had to depend on. I was literally in control and could have gotten away with murder, or lied, if I wanted to, but I didn’t. I was honest. I didn’t know how much I resented taking on adult responsibility as a child until much later in life.

I met my husband in 1966 or ’67. I was walking home from my after-school job at Homlyke Bakery carrying my books and wearing my white uniform. He thought I was a nurse! I said, “No, I work in a bakery. You want to walk me home? You can if you want to.” He could only walk me to the corner of my street because if my father had seen me, I would have received a beating. But John was very stubborn. He didn’t care. Word got around that John walked me home and had been seeing me. One day when he came by the house, my father said to me, “Get upstairs and stay upstairs.” John was furious. He just took the car, put on the brakes and accelerator at the same time and shhhhhh! That didn’t stay well in my dad’s mind.

My husband has always been a very up-front person. He tells you what he feels and he tells it to your face. Though he is from the Azores, he was not your typical Portuguese boy. But when he came to the house to tell my father we were getting married, my father had never even spoken to him, and we had been seeing each other for over a year. My father did not speak to him until I was at the altar.

My father picked somebody for me to marry at one point, somebody from the islands who had seen my photograph and decided he loved me. I did not say yes and he didn’t speak to me for a year and a half. I was only 15. I said, No, I am not going to be somebody’s passport. I wrote back this very nice letter and said I was not ready. I had a commitment, which was to finish high school. I think my father still hadn’t forgiven me but that’s tough. He had to understand I’m the one who’s getting married. It’s going to be my choice. And it was like, “Hmph.”

When I got married, I assumed I would be able to go to college but my husband didn’t agree at first. He said, “Hon, now you’ve got to settle down.” So I didn’t do anything for a while, then began taking evening courses at Bristol Community College and UMass Dartmouth. I got very disillusioned with the classroom atmosphere. There was little respect for the teachers and the students were there to converse. I went back again two years later and it was the same thing. I didn’t feel I was benefitting from it. Even if I’m 60, I’m eventually going to do it. But I really think experience in life is the best teacher.

Continue to part 3…


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