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 3 of 4
by Paula T. Beech

Ribeira Cha. Bel-Art Studios, New Bedford.

Traditional Grandparents
My father was a farmer and a good winemaker. He would make it, age it, sell it and people would come in to appraise it. He was already a sick man with asthma and bronchitis when he came to America. He had a problem with smoking and I remember him coughing at the edge of his bed for hours. He couldn’t give up that cigarette.

It was a hard adjustment for my dad to go from farming to a factory. His first job in America was in a fish factory and his hands would swell from the icy cold water. He then worked in a pocketbook factory for 21 years and was finally forced to leave because of his emphysema. When we had been here for five years, he became seriously ill and his doctor said if he didn’t give up smoking, he would die. His kidneys were shattered from constant coughing. I must give him credit. He gave up smoking, cold turkey, but he already had emphysema and it just got worse.

One day he looked awful and was losing weight. I said, Dad, are you all right? He said, “Oh, I’m fine.” The doctor told him it was just nerves. I know my dad. He’s not nervous. He was so pale, his lips were almost purplish and his feet were swelling up badly. I looked at the pills the doctor had given him and called a nurse friend to ask what they were. She said they were tranquilizers. Tranquilizers? For emphysema? I’m a firm believer in ESP. During my lunch house, I decided to go see my dad. He looked worse than ever and was gasping for breath.

The regular doctor wasn’t there so they gave me an appointment with another doctor that afternoon. They took x-rays and his history and we got a call two hours later. “Take him to the hospital right away,” said the doctor. My father actually had a collapsed lung and the tranquilizers were making it worse. He was literally purple by the time we got to the hospital. Later I got angry with his regular doctor for giving my father tranquilizers for a collapsed lung. I made sure he never went back to that physician. If I wasn’t there, I feel he would have died.

After struggling for 21 years in the pocketbook factory, he had to quit. He was very determined to provide for his family. He was a very proud man and, to this day, refuses to go for any help. When he stopped working, we figured it might be helpful for him to get SSI. I’ll never forget how humiliated he was when they asked him questions like how much money he has in the bank, does he hide money, how much money does he have in his wallet? My father was like, “Do I have to go through this?” I had to translate for him and could see the hurt on his face. He’s a great man as far as I’m concerned and I’m very proud of him.

My father is the only one who has not returned to the Azores. Right now he is on oxygen 24 hours a day. When we go back we take videos so he can see the old country. He doesn’t regret coming here. The toil is much more difficult there. He feels if he’d remained there, he probably would not have survived this long. When my parents moved from Nelson Street and bought a house, my dad took great pride in designing his flower and vegetable gardens. He can grow anything! He’s even grown figs. Even though he’s very sick and he’s on oxygen, he was out there last week for two hours. It’s in him to be close to the land.

I learned my mother’s story only recently by digging and asking her questions. My grandparents came to this country in 1901 or 1902. After my grandmother had a miscarriage and then became pregnant again, the doctor told her to go back to Portugal, have this child and relax. So she went back and stayed for two years. Though the child was well, my grandmother returned to America alone. My grandfather expected she’d bring their daughter! But, no. She said she wanted to see how she adjusted to life here first. Eventually my grandmother got pregnant again (with my mother) and she wanted to return to Portugal—again. My grandfather said, “No. This one is going to be born here with me.” He kept thinking they would go back but it was eleven years before they returned.

My mother tells me my grandfather was not a typical immigrant. He adjusted very well to the American lifestyle and was always out, either at the circus, a concert or something. He was a lively gentleman. They might have thought he was Irish because he had reddish hair and a red moustache. We don’t know where he got it from. He was very distinguished looking. To this day, when I look at his photos, I say—oh, very handsome. He was proud and always wore a suit when he wasn’t working.

He worked at the Wamsutta Mills in New Bedford and I think that’s what made him ill. He had lung proglems, bad asthma and bronchitis, which they call brown lung. Eventually he was not able to work at all.

They returned to São Miguel in ’32 after the stock market crash. There was no work and things were bad here. He had a lot of property in the Azores so he had men working it for him. He was never able to work again. My mother was 11 when they returned. About ten years later, she wanted to go back to America to continue her education but my grandfather said—America is no place for a woman alone. It was a place for men. After he passed away, she decided to come to America.

Like most of the women in the Azores, my mother worked full-time at home. She also prepared meals and delivered them to my father during the day. Everything was done by hand. There was no electricity. She’d get up early, the bread had to be done by hand, it had to rise in the oven, she had to get wood to warm the oven. She had to wash everything by hand. She also had a vegetable garden in the backyard that she was responsible for.

When she came to New Bedford, she went to work in a factory as a floor girl. Later she worked for about 15 years in the same factory my dad worked in—as a stitcher. They both retired from the same shop. My mother did not have difficulty adapting to the United States. She lived here until she was 11 and remembered her old house vividly. She spoke English but not well. My father never sold the property they had in the Azores. Though we urged him to sell it and keep a few choice pieces for himself, he would not listen. He feels it’s something he wants to keep, to pass on to his children and grandchildren.

Continue to part 4…


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