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 4 of 4
by Paula T. Beech
A Career in Public Service
After my husband and I were married, we started to get involved in organizations. I was working at the Portuguese radio station and became active in the group that started the Immigrants Assistance Center. My husband joined at a later point. There was no organization to defend the immigrants or help them work out their problems so the need was there.
After the birth of my daughter in ’73, I got a job with Congressman Gerry Studds. When I went for the interview, I was seven months pregnant and didn’t think I would get the job. However, they called me again at the end of January and asked if I was still interested. They wanted somebody who was Portuguese, who had a little bit of immigration experience and who understood the problems of immigrants. It was a part-time position and I was able to nurse my daughter in the morning, go to work and still go home for a second feeding at 2pm. After four years, I increased my hours. When my son was born, I was working full-time so things were more difficult.
I stayed with it and I think this job opened my eyes to the American system. I was not really familiar with city, state and federal government. When my friend Mrs. Rosa and I got this job (it was an office of two and one supervisor), it was either sink or swim. We had to learn fast and we did. Even though I had been through the immigration experience, actually dealing with it was a totally different thing.
The Immigration and Naturalization Department is extremely slow and inefficient. But people began to discover there was somebody who could speak the language, help them with forms, guide them, tell them what to do and where to go. The demand was high and the problems were great and the people were very appreciative for any help. Though the Portuguese were the majority, we dealt with other nationalities too. And the laws were constantly changing. I stayed with it for 13 years.
As time went on, I developed an interest in politics and volunteered for John Bullard’s first mayoral campaign. He lost. When he ran the second time, he asked me to help out again and we did everything we could. This time he won. Later he asked me if I would be interested in being an Assistant to the Mayor in Constituent Services. Though I loved my job with Congressman Studds, I thought it might be time for a change.
Working for the city, I am constantly called to different departments to do translating. The job is not as demanding as in Studds’ office but these are daily questions: My sewer’s backed up. What am I going to do? Or, I got this bill. It comes from this department, but I don’t know what it’s about. I have this letter from the nurse at the Health Department and I don’t know what it’s for. You have to give them proper information, transfer their calls, you name it.
New Bedford has a Sister City Project with Tellica in Nicaragua. My world grew bigger when I went to Nicaragua as part of a delegation. We took medicine, papers and pencils for school children. The poverty was so great and they appreciated everything. They were so anxious to make friends with the American people.
The Portuguese have been in this area longer than most other national groups. Though we’ve made some strides, they’ve been very small. We have a habit of looking for a leader to come forward and taking a pacifist attitude toward what goes on. I also have a problem with the Portuguese radio station. Though they bring entertainment, we need educational programs to give our community information and knowledge.
I like to be involved in community action, however small it is. I served on the board of Onboard, an anti-poverty agency, for six years and went on to join other boards, including the Women’s Center. I believe there is great potential in our Portuguese community but we’re a little disorganized and disunited. We need to make people understand: You are taxpayers of this city. You are residents.
The Portuguese contribute immensely to this community but they have to participate in the government by voting and voicing their views and opinions. We all should be leaders not just amongst ourselves but with our own lives and in the community.
Do you or your family have stories and memories of immigrating?
Keep the discussion going, share your experiences and thoughts below.