A touch of Portugal in New Bedford and Fall River

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathy Shorr
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2003

NEW BEDFORD  --I was in the Imperial Bakery, in the heart of one of the city's Portuguese neighborhoods, looking over the miniature custard tarts ("pasteis de nata") when a middle-aged woman with short blond hair walked in. She was buying linguica rolls and some "biscoitos," ring-shaped, crisp, semisweet cookies perfect for dipping in tea. It must have been obvious I was just hanging around, because after chatting a few minutes, she said, in a slight Portuguese accent, "I'm going to church; do you want to come?"

So suddenly, at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, I'm sitting in the biggest, most elaborate Roman Catholic church I've been in on this side of the Atlantic. St. Anthony of Padua's style is Romanesque, with seating for 2,000 people; it was completed in 1912 and restored in the late 1990s. I would have been knocked out by the architectural detail alone. Among other things, it has the tallest steeple in New England, 256 feet; high, vaulted ceiling domes, ornately decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and set with more than 5,000 lights; hundreds of sculptures of angels; and carved and painted balustrades, not to mention all those stained-glass windows. But then the choir started to sing, a good 40 feet up in the second balcony, standing arrayed on either side of a large, gold pipe organ. It's a cliche, I know, but they had the kind of high, clear voices that made me feel the presence of angels.

After Mass, I checked out the downstairs social hall. It's nearly as big as the sanctuary itself, laid out with tables and chairs for various events including the weekly Wednesday evening dinner, which often includes traditional Portuguese fare like roast pork and kale soup, followed by bingo.

My companion, Gloria Alves, takes my arm as we leave the church, and leads me down Acushnet Avenue, like my own self-appointed tour guide, pointing out shops: "There's the Portuguese florist, this is the Portuguese travel agency, that's a Portuguese bank, there's the Portuguese market." She points out a fenced, empty lot with a small painted wooden kiosk and some waist-high tables. "That's where they cook the meat during the festivals," she explains. "There's the Day of Portugal festival, in early June. And then there's the Madeira festival, the first weekend of August, it goes one, two, three, four — four days. There's a parade, and it's even bigger than the other one."

Every block has bakeries whose racks are lined with "bolos levedos" (a sweeter, denser version of English muffins), tall loaves of Portuguese sweet bread, and Portuguese rolls. And the smell of garlic, marinated beef, grilled chourico, linguica (fat, orange-red, spicy Portuguese sausages), and "bacalhau" (salt cod) comes wafting out the open doors of the small restaurants lining the street: Cafe Portugal, Cafe Restaurante Europa, Cafe Funchal, Cafe Mimo. We wander into Cafe Mimo, which has a typical layout of two long, narrow rooms, one a bar, the other the restaurant, and both with storefront windows. It's 11:55, and the restaurant doesn't open until noon, so the door to that side is locked, but the bar is open.

We walk in, and an entire line of men sitting on bar stools or standing behind them, focused on their drinks, their cigarettes, and the TV, swivel around and look with a mix of clannishness, suspicion, shyness, and annoyance that makes me aware of entering an all-male enclave. Usually, a place like that would make me back out slowly, but in this case I stayed. After all, how often do you stumble into a foreign world a scant hour and a half from home?

Acushnet Avenue and the area around it on the north side of New Bedford has long been a center of Portuguese life in a region that has been strongly Portuguese since the 19th century. About half of the 900,000 Americans who identify themselves as primarily Portuguese live in Southeastern Massachusetts or Rhode Island. And almost two-thirds of the residents of the South Coast region of Massachusetts are of Portuguese heritage, the great majority of whom live in and around New Bedford and Fall River. And though they come from mainland Portugal, as well as the islands of Madeira and Cape Verde, the largest proportion comes from the Azores, the islands west of Portugal that were the site of the March 15 meeting of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Portuguese immigration to this area started in the early to mid-1800s, as boys and men came to work on whaling and fishing boats. Many more arrived here in the early 20th century to work in the mills and factories of the thriving textile manufacturing industry. Another big wave, which brought Alves and many others, took place between the 1960s and early to mid-1980s, sparked by a volcanic eruption in the Azores and political upheaval in Portugal.

The migration hasn't always been in this direction. During the Depression, many people returned to their native Portugal after losing jobs here. More recently, US immigration restrictions, the loss of fishing and factory jobs here, and an improvement in living conditions in Portugal have combined to cause a new reverse migration. In both Fall River and New Bedford, the population of people of Portuguese descent fell several percentage points between 1990 and 2000.

On Acushnet Avenue, many of the newer immigrants are Latino, reflected in changing accents you hear on the street, and the fact that some of the local markets now stock both Portuguese and Hispanic products. Cafe Portugal's owner is from Mexico (his wife is Portuguese), and their live weekend entertainment features a husband, wife, and father-in-law trio playing Portuguese, Latin, and American songs.

Despite the decreasing numbers of Portuguese residents in New Bedford and Fall River, many people say the area is seeing a kind of renaissance of Portuguese culture. One reason for the upsurge may be that the immigrants of the last several decades have settled in to become more involved in community life. "When new immigrants first arrive, they focus on making a living," says Manuel Ferreira, editor of the Portuguese Times newspaper. "Maybe now they can dedicate more time to such activities." These days, a number of places on Acushnet Avenue feature live music or dancing. At Sagres Restaurant on Columbia Street in Fall River, another strongly Portuguese neighborhood, you can hear live "fado" (the melancholy "soul" music of Portugal) every weekend.

Another important recent addition to the Portuguese community has been the Portuguese Studies Department at nearby University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Its Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture regularly sponsors concerts, films, lectures, conferences, and other programs, such as a visit from Portuguese writer and Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago. And Casa da Saudade serves as a valuable resource.

The most visible examples of Portuguese culture are the many feasts, festivals, and processions that start up around Easter, pick up speed throughout the spring, and come into full force by summer, when more than 100,000 people can show up on any given day for festivities. The bilingual newspaper Ojornal keeps up to date on what's happening with a weekly calendar of events, many of which are organized by the area's Roman Catholic churches like St. Anthony of Padua and Santo Christo in Fall River.

Among the biggest fests is Fall River's four-day celebration of the Azores, the Great Feast of the Holy Ghost of New England, held this year Aug. 21-24.

It has its somber side, including the traditional blessing of the "pensoes, " or offering for the poor, and a solemn Mass and processional. It also has dozens of bands — many from the Azores, Azorean crafts, and a parade, called the "Bodo de Leite, " that has been known to last for hours.

New Bedford has the Day of Portugal Fair, which takes place the weekend of June 6 and will bring together the presidents of both Portugal and the Azores. Acushnet Avenue is closed to traffic for arts and crafts booths, outdoor stage performances, and lots of Portuguese food through the three-day event. The 85-year-old Madeira Club holds several events throughout the year to raise money to send to the island. And the four-day Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, to be held July 31-Aug. 3, is a celebration of Madeira's culture that's billed as the world's largest Portuguese feast; they're expecting 300,000 people this year.

I couldn't bear to tell Alves that I'll be out of town that weekend. She invited me back, and it was clear she would be the perfect host. Even a couple of the guys at the Cafe Mimo bar warmed up by the time we left there, smiling and nodding at me. I may miss the parades, but I'm definitely coming back soon for some "Bacalhau a Braz" and a little fado.

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