An immigration phenomenon

Why Portuguese is the second language of Massachusetts

Do you assume Spanish is the most widely spoken second language in the Commonwealth? Think again. With a million residents speaking Portuguese as their first or second language, Portuguese-speakers form the largest linguistic minority in the state. (That's about twice the number of Spanish speakers in Massachusetts.)

This is not so surprising once you realize that worldwide some 230 million people speak Portuguese. In fact, more people speak Portuguese as their native language than speak French, German, Italian, or Japanese. Although they come from far-flung countries, when Portuguese-speakers emigrate to the U.S., their language binds them together here.

The whaling industry brought the first Portuguese to the Commonwealth in the early 1800's, eventually drawing thousands of immigrants to Southeast Massachusetts. Whaling ships would stock supplies at the Portuguese island territories of the Azores, Cape Verde, and Madeira, bringing Portuguese sailors back to America.

As whaling declined, Portuguese immigrants found work in the growing textile, apparel, and fishing industries. A second wave of immigration took place in the 1950's when many Portuguese left for political reasons. After the fall of the dictatorship in Portugal in 1974, immigration to the U.S. dropped off sharply. Then, in the 1980's, a new group of Portuguese speakers arrived: Brazilians.

"We don't really know why the first Brazilians chose Massachusetts," says Dàrio Borim, chair of the Portuguese Department at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and himself a native Brazilian. "But it is reasonable to assume that language drew them. There was already a Portuguese language infrastructure here, with businesses, educational programs, and medical professionals who spoke the language."

Now Brazilian immigrants are estimated to number 250,000. But exact numbers are hard to come by, warns Paulo Pinto, executive director of MAPS (Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers).

The whaling industry brought the first Portuguese here in the early 1800's, drawing thousands of immigrants to Southeast Massachusetts.

"Brazilians, in particular, are highly undercounted, because many of them are undocumented, or get left out because they don't fit established categories, or are miscounted as Hispanic."

Racial and ethnic categories present a huge problem for Portuguese-speakers. A Cape Verdean immigrant might check off African-American in a census box, which excludes his language-origin. For Brazilians, the which-box-to-check problem looms even larger.

There are different notions of race in Brazil, where someone who considers herself white in Brazil may be considered black in the U.S. Ethnicity presents a similar problem, because the term "Latino" (i.e., from Latin America) is often conflated with "Hispanic," a category created by the federal government to address the growing number of Spanish speakers in the United States.

The confusion can lead to misdirected policies and funding. Says Pinto, "What can happen is that a company decides to install an ATM with Spanish-language capability in a neighborhood because the census shows that there are many Latinos living there. But if the Latinos are from Brazil, that does not help us at all."

Pinto believes that young people, especially, find it hard to put themselves into awkward categories in order to qualify for grants and scholarships.

"It can be quite demoralizing when you don't fit into a category. There is this tension between opportunity on the one hand and ethnic and cultural pride on the other," he explains.

The diversity within the Portuguese speaking community in Massachusetts has led to the discussion of whether it is language that really binds or if that is a construct designed to give people from Europe, Africa, and Latin America a common identity. Professor Borim admits it is a difficult question to answer.

"Portuguese speakers do tend to live near each other. Brazilians who have just arrived will seek out Portuguese-speaking communities. The same is true for Cape Verdeans. In that sense, language is a major component. But the culture and history of the various groups differ widely."

Music is one form of cultural expression where Portuguese-speakers find common ground, with Brazilian or Cape Verdean singers and musicians drawing a mixed audience of Portuguese-speakers. Soccer is another. And religion is a link (most Portuguese- speakers are Catholic, though many Brazilians belong to evangelical churches), as are traditional festivals.

The Portuguese language is finally receiving its due as a major language in our universities, where Lusophone (Portuguese) Studies are growing nationwide. UMass- Dartmouth not only has a master's program but also added a Ph.D. program in Luso- Afro-Brazilian Studies in September. Borim is excited about the growth of his department.

"Not only UMass Dartmouth has seen growth. Other colleges in the area are experiencing increasing enrollment in their Portuguese programs. Much of it is fueled by so-called heritage learners, students who grew up with some Portuguese at home and now want to master the language and learn about the culture and the literature."

But can all these different Portuguese speakers really understand each other?

"Oh, yes," says Borim. "There are real differences in syntax and usage, as well as pronunciation patterns, but wherever we come from, we really do share the same mother tongue."