When you think of Massachusetts you think Irish, right? After all Boston is home to Southie, the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, and Mystic River with Sean Penn, while just down the coast on the South Shore (also known as the Irish Riviera), the town of Scituate holds the title of the “most Irish town in America.”
The Emerald Isle’s relative proximity to New England is perhaps part of the story behind the region’s rich Irish heritage; however, there is one European nation which is hundreds of leagues closer than Ireland. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Portuguese Azore Islands lie in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, only 2400 miles from Boston which, in perspective, is 2600 miles from Los Angeles. The Portuguese were seamen and great voyagers, and in fact legend has it that Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real reached Southern Massachusetts in 1511, leaving a cryptic inscription and his country’s coat of arms on Dighton Rock on the Taunton River.
The truth of the discovery of New England by Corte-Real is much debated, but four centuries later, his countrymates were on his mythical tracks, brought over by way of the whaling industry. The American whaling industry was born sometime in the 17th century on the shores of Southern New England, and by the 18th century American whalers were following migratory patterns as far as Greenland, Africa, Brazil, the Falkland Islands, and the Azores. According to Professor Frank Sousa of the Center for Portuguese Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, pit stops in the Azores often resulted in the acquisition of Portuguese crew who eventually wound up back in the Southern New England whaling towns like Nantucket, Newport R.I., and New Bedford, Mass. In the 19th century the whaling industry gave way to the Industrial Revolution, spurring a new wave of Azorean immigration to the area, as islanders came over to join friends and family who had come over with the whaling ships.
Today the results of the Azorean pipeline to Southern New England are clear: According to ZIPatlas, 8 of the 10 U.S. cities with the highest percentage of Portuguese residents are in Southern Massachusetts’ Bristol County while the other two are just across the state line in Rhode Island. New Bedford is Bristol County’s largest city and retains the title of “Portuguese Capital of the United States” thanks to the fact that here they are not just a vibrant minority- they are actually the majority. The 02744 Zip Code is 50.47% Portuguese.
The Portuguese-Americans of New Bedford have access to a wide variety of cultural institutions. The city is home to O Jornal, a fully bilingual newspaper with readership throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Portuguese Radio Globo WJFD 97.3 FM, the Casa da Saudade Library, which offers a rich collection of Portuguese literature, and the Escola Oficial Portuguesa, which is “dedicated to teaching children, grades 1-6, the Portuguese language and culture.” The Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture in nearby Dartmouth has made the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth the national leader in advanced studies of Portuguese language and culture. Nor has the importance of New Bedford and Bristol County gone unnoticed by the Portuguese Republic, which has installed a Consulate in the small city.
Portuguese New Bedford is not all books and pomp though. In the summer Bristol County unwinds with a festa nearly every weekend. Of particular importance is the annual Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, which since 1915 has celebrated the heritage of those of the city residents who come from the Portuguese island of Madeira (the home of world-famous soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo). The feast has grown to become “the largest Portuguese feast in the world and the largest ethnic festival in New England.” This year it will be held from August 2nd to 5th.
25 miles northwest of New Bedford, the Taunton River runs through the center of Bristol County, and in the middle of the river lies Dighton Rock. Looking at the island of Portuguese culture which has grown up in proximity of this pre-colonial historical mystery, it is tempting to believe that Miguel Corte-Real really did arrive there in 1511 and that his inscription on the rock was more powerful than he could have imagined. Unfortunately some mysteries remain unresolved.