The Bilingual U.S. – Portuguese Cambridge, MA

Just across the river from Boston, the City of Cambridge boasts 100,000 inhabitants, two of the most important universities in the world (Harvard and MIT), and a plethora of high-tech companies in a quickly growing modern industrial zone. The neighborhoods behind the evolving face of the industrial quarter and far from the beautiful views of the Boston skyline seem far removed from the world-wide academic and technological fame of the city, and yet these neighborhoods have an international character of their own. A stroll down Cambridge Street, which runs along the backside of the city from Lechmere by the locks of the Charles River to the heart of the city’s pomp in Harvard Square, passes through a living piece of Portuguese-American history.

At the beginning of its journey, Cambridge Street climbs up a small knoll which was originally an island and is the heart of the old neighborhood with enumerated streets known as East Cambridge.  At number 292 Cambridge Street on the top of the hill, sits the headquarters of the East Cambridge Savings Bank, headed by Gilda Nogueira, native of the Portuguese Azore Islands and client of the bank since the days that she grew up here.  The bank provides complete services in Portuguese to its clientele.

Further down the street at number 575, the Filarmonica Santo Antonio has been promoting Portuguese music for 35 years. Members of the Filarmonica are prominent participants in the Day of Portugal Parade which starts in Portuguese Square in neighboring Somerville before running down Cambridge Street to finish at the corner of Cardinal Medeiros Avenue in East Cambridge at St. Anthony Church. St. Anthony Church offers masses in both English and Portuguese.

The railroad tracks mark the official boundary of the East Cambridge neighborhood but do not however put a boundary on the local Portuguese culture.  Ramos Snack Bar, which sits at number 691 on the edge of the tracks, serves cultural cuisine like their bife a casa with the nonchalance of a diner. Further up at number 1200, the Casa Portugal offers the full restaurant experience with specialties like Bacalhau. In between the restaurant and the diner, the Sunset Cafe at number 891 prides itself on serving up Portuguese-American food and hospitality, and the Portugalia Restaurante at number 723 focuses on specialties from Northern Portugal.

For those who want to cook at home, peixe e mariscos (fish and seafood) in the tradition of the great sea-faring population are on sale at the Fernandes Fish Market at number 1097. The Portuguese love to accompany their fish with vinho verde (literally, “green wine”), to be found in the surrounding liquor stores and in places like Albert’s Market ( number 638) along with a wide variety of other transoceanic products such as delicious salty manteiga (butter) direct from the Azores. If exaggerated enjoyment of these culinary delights leads to a pança (belly) problem, area residents can work it off at the Clube Desportivo Faialense at number 1121.

On the academic side of things, Cambridge Street is also home to centers for the study and diffusion of the Portuguese language such as the Manuel Rogers, Sr. Center for Portuguese Culture and Studies (part of the Cambridge public library system) at number 826 and the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers at number 1046.

In the shadow of the ivory towers and modern high-rises of the city of Cambridge lies a quiet back-street of low, simple buildings which may not be as famous as those to be found in Harvard Square- but by no means are they less interesting!

The Bilingual U.S. – Portuguese Massachusetts

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.