Thursday, March 27, 2008

Understanding Why the Portuguese came to America

When trying to understand the Portuguese one of the first thoughts that came to my mind was, why did they come here? Like many of the immigrants that came before them (German, Irish, Italian), the Portuguese sought a better life. While there recently has been an influx of Portuguese from all parts of their home county, those who settled in Fall River, MA (my site of cultural encounter) are predominantly from the Azores. The Azores are a group of nine islands, part of Portugal, about 900 miles from Lisbon. An agrarian society, even today, the Azores offered little opportunity aside from farming. Though much of the crops, including oranges and potatoes failed. Other problems including overpopulation, lack of arable land for everyone, and little opportunity in such an isolated environment wore hard on the Azoreans. Starting around 1820 many Azoreans made the journey across the Atlantic in hopes of leaving poverty behind.

At the same time the industrial revolution in America created demand for unskilled labor in various industries. This was enough to lure many Portuguese, mainly Azorean, to Fall River to take jobs in the textile and whaling industries. Immigrants kept in contact with their relatives in the homeland and eventually these relatives joined their loved ones here in America. This process of “chain migration” continued from generation to generation making Fall River a hot spot for Portuguese immigrants.

In Fall River new immigrants found familiarity in an enclave of people like themselves. Even when some factory jobs dried up, immigrants kept coming to Fall River. They felt comfortable continuing their traditions amongst those who spoke the language and practiced the customs of the homeland. The concentration of Portuguese in Fall River remains high today where they are 50% of the total population. Today immigrants and descendants of immigrants work in the many blue collar and service occupations in Fall River. The concentration of Portuguese in Fall River accompanied by the continued influx of new immigrants assures that Portuguese culture remains alive today.

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