“Portuguese Enclaves: The Invisible Minority” by M. Estellie Smith
|April 2, 2011||Posted by Luis Gonçalves under 1973, Article, M. Estellie Smith, Most recent, Portuguese-Americans|
In 1973, M. Estellie Smith* presented a paper entitled “Portuguese Enclaves: The Invisible Minority,” at the Southern Anthropological Society meeting, in Wrightsville Beach, NC. In this study, she presented ethnographic data relative to the Portuguese-American community that draw a profile and a cultural border of the community, held by both insiders and outsiders. She than contextualized this profile historically to explain the self-pejorative overtones of that profile and justify its traditional nature.
The cultural border that surrounds the Portuguese-Americans in New England allows for some exchanges between Portuguese and non-Portuguese in schools, work, some marry-out of the community etc. Nonetheless, the main field in which Portuguese-Americans interact with non-Portuguese remains the economic sphere. Smith argues that this isolation is due to Portuguese traditionalism, i.e., the unwillingness to let go of their European social patterns. The American life-style is the natural progression for an immigrant community in the United States, but the Portuguese, through clinginess to tradition, are unwilling or unable to accomplish it. However, the author remarks that this preservation of tradition does not translate into the high valorization of the Portuguese heritage and the depreciation of the American life-style. Her observations show precisely the opposite, a typical Portuguese is perceived as “hard-working, clean, not too bright easy-going, respectful of authority, non-ambitious, thrifty, over-sexed, careful of property, uninventive, unimaginative, hospitable, cheerful, unable to deal with difficult problems or intricate mechanical items, cooperative, passive, and not much trouble to anyone. He is seen as disinterested in community affairs and incapable of organizing for effective political or economic change. A woman is a drudge; hard-working, submissive, and essentially concerned with her home and her family.” (Smith, 4)
Smith traces this profile back to the beginning of Portuguese immigration to the United States. She points out that 80% of this early immigration was from the Azores, and explains the dynamics of whale hunting, later replaced by the textile industry, that led to such a large number of Azoreans to migrate to New England. Smith points out that there are socio-historical evidences that Azoreans relied on the United States for economic fulfillment since the end of the 18th century. These immigrants had very low levels of education, which placed them in menial jobs. Even with the influx of new European immigrants that situation did not change. Smith writes “They were willing to work extremely long hours at dangerous work for starvation wages, often with a good-natured smile and, at worst, with an air of passive resignation.” (Smith, 7)
The constant influx of new immigrants from the Azores and the ease with which many went back and forth, did not create the need to carve a space in the North American power structure and allowed them to retain their Portuguese ways and thus carve a “traditional” Portuguese-American identity. Smith traces the reputation of Portuguese-Americans, in particular the negative assertions, to the first interactions between North American fishermen, who had the “can do” attitude, and the careful impoverish Azoreans not whiling to risk much or try new things. These negative assertions were accepted by the Azoreans themselves because they were not very different from the perception of continental Portuguese about them. They were perceived as good workers, which meant jobs, and that was what mattered to them. Invisibility in the Unites States, the author argues, was seen as protection, in particular in light of the discrimination that Irish and Italians were facing.
This negative Portuguese-American identity persists, reproducing the superficiality and ethnocentric bias of the North American host society. The changes in group identity that one would expect, in particular in light of its negative focus, have not occurred.
* M. Estellie Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology, died Oct. 25. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology and went on to earn a master of arts and Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Buffalo. Estellie taught at Florida State University, Eastern New Mexico University and Southern Methodist University before returning to New York in 1970. She taught at SUNY Brockport until 1976 when she came to Oswego. Estellie taught at Oswego State until her retirement in 1995. In 1997, she moved to Albany where she became research professor of anthropology at Union College. She is survived by her husband, Charles. (in http://www.oswego.edu/alumni/publications/magazine/alumnis06.pdf)