Portuguese in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, by Gláucia V. Silva

Walking around in parts of New Bedford and Fall River, in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, one would be forgiven for thinking that this is a Portuguese speaking region. Except that it is: one can easily order a meal at Antonio’s in New Bedford or at Portas da Cidade in Fall River, and even negotiate with the server something that is not on the menu, all in Portuguese. Browse the wines at Portugalia in Fall River and soon an employee will ask if you need help choosing one—and help will be offered in Portuguese if you happen to be chatting with your companion in that language, or both in English and in Portuguese if the employee is unsure of which language to use. Walk into Costa’s Fish Market and order salmão or garoupa; go to Padaria Nova and buy some delicious pão de centeio; wander into Sunrise Bakery and try some of the best pastéis de nata this side of the Atlantic; sample mil folhas at Chocolate com Pimenta; root for Benfica at Casa Benfica. It’s not very difficult to live in southeastern Massachusetts and never have to use English.

Whole conversations in Portuguese can be heard in Massachusetts and in Rhode Island, states where Portuguese is now the third most commonly spoken language, after English and Spanish (it was allegedly the second not long ago). In New Bedford and Fall River, the largest communities in southeastern Massachusetts, Portuguese may well be the second most used language—or the first, depending on the business one ventures into.

Waves of Portuguese immigration to the region date back to the heyday of the whaling industry in the 19th century. After that, Portuguese immigrants were attracted by employment opportunities in factories in Fall River, New Bedford, and other industrial towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The eruption of the Capelinhos volcano on the Azorean island of Faial in 1957 led the United States to lift existing immigration quotas for Portuguese citizens; as a result, many evacuees came to areas where other Portuguese speakers had settled before them. More immigrants came after the quotas were abolished in 1965, and today one can attend Catholic mass in Portuguese in several churches, eat bacalhau à Gomes de Sá in their favorite Portuguese restaurant, and buy broa and sardinhas in one of the many markets that cater to Portuguese speaking populations.

Portuguese immigration to the United States slowed down in the 1980s—but then Brazilians started fleeing their economic crises. Now, Massachusetts is home to many natives of Brazil, who, like the Portuguese and Portuguese-Americans, also shop at Seabra, where they can find guaraná, bombons, biscoito de polvilho, and many other Brazilian products. One can worship at the Igreja Adventista do Sétimo Dia Portuguesa de Fall River, whose services are delivered by a Brazilian pastor and attended mostly by speakers of Brazilian Portuguese. Large Brazilian communities are also found on Cape Cod and the island of Martha’s Vineyard, not to mention the greater Boston area. Portuguese is likely to remain the third most commonly spoken language in Massachusetts for a long time to come.

Gláucia V. Silva, Department of Portuguese, UMass Dartmouth (USA)

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