Cambridge's Forgotten Minority

The Portugese Community Walks A Tightrope of Assimiliation

(This is part one. Part two, an examination of ethnic identity and political organization in the Portuguese community, will appear on Monday.)

Cambridge, internationally famous for its universities, has long held a reputation as a diversified community. Each year knowledge thirsty students from around the world gravitate to the City-by-the-Charles to drink from the cup of learning proffered by Harvard and MIT. And having sampled the brew of power and knowledge that these venerable institutions have to offer, these same students, at the completion of their intellectual bacchanal, scatter across the globe to take up positions as power brokers of the world.

While the international flavor of the Cambridge environment is most commonly attributed to the world wide attraction of its universities, these institutions are not the backbone of multinationalism in the city. For outside the Ivied libraries of Harvard and the computer rooms of MIT is a Cambridge that would be international in character even if the universities had never sunk their intellectual roots here.

As university-Cambridge has trained the powerful and would-be powerful, the rest of the city has been a heaven for dispossessed and uprooted immigrant populations seeking a new start.

East Cambridge and Cambridgeport, easily accessible to the City's industry and plentiful in lowrent housing, have been densely populated ethnic communities since the turn of the century.

The Irish were first, settling in East Cambridge, and then, as they improved their status, moving to the better neighborhoods and the suburbs. As the Irish moved out, the Italians took their place. The Italians followed the pattern set by the Irish, improving their status and moving on. Today, the Portuguese have taken over as the dominant ethnic group in the city.

The Portuguese community of Cambridge is something that cannot be defined in strictly geographical terms. It includes not only those Portuguese living within the city limits, but also many Portuguese immigrants now living in Somerville or Arlington.

The Portuguese account for over one-third of the immigrants listing Cambridge as their destination each year. Most estimates place the population of the Portuguese community between 8000-10,000, although estimates including third and fourth generation run as high as 25,000. The population of Cambridge is about 100,000. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of Portuguese in Cambridge because many of the city's Portuguese residents are not registered, having immigrated to the city illegally, while others live unlisted by census figures with relatives and friends. But while no one actually knows exact population figures, one thing is clear: the Portuguese community is large and it is growing.

By far the majority of Cambridge's Portuguese arrive from the Azores, particularly the two easternmost islands, Sao Miguel and Santa Maria. By American standards, the Azorean economy is industrially backward and economically depressed with most of the inhabitants engaged in maritime and agricultural work.

The limited economy, combined with the political control exercised by Portugal, stifled economic mobility in the Azores and prompted a steady emigration from the islands. Consequently, economic reasons account for roughly 98 per cent of Portuguese immigration to Cambridge, according to the Cambridge Organization of Portuguese Americans (COPA). The remaining 2 per cent have left Portugal because of political pressures, most notably a desire to escape conscription into the Portuguese army.

Most of the Portuguese come to Cambridge with high expectations, hoping to find the ideal of history book America. Maurino Costa, a school teacher in the Azores, came to Cambridge in 1966, leaving behind a respected job in hopes of finding greater opportunity in the United States. At that time he had a vision of the American dream common to most of the Portuguese who come here. Costa, now comfortably situated as an employee of the telephone company with a home in Somerville, found the United States far different from the land of his dreams.

"I came to this country alone eight years ago," Costa says. "Six months after I arrived I sent for my wife and four children. Before I came I had an idealistic picture of this country. I felt that everyone in the United States could have everything they wanted, as well as respect for themselves. By the time my wife came six months after I arrived, I realized that things were different than I originally thought.

"First, there was the problem of the language. I had had three years of English during my teacher training but speaking English in the United States was very difficult. Second, was the problem of changing jobs. I was a teacher but I found the only jobs we can do when we get here are labor jobs. I crossed 3000 miles and was school teacher one day and a laborer the next.

"The idea that I had of the United States--that it was a free country where you could do what you want--changed when I had to look for an apartment when my wife and family joined me," Costa says. "With four kids I was refused again and again, because no one wants to rent to big families. I couldn't believe this type of thing could happen in the United States."

The problems that Costa encountered in language, employment, and housing, are a three-edged albatross around the neck of Portuguese immigrants. They are representative of what Cambridge's Portuguese find when they reach this country. Inadequate living facilities, low paying jobs, and a language barrier that compounds difficulties in every aspect of life, quickly burst the dream-bubble of the new immigrant.

Language is by far the greatest handicap facing the Portuguese in Cambridge. For Costa, who had had previous exposure to English, language was the first and major barrier he encountered. For others--the majority of Portuguese immigrants in Cambridge who have had no prior exposure to English--the problem is even more compelling.

Absence of a working knowledge of the language hinders the establishment of relationships with the rest of the city, complicates legal and medical problems, and isolates the Portuguese within their own community in Cambridge.

For school-age children, the language barrier can be traumatic. Before the Cambridge School Department launched its bilingual English-Portuguese program, progress in education for Portuguese children hinged solely on a knowledge of English. Often their education was arrested completely until they learned English. Consequently, frustration became a built-in component of American education for the Portuguese. It was a significant contributor to the high drop out rate among Portuguese at the high school level.

Madalena Barboza, now a senior at UMass-Boston, originally came to Cambridge with her family 13 years ago. At that time she was nine years old and did not speak English. "We spoke Portuguese at home and when I got here there was no bilingual program," Barboza recalls. "I was nine years old but I was put in first grade with six-year-olds because I couldn't speak the language. I caught up finally, but I'm still a year behind." One of her sisters quit school altogether.

Today the bilingual education program has eased the transition into the mainstream of English education for the Portuguese immigrant children, but there is still a high drop out rate among Cambridge's high-school-age Portuguese, as they quit school to help out their families economically.

Although language is easily the most staggering problem for the Portuguese, housing has to run a strong second. Forced to work at low-paying maintenance or factory jobs because of a lack of basic skills, it is not surprising that, initially at least, the Portuguese immigrants move into the city's lower-rent and less-habitable neighborhoods. With few economic or social options, the Portuguese have no choice but to live in overcrowded, over-priced and illrepaired facilities. According to a 1972 study by the Cambridge Office of Planning and Development, almost 10 per cent of the Portuguese in Cambridge live in homes with a population density higher than 1.5 persons per room, compared to 1.6 per cent for the city as a whole.

The experiences of Vivaldo Meneses, a welder and iron craftsman who came to Cambridge five years ago, illustrate the housing problems the Portuguese immigrants face in Cambridge. "We paid a lot of money in rent for a junk house when we first came here," Meneses recalls. "The landlord wanted to sell the house so he didn't want to do anything to it. I paid $110 a month and there was no good electricity or heat in the apartment. When I repaired the house myself, the landlord charged more rent. He said the taxes went up. Most of the Portuguese people do that--fix up their apartments--and then the landlords go higher with the rent."

Maurino Costa also experienced typical problems with housing accommodations. "We lived on Columbia Street in a very bad apartment," Costa recalls. "Because no one would rent to family with four children, I had no choice but to live there. The apartment had three rooms including the kitchen. In one room we had four beds. My wife and I slept in the other room.

"We had to fix the apartment ourselves--the painting, the papering, everything. After we did, the landlord raised the rent. I asked myself, Is this the price we must pay for wanting to live clean and in good conditions?" Costa says.

Faced with living conditions such as these, it is not surprising that one of the primary goals of the Portuguese is the purchase of a home of their own. As soon as possible, Portuguese families begin saving money to move away from the squalid living conditions they are forced to endure in neighborhoods like East Cambridge.

"The dream of all our people is to have their own house," Meneses says. "We all had houses in Portugal and when we came here we lost everything. Coming here you have to start a new life--it's like being born all over again. The one bit of advice I would give to people who come to this country is this: Get your own house. It is better to put the money you pay in rent into something of your own."

The third major problem facing the Portuguese in Cambridge is employment. Since most of the workers who arrive in this country from the Azores are unskilled and shackled by the language problem, they are forced into low-paying jobs and subjected to exploitation. Anxious to make a fresh start, and ignorant of their rights under labour laws, the Portuguese are willing to work long hours for substandard wages.

Ruben Cabral, acting executive director of COPA, estimates that the Portuguese supply 80 per cent of the cheap labor in Cambridge. Often, the Portuguese work in jobs far below their capabilities.

"Sometimes they have good jobs at home, but when they come here they have to take lower jobs," Meneses points out. "The people who speak English get the better jobs. People who don't, have to take the lower ones."

Language difficulties, unfamiliarity with worker rights in the United States, and an unwillingness to rock the boat, have all led to the exploitation of eager Portuguese workers.

"The more we do the more they expect," Costa says. "They don't like us to belong to the unions. If we are sick they don't believe us."

The underemployment of Portuguese immigrants has more than economic implications. According to Aurelio Torres, a former director of COPA: "There is resentment [among the Portuguese] of the switching around of social classes in this country.

"For many who were well educated in Portugal, coming to this country is a kind of spiritual death," Cabral says. "My father was a minister in Portugal and when he came here he worked in a factory."

The desire to achieve even slight economic gains, however, has hindered efforts to mobilize Cambridge's Portuguese workers. While the Congress of the Portuguese in America (sponsored by COPA and held at Harvard last spring) could declare that "because the immigrants in their homelands are accustomed to the absence of decision-making power in their places of employment, the helpless situation of the worker is perpetuated in the United States [and that] it is necessary to arouse the consciousness of the workers," grass roots efforts in organizing Cambridge's Portuguese have yielded little response.

Efforts to unionize workers and proposed class action suits against businesses allegedly exploiting workers have not been well received. "We proposed bringing class actions against offending businesses, but as soon as we started talking about court, the workers backed down--they didn't want to lose their jobs," Torres says.

Father Joel Oliveira, pastor of St. Anthony's Church on Portland St.--the only Portuguese parish in the Boston area--confirms the Cambridge Portuguese workers' unwillingness to organize for their labor rights. "Two men were here from a union a while ago, they wanted to unionize some of the factories," Oliveira recalls. "The Portuguese didn't want to get involved. In most cases they are underpaid, but they didn't want to lose their jobs."

Cabral observes that one of the reasons the Portuguese are unwilling to rock the boat to obtain increased benefits is that conditions in America, bad as they are for the Portuguese, are still better than what they left behind.

"The American dream is not a farce for the Portuguese, because even the worst conditions in this country are better than the old country," he says. "In the old country they had nothing--nothing they could grab economically or psychologically. Here at least they can work. They believe that the little liberties they are given are something, because if you have nothing and are given something, it is a little more."