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.