Portuguese Create Stable But Isolated World
It is nearly noon and the small crowd is growing restless. A Portuguese soap opera plays quietly on the large-screen television. The old men in the corner lay down their deck of cards. All eyes are on the door.
You can smell the food before it arrives. The spicy scent of the traditional Portuguese fare--rice, fish and vegetables--quickly fills the room. It just looks like a hot meal on a cold day, but this is more than a free lunch.
For Adelia Lopes and the 35 other elderly men and women who spend their days on the second floor of Cambridge's Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers (MAPS), it is a much-needed taste of home.
MAPS is only a 25-minute walk down Cambridge Street from the Square, but the world of Inman Square hardly is saturated with over-priced hip clothing stores. Store signs are in Portuguese. One market window advertises "Fresh killed fish" in bold, red block-lettering. On a sunny morning, a few shop-owners linger outside their stores smoking cigars.
It is a world where English is not spoken, where children take Portuguese classes, where older residents frequently return "home" and where the Portuguese community means everything.
Strangers in a Strange Land
When Lopes first arrived in Cambridge in 1970, MAPS was only a year old, she only knew her brother-in-law, she had four children and did not speak English.
But in the three decades hence, Lopes has helped build up MAPS into a thriving ethnic community center. She has volunteered here twice a week for three decades, and the once-fledgling Portuguese center now serves as Lopes' second home. She volunteers, helping to serve meals and run the ritual after-lunch bingo games.
It is where she feels welcome, she says. But it is also a place where she has remained almost entirely Portuguese, enabling her not to be forced to venture outside of her tight-knit community and even allow her to get by without ever learning English.
When Lopes first arrived, however, she says there was little of today's sense of Portuguese solidarity. She only chose Cambridge so that she could be close to her brother-in-law, who had immigrated from Portugal some years before.
Lopes, a pleasant-looking woman in her 60s, tells a classic immigrant's tale of sacrifice for the next generation. She speaks through an interpreter, MAPS Director of Social Services Claudia Lobo.
Lopes came from Portugal with her four children, husband and mother-in-law to escape her country's failing economy.
"I wanted to give my children a better future," she says. Lopes smiles easily and tends to use expressive hand gestures, so it is almost possible to understand her despite the language barrier.
Four years after her arrival in Cambridge, Lopes divorced her husband and found herself a single parent in charge of four school-age children. She had to find work, navigating her way through the system without any grasp of the language.
It was the newly-founded MAPS, she says, that helped her with applying for American citizenship and directed her to her first job here, sewing bridal dresses in a Somerville factory.
Soon after, she began sewing for a factory in Boston, where she worked for 12 years until health problems allowed her to start receiving government disability.
The Language Barrier
There was not even an interpreter in the hospital to help her, Lopes says. When she needed an operation, she says, the Cambridge City Hospital gave her a Spanish-speaking and a Chinese doctor, hoping that together they might be able to make sense of her Portuguese.
But a few years after her arrival, Lopes says, events in Portugal caused a significant number of Portuguese immigrants to start coming to Cambridge.
Lopes's friend Senhorinha Pires came to Cambridge 25 years ago to escape an active volcano on the Azorian island of Faial.
"Because of the volcano, the American government was receptive to allowing us to come here without documentation," Pires remembers.
Lopes and Pires met through MAPS. Pires is quieter, but the two women seem to have a comfortable friendship based on shared experience.
Like Lopes, Pires began working in a local factory soon after she arrived. She spent 11 years in a shoe factory in Central Square.
"I'm lucky because there were other women there who spoke Portuguese," Pires, who also speaks through the interpreter Lobo, says.
But Lopes--the only Portuguese-speaker in her factory job--says she yearned to be surrounded by other Portuguese speakers.
"Back then, if I was in a restaurant and heard someone speaking Portuguese, I would get so excited because language was such a problem for me," Lopes says, smiling at the memory.
At first, her children struggled as well.
"When my kids first arrived, they were very young and they were really afraid of going to school," Lopes remembers. "There were no bilingual programs for them back then."
Lopes says she remembers her children complaining, asking repeatedly when they could go back home to Portugal. Once they learned the language, she says, they began to feel at home in Cambridge.
"They picked up English real fast and then they were happy," she says.
But Lopes, who still struggles with English, needs a community where people understand her language and her history.
That is why the Portuguese neighborhood down Cambridge Street is so valuable to Lopes and other first-generation immigrants like her, she says.
"All the stores I need are here," Lopes says, gesturing out the window. "I can buy my Portuguese food, sausage, butter, flour to make cakes and the fish comes imported."
Most importantly, the shop-owners understand her.
"I like my language," Lopes says. "It's my culture."
But outside this small enclave, Lopes says she is at a loss.
The Cambridge City Hospital now has a Portuguese interpreter, but Lopes says that language remains the most significant problem facing first-generation Portuguese immigrants.
"It's just been very difficult. I wanted to learn English but I had four young children and no husband," she says. "When I finally did have time to go to school at night, I had no patience. I just survive with the little I have."
A Second Family
She began volunteering 28 years ago, at a point in her life when she says she felt somewhat lost.
"I was no longer married, and I had so much time," Lopes remembers. "And the program really needed somebody."
Her many roles with MAPS have all focused on trying to maintain Portuguese culture.
For years, she headed a theatre group that performed plays written by Portuguese writers at the Saint Anthony's Church. She also ran a program to help children of Portuguese descent learn to read and write Portuguese. She also still spends time fundraising
Now she works at the Senior Center--a program whose goal is to help ease the isolation that many first-generation Portuguese immigrants feel once their children have grown up and no longer need their constant attention.
As Lopes reflects on her time with MAPS, she grows quiet.
"This really is my second family," Lopes says.
But Lopes says she still misses Portugal, despite the community that MAPS provides and the stores that sell imported Portuguese delicacies.
She has returned to Portugal to visit 19 times over the past 30 years. What keeps her coming back is her children.
"Every day I miss Portugal, but I just can't leave," she says.
It's just not the same here, Lopes says.
"America is no good for old people because of the language, the climate," she pauses to think. "We don't have friends here like we do in Portugal."
And Lopes also mourns many of her friends who have died in recent years.
But she says she must remind herself that her mission--the ideal of giving her children opportunities she did not have--has been a success.
Despite her occasional loneliness, Lopes says she has no regrets.
One of her children works in the area as a secretary. Another is a civil engineer. And they still speak to her in Portuguese.
"They all live here as professionals," she says. "I gave them a good future."