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The Portuguese in New England
© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 2

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          The Portuguese economy was not very industrialized during the 19th century, therefore, much of the population survived by fishing, farming, and mining. Fishing and farming could be volatile; bad crops and over-fishing plagued many communities. The primary reason Portuguese emigrated was to escape the unstable economy. Reuniting with family in America and avoidance of the military draft were also reasons many families left, but were not as influential as the desire for economic betterment. The earlier Portuguese immigrants used their native skills to do similar jobs in the United States, such as fishing and farming. These occupations were later overshadowed by the popularity of factory work. Textile mills were abundant in New England during the second half of the 19th century. Many immigrants were drawn to this industrialization, including the Portuguese. In New Bedford, one of the major cities of Portuguese settlement, fourteen textile mills were in operation by 1900. Twenty years later, that number had grown to sixty-three.(8) As shown in the two pie charts, Portuguese immigrants gradually shifted to factory work during the first decade of the 20th century. By 1915, the majority of Portuguese in New England were factory workers. Factory jobs had drawn Portuguese to New England, but the community was what kept them there. When many of New England's textile mills moved to the South, the Portuguese immigrants did not follow. Instead, they took other types of jobs, such as retail, keeping the New England Portuguese community in tact and ready for the next wave of immigration.

Portuguese Employment in Massachusetts in 1900

Portuguese Employment in Massachusetts in 1915

          The Portuguese sense of community was, and still is, very strong in New England. One Cape Verdean-American wrote in her memoir; "We called all those women who were friends of my mother 'aunts' in those days."(9) This reflects the close-knit nature of their communities. From the beginning of Portuguese immigration, the people settled into very specific enclaves. Those from the mainland settled with others from the mainland, Azoreans settled with other Azoreans from their specific island, and Cape Verdeans settled with other Cape Verdeans. This created an even more complex and interesting Portuguese society that had characteristics of all the different groups. One late 20th century Azorean immigrant described the Portuguese as "a divided community," and speculated that "If our community would get together, not just the Azoreans, but the whole Portuguese community, we could have some power here."(10) Nevertheless, the Portuguese valued their communities immensely, even if it was just their specific enclave.

          Two of the most visual and important aspects of the Portuguese community were Churches and Mutual Aid Societies. The Portuguese immigrants were mostly Roman Catholic and the church played a major role in their lives. The first immigrants did not have a church of their own to attend, so they often attended services conducted in English. Unlike Portugal, the United States had no national church, so members had to finance the construction of churches themselves, which was often very difficult for immigrants and did not happen immediately. The first Portuguese priest in New England arrived in New Bedford in 1867 and created the parish of São João Baptista.(11) Another Portuguese parish was created in Boston around the same time. Providence, Rhode Island received its own Portuguese church in 1885. Another element of the Portuguese-Catholic religious education was the Parochial school. The first Portuguese parochial school was created at the Holy Ghost Parish in Fall River in 1912.(12)

          Mutual aid societies, also called benevolent societies, were another important part of the Portuguese community. These societies were created to offer financial and emotional support for the immigrants. By paying a fee to the society, the immigrant would become eligible for certain benefits, including sick and death benefits. This early form of insurance was very important in tying the community together. The meetings of these communities offered more than just financial benefits, they became places for people to meet and share news. The first Portuguese benevolent society was created in New Orleans in 1847. The second, called the Sociedade Portugueza de Beneficencia de Massachusetts, was created in Boston in 1866. It quickly grew to over 400 members by 1872. Other Portuguese communities in New England developed their own mutual aid societies. The Portuguese immigrants also branched out to create other social clubs and newspapers that catered to their own towns. These institutions created a permanent Portuguese community in New England that drew new immigrants during the 20th century keeping the cohesiveness of the Portuguese culture alive.

          Portuguese immigration came to a standstill during the 1920s because of new immigration laws. These new laws put a limit on immigration based on quotas for each country. Therefore, between 1921 and 1958, most of the growth of the Portuguese population in the United States was due to natural increase. The second wave of Portuguese mass immigration began in the late 1950s and lasted through the 1970s. Between 1957 and 1958, the Azores were rocked with a series of earthquakes caused by an underground volcano. There was extensive damage to the island and the economy. In 1958, Senators John Pastore of Rhode Island and John Kennedy of Massachusetts cosponsored a congressional bill that allowed for Azorean refugees to relocate to the United States. The Azorean Refugee Act permitted the issue of 1,500 Azorean visas in addition to the established quota of 503.(13) In 1960, the Azorean Refugee Act was amended and 500 more visas were added. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act put an end to that system. Thousands of Portuguese immigrants came to the United States during the 1960s and 1970s to escape the poor economy that resulted in the aftermath of the natural disasters. New England Portuguese communities were flooded with new immigrants. Based on statistics taken in 1972, most of the second wave Portuguese already had family members in the United States.(14) This chain migration is the same type of migration that attracted the first wave of Portuguese immigrants to New England. Between 1965 and 1975, over 120,000 Portuguese people came to America, and over sixty percent settled in the Portuguese enclaves of New England.(15)

Portuguese-Born Population in the U.S., 1970

          Portuguese immigration slowed during the 1970s when Portugal's fascist regime fell and the economy improved. However, New England continues to draw new immigrants from Portugal, as well as other Portuguese-speaking countries such as the Cape Verde Islands and Brazil. Even as late as 1980, Portuguese people viewed America as a land of opportunity. "In 1980, we came to America in search of a better way of life…I had heard of America, and thought that when people came here, they would become rich."(16) This woman and her family settled in Taunton, Massachusetts, hoping for more financial opportunities for themselves and better educational opportunities for their children. Portuguese immigrants are still the regions largest immigrant group, although most (about three-quarters) arrived over twenty years ago.(17) Fall River and New Bedford still contain the largest concentration of Portuguese in the United States. Over twenty-six percent of New England's Portuguese live within those two cities, and an additional twenty percent live in nearby towns. Unlike most of the older European immigrant groups, the Portuguese have remained in concentrated communities. Portuguese immigration is slowing and the number of Portuguese immigrants is decreasing, but the native-born generations continue to hold the enclaves together. The Portuguese language has drawn Brazilian and Cape Verdean immigrants to New England in recent years. Although these two groups of immigrants are significantly different than the Portuguese, the common language has given these new immigrants a place where they can fit in easier. Between 1990 and 2000, Brazilians became one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in New England, largely because of the appeal that the familiar Portuguese language offers.

New England's Largest Immigrant Groups, 2000

          The Portuguese have a relationship with New England that is different from all other ethnic groups. Small enclaves of Azorean fishermen and whalers created a foundation that helped facilitate growth of Portuguese communities when large numbers of immigrants arrived. The Portuguese sense of family, community, and religion created a strong succession of chain migration that has lasted for over 200 years. Although Portuguese immigration is presently losing ground to other immigrant groups, new waves of Brazilian immigration is filling the gap and creating a new culture with Portuguese roots in New England.


Gilbert, Dorothy Ann. Recent Portuguese Immigrants to Fall River, Massachusetts: An Analysis of Relative
           Economic Success, New York: AMS Press, 1989.

Halter, Marilyn. Between Race and Ethnicity: Cape Verdean American Immigrants, 1860-1965, Chicago:
           University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Lopes, Belmira Nunes. A Portuguese colonial in America, Belmira Nunes Lopes :Tthe Autobiography of a
           Cape Verdean American, Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1982

Marcuss, Mamie, and Borgos, Ricardo. "Who Are New England's Immigrants?" Communities and
           Banking, Fall (2004), 10-15.

McCabe, Marsha L. and Thomas, Joseph D. ed. Portuguese Spinner: An American Story, New Bedford,           Massachusetts: Spinner Publications, Inc., 1998.

Pap, Leo. The Portuguese Americans, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

Santos, Robert L. Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement, Denair, California: Alley-
           Cass Publications, 1995.

Taft, Donald R. Two Portuguese Communities in New England, New York: AMS Press, 1967.

Ussach, Steven Samuel. "The New England Portuguese: A Plural Society Within A Plural Society," Plural
           Societies 6 (1975): 47-51.

(8) Robert L. Santos. Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement, (Denair, California: Alley-Cass Publications, 1995), 58.
(9) Belmira Nunes Lopes. A Portuguese colonial in America, Belmira Nunes Lopes : the autobiography of a Cape Verdean American, (Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1982), 27.
(10) McCabe, 52.
(11) Pap, 179.
(12) Pap, 181.
(13) Santos, 48.
(14) Dorothy Ann Gilbert. Recent Portuguese Immigrants to Fall River, Massachusetts: An Analysis of Relative Economic Success, (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 64-65.
(15) Ussach, 48.
(16) McCabe, 33.
(17) Marcuss, 11.

By Rickie Lazzerini
Kindred Trails Worldwide Genealogy Resources

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

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© 2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
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