Negotiating a Portuguese-speaker identity: Anthropologist Graça Cordeiro looks at ethnic dilemmas of the “Portuguese-speaker” identity

BOSTON —There are some challenges to bringing multiple ethnic groups under one banner.

“We all share the same roots,” said Renan Leahy, Communications Director for the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers. “Even though we share the same roots, it develops in different ways in different countries.”

MAPS, whose Director, Paulo Pinto, is originally from Portugal, has been serving people of Portuguese-speaking descent since 1992, and even before the union of the Cambridge Organization of Portuguese-Americans (COPA) and the Somerville Portuguese-American League (SPAL) that gave birth to the alliance that year. Their roots as an organization for Portuguese-Americans has provided fodder for controversy.

“I am studying the creation of an identity,” said Dr. Graça Cordeiro, a visiting professor of Anthropology at UMass Boston from Lisbon.  “And this grouping has become a focal point of tension.”

Cordeiro has decided to study the group and how it has been attempting to accomplish the goal of creating that identity and the problems it has encountered along the way.

“MAPS is an organization that is very original and interesting,” said Dr. Cordeiro. “It’s very much a vanguard organization.”

What fascinated Dr. Cordeiro most was the organization’s determination to contribute to the creation of a new group identity, that of Portuguese-speakers.

“The theme of my investigation was really how to understand the construction of our idea of a Portuguese-speaking community,” she said. “The window through which I am observing this is MAPS.”

Using language as the basis for building that community is something that makes perfect sense to the organization.

“We share something in common,” said Leahy, a native of Brazil. “We have the same ingredient, the Portuguese language, but we use different spices to make the meal.”

There are certainly tangible benefits to such a strategy. The power that comes from forming alliances with different interest groups is a well-documented phenomenon within the literature of Political Science, Sociology, Journalism, and other fields. There is, however, an obvious obstacle in creating such an alliance, and that is that different interest groups will inevitably have different interests.

“There are two clear styles through which I am observing this phenomenon,” said Cordeiro. “One is ethnographic, a study in the present, and the other is historical.”

There are several struggles she has noticed, particularly between the Portuguese and Brazilian communities, that she has realized in her observations.

“There is tension in regards to the language,” she said. “Should we teach it the European way or should we teach it the Brazilian way?… It’s very hard to teach two different variants of a language at the same time.”

There are certainly differences amongst the Lusophone communities in terms of language. But this is something that MAPS claims to celebrate, according to Leahy.

“The language develops in different ways in different countries,” he said. “I don’t think one variant should be predominant over the other.”

Cordeiro also points out that the historical moment of the two groups migrations are set in two different eras.

“Their migrations are very different,” she said. “One group progressed through work in the factories and the other is doing that in service industries.”

The Portuguese, who came in several waves throughout the 19th and 20th centuries with the last ending in the 1990s, arrived when the U.S. was still one of the world’s industrial superpowers. The Brazilians, who mostly settled in and around Boston, began their immigration in the 1990s, after the collapse of the mill cities, forcing them to get service jobs in cleaning, restaurants, and other industries.

“The Brazilian community is much more recent, thus their needs are different,” said Leahy. “The Portuguese have been here for almost two or three generations… Their main concerns are elderly issues, whereas we help the Brazilians more often with citizenship and other issues.”

Of course, one may point out that, in her study, she appears to be missing a major part of this coalition, the Cape Verdean population with a physical presence in the area that goes back as far as that of the Portuguese.

While the researcher does acknowledge their absence, she says that there is a good reason for it.

“The Cape Verdean situation may be the most interesting of all to study,” she said. “The thing is that I wanted to focus more on those communities whose language of identification is Portuguese… For the Cape Verdeans, that language is Creole.”

“Their official language is Portuguese, but the language they identify with is Creole,” she continued. “People often get those confused, but they are two different things.”

The main issue that Cordeiro has found is that the supporters of the organization, even though the majority of its services are still geared towards immigrants, are of Portuguese-American descent.

Over the last few years, the agency has catered more to Brazilians due to their migratory influx to the area.

“By no means has MAPS become a Brazilian organization,” she said. “Even though it has all three communities (Portuguese, Brazilian and Cape Verdean) represented on its staff,” its financiers are still mostly Portuguese.

Leahy says that this is not something that was the result of conscious policy and that the alliance doees attempt to have representation from all its constituencies.

“We do have Portuguese, Brazilian and Cape Verdeans on our board of directors,” he said.

As far as financing is concerned, the fact is that the Portuguese-Americans are the better off of the three primary constituencies and this is largely due to the fact that they’ve been here longer, according to Cordeiro.

Despite some bumps, MAPS says that it is making progress in creating that alliance.

“I think MAPS has a very important role in bringing these communities together,” said Leahy.  “You see it at the Portuguese feasts every year where more and more from other Portuguese-speaking communities participate.”

Cordeiro says that it is natural to run into such problems when creating such an umbrella term.

“Portuguese itself is an ambiguous term,” she said. “It is at once both a language and a nationality.”

But she does see some concreteness in the term as well.

“Who are Portuguese-speakers?” she asked. “They are Portuguese, Portuguese-Americans, Brazilians, Cape Verdeans, Cape Verdean-Americans, etc… It is something that you really can’t just generalize.”

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1 Comment

  1. Great article on an important subject. A growing Luso-American literary movement has been considering this issue as well, and it was recently the subject of this panel at the largest writers’ conference in the U.S.: http://presencepresenca.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/presencepresenca-panel-on-inclusion-identity-at-awp-2014/

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