Letter to the Editor

I was fascinated by Art*Throb’s November 2012 piece “Let Nothing Slip By”, as I relate, directly, to being a white child of immigrant parents (in my case, my mother), in a multi-ethnic American society. Couple that fact with my love of poetry, and this article was one I could easily opine on, and offer a firsthand account of what it meant to be different, and anything other than lily-white in Boston in the period between 1910 through the 1970s.  My ancestors, though neither black nor mixed-race, stood out because of their foreign-ness, illiteracy, and inability to speak English.  These factors made it impossible for them to get well-paying jobs.   However, they thrived through hard, hard work.

I mention this as the art*throb article offers viewpoints from a white female poet, and two black, male poets, one a native Southerner. Each poet spoke to issues involving their relationships with their families, to tales of those negatively affected by our fractured society, and to incidents of shame, where one or more of the poets were subject to racial slurs or other inappropriate comments by one ethnic group toward another. As for me, as student of the Boston Desegregation Era, I have enough stories to fill a Michener novel.

Instead, let me tell you about my mother’s Portuguese family.

First some background. The formal Portuguese words avo (meaning grandmother) and bisavo (meaning great-grandmother) describe the two strong women, my mother’s people, who raised her…and were an important part of my life as a child.   My siblings and I called our great-grandmother by the diminutive term Vovo and our grandmother Nana.    We didn’t understand the difference back then because we did not speak Portuguese!

Francesca Acencaio Andrade Reposa (Vovo)  and her daughter, Cisaltina Reposa (Nana), were born on the island of Sao Miguel, in the town of Ponta Delgado, in the Azores….an archipelago of nine islands right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, halfway between Maine and Portugal.   The family, consisting of husband, wife, and two children, emigrated to the United States in 1910 and arrived by ship at Piers Park, East Boston, after a fairly lengthy voyage in steerage. The ship they sailed on was packed with fellow islanders looking to flee the endemic poverty that afflicted the burgeoning population of the Azores.   My great-grandmother (Vovo) was sea-sick the entire voyage, while my grandmother, (Nana)  then 6 years old, scurried around the steerage deck of the ship making friends!

Living in a large triple-decker in East Cambridge, the family scratched out a living as low-level workers in various businesses in their Azorean neighborhood.   Nana and her brother went to the Cambridge Public Schools and left after Grade 9.   Nana, upon receiving her citizenship papers at age 18, legally changed her name to Sue.  Her husband, Armando Contestabile, an immigrant from Florence, Italy, met Sue when she was 27 years of age. They moved to Allston, just over the Charles River, in the late 1930s. My mother, Carole, was born in October 1941.  Her father died in 1944 when my mother was three.  The spelling of his surname was slightly changed to Contestable, more Americanized and easier to pronounce.

Not too many people outside of East Boston even know that immigrants arrived by ship from the Old Countries in East Boston; most assume they arrived through Ellis Island.

Nana, although she dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help support her mother and brother, was a fascinating storyteller. Like her mother Francesca, she sang Portuguese folk music, and had a beautiful voice. I am told she was a great writer, and shared a great singing voice with her mother, Vovo. According to my mother, who is currently penning a family history for publication, my great-grandmother Vovo, who wasn’t much of a talker, perhaps out of her discomfort with the English language, would soothe herself by singing Uma Casa Portuguesa, an Azorean folksong that reminded her of her childhood in Sao Miguel. Vovo’s Azorean friends from East Cambridge, those she grew up with as a child and who had also emigrated to the States, would travel to her apartment in Allston, so she could read them letters from home, translating them from Portuguese to English, and then write back to them since she had learned to read and write back home in the Azores.   She was quite the literary grand dame and scribe!

Uma Casa Portuguesa

Numa casa portuguesa fica bem, No comforto pobrezinho do meu lar,

pão e vinho sobre a mesa. ha fartura de carinho.

e se à porta humildemente bate alguém, e a cortina da janela e o luar,

senta-se à mesa co’a gente. mais o sol que bate nela…

Fica bem esta franqueza, fica bem, que o povo nunca desmente. Basta pouco, poucochinho p’ra alegrar

A alegria da pobreza uma existencia singela…

está nesta grande riqueza E so amor, pao e vinho

de dar, e ficar contente. e un caldo verde, verdinho a fumegar na tigela.

Quatro paredes caiadas, Quatro paredes caladas,

um cherinho a alecrim, um cherinho a alecrim,

um cacho de uvas doiradas, um cacho de uvas doiradas,

duas rosas num jardim, duas rosas num jardin,

um São José de azulejo, Sao Jose de azulejo

mais o sol da primavera… mais um sol de primavera…

uma promessa de beijos… uma prommesa de beijos…

dois braços à minha espera… dois bracos a minha espera…

É uma casa portuguesa, com certeza! E uma casa portuguesa, com certeza!

É, com certeza, uma casa portuguesa! E, com certeza, uma casa portuguesa!

*Read more at lyricstranslate.com, and for an English translation of Uma Casa Portuguesa

Like, say, the writers of the New Negro Renaissance, such as Cullen, Hughes, and DuBois, to name a few, Portugal and the Azores also produced some very compelling artists who produced moving fiction, poetry, and music. As the Portuguese have established themselves firmly in cities like Cambridge, Fall River, New Bedford, and Provincetown, they too have introduced the general public to their fascinating culture, one that’s sure to please. But, like I’m guessing was somewhat similar to the African-American experience, the Azoreans who emigrated to the States near the turn of the twentieth century, too, kept to themselves, and expressed themselves through their art, particularly their music, and poetry. Some Azorean-American writers worth exploring are Teofilo Braga, Natalia Correia, and the contemporary poet Carlos Matos. Consider the bleak, aphoristic ending of his poem, R-Complex:

Guard rails keep the path sure

            where there are sudden falls into black chasms

            where others have fallen without knowing

            or rather knowing too late that the soul leaves the body

            but not, as we all hoped, through the mouth

Thank you for letting me share my Azorean ancestry with your readers.  I’m sure there are countless others who have similar stories to share!  I certainly am left with a sense of gratitude and pride that my mother, who is so dear to me, and is the Rock of our immediate family, has given her children and grandchildren the precious gift of their roots and their history!

- Bill Gunning

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