Plugging Portugal at State House


Attendees listen to the opening of the Heritage Day of Portugal ceremonies in the House Chamber on Tuesday, June 11, 2024.

Sam Doran/SHNS

An annual celebration of Portuguese heritage this week prompted state officials to recall their own parents and grandparents who journeyed across the ocean, and to reflect on making Massachusetts a welcoming place for immigrants even when "it's not easy."

Rep. Antonio Cabral, co-chair of the Portuguese American Legislative Caucus, said the United States gives everyone the "opportunity to be who you want to be."

The New Bedford Democrat, one of the emcees of Tuesday's event, paused to tell the crowd in the House Chamber about two immigrants whose stories stay with him.

One, Tiago Reis, is now memorialized with a plaza and flagpole in the Whaling City. Reis immigrated from the Azores at the age of 10 but never achieved U.S. citizenship. Cabral said Reis was still a Green Card holder when he was killed in Vietnam at age 20.

"He had dreams. His parents also had dreams, for him. But he thought it was important to serve the country," Cabral said.

The other was Cabral's father. Already in his 50s when the family immigrated from the Azores to the U.S., Cabral said the move "was really not for him, it was for us, his kids, his family."

"He left all his friends behind. ... He came, and he saw one of his kids become an elected official," Cabral said, adding that for many years there were no other immigrants serving in the House.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano pointed out that Portugal was one of the first countries to recognize the sovereignty of the United States "when we seceded from the British."

"And that long history has created quite an affinity," the speaker said. "And you see by the huge number of representatives we have from the Portuguese community that it is alive and well here in Massachusetts."

Mariano touted the House's action early in his speakership to move forward the bill opening up driver's licenses to immigrants without lawful residency here, saying the immigrant issue was one that "we took up as a cause," though it wasn't clear whether he was referring to the Portuguese, who traditionally have immigrated legally.

"We recognize the value of immigration to our country, and continue to support it, and continue to house folks who come to this country looking for a better life," Mariano said.

Turning to Lt. Gov. Kimberley Driscoll, who was the administration's point-person last autumn to talk to the House about the ongoing migrant housing crisis, Mariano added: "And it's not easy, is it, Lieutenant Governor? Not easy. But it's a commitment we made and it's a commitment that we keep today. We keep it because it is important. It's important to our value system as a state, our value system in here. It's based on what we can do for the next generation of voters in Massachusetts."

Driscoll, with perhaps a pardonable reframing of history, celebrated how Massachusetts "for 400 years has welcomed immigrants from near and far, speaking different languages."

Driscoll also reflected on one of her new "favorite Portuguese traditions" -- the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford, which she visited last year.

"It is the largest Portuguese feast in the state, and in the country -- think about that," she said from the House rostrum.

The lieutenant governor said Massachusetts has the second-highest percentage of Portuguese residents, and Portuguese is the third most commonly spoken language in the state. Furthermore a diaspora within a diaspora has now carried Portuguese-descended people beyond traditional enclaves like East Cambridge, New Bedford, and Fall River to communities like Milford, which now as more than 8 percent residents of Portuguese ancestry. Even Franklin is now nearly 2 percent people of Portuguese descent.

The Day of Portugal is celebrated in the home country and around the world on June 10 each year. This year is a significant one for Portuguese and Portuguese Americans, both the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution that ushered in the nation's democratic Third Republic and the approximate 500th anniversary of the birth of celebrated poet Luís de Camões.

"And it's on June 10 because it's the day that our epic poet, Luís Vaz de Camões, died," Rep. David Vieira told the News Service. "We don't know when he was born, so we celebrate it on the day of his death because that is documented. And he wrote Os Lusíadas, which is the epic poem of the Portuguese Empire. It's equivalent to the Odyssey or the Iliad, but of the Luso world in the Age of Exploration."

The mayor of Ponta Delgada, capital of the Azores -- Mayor Pedro Nascimento Cabral -- traversed the Atlantic to appear in Boston as this year's keynote speaker. He proudly touted his city's "breathtaking landscapes" and local culture, calling it a "hub of high-quality health care services" and "center of excellence in university education."

"I would like to celebrate and praise the courage, resilience, and success of these immigrants and their descendants. In such a distant land, through their knowledge, determination, and hard work, they have established a unique way of being and driving professionally, socially, and economically," Mayor Cabral told the Portuguese Americans in the room.

Members of the Portuguese American Caucus, and other lawmakers whose districts have a high concentration of Portuguese Americans, hand out Heritage Awards to select Luso-Americans each year in the House Chamber. Past recipients are invited back each year, and some return to watch the new class of honorees. Others return to the chamber as state reps.

Rep. David Vieira of Falmouth received the award in 2006, prior to his 2010 election. And Rep. Alan Silvia of Fall River was honored back in 1997 by Rep. Robert Correia, founder of the ceremony. Fifteen years later, Silvia would be elected to Correia's old district in the House.

This year's honorees included Fall River emergency management director Richard Aguiar, longtime Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction CEO Carl Alves, Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers CEO Paulo Pinto, Ludlow High School Portuguese and Spanish language teacher Joanne Santos-Pontes, Sen. Liz Miranda's communications director Daniela Emilia Gomes Rodrigues, and Maria João Gil, a retired 50-year employee of Tremont Fish Market in Peabody.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, the caucus' Senate co-chair who is retiring in January after 36 years in the Legislature, remembered his parents as he considered his final Heritage Day as a sitting lawmaker. For decades, Pacheco said, "my dad would be sitting here" at the event.

"We lost him, and my mom, a few years ago. But just like so many here in this chamber, we celebrate this anniversary of Heritage Day of Portugal where we think about all the people that came here for the first time, that became an American citizen, and participated," Pacheco said.

With Pacheco's retirement, Cabral announced during the event, the Senate co-chair's torch will be passed to Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport.

Later in the event, Rodrigues recalled how his grandparents immigrated from continental Portugal to the U.S. "in order to provide an opportunity for their families."

"And here I am, standing in this august chamber, thinking of them -- every day that I am here," Rodrigues said.

"I'd ask all of us to think of our heritage," Pacheco implored the crowded chamber. "To think of our parents and grandparents, to think of those that came from the Azores or the mainland or Madeira or somewhere else in the world -- because the Portuguese have been everywhere in the world."

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