My grandmother – my mother’s mother – emigrated to the United States from Portugal when she was a girl of 12. Accompanied by an older brother, she came through Ellis Island just after the turn of the 20th century. They were on the way to California, where they’d been promised a home with cousins. They were emissaries of parents that wanted to give their children a chance at a life better than the one they had known. Grams and her brother were the first to arrive in the United States. Others came later. They were sent first because, although young, they showed promise – promise the family hoped would be nurtured here. Their parents never emigrated.
After my grandmother and great-uncle were situated, other family members joined them. My grandmother didn’t have any trace of accent, although her older sisters did all through their lives. By the I came along, our branch of the family was completely naturalized. My mom married a man with deep roots in California, and we settled into a pretty typical Northern California way of life. I had a childhood filled with redwood decks, folk music, and organic food before it was cool.
But I had plenty of exposure to Portuguese culture. My extended family, in Sacramento, listens to Portuguese radio, goes to Holy Ghost Festivals, and still attends a Portuguese Catholic Church where mass is said in the mother tongue.
However, we have always acknowledged our Portuguese roots, with this emphasis: We are not just Portuguese, but Azorean.
You see, my little-girl grandmother made it to California all the way from the tiny, rocky, Atlantic island of Pico, nearly 950 miles offshore from Lisbon.
Although citizens of Portugal, Azoreans have their own sense of nationalism and their own flag (above).
(I know that by now you’re wondering what this has to do with Geek Porn Girl, but hang in there, okay?)
My grandmother had tremendous pride in her native country. She worried about the relatives that stayed there, and kept huge cardboard shipping boxes in her shed that she would fill with goods to send “to the old country”. She sent clothes, toys, rosaries – anything she thought would be valuable or hard to procure there. “It’s beautiful, but people don’t have as much,” she would tell me.
I have vivid memories of the little ladies in black coming to visit from the “old country”.
My great aunt put out her trademark spread – linguica, fried chicken, deviled eggs, potato salad – at a party in their honor. They didn’t speak much English, so most of their conversation was with the older family members. Their names ended in “a” – names like Marianna, Amelia, and Edelina. The visitors wore dark colors, my grandmother said, because their husbands had died. They would dress that way for the rest of their lives. Dark dresses, dark hose, stumpy dark shoes.
On a sweltering day in Sacramento, when the sun shone brightly and the sky was a cartoon shade of blue, they seemed anachronistic – like they had arrived, not just from another country, but from another time.
I understand that Portugal is a sophisticated country, and that Lisbon is a huge metropolitan city. You don’t have to write to me and explain this. I’m not dissing Portugal. But a lot of my feelings about my Portuguese heritage are tied up in memories like this one of the ladies in black. There were wedding receptions in the Cabrillo Club, funerals in St. Elizabeth’s, and always, the boxes for the “old country”.
I guess that’s why I found it so unsettling when I heard that Portugal is on the cusp of approving same-sex marriage. I think of Portugal as the “old country” – the place my relatives left in search of a home with more opportunity. It’s sad and ironic and bitterly painful that my country, and more specifically my state – with it’s reputation for diversity, liberalism, and a welcoming spirit – isn’t already there. My right to marry a woman has been granted, rescinded, and is now tied up in court (again).
The Portuguese Parliament has passed a law approving same-sex marriage, but wedding bells are still awaiting the ratification of President Anibal Cavaco Silva before they start to ring.
Portugal, a primarily Catholic country, will join Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Norway in allowing same-sex marriages.
Here in the United States, I can marry a woman in a small handful of states.
In California, I can’t.
But in Portugal, the little ladies in black will soon be able to follow their heart’s desire.