By Brian Fraga
September 19, 2009 12:00 AM
Handwritten letters to the Azores; a faded black-and-white family picture outside a South End tenement; medals from a Portuguese civic society; minutes from a Holy Ghost Feast Committee meeting.
Such artifacts offer glimpses into what everyday life was like for the hundreds of thousands of Portuguese immigrants who arrived in Southeastern Massachusetts over the past 200 years and changed the region's culture.
The living memory of the Portuguese-American experience has a new home at UMass Dartmouth, where on Friday university officials welcomed community leaders and elected officials to celebrate the grand opening of the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives.
Proposed by the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture in 2004, and endowed under its auspices in 2005, the archives are named after Affonso Gil Mendes Ferreira, who helped found Portuguese-American radio during the 1930s.
Ferreira's daughter, Otilia Ferreira, was the archives' lead benefactor. During Friday's dedication, she spoke of how her father arrived in Providence in 1920 and dedicated his life to informing the Portuguese-American community through radio, television and movies.
"His contributions would have been lost if not for these archives," Ferreira said.
"Our Portuguese, Luso-American ancestry now have a home where their stories, their history can be preserved."
Joao De Vallera, the Portuguese ambassador to the United States, said the archives' voluminous materials helped to make for a "great edifice of history and culture" that will benefit students of history and the descendants of Portuguese immigrants.
"These archives are a monument to our cultural heritage," De Vallera said. "This is a significant moment for the Portuguese community."
University officials said the primary goal of the archives - which has a national scope, with records from Portuguese communities throughout the country - is to make the historical record accessible to anyone interested in Portuguese-American history.
Nineteen wooden display cases - filled with memorabilia spanning two centuries - near the main reading room offer an idea of the sort of materials that are stored in the archives.
A climate-controlled storage vault in the basement contains materials that have been donated over the last four years by Portuguese immigrants and their ancestors.
Donations in recent years have included the papers of the late Massachusetts state Sen. Mary Fonseca.
"We welcome donations," said Judy Farrar, an archives and special collections librarian at UMass Dartmouth.
The collection already includes family papers and papers of prominent individuals such as letters, diaries, photo albums and passports.
There are also documents from cultural, religious and civic organizations, such as their articles of incorporation, charters, photographs, pamphlets, correspondence and minutes of meetings.
Private businesses' ledger books, letters, photographs, architectural records and brochures join rare books, posters, maps as well as the oral histories and interviews garnered with several generations of Portuguese-Americans.
"Everyday people speak a lot to the everyday experiences of this community," said Sonia Pacheco, a librarian archivist at the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives.
The archives also feature an online searchable database of the Diario de Noticias, a Portuguese-American newspaper that published from 1919 to 1973. Officials are working to digitize old issues of O Jornal, The Portuguese Times as well as Portuguese newspapers from California.
Officials said the archives are meant to be a resource for everybody, from UMass Dartmouth students majoring in Portuguese-American Studies to amateur genealogists looking to see where their ancestors lived and worked.
"It's a place to learn about the contributions the Portuguese made like the other ethnic groups to the fabric of our country, particularly this area," said the Rev. Jack Oliveira, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in New Bedford.
South Coast today, aqui.