Lisa Smedman, Vancouver Courier
Published: Friday, October 30, 2009
Elvira Rego doesn't remember much of her journey from Portugal to Canada as a young girl, but one thing does stand out in her mind, more than 40 years on. She still remembers the vaccinations she was required to have before she could immigrate.
Rego was six years old. She received several shots in the arm, and one in the buttock. The arm vaccinations became infected; the last of the shots left one leg temporarily paralyzed.
Ironically, she'd had to walk a straight line earlier, during a medical examination, to prove she was healthy enough to come to Canada.
"If you had something wrong with you, you couldn't come," said Rego. "Which is why one of my father's brothers never could come [to Canada], because his wife had a curvature of the spine."
Rego and her mother arrived in Canada in February 1962.
Rego's father, Joaquim "Jack" Francisco, emigrated to Canada first, around 1956, at the urgings of his father. Although the Francisco family was considered wealthy--they owned a farm with five wells--the elder Francisco, who spent a few years in the United States when he himself was a young man, believed North America offered more opportunities. While the rest of Europe was prospering (having at last recovered from the devastation and upheaval of the Second World War), Portugal's agricultural-based economy had stagnated.
"His father told him to get out of Portugal, that he couldn't make a life there," said Rego.
"I think at that time [when my father emigrated] the Canadian government was looking for people to come here," added Rego. "They wanted workers--and they wanted workers who were healthy."
Francisco first found work picking tomatoes in Ontario. His next job was as a labourer with Canadian National Railway, in British Columbia. He went to night school to learn English. The railway paid for the classes. Rego still has the certificate her father received upon graduation from the railway's Frontier College. It notes he was a "very earnest student."
Francisco was already an educated man, compared to many of his co-workers. He'd had four years of school in Portugal.
"A lot of these men were illiterate," said Rego. "My dad was the one who would write the letters to their wives back home."
He worked, and saved, and sent money home to his wife. "I was quite the best-dressed little girl in the town," said Rego.
"At that time a lot of men came [from Portugal] by themselves and left their families behind, just to see what it was like here and earn some money, send money back home," she added. "My father's plan was to pay off the house in Portugal, bring the family here, buy a house here, buy the car--everything in cash, no credit. There was no credit back then."
Once his wife and child joined him in Canada, Francisco searched for a job in the city. He found work as a labourer with Dominion Construction. He helped build many of Vancouver's landmarks, including the Sears Tower and the Bentall buildings.
The year Rego came to Canada, her family lived in a rented house on Prior Street.
"It had no indoor heating and no hot water," said Rego. "And the electric--in the wall, you could hear the crackling. I was scared stiff. I thought there would be a fire in the middle of the night... There was no kitchen, so my mother would wash the dishes in the tub."
Rego's mother, Zulmira de Jesus, was one of five children. Three of her siblings emigrated to Brazil. She was the only one to choose Canada. Rego's father, however, sponsored two brothers, a sister and a nephew to Canada.
Each lived in the Francisco home for a time, and ultimately settled in Vancouver.
Both of Rego's parents worked. Her father did as much overtime as he could at his construction job, and on Saturdays worked at a car wash. Her mother was a prep cook at Hy's Encore, and later at The Keg.
"It must have been frightening for her," said Rego. "Not speaking the language, going on a bus, and then getting pregnant right away, because my sister was born in February of the following year, 1963."
Rego went to school at Strathcona Elementary. "I started without a word of English--no ESL, back then... The best way to learn English is to get thrown into it. You've got to learn it."
On Sundays, the family attended Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church. Weekends were spent at Queen Elizabeth Park, or visiting friends.
"A lot of Portuguese immigrants lived in that area of Strathcona--Union Street, Prior Street--so we would get together," said Rego.
Three years after Rego and her mother came to Canada, Rego's parents bought their first home in the 500 block East 12th for $9,000. They paid cash.
"Back then, they just saved, saved," said Rego. "There was no luxuries.... They worked their tails off, back then."
Like many Portuguese families, the Franciscos turned their backyard into a vegetable garden. They also made their own wine. Rego has pictures of her father pressing grapes in the basement.
For Portuguese immigrants, land was the key to a comfortable old age. Rego's parents bought a second house, which they rented out. They later bought a threeplex, and then a 25-unit apartment block. They also purchased a house in Portugal.
"Their intention was to move back to Portugal," said Rego. "That changed to just going back on holidays."
Rego met her husband during a family visit to Portugal. Their two sons understand Portuguese, but like so many children of immigrants, prefer to speak English.
Prior to the 1950s, the majority of those emigrating from Portugal were bound for Brazil, a former Portuguese colony where Portuguese is spoken.
In the 1940s, only about 200 Portuguese emigrated to Canada. But in the 1950s and '60s, Canada became a destination for Portuguese emigrants.
The impetus was a bilateral agreement, which Canada and Portugal signed in 1953 to bring workers to Canada. Many of the Portuguese who responded wound up in the Okanagan, picking fruit, or working as labourers on the railway.
In the 1950s, more than 17,000 Portuguese came to Canada. The following decade, as their wives, children and other family members followed, close to 60,000 entered Canada from Portugal.
Many had little education. Most were Roman Catholic. They tended to settle in working-class neighbourhoods in big cities. In Vancouver, Strathcona was where many Portuguese lived. Later, the Commercial Drive area became the heart of Vancouver's Portuguese community. Today it's home to the Portuguese Community Centre of B.C., which offers language classes and cultural events.
Up the street, on East 13th Avenue, is Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, which Portuguese immigrants built in the early 1970s.
Joao "John" Rocha was one of the men who donated volunteer labour to build the church.
He continues to volunteer there to this day, doing odd jobs around the church, now that he's retired.
Rocha emigrated from the Azores, a group of islands in the mid-Atlantic that belong to Portugal, in 1965, following two of his brothers to Vancouver.
He'd hoped to come to Canada earlier, but circumstances prohibited this. His brother Zacharias had come in 1955, part of the first wave of Portuguese immigrants, and in 1959 had sent for John. But another brother, Francisco, asked if he could go instead. John was single then, and Francisco was married with two children. John graciously bowed out.
While waiting his chance to come to Canada, he moved to Brazil, in 1963.
"I [only] stay two years, because is not a good life over there, because I have to wait for come Canada," said Rocha. "I work really hard, [but] get no money, like in Portugal."
By 1965, his brothers had saved up enough money to sponsor him to Canada.
Canadian immigration officials almost didn't let Rocha in. The trouble was that each of his brothers had a different surname. One had the surname Dutra, the other, Pimentel. Neither matched Rocha's surname, and officials didn't believe they were from the same family. Rocha had to explain that, in the Azores, some children were given the surname of the father, some of the mother, some of the maternal grandmother. He isn't sure if this was due to custom or sloppy note taking when the births were registered.
"When my father was called over they had to explain why they were three brothers all with different names," his daughter Arlene Rocha said. "A lot of the Portuguese families are like that, you'll find a lot the same way [with different surnames]."
Eventually, it all got sorted out.
Rocha's father had also been an emigrant. He left the Azores in the early 1900s, before he was married.
"He no want to go to the army," John explained. "He skip to the ship, go to the America."
The elder Rocha returned to his home town of Feteira Grande after just a couple of years in California. North America hadn't provided the better life he'd hoped for, and so when his sons decided to come to Canada, he didn't encourage them. But he didn't try to dissuade them, either.
John wanted to emigrate because Canada, he felt, would enable him to have more to offer a wife. "I'm already 28 years old, and I like to come here Canada. I got nothing--can't get nothing, in Portugal. I like get married--can't get married, no got a job steady."
Once in Canada, John went to work in Upper Fraser, a sawmill town near Prince George. He filled boxcars with wood chips--hard work. "I don't speak [English] at that time. I don't speak nothing," he recalled. "I'm too shy to speak." It wasn't really a hardship, he added, since most of the workers were Portuguese.
Later, he worked at Ocean Falls, loading onto ships rock that had been dynamited into pieces. He also worked for Canadian National Railway for a couple of months; one of his brothers was a labour foreman with the company. "He was the only one who really learned English very well--the brother who came first," explained Arlene.
In December 1967 John returned to the Azores to marry Maria Correia, a girl from a neighbouring village whom he'd known since childhood. Maria came to Canada in 1968.
"She come in May, because it takes long to get the passport," John explained. "Because I make the application right in Portugal."
Canada introduced Maria to a new food, which she'd never tried before--ice cream.
The couple settled in Vancouver where their two daughters were born. John worked in the construction industry as a general labourer, mostly for the company that is known today as PCL Constructors. He'd run the jackhammer, shovel concrete, and clean up scrap wood. He'd come home for an early dinner at 4 p.m., and then Maria would head out to her job with the janitorial firm Modern Building Cleaning. Almost all of the women who worked for the company were Portuguese, so not knowing much English wasn't a problem. She did, however, learn how to drive at the urging of her husband--a rarity for a Portuguese woman back then.
Although it was "hard times" financially, at times, the Rochas worked hard, saved money, and after two or three years were able to buy their first home on Rupert Street. Five years later, they sold it and moved to the home on Kerr Street they live in today.
Both are now retired.
When the Rochas first came to Vancouver, there was no Portuguese parish. The Portuguese community rented space at two other churches. A priest from Brazil said the mass at St. Paul's Catholic Church at 8 a.m., and at St. Patrick's Catholic Church at 11 a.m. Eventually the Portuguese built their own church at 1423 East 13th Ave. John and other construction workers contributed labour; John helped drywall the ceiling.
Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church isn't large. When it first opened, most Portuguese immigrants lived on Vancouver's East Side, and the church was well attended. "When we were kids, every mass would be packed," said Arlene. "If you had two kids, you had a small family."
The men would stand at the back, giving their wives and children the seats. Eventually, as subsequent generations moved out to the suburbs, the congregation became smaller.
One of the traditions the church continues to this day is the celebration of religious festivals with a procession. Back in the Azores, families would create decorative designs on the cobblestone streets in front of their homes using flower petals. Men carrying statues of the saints would then walk along this fragrant carpet.
Families were large in the Azores--and more often than not, the entire family would follow the first emigrant in what historians refer to as "chain migration." John Rocha was the youngest of 14 children, four of whom died before reaching adulthood. His two brothers came to Canada first, then John, then another brother, then their oldest sister after the death of their parents, whom she'd been caring for. The five siblings all live in Vancouver, with their children and grandchildren.
Maria Correia was one of 10 children, four of whom died before reaching adulthood. Her family ran the local post office in Algarvia, and had the local telephone. One of her brothers lives in Vancouver, with his wife and children, but two of Maria's sisters and one brother emigrated to the United States, settling in Bristol, Rhode Island. That town is home to a large Portuguese community. The remaining sister stayed in Portugal, became a nun, and lived for a time in Rome.
John and Maria became Canadian citizens in 1981. Although they've been back to the Azores more than once, they say their home is Canada. "I like Portugal for visit, that's it," Maria said.
"This is my country," John said.
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