By Will Richmond
Posted Aug 14, 2010 @ 08:40 PM
Last update Aug 15, 2010 @ 08:22 PM
FALL RIVER -
The Gates of the City stand majestically near the waterfront, serving as a
reminder of the city's historical ties with the sister Azorean city of Ponta
Delgada. But is the landmark in danger of being little more than symbol of the
city's past Portuguese identity?
A look at the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent one-year American Community Surveys show the number of residents of Portuguese descent declined from 50.3 percent of the population in 2007 to 48.6 percent in 2008. Numbers like that recently lead the school department to scrap plans to create an English-Portuguese dual language immersion program at the John Doran Elementary School - located in the heart of the Columbia Street neighborhood - in favor of an English-Spanish program. School department administrators said the change was made in part because of the declining number of students enrolling in the school district whose home language is Portuguese, while the number of Spanish speaking students has increased.
According to numbers provided by the school department, the number of students whose home language is Portuguese decreased from 18.3 percent of the student population to 10.8 percent from the 2002-2003 school year to the 2009-2010 year. That represents a decrease of 1,161 students. During that same span, the number of students identifying Spanish as their home language increased from 6.3 percent to 9.9 percent, 201 more students.
Similar patterns can be seen in other city institutions.
SER-Jobs for Progress Executive Director Francisco Cabral said a greater emphasis has been placed on English to Speakers of Other Languages classes for Hispanic and Brazilian speakers in recent years, while the number of classes for Portuguese speakers has declined. He said there has also been an increase in Russian, Ukrainian and Ethiopian nationals coming into the city.
"I am seeing something now that when I arrived here didn't exist, and that's a good mix of people," Cabral said.
That mix comes, as Cabral pointed out, as many with Portuguese roots have begun branching out to the city's suburbs. Cabral and the Rev. Edward Correia, of St. Michael's Church, also said that the immigration of Portuguese nationals into the area has become very limited.
Both men said the decrease of new immigrants to replace those who have moved from the city could result in the slow fading of the city's Portuguese identity.
"It's a mixed bag," Correia said. "There's a good number that are young, in their thirties and forties, who continue to work with their grandparents and parents on the feasts and other traditions, and you do have a good number of them that are bilingual. But there are the younger ones, the grandchildren, that are the first generation to have a hard time with Portuguese. There is a good substantial number of people over the years that identity with the feasts and the language and keeping those customs from continuing. But after all these years, the younger generations are integrating with the English language."
Cabral also said that with time there is the chance of the city losing its Portuguese identity.
"I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime, and I'm 65," Cabral said. "There are a good number of Portuguese immigrants that are moving to the suburbs, but I don't think the area is suffering as much as some might think. But there is always that chance of losing the identity."
Frank Sousa, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Portuguese Studies, paraphrased a quote from Mark Twain to describe the fate of the city's future identity.
"The news of the death of the Portuguese identity in Fall River is greatly exaggerated," Sousa said.
He said the city's progression is not unusual since the number of immigrants coming from places such as Portugal and the Azores virtually came to a halt in 1980.
"When you look at the history of the region, the Portuguese have had a substantial impact and continue to have a substantial impact because economically they can have that impact," Sousa said. "They're in positions of leadership and economically doing relatively well."
Sousa said the fact that Fall River has maintained its Portuguese identity for as long as it has is "a kind of anomaly" as working groups tend to acquire wealth and leave for the suburbs and new groups move in. He added that as generations pass there also tends to be an Americanization, in which the language is spoken less and some of the social aspects are lost.
"I think some of these things are the natural flow of the passage of time," Sousa said.
Ensuring that Americanization doesn't take over in the city is why those such as Fernando Garcia are working to construct the Holy Ghost Museum in the city. Garcia said the museum's intent is to "instill pride in the young generation" so they are proud of being of Portuguese descent.
"We want them to learn the language, but they need to be excited, they need to be interested," Garcia said.
He said the museum is looking to team with Bristol Community College to meet this goal and create a Portuguese Education Center.
"The people of my generation and the generation prior to myself need tell the grandchildren, ‘This is who we are,'" Garcia said.
It's efforts like that, Sousa said, that will help the city's Portuguese identity endure.
"The Portuguese community can remain quite confident their legacy and history will continue," Sousa said.
E-mail Will Richmond at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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