Growing up in Fall River, Paula Noversa Rioux wanted answers to those questions. She started her research with a high school project, interviewing some of the city's oldest residents - many of them Portuguese immigrants who arrived in America between 1890 and 1920.
"The image they painted of Fall River at the turn of the 20th century was so different from the Fall River I knew," Rioux said. "The city was teeming with people - 120,000 people - and there were plenty of jobs. There was a very vibrant atmosphere in the city. I was fascinated."
Rioux, now a history professor at UMass Dartmouth, has gathered a wealth of information over the years that paints a clear picture of the "first wave" of Fall River's Portuguese immigrants, why they left their homeland and how they adjusted to life in a brand new world. She shared her findings with the community last week during a lecture at Bristol Community College.
America's earliest Portuguese settler on record arrived in Maryland in 1634, Rioux said, but it wasn't until the late 1800s that Mathias de Sousa's fellow immigrants steadily streamed into southern New England. Some came ashore on whaling vessels that plied the sea around the Azores and Cape Verde, Rioux said. Many came to escape economic stagnation and to avoid Portugal's peacetime draft. Their families followed and, by the 1920s, Fall River, New Bedford and surrounding communities were home to thousands of immigrants.
Of the Portuguese natives who flocked to America in the first wave, 26 percent came from the mainland. The Azores were responsible for 63 percent of the migration while 11 percent came from Madeira, Rioux said, noting that those percentages reflect documented residents only. The second wave of Portuguese immigration occurred in the 1960s, Rioux said.
At the heart of Rioux's research lies the "quintessential question" asked by immigrants: How can they retain their ethnic identity while assimilating into a new culture? In Fall River, they celebrated their own culture with pride. Church feasts, social clubs, traditional foods and tight-knit neighborhoods gave residents fellowship and the comfort of the Old World as they adjusted to life thousands of miles away. Faith and family were at the center of life.
According to Rioux, it wasn't until 1920 that the immigrants of the first wave truly anchored themselves in American identities. The Cotton Manufacturing Association had rejected a proposed 17 percent increase in wages for mill workers. Tensions rose and the immigrants went on strike.
Rev. Manuel Silva of Santo Christo Parish mediated negotiations between the workers and the CMA, eventually agreeing on a 15 percent wage increase.
"By the Portuguese striking, they were not showing how Portuguese they were," Rioux said, "but how American they had become. They had begun the assimilation process."
By PHIL DEVITT
Fall River Spirit Editor