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Our Towns; Quiet Community Stirs When Feast Turns Violent


Published: January 5, 1990

NAUGATUCK, Conn.- For 40 years, the Portuguese community in Naugatuck has celebrated St. Paio, a patron saint, and the celebration has evolved into the biggest social event of the year for the 6,000 Portuguese and Portuguese-Americans who make up 20 percent of the town's population.

St. Paio is the patron saint of the northern seacoast town of Torreira in Portugal, where most of the Portuguese in Naugatuck came from, and the transplanted festival, which occurs every year around Labor Day, is normally three days of dancing, drinking and general celebration for the Portuguese, tourists and townspeople alike.

But last fall's love feast turned to trouble. ''The whole incident was regrettable,'' said Mayor John Letts.

''It awakened a sleeping giant,'' said Joseph Fonseca, the Vice Consul in the Portuguese Consulate in Waterbury, who is a resident of Naugatuck and sort of an unofficial mayor of the Portuguese community.

What happened was that the celebrants, about 2,000 or so, spilled out of the Club Uniao Portuguesa, the Portuguese Union Club, into the streets. A fight started between two young men, only one of them Portuguese, and he from out of town, and the police were called. Two officers responded.

The police officers - ''young officers,'' said the Mayor; ''rookies,'' said Mr. Fonseca - found themselves in a hostile crowd, insults were exchanged, and the officers called for reinforcements.

Other officers responded to the ''officer in trouble'' call, and the incident escalated. The state police were called. They closed the festival, and several Portuguese, organizers of the festival, were arrested.

''That galvanized the whole community,'' said Duarte Alves, an accountant who works for the state and came to Naugatuck from Portugal 10 years ago.

Mr. Alves is the secretary of a newly formed political action group, the Portuguese-American Polical Action Committee. It is the first such group in the state, and perhaps the first in the nation dedicated solely to representing the interests of Portuguese and Portugese-Americans. It formed as a result of the incident at the Portuguese Union Club.

''Our goal is that the Portuguese community will be recognized as a social, economic and political entity,'' Mr. Alves said.

''There was a group of us all along who felt that we needed better representation,'' said Frank Rodrigues, the president of the newly formed group. ''But we never got anything started.

''But this time, people felt there was a terrible police overreaction,'' he said. ''We decided to stop talking and start doing.''

Traditionally, said Mr. Fonseca, who holds dual Portuguese and American citizenship, the Portugese in America have been hard-working and non-complaining, in large measure because there was little tradition for democratic protest in Portugal, and as a result they were regarded with a kind of paternal noblesse oblige.

''They always say we are peaceful, hardworking and law abiding, and you can eat off the floors of our houses,'' he said. ''It's true and I think that is the way they want it.''

But indeed, concedes Mr. Fonseca and others in the Portuguese community here and perhaps elsewhere, there has been a reluctance to confront authority - indeed, even to swim to the mainstream.

''That Portuguese don't want to become involved is a fact,'' he said.

Indeed, in Naugatuck, about half the residents of Portuguese extraction are not citizens, and a large number speak English poorly, or in some cases not at all.

''We are 20 percent of a population of 30,000, and half are not citizens,'' Mr. Alves said. ''One of our objectives is to conduct a census and determine just how many are not citizens.''

Once such a census is carried out, organizers say, the group will work with the schools and city hall to create classes to help people become citizens.

''We are going to promote classes to naturalize our noncitizens,'' said Mr. Fonseca. ''Once they are citizens, they will become voters, and once they are voters they can become a political organization.''

At the moment, he said, the movement is local, but organizers hope it will expand statewide to involve the about 70,000 Portuguese and Portuguse-Americans who now, partly by choice, have little political voice For his part, Mayor Letts says he is delighted by the prospect, though he says he is not prepared to make any public apology for the incident at the festival of St. Paio.

''We will just work to make it much more successful next year,'' he said.

A version of this article appeared in print on January 5, 1990, on page B1 of the New York edition.

New York Times, aqui.

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