“Generations, Time, and Rewriting the Portuguese Stereotype”: A Review of Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars

by Oona Patrick

Oona Patrick earned degrees from Brown University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Provincetown Arts, Post Road, Gulf Coast, Guernica, and elsewhere. She serves as the Luso-American Liaison for the Dzanc Books/CNC DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal. A native of Provincetown, Massachusetts, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The Movement of Stars
Riverhead Books
Penguin Group (Canada)
90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700
Toronto, ON M4P 2Y3

Hardcover: April 18, 2013, 400 pp., $27.95, ISBN 978.1.59448.744.6

Paperback: May 6, 2014, 448 pp., $16.00, ISBN 978.1.59463.237.2


Early 2013 saw the publication of both Amy Brill’s novel The Movement of Stars and the online version of Eric Andrew-Gee’s controversial article, “What’s Eating Little Portugal?,” which first appeared in Maisonneuve’s print edition in September 2012. The latter explores the high school dropout rate among students of Portuguese descent in Toronto, and caused a stir in the Portuguese community, especially when it moved online. Its stunningly bleak assessment provoked commenters on blogs, Facebook, and Reddit, many of them Portuguese Canadian or Portuguese American. While it is hard to say for certain, the controversy may have helped the article become one of the magazine’s top-ten most read online pieces of the year.

Despite having only visited Toronto’s Little Portugal once, I felt a shock of recognition when I first read the article. I’d heard it all before. I grew up in a much older Portuguese American enclave in Massachusetts, where a diluted version of the “work first” views described in the article persists, as does the condescension from outside observers. While the painful discussions Andrew-Gee’s article triggered may well prove valuable, the article was also (perhaps unknowingly) aligned with a tradition of negative written representations of the Portuguese in Anglo culture, of which few outside the Portuguese community may be aware.

Around the same time, I read Brill’s novel, a story of a taboo relationship between an Azorean Portuguese whaler and an educated Anglo woman on nineteenth-century Nantucket Island. I realized that, unlike the article, the novel marked a quiet turning point in the long, often ugly, history of representation of the Portuguese in British and American literature. That history goes back to Byron, then crosses the Atlantic to Hawthorne, Twain, Steinbeck, and beyond. These representations, while apparently parodied by no less than Melville himself in his short story “The ‘Gees,” have remained under-examined in Anglophone culture. Those in the Portuguese community who might point them out, including the growing numbers of Luso-descendant writers, have either not been heard outside of academia, or have remained silent until recently. Both the article and the novel raise questions of selection and representation that have long needed to be addressed.


“Something Peculiarly Wrong with Them”

In his article, Andrew-Gee makes a mostly convincing argument that the low educational attainment in the Toronto Portuguese community, a group that arrived in the 1950s, can be blamed on lingering cultural attitudes that value work over education. These ideas can likely be traced to the Portugal of the past—to António Salazar’s fascist dictatorship, which was overthrown in 1974, and also to a long history of low literacy rates that predated Salazar. Andrew-Gee paints a harsh portrait, pointing out that the community’s high school dropout rate of up to 42.5 percent was the highest of any ethnic group in the city. When he asked educators what it would take for Portuguese Canadians to overcome this, one brutally simple answer stood out: “Generations. Time.”

One of my first reactions was that Andrew-Gee had missed the real story of what’s been happening in the larger Luso-descendant community in North America. That story is one that can’t readily be observed if one’s focus is only within the obvious borders of the old neighbourhoods. Scholar Dulce Maria Scott’s online survey of over 1,500 Luso-descendants living throughout the United States and Canada in 2010 may have captured a segment of this dispersed portion of the population. Her results told a far different story than Andrew-Gee’s, although, as she recognized, her study was also based on a limited sample of people (it did not include those who immigrated as adults, and it may be biased toward the relatively well educated and higher income population that is active online). Interestingly, she had almost twice as many female respondents as male (1003 versus 530). A large number of respondents, about one-third of the total, were in the 31–40-year-old age group.

According to Scott, her survey found that “more than 45 percent of the respondents completed at least a four year college degree,” while “for the parents’ generation the college graduation rates were 8.0 percent for the mothers and 9.3 percent for the fathers.” Scott notes that this is a “very rapid increase in educational achievement from one generation to the next,” and has called the educational and occupational gains “phenomenal.” Also according to Scott, a larger U.S. Census Bureau survey found a nearly average U.S. college graduation rate for Portuguese Americans:

The American Community Survey of 2009 placed the high school graduation rate of the Portuguese ancestry group, which includes the foreign born and those born in the United States, at 82.6 percent and the college graduation rate at 22.6 percent. The average rates for the United States as a whole were 85.3 percent and 27.9 percent respectively.

In a 2011 interview, Scott discussed her reasons for undertaking the survey in remarks that presage the controversy over the Maisonneuve article:

Part of my motivation to do the survey was related to the negativity surrounding Portuguese Americans in the United States, as if somehow there was something peculiarly wrong with them. I kept hearing individual stories of people who had achieved high levels of education, becoming doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, managers, and so on, but their parents were factory workers and had low levels of education. Those stories were incongruent with the common assumption that the Portuguese were not well integrated in American society. And I asked myself: “what is really going on here?”

While Andrew-Gee’s article does not engage in the blatant stereotyping of the past, I can’t help asking the same questions: why the focus on something mysteriously and “peculiarly wrong,” as implied by the title, “What’s Eating Little Portugal?” Could something else be going on here as well? Is it possible that he had fallen into a pre-existing pattern of representation despite his careful documentation and measured tones? Is it also possible that this theme of a uniquely troubled culture dates back to Portugal’s pariah status on the world stage during the dictatorship? While the revolution should have changed this image, short attention spans in the media may have meant that it still lingers in coverage of Portugal and Portuguese immigrant communities elsewhere.

“Both the article and the novel raise questions of selection and representation that have long needed to be addressed.”

Andrew-Gee’s greatest lapse, however, is not stereotyping, but ignorance of this ethnic group’s history in North America. The most regrettable moment in the article was his callous dismissal of a history of discrimination referred to by locals, but no longer in evidence to casual observers. “The perpetrators of such violence,” Andrew-Gee writes, “must be operating at Rimbaud-like levels of obscurity; unlike the more overt racism that, for example, blacks or Arabs might face, anti-Portuguese bigotry is all but impossible to detect in Toronto.” However, just because he did not observe it in his visits does not mean its memory does not still rankle, or that it cannot still be heard in certain circles.

While Scott’s survey also found that the younger generation no longer encountered discrimination, it was burned into the memories of older respondents: “the elderly descendants of the turn of the twentieth-century immigrants … related that their families had been subjected to unfathomable levels of prejudice and discrimination.” Scott cites her own early experience with a “deplorable level of anti-immigrant bias and prejudice” in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as one of her motivations for her survey. From my own experience, I believe that this bigotry surfaces today mainly as classism and condescension in the handful of Portuguese enclaves that are experiencing gentrification. Perhaps another look at attitudes toward Toronto’s Little Portugal from this perspective is needed.

The above raises the question of how any writer, while trying to fairly represent a culture not his or her own, can know what is a stereotyped representation and what isn’t. As Daniel José Older put it in his “12 Fundamentals of Writing ‘The Other’ (And the Self),” “Be up on your oppressive representations history.” It’s too easy to operate under the common misconception that if an immigrant group is relatively unknown—unlike, for example, Irish or Italian Americans—there couldn’t be any stereotypes about it embedded in the writer’s own culture and mind.


Representations of the Portuguese in American Literature

Portuguese American characters have traditionally gotten short shrift in American literature. Their representations add up mostly to a sad and unpleasant succession of caricatures. As scholar Reinaldo Silva points out in his excellent 2008 book on the subject, rather mildly titled Representations of the Portuguese in American Literature, three main stereotypes reappeared continuously through the 1960s, and sometimes later: Portuguese characters were (1) violent, murderous thugs; (2) promiscuous or exoticized “Latin lovers”; and (3) dirty, ignorant, or drunk buffoons. He covers each stereotype in a full chapter of its own, drawing on a large body of literature, from lesser-known works by famous writers to obscure works by regional writers based in New England, California, and Hawaii. Silva does not dismiss out of hand the argument that there could be substance to any of these depictions, but he carefully notes the many examples of the stark gap between fictional representations of the Portuguese and historical fact. Representations of the Portuguese in American Literature is essential for anyone writing about a Portuguese community in the United States or Canada, and as its subject is so little known, it is worth a quick summary here. Silva’s work was inspired by George Monteiro of Brown University, who pioneered this research in the late 1970s. Monteiro’s recent article “From Portingale to ‘Portugee’” explores the origins of the ethnic slur “Portugee” and is a valuable addition to the field.

Silva finds examples of the violent stereotype in the work of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Frank Shay, Charles Reginald Jackson, Wilbur Daniel Steele, Edward McSorley, Anton Myrer, and Janet Lewis. He picks out Anton Myrer’s 1951 Evil under the Sun as a particularly egregious example. One character muses, “Goodness, what ever makes them all turn out this way. Seems at a certain age they all turn into a pack of roughs and hoodlums. […] But then they’ve always been like that. Their Portugee blood I suppose.”

Silva focuses on depictions of Portuguese women as “wantons and temptresses,” associated with darkness “both physical and moral.” The depictions are examples of exoticization. Exoticization is defined in part by The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States as “the construction of the other as strange and mysterious—often in some desirable or attractive but nevertheless distanced way—as if she did not exist within a plausible cultural or psychological context.” (While Silva focuses on women in this chapter, he finds an example of Portuguese men as objects of desire in Evil under the Sun.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1846 “Drowne’s Wooden Image” and Edith Wharton’s erotic “Beatrice Palmato” (a c. 1919 fragment left unpublished until 1975) provide striking examples of Portuguese females presented as promiscuous or as seductive objects of desire. Hawthorne writes, for example, “In the dark eyes, and around the voluptuous mouth, there played a look made up of pride, coquetry, and a gleam of mirthfulness.” Other lesser-known and regional writers whose work touches on this theme include William Cummings, Elizabeth Eastman, Victoria Lincoln, Joseph Lincoln, Ida A. R. Whylie, and again, Wilbur Daniel Steele. Notably, Silva found that descriptions of the Portuguese as promiscuous and as seducers only surfaced in New England writings, likely due to Puritan influence.

Images of the Portuguese as “dirty, ignorant, or drunk” famously appear in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat and Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, which includes a notorious line: “The community is eminently Portuguese—that is to say, slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy.” Variations on the theme also recur in Eugene O’Neill, Mary Austin, Ruth Comfort Mitchell, Armine Von Tempski, Ruth Eleanor McKee, Scott Corbett, and in the 1988 movie Mystic Pizza.

Silva notes that many of the worst offenders among these writers were men, not women. He also points to what he saw as positive change in American culture in recent years, citing the 2002 film Passionada as heralding “a new era of interethnic ‘melting love’” with its positive representation of an Anglo man who “truthfully falls in love with someone from the margins” when he courts a Portuguese American widow in New Bedford.


The Movement of Stars

Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars features a strikingly balanced and textured depiction of Isaac Martin, a nineteenth-century whaler from the Azores Islands, which are located 900 miles off the coast of Portugal. (Though Brill is now an acquaintance of mine, I met her while she was already finishing up the novel.) The character is ambitious, highly intelligent, and determined to better his position through what education is available to him on Nantucket in the 1840s. This is limited to navigation lessons with Hannah Price, an astronomer modelled on the extraordinary and true example of Nantucket native Maria Mitchell, who became America’s first female professional astronomer. On the island, they are both on the margins of society, longing for more, and the bond they form is the heart of Brill’s novel.

“Brill has, through fiction, illustrated the crucial links between rights for women and rights for minorities—one of the great achievements of her book.”

Another female writer, Rebecca Chace, approached this level of sensitivity toward a Portuguese character in her 2010 novel Leaving Rock Harbor, but Brill takes it further. Brill’s novel is much more overtly feminist than Chace’s, and this may have contributed to the difference. Brill writes that Hannah “imagined herself among a group of women she could number on one hand,” including Mary Somerville and Margaret Fuller, and shows her becoming aware of developments in the early women’s rights movement, such as Seneca Falls.

Much of the focus is, necessarily, on Brill’s unusual heroine. Hannah is hemmed in by life on an island, by being an unmarried daughter living in her father’s house, and by a lack of access to higher education. The plot of the novel follows Hannah’s interior struggle to develop her own “intellect and aptitude” to become an astronomer working at the highest levels possible at the time, while living isolated from others in the field and working with limited equipment and support. When she meets Isaac, she is at first confused by her feelings, and then emboldened enough to break ranks with society on the island, jeopardizing her job as a librarian at the Athenaeum and her relationship with her father and brother.

Isaac is mixed-race, which is unusual among depictions of Azorean (as opposed to Cape Verdean) Portuguese in New England. (While most Azoreans are white, DNA studies have found significant levels of Jewish, African, and North African DNA, among others, in the population.) Racial difference heightens the forbidden nature of Hannah’s relationship with Isaac. In the early, mostly male, Azorean immigration to Nantucket in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, intermarriages between white Azoreans and local women were more common and accepted than they would become in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over time, however, Portuguese–Yankee unions grew into one of the unspoken taboos of New England society. The informal prohibition festered as late as the 1970s. Chace’s Leaving Rock Harbor, set in a Massachusetts mill city in the early twentieth century, reflects this trend, recounting an updated, even more entrenched version of the Portuguese–Yankee relationship taboo Brill depicts, although in Chace’s novel the Portuguese character is white.

Hannah’s desire for Isaac confuses her, and the way she sees Isaac soon after she meets him verges on exoticization. In light of the changes she undergoes in the novel, these descriptions are clearly intended to contrast with her later understanding of him as a complete person. Before that change occurs, however, “[S]he was struck by the unusual color of his eyes. Neither brown nor orange, they were a near-perfect match for a chunk of amber she remembered.” Later, and more disturbingly:

His lips were full as a woman’s—not any women she knew, but those who frequented the taverns by the wharves. Slicked with paint and perfume. She wondered if his lips were soft, and then, shockingly, what they would taste of.

However, these images are soon replaced by an appreciation of his graceful movements, “the dead calm of his demeanor,” and a growing respect for his intellect.

Isaac’s drive quickly becomes apparent. He studies celestial navigation with Hannah so that he can improve his position aboard his ship, where he has already become second mate. We watch him pick up astronomy and navigation, but his long-term ambitions are not revealed until late in the book. In the end, the life and independent occupation he achieves are very close to the real-life aims of many Portuguese immigrants of that era. This part of the novel struck me as full of well-researched detail.

“We follow a female character’s desire to become something more than her society allowed, and this quest clearly parallels a minority figure’s struggle, as well.”

Brill does not sugarcoat the possibilities for a couple such as Hannah and Isaac, remaining true to a plausible outcome to their relationship. I will not give away the ending so as not to spoil the book for readers, but it is neither a standard happy ending nor a troubling example of punishment for transgressing the social order. They remain two very different people, but their ambitions bridge the distance in a way that earlier works rarely depict. Hannah thinks, “Isaac seemed to know that his ambitions had little chance of being realized, no matter how well he learned or how keenly he applied himself. She knew exactly how he felt. Her stomach knotted with hunger for advancement, for opportunity.” This is a deeper and more specific way to connect their two worlds than I have seen in earlier novels, in which a simpler answer to the supposed “problem” of unassimilated Portuguese immigrants—marriage into an Anglo world, or becoming Americanized—is often given. This is also what makes this novel unusually satisfying, even for readers who wouldn’t ordinarily choose to read a nineteenth-century love story. We follow a female character’s desire to become something more than her society allowed, and this quest clearly parallels a minority figure’s struggle, as well. Brill has, through fiction, illustrated the crucial links between rights for women and rights for minorities—one of the great achievements of her book.

Aside from the monumental changes in U.S. culture that took place after the earlier works described by Silva—such as civil rights, the women’s movement, and an increase in visible women writers—what else did it take for these improvements to occur in the largely critical tradition of Anglos observing the Portuguese in New England? I can’t help but hear the refrain: “Generations. Time.”

I noticed a strange coincidence in both the Brill and Chace books—that of a long absence from the narratives of the mostly solitary Portuguese male characters. Might this speak of a lingering hesitancy to fully depict a world on the lesser-known margins? Perhaps the absences struck me simply because they stood in contrast to the centrality of immigrant characters and families in novels by Portuguese American and Portuguese Canadian authors such as Alfred Lewis, Charles Reis Felix, Frank X. Gaspar, Katherine Vaz, Brian Sousa, Anthony De Sa, and Erika de Vasconcelos.

While these writers’ works are occasionally concerned with discrimination, their characters’ immigration stories are central, as are clashes between the generations and between old and new arrivals. And the characters in these books are rarely depicted in isolation, or as the only Portuguese character in the narrative—most often these are family stories of some kind. Newer works by those from later generations, such as Sousa, range widely in focus from preserving fading cultural ties to only occasionally mentioning ethnicity. While a few authors, such as José Rodrigues Miguéis and Charles Reis Felix, address how Portuguese immigrants have been represented in Anglo culture, a greater awareness of the painful history detailed in Silva’s and Monteiro’s work would add much to Luso-descendant writers’ ability to rewrite Portuguese stereotypes.


The Luso Revival

In November 2013 a crowd of more than 80 people reportedly packed the Toronto launch event for Memória, the first ever anthology of Portuguese Canadian writers—the inaugural project of Fidalgo Books, a new independent publisher dedicated to Luso-descendant writers. I immediately thought of the contrast between this event and the anecdote a Portuguese Canadian writer recently related in a public discussion: only a few years ago his publisher had tried to market his Little Portugal–based book to the Toronto Portuguese community and received absolutely no response. I’ve seen this kind of rapid turnabout happen before. It was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for Frank X. Gaspar, whose groundbreaking first book of poetry, based on the experience of the Portuguese community there, could not be found outside of the copy in the library. Only a few years later, he was loudly embraced by “summer people” and locals alike upon the publication of his first novel.

If the stereotypes examined by Silva and Monteiro have remained unrecognized for so long, is it possible that the sense of inertia, suggested by the Maisonneuve article and questioned by Scott, is another of them? Like the other stereotypes, it’s oddly accepted in the presence of evidence to the contrary, including the passionate engagement and frenzied activity I have observed online and elsewhere among Luso-descendants. The amount of new cultural initiatives, which are often female-led, has made me imagine that, far from being mired in educational stagnation, growing numbers of us are in the midst of something of a “Luso Revival.”

From my six trips to Portugal, I’ve sensed a countercurrent to the perceived inertia in the country. Occasionally, great strides are made in a short period of time, as seen after the Portuguese Revolution. While still exhibiting lower rates of higher education than other European countries, Portugal experienced a startling reversal in its literacy rates after 1974: literacy surged from an abysmal 40 percent to 95 percent in less than four decades. Despite the ongoing headlines about the country’s financial crisis, there was much to celebrate on April 25, 2014—the 40th anniversary of the nearly bloodless “Carnation Revolution.”

The largest immigrant waves left Portugal for the United States and Canada before the revolution, missing out on a concerted period of reevaluation in the country. In the same way that our older enclaves preserved nineteenth-century Portuguese words, we may have retained attitudes that aren’t helping us—but reevaluation and rapid improvement is within our power. As the appearance of Brill’s novel illustrates, even our image, so long weighed down by unexamined stereotypes, can change, and many of us, like the writers in the Memória anthology, are busy rewriting that image ourselves.


Sources

Andrew-Gee, Eric. “What’s Eating Little Portugal?” Maisonneuve online. (January 7, 2013).

Azevedo, Manuel. “’What’s Eating Little Portugal,’ a riposte, or ‘The chickens come home to roost.’”

Chace, Rebecca. Leaving Rock Harbor. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Davidson, Cathy and Linda Wagner-Martin, eds. The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Matos, Carolina. “Portuguese Americans Retain Interest in Their Heritage.” Interview with Dulce Maria Scott. Portuguese American Journal. (June 13, 2011).

Monteiro, George. “From Portingale to ‘Portugee.’” Portuguese American Journal. (April 22, 2014).

Monteiro, George. “‘The Poor, Shiftless, Lazy Azoreans’: American Literary Attitudes Toward the
Portuguese.” Proceedings of the Fourth National Portuguese Conference: The International
 Year of the Child. Providence, RI: The Multilingual Multicultural Resource and Training Center, 1979.

Older, Daniel José. “12 Fundamentals of Writing ‘The Other’ (And the Self).” (January 15, 2014).

Scott, Dulce Maria. “Dulce Scott Interview with Observatório da Emigração.” (September 12, 2012).

Scott, Dulce Maria. “Structural Integration and Selective Acculturation: Luso-Descendants in America.” (December 27, 2010).

Scott, Dulce Maria. “Portuguese Americans’ Acculturation, Socioeconomic Integration, and Amalgamation: How Far Have They Advanced?” Sociologia, Problemas e Práticas, n. 61 (2009).

Silva, Reinaldo. Representations of the Portuguese in American Literature. Dartmouth, MA: Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, UMass Dartmouth, 2008.

 


Oona Patrick earned degrees from Brown University and the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Provincetown Arts, Post Road, Gulf Coast, Guernica, and elsewhere. She serves as the Luso-American Liaison for the Dzanc Books/CNC DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal. A native of Provincetown, Massachusetts, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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