“Portuguese Immigrant Experience in America in Autobiography“ by Francisco Cota Fagundes
In his essay “Portuguese Immigrant Experience in America in Autobiography“ Francisco Cota Fagundes writes:
“There are at least twelve published book-form, although not all book-length, autobiographies by Portuguese immigrants in the United States I hasten to add that, since the overwhelming majority of these texts are self-published or published by small presses, the possibility of there being others I never heard of is probably fairly high. In chronological order of publication they are: The Autobiography of Charles Peters (1915); Higino Faria’s Retalhos de uma vida incrível (1963; Scrapbook of an incredible life); João J. Vieira Jr.’s Eu falo por mim mesmo (1963; Speaking for myself); Laurinda Andrade’s The Open Door (1968); Lawrence Oliver’s Never Backward (1972); Anna Martins Gouveia’s From Madeira to the Sandwich Islands (1975); Josephine B. Korth’s Wind Chimes in My Apple Tree (1978); Building His Bridges: The Life and Times of John P. Rio (1980); Serafim Alves de Carvalho’s Emigrar… emigrar: as contas do meu rosário! (1985; Emigrating… emigrating: a life parceled out in pieces); Mateus L. Fraga’s An Immigrant’s Story(1985); and Charles Reis Felix’s Through a Portagee Gate (2004). The twelfth Portuguese immigrant autobiography is my own Hard Knocks: An Azorean-American Odyssey (2000)”
For this posting I would like to extract an excerpt of the essay which focuses on Charles Felix’s biography / memoir, Through a Portagee Gate (2004) as follows:
“The most recent of Luso-American autobiographies, Through a Portagee Gate is, in several respects, not easily classifiable. It is largely an immigrant story but, as such, it is perhaps best characterized, as George Monteiro also points out in his critical Preface, as a biography of the author’s father, the figure most prominently featured in the book; it is, also in part, a novelized historical account of the profound changes, in the 1920s and 1930s, of a New Bedford neighborhood (the North End), whose main ethnic group for decades had been the Portuguese. The transformations undergone by this quiet neighborhood of small businesses, where everyone seemed to know everyone else, is recreated, with a great deal of nostalgia, by means of the privileging of a number of well-drawn sketches of human characters, but especially through the sustained biographical portrait of the author’s father and his cobbler’s shop-a microcosm of the entire North End-and its at first progressive and then rapid changes as a result of economic forces and, especially, of the arrival in the community of other ethnic groups. The biography of Charles Reis Felix’s father, Joe Felix, who immigrated from Setúbal, Portugal, in 1915, and the transformation of a neighborhood are thus two of the strands of this biography/history of a man and a city. Since Joe Felix helped create his neighborhood, it is understandable that his death should come to coincide with the “death” of that part of the city. Lastly, Through a Portagee Gate is the memoir of the author, but a memoir of very selective episodes or strands of that life: glimpses of a story of growing up an American-born child of a Portuguese immigrant couple in New Bedford; the story of a boy who goes to school and discovers the pain of being different from the children of the inhabitants of the more privileged sections of the city; the apprenticeship story of the son who clearly admires his father and whose depiction of his mother will probably surprise feminists-and non-feminists alike-for the mother is often reduced to the level of a foil character for the father, even though the parents seemingly adversarial or confrontational relationship constitutes, for the narrator, as it most likely will for many readers, an unusual mask for the parents’ love for each other. Charles’s itinerary, in this story told in medias res, starts out on a Portuguese-owned farm in California (the Portagee Gate of the title is related to an experience on this farm); it includes the author’s experiences as a teacher, and his painful attempts to hide his Portuguese identity, which inevitably he accepts and embraces; his often painful experiences, as a primary school teacher, of having to deal with incompetent administrators. For one of the most endearing-and to some readers perhaps even disconcerting aspects-of Charles Reis Felix’s memoir is his absolutely brutal sincerity. It is a book written from the standpoint of an author who does not care to curry favor with anyone-whether it be the unidentified ethnic group who are, to the author, the catalysts for the destruction of the neighborhood where his father’s cobbler shop was located, and who are unapologetically called “barbarians,” to the incompetent school administrators who are bestowed epithets that constitute expletives. Most significant of all, perhaps, as far as the resolution of the biographical/ autobiographical polarity of the text, is the autobiographer’s yielding of his autobiographical right to be on stage to the loving biographical pull exerted upon him by the figure of his father as character and of his cobbler’s shop as stage.
Clearly the most literary of the Portuguese immigrant/ethnic memoirs briefly discussed here, Charles Reis Felix is a master of the vignette, of storytelling, and of dialogue. His vignettes range from the title vignette that lends the book its title to numerous vignettes that take place in the cobbler’s shop to the vignettes that have as setting the Felix home or a street of the neighborhood, or a classroom of Charles the student, or a classroom of Charles the teacher, or the office of one of his school principals. To this reader, however, the most outstanding feature of this impressive memoir is its storytelling component. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Through a Portagee Gate is a story made up of stories, the gate of the title being construable as a metaphor for a threshold that the reader passes through on his or her way to a world of storytellers and storytelling. It is as a storyteller, perhaps as much as by any other of his many qualities and virtues as a person, that Joe Felix is remembered. It is largely as a storyteller that Charles Reis Felix pays homage to his father. And it is as a storyteller that Charles, as a writer, shows himself to be his father’s son: the literary re-creator and imitator of his father’s oral storytelling capabilities:
Actually, I never felt any impatience with my father’s stories. I knew that, given time, he would get to the point. I was always perfectly relaxed with him. He was never in a hurry and he gave me the feeling, he had all day to tell the story. I like that. I hated hurried things. By temperament I was the opposite of the fellow in the ad rushing through the airport, barking out commands, and then the fine car waiting for him at the curb, this is the kind of car such a man drives. “A man on the move.” I was inert, not moving anywhere. (89)
This passage, although not necessarily meant to be self-referential, does definitely characterize the type of storyteller his father was-as much as it characterizes the author’s own fascination with, and mastery of, the art of the patient, unrushed weaving of integrated tales that tell an overall powerful story. Another element of this book that clearly places it outside the more conventional immigrant memoir discussed here is its abundance of intensely dramatic and often lyrical dialogues. Many of the vignettes, and a considerable number of the stories told by the narrator and especially by his main character, the father, are actually interspersed with dialogue, making many of the stories in the book good examples of conversational storytelling. Inasmuch as this may be thought to detract from the realistic or historical or veridical nature of the biographical or autobiographical experiences presented, it is, from a literary standpoint, one of the elements, together with the creation of vignettes and narrative storytelling as such, what makes this memoir a historical document about Portuguese immigrant and ethnic experience in the first few decades of the 20th century but also an undeniably significant work of literary art.”
Charles Reis Felix was born in 1923 to Portuguese immigrant parents in New Bedford, Mass. He graduated from New Bedford High School, attended the University of Michigan, and received a B.A. in history from Stanford University. He became an elementary-school teacher and spent 31 years in the school districts of San Carlos and Pescadero, Calif., retiring in 1984. His published works include Crossing the Sauer (a memoir of WWII), Through a Portagee Gate (a combination biography-autobiography), Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934 (a novel), and Tony: A New England Boyhood (a novel).
Francisco Cota Fagundes is a full professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
NOTE: “Autobiographies by Portuguese Immigrants in US” by Francisco Cota Fagundes was first published on this blog Comunidades on March 1st, 2010. This month of February, Comunidades celebrates its third anniversary, and to commemorate this date we will be reviewing some original versions of texts published here in the last three years.