In 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the legislation that created the U.S. National Archives, he stated that: "To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a nation must believe in three things: It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment to create their own future."
As the faculty director of the Ferreira Mendes Portuguese-American Archives, it gives me great pleasure to announce that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth will soon inaugurate a state-of-the art facility to house our own growing collection of records documenting the experience of the Portuguese in the U.S. It gives me great pleasure because the building of this facility is a very concrete indication that the many individuals and institutions who supported the project value the experience of the Portuguese in the U.S., and are actively engaged in the process of sustaining Portuguese-American heritage while weaving it into the fabric of a common American future.
We are living at a time of rapid change, characterized by great productivity, but also by great destruction. "To be modern," wrote Marshall Berman, "is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world-and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are." "To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air’" (Berman 1988:15). One sign of this destructive process is what French historian Pierre Nora calls the "erosion of memory," especially the type of memory that used to provide traditional societies with a sense of the past and the with the materials of memory with which they fashioned their collective representation, their sense of history and identity. Nora argues that in the modern world there is no such thing as an objective past or history; that both are socially constructed through the actions of groups and institutions. "Our hopelessly forgetful modern societies," says Nora (1989:8) organize the past through what he calls lieux de mémoire, or sites of memory of which archives are a prime example.
As repositories for various documents and cultural artifacts, archives provide primary sources of memory for individuals, communities and groups, who then transform them into history and representations of cultural identity. It follows then, that ethnic heritage, memory, history, identity and representation, are something that exists through the actions of those that appraise, select, preserve and interpret the fragments of culture that are used as signifiers-as representations of the group. But like other lieux de memoire, such as museums and monuments, archives are usually established by the powerful to protect or enhance their position in society. Through archives, the past is controlled. Certain stories are privileged and others marginalized (Schwartz and Cook 2002).
In a country of immigrants like the United States, how can relatively small groups like the Portuguese find their place in the dominant national narrative? How can they have some control over the way in which they are represented?
Fentress and Wickham (1992) argue that one of the most effective ways in which social groups can control their own representation is by taking an active part in collecting, preserving, interpreting and making available the raw elements of their own memory, that is, by creating their own archives. It was a similar conviction that led the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, under the direction of Prof. Frank Sousa and with the support of Chancellor MacCormack, to work toward the establishment of a Portuguese-American archive at UMD. In 1996 the Archives and Special Collections department initiated the process of collecting Portuguese-American documental materials like newspapers, records of organizations as well as photographs and papers of local politicians, educators, and authors. At the same time, the university launched an aggressive fundraising campaign aimed at building an appropriate facility to house those materials, and to acquire the staff and technologies needed to preserve them and make them available to the general public and the academic community. With the generous donations made by Portuguese-American individuals, families, and firms and with the support of our leaders in the Massachusetts and Azorean government, in 2005 the University created an endowment that established the Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese-American Archives, which are now open to the public in their new facility at UMD’s Claire T. Carney Library.