My Self in the Museu da Emigração Açoriana
It’s been two years since I visited
the Museu da Emigração Açoriana in the town of
Ribeira Grande, on the island of São Miguel, in the Azores. But I haven’t
forgotten how that visit made me feel and what emotions it evoked for me as I
reflected on my own journey of immigration.
of participants from the 26th Colóquio da Lusofonia held
in Lomba da Maia. The group consisted of diverse people interested in the
literature and culture of the Azores, some for whom Portuguese was not their
first language. But because of their love for the Azores, they have become
champions and promoters of the culture, and seem to identify as strongly with
the islands as much as those who were born there. Often, the discovery of an
ancestor from the islands is enough to connect them to their heritage. Others
came from mainland Portugal, and some from as far away as Brazil and East
Timor. Finally, there were local writers, teachers, and poets who live on the
the world of immigration, either because we had been immigrants ourselves or
were touched by the lives of others: families and friends who had left the
islands for other places.
touring, with stops at a tea plantation (Chá Formoso), and a
liqueur factory (Mulher do Capote), when we arrived
at the immigration museum, where a reception that included local delicacies and
drink awaited us. That day, I was seeing the island from the perspective of an
insider who had become an outsider after I left at the age of nine for Canada.
museum, looking with curiosity at display cases and artifacts, I stopped
feeling like a tourist and instead found myself to be a living artifact escaped
from the glass case depicting the immigrant life of those who went to Canada.
glass cover a photograph of someone I knew: Senhor António Tabico, a prominent Luso-Torontonian who
organized Romarias from Toronto to São
Miguel each year to participate in the ancient island tradition of men
wandering the island in holy pilgrimage during Lent. He also owned an Azorean
restaurant in Toronto, O Tabico, where my
family gathered for celebrations over the years, including my parents’ 50th wedding
anniversary. Although he passed away in 2013, I can still hear his deep voice
and laughter and good natured disposition when he would come over to our table
to greet my father, a friend of his, patting him on the back and recalling
the preservation of my living history. I was aware of the others in the room
looking at the display, curious about what they saw, but Senhor Tabico was just
another photo to them, as were also the hundreds of other immigrants who were
encased in photographs showing them leaving for the United States, Canada, and
other parts of the world. Senhor Tabico’s photograph, however, was the link to
my life in Canada, beyond the glass case, a part of my living history.
of the history of SATA airplanes because I had
most assuredly boarded one of these early models when I had left the island as
a little boy. I could almost see myself again inside the tiny airplane that had
taken us from our island to the island of Santa Maria before boarding the large
jet that took us across the ocean to Canada.
family back home and it reminded me of the container we once received full of
clothes, toys, and canned peaches, sent by my father, who was already in
Canada. The excitement and awed mystery I felt in seeing, touching, smelling,
and tasting these foreign treasures made tangible for me the world where
my father and other family members had already gone to live.
preserved in this museum, painfully and profoundly disturbed my sense of
belonging and living in the real world rather than there, enclosed and
preserved as a long ago participant in the immigration experience of my people.
experienced immigration would feel the same, if they saw their lives’ history
encased in glass.
sadness, too, as if I had just visited a self I used to be but who died a long
time ago. I’d rather forget those artifacts and those photographs documenting
the lives of people like me; documenting me! Yet these images haunt my
present-time and remind me that I will always carry with me the knowledge of
where I came from and how I was made to leave my place of origin in order to
have a better life elsewhere in the world.
great immigration, which should not come as a big surprise, because human
history has always been one of constant immigration. Perhaps the history of
Azorean immigration, mostly to escape poverty and, at one time, even during my
youth, the colonial wars before the revolution of 25 de Abril, is mild compared to the heart wrenching
stories of the lives of the current waves of immigrants who are fleeing
war-torn countries and seeking asylum in the USA, Canada, and other parts of
the world. How can I compare my experience of feeling torn apart as a child,
when I left the island I called home, to the reality of thousands upon
thousands of Syrian children, for example, who have witnessed the destruction
and horrors of war in ways that I never did?
I wonder how they will survive and reimagine themselves in their new world of
freedom. I wonder if, in the eyes of a child, the horror of being torn apart
and having to leave your childhood home is, at the core, just as horrific to
the psyche, regardless of the incidentals that tore you apart, be it poverty or
the destruction caused by war.
your future life?
about modern day Iran. One of the segments shows a teenage girl of Iranian
background, but born in the USA, who had gone to Iran to visit remaining
family. She felt immediately at home in Iran and would had gladly given up her
North American freedoms for the chance to live in a place that haunted her
wanting to go back to the place they had fled from persecution and war. But she
found that the geographical location was somehow embedded in her DNA as
something stronger, deeper, beyond the chaos of war and politics: a connection
with the undefiled ancient beauty of her culture and her place in it.
nothing more than an attempt to satisfy the illusion born out of that old
wicked saudade the Portuguese claim as uniquely theirs.
But the Portuguese, I have come to realize, aren’t the only ones who feel the
longing and absence for something lost. There are words in different languages
that also capture the essence of saudade. Ultimately,
everyone who longs to return to their home of origin, even when the safety of
that home is no longer there, is a victim of saudade. I say
victim, because saudade can deceive us into
reinventing a past that is all glory and easily forgets the suffering
continue to sift through memories and hold on to what was good, even as you
forge ahead into a new life. This, I think, we all share, all of us who have
experienced immigration as part of the human journey on this planet.
also provided me with healing comfort, weaving the past to the present and
beyond, with the assurance that immigrants always carry on.