Grandma’s Village, Biscoitos Art Coelho
Grandma’s Village, Biscoitos is a painting tribute to my Grandma Maria’s birthplace and the Azorean working class. I have coined a term for people who work with their hands: The Sweating Professions. This canvas has seventeen trabalhadors rurais going to work in the morning: several grape pickers in the foreground cutting grapes and men hauling full wicker baskets on top of their heads to be stacked across the vineyard on the basalt wall running alongside the first whitewashed house; three men weeding beans with hoes are in a field in the background; a farmer on burro-back with his milk can; one lady sweeps out her house and two other women water flowers and attend to chores of the day; and an oxcart for hauling hay is being pulled up a brown dirt path to a blue gate.
I gained a much greater appreciation of how hard harvesting grapes were last September. In my Coelho cousins’ vineyards at Campo Raso, Pico I bent my six-foot-three frame down low to the uneven volcanic ground like a human crab to where the main vine trunk spread its wiry runners out; and these grapevines were randomly propped up with wooden stakes about a foot from the floor of the basalt fields. I kept tripping over them until I placed my footing slower and more accurately. I got pretty good too at clipping the stems of the clusters of grapes off with the hand scissors without visually seeing them because most of them are hidden behind the thick leaves. You have to slice off the rotten parts too. And take out all of the loose individual leaves and twigs out of the grape buckets used for hauling. Detalhes, detalhes, detalhes!
It gets hot early in the morning because the black lava rocks absorb the heat and my cousins never bring water to work-just beer. And you can only imagine how sick at heart I was when I knocked over a bottle of my Sagres. When the weather is very humid and sticky on Pico beer is like gold. It was warm, but perfect. By the time I got my second beer I made damn sure I didn’t kick this one over.
Ira & Cousins Picking Grapes, Campo Raso
But what I liked best about the grape harvest was hauling the stacked trays and deep buckets into the Cooperativa Vitivinícola da Ilha do Pico in Madalena. We got our wine bottles to take home on discount too because we were part of the work crew. Then after our grapes were dumped and augured inside the building they were sucked up by these huge snaky hoses into giant stainless steel tanks for the fermentation process.
Then we stopped for a harvest celebration-beer party at a local bar. My cousin Nuno told one story after another in Portuguese to the waitress. This Pico girl had a very lively kick to her body language and her laugh was infectious. She was wiry as a grapevine, and covered her mouth, which showed her modesty after each naughty tale Nuno explained to her in great detail. You could tell she couldn’t resist listening and enjoyed Nuno making someone the butt of every one of his jokes; and by the hint of the smile emerging on the lips I knew when the punch line was about to be revealed because the body of the Picoense started rocking back just like when you cock a loaded gun; and then suddenly her body frame came exploding forward in uninhibited joy and what reeling of energy as she recoiled back into her relaxed position again. What a letting of the hair down! What animation! This is just one of hundreds of incidents I wished I had command of the Portuguese language so I could’ve absorbed more fully this fun-loving ambiance of my family’s life.
Sometimes early on when I tried to communicate with a very limited knowledge of spoken Portuguese, it created a humorous situation like this anecdote from those first six days I spent at the II Congresso. I wanted to purchase some handmade things that women made and sold in the shops around Praça Velha at Angra. One lady who had made some of the artesanato articles in her curio shop happened to have her daughter and friends in attendance. I put this open-faced colorful quilted-type object which was peaked and had two sides. It appeared to me to be a hat. I lifted it up and put it on my head. The saleslady and girls broke into laughter.
“Chapéu,” I asked.
“No no!” the shopkeeper said. It’s a toaster cover!”
The rest of the morning once we left the local bar was topped-off by going the rural route back home to Campo Raso. This is the ancient district of rolling grape fields. We stopped along the way to drink wine and águardente in these adegas where the huge barrels of wine were being filled. What a downhome rush it was to go back in time; to witness and be a part of the living poetry in the autumn vineyards close to the sea. One of the workers there spoke to me in English. He had visited San Francisco. This casual familiarity of the islanders sharing with me their rural life and the places they had traveled to had an elegance all its own. No one putting on airs is a poet’s dream gifted by a salt-of-the-earth hospitality. And it’s also the main reason I keep returning to the Açores because nothing here in these Azoreans is watered down by the expanse or the expense of Americanism. Picoense in their raw natural state are like fig lightning flowing from the white wicker jugs into shot-glass tumblers so Azorean culture can be tasted with the tongue, with burning all the way down the back of your throat, and finally settling in your guts in a simmering fire.
If I was to completely list the artistic importance, the epic proportions my maternal grandmother has inspired in me, the role Maria Lemos Cordeiro has played in the creating of my Terceira Island canvases, and her as heroine of several short stories, including my signature Azorean immigration short story, Papa’s Naturalization, which has been in print since 1996 in the California Heyday anthology, Highway 99, a Literary Journey Through the Great Central Valley; and if I was to catalog the poems from my San Joaquin Valley poetry that has honored Maria, if I was to consider the Diaspora novel I am writing now with her as heroine; and the next immigration novel I am going to write with her as one of the main characters; then I would have to say if all these were put into one hefty sum she would be the most written about person in my total prolific life as an artist, poet, and prose writer.
Maria Lemos Cordeiro even found a place in my anthem poem to the Azorean immigrants. It’s our great inheritance from those who have crossed the Atlantic as human gems of our humanity that I sing; simplicity, humility, and the grace of giving fully the soulful ambiance of a unique culture.
God Bless the Azorean Immigrants
God bless the Azorean immigrants
who leave behind their black lava shores;
their courage must match their vision
when they arrive at Ellis Island’s doors.
It’s the same old desperate story:
borrow the passage money,
go in debt to finally be free—
milk those cows; stack that hay;
and put more pride into the family tree.
My grandmother, Maria Lemos Cordeiro
wasn’t afraid to speak at first
when she told her Mama of her American dream;
but when a hard wooden shoe came
flying across the room directly at her
it was all she could do to jump and scream.
She kept a long secret silence with her mother,
and her father willingly bought her ticket
n that steamer across the Atlantic ocean.
He understood the dream in her heart
was much more than a mere childhood notion.
Oh we put our nose to the grindstone
so our children would share the gifts of our truths;
and now our offspring are pillars of a community
with strong and lasting Portuguese roots.
April 30, 2010
Art Coelho poet, novelist, painter, and 7 Buffaloes Press publisher(Rural & Working Class Literature), lives in Big Timber, Montana, but grew up rural on two family farms in Fresno County’s Central California. His grandparents immigrated from The Azores. Art is currently writing two Diaspora novels. Art Coelho’s ten-year gypsy period included a work, My Own Brand, in the Macmillan anthology Traveling America with Today’s Poets. A short story, My First Kill, was selected for Fiction 100, a Prentice-Hall university textbook. Coelho won the Pushcart Prize in 1976 with the poem Like a Good Unknown Poet.
P.O. Box 249, Big Timber, Montana 59011