I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I’ve had to explain what the Azores are, and where they are, how many times I’ve been told there are no islands in the North Atlantic, or was asked, “Are the Azores a real place?” This, from people who are educated and well read, and those who have traveled round the world.
When I do explain, they often say, “Oh, off the coast of Spain.” or “Off the coast of Africa, eh?”
I’ve had to calmly explain that on the western side of Spain there is the country of Portugal, with the oldest borders in Europe. My aunt took a class where the college instructor drew an outline of the Iberian Peninsula, labeled it Spain on a chalkboard–until my aunt protested–and the professor then corrected her mistake. I’ve heard a professor refer to the Iberian Peninsula as Spanish. Again, eliminating any and all traces of Portugal as if there are no cultural and historical differences between the two countries. Never mind that the borders of Portugal were established several centuries before the map of Spain became what it is today.
You could just as easily refer to the U.S. as Canada, or Mexico.
Part of this ignorance can be explained by our travel modes and progress. In the past, passenger ships would stop off at the Azores. When airplanes began to cross the Atlantic they too stopped off to refuel at the Azores, so more people were familiar with their existence, if not with their culture. But today’s jets don’t need to stop, and people no longer tend to cross the Atlantic by ship.
When the transatlantic cables were laid down, they passed through the Azores, during World War II the islands were used by the Allies, and there continues to be an important U.S. military base on the islands.
But for the past twenty years it’s been rare that I’ve mentioned the Azores to people and actually had them know of which I spoke. And if I mentioned Portugal, all I usually heard was a comment about Port wine or cork.
Perhaps the country falling into obscurity can partly be explained by the tendency of the Azorean and Portuguese people to keep to themselves. They are not great self-promoters. When they come to the United States they do their best to become assimilated.
Despite being significant during the spice trade and when ships returned from the New World laden with silver and gold, the Azores, for the most part, have remained underdeveloped. They haven’t had the resources to promote large-scale tourism with expensive hotels and the like, which of course means the islands remain less spoiled as a result.
There have even been people who wrote about the islands but wouldn’t name them, not wanting them to be overrun by hordes of tourists.
It may also be explained by Salazar’s fifty-year brutal regime, and the consequences of his dictatorship, his attempts to squash intellectualism, the expanse of ideas, creativity.
The islands have changed dramatically since I first visited them. The towns and villages have running hot and cold water, electricity, whaling has ceased, there is television, and all that that brings about. Monstrous foreign factory ships fish the deep waters off the islands, leaving little for anyone else. And far fewer people raise their own chickens and pigs, and gardens.
Much of the reason the Azores and Portugal are unknown has to lie, however, with Americans’ lack of interest in the world beyond their shores; their ignorance, as a rule, in geography and history–their lack of curiosity.
Many of the people I’ve met who didn’t know a thing about the Azores were descendants of those who were actually from the islands. As if those who had put the islands behind had also put aside their memories, their experiences, their past, shut the door on them completely.
Even some members of my own family are so Americanized they know nothing of the history of either the Azores or Portugal.
Both have much to offer. Not just sumol de maracuja, and São Jorge cheese, not just cork, olives and wine. There is its long storied history, its rich culture. There is the scenic beauty. Much of the islands are untouched, while the mainland has numerous archeological sites of Celtic, Roman, and Moorish origin.
There is so much beautiful music, poetry, literature and art just waiting to be discovered. While all that Americans tend to know about Portuguese music is limited to Brazilian Samba, or Bossa Nova, or the soft sultry tones of the “Girl From Ipanema” school.
Some few Americans know about Amália Rodrigues. More recently Madredeus and Mariza have begun to make inroads in the American music world.
It’s not merely that Europeans and Americans have much to discover in what Portugal and the Azores offer. The Azorean and Portuguese people need to rediscover their history, their culture.
Instead of young Azorean and Portuguese musicians listening solely to American and/or British music, and performing in English, they should at least familiarize themselves first and foremost with their own music. For without being rooted in their own culture and language, they are floating freely, without the solid grounding to grow in the rich soil of their past and their own identity, and mature–they restrict themselves to being merely imitators.
As opposed to listening to inane silly pop tunes that offer nothing but an easy laugh and the urge to move your feet, they should reacquaint themselves with music that has and continues to have import, music of the revolution, music of quality:
Pedro Barroso, Zeca Afonso, Fausto, Julio Pereira, Carlos Paredes, Né Ladeiras, Brigada Vitor Jara, Dulce Pontes, José Medeiros, Luís de Bettencourt, Cristina Branco.
They should familiarize themselves with the best of Portuguese authors:
From the lyrics of King Dinis to the poetry of Luís de Camões, the plays and poems of Gil Vicente, the work of Antero de Quental, Eça de Queirós, Mario de Sá Carneiro, Florbela Espanca, Fernando Pessoa, Sophia Mello de Bryner Andersen, João de Melo, José Saramago, Natália Correia, António Lobo Antunes, Lidia Jorge, Eugénio de Andrade, Vergílio Ferreira. The list could go on and on.
Although my grandmother used to repeat the saying that translation is treason, the fact that poets like Florbela Espanca have not been translated into English is a terrible sin. Even poets who are interested in foreign poetry have no access to her work, and thus it lies in obscurity.
The people of the Azores and Portugal, instead of reacting with shame and guilt over the slave trade and the brutality of the Inquisition, should acknowledge what occurred, but at the same time appreciate the historical marvels of their past, and the accomplishments of their people: scientists like Pedro Nunes, as well as the mapmakers, navigators, pilots, and captains who roamed the seas. Instead of bemoaning the losses of the former empire they should celebrate the multifarious richness of the culture that is theirs.
Nearly all countries have behaved appallingly towards their fellow man, taken what doesn’t belong to them, and occupied other lands. There are few exceptions. No one’s hands are completely clean. The responsibility and blame do not belong to any one country.
If the Azoreans and Portuguese, and I’m including here Azorean-American and Portuguese-Americans, were better immersed in their own culture, not merely young people, but people of all ages, they would make the best ambassadors of the best that Portugal and the Azores have to offer. And then Europeans and especially the Americans might well rediscover the beauties of that place still shrouded in mist.
Darrell Kastin was born in Los Angeles, California. His maternal ancestors came from the Azores, settling in the United States at the end of World War II. His short stories have appeared in The Seattle Review, The Crescent Review, The Blue Mesa Review and elsewhere. He is currently setting the poetry of Luís de Camões, Fernando Pessoa, and Florbela Espanca to music. His novel The Undiscovered Island was published by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 2009.
Maps from: http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/europe/azores.htm
NOTE 2: “Terra de Bruma: Retrieving The Azores & Portugal from Obscurity” by Darrell Kastin was first published on this blog Comunidades on November 11, 2009. This month of February, Comunidades celebrates its third anniversary, and to commemorate this date we are reviewing some original versions of texts published here in the last three years.