The Political Incorporation of Portuguese Americans in New England
Lecture open to the public
October 22, 2015 at 9:30
Ferreira-Mendes Portuguese American Archives
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
presentation provides a succinct comparative analysis of the political
incorporation of Portuguese Americans in New Bedford, Fall River, Taunton, and
East Providence, USA. The political integration and incorporation of Portuguese
Americans has been highly successful in some of these cities, while in others
the political potential of this population group has not been fully realized.
My historical research shows that Portuguese political incorporation in
American society, among other factors, has been impacted by variable electoral
system structures and varying ethnic population dynamics in the four cities
In reality, however, there have been few studies that have explored in a scientific and systematic manner the socioeconomic integration and, even to a lesser extent, the political integration and incorporation of the Portuguese-American population. While in some areas of New England the political integration and incorporation of this population group fell somewhat short of its potential, in other areas it assumed theoretically expected parameters, particularly when one takes into consideration that Portuguese immigrants, for the most part, arrived in this country with low levels of education and were destined to the manual labor market of the American economy (Scott, 2009).
Sociologists (inter alia, Portes & Böröcz, 1989; Portes & Rumbaut, 2006; Waldinger, Aldrich, Ward & Associates, 1990) argue that the historical path of integration taken by any group of immigrants into the host society is influenced by several factors and interactions among them. As I explained in a September 2012 interview with Observatório da Emigração (Scott, 2012):
Some of these factors are related to the cultural and socioeconomic attributes brought over by the immigrants, including their family structure, their levels of education and occupational skills, and their social class. Yet, of particular causal significance is the interaction of the immigrants’ transposed cultural and structural attributes with conditions found upon arrival in the host society. The latter include the economic opportunity structure, the context of reception (whether or not they are well-received by the dominant and other ethnic groups), and the characteristics of the pre-existing ethnic communities in the host country. All of these factors are also influenced by the evolving political and public policy contexts found upon arrival.
The Portuguese immigrants of the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century created churches, self-help community organizations, assumed leadership positions in labor unions, and ran for office in the cities where they settled. They established a socio-cultural infrastructure and a socioeconomic organizational density that would come to facilitate—in some cities more than others—the political integration and incorporation of the third wave, or post-1958, immigrants. Today Portuguese Americans in the cities analyzed in this study occupy a share of elected offices more or less commensurate with their population percentages in these urban centers.
Due to, among other factors, demographic dynamics and the adoption of nonpartisan electoral systems in Massachusetts cities, the incorporation of Portuguese Americans in municipal and state political systems took longer—and did not reach its full potential—as compared to a city, such as East Providence in Rhode Island, where involvement of political parties (at least of the Democratic Party) remained strong well into the 1970s. In Rhode Island, there are currently ten legislators (three senators and seven representatives) who are Luso- Americans, but in the early 2000s, there were a total of 15 legislators of Portuguese ancestry.
Notwithstanding the near-absence of political parties in the electoral processes in Massachusetts, with the passage of time and the increase in the size of the Portuguese population in the three Massachusetts cities included in this study, the level of political incorporation of Portuguese Americans in this state has been increasing. Overall, in Massachusetts, Portuguese Americans have, at different times, assumed a majority of seats in the City Councils of the cities included in this study, hold at least one of the state representative seats from districts that include these cities (in part or in total) within their boundaries, and control two senate positions from the senatorial districts that encompass, at least in part, the cities of Fall River and Taunton.
Dulce Maria Scott