June 10 is Portugal Day, held annually on the birthday of Luís de Camões, Portugal’s National Poet.
Having created entire sections on this blog devoted to various major ethnicities and nationalities, and special posts on certain ones (e.g. the Poles and the Hungarians), I thought I would take a moment to give a shout-out to a group that has been a major part of my life, but remains a little obscure among America’s better-known and celebrated immigrant groups. I am from Rhode Island, which, like the coastal towns of Massachusetts, became one of the key places where Portugese people settled over the years. The reason of course is the fishing industry. The Portugese are a sea-faring people, never more so than when (for better or worse) they launched and led the Age of Discovery. The existence of Brazil of course is one of the main reasons there aren’t more Portugese-Americans in the U.S. But they did come here in smaller numbers as well. And so they were part of my life growing up, and still are, since my sister-in-law is half Portugese, another brother-in-law is part-Portugese, as are my nieces and nephews. School teachers and high school friends were Portugese. My senior prom date was a Sousa! You may know the broadcasting personality Meredith Vieira; when I was a kid, she was one of our local news reporters and a proud member of Providence’s Portugese community. We even had a local weekend tv talk show called The Portugese Around Us. If you’ve seen the movie Mystic Pizza, you’ll find Portugese characters (Mystic is just across the border in Connecticut) I was delighted on my recent trip to San Francisco and environs to be reminded that that area, too, has a substantial Portugese-American presence, reflected in many place names, e,g, Alameda (which was the surname, also, of one of my high school teachers).
So in observation of the day I thought I would just point out the (very) few show biz figures we’ve written about who were of Portugese heritage. I encourage you to click the links to learn about them. Most famous of course was the March King John Philip Sousa. Tin Pan Alley songwriter Buddy DeSylva. Big band leader Vincent Lopez. Silent comedienne Louise Fazenda. The last Curly replacement in the Three Stooges, Curly Joe de Rita. Harold Peary, radio comedian and star of the Gildersleeve comedies. Naturally Carmen Miranda, though she comes by way of Brazil. I’d also like to throw in that the all-important vaudeville accessory the ukelele was adapted in Hawaii from several small string instruments brought to the islands by Portugese settlers from Madeira and Cape Verde. And though I have yet to do a post on him here, I consider John Dos Passos to be one of American literature’s very greatest writers. And poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote the words on the Statue of Liberty was descended from Sephardic Jews from Portugal.
And I’d like to continue that patriotic note by sharing my favorite publicity shot of myself, taken many years ago by a Portugese-American photographer friend from my home region, Joe Silva. Hire him! He’s the best! Happy Portugal Day!
For more on entertainment history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,