Author: Miriam Winthrop
This is a Book First for me:
A novel about the Azores.
It’s my job to find the right words to say, but I honestly don’t have adequate language for just how happy this makes me.
Even better, its author, Miriam Winthrop, is a lovely person.
I was lucky enough to be able to speak with her on the phone, and I greatly enjoyed connecting not only with a fellow writer, but with someone else who loves their Azorean heritage.
This book is far more personal than anything she’s written before, and the “wonderful response from the Azorean community has meant the most to me.” She’s traveled a lot, but to her the Azorean people “are the nicest in the world.”
Saudade is a tribute to the Azorean land and people, especially since the “heritage is fading away.” There are indeed fewer people than there used to be who still hold faithfully to traditions (like our folk dancing, or our summer Holy Ghost Festivals, or singing the old songs), but the enthusiasm of people like Winthrop means that our heritage won’t ever truly fade away.
There will always be someone, like her, to tell the stories, to “acknowledge what [Azoreans of the past] did for us and what they had to endure.” This book is for all of the Azorean immigrants and the families who remained behind because “who they were and what they did is still there.”
One concern of Winthrop’s was “getting it right.” She acknowledges that readers who are familiar with the Azores will notice that some details had to be invented or changed for the purposes of plot. For example, Porto Velho is a fictional locale, and there is an old cemetery, though Winthrop is well aware that burial practices involve exhuming remains after a number of years.
She asks for “the understanding of readers who know the Azores well.”
Below is an exclusive excerpt from Saudade, a gift from Winthrop for Gazette readers, especially those of Azorean heritage (or anyone interested in other cultures!).
The novel is available on Amazon, and I highly encourage my readers to check it out. Mine just came in the mail and as soon as I finish posting this I am diving in.
. . .
I could move forward in time but never backward. I could follow my grandmother to the end of her lineage, but I could not find a single trace of the beginning.
Rosemarie ordered records of baptisms in the Azores that had been filmed by volunteers from the Mormon Church. Twice a week, I sat in the dark microfiche room, silent but for the drone of the viewer and the sound of my own breath, threading spools of film onto sprockets and slowly spinning them to show what priests had written over a century before. Turning the crank disturbed the still air, and frenzied motes animated the illuminated images of script.
Some pages were blurred or faded, some fragmented by rips and patches, and the ink from cramped addenda in the margins had run together. Acid deposits from skin had left fingerprints, and I wondered if any of them belonged to relatives who had put their signatures on the records, accepting responsibility to raise the newly baptized infant in the Catholic Church. My biggest impediments, though, were the ornate cursive script and the unfamiliar Portuguese language that sent me out to the reception area many times to ask Rosemarie for help deciphering what I saw.
She brought and then took away films with the 1889 records of baptisms on every one of the nine islands in the archipelago, starting with my grandmother’s January 2nd birth date and continuing through to the end of the year, since baptisms could be delayed by weeks or even months, with fathers at sea and mothers busy with many young children. I could find no record of Amelia Cabral, the daughter of Matias and Maria. I looked at every Amelia and Emelia born, regardless of the names of her parents. I looked at every girl with the second name of Amelia, and then any girl born that year. I wound and rewound, returned and reordered every film.
I began to see the bigger picture of family relationships on the islands. The three brothers of one family married the three sisters of another. An aunt married into a family, and years later her nieces and nephews cemented the connection by doing the same. A young widow or widower married the dead spouse’s younger sibling. Everyone seemed related to everyone else in one way or another.
For some parishes, at least half of those baptized had no obituário, or death record, and many families vanished from the documents entirely after marriages and the births of children were recorded. I understood why when I found notations priests had made in the margins of some baptism registers. Died in New Bedford. Died in Providence. Died in Gloucester.
In bed, I fell asleep with the hum of the microfiche reader and afterimages of old parish records in my head. I tried to imagine all the reasons I found nothing. Perhaps my grandmother had not been born in the Azores—and either my mother had lied or had been lied to. Perhaps the record of her baptism was among those hidden by parish priests who mistrusted the motives of the Mormon missionaries. The most discouraging possibility was that the start of her life might never have been recorded at all. That left no hope.
Even after I had reached the dead end of every lead, I continued to go to the genealogy library, losing myself in a world of people I was not descended from, always hoping that a distant relation or even a neighbor could lead me to what I sought. I became privy to the minutiae of their lives in a way they could not have imagined, and vicariously suffering and rejoicing in their world helped me endure in my own world.
I lived the lives of the immigrants. At a time when even a trip to a nearby village or island was an adventure, leaving the boundaries of their world was a test of courage. Without the ability to reach back, they were cut off from the people, places, language, and culture that had defined their world. They could not board a plane to return to a dying mother. They could not telephone to hear the voice of a loved one when they were overwhelmed by cities and trains, or by crossing unfamiliar dry prairies and frozen lakes. They could not turn to the priest who had baptized them or the grandmother who had cradled them or the cousin they had shared secrets with. They carried no
pictures with them, and the faces of those they left behind would surely fade over time. It was absolute separation from everything.
Crowds gathered, desperate, excited, frightened, happy, anxious, bewildered people, whose number typically exceeded the entire population of the emigrant’s home village. Piles of possessions pebbled the dock, and young children held on to loose rope ties, the corners of shawl-wrapped bundles, and the leather straps of suitcases. Anything left behind would be lost forever.
Men from the steamship company called out, “This way to America. This way.” The emigrants joined long lines and stood before a shipping company representative who examined their passports and filled out the manifest, which would be signed over to American officials on arrival, so the human and cargo contents of the ship could be checked off against them. Some must have hoped that they would be refused passage before the ship left their world behind.
There were twenty-nine questions on the manifest. How much money do you have? Few arrived with more than $5. Do you read and write? Most did not and by 1917, a literacy test for those under seventeen would keep many out. Are you a radical, a polygamist, an anarchist? Everyone said no. Who is your nearest relative where you come from? Who are you going to? I searched those answers carefully, always hoping to find a lead to my grandmother’s family.
Then they made their way up the gangplank and competed for a place along the ship’s rail, from where they could watch as the faces of loved ones grew smaller and smaller. I felt the anguish of mothers who waved goodbye to their children, knowing they would never see them again, and I cried the tears of those children, some as young as ten, alone, dazed, and terrified.
I watched as ships carrying immigrants from Northern and Western Europe started to share the waters with those from other parts of Europe, and as manifests added Palestinian, Dalmatian, and Gypsy to Irish, German, and Italian. I saw the six weeks that sailing ships took to cross the Atlantic shortened to two weeks when steamships replaced them in the 1880s. Passage became easier but never easy. Better hygiene reduced cholera and typhus outbreaks, but diarrhea and skin infections remained widespread. Shipping lines did away with dangerous on-deck passage, but steerage below deck became even more crowded with people and all the possessions they could carry. Laws reduced starvation after many died from lack of food and water, but hunger and dehydration continued to be the norm. With narrow, dirty bunks, crying babies and snoring, constant seasickness, and the lack of privacy in close quarters, it was difficult to sleep. As the days went by, the stale human smell became fetid, wastes spilling over from buckets when they hit the inevitably strong winds of the North Atlantic. And through it all, they were haunted by the ships that had gone down to a watery grave and never made it to the Promised Land. I wanted to believe that the immigrants were able to draw a curtain between themselves and their new reality.
At the end of those long weeks at sea, I stood with others on deck and saw the wondrous New York skyline after a lifetime in a small village, and I heard the chanting of “America. America.” around me. Even then, it was not over for the weary. While the first and second class passengers— who were not seen as a risk to society—were greeted on board by inspectors and transported to the dock to be cleared through customs in a matter of minutes, those in steerage faced hours, even days, before they were free to walk into their new lives. Every hurdle cleared was followed by another obstacle, and every obstacle was a torment of uncertainty.
Officials turned away some, labeling them imbeciles or senile; I wondered how much of what they saw was exhaustion, malnutrition, or disorientation. In what was known as the six-second physical, health inspectors weeded out more who were diagnosed with trachoma, tuberculosis, and other illnesses. I felt hope vanish for the 250,000 who were turned away at Ellis Island, sent back across the ocean alone, and I mourned the loss of loved ones never to be seen again.
I rejoiced for those who had relatives waiting for them, and were greeted with welcoming hugs and bags of food. I was troubled by those who walked out into a world of swindlers and
hecklers, cheap boarding houses, constant hunger, and the struggle to find a job in a country where, as one newspaper article of the time put it, “immigrants worked more cheaply than machines.”
I imagined the tension of acculturation, each culture changing the other. Mothers, the bearers of traditions, would have been torn. The process of Americanization was held in such high esteem that companies offered classes in it, newspaper editorials lauded it, and preachers extolled its virtues in Sunday morning sermons. They would want their children to be part of their new world, to play the same games, sing the same songs, speak the same language, and eat the same foods as those who had come before, but they would also want to pass on what they had been given by their own mothers. What would they hold tightly to? What would they let go?
I followed fourteen year-old brides and women who had fourteen children. I cried when one mother lost five of her six children to diphtheria, and smiled when the thirty-year-old spinster finally married. I read names no longer heard and saw occupations I hadn’t known existed: Wilmur, the lector who read aloud to workers toiling in factories; Horace, the ice man whose job carrying huge chunks of ice into homes disappeared with the advent of refrigerators; Ezra, the lamplighter who lit the gas streetlights every night; Gertrude, the cigarette maker who could not be seen in public using the product she made.
I met extended families of twenty living in one small house, and watched as one generation grew old and died, while the next moved into homes of their own and raised families. The number of children born in America grew with every census, as did the number who could read and write. The size of families decreased, net worth increased, houses became less crowded, and more people owned their homes rather than renting. People moved westward out of larger cities and into smaller ones, which themselves grew from decade to decade.
Early pictures captured the immigrants wearing shawls woven in the style of their home villages, peasant blouses embroidered with ethnic designs, the rough pants of the Portuguese fisherman, and the straw hats of the Dutch farmer. In later tintypes, each subject stiffly posed to convey a message of power, pride, serenity, majesty, or humility. They wore formal dress that crossed cultural origins: bustier jackets and frock coats, ascots and ties, top hats, bowlers, fedoras, and extravagantly-feathered picture hats. Most of what identified a person’s origin had been lost, and the ordeal of the immigrant had faded—but not for me. I used their persistence to inspire my own. I laid claim to the Azorean people I had not known I shared kinship with. I learned their history and took pride in their achievements as masters of the oceans during the great age of nautical exploration, both under the Portuguese flag and sailing on the other famed voyages, Magellan, de Gama, Columbus, Cortes, Corte-Real, and Cabral, who—after discovering the Azores in 1431—was granted what amounted to his own kingdom in the islands by Prince Henry the Navigator. I filled a folder with evidence of the very early Azorean presence in America: a map showing Portuguese in the New World long before Columbus; a record documenting Azoreans in New England by 1473; a picture I took of a boulder near Dighton, Massachusetts, inscribed Miguel Cortereal, by the will of God here chief of the Indians, 1511; an article on how John Cabot had named the Newfoundland coast where cod breeds Baccalaos, the native word for the area, and at the bottom, in Rosemarie’s handwriting, Bacalhua is Portuguese for cod. Every time I looked at the folder, my first angry thought was that I wished I could show it to my mother. I wanted her to know that I was proud of my heritage.
I read about the many pressures to immigrate Azoreans had in the short time the islands had been inhabited: the adventure of exploring a new world, the fear of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the burden of poverty, the possibilities offered by the discovery of gold in California and industrialization. I considered which would have been most likely to make me leave behind everything I knew, and decided none of those would have been enough to separate me from family.
Many did find sufficient reason to leave. Between 1860 and 1970, the per capita number of immigrants from the Azores was second only to those from Ireland, and by 1910, there were 100,000 Azoreans in the United States and only 300,000 left on the islands themselves. In 1960, there were more people of Azorean descent in America than there were in the Azores themselves. One by one, their ghosts rose out of computer screens and the pages of dusty books to populate their world again, this time sharing it with me. The indistinct shapes of tables and chairs in the nearly dark room where I scanned films stood as guards and witnesses while I met my family and visited people who knew my secrets, listened patiently to my sorrows, and asked nothing of me. I spent so many hours following their lives, I came to know many far better than their own descendants. I immersed myself in their culture, played their music, baked their bread, and learned their language, re-creating for myself parts of their world, a world I wished I could share with them. I felt like the keeper of their stories and, at times, the only one who understood their lives and held sacred what they had sacrificed and accomplished.
It had become, even I would admit, an obsession when I started to hide it, first from casual acquaintances, then from close friends and my husband, and finally even from seasoned genealogists who understood an avocation that could become a consuming passion.
My time in the past crossed into the realm of the personal and private. I made a visceral connection to the library itself. I flushed with tranquility when the door to the outside closed with a quiet sucking sound that meant I was sealed off from the rest of the world. Aside from brief hushed greetings, I was left alone in the still rooms with a sense of belonging I no longer had in the other parts of my life.
I kept going to the library for another reason: I had not been able to keep the promise I made to my grandmother.
Life was very different for her sisters.
The first few weeks of the sisters’ experiences after leaving Pico must have been much the same. Each would have crossed the channel to Fayal in a family boat, probably accompanied by her mother and the sisters who remained. I could picture some weeping openly. I want to stay with you Mama. Others might have put on a brave face. This will be an adventure, Mama. Their mother would have said words to reassure them, and to comfort herself. You will have a good life, my child. You are going to family who will love and care for you as I do. And what everyone knew was almost certainly not true: We will see each other again.
The transatlantic steamships docked a couple of miles north of where the boats came in from Pico, so they had to carry the only material connections to their birthplace along the coast, following a rough gravel road that almost immediately took a sharp turn and presented an immense black steamship rising higher out of the sea than anything they had seen before. With each step, it grew larger, until it towered over them. Most of the emigrants from the Azores converged on that spot; on that day, there would have been more people than in all of Porto Velho.
When asked the name of their nearest relation for the manifest, all said their sister, Francisca Simas of the Western Islands, a synonym for the Azores. When asked who they were going to, all gave the name of the same cousin, Luis Machado of San Diego, California.
Already halfway across the Atlantic Ocean, the sisters were among the more fortunate immigrants. Their journey took only ten days. There would have been some lightheadedness and disorientation during the crossing, as dehydration from scarce drinking water and diarrhea set it, but
the food they carried from home kept starvation at bay. At some point, they ate the last bite of their mother’s bread they would ever taste.
The disparity between the lives they were born into and the ones they lived in America, during a period when fixtures of modern life, such as telephones, radios, refrigerators and airplanes, transitioned from concept to reality to common usage, must have been even greater than for immigrants at other times in human history.
Maria Rita and Maria Vitória entered Ellis Island on April 4, 1899. Within a year, Maria Rosella and Francisca Rosa made the same journey together to join their sisters.
It took longer to cross America than to cross the ocean, much of the distance covered on rails that split and came together, again and again, running over trestle bridges, past cities, across plains, and through mountain passes, cars disconnecting and re-connecting as they were passed from one train line to another. There were ten-minute rest stops, during which they raced across platforms jammed with people and their belongings, crowded into the stations that had sprung up along the new railroad lines, and got food or relieved themselves. Day after day, they handed their tickets to conductors, who punched holes to mark their progress. To young girls, who could travel slowly from one end of their world to the other in a day, it must have seemed endless. At least, Maria Rita, Maria Vitória, Maria Rosella, and Francisca Rosa had had someone to cling to at night for comfort and warmth, and someone to share memories and milestones with. My grandmother had crossed the ocean alone and lived apart.