I first left New Bedford, Massachusetts, over twenty years ago, shipping off to boarding school in tenth grade and leaving my three younger brothers and newly divorced parents behind. My dorm-room, over 80 miles away from my family, became my home. Because of the custody arrangement between my parents—Wednesdays and weekends with Dad—I only slept more than three nights at one location when away from school. I had become unsettled in my hometown, always on the move.
New Bedford has a cameo in the opening chapters of Moby-Dick, which is the main reason a certain sector of the reading public will have heard of it. But while the Spouter-Inn (where Ishmael declares “better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”) is fictional, you can learn at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park that whale oil made New Bedford into “the city that lit the world,” or at least the wicks of its lamps. After the whales came the textile industry, and—alongside a fishing industry that is, by virtue of its scallop fishery, still the highest-valued port in the country—those sewing machines brought immigrants: Fall River and New Bedford, two mill towns not 15 miles apart, still anchor the largest Portuguese-American community in the country.
Fall River boasts Emeril Lagasse as its favorite son, also a son of Portugal; New Bedford’s most recent contribution to popular culture is probably the band Tavares, though these brothers of Cape Verdean descent were born in Providence. Tavares sang how “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” but it was Azorean-American Jorge Ferreira who most indelibly immortalized both Massachusetts mill towns with “Viva Fall River” and “Viva, Viva New Bedford.” The former glorifies Portuguese-American Carlton M. Viveiros—the city’s mayor from 1977 to 1990—while the latter describes the Portuguese trawlers returning from the sea, ready to celebrate with their catch. In a cloying bit of pandering, Ferreira refers to both cities as “mãe dos filhos das terras distantes,” the mother of sons from distant lands. And because the two cities were about half Luso-American, the area made an appealing place for my Brazilian father to open his private practice in the early 1980s; he was the only local primary care physician whose native language was the same as the tens of thousands of Portuguese-speaking residents of New Bedford.
The Portugueseness of New Bedford, its Portugueosity, describes half of the city while obscuring the other half. I attended a private school in nearby North Dartmouth, and our rolls were very thin on Silvas, Ferreiras, Oliveiras… At least two New Bedford mayors sent their children to the school, but their surnames—Bullard and Lang—end with appropriate Northern European consonants. On the other hand, many of my friends with Portuguese-American mothers also had fathers who were pillars of the local Jewish community; seeing them at Easter Mass didn’t seem to conflict with attending their bar and bat mitzvahs later that spring. Twice a week, I attended Portuguese school at Casa da Saudade, the Portuguese branch of the New Bedford Public Library; the good kids in their Catholic school uniforms sat up front while I sat in the back, doodling, finding my instructor’s Continental accent and syntax impenetrable. I could still understand my father’s softer Brazilian Portuguese, of course, but my frustration with my teacher—and after my parents’ divorce with my Azorean step-family—made me suspect I had simply forgotten the language.
My step-family would introduce me to the New Bedford of Jorge Ferreira, not the one of old Yankee money and arrivistes; the occasional malasada bake sale at church was now daily bakery runs to pick up papo secos, Portuguese rolls similar in everything except shape to baguettes. We even began attending the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament—“Festa” in local vernacular—the largest Portuguese Feast in the world. Every August, a handful of blocks in the North End of New Bedford turns into a massive pool of Madeiran wine plied by enthusiastic drinkers holding cups of pickled lupini beans, listening to live Portuguese music on four different stages.
My childhood home was in the tony West End, however, now part of the Moreland Terrace Historic District; bought in 1983 from one of the Tavares brothers, it was built in 1929 by a daughter of the Knowles family, whose southern Massachusetts roots stretch back to the 17th century. Whalers and cotton mill owners, the Knowles men appear on New Bedford lists of trustees and directors from the city’s past, and the neighborhood features many homes that share similar provenance: built by old families made rich by whaling and textiles. This West End was clearly what Frederick Douglass had in mind when he moved to New Bedford in 1838 and described the city’s “splendid churches, beautiful dwellings, and finely-cultivated lawns.” He was surprised at seeing such wealth, not derived from slavery.
The shades at my mother’s are always drawn. A first-floor apartment in the North End of New Bedford, MA—part of a two-unit, unlike the triple-deckers that make up most of the local stock—it provides a fantasy space, disconnected from the surroundings, a neighborhood markedly different from the West End left behind in the wake of a family splitting apart. The off-white venetian blinds in the apartment glow all day as two ceiling fans and two window AC units brawled with what seemed like an especially hot summer.
If I google this North End address, instead of historic districts and famous local fathers, I find only reports of a neighbor with a Portuguese surname arrested for throwing a loaded handgun out the car window after being pulled over for texting and driving in 2015.
I became my mom’s third son under her roof this summer, after unemployment (and losing access to university housing) forced me to move back. My youngest brother never moved out, so he has his own bedroom and bed; another brother moved back two years ago and gets the couch. I got the floor and the folding foam mattress. Having never spent more than a few nights in this apartment—my home until my employment situation would change—I hadn’t had any particular affinity towards the place. But my family’s connection to New Bedford had become tenuous, anyway; Dad moved to Portugal fifteen years ago, and Mom has spent around the same amount of time working in and near Boston, an hour’s drive each way. Only inertia keeps this apartment filled; only on this return did I notice that the shades are always drawn.
Making the ten-minute walk from my mother’s apartment to Madeira field—the site of the Festa—requires crossing Acushnet Ave, “The Ave,” the main north-south artery of the North End. When we first moved from my childhood home to this neighborhood, suddenly The Ave became part of daily life. As a child, it had been totally foreign to me. It’s hard to imagine that a twelve-year-old saw his surroundings as déclassé and even harder to imagine myself as that unbearably snobbish twelve-year-old. Nevertheless, The Ave wasn’t for me. I wasn’t Portuguese, so I felt no connection to the bakeries or clothing stores selling luxurious First Communion outfits. The Ave was for the people who lived near it, sharing a triple-decker’s roof with two other families. (At my West End home, we had three floors all to ourselves, thank you very much.)
Still, I would hear snippets about “cruising The Ave” from people at the mall, from people I didn’t know; I understood that, in a certain townie way, “cruising The Ave” was the thing to do, the way to get what’s going on. The way to see and be seen.
The summer before I left for university in Chicago, my step-family’s connections landed me a job at a produce warehouse near the southern terminus of The Ave. As we filled out produce orders for restaurants scattered throughout the southern coast of New England one fifty-pound bag of onions at a time, my coworkers recognized my name as that of their parents’ doctor. Many of them were working the 6pm – 2am shift alongside me because of unexpected pregnancies or failed trade licensing exams, and they resented that I knew I would leave them all for college come September. When I got promoted to the “eaches” cooler, where I would fill out orders that required more attention to detail, they assumed it was because my step-uncle was a supervisor. Maybe they were right. I was still embedded in my “prep school hippie” milieu; I donated my boarding school dorm-room boom box to the eaches cooler, and I tried to teach my coworkers, one concert tape at a time, that Phish was obviously the best band ever.
They refused to learn that incontrovertible fact; instead, they taught me how to swear in Portuguese. They also explained The Ave to me, pointing out which “cafés” were bars dedicated to locals descended from a specific island in Portugal, which bar was for the fans of which specific Portuguese soccer team, which bar was the gay bar, and, also, where the cool head shop was where I could buy incense and look at Grateful Dead stickers. I started cruising The Ave with friends from grade school, and I couldn’t tell if we were slumming, if we were enjoying The Ave ironically. After all, I lived just off it; I rode it every day to work. But I wouldn’t hang out on it or run into anyone I knew on it, not ever.
Not until this summer, that is; the first time I stepped into a restaurant on The Ave, I saw my step-uncle, the supervisor, having lunch with his daughter and her fiancé. Now I knew someone on The Ave.
My first stop moving back to my mom’s was a U-Haul storage center, where I filled a locker with the spoils of three years of good living on Manhattan. The manager was overjoyed that I would leave the truck in New Bedford; one-ways ending in New Bedford are unheard of, he explained, leading to a permanent shortage of trucks. I asked where his trucks go, and he gave a list of states across the country. His business dealt almost exclusively with one-ways out of the city, trucks going anywhere else, anywhere else but New Bedford.
When I walk The Ave now, twenty years removed from my maybe-ironic cruising, maybe-not, I see empty storefront after empty storefront. The traces of the Portuguese store names are sometimes still visible against the sun-beaten façades, darkened lines showing letters torn off in haste or fallen off in neglect; printed vinyl banners now indicate who the tenants are instead. I count five Protestant churches in storefronts along The Ave; many of their names are written in Spanish, not Portuguese. At the Market Basket grocery at the base of The Ave, the Portuguese food section is dwarfed by the selection from Central America. Frozen tamales in this aisle, Guatemalan, Honduran, Mexican, and Central American crema compete for space in that aisle.
As a child, I had felt New Bedford’s Continental Portugueseness to be isolating and confusing. The Portuguese were both my people and not; if we allegedly had a language in common, their ubiquity challenged and obscured my ties with Brazil, leaving me adrift. Yet today, Brazilians tell me I speak with a Continental accent. I didn’t know New Bedford’s Portuguese, but they were why my family had moved here.
This Portugueosity is fading in New Bedford; when Rep. Joseph Kennedy gave his Democratic response to the 2018 State of the Union from the Diman Vocational Technical High School a few miles away in Fall River, he addressed the crowd and cameras in that other, rapidly growing language of Iberia.
Still, as I grew into adulthood, I felt closer ties to the Portuguese. Every trip back involved seeing my enormous Azorean stepfamily. I finally learned to understand their accents, most of the time (though we now speak almost exclusively in English). In the meantime, the West End of my youth faded away entirely. I keep in touch with none of my grade school friends, and now New Bedford for me is framed entirely within the North End, with The Ave its spine. In the meantime, the mills sitting between Acushnet Avenue and the Acushnet River continue closing, their bosses looking for cheap, non-union labor in the South or abroad. The loss of these jobs as well as the general decline of local commercial fishing hit the Portuguese community, as the line growing up was always that the Portuguese men made money on fishing boats and the Portuguese women made money sewing in the mills. These turns would not have touched my grade school friends’ families, but they did touch my step-family’s.
The non-Portuguese city elders, on the other hand, have seen New Bedford’s future in that neoliberal panacea, tourism. The Whaling Museum has been massively enlarged, with new exhibits placing my hometown in global communication, its ships the messengers, incorporating even Portuguese colonial contributions to whaling. But the tourist they’re aiming at isn’t Portuguese, of course, notwithstanding the statue of Prince Henry the Navigator in the middle of the Acushnet River. They’re trying to attract New Yorkers driving to Cape Cod, who cut straight through the city on I-195; The New York Times offers suggestions for quick visits for these well-heeled vacationers, and their recommendation for Portuguese cuisine, Antonio’s, is, to be fair, a good one.
It’s also a block from the interstate; staying in New Bedford too long is bad for one’s health, I suppose, and plans batted around City Hall typically seek to position New Bedford as a gateway always to somewhere else: the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard, and even tiny Cuttyhunk, an island with only one store.
The area around the Whaling Museum sports new gift shops whose marine-related inventories are quirky and fun, unlike the terrifying, life-sized wooden statues of men in foul weather gear who used to stare at you from a now-closed nautical antiques store a few blocks away. I entered one of the shops looking for an echt New Bedford gift, for a former colleague who teaches Melville, and when I found the perfect token, an iron paperweight of a sperm whale painted white, I was astonished at its price; the reason became clear when I flipped it over and saw “Made in China” stuck to the bottom. There must be thousands of white whales for sale at Melville-themed gift shops around the world, following the Pequod’s own path. Next to the cash register, there were bins of seashells—also hilariously inexpensive—but they didn’t feel quite right, too light, too smooth; these whelks and quahogs were made of plastic. A simulacrum of the ocean—the ocean right the fuck next door—created in a factory on the other side of the planet and sold for almost nothing.
Of course… there is also Hippo, a few blocks from the Whaling Museum, whose wares, advertised as locally produced, leaned into a different New Bedford than the cutesy beach tchotchkes and the rope-bracelet trappings of the sailor preppy at the other stores, the New Bedford affectionately called “New Beige,” allegedly in deference to Portuguese pronunciation. I bought a t-shirt there that reads “(fĕsh∙́tə)” across the front, which, if not exactly IPA, hints at the proper, local way to say “Festa”; another t-shirt reads “linguiça and coffee milk”—Portuguese sausage and local dairy oddity (the official state drink of neighboring Rhode Island)—while a button I bought does nothing more than announce downtown New Beige’s ZIP code, 02740, in white on black. In the muck of New Beige’s incoherence, simple expressions like these give you the alluring polyphony of my hometown; Melville, yes, but also Madeira wine sold in a liter-sized plastic cup. Tavares ripping up “Drunken Sailor.”
Though the venetian blinds at my mom’s are always closed, they can’t keep us separated from the North End, and through the windows now I hear Spanish and (occasionally) Cape Verdean Portuguese. Walking around the neighborhood, still unfamiliar in so many ways, I stumble upon a flea market in what I think is the basement of an old mill, and after paying fifty cents to get in, I spy a vendor speaking to a customer in Spanish, with the Puerto Rican flag printed on some of his wares. A stand at the other end of the market has a sign taped to it, a guide for “how to speak liberal”: “Honest = RACIST,” it explains, along with “Work for Money = RACIST” and “Enforce Border = RACIST OR NAZI.” Otherwise, the flea market reminds me of Maxwell Street Market in Chicago, minus the amazing food. Old stereos, old video game systems, old tools, trash from China that holds our daily life together like USB chargers… But no one seems to be buying, the vendors twittering amongst themselves.
Yankee noblesse oblige republicanism has yielded to the stupefyingly simplified, “RACIST” Trumpist ire. Alongside, looking at census data from when I moved to New Bedford as a child and comparing it to current tables, I see that the city’s population has slipped a bit, as has the Portuguese population. In the meantime, the Hispanic population has more than quadrupled, now making up 20% of the city as a whole. Earlier in the day, when at the grocery, I had forgotten to buy some packing tape. I hope the flea market will have some. The man speaking Spanish with the Puerto Rican flags sells me a roll, and I put it in my backpack. I need the tape, of course, because I know that, any day now, I’ll be re-packing my things and moving away again, away from New Beige.
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Moacir P. de Sá Pereira