Video Review: "Portuguese in California"
The long-awaited documentary "Portuguese in California" offers a detailed and invaluable look at Luso-American culture in the Golden State. However, a profound paradox lies at its heart. How can our people be celebrated for the preservation of our traditions while also being characterized as an invisibly assimilated minority? The answer is that California's Portuguese-American citizens have many aspects, and we look different from different points of view. These many perspectives are well documented in "Portuguese in California."
The two DVDs of "Portuguese in California" offer nearly four hours of documentation of Luso-American life in this state. It's divided into nine episodes, beginning with two segments devoted to the early phases of migration to the United States-mostly from the islands of the Azores. The middle episodes focus on the state's geographical regions and the closing segments are devoted to Luso-flavored culture and intimations of the future. Many people are interviewed, many speaking in Portuguese (with English subtitles; unfortunately, there are no options for captions in other languages). Breathtaking vistas are presented throughout, punctuating the interviews with California's natural wonders as background.
It becomes clear in the course of the video that Portuguese immigrants and their descendants worked their way into many different fields of endeavor and often attained high levels of success, mainly because of the Azorean tradition of unremitting hard work, the persistent heritage of hard-scrabble existence on the islands. We meet farmers and financiers, contractors and educators, artists and musicians, statesmen and community leaders. Luso-Americans worked their way into the dominant Anglo-Hispanic culture of California and demonstrated their exceptional adaptability. This kind of immersion is what has sometimes obscured their presence and caused some ethnologists to characterize Portuguese-Americans as an invisible minority.
On the other hand, the Azorean-Californians clung to their traditions, especially the Holy Ghost festas, complete with parades and queens and music and sopas and, in some communities, bloodless bullfighting. Thus our people blend into all aspects of California life but nevertheless treasure and preserve our cultural heritage. As one interviewee describes it, Luso culture gives us something "extra." The documentary provides ample evidence for the truth of this observation.
"Portuguese in California" will be of interest to anyone of Portuguese ancestry, whether they live in California or not. It will be of interest to anyone who cares about California history, since the documentary sheds light on the state's past from an insufficiently appreciated perspective. In fact, anyone who cares about the dramatic challenges of immigration and cultural adaptation will find much to value in "Portuguese in California."
Since "Portuguese in California" is replete with virtues, it may feel like petty carping to enumerate its shortcomings. There are, however, some deficiencies that I feel compelled to address. The most obvious is the narration, most of which is provided by someone who simply cannot pronounce Portuguese or Spanish words. This stands out in a video in which many Portuguese speakers provide a stark contrast.
The documentary also struck me as a kind of penultimate director's cut. One more pass could have rectified weaknesses created by occasionally odd or erratic sequencing. In episode 5, for example, "The Valley," a discussion of horse-breeding leads fairly naturally into a segment on bullfighting (in which the horses are used), but then we're suddenly in Idaho, talking about expansion opportunities for dairymen who depart from the San Joaquin Valley. This peculiar interlude is followed by a piece on Portuguese churches (back in the valley) and then ... more bullfighting! Episodes 8 and 9, which flow one into the other, discuss Portuguese influences on culture and art. Azorean devotion to bands (with impressive pioneering efforts in San Jose) segues into art (painter Mel Ramos) and then food and then back to music. It's much more of a patchwork quilt than it needed to be.
Significantly better use could have been made of the captions that identify the interviewees. We are left to infer that "Former Mayor" probably means "Former Mayor of Artesia" because of the context in which it occurs, but there's no good reason for being so terse. Dates of service would have been useful. The pioneering legislative career of Assemblyman Joe A. Gonsalves is given short shrift (and referring to him as "Gonzalez" is a dreadful mistake). Little context is provided for the record-setting legislative service of Assemblyman/Senator John Vasconcellos. These were opportunities missed.
The producers did no favors to Dolores Silva Greenslate, an esteemed local Sacramento historian, when they interviewed her for episode 7, "The North." Her comments on the early arrival of Portuguese immigrants in the Sacramento Valley did not come across well. Greenslate says, "I think it's something that we should not let anybody forget-that we were here first. There were Indians here before us, but as people of culture, we were here first." It's much too dismissive of Native American culture and certainly she meant to say that Portuguese immigrants were among the first of European culture to make it to the Sacramento region. In fairness to her, this segment should have been reshot or edited differently.
Despite these quibbles about avoidable shortcomings in "Portuguese in California," the documentary is an enormous achievement whose minor flaws are, for the most part, easily overlooked. The participants have produced a major work in which they can take great pride. The diligent effort that went into the documentary is clearly seen in the beautiful California landscapes, the deeply felt interviews, the stirring musical score, and the ambitious breadth of its coverage. Among Luso-Californians it stimulates an even greater appreciation for our heritage. As Congressman Jim Costa says near the documentary's end, the melting-pot culture of California is a rich culture, and we Luso-Americans have "added to that richness."
"Portuguese in America" is currently available in a two-disc set for $24.99 from www.portugueseincalifornia.com. A special extended four-disc version is in preparation.
Note: [First published in Cabrillo Civic Club #26 newsletter, Vol. 48, No. 7, July 2014]
Anthony Barcellos is professor of mathematics at American River College and a resident of Davis, California. He grew up on his grandfather's dairy farm in the San Joaquin Valley and still remembers a little of his childhood Portuguese. Barcellos drew on his experiences on the family dairy in his novel, Land of Milk and Money (www.landofmilkandmoney.com, Tagus Press, 2012).