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The Portuguese Experience in the United States

The first references to Portuguese presence in the United States were recorded before the American Revolution (Library of Congress, 1998, June 10). They relate to a group of Portuguese and Spanish Sephardic Jews fleeing religious persecution. Their journey took them from Portugal through Holland and Brazil before they arrived in New York. (Stillman & Stillman, 1999). Mathias de Sousa, believed to be of Jewish decent, is deemed to be the first documented Portuguese settler in present-day United States, arriving in Maryland in 1634 (Library of Congress, 1998, June 10). The Sephardim Touro Congregation dedicated the first Jewish synagogue in the United States in 1663 in Newport, Rhode Island (Library of Congress, 1998, July 31b).

It was not until after 1870 that a sizable permanent Portuguese community in the United States gained a foothold (Baganha, 1990). The US Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) first recorded the Portuguese presence in the United States between 1820 and 1835, when 35 Portuguese nationals entered the country.

Between 1870 and 1910, the resident Portuguese population grew by approximately 5.6% per year. In 1910, the 78,000 Portuguese in the United States represented a number eight times larger than that registered in 1870, and 61 times larger than that in 1850.

On arrival, the preferential areas of settlement were New England (Santos, 1995d), California (Santos, 1995c), and Hawaii (Island Routes, 2004), each of which offered quite different economic opportunities (Baganha, 1990). The European Portuguese immigration to the United States (Santos, 1995b) has been mainly from the Azores and Madeira islands; the Portuguese immigrant experience to North America relates primarily to the Azorean presence (Baganha, 1990; Serpa, 1978; Williams, 1982) although there is a sizable immigration from Continental Portugal and Madeira.

Williams (1982) describes three distinct stages of Azorean immigration to the United States:

The first immigration stage, from 1880 to 1870, related to the whaling ventures in New England and California and the sugar cane exploration in Hawaii (Santos, 1995a).

The second immigration stage, from 1870 to 1920, comprised the years that followed the decline of the New England whaling enterprise and the Gold Rush in California. In 1880, over 60% of the Portuguese immigrants worked on farms in California. Subsequently, a large number became involved in the self-supporting, small-scale production of fruits and vegetables, and the raising of sheep. Between 1920 and 1960, the Portuguese also became prominent in the dairy industry and comprised 65% of California’s dairy farmers. On the East Coast, early Portuguese immigrants settled mainly in New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts and in several parts of Rhode Island. For the most part, they found work in farming and the textile industry (Williams, 1982).

The third immigration stage, from 1957 to 1980, was caused by the 1951 volcanic eruptions in the Azorean island of Faial, which displaced 25,000 people. Responding to the volcanic disaster, the United States Congress passed the Azorean Refugee Acts of 1958-1960. This resulted in an increase in Azorean immigration during the following ten years of an average of 10,400 people annually. Most of them took factory jobs, while some integrated into the small business community.

According to INS sources, by 1969 the Portuguese were the seventh largest group of new immigrants to the United States. Indeed, during the 70’s an unprecedented number of 101,710 Portuguese were estimated to have entered the country. These numbers have declined dramatically in subsequent decades. Between 1991 and 1998 the number of Portuguese immigrants declined to 20,436 per year (U. S. Dept. of Homeland Security, 2003).

The 2000 United States Census reports that 1,177,112 persons of Portuguese ancestry were living in the United States (U. S. Census Bureau, 2000). States with the largest Portuguese-American population include California (330,974); Massachusetts (279,722); Rhode Island (91,445 4); New Jersey (72,196); and Florida (48,974) (Euro americans, 2000). The Portuguese-American communities are vibrant and contributing to American society in a variety of ways as laborers, homeowners, taxpayers, consumers, etc. (Euro-American.net, 2004).

©2005 Maria de Lourdes Serpa.
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