Signs, Symbols and Stones: Uncovering the Mysteries of an Urban Ethnic Landscape #1

by Jim Fonseca

Wouldn’t it be fun to wander in an urban ethnic landscape — maybe even get lost — and learn about a different culture? This series will take us to such an urban ethnic landscape, close to home yet far enough away to make it different and exciting. A hybrid landscape combining elements of European and American culture — that of the Portuguese Americans in southeastern New England. But the things we learn to observe can help us know what to look for in any urban ethnic landscape and there are hundreds of them in the metropolitan areas of the United States.

I grew up in this area and in the Portuguese American culture. Now I’m a retired geography professor and I’ve outlined these ideas in detail in my book Making History — Creating a Landscape: The Portuguese American Community of Southeastern New England.

So — signs, symbols and stones (monuments). We’ll also be looking at architecture, churches, cemeteries, gardens, murals and many other visible aspects of culture. In this first post we’ll look at a variety of things to give you an idea of what the series is about.

Food! Or foodways, as sociologists say. Let’s start with the picture above. Obviously food is an important aspect of any ethnic culture. What would a visitor to the area make of the billboard above? Linguica is a spicy Portuguese sausage. (Paprika and garlic — is it lunchtime yet?) We’ll see a lot more about food signs in this series.

Now on to door handles. Door handles? Yes, a great example of a symbol. This door handle is on the door of the Dighton Rock Museum. Dighton Rock is an ancient stone in Massachusetts with carvings that have been attributed to Native Americans, Vikings, Phoenicians and others, but also to a Portuguese explorer along the coast in 1502 — more than a century before the Pilgrims. Portuguese Americans have designed the museum to emphasize the Portuguese explorer theory — right down to the door handles carved in a distinctive Portuguese style of design and architecture called the Manuelian style. As we go along in the series we’ll hear more about this monument and how Dighton Rock has become a Portuguese American rival to Plymouth Rock, 40 miles to the east. “We were here first!”

Now what saint is this? If you are from the local area you’ll know immediately by the three children, two girls and a boy, and almost always, sheep. It’s Our Lady of Fatima, the Virgin Mary, whom Catholics celebrate as appearing in Fatima, Portugal three times to shepherd children in 1917. If you see a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima you’ll know you’re in an area influenced by Portuguese culture.

In each post I’ll add some information specific to the Portuguese American culture in the area. I’ll focus on aspects of their culture that are different or even unique to the Portuguese Americans and the areas they settled in, not just in southeastern New England (primarily the area around Providence, Rhode Island and east to Cape Cod, Massachusetts ) but also two other areas of the US where Portuguese immigrants concentrated — Hawaii and northern California.

Most Portuguese immigrants in southeastern New England came not from mainland (or continental) Portugal but from the Azores Islands. And most of those from the Azores came from the largest island of São Miguel, where the biggest city, Ponta Delgada, is located. It’s a scenic place and cruise ships stop there. A major attraction where you have to take a selfie is the Portas da Cidade, the Gates of the City, shown above.

But wait! That’s not in Ponta Delgada — that photo is from the waterfront in Fall River, Massachusetts where a full-size replica of the gates was constructed in 2006.

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Retired as Dean and geography professor at Ohio University Zanesville. I spend time in Florida, Maine, Chicago and Newport, Rhode Island.

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