From the 1950s, through the 1970s, well over half of Somerville’s long-term residents permanently left the city. The first clearly identifiable group of newcomers who replaced them was Portuguese immigrants.
Portuguese people had been in Massachusetts since before the American Revolution, but until the 1960s, they did not represent a sufficient concentration to create a potential for political influence. Nineteenth Century Portuguese immigrants were primarily from the Azores, drawn to New Bedford in the 1830s by commercial activity, Gloucester and Provincetown in the 1840s-1850s to earn their living from the sea, and Fall River in the 1890s to work in the cotton mills.
Mainland Portuguese moved here in greater numbers following the 1910 fall of the Monarchy. By 1912, about 58,000 Portuguese lived in Massachusetts. They were slow to enter electoral politics. In the 1940s, Joseph Francis was the first Portuguese American to be elected to Commonwealth-level office, as a State Senator.
Twentieth-Century Portuguese immigrants often perceived a cultural affinity with Italians and settled in the North End, East Cambridge, and Somerville. Mary Roderick, whom the bridge on Beacon Street was named after, was a Portuguese community leader who provided aid and guidance to newcomers. John Roderick explained to me that her name was an Anglicization of Rodrigues.
Two mid-century events substantially increased Somerville’s Portuguese population. In 1958, severe earthquakes and volcanoes wrought destruction on the Azorean island of Faial. New England Senators John Pastore and John Kennedy sponsored a bill authorizing visas for almost 5,000 displaced Azoreans. This was not an act of unilateral generosity. The U.S. asked for and received a military base in the Azores.
Four years later, then President Kennedy submitted an immigration bill, first proposed by Italian-American lobbyists to boost the quota for Southern Europe. It languished. After his assassination and months of contentious debate, his two brothers successfully sold the bill to 75 of their Senate colleagues as part of his legacy.
Ted Kennedy said, “If there is one guiding principle to this bill, it is that we are going to treat all men and women who want to come to this country as individuals, equal in the eyes of the law.” Lyndon Johnson signed it in November 1965, eliminating the previous quota system and setting a 20,000-immigrant limit for each nation.
Like the Italians before them, Portuguese immigrants experienced some discrimination on the part of the resident Irish. Portuguese are, perhaps, the most hospitable and least arrogant people in Western Europe. Within a generation, they had become an essential part of Somerville,
They did not, however, become a cohesive force in the city’s political life. Although Portuguese Americans like Mayor Tom August and the School Committee’s Teresa Cardoso have won political office, their victories did not come from any concerted effort by Portuguese Somervillians.
Community leaders cite several reasons for this lack of cohesive political engagement. Before 1974, Portuguese immigrants had spent their adult lives living under a dictatorship that allowed scant opportunity to participate in government, much less vote. They developed a taken-for-granted attitude that, as long as there was peace and a means of livelihood, challenging government policies was unwise.
They came here mostly from small communities. When they formed clubs here, such as Santo Cristo, Luscitania, the Portuguese Civic League, or various sports clubs, they did so with people from their particular island or mainland town. The local or regional identity that they had brought with them dominated their self-perception of being Portuguese. So when a candidate ran for office, he was not perceived so much as Portuguese, as from São Miguel or Minho.
Because of this lack of political cohesion, most politicians disregarded the Portuguese as a potent voter segment. The primary exception was Tim Toomey, State Representative for the southeast corner of Somerville. He sponsored a popular annual soccer tournament for Portuguese teams, and he continues to be well regarded by the Portuguese community.
In 2003, Tony Lafuente ran for mayor. Brought to America as a small child by his Portuguese parents, he had developed a thriving small business here. In 2005, Tony narrowly lost a bid to become an alderman at large. Time will tell whether this was a unique event, or the harbinger of a new force in Somerville politics.
Many of the community’s leaders cite these events as the first time that a critical mass of Somerville’s Portuguese residents from diverse backgrounds came together to support a candidate. Time will tell whether this was a unique event, or the harbinger of a new force in Somerville politics.