Azorean Profiling

Youth of Flores

I’m not sure what to make of a curious little book in my library.  A Profile of the Azorean is an offprint extracted from an academic paper on bilingual education published in the late 1970s. An online search revealed that the author, Onésimo T. Almeida, wrote the text as a guideline for workshops he held for teachers in New England and California dealing with Azorean immigrant students in bilingual programs.

In the introduction, Onésimo is careful to note that the rough characterizations of the Azorean sub-groups are not meant to perpetuate stereotypes but were included to help teachers understand the values, habits and beliefs of the Azorean immigrant children in their classrooms. More recently, the author referred to the papers as outdated since “much has changed in the Azores since the 1974 revolution that shook up Portugal.”

Outdated, yes, but these highly generalized character studies make for fascinating reading. The Azores were inhabited slowly over the course of two centuries by people who originated from the Iberian Peninsula, mainly from Portugal, but each island’s cultural history was further defined by the non-Portuguese who immigrated there. For example, Flores was settled primarily by Flemings in the early years of settlement whereas Terceira eventually attracted Sephardim Jews and Spaniards.  The eastern islands of Santa Maria and Sao Miguel saw greater numbers of people of southern Portuguese and North African settlement.  One has only to travel from one end of the archipelago to the other to observe the diversity of the Azorean people.

In this slender tract, Onesimo has collected observations of the Azorean character from several well-known islanders including the novelist Vitorino Nemésio and the nineteenth-century scientist and anthropologist Arruda Furtado.  He also includes remarks from “outsiders” like Joseph and Henry Bullar (A Winter in the Azores and a Summer at the Baths of Furnas, published in 1841) and the Portuguese writer Raúl Brandão.

I learn that Nemésio believed there were three major and distinct character types among the islanders, a view shared by Azorean ethnologist Luís Riberio: “The Micaelense is the hardest worker of the archipelago and is also the most different from the mainlander – rough, industrious, sturdy, and tenacious; while the Azorean from the Central and Western Islands is affable, somewhat cunning, fond of festivities, indolent; and finally, the Picaroto, dividing his time between land and sea, is vigorous, wholesome, sometimes heroic, and always takes life seriously.”

Nemésio, a native of Terceira, attributes the qualities of suave politeness and chivalry to the Terceirense noting that the islanders’ chivalry is “both testimony and legacy to a half-century’s occupation of Terceira by the Castillians.” However, he is particularly taken with the people of Pico and refers to them as the “cream of the islanders…He surpasses all other Azoreans in the seriousness of his life view, yet this seriousness is tempered, all the while, by an ingenuity that makes him triumphant in almost all of his endeavours. He is physically the most handsome…a great rifleman.”

What I found particularly interesting was the significance given to the roles of weather and geography in determining the nature of the islanders.  For example, the people of Terceira were considered the “most fun of the Azoreans” as were the people of Pico who “are generally more lively, agile and joyful. This latter trait usually attributed to the fact that Pico’s climate is dryer, sunnier and more healthful than on the other islands.”  On the other hand, Raúl Brandão experienced a sense of isolation among the people of Flores and Corvo which he attributes to the geography: “…the people are condemned to feeling lost, sentenced forever to the single unchanging view before them. An entire life faced by this, with nowhere to run other than death…glued to the windows beneath glass panes, sad faces of old people wait for longer than one can remember for someone to pass by, and no one passes by.”

Ribeiro refers specifically to the influence of the sea on the Azoreans:

“The contemplation of the sea makes men dreamers, saddens and depresses them with its monotony. The green of the land, the blue of the sea, sometimes dreadfully dark, sometimes whitened by the clouds, seen in the subdued and diffuse light filtered through the clouds, increase the sadness of the environment and spread sadness in the soul already downtrodden by the effect of the temperature. The sea is thus one more factor of the indolence of the saudosismo (nostalgia) of everything that makes the Azorean somnolent and apathetic … The rhythmic cadence of the waves and of the tides regulates his slow steps and wooden gestures, gives a tone to his drawl and song-like intonation, wrinkles his face and sharpens his sight.”

Online sleuthing uncovers several old public domain books which further delve into the behaviour, appearance and culture of the Azoreans – as perceived by outsiders – during the 19th century. In the 1878 book, The Atlantic Islands as Resorts of Health and Pleasure, American journalist and statesman Samuel Benjamin notes that the people of the Azores vary widely, in both appearance and disposition, from island to island. He deems the youth of Flores of “having a piquant beauty that is very attractive,” and considers the men and children of Sao Miguel to be especially beautiful. His highest praise is for the women of Pico who “are the handsomest of the Azores, finely formed, and with features of almost classic beauty. Their wealth of massive black tresses are done up in a simple beautiful braid, crowned by a straw hat or a scarlet cloth. Blithe and buxom, they seem to bear the burdens of life right merrily. Where ignorance is bliss, there is indeed no greater folly than to be wise.” Say what?  

Fortunately, the writer redeems himself with detailed descriptions of the radiant beauty of the islands and the industriousness of the natives.

My own family has roots in both Terceira and Flores. I would like to think that my relatives back home are cunning and fond of festivities but in truth, many of them are quite strange. I suspect there is something in the air in Flores besides “the deep fear of isolation” because people seem to go mad there. But that’s a story for another time…


Download: A Profile of the Azorean

17 thoughts on “Azorean Profiling

  1. Fernanda,
    Loved reading Island Profiling. I know that in Toronto, where I live, the Azorean immigrants have always had a reputation for being hard working and honest people, regardless of the island they came from. It’s interesting to read how each island’s characteristics, based on weather and geography, have influenced the perception of the writer’s you have mentioned. I particularly liked to know that the men and children from São Miguel are especially beautiful. What a boost to my self esteem as a Micaelense!

    • Hmmm. I think I read somewhere that the Micaelense are a little smug too. All kidding aside, I wonder if those who emigrated developed stronger work ethics due to neccessity. Our parents had little choice but to work very hard to establish new lives whereas in the Azores, there are social and government structures in place to support the people. Which is not to say that Azoreans are not as hard-working as their immigrant relatives. Many are, but they have their priorities in place. They work to live, not live to work.

      • Your observation on my comment is insightful. I was relying on my “time capsule” memory going back to the late 1960’s, of a time when our parents had to work hard to establish themselves. Many of them did not have more than “a quarta classe” when they got here. This limited their options but they made the most of it by working hard, saving money to buy a house and putting their children through school. Sadly, not all parents understood the value of an education for their children, believing that if they, too, had a good work ethic, this would be enough to help them make it in the world. Even today, at the University of Toronto, where there is an “at risk program” to encourage ethnic groups who are underrepresented in the enrolment figures to choose university studies, the Portuguese are, to my dismay, on that list.
        As I read your “Day of Freedom” blog entry where you explain how Portuguese writers did not have literary freedom during Salazar’s time, I am reminded of a possible explanation as to why so many Portuguese people, at that time, did not get further education: Salazar, we now know, discouraged education for the masses as a means of keeping citizens under control. So in one hand you had the suppression of writers and artists during his regime but you also had a large populace that was discouraged from pursuing education and to rely, with obedience, on everything they were told by both Church (R.C.) and State. And it’s mostly adults who grew up under this regime who came to Canada in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
        It’s true that fifty years later, the sons and daughters of the first generation immigrants to Canada have had access to higher education and therefore more opportunities but the number of students choosing university is still modest. At least this is the perception of those who are doing statistical research in the area of education.
        But it is true that Azoreans living in the Azores have had a different experience during the last fifty years and their growth and development has kept up with the times whereas those first immigrants were cut off from the organic changes in Portuguese society that occurred after 1974.
        I know that my comments are still a great generalization but I am encouraged that your blog is promoting a discussion and an understanding of issues that may explain the modest number of Portuguese identified writers, especially in Canada.

  2. This is fascinating, Fernanda. Great post. I’d love to read Onésimo’s original piece someday.

    • Hi Oona,
      Send me your address (to my personal email) and I’ll mail you a photocopy of the booklet. It’s a 40-some page extraction from Issues in Portuguese Bilingual Education, published in 1980. I think you would be particularly interested in reading what Nemésio and Brandão had to say about the psyche of the Azorean people.

  3. I’d love to see some articles like this on AoresNation.com. Let me know how to be of assistance in your work to discuss Azorean issues and interests to the diaspora. I fear our ancestors never intended to loose our identity to assimilation as we see happening.

    • Thanks, Benjamin (It’s Benjamin, right?)
      As soon as I have more to say, I’ll join Azores Nation. I feel as if I’m still in the infancy stages as to what I’d like to write and publish. On another note, I don’t think we’re losing our identity so much as re-discovering it and perhaps re-interpreting our identity as people of Portuguese ethnicity.

  4. Hi Fernanda, I would also love to read the booklet you mentioned – We originate from the sad old faces of Flores & Corvo

  5. Fernanda, I enjoyed your piece and the comments. With regard to Terceira being occupied by Spain, “both testimony and legacy to a half-century’s occupation of Terceira by the Castillians.” it appears there is a discrepancy there.

  6. Dear Fernanda,
    Looks like a fascinating read… I agree with Anita; I would also be interested in examining the text as well. Most of Hawaii’s Portuguese community came from the Azores and Madeira in the late 19th century. I’m grateful for their contributions to my cultural upbringing– specifically the cuisine!
    Best, Lyn

  7. Hi Fernanda,
    I just discovered your blog and am glad to see you’re still writing. Your pieces about the Azores and the entho-psychology of its people are fascinating.
    You’re missed–Vancouver’s literary scene isn’t quite the same without you. Let’s have coffee the next time you’re in the city.

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