The Portuguese Kids and the Perils of Ethnic Comedy

Portuguese immigrants in Vancouver, BC.Proud Portuguese immigrants in Vancouver, BC, circa 1960
Photo credit: Frank Trigueiro


“The Portuguese are the unknown people. We are lost in this vast country. No one knows we are here. To be Portuguese in America is to be a stone dropped in the middle of the ocean.”

—Charles Reis Felix, in Da Gama, Cary Grant and the Election of 1934 (Tagus Books)

I once wrote that one of the largest obstacles we face as Portuguese North Americans is the inability to claim an identity and culture that are defined by those of us within the community, rather than how mainstream society defines us.  But what if one of our own chooses to represent us in a manner that stigmatizes our ethnicity?   To be more specific, does ethnic comedy at our expense constitute a kind of betrayal?

An American-based comedy troupe known as the Portuguese Kids performed a week ago in Vancouver. I didn’t attend the show but I’ve seen the group’s online videos so I’m familiar with their brand of comedy: ethnic humour that typically involves amplifying and exaggerating negative verbal, physical and intellectual stereotypes.

Little of their online material is funny or original; much of it deals with broad generalizations about Portuguese immigrant culture and the conflicts between generations shoving up against each other in a boxing ring of clashing values and social attitudes.  It’s all so familiar: the jokes where every woman is named Maria, where paycheques are prized over career or academic success, where a cerveja in the closely-guarded quintal is the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon, where women are portrayed as gossipy moustached harridans, their men as hen-pecked, plaid-wearing oafs, and their children as eye-rolling, rule-breaking survivors of  thrown slippers and malapropisms.

I understand that this particular group is simply expressing an affectionate caricaturing of the Portuguese immigrant community in an attempt to recall the “old times” and share similar childhood experiences.  Their comedy may serve to remind us of our beloved grandparents, or growing up in a Portuguese neighbourhood, or because it gives us the opportunity to love something about ourselves or how our inclusion in a particular tribe makes us feel. It’s a shame though that these skits seem to relish in portraying our immigrants as dollar-obsessed brutes hopelessly stuck in dated traditions and spouting peculiar home-spun beliefs.  Much of the comedy veers towards the disrespectful and absurd. Don’t we owe it to our parents and grandparents to show a little dignity?  If the same comedic material were performed by 5th generation Irish Americans, or Asians or another immigrant comedy group instead of by a group of Portuguese American men, would we be laughing? Eh, probably not.

But like I’ve said, I wasn’t there.  I’m basing my comments on their online video segments, not their live shows.  I imagine those who attended didn’t over-think the ramifications of ethnic humour as I am prone to do these days. Self-deprecating humour about one’s culture or ethnicity can be a source of identity and pride but it can also cause a great deal of harm. For some of us, travel, work or education broke the cultural scripts that we had been ingrained with growing up but it seems we can’t go very far without coming across outdated stereotypes about our ethnicity or who we’re “supposed” to be.

Some people express surprise when I tell them I’m of Portuguese origin. “Really? I thought Portuguese people were —-.” Fill in the blank. I’ve heard it ALL over the years and much of it left me feeling less than proud — and invisible.

Worse, it was through literature and later, popular culture, that I became even more aware that the Portuguese had a poor reputation among the general populace. From Twain (“The community is eminently Portuguese–that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy.  The people lie, and cheat the stranger, and are desperately ignorant…”) to Steinbeck, from Hollywood to television (Nelly Furtado’s stint as “Tia Maria” at the 2007 Juno Awards didn’t do us any favours), the Portuguese are represented as rude, lazy, ignorant and promiscuous. How did this happen? What can we do to change these perceptions? I think it begins with us.

Successful North Americans of Portuguese ethnicity owe it to themselves to use their public platform (be it through literature, art, music or even comedy), to educate and inspire our community rather than spread ignorance, reinforce embarrassing stereotypes or encourage self-mockery.  The articulation and reinforcement of Portuguese immigrants and their children as simple-minded buffoons unfortunately limits everyone, not just those of Portuguese ethnicity.  And I have to wonder if ethnic humor within our community doesn’t make people outside the community feel they have implicit permission to make the same jokes or believe the same stereotypes—or as Anne-Marie Ross of the Prodigal Lusophone says, simply ignore us.

She writes:

“They [the Portuguese Kids] do incredibly funny imitations of their immigrant parents as they were raising children and working in this odd landscape of America. “What better way to celebrate the Portuguese culture than to laugh and remember your childhood? they ask in their bio. And yes, what better way?

When I read that, however, a chill comes over me thinking of my mission of breaking past the guns, germs, and steel about why nobody outside the community understands who we are….Here’s my downer for the day: this humor is still an inside joke. It’s Portuguese comedy for other Portuguese people, mostly people who had immigrant parents. It’s barely even for the immigrants themselves!!”

Unlike yours truly, Anne-Marie thinks the Portuguese Kids comedy troupe is funny and would like to see the group’s popularity grow outside the community. (Please God, no.) However, she then wonders why the Portuguese barely exist in the American landscape. “It’s not because there aren’t enough accomplished people here of Portuguese origin,” she writes, and adds tongue in cheek, “They’re just too busy and not focusing on what it takes to get some notoriety in America.”

All kidding aside, I would argue that the Portuguese Kids’ brand of ethnic humour is a form of notoriety since it perpetuates and reinforces a long-existing stereotype of the “dumb Portugee.” If Twain were still alive, he’d be laughing. At us, not with us.

So stop already. Rewrite the scripts, the skits, the parodies—everything that disparages our ethnicity. Give us comedic material we can be proud of, something we can laugh at that doesn’t reinforce embarrassing stereotypes or encourage self-mockery. Give us comedy that honours our immigrant stories, the stories that bind us together, that connect us to the incredibly deep and rich history of our ancestors. Give us a little Portuguese pride, people.

Am I getting my cuecas in a twist over nothing?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that we are still an unknown people—sometimes even to ourselves—and that what we say about ourselves to ourselves is important.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject.

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Losing your Mother Tongue

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“My homeland is the Portuguese language,” said Pessoa.

So what happens when you lose your language?

Like many first-generation Portuguese Canadians, I grew up speaking Portuguese at home but my fluency had eroded by the time I entered junior high school.  My father, anxious to see his children assimilate and succeed, encouraged my siblings and me to use English at home even though he and my mother nearly always spoke to us in Portuguese.  As a teenager, Portuguese represented “the old country” and my parents’ old-fashioned ideas so I was eager to leave the language —and my heavy accent—behind me in an effort to fit in with my classmates. It would be decades before I would begin to feel the loss of my mother tongue.

As a child of Azorean immigrants, it was my parents’ language more than anything else that connected me to their homeland—and to my heritage.  It was the language of my first words: mãe, pae, leite, vaca, bicho, Cala a boca!… It was the language of food, lullabies and superstitions whispered in the night. More than anything else, the language takes me back to a time in my childhood when our large extended family was a tight unit of outsiders struggling together to fit into a new life, a new homeland. Portuguese was the language I was raised in, disciplined in, loved in.

I see how my mother, with her limited grasp of the English language, lacks the words to communicate with her grandchildren and how even I simplify and edit much of what I share with her because there is a limit to what she can understand in English—and a limit to what I can convey in Portuguese. I cringe at the sound of my own accent and more often than not, revert to English rather than continue to slaughter the language.

In the following poem, Portuguese writer Jorge de Sena (English translation by George Monteiro) eloquently captures the grief and bitterness of immigrants who find themselves unable to communicate with their children through a shared language.


Notions about Linguistics

I listen to my children talk English.
Not the smallest alone but the older
Ones too, and they to the young ones.
Born elsewhere, they grew up
With Portuguese in their
Ears. But it’s English they speak,
They who will not be merely Americans;
Melted, they continue to melt in
Seas not their own. Tell me about
Poetry’s mystery, a tongue’s traditions,
A race of people, all that is inexpressible
Save in the untranslatable essence
Of a people. Bastards. Languages
Last centuries and will survive even when
Hidden within other tongues, but they
Die every day in the stammer of those who
Inherit them. So immortal are they that
A half dozen years suffice to suppress them
In mouths dissolving into new shapes,
Impressed by another people, a
Different culture. So metaphysical
Are languages, so untranslatable, that they
Melt thus, not unto the highest of heavens, but
In the quotidian crap of another tongue.

I wonder if most immigrants carry this burden of existential angst about the loss of their language and how this loss created a communication barrier between them and their children.  However much our parents may have encouraged us to speak English in order to assimilate, I think they were saddened by the repercussions of introducing a new language into the family home.  Losing one’s mother tongue is often the first step—the largest step—towards moving away from one’s ethnicity towards a new identity and culture.

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with navigating the Portuguese-English divide in your family. Have you lost—or reclaimed—your mother tongue?