Palo Alto, CA – July 22, 2022 – According to Professor Vincent Barletta, diasporic communities are those dispersed outside their traditional homeland, especially when this scattering is involuntary. The reason for dispersion can be varied: violence, war, enslavement, discrimination, economic hardship, and now climate change are common factors that force people from their homes. For many of these communities, it is essential to maintain a solid link to the homeland, and this can foster complex relations with the past and the political realities of their new home.
These migrant dynamics play out in Luso-American communities living in different parts of California, most of whom came from the Azores and Madeira. It’s estimated that roughly 350,000 Portuguese Americans call the Golden State home. The community started forming following the arrival of the first wave of Azorean immigrants between 1900 and 1920. A volcano eruption triggered a second wave of migration to North America in 1958.
The most impressive thing about this community is that it maintains a strong connection to Portugal and Portuguese culture despite the significant intergenerational gap between the first immigrants and their descendants.
Luso-Americans in California
While some of the first group of immigrants settled in New England and spread across Massachusetts and Rhode Island, many of them later relocated to California. Once they reached the Golden State, many became involved in the state’s burgeoning dairy industry. Professor Vincent Barletta says areas like California’s West Coast host many Portuguese communities. You’ll find significant numbers in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Oakland, San Diego, and the Central Valley. The Pacific Northwest is also home to a significant population.
Luso-Americans who engaged in farming in the areas where they settled often hired Portuguese migrants to work on the farms. Those who settled in port cities typically worked as fishermen. Meanwhile, some Portuguese migrants settled in Hawai’i during the late 1900s due to favorable labor contracts that were available at the time. Entire families received migration loans to relocate to the islands. Many low-income families found the offer lucrative, even if they needed to pay off the debt before moving to other parts of the United States.
Political Preferences and Future Trends
When it comes to making decisions about election campaigns, Luso-Americans in California’s Central Valley typically follow the trends of other rural Californians. As such, they have tended to vote Republican in congressional and presidential elections. In 2022, however, this trend shows signs of shifting.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Portuguese immigrants to California often brought with them conservative values inherited from their experience in Portugal. Much has been written about the “3 Fs” (Fado, Futebol, and Fátima), and traditional music, sports, and religion have undoubtedly shaped the Luso-American diaspora in profound ways.
Then there are the political realities of California, which has a multi-billion dollar agricultural economy and more water issues than any other state in the nation. These issues have helped to build Republican support in California’s Central Valley since the 1980s. Luso-American political figures such as Devin Nunes and David Valadao, both of whom are dairy farmers, are good examples of how conservative politics have shaped politics in the region.
More recently, however, many younger Luso-Americans are relocating to coastal California cities to look for opportunities in higher education and employment sectors not linked to agriculture. As a result of the generational shift, Luso-American families in California’s Central Valley will inevitably notice a change in the medium and long term. For instance, the younger generation tends to adopt more progressive political views, attend church services less often, and drift away from farming as a means to support their families.
The challenge for Luso-Americans in California’s Central Valley will be to maintain strong ties as a community, even as the political divide in the United States continues to grow. For younger generations, this means finding new ways to connect to Portugal and relate constructively to their older relatives. For the older generations, it mostly means keeping lines of communication open with their young relatives and finding ways to see issues through a different lens.
Professor Vincent Barletta is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford University. He is also a research associate at Stanford’s Europe Center. At Stanford, he regularly lectures on Portuguese literature and culture, Iberian and Latin American cultures, and lyric poetry. His work in these fields has attracted recognition, most recently the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 2021.