Portuguese Paradise – Carlo Matos

I.

I didn’t even know there were any Portuguese in California until I moved there. I thought they only lived in the Northeast and select parts of Canada—all the places I had played festas in until I was a junior in high school: my feet aching still from all those polyester dirges on streets covered in flower petals like byzantine tiles. And yet, the whole year I lived in the Central Valley, I never actually met a single Portuguese, never uttered a single word in the language that had languished for so many years since I’d left home. Even the so-called Portuguese restaurant in Modesto wasn’t really Portuguese. It was some kind of generic European fare, hardly Portuguese at all. Something was clearly different about our primos on the West Coast, or maybe I was looking in the wrong place.

 

II.

In Fall River, we were out in the open. Go to Little Portugal, or what the city officially designated the “Cultural District” (bounded by the Three Gates, the igreja de Santo Cristo, and the Braga Bridge—the longest bridge in the United States because it goes from Fall River to Portugal, or so the old joke goes) and you can hear us from tenement windows, yelling loud and fast. It’s even too much for most New Englanders who are pretty speedy talkers themselves, who live to interrupt, and who are not afraid to use fortissimo to make even the most minor point. We always sounded like we were arguing to them te0wmc8. Sometimes we were arguing; we weren’t always too sure ourselves. The bakeries, the church bells, the old men in fedoras and the widows in black—powerful women even the gangbangers left alone; we were out in the open. But there seemed to be none of that in the valley. Nothing in Merced or Modesto, nothing in San Francisco, Oakland or Fresno. Or maybe I didn’t go looking. I wasn’t too sure anymore. I didn’t even realize this until I was long gone and living in the Midwest, where no padrões asterisked the history books with pictures of long ships with those blood-red crosses on white sails.

 

III.

On the West Coast, they have Pismo Beach— “Portuguese Paradise,” I heard it called—a beach community where Portuguese supposedly have summer homes. Of course, I was picturing the East Coast again; I was imagining Cape Cod, Mystic Pizza, rich Anglos in cottages, working Portuguese and clambake, quahogs and periwinkles. To be honest, most of the Portuguese I knew weren’t even fishermen anymore but mill workers. But Pismo was something altogether different. My friend said his “rich” friends were Portuguese. Rich Portuguese? I had never met one. I had never imagined such a thing. In my little piece of Massachusetts, we worked; we made do; we stretched our pennies; we kept ahead of the next closing mill. We dug in our heels. We did our best and knew that it still wasn’t enough, that it was an admission of defeat. We made do; we jumped on the hoods of cars and marked the muggy-bug nights with our sweat.

 

IV.

We made do. As teenagers, we jumped cars. It must’ve been the Super Mario craze that made us mad for jumping on the hoods of cars one summer. We spent most nights in a parking lot pressed between the band house stoop on Hope Street (where we earnestly practiced John Philip Sousa tunes in a dense harbor of smoke) and the church on Columbia Street. We practiced, kissed each other’s sisters, smoked cigarettes stolen from the corner store, and had all-out fistfights to pass the time. And we hopped cars. Maybe those two mustachioed, blue-collar plumbers-turned-heroes—who looked so much like our fathers and uncles—were proof that we could win a princess or two, that being outsiders didn’t automatically make us the bad guys. Or maybe we just liked raging from car to car since none of us could actually afford a Nintendo Entertainment System or the superfluous robot that inexplicably dropped a little top in the television commercial. Because sometimes we felt invincible as we soared from one car to another or grew double-size to safely stomp on those who belonged.

 

V.

Our West Coast primos, their dads were in the dairy industry, were ranchers or farmed cow feed. They had Pismo. In Fall River, all we had was the “Cultural District,” a far cry from paradise, to be sure. I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess I really didn’t want to go there. I didn’t go searching for paradise because I didn’t know how I’d face a Portuguese who had planted his flag firmly in the soil of an America that had never quite been so welcoming to those I knew, an America that didn’t quite live up to Emma Lazarus’s words carved in the sweat of so many immigrants. She was one of our own. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. Maybe I was afraid it wasn’t true and that my cousins out west had also found the land dug deep with stones, udders dry and the desert thankless and full of thorns.

 
 
 
Carlo Matos has published four books of poetry and one book of fiction. His new book of poems It's Best Not to Interrupt Her Experiments is now available from Negative Capability Press. His work has appeared in such journals as Rhino, Another Chicago Magazine, Pank, and Black Ocean, among many others. He blogs at carlomatos.blogspot.com.
 
 

Categories: Features, Nonfiction, Short Story