By: Christopher Larkosh
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
On Portuguese as a second language and other "wasteful projects"
It probably came as no surprise to anyone last month when U.S. President George W. Bush rejected the latest health and education budget (House Bill 3043), but what was even more perplexing was the rhetorical strategy he used to voice his disapproval: out of the more than 2,200 possible line items that he could have chosen as the most egregious examples of wasteful government spending, Bush chose to single out only three, with the supposed final kicker among them "a program for Portuguese as a second language" (Wolf n/p). In the current cultural and political environment, in which Portuguese language education has been singled out not only as one example among many, but as the most illustrative case of a presumably wasteful educational endeavor, it almost seems futile to dwell upon the fine points of citizenship while the very choice of language through which many of us imagine our political and cultural agency, both as national and global citizens, is not only implicitly circumscribed but officially dismissed, even if only for the most calculatedly partisan of political reasons. If not in our public institutions, where then will the space be made to imagine and speak of such urgent questions on the dwindling scope of our own citizenship? Or does this also qualify as a waste of time and resources?
Hopefully, this space can serve that purpose today: in keeping with the title of today’s panel ("Citizenship, Literature and Culture") , my perspective on present-day understandings of citizenship, both here in the U.S. and in the greater Lusophone world, is grounded not only in a base corpus of Portuguese-American literary works, but also in certain elements of everyday life in southeastern New England that can be readily identified as part of my own and a shared Portuguese-American culture. (Such a definition of culture might include interactions with local, national and international media, whether in English, Portuguese or other languages; work and domestic life; educational and religious institutions; and a continual transit through the mythological and documented sites of origin, exploration, discovery and identity that give a distinctive cultural character to the region, along with other specialized forms of grassroots cultural praxis, such as folklore, artisanship, music and performance, as well as video production).
What interests me most in the understanding of Portuguese-American culture as one inclusive of localized practice, though, are the possibilities of approaching languages, literature and culture in connection to the 'here and now': that is to say, some dimension of the present lived cultural experience of the area or region in which an academic perspective is necessarily situated (Larkosh). It is in this context of the 'here and now' that those present can begin to speak of questions of citizenship and belonging in ways that implicate their own personal positionalities all the more unavoidably, not only insofar as such questions affect the wide range of other national and transnational subjects in the distant corners of that officially Lusophone world as enshrined in nation-states and transnational organizations so often identified by acronyms such as CPLP (Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries), but also those in those unofficial diasporic and often bilingual corners of the global Lusosphere that, though closer to home, are too often overlooked, if not explicitly discounted, by present-day academic and governmental institutions both in the U.S. and abroad.
First off: Interrogating market or military-based models of citizenship
I do want to take the topic of this panel seriously, after all, and by that I mean actually ask myself what citizenship means at this particular place and time. Are the current models of citizenship simply products for a market of preferred and frequent shoppers, like those made overseas by a low-cost labor force, and shipped back by way of a container freighter and interstate highway to the nearest consumer outlet? If so, I am already maxed out on these inadequate privatized models of media/product consumer citizenship, and thus would hope that at least those present are still able to think outside of the box store, both for my own sanity and perhaps even for those who share my immediate surroundings, whether on the highways and suburban shopping centers that have come to dominate the landscape of southern New England or beyond. This is why I remain thankful above all for the lingering presence of those cultural elements from Portuguese-American culture—much like a voice speaking in Portuguese or singing a familiar fado on the car radio—that serve to remind me and others of the lingering cultural alternatives and thus reconnect those atomized subjects in traffic to spaces that challenge dominant cultural paradigms through language, sounds, images or practical examples.
What, then, would a truly wasteful cultural project actually look like, especially in this discussion aimed at constructing a humane model of citizenship? One might start by considering one’s own complicity in the present-day political continuum not only of consumerism but also of war, with its unending narrative of potential markets to be exploited and threats to be neutralized, whether foreign or domestic, tangible or propaganda-generated.
Let me offer three canonical examples from Portuguese-American literature to illustrate this point: first, in the early 20th century, the U.S. author of Portuguese descent John Dos Passos identified this mode of constructing citizenship in his early novel on World War I entitled Three Soldiers. Even the ethnic differences of the soldiers underscore how military service was considered the most sure-fire way for immigrant men to obtain the full benefits of their adopted national identity. Indeed, one need only read a few pages into the work to recognize the overriding importance of ethnic categories for the characters in the construction of their own identities: as the Italian-American recruit Fuselli states, "I used to go with a Portugee girl. My but she was a toughie. But I’ve given all that up now that I’m engaged, though" (11). One might go so far as to ask what is meant by the term "engaged": engaged to someone else, or engaged in warfare? Military conscription is thus represented not only as a form of committed relationship that forces the recruit to shape up, but also as one offering a way out of ethnic identity and the limitations imposed by them, so that one can become a "real American." It is important to note, however, that at the time this novel was published, Dos Passos was considered downright "un-American" by the New York and Chicago mainstream press for portraying the war and U.S. society in such realistic, ethnically determined and starkly manipulative terms.
The challenge of acquiring the full benefits of U.S. citizenship through military 'engagement' is also echoed by the Portuguese exile author José Rodrigues Miguéis in the short story "Cosme," in which an undocumented Portuguese migrant to the United States enlists in the Armed Forces to gain citizenship after being threatened with deportation, only to die in combat overseas during World War II. Most recently, the contemporary Portuguese-American poet Frank X. Gaspar extends this discussion into the conflicts of the latter part of the century, specifically the Vietnam War, by way of his collections of poetry, especially the one entitled Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death. In his poems about the monotony of being stationed on a naval warship in the Gulf of Tonkin (38), or a few days of furlough in Manila for some "R and R" in sexually graphic and often less than heroic terms (34), he resists what he considers to be all-too-common euphemisms like 'military service,' that is to say, not a form of "service" to either his country or to the collectivity of his fellow citizens.
Second model: Citizenship Made to Order
By this point, it may be clear that the question I wish to pose through this discussion of the terms of citizenship is hardly one of how might best become a obedient "model citizen," whether in the U.S. or anywhere else, but rather one of to how to explore understandings of it as a fundamentally critical exercise, in spite of any and all hegemonic interference to the contrary. If it truly is impossible to base a notion of citizenship at least partially upon the concept of critique, then where might one begin?
In the much-touted postmodern context of continually repeated messages in mass media, the answer might well be anywhere. For example, many of you may remember the 1988 film Mystic Pizza, in many ways merely a stock example of the formula Hollywood romance combined with the local ethnic color and small town ambiance of a largely Portuguese-American fishing village on the New England coast. Nonetheless—or perhaps for this very reason—such a film can serve as a useful document of mainstream discourses on ethnic difference and cultural belonging in the U.S. After all, this film was made at the climax of the neo-liberal economic and cultural shift once called Reaganomics: a point made most forcefully by the moment in which the main character, played by Julia Roberts, comes home to find her mother asleep on the couch in front of a television blaring the television show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." The rest of the film follows the economic cues of the decade to a tee; perhaps for this reason, the means for attaining a greater sense of power and agency for the three young Portuguese-American women at the center of the film’s plot are as deceptively simple as ordering a pizza: perhaps because, much as Margaret Thatcher used to say, "There is no alternative." The choices presented are: 1) simply get into and go to Yale, in this case, to study astronomy: or 2) marry one of your Portuguese-American neighbors, settle down in your hometown and thus reconcile yourself to repeating the by-now codified cultural stereotypes of the New England "townie": in this case, working in a pizza parlor decorated with tourist posters from the Azores, armed only with a special recipe for pizza sauce handed down from the old country; in this case not Naples, but strangely enough, from the Algarve in southern Portugal.
For those uncomfortable with these two choices (even when considering how delicious Portuguese-American pizza can be), there is an additional, third option, and perhaps the trickiest of all: to simply sleep with and eventually marry one’s way into wealth and social prestige, bypassing elite education altogether. This presumed shortcut to one’s "slice of the pie" is spelled out as clearly as possible in the culminating scene, in which the Julia Roberts character, Daisy Araujo, goes to the house on the hill to meet the parents of her new boyfriend, a preppy law school dropout by the name of Charles Gordon Windsor. At dinner, she runs the gauntlet of social mobility: overdressed in black-and-white 80’s fashion to the point of causing vicarious embarrassment, she is waited on at the table by an old friend from town, another Portuguese-American girl named Teresa. An unlucky spill on Teresa’s part while serving the food, however, allows for the family members to voice comments both on the servant’s worth and ethnic identity that would usually be spared a public airing in front of guests, not to mention in the presence of the very ethnic subjects they are directed against, such as: "These Portuguese girls are very hard to train," or, "I had one once who barely spoke English." Then the scene degenerates into an argument between the son Charles and his family on the one hand (Charles: "If you can’t train a golden boy like me, there’s no way you can train a dumb Portagee") and Charles and Daisy on the other (Daisy: "Did you think you could shake up your family by bringing home your poor Portagee girlfriend? I’m poor and I hate it, I admit it.") What interests me most about this scene is not only how an ethnic slur—in this case, "Portagee"—is employed not only to mark the limits of social class, but other terms of that form of first-class citizenship such as wealth or education, as underscored by the adjectives attached to the slur: first "poor Portagee," then, "dumb Portagee."
Both of these compound ethnic slurs could be considered part of a longer list elaborated upon in the Portuguese-American author Charles Reis Felix’s recent memoir entitled Through a Portagee Gate: "For the Portuguese, [the adjective added to the slur] was 'dumb.' The Portuguese accepted the term with equanimity. They really didn’t feel too smart. And I heard the words 'dumb' and 'Portagee' put together so many times that I had periods of doubting my own smartness. Could they be right? Were all Portagees dumb?" (319) In recent years, thankfully, what constitutes Portuguese-American identity has already been transformed by an enhanced recognition of academic achievements by Portuguese-Americans (with perhaps the most notable recent example the 2006 Nobel Prize in Medicine shared by UMass Medical School professor Craig Mello for his discoveries in genetics, specifically RNA interference and gene silencing). But as I have suggested at the beginning of this talk, present accusations of stupidity or a waste of academic resources might best be leveled elsewhere: above all towards those who judge the importance of other languages and cultures on the basis of their own limited understanding or cultivated indifference, and who underestimate the challenge that finding alternatives to present cultural models might pose to their own sense of inherited personal privilege and entitlement.
Finally: Are there, in fact, alternatives?
In the future, an understanding of Portuguese-American culture in southern New England might also be transformed by an increased awareness of the longstanding intercultural dialogue spurred by success in assimilating into mainstream U.S. culture, but also by the ongoing contact with other Lusophone cultures in the region, especially from Brazil and Cape Verde. So before I conclude, let me briefly mention two films that have already spurred this kind of intercultural dialogue and thereby initiated alternatives to the models of citizenship elaborated upon in earlier examples.
The 2003 Brazilian shock film A Fronteira is perhaps the best-known work on the dangers that recent arrivals from Brazil to New England have faced in entering the U.S. by crossing its southern border; but now that literally thousands of these same immigrants are returning to Brazil in the wake of diminished expectations for a clear path to U.S. citizenship and economic opportunity, recent articles in the local and national press, including a prominent piece in the New York Times this month "Brazilians Giving Up Their American Dream," have begun to tabulate the losses not only for those returning, but for the cultural diversity and economic vibrancy of the urban communities that they leave behind.
The second and final example of the potential for crosscultural contact (at least for now) can be found in the 2006 documentary entitled "Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican?," in which director Claire Andrade-Watkins narrates the displacement and subsequent disintegration of her own childhood community, a long-standing Cape Verdean neighborhood in the Fox Point section of Providence, Rhode Island, through the construction of an interstate highway and subsequent gentrification. While the story of uprooted communities due to highway construction is all too familiar to many ethnic communities in the region (Charles Reis Felix also narrates the dissection of his own Portuguese-American neighborhood in the North End of New Bedford in the final chapters of his aforementioned memoir Through a Portagee Gate), what is perhaps most original and provocative about this last film is the title itself; by taking an intentionally misspelled inability to distinguish between ethnic identities such as Cape Verdean and the Puerto Rican, the title raises the question of how the lived experiences of so many groups, may well be seen as an archipelago of misunderstood cultural identities, further complicating the terms of citizenship in the U.S. While no one would deny that Puerto Ricans are subject to shifts in the terms of their citizenship depending on where they find themselves (especially with respect to voting or taxation), it would probably come as no surprise to other displaced communities that such uneven models of citizenship extend beyond a single island to impact a potentially wider range of marginalized ethnically-based cultures.
Another set of questions might also arise from this parallel: To what extent is it possible for newcomers to 'migrate' not only into a adopted national identity and conception of citizenship and belonging, but also into and out of those of ethnic identity such as that of Portuguese-Americans, Cape Verdeans or Brazilians? If so, how? After all, it has become all the more impossible to ignore the role of second- or third-generation 'hybrids,' as well as former 'outsiders,' have come to play as part of the cultural fabric of these often endangered ethnic identities. Whatever the answers to these questions may ultimately be, the task of this increasingly heterogeneous community of Portuguese speakers, both in southern New England and elsewhere, remains the same: the challenge to continually renew the possibility for a recognizably distinct and vibrant culture by continuing to reinterpret its traditional signs and symbols in its own terms, while affirming new manifestations of cultural agency characterized by linguistic, ethnic and racial hybridity, both in the 'here and now' and in the broader global 'Lusosphere,' in order to make a more culturally inclusive conception of both U.S. citizenship and global community possible.
Oak Bluffs-Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Dec. 2007.
 - This work was originally presented on Friday, December 28, 2007 at the MLA Conference in Chicago, as part of a panel entitled "Citizenship, Literature, and Culture."
Andrade-Watkins, Claire, dir. Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican? Spia Media, 2006.
Bernstein, Nina and Elizabeth Dwoskin. "Brazilians Giving Up Their American Dream." New York Times 4 Dec. 2007. 5 Jan. 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/04/nyregion/04brazilians.html.
Carminati, Roberto, dir. A Fronteira. 2004.
Dos Passos, John. Three Soldiers.  Intro. Townsend Ludington. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997.
Gaspar, Frank X. Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death. Tallahassee, FL: Anhinga Press, 1995.
Larkosh, Christopher. "Allophone Presences: In the 'Here and Now' of the Humanities." Producing Presences: Branching Out from Gumbrecht’s Work. North Dartmouth, MA: Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, 2007. 229-241.
Petrie, Donald, dir. Mystic Pizza. Perf. Julia Roberts. 1988.
Reis Félix, Charles. Through a Portagee Gate. North Dartmouth: Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, 2004.
Rodrigues Miguéis, José. "Cosme." Steerage. Providence: Gavea-Brown, 1983. 53-70.
Wolf, Richard. "Bush signs defense bill but balks at cost of domestic plan." USA Today. 14 Nov. 2007. 5 Jan. 2008. http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2007-11-13-bush-bill_N.htm.