In the nineteenth century the industrial revolution and immigration dramatically transformed the landscape where the Concord and Merrimack Rivers join. Canals dug, red brick mills built, Lowell was open for business. Thousand of workers poured into the city. In 1900, nearly 18,000 foreign-born Portuguese lived in Massachusetts; the number reached 50,000 by 1920. A significant number lived and worked in Lowell. By George Kenngott’s account in The Record of a City (1912), life for these immigrants was not easy. The tenements they lived in were “old and dilapidated. Some of them have holes in the floor and the walls are hardly fit for human habitation and should be torn down.” Learn how Portuguese immigrants and their children made their way in the mill city here.
The Portuguese in Lowell
Molly Mahoney and Kady Phelps
Immigrants have come to the United States from all corners of the globe, carrying elements of their cultures with them. A complex process of preserving aspects of their identities while adjusting to a new place and new ways of making a living followed. In Coming to America historian Roger Daniels notes:
“While no person can control completely his or her destiny, and since poor people—and most immigrants were poor—generally have fewer options than do better-off individuals, immigrants were often buffeted by forces beyond their control. But immigrants, and more properly the decision makers in immigrant families, all made at least one crucial decision: They chose to come to America. They were thus, in this sense, movers rather than the moved.”
In the nineteenth century the industrial revolution and immigration dramatically transformed the landscape where the Concord and Merrimack Rivers join. Canals dug, red brick mills built, Lowell was open for business. Thousand of workers poured into the city to labor in front of textile machinery ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. In the 1870s, female and male immigrant workers had become the region’s main workforce. By 1900, 17,885 foreign-born Portuguese lived in Massachusetts. Twenty years later some 50,000 foreign-born Portuguese resided in the Commonwealth, many toiling in cotton and woolen mills in Fall River, New Bedford, Lowell, and Lawrence.
Arrivals slowed when Congress enacted restrictive legislation in 1917 and 1921. Passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act) made it extremely difficult for newcomers from eastern and southern Europe and other parts of the Americas, Asia, and Africa to enter the U.S. The number of Portuguese immigrants went from as high as 15,000 per year in the 1910s to 325 in 1925; and for the decade of the 1930s, only 3,329 Portuguese immigrants entered.
The first Portuguese immigrants—from the late eighteenth century to the early 1880s—came mostly from Faial, Pico, Flores, Corvo and São Jorge, and provided crew for American whaling ships. From 1890 to 1920, one million Portuguese emigrated from their homeland, mostly to Brazil, while 160,000 settled in the U.S., many finding their way to New England’s burgeoning industrial centers
One demographer studying the Portuguese determined that individuals settling in Lowell mainly hailed from Portugal’s Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores. Analyzing City Directories for 1884, 1894, and 1910 for the surname Silva, one of the most common Portuguese surnames, he found that it did not appear in the 1884 directory. In 1894, 10 Silva men made an appearance. By 1910, this number had grown to 42 individuals. In a city of about 100,000, legions of Silvas joined approximately 40,000 other hard working foreign-born residents making a go of it.
By George Kenngott’s count in The Record of a City (1912), a “large, foreign, non-English-speaking population has come to Lowell during the last 25 years; those from southern Europe and Asia have come almost entirely during the last fifteen years.” He determined that in the early 1900s, 20,000 native-born residents of native-born parents lived in Lowell. Everyone else in the city of some 100,000 had at least one immigrant parent.
Kenngott noted that the 2,500 Portuguese immigrants in the city began to come to Lowell around 1890, with many new arrivals working in cotton mills. By 1910 they’d acquired real estate in the city, with an assessed valuation of about $200,000. Life was not easy: “…the houses are old and dilapidated. Some of them have holes in the floor and the walls are hardly fit for human habitation and should be torn down.” Kenngott observed, “About twenty of the Portuguese have built cottages…and have little plots of ground about neat and attractive homes, which are reminders of their native homes in the beautiful Azores.”
Portuguese immigrant oral histories and proof-of-age documents from the Lowell School Department found in the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History establish that about half of those who settled in Lowell in the early twentieth century were from Madeira, while most others were from the Azores (Terceira and Graciosa). John Falante’s story is a ‘typical’ one.
In 1920, after a seven-day ocean voyage, 16 year-old Falante arrived from Madeira. Joining an older sister already toiling at the Tremont Mills, he left home “Because my father died, and my mother had seven kids, and there was no way to take care of them. So I had a sister over here in Lowell…she told me I could come over and get a job here and send little by little what I was making…. I got a job in the Tremont Mills. So when you get around 1923, 1924, 1925, the mills started to shut down everything, I had no job. I happened to be lucky enough to go to New Market, New Hampshire, and I got a job there.”
In the mid-1920s, Lowell’s mills could no longer compete with their Southern counterparts who had newer machines, efficient electric power, cheaper non-union labor, and were closer to the cotton. Between 1920 and 1940, Massachusetts lost 45 percent of its textile jobs. Now, Falante’s sister, the magnet that had pulled him to Lowell, bought a farm in Madeira and never returned to the U.S. Like Falante’s sister, as work disappeared during the global Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of immigrants returned home.
Culture in the City
Portuguese religious, social, and cultural institutions flourished in Lowell. Like the Irish before them who’d established St. Patrick’s parish in the Acre neighborhood, a Portuguese Catholic parish took root. A few sites were used for Catholic religious services until the 1901 purchase of a small church from the Methodists. As more people settled in the Back Central, Chapel Hill, and City Hall neighborhoods, fundraising for a larger building commenced. Laborers built St. Anthony of Padua church on Central Street, which opened in 1907. A community focal point from the start, St. Anthony’s remains the city’s largest ethnic parish. Religious processions, which were once common on Central, Gorham and Elm streets, are still a part of Portuguese culture in the city today.
From 1919 to 1922, a regular column about the Portuguese community titled ‘Ecos de Lowell’ appeared in A Alvorada Diária, a Portuguese-American daily newspaper. Its author, Joaquim M. S. Neves, was almost certainly an immigrant from Madeira. His columns provide a glimpse into Portuguese culture. Thereafter, the newspaper, under the name Diário de Notícias documented events in the city until it stopped printing in 1973.
Associations and societies included the Sociedade Beneficiente de Santo António, founded in 1895, Funchalense Club e Música, the Club Pérola do Atlântico, the Lisbon Social Club, the Club Lusitano, the Sociedade D. Maria Amélia (a woman’s club), the Sociedade São João Baptista, and the Sociedade São José. Later, the Portuguese Colonial Band Club, the Portuguese-American Democratic Club, the Portuguese-American Civic League (‘The Reds’), and the Portuguese-American Center (‘The Blues’) thrived. The latter two clubs still function today.
Established in 1923, the Holy Ghost Society still has its headquarters at 65 Village Street. Since the early 1900s, Lowell’s Portuguese community has celebrated the Feast of Saint Anthony, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the Feast of the Our Lady of Loreto, and the Holy Ghost Feast.
Marching bands represented a distinctive Portuguese cultural element in Lowell. The Banda União Portuguesa from the 1920s and the Portuguese Colonial Band from the 1930s to the 1960s were active. Started in the late 1960s, the Portuguese Band of Lowell or Banda do Espírito Santo de Lowell, still functions.
Radio programs filled tenement apartments and households with music and news. The first, from the 1930s, was “Voz de Portugal,” presented by Armando Borba. In the 1950s WCAP broadcast “Hora Portuguesa”, directed by António Baptista and presented by Eduardo Santos. From the 1970s on, WJUL (which became WUML) hosted several Portuguese radio programs, including António Manuel Cardoso’s “A Voz do Atlântico,” Jorge Coelho’s “Rádio Bom Dia” and Dimas Espínola’s “Rádio Amizade.” The latter two remain on the air today.
Soccer teams formed, beginning with the Young Madeirense Social Club, which played in the Industrial Soccer League in the 1920s, the Lisbon Social Club and the União Portugal Sport Club. Other clubs sprouted throughout the twentieth century and gained a new vitality with the second wave of immigration to Lowell. Two soccer teams founded in the 1970s were Lusitano, the soccer team of the Portuguese-American Center, and Lowell United, of the Portuguese-American Civic League.
Economic conditions improved in the U.S. during the 1950s while worsening in the Azores. The first significant upsurge in new Portuguese arrivals came after the 1957 and 1958 Faial Island volcano eruptions ruined the island’s economy. In response to the Capelinhos eruptions, Firmo Correa, a Portuguese immigrant living in Lowell, wrote to Senator John F Kennedy (D., MA) asking for his help in allowing residents affected by the volcano entry into the U.S.
Kennedy and Senator John O. Pastore (D, RI) drafted the 1958 Azorean Refugee Act, renewed in 1960, permitting the admission of Azoreans above the existing very low immigration quotas. This marked the beginning of what many call the third stage of Portuguese migration to the U.S. Some 12,000 people came in under the Acts, including to Lowell.
Passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965 abolished national origins quotas, making it easier for family reunifications to occur. Between 1951 and 1960, 19,588 Portuguese immigrants entered the U.S. For the decade 1961–1970 the figure climbed to 76,065, indicating the impact of the end of quotas by nation and the affects of family reunifications. From 1971 to 1980, immigration climbed to 101,710. However, numbers fell thereafter to average about 3,500 a year through the 1980s. A full 45.5 percent of all Portuguese immigration to the U.S. since 1820 took place between 1960 and 1990. In Lowell, recent Portuguese immigrants arrived mostly from the Azores, especially from Graciosa.