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Provincetown's Vanishing Portuguese Community Remembers its Past - 2003-07-02

In America, the summer season is here, and on the East Coast, vacationers in huge numbers are swarming to picturesque seaside locales like Provincetown, Massachusetts, a historic town with broad water vistas and a salty, free-spirited atmosphere. But scattered amid all the revelers, the gawkers, and the stressed-out city folk on Provincetown's narrow streets are the remnants of a once-thriving Portuguese community is hoping to preserve its cultural identity. Even 30 years ago, up to 70 percent of Provincetown's population was either Portuguese or of Portuguese descent. Most made their living from the sea. Now, due to astronomical land prices and a severely diminished supply of fish, many so-called "Portagee" have moved away. VOA's Adam Phillips went to Provincetown to search out the pockets of Portuguese life that still exist.

The ferry from Boston is almost the only vessel one can see on the broad blue expanse of Provincetown Harbor this morning. But this harbor has not always been so serene.

During most of the 19th century it was filled with Yankee whaling and merchant ships. As whaling declined, many of the Portuguese sailors on those vessels stayed in Provincetown. They thought there would always be a living to be made fishing these cold North Atlantic waters. They could not know that eventually, industrial fishing would deplete the ocean's bounty. Thirty years ago, there were 70 boats in the Provincetown fishing fleet. Now, there are just 12. "It's really sad to the fishing industry die in Provincetown because it was really the biggest part of the community," says Provincetown native John Vasque, who is now the captain of a whale watching boat for tourists.

Like most of his childhood friends, Captain Vasque's entire family is ethnically Portuguese, and like them, he had expected to fish all his life. John Vasque: "I used to own a dragger in Provincetown and the stocks got really dwindled and really tough and I decided to change professions."

Adam Phillips: "Do you remember hearing Portuguese spoken?"

John Vasque: "Yes. When I was a kid that's all I spoke was Portuguese. But through the years, I've lost it."?"

Adam Phillips: "You look a little bit sad or wistful when you talk about what was with the Portuguese here in Provincetown. Is that true?"

John Vasque: "It was a really close-knit community. Everybody kind of knew each other and a lot of families were interwoven through marriages. It was just one big happy place back then."

That's the way Catherine Pierce, 91, Annie Oliver and other friends at the nursing home remember it too. "We were very poor, but we were very happy. This town has changed a lot, hasn't it?" says Catherine Pierce.

"My childhood days there have been a lot of changes, adds Annie Oliver. " We had wooden sidewalks. We lived in the times when it was poor but good. They had a Portuguese dance every so often. And we all sang together. It was a very happy life.

It really was a beautiful town. I've seen it change so. I don't think it's for the good. The rents are very high here. And I think it's terrible for these poor people who want to work and can't find a place to stay. I mean, it's gotten out of line!" she recalls.

For a century or more, the Portuguese of Provincetown lived alongside artists and writers who were drawn to the area's near-magical light and its relative remoteness. There were some tourists, but the town was not considered a luxurious or easily accessible destination.

But as roads improved and fishing declined, tourism and then gay tourism became the town's lifeblood. Real estate prices are now beyond the reach of most artists, and many Portuguese have sold their homes and left. "It really was a sort of classic scenario of their not being enough to sustain a younger generation," says Amy Wharf McGuiggan. Her father was a Provincetown native, and her mother was a painter.

In her memoir My Provincetown, Ms. McGuiggan recalls her girlhood summers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She says it was a pivotal time when Provincetown had a cosmopolitan bohemian atmosphere, yet was still populated mostly by sprawling Portuguese families. "And you'd see them out on the stoop in the evening after dinner and somebody would call you into the yard, and you'd have long talks about the good old days and they all had beautiful gardens and everything that was theirs was yours," she explains. "And there was always this sense of individualism. Every one of the houses had some little quirky thing about it. You know, an old dory [small two-man boat] would be in the yard filled with petunias, or there would be a swordfish sword lashed over the doorway. Just little things like that. The dinner smells, and the fish smells of course! You would just meander in and out." Fish wasn't the only thing one could smell back in Provincetown's good old days. Today, one can still catch the aroma of traditional handmade bread wafting out the screen door of the Provincetown Portuguese Bakery on Commercial Street, just as it has for over a century. Pastries too. There are fresh Portuguese meat pies being dropped into scalding hot oil to cook. Antonio Ferreira, the owner of the Portuguese Bakery was born in Portugal and immigrated to Provincetown in 1965. To this day, almost every one of his employees was either born in "the old country" or is descended from someone who was. "So it is Portuguese by name and by heart," he explains. Over the years, Mr. Ferreira has tried to revive Portuguese as spoken language in the town. He once started a Portuguese language class at the high school, and he hosted an all-Portuguese program on the local radio station. Both endeavors were short-lived. "However, we still have a Portuguese Festival every year. At that time, everybody considers themselves Portuguese," says Mr. Ferreira. "We are not as many numbers, but we are still in as high in spirits as before!"

Some older folks like Catherine Pierce and her friend Annie Oliver at the nursing home recognize that the Portuguese Provincetown they knew may be gone forever. Yet they take a philosophical attitude: they say the water, the light, and the adventurous open-hearted attitude among the people who live here are constants whose meaning will abide.

Catherine Pierce: "With all the changes we've seen… and this is where I want to die is in Provincetown! I have no love for anywhere else."

Annie Oliver: "That's cause you have me with you!"