Descendents of Atlantis: Azorean Portuguese in the Bay Area

Joe Machado/Courtesy

“I don’t like this party, and if I could find my pants I’d leave!”

Captain of the San Anselmo fire department and prankster of the office, my Portuguese grandfather was known as the King of One-Liners. Even after he passed away, Willam Manuel Sousa’s unique phrases, both Portuguese and English, still peppered Sousa family gatherings. His humor, the stories of his life, and the tales of his father’s journey to the U.S. from the Azorean island of São Jorge were highlights of my Christmases and Thanksgivings growing up.

Although my dad and his siblings never learned Portuguese, my grandfather spoke it and made sure to pass on the important bits (swear words), though I wish our family had kept the language more. Along with dropping our familial language, we also lost parts of our original surname upon entrance at Castle Garden in Manhattan. The full “de Souza” was far too Azorean for California. I blame the z.

William Sousa/Courtesy

Being part of a Portuguese family has always felt a little magical to me, especially one that comes from the Azores — a place considered by some to be the last remnants of Poseidon’s lost islands of Atlantis from Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias. The Azores are actually a collection of nine islands almost 1,000 miles west from the coast of mainland Portugal — a third of the way to the East Coast of the U.S. The largest and most populous island is São Miguel, which spans 293 square miles, meaning that it could fit on the surface of California about 558 times.

Pico, Terceira, São Jorge, Faial, Flores, Santa Maria, Graciosa and Corvo are the remaining eight islands in order of size – Corvo is the smallest at seven square miles. The nine islands all have incredibly variable and distinct cultures, foods and dialects because of the 200 years throughout which they were settled. There is even possible archaeological evidence of inhabitants on the islands from 2,000 years ago, long before the Portuguese arrived.

The Azorean Portuguese community in the Bay Area is surprisingly expansive. Those that made the long sail to the East Coast spread out in the United States, especially to places that were similar to the Azores in climate (making them ideal for dairy farms). Northern California offered just that and the descendants of early immigrants that settled here now outnumber the population of all nine islands at more than a million. 

One city that stands out is San Leandro, just south of Oakland. San Leandro is home to the Uniao Portugueza do Estado da Califórnia, or the Portuguese Union of the State of California, and was once known as the Portuguese capital of the West. By 1910, Azorean immigrants accounted for two-thirds of the population of the city and still have a strong influence on its culture. Today, the city is filled with excellent options for a gustatory tour of California’s Portuguese community, including bakeries, sausage shops and liquor stores. 

Today, the city is filled with excellent options for a gustatory tour of California’s Portuguese community, including bakeries, sausage shops and liquor stores. 

Sousa’s Discount Liquor in Fremont is also a destination for many Portuguese families in Northern California for its food and drink that come straight from Portugal and the Azores — here you can find authentic linguiça, pastéis de nata (custard tarts), and locally baked Portuguese breads. Sausalito, across the Bay from Berkeley, is home to the Sausalito Portuguese Cultural Center. This center hosts events and works to honor the history of Portuguese people in California and their traditions. Its members are able to explore their Portuguese heritage through language courses and gatherings centered around education, food and celebration.

San Jose is another hub of Northern California Portuguese culture and founded the Portuguese Historical Museum. Built as a replica of the first Chapel to the Holy Spirit of San Jose, called an império, the museum has permanent exhibits and hosts exhibits from Portuguese communities throughout the United States. In the plaza outside of the museum there is a replica of the tiled “Rosa dos Ventos” of Lisbon’s “Monument of the Discoveries.” The tiles are all from Portugal and they were laid by Portuguese craftsmen.

In an interview with Joe Machado, one of the founders of the museum and co-author of “Power of the Spirit,” a book on the history of Portuguese churches built in California, he recommended getting involved with the local Portuguese community through the many traditional halls and festas.

“The culture is the festas that they have and the churches that they’ve built here,” Machado said. “There’s Portuguese bands if you know how to play a musical instrument. There’s 14 in the state!”

“The culture is the festas that they have and the churches that they’ve built here”

— Joe Machado

From April to September, Portuguese festas are hosted up and down California. These festivals are hosted by Portuguese halls and are big community events to share food, dance and culture from the old country. Throughout these six months it would even be possible to travel through California and attend a Portuguese festa each weekend. In June, San Jose hosts a three-day Portuguese cultural event with a traditional parade, food and folk dance called the Dia de Portugal Festival.

A central festival of the summer is the Festa do Espírito Santo, the Festival of the Holy Ghost, which is a custom that was brought to California from the Azores. The festival celebrates both the Holy Spirit and Portugal’s Queen Isabella. Parades are hosted and Portuguese girls are named Holy Ghost Queens and wear beautiful traditional dresses and capes. The Sausalito Portuguese Cultural Center has hosted these festivals since 1886 — for 134 years.

Descendants of Atlantis or not, my family and other California Portuguese have deep roots both in the Azores and here in the Bay Area. My grandfather’s presence in Marin County spanned almost an entire century — 1909 to 1999. He was known for his ability to connect with anyone and stories of his Sunday morning beers with the local garbage collectors, his bike commutes well into his late 80s and his talent for falling asleep while standing up live on. When he passed away at 90, his life was celebrated and I believe the loss was felt by the entire community. On his 90th birthday, when he was asked what the secret to a long life was, he replied with a smile, “Don’t do anything right.”

Contact Megan Sousa at [email protected].