By Tony Vincent, F161584
National Vice President, Western Area
I am the son of Portuguese immigrants. When I was growing up, Portuguese was spoken in my home more frequently than English, and the food smelled of cumin, onions, and garlic, as does most Portuguese cooking. As was true of many of our neighbors, our family consisted of farmers and dairymen who worked from sunrise to sunset, and sometimes longer. The one respite occurred each spring with the arrival of the Portuguese festa “” a time to relax, unwind, see old friends, eat good food, and remember our Portuguese heritage.
My parents came to America from Portugal shortly after the turn of the 20th century, in search of a better life. Like so many of their countrymen, they were from the Azores, a group of nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 800 miles off of the Portuguese coast. They generally arrived on the West Coast in whaling ships and settled in the small coastal and Central Valley towns of California. Today, more than 330,000 Portuguese-Americans make their home in California, representing 70 percent of the total number in the United States.
Starting in the spring and running through summer, the little-publicized festas occur nearly every weekend in towns throughout California. With ties to religious ceremonies of Portugal and the Azores dating back to the 13th century, the festas are a celebration of the cultural bonds of the widely dispersed Portuguese community. They are organized by local Portuguese fraternal and religious organizations and generally span three days, including a weekend. The small agricultural towns that host the festas often have their populations swell for the weekend of the event. Friends from old villages are reunited, while American-born children, like me, learn the ways of their ancestors.
The festas are also a chance to reflect on the charity of 13th-century monarch Queen Isabel, who is honored at these celebrations. Young girls vie for the chance to be crowned “Queen of the Festa,” often spending a significant amount of money on dresses and attire for these events. The girls model themselves after Queen Isabel herself and are escorted by regal courts. The queens and their courts tour the state, attending festas in various towns and providing the girls with a sense of their culture and a connection to other communities in California.
An integral part of each festa day is the communal meal, which often serves several thousand people. The ingredients of the sopas, a beef and cabbage stew traditionally served at these meals, are donated by local Portuguese families, as is the labor to prepare it. When it is time to eat, the food is served family-style. No one is asked to pay, although donations are accepted. When the meal is done, the remaining food is packaged and given to the poor, ensuring them a filling dinner.
Last September, some 25,000 people descended upon the town of Gustine (population 5,000) for three days of singing, dancing, candlelight processions, parades, and bullfighting. Bullfighting, which has been illegal in the United States since 1957, is allowed in the Portuguese “bloodless” tradition in which no animal is hurt or killed. By law, these contests may occur only in connection with a religious celebration such as the festa. The bullfight often is considered the highlight of the festa, and usually is held on Monday evening.
The bullfighting ring looks much like a rodeo arena, but that’s where the resemblance ends. As you enter, you notice that Portuguese is the spoken language, yet all spectators are made to feel welcome. Instead of hot dogs, a spicy Portuguese sausage called linguica is served, along with cold spicy lima beans and beer or wine. In this setting, it is easy to believe that you are in a village in the Azores rather than a small town in the heart of California. The “Star Spangled Banner” is played by a Portuguese brass band, followed by “A Portuguesa,” the Portuguese national anthem. A trumpet sounds to call the participants to the ring, including the 1,500-pound Mexican fighting bull.
As with the bullfights that most people may be familiar with, the first to challenge the bull are the cavaleiro, or horsemen. They and their horses are festooned with ribbons, plumes, lace, and gilded coats. Their goal is to ride up to the bull and “plunge” the tip of the banderilla “” which in this case is a brightly colored spear with a tip covered in a hook-and-loop fastening material such as Velcro “” into a pad mounted on the withers of the bull before it can cause damage to the cavaleiro or his steed.
Matadors, often flown in from Portugal or Spain for the contest, challenge the bull with their capes, taunting them with the words of “Otoro, otoro.” Crowds cheer as the bull makes its passes while the matador dances around his cape. The men in the ring face personal danger, but this is where the Portuguese bullfight is different from those in Europe and Mexico. You see, in the tradition of Queen Isabel, charity is the rule of this bullfight. The bull is not killed by the matador. Instead, the bull must face the forcados, also known as bull wrestlers.
The forcados spend their days as truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers. But, like the famous Turlock Suicide Squad, once a week between April and October, a group of eight men train to become forcados. This tight-knit group embodies a centuries-old tradition of the Portuguese whose goal is to wrestle the 1,500-pound bull into submission. The greatest honor is to be the first in line, striding toward the bull and staring into its eyes. As the bull lowers its head and charges, the forcado charges, too, placing himself between the horns of the bull while trying to maintain control of the animal to protect the others of his squad. The other forcados hurl themselves upon the bull, attempting to bring it to a standstill. Many of the forcados are tossed aside by the sheer strength of the bull. As much as this is considered a “bloodless” bullfight, it seems that no one has remembered to tell the bull.
Eventually, the forcados exhaust the bull to a point where they can wrestle it to a standstill. The bull and the forcados leave the ring content that they have given their all “” as it should be. Once a bull fights, it is put to pasture, as it is not allowed to become too wise as to the ways of the arena. The forcados heal their wounds to fight another day.
Leaving the festa, you sense that these small California towns have been transformed into something exotic. The sounds and smells are not familiar, yet you feel comfortable. They become like Portuguese villages “” perhaps the village of my parents in the Azores “” that remind you of the kindness and generosity of the Portuguese people.
If you are ever in the California Central Valley during the summer months, please check the following Web sites for information about area festas “” www.home.earthlink.net/~abreu/Festas1.html “” and bullfighting schedules “” www.bullfights.org/schedules/california “” and join us as we celebrate our Portuguese heritage.
Here’s a recipe for the traditional communal meal served each day of the festa.
4 pounds chuck roast, with fat trimmed and cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons allspice (place in a tea infuser to remove easily)
1 tablespoon ground pepper
4 sticks whole cinnamon
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 cup sauterne wine
2 teaspoons salt
1 head cabbage, chopped
5 sprigs fresh mint
French bread, sliced
In a large stockpot, brown the meat in the vegetable oil on high heat. Remove the meat and reduce the heat to medium; stir in the onion and garlic. Cook until softened (about 5 minutes). Add the meat, cumin, allspice, pepper, vinegar, cinnamon, tomato sauce, sauterne, and water to cover. Simmer, covered, for 6 to 8 hours. Approximately 45 minutes before the meat is done, remove the allspice and cinnamon sticks and add the salt, cabbage, and mint. Continue to cook until the cabbage is done. Serve over sliced French bread with the broth.