I originally published this piece in my old weekly column in the Portuguese Times after a visit by the freshly minted nobel laureate José Saramago to the Casa de Saudade Library in New Bedford Massachusetts, a library and community center in the heart of one of the largest communities of Portuguese, Azorean and Cape Verdean migrants in the United States. RIP Sararamago.. Josay Saeraymaygoe October 28, 1999 The Portuguese Times José Saramago entered the Casa de Saudade Library this past Saturday morning with much ceremony but little pomp. Waiting for the Nobel Laureate as he entered the library foyer were a collection of children, some holding papers, others grasping books, all eager to receive souvenir signatures from a man whose books the children were surely too young to have ever read. Once inside, Saramago made his way around the room shaking hands with prominent community members, politicians, and directors of this and that, as stretching necks followed tippy-toe level eyes that slowly rotated around the room as Saramago made his way through it. Invited guests and politicians paid homage to “Josay Saeraymaygoe” before the Nobel Laureate took the podium to deliver a talk that was at times as elegiac and poetic in his words about the Portuguese communities of New England (declaring the Casa de Saudade Library a house not of tears and desire for what is wanted but a place where what is desired can become realized) as it was prone to the cheap and easy attempt for a laugh (with no fewer than three references to bacalhau).
The audience was transfixed. I have never seen a Portuguese audience so mesmerized by a speaker that was not their own child or a Pope before and in this, the audience had great reason. Here in front of us was a man who, with his Nobel, has been internationally recognized for recognition as a writer of great prominence and influence, an elite among elites in a world of literature, and who happens to be Portuguese. Portuguese?
There may have been a tremendous respect for Saramago the writer, but what made his presence so important to those in attendance was the sense of pride in that room over the fact that this was not just an internationally prominent writer, but an internationally prominent Portuguese writer. The world already has its Gabriel Garcia Marquezes and Toni Morrisons and Seaumus Haneys, who act as prominent symbols of identity and pride for those groups who feel these individuals represent them, but Portuguese-Americans have rarely had an individual who has been able to galvanize them in such a dramatic way outside of that individual’s place within the national consciousness, at least it has been rare that the one galvanizing the community in a positive way was someone living.
I will be the first to talk about her legacy as witting or unwitting tool of the Estado Novo, but the passing of Amália Rodrigues is a case in point. What was a big deal for Portuguese here in America and in Portugal, her death was little noted in other places. HDS Greenway recalled Amália's death in the ‘Editorial Notebook’ of the Boston Globe (October 24, 1999 p. E6) noting that in a world of increasing communication and information dispersal it was remarkable that a woman with such importance among one community in the world would be so little felt outside of that community. (Greenway was only aware of Amália—and never forgot her—as he was haunted by her song, having heard her encantar passengers in an impromptu performance on a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage many years ago.)
Although Amália may have only gained scant recognition beyond Portugal, Saramago has obviously been celebrated globally. And if Portuguese identity in America is to become something celebrated and not something run from, such symbols are important.
Music, of course, can cross the barrier of language to touch anyone, but these trends also continue as the Portuguese world is opened to non-Portuguese speakers with the printed word. With the publication of Frank Fagundes’ English translation of Nemésio’s Azorean epic Mau Tempo no Canal and as newer works by Luso-Americans such as Frank Gaspar’s wonderful novel about the Portuguese community of Provincetown Leaving Pico join older works such as Katherine Vaz’s acclaimed Saudade, a wider audience outside of Portuguese circles will have increasingly more points of reference when attempting to understand this group of individuals who articulate their identity as Portuguese.
Fame exists in communities large and small, but fame is not what marks quality. No matter how critically acclaimed are Saramago’s works, his greatest contribution may come in an area that has little to do with his writing: his fame allows him to serve as a prominent cultural symbol, a symbol in which the Nobel winner is able to represent the qualities that Portuguese in America would like to demonstrate about themselves to an outside world.
“Josay Saeraymaygoe” accomplishes this. He may also accomplish more, as the values he reflects to an outside non-Portuguese world may also be reflected within it. How else to explain the clamoring children who in all likelihood never even read a single word written by the man from whom they so eagerly sought an autograph?
I saw this clearly as I stood in the back of the Casa da Saudade library on Saturday morning. Barely able to see the podium and fighting to hear over the distance between myself and the crackle of the loudspeakers, a young child, perhaps no more than 10 years old was climbing all over the book shelves near me in the back of the room as all of the adults were transfixed by the speaker in front of them. Mission accomplished, he found a book for which he had long been searching and ran through the standing adults. Finding his mother, he grabbed her leg excitedly, squealing without breathing in between words that-he-had-two-of-the-other-books-in-the-series-and-that-he-did-not-know-that-this-one-existed-and-that-he-was-going-to-check-the-book-out. His mother was left admonishing the air to be quiet because the young boy was already running over to the librarian so that he could check the book out and take it home to read.
Perhaps the symbolism of Saramago to the broader world may be an important contribution for Portuguese-America. But if Saramago’s presence caused the excited boy’s mother to bring him to the library, then symbolism is certainly not his most important contribution.