How My Family and I became White
Our theme for October is Heritage. My Sundays with you during the coming month will touch upon various aspects of Heritage including how our Unitarian Universalist heritage is changing, how the re-emerging field of epigenetics is influencing how we think about evolution, but also how trauma is passed on genetically, and what inheritance do we wish to leave to our descendants, the future members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Danbury? As we enter into this month of thinking about heritage, I invite you to reflect on your own personal heritage and history. Something I find fascinating about my own heritage is that once upon a time my family was considered “other.” The American heritage of white supremacy culture not only make black and brown people inferior, it robs those it allows to become white of their own diverse heritage. I offer my story to help you start reflecting on your own.
In the 1988 movie Mystic Pizza, Julia Roberts plays Daisy, one of three Portuguese American Catholic working-class sisters who are wait staff at a pizza parlor in Mystic, CT. Daisy meets a guy and falls in love but ends the relationship when it becomes apparent that the guy’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestant family is both racist and classist and have nothing but disdain for Daisy and her people. When Daisy goes to the guy’s home for dinner, she’s surprised but not shocked to find one of her friends is the family maid.
Even in 1988 when I first saw this film, I recognized my own family’s history in it. My mom’s grandparents, the Carloses and Figueiredos, all came from the Azores to New Bedford, MA between 1890 and 1903. No one spoke English. I’m going to focus on my grandmother’s family, the Figueiredos as they were a much larger clan. My grandmother, Alberta Figueredo, was born in 1912, married John Carlos, an electrician’s apprentice, in 1933, and my mom was born in 1936. Alberta Figueredo and her 6 siblings were all fluent in Portuguese as well as English, all practicing Catholics, and all working class – mechanics, gardeners, farmers. All but one, Gloria, married other Portuguese immigrant men and women. My mom and her sister were raised in English. Both understood Portuguese into middle-age but couldn’t speak it. The last fluent Portuguese speaker, my great aunt Bernadine Figueiredo Vierra – who we called “Tata” – died in 1998. Neither my mom nor my aunt married Portuguese immigrants, although my aunt married an Irish Catholic. My dad was an atheist although my brother and I were raised Catholic. By the time my mom was in high school, the Portuguese lived outside the old immigrant neighborhoods and were becoming more ingrained into mainstream, White, New Bedford society. My grandparents bought a house in a White neighborhood in Mattapoisett in the 1950s. My mom and aunt were the first people in the history of my family to attend and graduate from college. My brother is a none – nonreligious, and I’m a Unitarian-Universalist convert from Catholicism. My brother married a Palestinian Orthodox Christian. I married a French Canadian Catholic and then recently a German American Episcopalian and former Lutheran. I am the only one of my generation in our extended family who stills cooks – and knows the recipes for traditional Azorean-American food like malasadas, cacoila, stewed green beans, kale soup, and sweet bread.
My son is a none, and my nephew is being raised nonreligious. No one knows Portuguese. My generation is all college-educated, most are non-practicing Catholics, and in contemporary America we can’t consider ourselves anything but White. My brother and I still root for Portugal in the world cup. But we’re American, naturalized, homogenized, White-washed, and now White Americans with all the privileges afforded to that reality. But once upon a time, just two generations ago, my family was not considered White and faced the discrimination and slurs that went with being new immigrants with darker skin who spoke a different language. I hope this helps you ponder your heritage and where you fit in – or don’t – to the complexity of American culture and history.