You might have heard of Little Portugal in London, the nickname for the large Portuguese community in the South Lambeth area of South London, but did you know there’s a very large Portuguese community in Massachusetts in the USA? Fall River, an industrial town that’s about 1 hour and 20 minutes south of Boston, is home to the largest concentration of Portuguese people in the whole of the United States.
As of 2018, 46 percent of Fall River Residents claim Portuguese heritage. As a comparison, despite Americans being known for claiming Irish or Italian heritage, just 19 percent of people in Greater Boston claim Irish heritage and just 12 percent in New York City have Italian ancestry. Much like you see Irish surnames on businesses throughout Boston, you see Portuguese surnames on driving schools, on liquor stores, funeral homes, and just about every business around.
Examples of Portuguese culture can be seen from the Portas da Cidade monument, a replica of the same monument in Ponta Delgada on São Miguel in the Azores, and the Santo Christo church on canal street. If you visit during August, you can join in the festivities of the Azorean Great Feast of the Holy Ghost Festival, which normally takes place at Kennedy Park on the corner of South Main and Bradford streets.
Fall River isn’t the most beautiful town in Massachusetts, it has to be said. The decline of industry in the region has meant that the town sometimes has a rundown and left-behind feel. Online forums typically summarise it as not bad, but it’s not great either.
However, while that might discourage people from moving there permanently, it doesn’t stop people driving through the area stopping off to take advantage of the many wonderful Portuguese restaurants, bakeries, shops, and cafes that are dotted around the town.
Pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts), malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts), linguiça (Portuguese smoked sausage), and massa sovada (Portuguese sweet bread), are some of the most popular items that visitors shop for. While many items are imported from Portugal, many items, including the linguiça and chouriço, are made locally at companies like Mello’s Chourico & Linguica, Michael’s Provision Co, and New England Sausage Company.
Why are there so many Portuguese?
According to James W. Fonseca, author of Making History – Creating a Landscape: The Portuguese American Community of Southeastern New England, the initial reason for the large wave of Portuguese immigration was due to whaling. At one point, New Bedford, where 38 percent of residents claim Portuguese ancestry, was the whaling capital of the world and boats would stop off at the Azores for provisions and come back with Portuguese immigrants.
When the whaling industry began to decline in the 1860s, the textile industry boomed, bringing over more Portuguese who came to work in the textile factories in the region.
A third immigration boom happened during the 1957 eruption of the Capelinhos volcano on the Azorean island of Faial, which led the United States to lift immigration quotas for Portuguese citizens. As a result, many Portuguese evacuees came to areas where other Portuguese speakers had settled before them.
Portuguese immigration slowed down in the 1980s, and was largely replaced by immigration from Brazil. As a result of both Portuguese and Brazilian immigration, Portuguese is the second most spoken foreign language in the Greater Boston area, after Spanish.
But while there’s a strong connection to Portugal among its residents, there’s a strong tie to the US, especially among the younger Portuguese-Americans.
“I love visiting Portugal, especially for the food, but I wouldn’t move back there,” says my Uber driver, Ana. Her grandparents moved from Portugal to the US without a word of English, but her parents temporarily moved back to Portugal, before moving back to Fall River when Ana was 7. Today’s her day off from her main job as a lawyer, but she often finds herself bored on her days off and so decided to take up driving an Uber.
“In Portugal, when I ask people what they want in life they say things like to find a good partner or to have kids. I’m like, that ain’t enough for me! They say who’s going to take care of you when you’re older. I’m like, the same people who’ll take care of you in the nursing home we’re both going to.
“I make close to six figures in my day job, more in a year than my mother [who worked in a fish factory and made up for her low wages with food stamps] made in a lifetime, and that’s as a woman and a black person. I will leave the US one day, but for now I’m happy living the American dream.”
Shops and Supermarkets
There are several Portuguese shops dotted around Fall River, but the biggest and most popular is Portugalia Marketplace. Located in a strip mall on Bedford Street, surrounded by a KFC and a CVS, this supermarket stocks products from all over Portugal, but especially the Azores.
Surprisingly, despite being located more than 5,000 miles from Portugal, this supermarket arguably has a more extensive range of Portuguese products than most supermarkets in Portugal. There’s even an entire separate room for bacalhau.
Barcelos Cafe, just a 6-minute walk from Portugalia Marketplace, is one of the most popular cafes in this part of Fall River, and on Saturday mornings every table is filled with Portuguese-speaking residents. The cafe serves Portuguese cakes like pastéis de nata and bolos de arroz, but amongst the Portuguese delicacies are also American treats like cookies and Fall-themed pumpkin coffee cake.
Europa Pastries, a cafe which specialises in food from all over Europe, has the claim to having the best pastel de nata in Fall River, although it’s not the best in the region. That claim goes to New Bedford’s Goulart Square Bakery, which garnered 898 of the votes in a recent “pastel de nata throwdown” with Europa cafe receiving a modest 177. But while Europa cafe’s nata offering isn’t quite up there with the best pastéis de nata in Lisbon, it does have one unique offering that’s worth trying: a Boston cream pie pastel de nata, which combines Boston and Portugal’s regional sweet treats.
Lou’s Bakery on the corner of East Main Street and Globe Street is another local spot, particularly for its sweet breads, malassadas, and meat pies. On Saint Patricks’ Day, they offer green malassadas, which are incredibly popular with local residents.
There are Portuguese restaurants and churrasqueiras all over Fall River, and many, like Barca, Sagres, Caldeira Restaurant, and Caravela Restaurant have excellent reviews with reviewers proclaiming that each restaurant is the place to get Portuguese food in Fall River.
Most of the dishes are what you would expect to find in Portugal – dishes like Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, Polvo Grelhado, Carne de Porco à Alentejana, and “littlenecks” à Bulhão Pato. But there are also a few dishes that you won’t find easily in Portugal.
Meat lovers should look out for the Portuguese take on grinders, a New England Italian-American sandwich that’s similar to a hoagies or po’boy. Places like Rosaria’s Diner use the locally-made chouriço and linguiça to give this traditionally Italian sandwich a new Portuguese twist.