People, Races, Ethnicity in the U.S. Portuguese Americans

About the Portuguese Americans in the U.S. including where they are from, why they left, how many there are, famous Portuguese-Americans and more.


Where They Came From: "It has become almost a habit, in the Azores, to emigrate to the U.S.," wrote Donald R. Taft in a 1923 study of Portuguese immigrants. The Azores are still the prime source of Portuguese Americans, with Madeira and mainland Portugal a distant second and third.

Why They Left: In the 19th century, Azoreans were particularly tempted by the New England ships that made regular visits to their islands. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes on the Azorean island of Faial sent several thousand refugees to the U.S. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But poor economic conditions, along with an uncertain political situation, still account for most emigration from Portugal.

Where They Settled: By 1776 a scattering of Portuguese were living in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and South Carolina. During the middle years of the 19th century, New England whaling ships brought several thousand Portuguese, many of them whalers, from the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands to New England, the Hawaiian Islands, and California. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and California continued to be the targets of Portuguese immigrants when they arrived in even greater numbers at the turn of the century. Oakland evolved into the biggest Portuguese center in California, with New Bedford and Fall River, Mass., as its counterparts in the East. Other favored states: New York and Pennsylvania.

Numbers: The first sizable wave of Portuguese immigrants peaked between 1900 and 1920, when about 159,000 Portuguese entered the U.S. (many also went home again). After 1965, Portuguese immigration zoomed up--from 2,000 in 1965 to 13,200 in 1970. In 1975, Portugal lost more citizens to the U.S. than any other European country: 11,800. In one decade, 1965 to 1975, the number of Portuguese resident aliens in the U.S. climbed from 37,000 to 115,000.

Their Story in America: The Portuguese have distinguished themselves in California as leaders in 19th-century whaling and 20th-century tuna fishing and dairy farming. In New England, the Portuguese have traditionally worked in cotton mills, fished, and farmed.

Active in Portuguese benefit societies and Catholic churches, Portuguese immigrants have tended to be indifferent to politics. A 1911 Immigration Commission report showed that 94.5% of a group of 546 Portuguese men had taken no steps toward becoming citizens. In fact, there have been times when the number of Portuguese leaving the U.S. has exceeded the number entering.

Those who have stayed have often readily changed their names--Luis to Lewis, Pavao to Peacock, Rodrigues to Rogers. In spite of the efforts of Portuguese-American cultural associations, the Portuguese, a relatively small immigrant group, have not been highly visible in the U.S. That may be changing; Portuguese have constituted one of the bigger immigrant groups in the last decade. These new immigrants, like many of the earlier ones, are usually unskilled workers.

Famous Portuguese Americans: Novelist john Dos Passos; bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa; and Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, first European to arrive in California.

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