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August 27, 2004

Letter from Santa Clara

Into a Luso Zone

 By Bill Costley

We've moved to Santa Clara, California three times now, twice into apartments, but this time, we've bought a house in what we now realize was once (and still is) a Luso/Portuguese Zone: it's been lived in by Luso-Americans for decades; the families on either side of us still are.

On our right, a row of molar-shaped, striding, espaliered shrubs form a startling hedge. Seeing them, a Czech emigrant who came from nearby Los Gatos to buy our 2nd-hand hand-mower immediately asked me if I were Portuguese. Those shrubs were apparently the give-away.

Rosalie Wilson, widow of William Wilson, a former mayor of Santa Clara, confirms that as far back as she knows it (in the last century), Santa Clara was Portuguese. Actually, Santa Clara's Portuguese community goes back at least to the late 19th century. Their S.E.S. (Santo Espiritu) Church, not far from here, is dated 1896.

Click on the Comcast cable-TV here, in Santa Clara, and among multiple Spanish-language networks, you'll find a lone, part-time Portuguese-language channel  — RPT, Radio-TV Portugal — reporting directly from there daily. So far, I've quickly learned to pronounce Algarve without a terminal e-acute by listening to the daily report from that region.

What do our other friends around San Francisco Bay think of Luso/Portugueseness? Julia Ball, a play&musical director up the peninsula in Palo Alto, who had lived for years in Spain, recalls that Spain was slatternly, but neighboring Portugal pin-neat. Roberta Loach, a painter&printmaker in Kensington, bordering Berkeley, fondly recalls a Luso-American she dated in school who went on to become a very successful housing developer in the upscale community of Saratoga, bordering similarly upscale Los Gatos.

Some Luso-Americans, however, still struggle with a negative self-image. Take the sunburnt rummy I met outside a local supermarket here who stemmed me for a quarter "to make a phone-call"  (I gave him the 22 cents I had in my pocket) telling me he was “full-blooded” Portuguese, but that “Portuguese weren't stupid.” I answered that I'd never thought they were, and in fact, I'd once worked with Ed Pacheco Sr., a Portuguese-American press-photographer in Cambridge, Massachusetts who was in occupied Vienna during and after WW2, and who told me personal stories about it even more cinematic than Orson Welles' film The Third Man, set there.

I then told the rummy that Massachusetts (where I'm from) has large Portuguese communities in Cambridge, Fall River, and New Bedford — to which he'd once been as a child. We were soon in a Portuguese zone of good will, but I still couldn't bring myself to tell him that my best-friend in R.C. prep-school, Joao Cabral, was later accidentally driven straight off the edge of a carrier in his navy fighter into the South China sea in an unusual Portuguese navigator's wasteful instant death.

Bill Costley is a greater-Boston poet who recently moved to Santa Clara for the 3rd-time.