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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

André Belo

Historian, Université Rennes 2, Rennes

This paper is dedicated to my goddaughter Laura, who turned 18 in 2016. Indeed it was 18 years ago that I left Portugal for France on a distant day in early October 1998. Laura was born in the middle of summer that year and, coincidentally, I left soon after. Today, I look at Laura and see her as a (beautiful) woman that represents the physical reality of the years in which she has set her course in my country without me. Both she and my emigration, in adulthood, started out together. In this article, Laura is a form of anti-homesickness, of time turning into an adult, and – like the beautiful name she has – the muse that inspires these words.

Wondering about yourself, about the past, about your relationship with your original community, social environment, family, all this, I imagine, is part of the usual experience of any migrant that has uprooted and thus been able to compare different ways of life. In the case of a country like Portugal, such has been the experience of many people and generations over time, massively in the 20th century (to Brazil in the first half of the century and to richer European countries from 1960 onwards). The fact that today we live in a globalised and hyper-connected world of travel and ex-patriate residence of varied duration and intensity does not alter the anchorage that the phenomenon of Portuguese migration has held since ancient history and which, at times, seems to belong exclusively to the past. Proof of that is seen in the recent years of economic crisis and impoverishment of the population, marked by resorting massively once again to emigration, in numbers similar to those of the 1960s, something that only a few years ago one would have thought impossible.

I also have the feeling of being heir to a past that seemed to want to “tag” the present, like the Blind Man’s Buff game children play. Unless it was the other way round–it may have been me, my presence drifting ingloriously back to the past. When I arrived in Paris at the age of 27 to do a PhD thesis, I was returning to the city where I had been born but with of which I had no memory of ever having lived in. My parents, both Portuguese, met, married and had children there, but returned to Portugal in 1974, before I was old enough to store any memory of that time. Nor indeed of their life together, as my parents separated shortly after their return. Many years later, when preparing lessons on Portuguese emigration in the French university where I work, I read that the emigrants who went to France in the 1960s and 1970s often followed in the footsteps of the generations that preceded them in the 1950s and even earlier, during the interwar period. I gradually realised that my journey was not original and that, through some invisible path, it was the result of a kind of beckoning from the past, even if it was only my fantasy of that past. This realisation was certainly strengthened by the fact that my mother had worked all her life as a social worker supporting Portuguese emigrants, first in France from 1967, and then in Portugal from 1977. Indeed, this text is not only for Laura, it is also for her, my mother Silveria.

It has often been said that you have to travel to open your eyes. I believe my first experience of such a vision, only possible to achieve from a distance, was shortly after arriving in Paris when I was living in a large university residence with other Portuguese, I noticed the way my countrymen, when in a group, found it difficult to be separate from each other, unlike what seemed to occur with students from other countries. For example, if we were getting ready to go and have lunch in the canteen, you always had to wait for someone else to come and have lunch with you, which made me impatient–proof that I also found it difficult to be alone. Armed with my theoretical background in social sciences, to me this conduct depicted an ancient and profound anthropological trait in Portuguese society, shared with other Mediterranean regions of Southern Europe, where individualism played a very insignificant role. I thought that such forms of group behaviour revealed more about the people and the society where I came from than so many well-worn stereotypes about Fado, ‘Saudade’ or the Portuguese being a devout Catholic people and great navigators.

Throughout the years living abroad, I realised that stereotypes are not only very resistant (‘ils ont la vie dure’, as they say in French), but also have their share of truth. Like the witches in the Spanish saying: we do not believe in them, but ‘haberlas, haylas’ (‘they’re out there’). I was gradually overwhelmed by a feeling similar to Portuguese Saudade with a capital S, together with the persistent fantasy of returning home (not necessarily destined to actually take place, as is the way with all fantasies). I can imagine sharing this thought with many fellow emigrants, just as I share with them concrete and highly-structured feelings about language, cuisine or football.

However, as we all know, sharing an imaginary community is not always harmonious. It also depends to a great extent on how others see it. The image can shatter into pieces, depending on where we are and who is looking at us. The old question of social distinction and class differences intrudes here, like in so many other things, and can turn everything into a personal matter. Sometimes, in my daily life, I am greeted, albeit in good fun, with the cliché of the Portuguese immigrant construction worker. Generally, it does not bother me, firstly because I realise that there is some sociological truth behind that cliché, and secondly, because I honestly envy those who, regardless of where they come from, work well with their hands and can solve complicated DIY problems. However, in certain social settings, e.g. between university colleagues, using this cliché about the Portuguese to make a cheap joke based on social prejudice can actually upset me quite a bit (the anecdote is true and the joke came from a distinguished author of books dealing with subtle psychological matters). In my ponderings over the years, I came to the conclusion that the old stereotype of unskilled Portuguese immigrants–even if it does not match the real situation at present–partly explains the feeble recognition, even today, of Portuguese as a language of culture in French universities and, before that, in secondary education. This affects my own teaching post, because I have only a few students and, in most cases, they are children or grandchildren of immigrants. Furthermore, in my relationships with them, I fluctuate between the complicity of having a common origin and the desire to break with the ‘identifying’ character of teaching Portuguese, a rupture that I consider is indispensable if this teaching is to develop.

I also remember a time when I used to write a blog from Paris for Portuguese readers and a colleague of mine from Lisbon, a historian like me, vehemently refused to accept that I was an emigrant given that my departure for France was not due to economic reasons. Emigrants are the other half, he told me quietly, not from our social class. The Portuguese cultural elite, or those that see themselves as such, have always left their home country and have always seen themselves as cosmopolitan travellers, not as emigrants. They refused and still refuse to accept the image that they have in their mind of the Portuguese economic migrant. They still make fun of the migrants that return to the “little land” for their summer holiday, because of their lacking social graces, the gauche taste of their “maison type” houses, the ‘emigrants’ dialect’ they speak. Like in a game of Boules in which the objective is just to make some balls push the others away, the negative social image projected in a certain social setting destabilises other social media, that seek to distinguish themselves from the former, refusing to identify with a group whose origin, in certain contexts, takes away their ‘social lustre’.

In the movie ‘Moradores’ (Residents), the French director Jeanne Dressen shows the extreme case of the Portuguese that live on the small island of Groix in Southwest Brittany, who originally went there in the 1960’s to build a dam. They ended up staying and monopolised the construction industry. For other islanders on Groix, they are Portuguese and stonemasons. When they cross the channel and go to the Breton coast, they are known as islanders, ‘groisillons’, and, of course, when they return to Portugal, they are the ‘French’.

Now that my migration has come of age, I would like to fraternise with my fellow migrants, whether Portuguese or not, based on the experience of becoming aware of oneself and of the others I mentioned at the beginning of this paper. And I would like to bring my Parisian neighbour on board in this venture, a car mechanic and ‘handyman’ who boasted of having mastered several languages by working with other migrants and learning to communicate with all of them. Unfortunately, such an apparently cosmopolitan professional situation often fails to lead to civic or even political awareness. We have the example of Portuguese immigration in France, which for many years has been used as a weapon of discrimination against North African communities. Singled out as an example of integration compared to others that refuse to integrate, Portuguese emigrants rarely try to dismantle this form of racism that actually concerns them and belittles them. I will never forget how I once saw Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003, at the time French Minister of the Interior, addressing the members of a Portuguese association in Neuilly-sur-Seine and making exactly that same sad speech of setting the Portuguese against ‘Arabs’, and receiving applause from the crowded room. I have never felt so far removed from my ‘imagined community’, which was very tangible there.

At about the same time I came to live in France, Portuguese cities began to see a much bigger influx of immigrants than usual as a result of the economic boom that took place at that time. Portuguese construction companies started offering low wages and poor working conditions to Brazilian, Slav and African immigrants. Many people at the time were angry to see how a country that had experienced so much ‘emigration’ should also, like others, participate and uphold discrimination and exploitation. I do not believe there is any great mystery or grounds for pessimism in this fact. We do not learn from abstract collective or historical experience but from concrete moments in a given generation, and individually, to each his own.

What does help us to see ourselves more clearly as a community are works of art that help change our primary identifications. For example, ‘The Lisboners’ (2004), the beautiful film by Sergio Tréfaut that played an important role in depicting the many Portuguese who had a new, human perspective on migrants arriving in Lisbon. The film shows that when we are seen by migrants, this time from within, that appearance adds to the whole set of appearances that make us what we are and enriches us. That too is the spirit behind this beautiful Encyclopedia and it is therefore a great honour to be in it.