Friday, August 04, 2006

Just a Portuguese farm boy from Los Angeles

I was born in the Azores Islands—a colony of Portugal 800 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. Some people claim the Azores are the peaks of the lost continent of Atlantis.

My father left the Azores for America before my mother and me. He got a job milking dairy cows in Southern California. When I was 2, he sent for us. Our first American home was a dairy farm in Los Angeles County, once known as "Dairy Valley," now the city of Cerritos. A huge shopping mall squats where our dairy farm was. All the open fields are solid tracts of houses, and a local community college.

Still, I remember the magic of the open fields, the smell of the cows and barns, the muddy roads in the winter, the smell of alfalfa ripening in the summer. Even more, I remember feeling connected to the universe, as I stared up at the planets and stars in the clear dark night sky. In this realm there seemed to be no problems. Until I went to school.

All my life I've felt like a minority within a minority. I grew up in a mixed community of Portuguese, Mexicans, and Dutch. The Portuguese were the fewest. First grade stunned me: my first encounter with English-speaking kids. The first word I learned in English was "stupid." They didn't understand why I didn't understand them. Eventually I learned English, and became a translator for my parents and the world around them.

When I was eight, my parents considered moving back to the Azores. I thought: Why should "I"—this particular self—be in America rather than the Azores? Why was I born "there" rather than "here"? Thus began my philosophical quest. That I would even think of asking such a question made me different from the other children. I tried to like baseball and football, but my appetite for reality became more intense, and refused to go away.

When I was much older, I realized that my parents had never really left the Azores. They talked about life on the Islands all the time—the physical beauty, the deep sense of community. Part of that community had rebuilt itself in Southern California. Those who were here kept sending for those back there. Yet they remained alienated from mainstream American culture.

I watched television for hours, wanting to be like the English-speaking people on the screen. Why couldn't my family be like them? I loved newscasts from New York City. In my high school public-speaking classes, my ideal was to deliver a speech like a New York City newscaster. Just like many American farm boys, I wanted to go to the big city. But I was already in the middle of a big city—Los Angeles. I just didn't realize it yet.