Casa Portuguesa: Growing up in an immigrant family

Portuguese family Okanagan
Sonia in the orchard (left) and in front of the picker’s cabin (right), 1981

Uma Casa PortuguesaUma Casa Portuguesa / A Portuguese Home (song)

When the snow began falling late on Christmas Eve, my kids and I were mesmerized by the magic spreading out before us – it’s rare that we get a white Christmas on the West Coast. But while we watched, I couldn’t help but think of how different our reaction was to that of my Azorean mother’s in her first year in Canada. For her, who had never experienced it, the snow brought on a feeling of claustrophobia and panic. “Oh my God, everything is being covered,” she would later recall.

My parents arrived in British Columbia’s interior with only a few dollars to their name, living for the first few years in a picker’s cabin in the orchard where they worked. This was my first home. They laugh now about the conditions, including making toast on a coat hanger over the stove. I never realized that we were poor. I was simply happy. One of my earliest memories is of placing another log on the fire in our cozy family home.

Looking back now, it seems idyllic: childrearing via tailgate, eating lunch in the back of my father’s pickup in the summer. Running barefoot by choice between the fruit trees and on the scorching pavement, unaware that my parents had walked to school every day without shoes because they didn’t have any, (no one in their school had shoes to wear). At home, we had the mandatory grape vines in the back yard. Next to them, my maternal grandmother, who lived with us and spoke no English, would hang the laundry on the clothes line. To this day, sunbaked sheets are one of my favourite smells.

Across town, my many cousins and I would occasionally be dropped off at my paternal grandparents’ house for the day. My avó was a well-known link in the Portuguese gossip network, which she operated from her 1970s kitchen chair and the black wall-mounted rotary phone in the basement living room, (upstairs was used for special occasions only). No one in the extended family or from the Old Country married, moved, or died without her knowing about it.

The seasons of my childhood were defined by the elements of Portuguese culture: faith, food, and music.

The seasons of my childhood were defined by the elements of Portuguese culture: faith, food, and music. Between, during and around Catholic Holy Days, we ate, drank, and danced as a family. Summer meant making malasadas (sweet fried dough) at the picnic table in avó’s driveway and dipping them immediately in sugar. In autumn, the adults made wine in our backyard, and the kids drank freshly pressed grape juice until we felt sick. Inside, my grandmother’s bread dough grew in the large green basin covered with tea towels. Once baked, the crust would be cut off immediately, consumed warm and buttered.

Christmas was the most important time of the year, when all the local aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered (upstairs!) at my grandparents’ house. The meal, however, was a typical North American holiday feast featuring turkey and mashed potatoes, a custom that my family had immediately adopted after immigrating. The only Portuguese dishes were a meat stuffing and traditional baked goods. The beverages were a cultural mix: anise liquor or homemade wine for the adults, and the unpleasant combination of Crème de Menthe and 7Up for the children.

After the women had cleaned up and the men had played a few rounds of cards, young and old would move into the “fancy” living room and do, of all things, the Chicken Dance – a treasured family tradition whose origins remain a mystery to me. Then, desgarradas: improvised folk songs with back and forth responses between singers. Songs such as “Casa Portuguesa” were played regularly and would stay with me more than I realized, as a reminder of the history and culture that not-so-quietly attached itself to my Canadian identity.

It was a simple time in my life, when expectations were unspoken but understood. The stereotypically Portuguese tough love was alive and well, and comes through in my parenting today – though it is not always understood by Canadian friends and family. Though for a time I ran from my roots because they weren’t “cool”, as an adult I am reconnecting with my culture through everything from Facebook groups and Portuguese comedy to traditional festas, and sharing that with my children.

My parents, now Canadian citizens themselves, couldn’t be happier.


Author: Sonia Nicholson

Sonia Nicholson is an archivist, executive assistant, and writer. She was born and raised in Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada and studied French and Spanish at the University of Victoria. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, two children, and two rescue dogs. Follow her on Twitter @nicholsonsonia_