Portugal, New Bedford, Mass. The Ties That Bind

Ξ November 9th, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Interviews, New Bedford, PORTUGAL |

What follows is a bit of a departure for Reign of Terroir. Normally a space for a quiet conversation about some aspect of wine science, (agri)culture, wine history, or an international winegrowing region, today here is heard the constant throb of the diesel engines of a fishing vessel. I’ve recently returned from New Bedford, on the coast of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where my documentary Mother Vine enjoyed an East Coast premier at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The event was graciously hosted by Travessia Urban Winery. But the interview to follow has nothing to do with this.
Upon arriving in the coastal city, I went out to explore the local environs. The docks bristling with the masts of dozens of commercial ships was the first place I visited. Darkness was closing in, but subsequent visits, some quite late at night, I was always to find some activity on-going. Whether on the immediate shore or onboard a vessel, work could be witnessed. On one such occasion I took the picture you see above. And, a few ships removed, I tentatively arranged to speak with a captain who identified himself as Joe. The following morning, Joe did not appear. Neither was that his real name, I was to learn. Fishermen here are naturally suspicious for reasons you will learn below. Instead of Joe, I found Tony L. Santos, the owner and captain of the very vessel pictured above. And with his help, I was able to learn in a mere 20 minutes the framing circumstances of a fisherman’s life in New Bedford and beyond.
Ken Payton Good morning. A beautiful fishing boat you have. Could you please tell me your full name and tell me a little about yourself?
Tony Santos My name is Tony Santos. I am second generation. My family is from Figueira da Foz, on the mainland, near the coast. Right by the ocean.
I’ve met a number of people here already, mostly Azorians, and a few Cape Verdeans. This is an area well populated with Portuguese-Americans. So who might I meet in the community? Are the folks from all over Portugal?
TS Pretty much from all over the main continent, as fishermen themselves, draggers, for fish. Now, if you go into scallopers, you’ll meet mostly people from the Azores.
Why is that?
TS On scallopers, it’s mainly labor work; whereas on draggers for fish, you’ve got to have a little more skill, to mend nets and whatnot.
Why did your parents come to America?
TS To look for a better life. All my descendants, they are all fishermen.
Is this true of the Azorians here as well?
TS Not the Azorians, no. They come from more diverse backgrounds. Now if you go way, way back, into the 1800s and 1900s, then you get a lot of Azorian fishermen, especially for whale, from the time when New Bedford was a great whale port. Some of those families are still here, the second generation.
So would it be fair to say that New Bedford is the central hub of the Portuguese-American fishing community?
TS It would be fair to say of New Bedford and Fall River. Now, if you go into Fall River, you get a lot more Azorians. But they don’t work as fishermen. They work in factories and whatnot.
So how was New Bedford your family’s destination? How did they hear about it when living in Portugal?
TS OK. I was 8 years old when emigrated here. I was born in Portugal, of course. My father, being a fisherman, he was going into those Dories still fishing off the coast of Labrador. One day he decided to jump ship in Canada. It was so bad in Portugal, he figured he couldn’t support his family. So he was looking for a better life. He jumped ship in Canada, at Saint John’s.
He then worked the shore. He diversified. He did all kinds of work, different jobs. He worked in the tobacco fields as a laborer, a cement laborer… this was in Nova Scotia. He was there for three years, figuring he’d hand himself over to Immigration after that period of time, thinking that they would tell him he could now become a citizen, or at least be legalized in Canada. But the law had been changed to five years. (laughs) So when he handed himself in, they deported him back to Portugal! And he went to jail for one year.
And after he got out…
TS After the year in jail, he got a contract with the same people who had helped him out in Canada. So he went, and took all of his family. So we lived in Canada for six years before he jumped the border again into the United States, still looking for a better life. He landed here in New Bedford, looking for work as a fisherman. That was his background. He worked here for a year illegally. And then he went back to Canada to pick us up after he had gotten another contract, this time in the States. So here we are.
This puts an interesting spin on debates on-going here in the States around illegal immigrants. Look what your father was able to build! A life for his family…
TS That’s right. He did. He worked pretty hard. Now he is in a home for the elderly. He’s 80 years old, but it’s if he’s not even there: He’s got Alzheimer’s. So…
Only 80? My mother has it as well. Is there longevity in the Azorian and Portuguese mainland communities? After emigration, do they tend to live to a ripe old age? Does the work as a fisherman treat them well or does it wear them out?
TS I would say that it wears them down quite a bit, especially being a fisherman; it wears you down. I don’t think you live as long as a regular person working the shore. It is a tough, nerve-wracking profession.
Every time you go out, you’re put in harm’s way…
TS I can explain for myself? I am going through the same process. I started fishing back in ‘77 when I got out of the service for the United States, where I spent four years. I started fishing. I was going to stay in the service, but one of my cousins showed me his paycheck after a week’s work. That changed my mind! (laughs) It was then I wanted also to start a family. And I had always said I was not going to be like the rest of my family, being fishermen. I never wanted to be a fisherman. And still today, after 30 years, I still don’t want to be a fisherman. (laughs) But I am doing it.
Because of the paycheck…
TS No. It’s too late in life to start anything else. Right now I’m an owner of a fishing vessel, the T. Luis, a dragger, like I said. The vessel is named after me. ‘T’ for Tony, Luis, for my middle name. We are due to go out next week, but the way government cut our quota down, so it is not feasible to fish all year long. So I sold my quota to somebody else. And I’m tied up for six months, collecting unemployment. For the rest of the six months, I work down South, in Virginia and North Carolina.
And what will you do down there?
TS We fluke. It is a type of flounder. But we call them flukes, summer flounder, that’s what it’s called.
And you take the T. Luis down there?
TS Yes, we take this boat down there.
I saw all of your rigging and nets onboard. Are they used the same way for flounder?
TS The nets drag on the bottom, really close to the bottom; that’s where the flounder sit. It is a bottom-hugging fish. So the nets sweep it up.
There is a big market for flounder on the East Coast?
TS All over. It is exported to Japan, the Middle East… all over.
Could you tell me a little about your mother, if you don’t mind?
TS My mother, she’s also retired. She’s 81. When she came here, she worked in the fish factories while my father was fishing on draggers.
They married in Portugal, of course…
TS Yes, they met and married in Portugal. Actually they are cousins, they are first generation cousins. My grandparents are brothers. (laughs)
Did they marry because of how small was the village?
TS The village is small, where we came from. My father worked really close with my grandfather fishing over there. So because he was such a hard worked, my grandfather figured this was the kind of guy for my mother today!
And do you have children?
TS I have two girls and a boy.
Have any of your children shown an interest in fishing, in joining you on the vessel?
TS Negative! Nooo. I wouldn’t want them to anyway.
You’ve worked very hard so they could have a better life.
TS That’s right. I’ve tried as hard as I could.
Are they professionals?
TS They are. One is a teacher. One is a psychologist. And my son dropped out of college after two years…
And you didn’t like that on little bit…
TS I didn’t like it because I ended up paying for two years for nothing. And now he is taking care of deficient kids.
Do you ever go back to Portugal?
TS I go back to Portugal on occasion, maybe every five years. I try to go there, yes. I go back to Figueira da Foz. But since I was such a little kid when I left, I really don’t know much about Portugal. So when I go there, I try to go to different spots, to see the cultures. I still feel attached. I still feel attached, yes.
And in your house do you have mementos from the old country, from your parents?
TS My parents own a house back in Portugal. That’s where we stay when we visit. I think if you work hard enough, you build something up, you know? That was his plan. He wanted to retire and live in Portugal in the house that he built. Unfortunately, because of illness, my mother couldn’t take care of him, so he had to come back here to the States.
Do you have dual citizenship?
TS Yes, Portuguese and American. Two passports! (laughs)
It must be very expensive to keep up a boat like this…
TS Yes, it is. We pay $35,000 just for insurance. We pretty much break even at the end of the season.
But it’s been a rich, rewarding life…
TS … tiring, I’m fed up… not so much with fishing but with federal regulations. When you leave port, you’re always on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because you don’t know it you’re going to something wrong and somebody’s going to catch you. Although you try to do the best you can to be within the law, there’s always a little here that you break, and you get nailed for it.
They are always watching.
TS The Coast Guard, the Federal agents on shore, yes. Always watching.
Well, let’s see… The weather is nice today!
TS The weather is nice today, but come wintertime, you get two days of nice weather and the third is awful. You leave port under clear skies, sail for a day, then you get hammered and have to stop; because I don’t risk my crew or my boat. So we stop. And wait for better weather before we put out the nets.
Since I usually write about wine, let me ask, do you drink Portuguese wine?
TS I don’t drink at all. If you really look at the Portuguese people, they are known for drinkin’. They like their wine. But I don’t. (laughs) For some reason…
Wonderful, Mr. Santos. Thank you for your time.
TS You are very welcome.
Ken Payton, Admin


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