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This is an excerpt from a book I am writing for my children, grandchildren, and generations yet to come. Having lost my Dad recently, I realize more than ever how important it is to share the stories of my homeland and the proud heritage of our ancestors. We come from a long line of self-determined individuals who survived extreme poverty and political oppression. Our story needs to be told and retold so that this and future generations will know the sacrifices that were made before them, and never take our freedoms for granted.
A few years ago, my father confessed that the day I was born was the first and only time he ever stole anything in his life. It was the middle of winter and they had no money for firewood, so he took it from a neighbor's land in order to keep me and my mother warm. There were tears in his eyes as he shared this story with me shortly before his death.
Back then, Portugal was like a third world country, especially for peasant families like us. I never went hungry that I can remember, but my father did, many times. At 3 he was sleeping in the barn with his 4 year old brother and by the time they were 6 and 7, both were working for a living. Their job was to load up a donkey with cobblestones and cart them to construction crews that were rebuilding Portugal's infrastructure at the time.
The year was 1932 and Antonio Salazar had just come to power. At first it seemed he was just what the country needed to bring it into the 20th century. But rather than the savior everyone was hoping for, Salazar became a virtual dictator in the manner of Franco and Mussolini.
Shortly before leaving Portugal in 1960. From left: Tio Manuel (an uncle who had connections to facilitate bureaucratic red tape in Lisbon), my Mom, brother (Rick), Dad and me.
By the time I was born in the 1950's, conditions had improved slightly, but as peasants we were still at the very bottom of the heap. Corruption was rampant and jobs went to the highest bidder or favored connections. Without jobs, money, or opportunity, the lower classes were kept powerless and trapped in an endless cycle of poverty.
My father set himself up as a shoemaker and my mother started her own chicken farm (with 200 chickens, no less). Rather than wait for customers to come to her, she loaded up our donkey and went to them. She developed a thriving business selling our eggs to neighbors and surrounding villages, along with household goods that she wholesaled from the area's only store located many kilometers away.
My mother was often criticized - by men and women alike - for "gallivanting" all over town and my father got a lot of flack for "allowing" her to do it. In public he supported her, but at home they fought about her work and the gossip it created.
In the pecking order of Portugal's class based system, peasant women were at the bottom of the bottom heap. Male domination was government sanctioned at the time and absolute authority was the natural order of things, but my mother always fought it.
Today I have a deep appreciation for her extraordinary courage, but even as a little girl I remember wishing she would just let it go. But she couldn't and she didn't and that's how I learned to never give up working towards what I believe is right and just, no matter how unpopular.
Our ancestral home where I was born. We had it restored and modernized and it's where we still gather on family vacations...we all love it!
My mother's assertiveness was so out of the norm that early in their marriage my father showed up at my grandparents' door to "give her back". He was beyond frustrated because he simply could not "control" her!
Unlike most men of his day, my maternal grandfather was respectful of women and he was a kind man, which makes his response all the more shocking to me. He rhetorically asked my father if he had a "switch" at home and if not, there were plenty on his property to pick from.
Of course, my father didn't do it, but he was often criticized for not "whipping her into shape". Despite his frustration, he knew she was working from sunup to sundown, and then some, to help build a better life for us.
800 year old olive trees near our home. Toys were unheard of for us, but we had fields like this to run through, pick flowers, and play pretend.
The castle in the center of town. Strategically built in the 6th century to protect the area from attack,it served as a military garrison and manor house. Today it is a national monument.
Our family in 2011, one month before my Dad passed away. I am holding my grandson, baby Antonio, who was named after his great grandfather.
In spite of my parents' tireless efforts, we lived a harsh life, devoid of even the most basic comforts. There was no indoor plumbing or running water and of course, no bathrooms. Our water came from a well about a quarter mile down the road and my mother had to lug it home in a heavy clay urn balanced on her head. With no water or well nearby, laundry was an all day affair down by the river.
Electricity was only available in a few major cities so we made do with kerosene lamps for lighting. We didn't even know about TV, so how could we miss it? Meat and fish (when we had it) was smoked or salted. That's how "chorica" (smoked sausage) and "bacalhau" (salted codfish) originated.
Our only source of heat was the fireplace in our little kitchen and it's where my mother prepared our meals...in a kettle hung by a hook, like something you would see in 18th century America.
When my son was at Coimbra University, he was presented with a view of Salazar that simply does not square with those of us who lived it. In fact, we lived under a full-fledged fascist regime that ruled for over half a century, longer than anywhere else in Europe.
Eventually, Salazar's oppressive and repressive grip simply wore my parents down. Shortly after the tavern incident, we left everything and everyone we loved for the promise of political and economic freedom in America.
We arrived in this country on March 1, 1960 with all our worldly possessions packed into two suitcases...and a surprise bun in the oven. That's when my idyllic life, or so it seemed to me, came to an abrupt end.
The lingering effects of living under a fascist
The Continental Portuguese who emigrated during Salazar's regime were typically quiet, humble, and non-confrontational. Regardless of difficulty or circumstance, they plodded on, working and saving their pennies, and generally making do without complaint.
It's painful for me to admit that as a teenager and young adult I was angry and sometimes even ashamed that my countrymen weren't more aggressive. I saw it as a sign of weakness, when really, nothing could be further from the truth. It took me many years to understand and then I felt ashamed of my arrogance. My parents and others like them were so effectively repressed and cowed into submission that, like Pavlov's dogs, they continued to behave as if they were, long after their oppressors were no longer there. They have my deepest respect, not only for surviving and succeeding in spite of it, but doing so without animosity or vengeance.
My parents were and continue to be, my greatest role models. I strive every day, in my life and in my work, to honor them and their humble honesty, the family values that sustained them, their amazing work ethic, and extraordinary courage.
December 29, 2013
2nd anniversary of my father's passing
A well like this served a small village of 10-12 houses.
Established in 1290, the University of Coimbra in Portugal, is one of the oldest in the world. Above is the library.
Those arrested by the PIDE were often never heard from again.
My mother carried home huge bundles of firewood on her head... to keep us warm and cook our meals.
As always, I was by my mother's side, feeding the chickens and gathering eggs every morning, loading up our donkey and making the rounds. I loved being with her and going to people's houses and feeling like we were "working" together. I was just 3 or 4 years old when we started and it was an amazing experience that taught me many valuable life skills. These memories are priceless to me.
An early lesson in confidentiality
One of the most valuable lessons I learned was to never repeat whatever gossip we heard - and we heard plenty! It was a tough lesson for a chatterbox like me, but it has helped me tremendously throughout my life and career, especially with employers and candidates who rely on us to protect their confidence.
Political oppression intensifies
Just as my parents were working their way out of poverty, Salazar's secret police was tightening its stranglehold on the country. As the "PIDE" (pronounced "Peeth") became more ruthless, just hearing the word struck terror in people's hearts.
My father lost friends who did nothing more than speak the truth among “friends”, who gave them up to save their own skin. But the final straw was his own close call with the PIDE.
Spies had infiltrated the local tavern in an effort to entrap anyone critical of the government. An innocent comment could be misinterpreted as criticism, which is what happened to my father on one occasion. The incident never amounted to anything because an influential relative interceded on our behalf, but it was a warning.
Wash day down by the river. I always tagged along (my job was to wash my brother's diapers) and it was fun for me because my mother and her friends sang and laughed and gossiped, but it was backbreaking work for them all the same.
To keep the home fires going, literally, my mother and her women friends would roam the countryside around our village gathering firewood. I have vivid memories of seeing my mother's shadow as she rounded the corner towards our home. She's barely 4'8", but she cast a long shadow with that huge bundle of firewood on her head.
The happiest time of my life
Ironically, this was the happiest time of my life. I never felt poor or deprived because my parents shielded my brother and I from the harsher realities of poverty and class differences. And of course, there was always "the village" - a huge network of extended family and friends who were always there to provide a helping hand. When my brother was diagnosed with terminal heart disease and my parents were consumed with his care, the village picked up the slack so that I never felt neglected. I have warm and wonderful memories of the kind and generous people who watched over me when my family was in crisis and needed help.
I have heard this story many times throughout my life and it still upsets me tremendously. Though I love my heritage, I am profoundly ashamed (and outraged) that my mother and other women like her were so poorly treated.
It wasn't until we came to America that my mother found a kindred spirit of sorts in the freedoms American women took for granted. "God Bless America" still has deep and personal meaning for her.
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Our meals were prepared in a kettle like this over an open fire. One time the kettle fell and dumped its boiling contents on my legs; I ended up with 3rd degree burns from my feet all the way up to my knees.