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For Portuguese immigrants, festas maintain ties to faith, culture

The traditions of the festa originate in the example of St. Isabel, Queen of Portugal, who lived in the late 1200s.

Our Lady of the Assumption Festa 2022. Copyright J Michael Photography209. Used with permission.

On a late summer afternoon, the sound of Portuguese folk music drifts across the campus of Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Turlock, California.

Cups of lupin bean shells are scattered around the parish grounds, remnants of a salty snack called Tremoço, which is only found this time of year.

Beyond a shrine of the Holy Family in the center of the campus is a large stage built for the weekend, folding chairs, and a gazebo. A snack bar and bazaar booth are off to the side.

Hundreds of people have braved three-digit temperatures to be here. Women meander through the crowd, dressed in cocktail attire. Men mainly wear jeans and button-ups. A few arrive in suits, but the sweltering heat lends itself to more casual attire, at least until the evening.

The parish grounds are carefully decorated with bunting and stringed lights. Sky blue and white ribbons wrap the pillars of the arch at the main entrance to the campus. The blue and white perfectly match the robes of the statue of Our Lady of the Assumption – brought from Portugal to the church – which will be carried on the shoulders of parish men in a candlelight procession during the parish festa.

The festa (pronounced fesh-ta), is both a parish festival celebrating the patroness of the parish and a centuries-old tradition central to Azorean-Portuguese culture. Brought to America by Portuguese immigrants, this is the 49th annual festa at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish.

“The Portuguese festas that are celebrated all over California, and particularly in the Central Valley have their origins in the religious celebrations as they were celebrated in the Azores Islands, particularly around the time of Pentecost, hence the many ‘Holy Ghost Festas’ that are celebrated widely,” said Fr. Larry Machado, a Portuguese priest and parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Stockton.

“In California, the Portuguese have also organized festas in honor of Our Lady of Fatima, Saint Anthony, or parish patronal feasts, such as Our Lady of the Rosary in Hilmar in October or Our Lady of the Assumption in Turlock in August.”

The church’s annual festa, held the weekend following the Solemnity of the Assumption on August 15, requires months of planning. Decorations are hung, floors are waxed, a large outdoor stage is built, and more than 2000 Portuguese sweets are baked ahead of the event.

The multi-faceted festa is more than a Portuguese tradition, more than a social event. It is a spiritual event, and at Our Lady of the Assumption, an event united to the patroness of the parish.

A nine-day novena of Masses and confessions is offered at the parish leading up to the festa, which consists of three days of celebrations.

The novena concludes with a candlelight procession around the church grounds, as volunteers carry the statue of Our Lady of the Assumption on their shoulders and parishioners pray the rosary in Portuguese and English.

Fr. Manuel Sousa, pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption, estimated that more than 450 people participated in the procession this year, and more than 150 attended the nightly Masses. Stockton Bishop Myron Cotta celebrated the 11:15 a.m. Portuguese Mass on Sunday.

From there, the entertainment began on the main stage with nearly 100 children, divided into three age groups to dance traditional folklore dances. Girls sported ribbons in their hair and embroidered aprons tied around red, green and blue skirts, with lines of rick rack alternating green, yellow or red.

“At their heart, the festas always had a religious motive, even though they were accompanied by food, entertainment, dances, parades, bullfights, folklore dance performances, etc,” Fr. Machado explained.

Our Lady of the Assumption, affectionately abbreviated as OLA by its parishioners, brought in Fr. Jacinto Farias, a professor from the Catholic University in Lisbon, to preach at the Masses.

Fr. Farias’ homilies focused “completing God’s will with a servant's heart through his Mother Mary.”

The procession of the saints began Sunday night with a statue of Our Lady of the Assumption, followed by St. Joseph and Portuguese saints. Different families sponsor the saints, purchasing, arranging, and maintaining the flowers for the platform throughout the weekend. The task is generational.

“Our family had the honor of decorating and carrying the statue of Saint Beatrice this year for our festa procession,” parishioner Elizabeth Severson told The Pillar. “It’s something my mom, who is also [named] Beatrice, has always had in her heart.”

The family spent more than two hours arranging flowers ahead of the procession, Severson said. “Today my mom had her three sons and her oldest grandson carry the statue.”

The procession is a particularly touching part of the three days for Fr. Sousa.

“I think it’s beautiful. I think we need processions. We need to walk together. We need the symbolism of the idea of the church being a people on the march to heaven and to holiness,” the pastor said.

“We’re joining with others and we’re living out in anticipation the journey through death to the highest heaven. We’re not supposed to just go to heaven, we’re supposed to be great saints.”

Fr. Sousa told The Pillar that he feels a sense of awe at the plan of God when he walks with the people in the festa procession.

“Tears have come to my eyes just seeing the beauty of Mary and Joseph and the saints and also how far we fall from them. Life is short and we have to give an account. We have to wake up.”

Our Lady of the Assumption Festa 2022. Copyright J Michael Photography209. Used with permission.

A centuries-old festival

The traditions of the festa are central to Portuguese culture, said Fr. Sousa, and they originate in the example of St. Isabel, Queen of Portugal, who lived in the late 1200s.

Despite courtly life, St. Isabel maintained a love for the poor. She is said to have taken food from the royal table to give to the poor, against her husband’s wishes.

One day, according to a popular legend, she hid bread in her apron before going out to the streets. Her husband caught her and demanded she open her apron to prove she was not disobeying him. She did so and, the story goes, rather than rolls of bread, a cascade of flowers fell from her apron, despite the fact that it was the dead of winter.

The practice of festas sprang up in imitation of St. Isabel. Families would butcher cattle, divide up the meat, and give it out as charity to people in need. The festas were customarily held throughout the summer months in towns across the Azores, although the practice is less common today, Costa said.

Over time, parades developed as part of the festas, as dairymen brought their cattle to the town square and allowed those who had very little milk throughout the year to drink until they were satiated.

This tradition eventually became what is known as the Bodo de Leite - following a parade with livestock pulling decorated carts, a meal of Portuguese sweet bread, cheese, and milk is handed out to all present.

This element is incorporated in OLA’s celebrations, with a complimentary meal served on the second day to anyone and everyone who shows up.

The generation that founded the church in 1973 has maintained their commitment to it ever since, incorporating livestock auctions into the festa to raise funds for the parish, most years generating well over $100,000.

Handing on traditions

OLA parishioner Maria Fatima Silva immigrated from the Azorean islands of Portugal in 1988, at the end of the second major wave of Portuguese immigration. The first wave took place primarily from 1880-1920, when Portuguese families were attracted to the promise of gold mining, agricultural opportunities and factory work in the United States.

That wave subsided when the National Origins Act limited the number of immigrants to 3% of the 1910 census numbers.

In 1958, a new wave of immigration began when the Azores Refugee Act passed following a volcanic eruption in the Azores. It authorized additional immigrant visas for victims of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Dr. Elmano Costa, director of the Center for Portuguese Studies at California State University Stanislaus, told The Pillar that the people who left their homes in the Azores from the late 1950s-70s were leaving houses without electricity or running water.

“If they wanted water, they had to go to the communal spigot in the plaza or street corner. They brought it up and cooked with wood,” he said. “Half of the Azores basically immigrated from 1958-1988.”

Large numbers of those who immigrated settled in the Central Valley of California, where agricultural opportunities abounded. Although life was difficult in the Azores, Silva said she missed her home and wanted to return. Silva did not speak English and little of the dry California climate in Hilmar reminded her of home.

But like many immigrants in the United States, large groups of the Azoreans formed ethnic communities. They filled the communities with traditions that helped them to make the new country a home. The festa is one such tradition.

“In California, festas became a place where the Azorean diaspora could hold on to and celebrate its cultural heritage and remember the homeland which was left behind,” Machado said.

“They were moments for people to see relatives and old friends, or even people from their native towns who had also immigrated to California, but had not been seen in years. The festas became the primary way for the Azorean immigrants to maintain their cultural identity in California through the decades, in some places, since the late 1800s.”

Silva has passed on her love of the Portuguese festa tradition to her daughter, Monica Twomey, who said she grew up attending the festas each year.

“I can still remember my mother making the skirts we wore each year,” she told The Pillar.

Her sister filled the role of the queen in the parades, and Twomey acted as a side-maid twice. She played in the Livingston Portuguese Marching Band for nine years, danced the folklore, took animals to the parade and continued to play or participate in other groups throughout her childhood.

“We were always involved, one way or another,” Twomey said.

This year, Twomey attended with her husband Mark and their 9-month-old son, Joseph.

Even when Twomey took the baby home to nap, her husband stayed, helping his mother-in-law in the restaurant the parish runs throughout the weekend serving traditional Portuguese dishes like Polvo (Octopus Stew), Bife a Portuguesa (Steak and Eggs), Pieze com Molho Cru e Batata (Codfish filets) and tri-tip sandwiches.

Mark is not Portuguese but said that early in their marriage, it was made clear that “this is not something we miss.”

“I think it's more than just being Portuguese, because it's the Catholic Church and supporting the Catholic Church and our home parish,” Mark told The Pillar. “This is the parish we got married in and supporting my wife's culture is really important to me.”

Although his own family was only two generations removed from Ireland, he said, they did not have such cultural traditions passed down when he was a child.

“A lot of that was lost,” he said.

Our Lady of the Assumption Festa 2022. Copyright J Michael Photography209. Used with permission.

Reaching younger generations

The traditions surrounding the festa have been beloved for hundreds of years. But will they survive for future generations?

Religious practice is declining among Americans, and as the children or grandchildren of Portuguese immigrants adapt to American culture and inter-marry, many from the previous generation are wondering what will happen next.

“The young people - everything is hard for them. Oh, this is too much work. Oh, this is too much work and pretty soon, nothing is left,” Silva said.

Twomey noted that some traditions are already falling out of practice. There are very few people in her generation who know how to make Portuguese sweets, she said.

Sousa suspects the festa will need to be adapted to draw in the next generations. For example, he noted, increasing the use of English may be more appealing to younger parishioners. Announcements and prayers were given bilingually during the festival, but Masses and entertainment were held in Portuguese.

Costa agreed, saying, “We have children born here, many people who have never gone back to the Azores. They will bring their own experiences.”

Silva took her grandson Joseph onto her lap, after discussing how important it is to her to have her children remain involved in the festa.

“And this boy here, he has to be the same,” she said, hugging him. Silva would like to know the tradition continues, whether she is there to see it or not.

“I want him to know what it’s like in the Azores,” she said. “I want him to see it, to know what I experienced.”

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