Immigration is a main topic for discussion in the presidential debates these days, and with the Vineyard’s own substantial population of Brazilian immigrants, it is a topic that hits very close to home.
The Brazilian population here has never officially been counted, but estimates range from three to six thousand. The influx, which began about a decade ago, has changed the face and language of the Island, and parallels may be drawn with the early twentieth century, when many Azorean and Cape Verdean immigrants took up residence here. At that time the Portuguese immigrants came to the Island as whalers and gardeners, cooks and bricklayers. They carried with them their names and traditions, many of which survive today. The Feast of the Holy Ghost and the many Bettencourt, Medeiros and Silva families all trace their roots to the Portuguese influx of the early nineteen hundreds.
Today Portuguese is again a second language on the Island, and this time around the immigrants are grocery clerks and housekeepers, carpenters and bricklayers, cooks and landscapers. They too have brought their names and traditions, and they have bought homes, built churches, opened grocery stores and restaurants.
They are the new Americans of the Vineyard.
But sadly, on an Island which takes pride in its mixed community, the Brazilians have never been fully accepted. Racism and resentment are widespread; indeed, nothing can divide a Vineyard dinner party like the subject of Brazilians.
And now, because of a variety of factors that include a changing economy both in the United States and abroad, Brazilians are apparently leaving the Island in large numbers. The exodus is a trend seen throughout the commonwealth and the country.
Just as it has never fully embraced the Brazilian community, the Island has never taken a full measure of its impact. But this much is certain — if Brazilians leave in large numbers, the Vineyard will be left with some very large holes, not only in its economy but in the spirit and fabric of its diverse human landscape.