“O menino e o passarinho vão para onde lhe fazem o ninho.”
“Boys and birds go to where they make a nest.”
-Old Portuguese proverb
“What happened to the golden peacocks?” I asked.
“Your cousins and I threw them out. I can’t believe they were still kicking around… Those ugly things were from the seventies. I remember those being at our house on Strange Street when we first came to Canada,” my aunt said. She shrugged her shoulders and gave me an odd look.
“Oh.” I felt sick and horrified.
“I would have wanted to keep them. I really liked them… Wait, what did you guys do with all the weird figurines from the windowsills? And what about those spider-pebble things from the upstairs kitchen? And what about…” I stopped, because I realized my questions were pointless. I could tell from the look of concern on my aunt’s face: most of these things were gone now. I imagined them breaking and making crunching sounds in a garbage truck.
“We didn’t know you wanted that old junk… Sorry, we threw it out… but hey, not all of it is gone! She stopped us from throwing some stuff out. I even caught her sneaking some stuff from the throwaway piles! But look how the house looks now—doesn’t it look better? More normal?”
Objectively speaking, my aunt was right. The small renovations and “updates” my uncle had made to my grandparent’s house, guided by my aunt and cousin’s fashionable choices and sparked by a need to add hand-railings and other accommodations to help my grandmother retain her limited mobility, did make the house look “better” and more “normal.” However, these changes were, for me, very unsettling and violent—I wasn’t sure if “better” and “normal” translated to something positive. Where my aunt and cousin saw garbage and ugliness, I saw (and still see) history—the personal history of my grandparents, who clung to their past and their culture while also struggling, throughout the 1970s and 80s, to make a future and raise a family in a strange land called Canada. Their house’s gaudy interiors being dismantled and their objects thrown away was, for me, like a decisive thunderclap—a choice to dump out history.
Worse still, I knew that if my grandmother’s health had been what it was four or five years ago, none of this would have been allowed. The house would have maintained its classic, bizarre, long-preserved 1970s Portuguese immigrant kitsch aesthetic: eye-smarting wallpapers, mismatched furniture from various eras, fake plastic flowers, hand-made crocheted table coverings, velvet pictures, Portuguese Roman Catholic icons, and other knick-knacks. But now, with my grandmother’s immobility and declining health, things could been thrown out. This big white-brick house with its two apartments (one a fancy, barely-used showroom of the best of her gaudy tastes, the other, in the basement, for living) and the aesthetic that put it completely at odds with its Canadian neighbours could be sterilized of the fermented fireworks of its long-held character. I felt guilty. I knew if I had been here, in Kitchener, and not “far away” at university in Toronto, I would have intervened and saved things by taking my grandmother’s side.
My grandmother was upset, too. She was not happy that her things had been thrown out, but she also did not care as much as she used to. Five years ago, if anyone so much as moved a gaudy porcelain figurine or changed the placement of a vase of fake flowers, she would have never let said person hear the end of it. However, that is not the case today. “The cleanup is beginning even before I have died,” was what my grandmother said to me in Portuguese (neither she nor my grandfather have learned English despite living in Canada for 40 years) with a strong air of ambivalence when I talked to her after speaking to my aunt. I was angry with my aunt and cousins. I felt my grandmother was right. Who were they to clean these things up and throw them out? No one had died yet.
But, now, the more I think about it, I realize my aunt and cousins were absolutely right in doing what they did. This needed to be done sooner or later; nothing is forever and evolution must run its course. I couldn’t and cannot keep all these things, nor do I want to. 40-plus years of memory-heavy possessions accumulated by people from Salazar-dictatorship-era Portugal is a lot of stuff, most of it not relevant or useful to a 20-year-old just beginning their life. I merely felt nostalgic for the atmosphere of my childhood in the 1990s and early 2000s as a third-generation Portuguese-Canadian, where the presence of these things, this house, these memories, and my grandparents was not under threat of extinction.
The loss of things like my grandmother’s beloved 1970s golden peacock statues (something which always represented my grandparents’ house in my mind) was an upsetting indication to me of the now-palpable possibility that these things can and will disappear. I could not help but think, Now that the golden peacocks are gone, what’s next? What will happen to all the barrels for my grandfather’s homemade wine in the garage? Will those be thrown out too? Will anyone still make wine in the garage or basement anymore? And, on a larger level, if this house, its owners, and their things can disappear, what about the other Portuguese elements in their neighbourhood? The Portuguese clubs and its festivals? The Portuguese church? The Portuguese stores? What will be trashed and what will survive?
When I moved to Toronto three years ago, I found myself fascinated by and constantly drawn to the city’s downtown West End just to walk around and look at it. I did not know Toronto at all, but I found this area of the city familiar and comforting. This is because it is filled with the kinds of houses I have known all of my life—that is, the kind of houses the first-generation Portuguese immigrants in Canada (among which both sets of my grandparents number) made for themselves and their families across major cities in Southwestern Ontario. From Windsor to Kitchener to Cambridge to Hamilton to Toronto (especially the West End), you can find these houses in the Portuguese neighbourhoods and enclaves. This brand of house is an Upper Canada Victorian or early 20th-century house that, in the 1970s, underwent a renovation that we Portuguese—as well as Italians and Greeks—are famous for in North American pop culture (think Toula’s parents’ house in My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
But here is the specifically Portuguese-Canadian Southwestern Ontario version: on the outside, the house’s original brick has been covered with a thin, veiny, decorative brown 1970s brick. The original wood porch has been replaced with a cement pad with a basement-extending room beneath it; in the Toronto version of these houses, this is where the homemade wine is often kept. The house’s wooden railings and columns have been replaced with dramatic curly metal ones. The original windows, which sometimes feature stained-glass on upper portions, have been replaced with bigger (often homemade) windows that are composed of a large single piece of glass on the top half with a small sliding set of window panes below. The house interior has been divided into more or less one apartment per floor of the house, a feature that was often meant to accommodate multiple families in the early pioneering days. The floors are decorated with tiles, or azulejos, in swirling patterns of orange, green, brown, yellow, and red—the positive and hopeful colours of the late 1960s and 1970s when Portuguese people came en masse to Canada. These tiles are greatly favoured by us Mediterranean types for their ease of cleaning. Importantly, some sort of Portuguese Roman Catholic icon is added to the facade of the house. These icons most frequently incarnate themselves as azulejos hanging by the front door, or small cement chapel-like alcoves in front of the porch. In addition to these things, these houses also have variances: sometimes they have stucco, sometimes they have completely paved yards, sometimes they have overhanging trellises with grape vines, and sometimes they have garden figurines of lions and eagles.
However, the most important thing about these houses is not their appearance, although in my opinion their appearances make for fascinating anthropological study. The most important thing is this: these houses are the frozen-in-time products of an era and a people. In Southwestern Ontario and, more largely speaking, in Canada, they are the Portuguese community’s first homes—the houses we made for ourselves when we got off planes and boats in the 1960s and 1970s and began to live seriously here. These houses were the first nests we made for ourselves—safe envelopes of a known culture in an unknown land. It was from the porches of these houses that the first generation left for their first jobs, from which the second generation went to school not knowing any English, and where the third generation played under the watchful eyes of the retired first . These houses are our first and original nests in Canada—places of transition containing bits of the old world garbled with the new. These houses are our cultural creation. They are our proud, fiercely clean, well maintained, and solid proof that as families, and as a community, we made it.
The changes these houses are experiencing are also proof that Portuguese community is continuing to make it. Whether they are being emptied of their contents for younger generations of the family to move into, or whether they are being sold for a sum many, many times more than what they were bought for and remodelled as the second and third generations of the community leave their nesting-ground neighbourhoods for places like Mississauga, Milton, or Oakville, these houses are signalling something. They are signalling a community’s final steps into full and complete integration into Canadian society, the passage of time, and the disappearance of the first generation’s Portuguese-Canadian world in which one could live one’s whole life without ever learning to speak English.
And, this is not a bad thing. It would be strange and sad if the Portuguese community in Canada did not change after having been in Canada for almost 60 years. Cultural stagnation and ghettoization is never a good thing, and that was not what the Portuguese neighbourhoods were when they emerged, either—they were places of transition. It is a good thing that the second, third, fourth, and fifth generations are changing and adapting Portuguese-Canadian culture to suit their needs. Some are bilingual and can still speak Portuguese, some can only speak Pinglish (our mix of English and Portuguese), and some can speak only English. Some will take on their parents’ or grandparents’ Portuguese businesses based in Kensington Market, on College Street and Dundas Street in Toronto, and in the downtowns of other Southwestern cities. Some will relocate them and reinvent them. Some of these businesses, as many have, will simply close down. Some people will continue going to and being members of Portuguese clubs and associations, and others will not. Some Portuguese clubs and associations may die off, and others will not. Some second- and third-generation Portuguese-Canadians will work hard to preserve a cultural connection to Portugal, and others will not. For some, this connection will be in Portugal’s magnificent folklore and literary tradition, its Catholicism, its history, its traditional musical forms, its cuisine, or its obsession with soccer. People will pick and choose what they wish, and this is neither good nor bad. Merely, it is the future—our future.
However, despite the importance of looking towards and being aware of the future, some Portuguese-Canadians will (here I speak most genuinely for myself) retain nostalgia for the past. We are, after all, people of saudades: an almost untranslatable and uniquely Portuguese word and cultural phenomena which describes a longing for and missing of what has been. For me, my nostalgia and my saudades will always manifest themselves for these Portuguese-Canadian houses that I have been going on about in this article. Despite knowing that they will and must disappear, I cannot help but feel sick and horrified every time they do. How can I not? Their disappearance means the death of my beloved grandparents and the older generations of my family—both related by blood or long-maintained intergenerational friendships with other, older members of the community. It means the death of my childhood spent in those houses and the communities they existed in—neither of which was idyllic, but they are happily mine and (because of that) a part of me. Thus, when these things die, so does the lens from which I first saw Canada and the wider world and learned about what it means to be human and alive. This is something I mourn and hold onto—something I have nostalgia and saudades for.
My aunt threw out the golden peacocks, but I managed to save some of my grandmother’s knickknacks, one of which is a spittoon from one of the tobacco farms near Delhi, Ontario where an early wave of Portuguese immigrants worked as pickers in the 1950s. I also have the gloriously gaudy first kitchen table my grandparents bought in Canada, which I must add is now considered very cool and hipster and would cost a lot of money to buy in a fancy vintage furniture store. Most of my family and even my grandparents think me very strange for caring about and keeping these things, but I don’t care. Wherever I go in the world, wherever I live in the world, I will always be dragging them, and my memories of my grandparents, around with me. They make me happy and give me bouts of nostalgia, and remind me of the Portuguese houses—those old nests—that I come from. This bird, this third-generation son of the Portuguese-Canadian community in Southwestern Ontario, is willing to move forward into the future, but I do so bringing shards of the past with me. I refuse to forget my family’s history and the history of my community; they form the oldest pieces of my nest in a century and a city they are not native to. I am made of that history which is (as all histories are) filled with some good things and some bad things, but because it is my history I am proud of it, and because of that, I will always fly home.