On Sao Miguel, the tradition of the ‘emigrante’ endures

PONTA DELGADA, SAO MIGUEL, Azores — You can feel her pain.

The woman in Domingos Rebelo’s famous 1926 painting “Os Emigrantes” sits on a trunk at the port, sheltered from the sun by a large blue parasol held by the well-dressed, older gentleman sitting next to her. There’s a long voyage ahead of her, and her face and stance reflect her sadness. She has a scarf on her head, a travel bag at her feet and a blanket wrapped tightly about her, as if she’s hugging her homeland tight and doesn’t want to let go.

The painting captures a key point of history for this scrappy and beautiful archipelago of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: It has sent off scores of emigrants, many of them to the United States, where they built new lives in such places as Tulare, Manteca and Turlock.

A lot has changed in Ponta Delgada, the largest city on the island of Sao Miguel, the most populated island in the Azores. The port depicted in Rebelo’s painting is long gone, moved to a much larger setting. So is the waterfront avenue.

But some things don’t change, particularly the strong bond between this archipelago and its diaspora of emigrants who have settled overseas.

In my first trip to the Azores, which also includes an extended stay on the island of Terceira, I take in the volcanic handsomeness of the archipelago: craggy cliffs, rocky shores, sweeping vistas of a rough and unforgiving ocean. There is so much green, too, with pastures extending at times to very edge of the sea.

On Sao Miguel, which has the largest share of the Azorean population, I find a bustling, modern and picturesque island, home to the biggest city in the archipelago and some of its most breathtaking views. (Plus: an appealing botanical garden with dozens of varieties of trees and flowers, some which I’d never seen.)

I also discover an artist I’d never known: Rebelo, born in 1891 in Ponta Delgada, who brought art and painting to the Azores, paving the way for others to come. I learn this from Rosa Simas, a professor at the University of the Azores, who introduces me to a nifty walking tour about the artist she helped put together with the city of Ponta Delgada.

Six panels depict the artist’s version of different parts of the city in the first half of the 20th century. It’s a “then and now” approach: You see what Rebelo saw, then step back and look at the same scene nearly 100 years later.

One scene remains the same: the Santana Chapel, except for a different coat of paint.

The other five panels depict vastly changed scenes, as you’d expect in a growing city. The Sao Joao Convent depicted in one panel is now the Teatro Micaelense, with a public parking lot below, for example.

Which one is Simas’ favorite?

She’s never really thought about that question before. Her answer: “ ‘The Emigrants,’ because it has become the iconic representation of the immigrant experience, which is part of my personal experience,” she says.

There’s something about the Azores that makes me think “cozy.” The islands are actually the peaks of the towering “mountains” of the Mid-Atlantic range, the longest mountain range in the world, except most of it is underwater. The island of Pico, with the highest elevation, is the “tippy-top” of that range.

I’m struck by the visual image: determined and hardy groups of people bunched together on the tops of these towering peaks, separated from most of us by a lot of water.

Simas was born on Pico, then emigrated with her family to Manteca in 1953 at age 2. She came back at age 7 for an extended visit when her grandfather died — this was at a time before it was possible to call someone on the islands, and a letter took a month to arrive — and then returned home to California. She was 19 when she went back to the Azores, first to Pico, then finally Sao Miguel, with an interlude for a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s lived on the island now for more than 30 years.

She is a professor in the modern languages and literature department at the University of the Azores, whose main branch is in Ponta Delgada. For the Rebelo walking tour, she translated the Portuguese into English.

When I visit Terceira, I’m reminded time and again of that island’s welcoming “party” atmosphere, with a drawn-out summer of festas, bullfights and late nights. The people of Sao Miguel, Simas tells me, have more of a reputation of being industrious, getting the job done and keeping to themselves.

“In my experience, they make trustworthy, long-lasting friends, and have wonderful food and events,” she says.

I visit some of Sao Miguel’s notable sights, including the Caldeira das Sete Cidades, with two similar sized lakes adjacent to each other, one filled with striking green water, the other blue. (There’s a legend involved, of course, involving separated lovers, one crying green tears, the other blue.) And we tour the majestic coastline, where I’m entranced with a pasture that surely has the best views for cows in the world.

In Ponta Delgada itself, highlights for me are the botanical gardens and, of course, the Rebelo tour. Part of the fun is walking the beautiful stone streets and sidewalks of the city, done in the Portuguese style with intricate designs of contrasting basalt and limestone.

There’s been a renewed interest recently in the artist, including a exhibition of his work titled “Domingos Rebelo: Perchance a Dreamer,” which ran through Sept. 25 at the Museu Carlos Machado.

In essence, Rebelo has been remembered for just a few of his paintings throughout the years, Simas says, “when he has a vast, diverse production that has not been duly appreciated.”

On my last full day on the island, I look at “Os Emigrantes” once more and notice a figure standing in the painting next to the colorfully garbed emigrants and the people bidding them farewell. She is smartly dressed with an elegant hat. There are several interpretations of what she stands for, Simas says. Some would say she represents someone of higher society who didn’t have to emigrate for economic reasons.

But it’s commonly believed that she is a calafona, a Portuguese word used in the Azores to describe an emigrant who returns to the islands. (It has come to mean a person who is a bit ostentatious with his or her wealth, a bit of a show-off.)

Notice how calafona sounds a lot like “Californian”?

No wonder Simas is drawn to this famous painting. It captures the spirit of the Azores.

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