Part 1 of Coming to Canada: My Azorean Childhood

Ponta Delgada by Emanuel Melo

A long time ago, I was born on an island, right in the middle of the great Atlantic Ocean. My childhood years were spent on São Miguel, the biggest of the nine islands that make up the Azores. My family and I lived in the port city of Ponta Delgada, where Portuguese explorers arrived and began to populate the island in the 1430s. Our house was on the outskirts of the city, away from the ocean view and up toward the road leading out to other towns with names like Arrifes, Fajã de Cima, Fenais da Luz, Ribeira Grande, and far away Nordeste, home to my father’s family. Travelling along these country roads you would see miles and miles of blue hortênsias (hydrangea bushes), or nevelões, as we locally called the flowers that graced the sides of our dirt highways and overflowed from the black stone walls that separated the fields from one another.

Across from our house there was a small farm with a cow pasture surrounded by a wall made of black volcanic stones. As a little boy, I loved leaning on my parents’ bedroom window sill on sunny days and watching the white and black Jersey cows graze lazily on the field grass. In September, the time of the harvest, I would lean on the same window sill and watch the farmers cut the wheat and corn that had grown all summer long. Then, it would be taken away in big wagons drawn by sturdy oxen that swayed from side to side, chewing and drooling while carrying their big loads down to the busy market in the heart of the city. Every Friday in the early morning, our street would come alive with the sounds of the visiting farmers who came down from the other towns with their cattle, sheep, horses and carts filled high with hay to take to market. Again, I would watch from the window. Our sidewalk was so narrow that with all the animals and carts and the farmers with their black-shawled wives walking down the street, it was impossible to stand outside our front door.

Cascading over the volcanic black stone wall across the street were beautiful small white roses with prickly green leaves. Sometimes I would walk over and pick some to decorate my little shoe box altar to the Blessed Virgin Mary. These I would place in little vases on either side of the tiny altar. I made candles by rolling a long strip of coloured paper into tight round circles and then by pulling the paper up, I would form a candle. Flowers in place and candles made, I was ready to play church. I tried to make my altar look just like the one in the Matriz (parish church) of São Sebastião where I went to mass every Sunday. This beautiful church was many centuries old and still had its handsome Manuelino style doorway from the 16th century. The arches inside the church were made of caramel coloured stone set against stark white walls. The main altar was a magnificent baroque treasure. On either side of the nave there were several small side altars, all with niches elaborately carved out of rosewood with gold leaf and beautiful statues of saints showcased in them: Santo António, São José, and the loveliest of all, Nossa Senhora de Fátima, with a cascading array of roses on her altar, and tall candle sticks rising above the flowers, just like my little shoebox altar at home.

Every year, on the Monday after Easter, the Procissão dos Enfermos (Procession for the Sick) would pass by our street. The neighbours got up very early in the morning and made beautiful “carpets” out of flower petals and an assortment of coloured sawdust in intricate designs in the middle of our black cobblestoned street. This was to honour the Blessed Sacrament, carried by a priest who went to visit the sick of the parish to give them communion at home. He stood under a gold embroidered canopy carried by four men. The priest had a liturgical shawl around his shoulders made of fine silk and gold, and he covered the base of the gold monstrance while he held it up to show the host inside of its round centre, radiating the Divine Presence. People would stand on the street to watch the procession then kneel as soon as the priest would pass by them. An altar boy would lead, incensing the Blessed Sacrament, and the clouds of smoke would envelope the canopy and the priest within it. It was all very sombre and magical.

There were many other processions, where groups of men wearing red capes called “opas” would carry the “andor” (a litter) on their shoulders supporting the statue of the Virgin Mary on it or other saints that were being honoured. Little girls dressed in angel costumes with big white feather wings attached to their back always took part in the processions. All the houses displayed their best colchas (bedspreads) made of silk or linen which would be draped over second floor window balconies, decorating the houses in an array of beautiful colours and designs.

Once the procession passed by, and the people went back into their houses, I would go out into the street and gather as much of the coloured sawdust from the trampled decorated “carpets” as I could carry. Afterwards, inside my enclosed yard, I would make my own “carpets” of sawdust and play procession with my little primos (cousins) who lived with me. I would take the lead role and carry a big banner at the head of the procession, then they would follow me in great solemnity as we sang hymns to our Blessed Lady.

A treze de Maio, na cova da Iria,

apareceu brilhando, a Virgem Maria,

Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria,

Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria.

The biggest feast on the island was always after Easter when the procession of O Senhor Santo Cristo would go through all the city streets followed by the “arraial” (fair) in Campo de São Francisco in the evening. That’s when the filarmónicas (big brass bands) played into the late hours in the “corete” (a bandstand) and all the streets were decorated with colourful lights and garlands made of fresh flowers and paper lanterns. People came from all the towns of the island to attend the “festa” and to show their great devotion to the statue of the miraculous Christ, a gift to the island from Pope Paul III in the 16th century. The statue of the “Ecce Homo” is a bust of Jesus, with a crown of thorns made of gold, his bloody face looking at you with tenderness, his shoulders draped in a red fabric cape with gold embroidered on it, holding a golden sceptre in his tied hands.

The people look up to the statue with devotion, begging God to grant them healing and to cure them of all sorts of illnesses. Many women and men would crawl on their knees around the Campo de São Francisco, carrying tall círios (candles) in their arms to “cumprir uma promessa” (to fulfil a promise) they made to Senhor Santo Cristo, if He granted them their wishes. The statue is kept in a beautiful convent covered with Portuguese blue and white azulejos (decorative tiles), showing the life of a saintly nun, Teresa da Anunciada, who promoted the cult of the Holy Santo Cristo back in the 17th century. The last time I saw this special procession in São Miguel was when I was nine years old with my mother and my maternal grandparents.

Everyone who immigrated from the Azores, and especially from the island of São Miguel, brought their love and devotion of O Senhor Santo Cristo to wherever they went, especially to Toronto, where at St. Mary’s Church there has been an annual feast and procession of O Senhor Santo Cristo since the 1960’s.

Another important feast was that of São João Baptista, which took place every twenty-fourth of June. Each neighbourhood would celebrate the feast with street decorations and huge fogueiras (bonfires) lit in the centre of the street at night time. The boys and men jumped over these fogueiras for fun. I was never allowed to join in. But one thing I could do on the feast of São João Baptista was to gather hortelã (mint) and alecrim (rosemary) and other fragrant herbs and add them to a bowl of water that would be left outside overnight for St. John’s blessing. In the morning we would wash our faces with this cool soothing water and feel clean and fresh and holy.

When I wasn’t playing processions, attending festas, or going to church, I tended to my silkworms, kept inside a shoebox, where they built their cocoons. I would walk up the street to a house that sold the right kind of leaves for a silkworm to eat. Hanging outside the door was a leaf to let people know that you could buy it there. Other houses might have a “couve” leaf hanging outside the door to let people know that you could buy collard greens to make “caldo verde” soup. After bringing the fresh leaves home, I would freshen up the box and watch the silkworms take little bites out of the tender green leaves. But it was the cocoons they made that were the most interesting to watch: round yellow cocoons, hidden in a shroud of sticky gauze material that the silkworm wove around the cocoon before it would break open to reveal the delicate butterfly inside.

I had a pair of white rabbits given to me every summer. Every day I had to make sure that they got enough carrots and other vegetables to eat. I also had to clean out their big cage, which was always full of small black pellets. My two rabbits entertained me for hours and I even learned how to twitch my nose just like they did. My mother told me to stop doing that. Every year, in December, my mother would take me to the Convento da Esperança, where we delivered my poor little rabbits as a spiritual gift offering for the nuns in thanksgiving to St. Lucia who had cured me of an eye infection when I was a baby. I wished I could have kept my rabbits but I had no choice but to give them up and wait for new rabbits the following summer.

I remember once when I had to be taken to the hospital to have my chin stitched up. It was laundry day and I was playing with the dirty sheets. The washing was done in the yard, inside a big tank where clothes got scrubbed by hand and then hung up to dry. The ground was all cement. I took a big white sheet from the dirty pile, wrapped it around my shoulders like a cape and twirled myself around, faster and faster, while the sheet floated in the air and I became very dizzy indeed. Boom, I fell down face first and cracked my chin open. I ran upstairs yelling for my mother. It felt like my chin was this big gaping hole, blood flowing everywhere. My mother panicked. “Ai, Jesus,” she screamed. My father drove me to the hospital where they stitched my chin.

On the way home, to make me feel better, my father stopped the car, and walked across the street to a toy shop where he bought me a little iron I had wanted for a long time. I liked to gather all the little scraps of fabric from my mother’s sewing kit and I made little dresses and pants for my cousins’ dolls. The toy iron was needed so that I could press the brand new clothes. I knew how to use a needle and thread because I watched my mother make all kinds of home-made clothes, like dresses, shorts and shirts. In those days, most of the clothes you wore were made at home and not store bought. My mother was a great costureira (seamstress).

School was a very serious place. We sat in neat rows of old-fashioned desks that had a hole on top of the desk which held a porcelain inkwell. In those days, we learned to write with fountain pens and would always get our fingers stained with black ink that spilled out from the nib. In drawing classes we used aguarelas (watercolours). A special uniform called a bata was worn and every morning we would stand at attention and sing the national anthem – Heróis do Mar – before saying our morning prayers. We learned that the most important thing to do was to respect and obey our Pátria (our Country), and our Santa Igreja Católica (Holy Catholic Church).

I loved books and very often had new ones bought for me. One day, when I was seven, while in a book store with my mother, I wanted her to buy me a particular book that she could not afford to buy. I got really angry when she said “não” so I stormed out of the store and walked all the way home from downtown to our house. On the way, I walked past my paternal grandmother, who was shocked to see me walking alone without my mother on the busy streets of Ponta Delgada. “Onde está a tua mãe?” where is your mother, she asked. I lied and told her that I was sent home to get her rosary while she stayed in church waiting for Mass to start. My grandmother’s mouth dropped for she could not believe my mother would ask me to walk home alone. I kept on walking, never realizing that my mother was following me as fast as she could. When she got home, my mother was very angry and wanted to hit me with a sturdy clothes brush. But my maternal grandmother stood in her way, protecting me as I hid under the table.

All my avós (grandparents) lived with us. Upstairs, there were my maternal grandparents. Avó stayed at home and took care of the house. Avô was a serralheiro, a blacksmith. I loved to stop by his oficina, his shop, after school to see the red hot iron tongs go up in smoke as they were plunged in the water to cool them down. Downstairs lived my paternal grandparents. They came from the country, from far away Achada, in the district of Nordeste. Avó made delicious country soups with feijão (beans), couves (collards greens), and other wonderful vegetables, with a touch of chouriço (sausage) added to the soups for flavour. I had a set of clay dishes that I bought during one of the festas and I would go into her kitchen and ask her to fill up my little pot with her hot fresh soup. Avô had been a barber back in Achada and a carpenter on the island of Terceira at the American Military base.

One of my aunts, with her three children, also came from Achada to live downstairs in our house on Caminho da Fajã de Cima, while their father worked on the big cruise ships that left the doca (the dock) of Ponta Delgada every few months. When they came to live with us, my father had already left the island. He had owned Mercearia Esperança, a grocery store, right across from the old church of Santo André and sometimes I would stay with him at the store and watch him work. One day in November, when I was six years old, my mother told me that he had gone away to America. I was so upset that I hid under the skirt of my mother’s Singer sewing machine table. I didn’t understand why my father had to leave. My mother tried to explain he went away to find work so that we could have a better life. Why did we need to have a better life than the one we had already? I just wanted to be with my pai. But with time, I learned to live with the idea that my father was gone.

I liked school and playing with my friends. I had a pião, (a top), and I would wind it up with a special string and then let it spin on the ground. This was fun. Or we would play with marbles. But at home I would sit by myself and do drawings with my aguarelas or I would read one of my favourite books, A Gata Borralheira, A Herdade da Branquinha, O Touro Azul, A Branca de Neve, all in Portuguese. In the Azores we spoke only in Portuguese. Sometimes, I would hear English music coming from the juke box of the café across from my school. The same year that I left the island, it was “We all live in a yellow submarine” that was being played. At that time I did not know who the Beatles were nor did I know their music. That came later when I went to Canada. My friends and I liked to sing along to that English song even though we did not know what the words meant; we just liked the melody.

While my father was away, my mother and I would go out on Sunday afternoons to visit her fine lady friends. At these parties I had to wear my best suit and bow tie. Her friends’ tea parties were very proper and grown up. I didn’t mind going to them because there was always a table covered with delicious treats: everything from pastéis de nata (custard tarts) to bolas de coco (coconut balls) and marzipan shaped into peras (pears) or laranjas (oranges) or morangos (strawberries). Every kind of cake imaginable graced the table, like bolo de ananás (pineapple cake) and bolo de laranja (orange cake). It was all there for me to try, except the licores (liqueurs) made of varied fruits. Those were only for the ladies to drink. One time, I was given a tea cup, a proper china tea cup to drink from. My mother taught me the proper way to hold it with my fingers and not my hands. The cup was very heavy and my fingers were very tiny. I almost let the cup fall down along with the hot tea but I tried really hard and was able to lift it up to my lips and take a sip without spilling a drop. And, even though we had eaten so many sweets by the end of the party, my mother always stopped on the way home at the pastelaria to buy some hard sugar coated biscuits to share later with our evening chá (tea).

And so, for three years, while my father was away working hard, I continued with my studies, did my drawings, read my books, and spent time with my friends. Finally, the day came when my paternal grandparents left for Canada, followed by my aunt and my little cousins. On the morning they left, I lay very still in bed fingindo (pretending) to be asleep. I could hear them approach my bed, trying quietly to give me a goodbye kiss without waking me. After their departure our home felt empty with only my mother, my maternal grandparents, and me waiting for my father to come back.

Coming to Canada WORD CLOUD Word Cloud created by Stephen Dow

In 2008, to mark the 40th anniversary of my arrival in Canada, I wrote this story of the journey from my place of birth in the Azores to start my life in Toronto, as a gift for my family; especially for the younger generation. It was and is my hope that, through my writing, this Canadian-born generation will have a tiny glimpse into a faraway world that still resides inside of me.


About thetorzorean

The musings of a torontonian azorean on identity and belonging. You can find me at
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4 Responses to Part 1 of Coming to Canada: My Azorean Childhood

  1. Rita Botelho says:

    Another wonderful story Emanuel, truly capturing a moment in time. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Pingback: Coming to Canada 53rd Anniversary | Emanuel Melo torontonian azorean writer

  3. Nuno França says:

    Que belo resumo daquilo que foi a sua infância!

    Liked by 1 person

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