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From: Charlene <>
Subject: An article from
Date: Mon, 8 Aug 2005 01:57:12 UT

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Island reunion
Thousands of Valley residents of Portuguese descent leave in the summer to reconnect with their heritage during trips to the Azores.
By Diana Marcum / The Fresno Bee
Published 07/24/05 00:00:00

OAKLAND AIRPORT &#151; No one waiting at Gate 1 seems to have read any tips on packing light. There's a profusion of bulging carry-on bags. Everyone's carting presents for the relatives, and everyone on this flight has relatives in the Azores Islands, nine tips of volcanoes sticking out of the ocean some 900 miles off the coast of Portugal.

More people of Azorean descent live in the San Joaquin Valley than live in the islands. As a group, they hold on so hard to their traditions, language, extended family ties and their celebrations &#151; festas &#151; that people here and in the Azores call this hot, dry valley the 10th island.

Come summer, the 10th island goes home. It's a direct flight.

There seem to be more cows than people in the Valley towns they leave behind, from Tulare to Escalon. According to Alvin Ray Graves in his book, "The Portuguese Californians: Immigrants in Agriculture," one of every 11 glasses of milk produced in the United States comes from these Portuguese dairy farms in California.

The plane leaves every Monday, May through September, from the Oakland airport. It's always packed.

Every Monday, friends and cousins and neighbors and people who knew each other growing up in the islands bump into each other waiting in the SunTrips budget tours ticketing line. The majority are from Tulare County, and most of them are heading to the island of Terceira, where they have more friends and cousins and neighbors and people they knew growing up in the islands.

For those in line who don't know each other, it takes less than a minute of conversation to discover a connection.

"You look familiar," Fernanda Serpa of Visalia says to Anna Melo of Escalon.

The women quickly figure out that there's a strong family resemblance between Melo and her brother, who owns a restaurant in Terceira where Fernanda Serpa and her husband, Frank, go to order alcatra de peixe, their favorite Azorean fish dish. The women speak Portuguese. People who had been speaking English step in the check-in line at the airport and immediately switch to Portuguese.

Although some came earlier, most Azorean immigrants arrived between 1958 and 1980, according to U.S. immigration reports. More than one-third of the islands' population left for the United States and Canada, running first from a volcano's eruption and later from crushing poverty. Many Azoreans, who were traditionally farmers and dairymen, settled in the Central Valley.

Frank Serpa, 58, came in 1971. He arrived at the Fresno airport with one dollar and one penny in his pocket. He bought a Three Musketeers bar, leaving him with 76 cents. Now he's "Serpa-man," a wealthy car dealer known for his unabashedly goofy commercials. But he still keeps that 76 cents locked in his safe at home.

"I never forget where I come from," he says. "People from the Azores always remember where they come from."

The Serpas vacation in Terceira, where Fernanda's mother still lives, every summer. On the drive from Visalia to the airport, Frank pops in a videotape of recent trips.

There he is, running from a bull on a narrow residential street, a tradition repeated in villages across the Azores every summer. There's the bull appearing to get Serpa as he ducks into a house.

"That bull kicked my butt all the way into the kitchen," he says.

There he is playing the Portuguese guitarra with his cousins on other traditional instruments as Fernanda and other women sing along at 4 in the morning.

The video shows narrow streets and houses with balconies full of people talking and drinking wine.

Frank and Fernanda Serpa used to think they'd retire in the Azores. But now they have American-born children and grandchildren, and they favor their vacation house in Pismo Beach with the big barbecue grill and the wine cellar that handyman Joe Silveira built for them.

Fernanda Serpa doesn't like bulls running through streets and Frank's penchant for getting in front of them, which happens more often in the Azores than in Pismo.

Frank finds island life moves too slowly for him after decades of being a hard-charging businessman in the United States.

Silveira, whose job on this day is driving the Serpas to the airport, sums up how far his boss has come from island ways.

"Is like this," Silveira says. "On his computers at work, Frank has, 'Don't leave for tomorrow what you can do today,' and in the Azores, it's, 'If you can do it today, you can do it tomorrow. Why not tomorrow?'"

Silveira, 46, who immigrated 20 years ago, thought he'd go back some day, but he now knows he probably won't: "That's everybody's plan. Work 10 to 15 years in the United States, then go back to the old country. But the kids get in school. And it gets complicated."

A few do go back while they're relatively young, before it's just a trip to be close to a grave on home turf. People call them The Returners. They're the ones who like life slow and will give up making more money in the States. Salaries aren't high in the Azores, but on the other hand, the work ethic is more relaxed.

A couple of summers ago, the men working on remodeling the Serpas' Terceira house started packing up after a few hours of work to go to one of the Azoreans' traditional "bloodless" bullfights (they don't kill the bull).

"I said, 'Hey, I'm the one paying you. What's more important: the guy paying you or the bullfight?' They said, 'Bullfight.' No contest. They packed up their lunch pails and left," Frank Serpa says.

He laughs now. But he was mad then.

"Should've heard him," Fernanda says. "He was saying, 'I'm a gonna leave! I can't take these people!'"

The summer trips maintain the links between the Azores and the Valley. Families from the San Joaquin Valley don't move permanently back to the Azores often.

And during the past decade, the number of Azoreans moving to California has dwindled, according to immigration records. The European Union introduced trade schools in which Azoreans receive salaries while learning vocations. Unemployment dropped as 9,000 jobs were created between 1996 and 2000, the EU reports.

"People have jobs over there. They aren't coming anymore. They're not bringing fresh blood," says Bernie Ferreira, who founded SunTrips. "In 20 years, the culture will be gone from here. Maybe we won't have flights. When you don't get new blood, it's harder."

But Jerry DaSilva, 27, heading to Terceira on a buddy trip with fellow Escalon resident Andrew Melo, 26, disagrees with the notion that it's an influx of islanders that keeps the Azores connection alive in California.

"It's the people in their 50s and around that age, here, that really work at it. They try to keep things traditional. Where over there, things are changing," he says.

"The first time I went there with my family, I was around 5. There were donkeys going up the road, one TV show &#151; they didn't have cable. They didn't have pizza or hot dogs. Now, I hear there's cable TV. There's cars and cell phones. They really picked up the pace. I like it. I like cell phones. I like movies. I like moving a little quicker than a mule."

Jessica Elias, 29, who's busy checking in customers as a SunTrips representative, longs to be a Returner, albeit one born in the United States.

"It's a different way of life over there. I love it. But it's not easy to pick up and go. There's your job, your life," she says.

On a recent Saturday night while she was sitting at home, Elias talked to her father, who's vacationing in Terceira.

"It was 8 in the morning there, and he was watching people still walking into a party. They had seven bands that played music all night."

Elias said she had two beers and was in bed by 11:30 that night. She had to work the next day.

While fewer families move permanently from one place to another, the nine islands in the Atlantic and the 10th island remain linked by summer vacation.

Ferreira, who started SunTrips 28 years ago, was honored last year for service to the government of Portugal in keeping Portuguese people connected, says the Portuguese Consulate in San Francisco.

His life story is one of links between here and there. His mother was born in America to Azorean parents. She went back to the islands on a family visit, decided to stay, fell in love and married an Azorean, and then was ready to return to the U.S. with her husband when World War II broke out. Ferreira was 13 before his family moved back to the United States.

He wound up working in the travel industry, and in 1977 he got the idea to start a budget travel company that he says offered the first direct flight from the U.S. to the Azores. Now each week from May to September, SunTrips sends at least 300 people, most of them from Central California, to the islands.

Ferreira, 65, can never sleep the night before a flight leaves. He says the older he gets, the more he worries over details.

But he's still happy, he says, "to be able to help my own people see their relatives and go on vacation."

Every year after things die down, Ferreira is on his company's last flight out for his own yearly return to the Azores.

At the Oakland airport on a recent Monday, he stands among the crowd at Gate 1, waiting for the boarding announcement.

Frank Serpa and John Parreira, a Tulare dairyman, are back-slapping and recalling when they used to make cars out of corn cobs when they were kids on Terceira &#151; and steal fruit because they were hungry. Robert Leonardo, a Tulare dairyman and hay broker, says he's leaving on this flight because the next flight will be too loud.

"Half of Tulare's gonna be on that flight. It's going to be so insane," he shouts over the din. "My wife's on that one. I'm going today so I don't have to deal with the craziness."

Filomena Silva, 45, and Fernando Silva, 47, of Tulare, who haven't been back to the islands since they were teenagers, watch the commotion with big eyes. People say hello to Filomena, calling her "Malagueta," her Azorean nickname that means "hot pepper." Almost everyone waiting for the plane has an island nickname.

The Silvas arrived at the airport more than four hours early and sat next to their son's mother-in-law and her relatives.

Filomena's four sisters are leaving on the next flight.

They haven't been back before because of kids and work and their budget. But now, Fernando Silva's father is older and in poor health and can't make his every-other-year visit to California anymore.

Filomena Silva has been thinking about how many years are between her and the Azores.

"I thought, 'I don't remember a lot. It's a long time ago I was there," she says. "Then I think, 'I remember the town where I was born, the festas, the bullfights. I remember the nice smell of the ocean.' Then I think, 'I don't forget anymore my islands.

"'I always remember my islands.'"

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