Two studies of Portuguese-Americans in Southeastern Massachusetts to be discussed at conference

Studies contribute significantly to understanding the region's politics, social history, economics and levels of education

The Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture (CPSC) and the Center for Policy Analysis (CFPA) are sponsoring a half-day conference on September 24, 2005 from 9:45 am – 1:00 pm to discuss two new studies of Portuguese-Americans in Southeastern Massachusetts. The conference will be held at the University Library’s Reading Area (parking lot 13) and is free to the public. The conference will be followed by a luncheon on-campus, in the Sunset Conference Room, at the cost of $15 per person. To RSVP for lunch, please contact Gina Reis at the Center for Portuguese Studies at 508 999 9270 by Wednesday, September 21, 2005. Further information on the conference, including program details and copies of the study, please visit or contact the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture (508-999-9270) or the Center for Policy Analysis (508-999-9265). 

The first study, “Portuguese-Americans in the Massachusetts Power Structure” was authored by Dr. Clyde W. Barrow, Director of the Center for Policy Analysis, and Nina Galipeau, a research associate at the CFPA. The study complied data on the ethnicity of the state’s top office holders and decision makers, including persons holding positions in the state legislature, executive offices, judiciary, education and higher education boards, and independent authorities. Similar data was compiled at the local level for governmental, educational, health, and charitable organizations in towns and cities with a significant percentage of Portuguese-Americans. The purpose of the study was to develop an ethnic profile of the state and local power structures. 

The study finds that despite their presence in the state for more than eight decades, Portuguese-Americans are underrepresented by approximately 50% at both the state and local levels of the power structure compared to their numbers in the population. The study estimates that Portuguese-Americans occupy 2 percent of state level decision-making positions, while they are 4.3 percent of the state’s population. At the local level, Portuguese-Americans occupy 17 percent of the top decision-making positions in Southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod, although they constitute 30.5 percent of the area’s population. 

The study finds that Portuguese-Americans are best represented in local government (19%), but they remain less well represented in local education (15%). Similarly, at the state level, Portuguese-Americans have achieved near parity by occupying 3 percent of the state’s legislative positions, but they occupy only 2 percent of the state’s educational decision-making positions (trustees, boards, presidents, chancellors), and statistically have less than 0.5% of the executive and judicial positions at the state level. This is a typical pattern of political succession that has been observed in studies of other ethnic and racial groups, where newly arrived ethnic groups win office at the local level, parlay that experience into state legislative campaigns, and then eventually secure executive and judicial appointments and appointments to independent authorities. 

Based on U.S. Census data, the study found that despite arriving in the region as early as 1820, most Portuguese-Americans in Massachusetts are still first and second generation immigrants. Portuguese are still the region’s most recent arrivals excepting Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic and Caribbean immigrants, who began arriving in the 1990s. While Portuguese-Americans are not strictly represented in proportion to their numbers in the population, they are nevertheless far from a disenfranchised or disprivileged group in the political arena. The Portuguese-Americans in Southeastern Massachusetts appear to be following a standard pattern of ethnic succession, which should in time lead to gains in other areas of the power structure, including business, educational, and cultural institutions. 

However, the study suggests that a major impediment to the advance of Portuguese-American interests looms large on the horizon. The Portuguese arrived in Southeastern Massachusetts late in the industrialization process and they arrived just as the region’s economic base was beginning to de-industrialize. The basic industries that sustained the economic, political, and cultural rise of previous immigrant groups – fishing, textiles, apparel, and automotive components -- were relocating to foreign locations, while later being replaced by firms in the new post-industrial economy (i.e., marine technology, medical devices, business and professional services, health care). The study suggests it is likely that these economic disruptions have also destablized the “normal” dynamic of succession politics and social mobility in the region. 

The second study to be discussed at the mini-conference, “Ethnicity and Education in Southeastern Massachusetts,” which is authored by David R. Borges, a senior research associate at the CFPA, examines patterns of educational attainment and occupational mobility, among Portuguese-Americans in Southeastern Massachusetts from 1980 to 2000. This study found that Portuguese-Americans in Southeastern Massachusetts are still primarily employed in lower skill and lower wage occupations such as sewing machine operators, home health aides, secretaries, production workers, construction laborers, janitors and building cleaners, ground maintenance workers, and retail salespersons, although there are significant numbers employed in higher skill occupations such as teachers and registered nurses. 

This occupational profile is closely linked to low educational attainment rates compared to most other ethnic groups in the region. Based on U.S. Census data for 2000, the study found that high school and college educational attainment rates among the area’s Portuguese are below regional and state averages. For example, just over half of those with Portuguese ancestry had a high school diploma in 2000, compared to 79.6% of non-Portuguese, 72.6% of the region, and 84.8% statewide. Similarly, 9.7% of Portuguese residents have a four-year college degree, compared to 23.5% of non-Portuguese, 19.7% of the region, and 33.2% of the state. 

Portuguese-Americans are now graduating high school in higher numbers than was the case in 1980, but there have been only minor improvements in college graduation rates. The percentage of Portuguese-Americans with a college degree increased by only 4.7% from 1980 to 2000. However, the study also finds that much of the educational difference among the Portuguese and other ethnic groups in the region is attributable to foreign-born Portuguese, who have educational levels that are half those of U.S. born Portuguese. Many Portuguese immigrants came to this country from rural areas or fishing villages and at a time when only a few years of formal schooling were required in the home country. More than sixty percent of the Portuguese in the area emigrated when only four to six years of formal education was required in Portugal. 

Among the studies other findings: 

• More than forty percent (43.3%) of Portuguese in the area speak a language other than English at home. 
• A quarter of Portuguese in the area (24.9%) do not speak English well or do not speak it at all. 

The study concludes that the economic cost for those who are not educated is large and it will continue to grow larger as the state’s economy continues its evolution by requiring workers to posses higher levels of education and be able to speak English well. And simply being able to speak English may not be enough, as the new economy requires a higher standard of literacy. The ability to read and write basic English is not enough – workers are increasingly required to calculate equations, solve problems, and write reports. The study concludes that job opportunities will continue to narrow for those with low educational capital, especially as traditional manufacturing jobs continue to leave Southeastern Massachusetts. 

According to Prof. Frank F. Sousa, director of the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, “these two studies contribute significantly to understanding the politics, social history, economics and levels of education in this region of the Commonwealth, while allowing for a deeper knowledge about Portuguese-Americans, in particular, and immigration in general.” 

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