Smack in the middle of the Atlantic lies my Blue Island. I have never seen it, nor stepped on its hot black sand beaches, or patted the pillowy hydrangeas that grow out of its volcanic ashen soil.
The Blue Island, Faial, is just outside the center of the Azores archipelago. On September 16, 1957, weeks after my father’s first birthday, the waters beneath Capelinhos began to boil. By September 27, 1957 Capelinhos began a once in her lifetime adventure– the monogenetic volcano erupted for 13 months. Happy 63rd Anniversary, Capelinhos!
The eruption of Capelinhos created a unique opportunity for residents of Faial. Though Azorean Portuguese had a long history of immigration to America via the Hawaiian sugar cane fields, in 1916 the United States Congress tried to pass a bill that established a literacy requirement to immigrate to America. This legislation was motivated in part to discourage Azorean Portuguese immigrants from making the move from Faial to Hawaii, Massachusetts, and California where they were dairy farmers, fishermen, and laborers. The “Dumb Portuguees” were considered to be unintelligent (obviously) and unhelpful to the American economy as their signature position as laborers in the Hawaiian sugar cane fields became less necessary. Capelihnos’ self-expression cracked open the American opportunity for self-determination to another generation of Azoreans in a big way.
My dad arrived in San Jose, CA in 1960 after he and his parents were granted asylum on grounds of natural disaster. They moved back to the state where my great-grandmother was born. My great-grandmother, born in California, settled back home in the Azores after the family had gained some economic stability in the States. This flow of migrants– Azorean citizens of America and American citizens of the Azores– moved between the two countries all throughout the 19th century. This transferred Azorean resources of manpower and American dollars between the two countries. Azoreans back home gave emigrees money to invest in real estate in the United States, and money earned in the States was shared with family still in Portugal. This was a very similar dynamic to California’s Mexican migrant population that has more of a trans-nationality than a singular place of origin.
Azorean Portuguese have always been on the move. The wayfarers and whalers of the Mid-Atlantic, my people were sailors and shipbuilders to the New World Explorers, slave traders between the African and American continents, and venturers who settled as far away as Portuguese India.
“The Autonomous Region of the Azores” as legally named, has a bittersweet history with its progenating country. In the mid-1400s, settlement in the Azores began to rapidly increase as New Christians found themselves forced from Iberia. New Christians were formerly Jewish citizens of the Iberian Peninsula that hadn’t been converted long enough to satisfy the suspicions of uber-Christian Queen Isabella and her henchman, King Ferdinand.
The Mattos family lived by a grove of small trees in Aragon for generations, hence the name meaning “brushwood” or “thicket.” Mattos, lusciously pronounced muh-toj, has the same meaning and pronunciation as my maiden name, Moitoso. Only in Portuguese could you soften and smoosh vowels to the extent that Moitoso says, muh-toj.
This Mattos family settled in Faial. They were a large, well established part of the Aragon community, and newly converted Christians that feared Isabella’s genocidal anti-Semitism. (By the way, Isabella is a transliteration of the name Jezebel. Goodness, aren’t names prophetic?)
Some Jews did move to the Azores because they had not converted, but most were escaping the xenophobia of not being assimilated enough to the Christian worldview. Before the rise of Ferdinand and Isabella, anti-Moorish sentiment had already began to percolate, so there was a contingent of Portuguese Jews that moved to the Netherlands. They lived in cuadrillas like the Basque– perfectly closed communities like the Hassidim. They even spoke a unique language similar to Yiddish that is now lost to history. As they became successful contributors to the Dutch economy, the age old Jewish conundrum of attracting too much attention by God’s favor led to persecution of these Dutch Portuguese Jews. They fled as the New Christians were doing to the Azores.
The last practicing Azorean Jew died in the spring of 2015. Now cemeteries are almost the only testament that the Azores has never really been Catholic. Well, only as Catholic as Esther was Persian. A tiny, little Magillat Esther written in Portuguese from the height of the Azorean Jewish community during the 1800s remains also. And tucked away in Sao Miguel “the Shaar Hashamayim synagogue is one of only a few remnants of Jewish culture in the Azores and in all Portugal.” It is hidden in between the walls of a commercial building. In the past 50 years, this synagogue has only been open once– in March 2009 for tours in recognition of the 420 years since Iberia’s Sephardim began to make the Azores home. Hints, rumors, and secret rooms are all that is left of the Jewish identity of Azorean Portuguese.
There is a sadness I feel as a first generation Portuguese American that I don’t speak Portuguese. That I have never been to the Islands. That I don’t know– except that I do know– that I am a Jew. The Azoreans have many agonias. In fact, our agonies are so many that they are a documented phenomena called the agonias.
Sociologists have found that there is a Azorean complex that predisposes us to feelings of unworthiness, ambivalence toward the future, and a belief that we will never achieve our goals. Researchers believe this complex of emotions and mindset is not just culturally engrained but is the result of an amalgamation of genes that ultimately add up to a world-record breaking prevalence of serious mental illness. What do the Azores win the blue ribbon in? Bipolar, schizophrenia. Not to mention the epilepsy.
Maybe we are cursed for our heavy participation in and enablement of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Maybe we suffer in the way God’s chosen do, as Tevye points out in Fiddler on the Roof : “I know. I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in awhile, can’t You choose someone else?”
Our history is in our genes. Trying to find answers about epilepsy, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia, scientists have mapped the entire genome of the people living in the Azores. On the islands for so many centuries, we are nearly an isolated people group. In other words, we are just barely not completely inbred. This makes our family in the old country a perfect control group to help in medicine’s struggle to understand the brain and nervous system.
Because our genome is mapped, there is a lot of open source information for the ethnic makeup of each island. Though Azoreans are decidedly Iberian, particularly Portuguese, there is a smattering of Flemish and Dutch genes that tell the story of those private communities of Portuguese Jews in Holland during the 16th century. Our Moorish ancestry and our participation in trans-Atlantic transgressions is evidenced by the variety of African haplogroups in our genome. This is especially prevalent in the western islands that were most involved in slave trading. The central islands, where my little round Faial is situated, have the highest concentration of J haplogroup. We are the most Jewish of the islanders with an average of 13% of our genome being “J.”
I have a vested interest in finding out whether I have Jewish ancestry. Both my father and my mother are Azorean Portuguese. My mom’s family stayed after their first migration in the 1800s. Marriages on my mothers side remained within the Azorean American community until my grandmother was born. This means there is a possibility that I have highly rare genes. Recessive/recessive genes are most likely to express themselves among isolated, consanguineous groups. Our genome is able to be mapped because it is “highly collapsed”– a nice way of saying what my dad phrases as: “Grandpa Tony wanted us to leave the island so we could get some new blood in the mix.”
I want to unravel the mystery of my bipolar disorder. I want to know if my moods are an unknown aura of temporal lobe epileptic seizures. I want to know if the mysterious 105 degree fevers I got frequently in early childhood, and the crippling stomach pains I suffered from elementary school through college are from Familial Mediterranean Fever. FMF also causes seizures in people with collapsed genomes. Stomach pains are also a rare type of absence seizure. Epileptics have a high co-morbidity rate with mental illness. My dad and his mom were childhood epileptics. So what do I really have? Why have I been in one form of pain or another my whole life? Is there a better treatment for my primary disorder? Did I expose my unborn child to lithium when I could have just adhered to a therapeutic diet for FMF?
Familial Mediterranean Fever is an illness nearly exclusive to Middle Easterners, particularly Sephardic Jews. Familial Mediterranean Fever is a painful periodic and recurring affliction caused by the overproduction of an intestinal protein. Though it causes pain, this intestinal protein is why Jews didn’t get the plague in near the numbers that Europeans did during the Black Death outbreaks in the 1300s. The Europeans blamed the Jews for the Black Death not understanding why Jewish homes weren’t as harmed. Racism, confused medical analysis, and lost geneologies are just a few of the bi-products of migration.
Even when migration is not forced, when you leave your homogeneous old country to the brave new world, there is loss of identity and a loss of reference for where to start looking to find any possible causes behind failure to thrive within a community.
In the 1970s, a strong boy named Rogerio was a star athlete. He trained by stacking hay bales on the dairy where his family lived and worked. After a long summer of buffing up, Rogerio went back to high school to find out that he had been put on second string. “They gave my spot to a white kid so I quit playing,” he said. “Dad,” I answered. “You’re white too.” He didn’t believe me. I later found his junior varsity football jersey. It said MENDOZA on the back.
As a little boy, my dad had learned English from the other boys on the farm. According to my sister, teachers thought my dad’s little brother had a learning disability. In reality, he was just shy and didn’t have friends from whom to learn English well enough to excel in school. No one noticed until he was in fourth grade. He has bipolar like me. They didn’t figure that out until he was in his 50’s, I think.
You might ask why I don’t just ask my grandma all my questions. Well, she doesn’t speak English. And I don’t speak Portuguese. And my dad speaks Spanish all day in the vineyards, so translating is a headache as he now speaks more Spanish than Portuguese.
Thank God for DNA testing. Now I can easily find the edge of the string to pull on and unravel this aching I have to understand why my brain just hurts so much sometimes. I have a My Heritage DNA kit that I’ve been putting off sending in. I wasn’t sure why I’d been procrastinating until writing this post. I’m afraid to find out that I’m not Jewish. That all these clues about my health, my history, my myopic interest in Judaism and Israel…that it’s just random. I’m just randomly sick, and that’s that. No context, no meaning, no path toward better medical interventions.
As I am writing so much about the election, and what I believe to be the spiritual context of American current events, it is not without feeling. It is not without an understanding of how history lives in us and breathes through us.
Black Americans will always carry the questions, illnesses, and trauma of slavery and oppression. As you pull the string on your history, you are entitled to self-determination and the decision making power in what therapies your community needs to heal. Calexi-Mexi-Amerifornians know that some of the white residents who also live in this fluid international space that was once Colonial Spain want to take the “American” away from them because that ooooone day they were born it wasn’t in “the North.”
I have an uncomfortable, complex identity as a participant in both American and in Azorean history. Origins birthed from rejection and discrimination, stained by sin, sustained by grit, and overshadowed by agonias, resonate so deeply within me. I am fortunate to know where I come from.
I’ll work up the courage to turn in my DNA sample soon. The results might show that I am not a Sephardic Jew. That’d make me sad, not just cause I think Jews are awesome and I’m kinda in love with Mayim Bialik, but because it would take away some of the more interesting leads on my health– not to mention greatly reduce how many centuries back I can read about my family history.
On the night that the Mattos Family was slipping quietly out of Aragon, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand thought the New Christians would always be Jews.
Not Catholic enough to be Catholic but not Jewish anymore.
Not Iberian enough to be Iberian but not Moors anymore.
Not European enough to be European so to the Autonomous Region of the Azores they went.
Tonight, I think that perhaps my family is not Jewish enough to be Jewish. Yet, we will always belong to Jesus enough to be New Christians.