Interviewed Fall 2004
Odilia Silveria-Harmon is a 45 years old robust healthy woman with a contagious laugh, and seemingly endless energy. Her family immigrated here from the Azores, by way of Brazil where they lived for a brief time. Words cannot adequately describe her spirit. She is a hardworking, proud, unassuming, gracious, and thankful. She has lived and worked in strikingly diverse environments, from a slaughterhouse to a personal care attendant. Odilia has worked in education for the past eighteen years at Southern Maine Community College as an advisor, helping students make their way through the maze. Odilia is married to Mark, who happens to be a quadriplegic. Despite this, they were able to have children of their own. They have two children who her life revolves around, Nick, aged thirteen and Hannah, aged seven.
Note: For the purpose of this assignment, I have limited the following interview transcription to thirty pages, as it was quite long. I will be transcribing the remaining portions of the interview and will give the full transcription to Odilia. If she chooses for it to be archived, I will forward you the final transcript along with the tapes. Thanks! Have a great semester break. Kathleen
I am Odilia Harmon and I am 45 years old now. And I have lived in a few different places, different countries, different continents. I’ve had what I think is a pretty interesting life. I have been exposed to different people, different cultures. Whether by living in those places or just by fact of where, oh, my own interests, I guess. Well to start from the beginning I was born in the Azores Islands, which are islands that are part of Portugal.
I was born in 1959 in the summer, June 27, and I was the second of three children. My older brother is 5 years older than I and my younger brother is 4 years younger than I am. Ah the Azores are islands that belong to Portugal. They are about three quarters of the way if you draw a straight line from New York to Lisbon, to Europe, three quarter of the way in the middle of the Atlantic are the Azores. And in 1959 the village I was born in was really small, I don’t know, I would say 1000 people maybe. It was a fishing and farming village. My grandparents on one side were fisherman and the other side were farmers.
My mom was a stay at home mom. All moms were back then. And my dad worked in construction. And so he left early in the morning and walked to work and walked back. Walked, you know, three or four hours to get to work and three or four hours to get back. Our house did not have electricity. Kind of like Little House on the Prairie. We had no electricity, no running water, and an outhouse. We had pigs. We had chickens. We kind of lived off the land in a way. So mom had garden and we used the chickens for eggs and she bartered the eggs for sugar or whatever.
I was the second child to be born. My mom had had my brother five years before me and it had been pretty uneventful. Born at home, midwife. And then I was too big to be born that way, so my dad called the midwife after my mom had been in labor for quite some time and they decided that it was not going to happen at home. I needed to go to the hospital, which was in the city which was about at the time a half hour, forty minute car ride. Well, no one had cars in the village…(laugh)…it was really pathetic. And where we lived it was about a half mile to three quarters of a mile off the main road. The main road itself wasn’t paved but it was in better condition than our road. The main road could take cars but our road could not. It kind of a hill, real rocky and real gravelly and such. So, my dad ran down to the little village square and got the one person who had the cab, the big black old Mercedes. And he came up, and of course he couldn’t come up to the door, so my poor mother, with me half way being born had to be carried fireman style.
Two, three men carried her, well, the poor woman couldn’t walk, you know. I was being born really, just couldn’t come out. And so they stuck her in the back of a car and drove her to the city and that’s where I was born, in the city hospital. And apparently they asked my father when they brought my mom, they didn’t think they could save both of us so they asked my dad if he wanted the baby or the wife. And my dad said “well, I have a son at home, so I need my wife” (laugh, laugh). I don’t know this baby.
And according to my parents this is exactly how it went. Of course, I don’t remember that, but… So anyway, they did everything they could, used forceps, and somehow got me out of there. My poor mother, I was about an 11-pound baby so that explained all the trouble. So she stayed in the hospital, which was very unusual at that day. For Portugal, for the islands, for the Azores you kind of stayed, you had babies at home. And so she stayed there for about a week and then I came home and everything else was fine. I was a happy bouncing baby girl. Big, fat baby who was apparently not too much trouble. I wasn’t colicky, wasn’t sick. Ate a lot. So it was easy.
My first few years were kind of uneventful. I mean, I just lived this, I didn’t know anything. You know, I mean didn’t know that there was anything other than life in this little village. There’s no radio, no television, no electricity, nothing like that. So my grandparents lived nearby. Lots of relatives around. Raised very Catholic from the Old Catholic Portuguese. So, you know, it was church on Sundays and all this good stuff.
The one thing I remember as a child when I was about two years old, my mother used to have to go down the street cause there was no running water. So my mother used to have to go down the street to get the water in buckets. And one rainy, stormy day my mom went down the street. I was probably two, my brother seven. She left us home cause it was very safe. Everybody did that. And my older brother decided what a perfect opportunity to go outside and hang out in the pouring rain. So he gets me and an umbrella and sits me and him on top of the well to watch the rain. The well had a cover on it that kind of flips around and just luckily he sat me on the side that has the little edge that holds it from flipping down. My mother gets home and sees us sitting there and has a heart attack, I cannot, you know, I remember the activity so well cause we felt like we were having just the best time. Sitting out there in the pouring rain and winds and umbrella pretending to be watching a bull fight.
I started school there when I was seven years old and had a couple of good friends and we all walked to school together. And I had about, I don’t know, about four months of schooling there in the Azores. And from which time my parents decided that we were going to immigrate to Brazil. Portugal was ruled by a dictator, Salazar, and my father did not believe in his dictatorship and his ways. Portugal was at war in Africa to keep its’ colonies so as soon as a boy turned sixteen they would go into the service and go into military training and the day they turned, I think it was actually seventeen they would send them out to Africa to fight in the jungle. And usually most boys in our village returned shortly after either dead or, you know, severely traumatized. So my father thought, “this is insane, I’m gone”. So he immigrated to Brazil with us. We went by boat. We went in a great big old ship. Cargo ship. From the Azores to Lisbon. And we were the only passengers on the ship. Everything else was cargo. So we were kind of like steerage. And so there was a room, I mean, some cabin thing where my mom and I stayed. And all the men were supposed to stay with the men that worked on the boat, on the other side of the boat. Cause it was the cheapest way to go. My parents had no money. They had to borrow money to get out of there. And so, that was the only way we could afford to travel. So we boarded the ship on a rainy, yucky February night. Winter night. And the one thing I remember about it is the transported a lot of cargo so they stopped at every single island and loaded and unloaded cows. And there was this great big hole on the ship on top, like this holding pen, full of cows. And at night when the seas were really rough they would moo all night long. Course when you are a seven year old kid it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to you when you’re from a village of, you know, a thousand people.
So then we went to Lisbon and we stayed for a month while my father had to manage all the paperwork to get us out of there. There was a lot of red tape because it was a dictatorship and you had to always be paying up to get out. It was very very tricky for my father to get us out of there. I could go on for hours about that but I won’t. But then we embarked on a cruise ship from Italy and again we are not first class passangers, of course…or second, or third. We were the people whose cabins were under the water so we had a porthole our cabin. And the whole family at least stayed in the same cabin. And there were bunk beds. And in all we saw outside the porthole was water because you were below the water line. It was actually, I’m quite sure that it was welded shut.
But it was the biggest adventure, the best thing. I don’t remember missing home, cause it was just this incredible thing. It was the first time in my life that I saw a person who was not white, like myself. I went up on the deck cause the cruise ship had a lot of people always, like I guess they still do, just from all over the world. A lot of different countries that work on the ships. And I went up on deck with my brother and I just, I was just amazed. I remember running back to my mother screaming cause I was so afraid cause I had seen person who was black and I had never seen that in my whole life. Didn’t know they existed. So that was my first experience there. We, my mom, was sea sick the whole voyage, which lasted about a month. She was sea sick the entire time.
Us kids loved going up to the dining room and having snacks. I mean they had electricity, the had all kinds… it was awesome. So, we got to Rio Dejenaro, and, in early March. It was exciting to be there. We had some friends who had moved there before us so they had gotten us a little place to stay. We were staying with some other folks and we had three days after we got there there was huge torrential rains, and flash flooding, I guess. We being in the Azores had never seen that. Flash flooding was quite a new experience. We lived near this little stream that became a river like the Amazon in a flash flood. And our house had about three or four feet of water in it so my mother who had carefully packed all of her lifes treasured possesions in these wooden crates to bring on the ship had everything destroyed by the flood. She has no pictures left of her kids. There is nothing like that left of our childhood because it all was destroyed flood. And at the time, it was pretty cool standing on top of the refrigerator because water was high. And my father and our friend went around with really high boots and axes because one of the things that you get in Brazil when you get these floods are these big snakes.
So that was quite a thing. Flash floods only last a few hours. It rains it floods three four feet of water and then of course there are big and small snakes left and of course when you are a seven or eight year old kid how much cooler can it get. My poor mother of course is ready to go back, just hated it. We lived there for a while. We moved away from that…it was a suburb. The streets weren’t paved in that area. It was far away from the schools. So my friend that my father knew there. Their kids were grown up so living near a school was not a concern. My father got a construction job in the city called Novaiguaco. And he, it was a forty minute bus ride so we moved to the city which was at the time the eighth largest in Brazil. There was a lot of construction which was how my father got there was because there was a need for construction workers and my father was able to get a construction job and get us moved there because he got a working permit to stay there and then we had to take care of other paperwork to stay permanently.
We got this job. We moved to the city. We lived in a tiny little place. A tiny little house. Our next door neighbor had six girls and they were all teenagers, thirteen to twenty. And I used to love watching them get all dressed up to go out with their boyfriends. That was the coolest thing cause their mother let them wear makeup and do their nails and my mother didn’t cause I was seven years old, or eight by then probably.
I went to school in the public school system in Brazil, in Rio. And they do things differently there because they don’t have enough schools for all the kids so when you’re like first through third grade you go to school early in the morning, like seven to ten. And then fourth, fifth, and sixth you go to school like eleven to two-thirty. And then if you’re the next three grades up you go to school three to six-thirty. And if you are in high school, high schoolers go to school seven to eleven at night. Cause then they can use the same classrooms for all the school.
I liked living in Brazil. I don’t ever remember missing or wanting to go back. As a child wanting to go back to the Old Country. I think I missed my grandparents and having relatives around but I don’t have any recollection crying wanted to go back. Unlike my mother, who was in her forties and obviously it really meant something to her to miss her family so much. She was thirty-six actually.
My father worked a lot. He worked all the time, day and night, really trying to provide for us. Plus he had to pay back the loan that he had borrowed to get us there which was quite a bit of money. We lived, my mother used to take in laundry and she did house cleaning a couple of days a week for some folks who live a little ways from us who were rich people. So we took in laundry. And I used to help my mom with that. My older brother didn’t go to school. They didn’t, there was no law. He was twelve years old, thirteen by then. There was no law that he had to go to school. So he stayed and went to work. He went to work with my father at first in construction and that didn’t work out too well. He was going to be a helper. But he was really small so lugging big bricks, he just didn’t have the physical strength to do it. So he went to work as an assistant helper in the butcher shop. It was him. He is very outgoing and it was perfect.
I went to school. I did really well in school as a kid. I did really well. I was at the top of my class all the time. I was extremely competitive academically. The way they did it back then they gave you medals if you were the first in your class. You got, well it wasn’t real gold, but it was colored gold metal. And if you were second place you got silver. And if you were third you got bronze. And they could change from month to month. Then they would take the medal from you and give it to another kid. And my thing was that if I got it once no one is taking it away. So I, my thing, was to wear the gold medal all year round and get it at the end of the year and add it to my little collection at home. So I did really well in school. I loved school. I loved studying.
I helped my mother with the laundry and helped my mother a lot with the house stuff. I didn’t just come home from school, you get together and play with your friends. It’s not what kids really did in a way back then. You helped with chores and because my mother was doing laundry for people and doing house cleaning for other people we had to pitch in at home. Like I said my dad just worked all the time. He’d come home from his regular job, he’d have dinner and then he’d go and do some night worked for extra cash. And my mom it seems like all she did was laundry and cook and clean. But at least we had running water, electricity (laugh).
And that was just a really awesome…I can’t remember anything too traumatizing. I remember when Brazil won the world cup in 1970 and everybody, you’d think it was Carnival, everybody was celebrating. And there were songs. Brazilian people are very happy people. They are very positive people. They can be in the most aweful and they’ll be smiling. They believe God will provide and that and they believe a lot in sort of the spirits. There’s sort of a real African piece to their beliefs. I think brought over from slavery. Learned from the slaves. And because the colonizing of Brazil happened differently. They integrated. Everybody became integrated. There was a lot of intermarriage between the native Brazilians, the Africans, the Portugese. So there are literally five different names for mixed race. Black with white, black with indian, white with indian, half indian, etc. There’s different names for different mixes. So when you fill out a survey it’s not just native american, white. No, there’s like shades.
Racism doesn’t exist, really. The economic structure of the country, there’s the very rich, the fairly poor, and the very poor. And so we sort of fit in the fairly poor. My father had work. We were no indigent. We didn’t live on the streets. We had a home that we rented. We didn’t own it but… No one had phones. No one had cars. But no one did. So it wasn’t like we didn’t, oh my goodness everyone else does. We took the bus everywhere you went. And the people were just positive and they were able to somehow, like the standard/the official religion is Catholic. But you could have somebody that would go to mass on Sunday morning to Catholic mass and then Sunday evening at six o’clock they would light a fire and put on all these clothes and do African dances to the spirits to Yiminja and all these African spirits. Everybody just kind of exist. They are happy, they are…
The biggest thing that probably happened to me there that really stands out was when I was about ten or eleven years old, my teacher entered me in the State competition. Like a youth educational competition. So the three top kids in our school. We entered this intellectual marathon is the actual literal translation. So we did these tests and they scored them and there was schools from every city or state of Rio Dejenaro. And if you had money you went to private school, or Catholic school. It included everybody. Well, I was the top student in the State so one of the things we got to do as all of us who had entered this intellectual marathon, got to have lunch with Pele. But sat you at these really long tables. And if you were the top ten you got to sit closer. And if you were the top person you got to sit right next to him. And the governor. The governor I couldn’t have cared less about. I was having lunch with Pele. Me and a hundred other kids but I got to sit next to him and got to talk to him. He gave me autographed shirt and book. My mom has all this stuff. One of my favorite favorite parts of the whole thing is they had us all up on stage and had all these educators and, of course my parents weren’t there. My father was working and my mother was home with my baby brother. And so my parents weren’t there as probably most kids parents weren’t. They just put you all on the bus and take you to this…like going to Augusta. And so the governor asked the top three kids, tell us, well not the governor but the emmcee, “tell us who you are, your name, your town, etc, etc, and what do your parents do”. And so, the first five kids probably… everything in Brazil was the top five, not three…somebody’s father was a doctor, someone’s father was an engineer, and someone’s father was a businessman. So they came to me and “well, you’re our top intellectual marathoner. Tell us about you”. So I’m like (keep in mind that I’m this pudgy little ten year old who wears glasses). So they asked me. I told them my name, what town I was from, and I said my father works construction. They said “oh, is your father an architect?”. And I said “no, he’s a carpenter”. (Laugh, laugh). That’s my most memorable thing. My father still tells the story today. I remember that really well. It was a big highlight of my years there.
The economy in Brazil wasn’t great. No matter how many hours my father worked, it was tough. Inflation was 100%, 150% a year. You literally needed to have a bag of money to go to the store. Not a wallet, but a bag of money because the money had been devalued so far that it was ridiculous. You needed $10 to buy something that last year cost you $.95. It was really tought living there. And all of our relatives that had lived in the Azores had immigrated to the United States. The reason that we had not way back when was because my father did not want to wait to go through that whole process of immigration because my brother was thirteen and the minute they hit fourteen they tended to hold the men, the boys, behind so they would have an army. My father did want to wait for all that.
Everybody else had come to the United States. Some in California, some in Rhode Island. They all told us how great it was. The letters they said that how great it was. And you saw the movies on tv and you assumed that all of America people don’t do the dishes. You use paper plates and you thow them away. It’s just the land of plenty and jobs for everyone and school is free and your books are free at school. Whereas in Brazil you have to buy your own books. So it was too good to pass up. So our relatives who lived here in the United States sponsored us to come here. That took a little bit of time. Finally, in February of 1974 seven years almost to the day of when we left the Azores, we left Brazil. Then, I didn’t want to go. I did NOT want to leave. I had a lot of friends. I was fourteen. The last thing I want to do is go someplace where I don’t speak a word of the language except for whatever the Beatles songs were. Words like “help”, “stop”, and “I love you”. I was not ready to go. In fact, my kid brother and I had a plan to run away from home and let my parents go and we would stay.
My parents were able to kind of get us excited about it but I don’t remember being too thrilled. At least this time we flew. We left Brazil on February 7 of 1974 and it was about 117 degrees in Rio. We took a jet to JFK, New York. We landed, and with the wind chill it was 19 degrees below zero. Rude awakening. Very, very cold.
Of course flying in this great big jumbo jet was very cool. Of course it took us a lot less time to get to the United States than it had to get to Brazil. We came to New York. Arrived there and of course we speak no English. We had to go from JFK to Laguardia. We all had our “winter” clothes on which consist of a little fleece shirt, a sweater, pants. Keeping in mind that we are coming from where 50 degrees is the middle of winter. I don’t think I have ever been so cold in my life. The wind was blowing. There was snow all over the place. It certainly as beautiful. Just like the cards our relatives had sent us all those years. Just like those Currier & Ives Christmas cards. Oh, my word.
We got on the bus to Lauguardia, got on the plane. Went to Providence. That all just kind of happened fairly uneventfully. When we got to Providence my aunt, my uncle picked us up at the airport. The very first thing I did the minute I stepped on the snow was fall. I didn’t know how to walk on it. “It’s beautiful! Aaaa!” (laughing).
I remember driving. My aunt lived in neighborhood similar to Munjoy Hill. Just in the structure of the houses. Three-story houses. That’s what everybody lived in. Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls. All of our relatives lived in that area. They all lived in these neighborhoods that had three-story tenements that were made of wood. I had never seen a house made of wood and to me they looked like rabbit houses. All I had ever seen were the Hollywood movies…everybody’s houses were beautiful. A mansion with a pool. So, a little shocking.
My aunt and uncle with whom we went to live when we first arrived here, had six boys. The oldest was fifteen. I was fourteen. He was a year older. The youngest was five or six. It was a three bedroom. One of those tenements. They owned the house but it was a three bedroom in one of those tenements. We all came in. They had prepared this great big meal for us. The nice part of all that was that we saw all of those relatives we hadn’t seen since Portugal. That was the really nice part. That you were able to reconnect with all those people. See my grandparents again. That was just so awesome. It was freezing outside. Snowing. Her house was warm and she had made all this food and it was packed. Jam packed, with people. Everybody had immigrated here while we were in Brazil.
My grandparents used to go back and forth a lot. They really didn’t want to stay here, but all the kids were here so they would come and stay. My grandfather, it amazes me, I always think of him as being so old, but he was young enough that he could work so he had a job at a mill here in maintenance. A jewelry factory. He worked for a while and then go back, and come back and work again. He worked long enough to build his quarters to get retirement, to build a certain amount.
We lived at my aunts house for the first few months. We got here in February, around my grandmothers birthday. We lived at her house February, March, and April. At the end of April, like sometime around April 25, we moved into an apartment. Another one of these on the third floor. A three-decker tenement house.
When I first arrived, we arrived on a Friday, and on Monday my father and brother…in order to immigrate to this country under regular circumstances you have to have a job waiting for you. You can’t come here unless you have someone that’s written promissary for when you arrive. That company is kind of responsible for hiring you. Now, they don’t have to keep you forever. But they’ve agreed to hire you when you arrive. So my father and older brother had jobs lined up at a wire manufacturing company. My mother had a job at a textile mill waiting for her. Those are immigration regulations. You can’t under regular rule, you’re supposed to not come here and be a burden. You come here and work. Which at the time in Rhode Island with all the manufacturing, was not hard to do.
One thing I remember about then, this was 1974, were the lines at the gas pumps which was not uncommom for me having come from Brazil. I was used to lines for everything. So I didn’t think too much of that. I remember that. The other shocking thing, on Monday, my father and brother went to work at the factory where my uncle worked. Seven o’clock in the morning to seven o’clock at night.
My kid brother and I went to school. There was someone from the immigration office, from the city of Providence, who spoke Portugese cause there were a lot of Portugese speaking people in Providence, who came and got us and showed us… took us to the school and registered us. We went to school that day. We didn’t speak any English, at all. And I had all these hand me down clothes. You have to remember, it’s freezing and I have nothing warm enough. My aunt had six boys, no girls. You’re starting to see the picture here. I had snow pants and coat and boots. They were those boots that boys used to wear that you take your shoes and slip them inside. That’s what I had. So I don’t speak English and I’m dressed in boys clothes.
I went to school, my kid brother and I. We were in different grades but at the time they put me in eighth grade. What they used to do is they’d give you a math test. They used the math to evaluate your level of school, since they couldn’t do the English test. So they placed me in eighth grade. And my kid brother was in third or fourth. So we went together to school, the same school. So the first day, we were dropped off and at the end of the day this van picked us up and brought us home. But he showed us the bus. Everybody takes the yellow bus. “This is the bus you’re gonna take and this is the number. So tomorrow morning get up and go to the bottom of the street and you get on this bus.”
So we did. That afternoon, by the time we got home from school my mom had gone to work. She worked three to eleven at the mill. So by the time we got home mom was gone to work. And my kid brother was really close to my mother. He cried. Cause she had never been outside the home so he was really, very upset.
My cousins had taught us a few choice words to say in the lunch line at school, such as when someone lets you in front of them and you want to say thank you, they taught us to say “fxxx you”. So the next day when we went to school we ended up in the Vice Principals office. It wasn’t a big deal but it was funny since we were wondering what we had done wrong. Our cousins convinced us. We knew “thank you” was the proper way. But he said “well, that’s English. Like English you speak in England. This is America and we speak American English”. So they taught us all these nasty words that meant, that really were swear words but they told us meant something else. I for one, ended up in the Vice Principals office, who shook his finger at me while I just looked very puzzled.
But that day we went to get on the bus. Now we are doing this by ourselves. My aunt and uncle had given us a little piece of paper that had said on it Greenwood Street and their phone number. So we get outside and we’re supposed to… Now we get up there and there’s ten yellow school busses lined up outside. So we don’t know which one. We walk up and down the line and we can’t find one that looks like our school bus. I should tell you, the school bus we took in the morning was a handicapped school bus so all the kids on the school bus were special needs kids. So we thought that the only people that took those yellow school busses were children with special needs. We didn’t know any better. The whole ride to school my kid brother is in tears cause the kids are making all these noises and he’s totally freaked out. He’s ten, but he’s freaked out.
I think we were so overwhelmed by that that we didn’t notice a bus number. Who knows? There’s ten yellow busses lined up so I go up and I don’t know which one to get on. So I go back to the class and I ask my ESL teacher who by now is like “you’ve gotta get down there. You gotta get on the bus”. I don’t understand any of this. All I know is that everyone is rushing around like crazy. I, by the way, have spent my entire day at school with my big boots and snow pants on cause I didn’t realize you are supposed to take them off. But that’s ok cause I’m so darned cold anyways. To me it felt just right.
So anyways, we go. A teacher, a nice guy, grabs us by the hand. I remember, Mr. Hudson. I think I could recognize him if I saw him today. Grabs us by the hand, runs downstairs cause of course by now we’ve missed the bus. Busses don’t last long around the parking lot. He goes to everybody and says “Greenwood Street, Greenwood Street”. Finally one of them says “yep”, so we hop on the bus that said “yep”. The bus drives around drops kids off. It wasn’t the same bus. It wasn’t the little bus with the kids with special needs. It was a huge bus with kids throwing stuff and yelling and screaming, and kids of every race. Providence is very multiracial. Multi-ethnic. There were kids of every race, every language. Kind of cool, but of course we are scared to death. The bus pulls over at some bus stop, comes to a screeching stop as busses do and says “ok. Greenwood Street”. He looks at us, shoes us off the bus and drives off.
Well, it wasn’t Greenwood Street. It was Greenwich Street. I’m thinking “ok, they dropped us off at the wrong end of the street”. So let’s walk up to the other end of the street. None of the houses look familiar. Nothing looks familiar but that’s ok cause nothing looks familiar anyways. My kid brother is in tears. We are freezing to death. It’s now snowing but there’s a lot of snow and ice on the ground. We don’t know how to walk on the stuff. We go to the other end of the street which was a very long walk. My aunt’s street wasn’t that long. Greenwood isn’t a long street. This is a very long walk. We get over there and it’s not it. My kid brother totally looses it. All he can do is cry. I don’t speak English. I’m lost. I don’t know where I am.
We walk down this road which is like Congress Street. Think of Munjoy Hill. We walk into this store. This little neighborhood corner store. Everyone in the store is, it’s 1974, everyone’s got an afro. Everyone in the store is black, everybody. Everyone’s got an afro. Everyone is smoking. There was a woman behind the counter and everyone else, it’s all men. It was a liquor store. We didn’t know it. My kid brother and I walk in. Of course we are lost. This nice man comes over and starts speaking with us in Spanish. Now I speak Brazilian and Portugese so it’s close enough. So I explain to them that we are lost. And so I give him my little piece of paper and I tell him that we need to go to Greenwood Street. He has no idea where Greenwood Street is. But he’s really nice and said “don’t worry, we’ll get you home, relax”. He bought us some candy. The lady behind the counter gave my kid brother some hot chocolate. He’s still shaking like and leaf and bawling, non-stop. His nose is running, his face is frozen cause he’s got so many tears.
This man gets on the phone, calls my aunt and uncles house and says, you know, these kids…this is where they are, yada yada yada. So some time later my uncle shows up. He, I remember well he wanted to give this guy money. Give him ten dollars to say “thank you”, but he refuses. So we get in my uncles car and go home.
The next morning you could not get us out of bed to go to school. We refused to go to school. Absolutely would not, no way. They had to get the man from the city to come again and talk to us. What they ended up doing was teaching us to walk to school. Then we felt ok. We were used to walking to school. In Brazil, gosh, I walked. There were no school busses so you walked quite a ways. We were used to that. It was just very cold. But we could handle that rather than getting lost.
Many years later I figured out that where we had been lost, well not many but once I started driving like two or three years later, that where we had been lost is an area called South Providence. It was not a great part of town. It is a high crime area. But it was ok, nothing bad happened.
We stayed at my aunt and uncles house for a couple more months. My father, my older brother were working at the mill seven a.m. to seven p.m. My mother was working three to midnight at another mill with my aunt. My older brother, however, he didn’t really care for working at the electrical wiring mill, so he found a job at the butcher shop. He would come home from work at four or five o’clock and us kids came home from school at three.
A couple of months later, probably some time in April, we found our own place. We found an apartment at the opposite end of town. It was still the third floor of a three story house. I was then transferred to Hope High School. They figured out that at fourteen I belonged in the ninth grade, not eighth. So they put me in ninth grade and my kid brother went to a school nearby. The street that I lived on people would hang out a lot outside. It was different. Kids hung out, sat out on the front steps. My brother would come home from work. We would have dinner and then we would go hang out at my aunt’s house with my cousins and visit with my grandparents. That part of it was really nice, to be with family.
A couple of funny stories. One day, I wanted to make a cake for my mother. My brother took me to the store to buy the cake stuff. I had my recipe and the woman kept saying that I needed flour, and I kept thinking that I don’t need flowers, I need something to make a cake with. In the summer the ice cream truck would come by and we would always get ice cream when the ice cream truck went by in the summer. Finally, we decided we needed to buy our own ice cream at the store. So I went to the store to get ice cream. I was used to seeing it in the round plastic tub, so I got a round plastic tub that said “ice cream” on it. We got it home and it was disgusting. It was the most aweful, hideous tasting thing. It was like sand with milk. Just gross. We stuffed it in the freezer and never looked at it again. Some months later, we were going through the freezer and I realized that it was like no-fat, soy based, lactose intolerant ice cream or something. Those are some of my favorite pre-English stories.
I turned fifteen that summer and went into tenth grade. That was kind of uneventful. Halfway through the year I realized you would get a work permit at fifteen and go out to work. I was really anxious to do that. I got a work permit and a job at a mill. At a factory. That was Fairlawn Plating and Metals Co. It did gold plating, silver plating, whatever, of jewelry and knicknacs. It was an awful job but I made money and I wanted to make money. By then, like I said, I wasn’t obsessed with being number one at school anymore. I couldn’t speak English anyway so I was taking a lot of ESL classes. So I wasn’t the top of my class.
I go my liscense the day I turned sixteen. I wanted my license so bad. So when school started, I was sixteen years old. I had a job. I could take my father’s car to school as long as a I gave my father a ride. By this time my father worked seven p.m. to seven a.m. at the mill. I would pick him up at work at seven a.m. I would give my mother a ride to work. She was no longer working at the factory. She was either a nanny for these folks on the boulevard. I would give her a ride to work in the morning and then I could have the car to take to school.
That year in my eleventh grade, I missed fifty-nine days of school (laugh, laugh)…that were recorded on the books. Then there were all the days that weren’t recorded on the books. We’d go in and check into home room and then get “lost” between home room and first period. We’d get in the car and go off somewhere. Like I said, I never got caught by a truant officer. I got caught coming or going and they would give me a note to take home. I would have my mom sign it that it was a permission slip for me to go somewhere. So she’d sign it and that was ok.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. If you were an immigrant kid, you quit high school at sixteen and went to work at the mill. My cousin Phil, who is two years older than I, had broken the mold and finished high school. She finished high school and she had done a lot of the secretarial courses in high school, and she was getting a job at a bank. I wasn’t the first one to finish high school. I was the second. Phil was the first. I just hadn’t thought much about it at all. By the time I got into my senior year, they decided that I didn’t need any more ESL classes. That I could go full curriculum of regular classes. My ESL teacher, Mr. Gormley, who I just absolutely adore, thought that I was college material. That I was bright enough to go to college. That I should go to college. All my relatives, everyone of my cousins with the exception of Phil, had all quit high school at sixteen. It’s not like I was thinking I would go to college. Mr. Gormley was not my guidance counselor, but he had a hand in helping me choose what I would take in twelfth grade. I took college courses, whatever advance English I could take for wherever I was at. I remember I took Geometry or Algebra II or some dreadful thing. I took Chemistry and I took Anatomy/Physiology, cause I had taken Biology in eleventh grade. I had a good curriculum. He help me choose something good. And he encouraged me to take SAT’s. He encouraged me to take the TOEFL, the test of English as a foreign language. Because that’s what you needed to do if you were going to go to college. And I was kind of like, eh eh eh. Well, he encouraged me to apply to college, so I applied to Rhode Island College, University of Rhode Island, and then I didn’t have anything else I wanted so I applied to Alabama because it was the first one on the list of state universities.
Alabama accepted me. I went for an admissions interview at Rhode Island College and my father came. They wanted your parents to go. They sat down with me and gave me my interview and told me that I could be accepted at Rhode Island College. And then they sat down with my dad and told him what it would cost for him to help me go to school. We had filled out whatever financial aid forms, I guess. My father would have had to pay, you know, at the time probably one thousand dollars in 1978, and I was just mortified that my father would have to work at a mill at night and pay for me to go to college. That just wasn’t an option. Especially because no one had done it. Nobody else was doing it.
All my aunts and uncles advised my parents against having me go to college, because there’s no good reason for a girl to go to college…No mans going to want to marry you if you are smarter than he is…If you have a college education…And you know what’s going to happen when she goes away to college…she’ll get pregnant.
Of course, once that happens I really want to do it because I want to show them. I was lucky that my parents were very supportive, especially my father, of me going to college after high school. What I ended up doing, and again it was one of these things, here’s June and schools over and I’m graduating from high school. I went to Mr. Gormley, my ESL teacher. My senior year I actually helped teach ESL to the kids that came in because it’s like it still is. There’s not enough money and they couldn’t hire a new ESL teacher and they had new kids that came in that were not ready for advanced ESL classes so they needed people to just teach them the very basics. So Mr. Gormley got permission to have me skip out of Phys. Ed. and do that instead. I loved it. This was near the end of graduation, near the end of the school year, near graduation. He says to me, “so, which college are you going to?” And I wasn’t. And he said “oh, no. You are going to go home and you are going to apply to college and get into college. I’m going to ask you again next week and by the time you leave this high school you will be going to a college. It can be the junior college. It can be Rhode Island College. I know you applied. I know you were accepted to different schools. You need to go to one of them”.
I decided that the junior college was probably the way to go because I could afford to pay for it with my job. I did. I went to the junior college. I went to the senior prom with a friend. A kid that worked with me at the mill who had quit high school when he was sixteen. He was just a buddy. We were just friends. He just loved it. I went to the Community College of Rhode Island, the junior college, Rhode Island Junior College, in Lincoln, Rhode Island. My major when I started college… I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be an actress. I so wanted to be an actress. When I was in high school, I tried out for “Guys and Dolls” in high school. And I forget the girls name in the play, but she’s the doll, the girl friend. She’s got to have the snappy New York accent and I have got this wicked strong foreign accent. And of course it’s a musical. And me, can’t carry a note in a bucket. I wanted to do drama so bad. I ended up being in the little group that sang “I love you a bushel and a peck”. In drama club, I was the one who took tickets. I wasn’t necessarily ready for Broadway. I really wanted to do this so at the junior college, I got involved in Drama Club and wanted to take Theatre there.
I had for a number years, been really interested in doing Physical Therapy. It had kind of been and interest that had come and gone over the years. When I was a child in Brazil the lady who lived next door to us had really severe rhumetoid arthritis so she was really…all her joints were tight. She was wheelchair bound. I used to help her out a lot as a kid. When I was in Brazil, we had no other relatives. She was kind of like a grandmother. Starting then, I go interested in Physical Therapy.
When I started at the junior college, I wanted to be an actress. I sat down with my advisor, who very wisely, recommended that I look at the outlook, the employment outlook, for actresses. And convinced me that that might be something I might want to do for fun, but that I might want to choose a career. I decided that what I’d want to do was Physical Therapy. I started volunteering at the local VA hospital. This is late 70’s, 79 so there’s still a lot of the Vietnam vet’s around. They’re still in rehab at the time and all that. It was a real rude awakening for this eighteen year old with no ideas about really much of anything.
I started in an Associate of Arts and was talked out of that and into an Associate of Science as much more practical. I took chemisty and physics and biology and anatomy & physiology and all that. And I volunteered at the veteran’s home for a little while and then I started volunteering at Rhode Island hospital in the Physical Therapy department and cleaned, I don’t know how many, hot tubs. That was my job as a volunteer. I was not learning a whole lot about physical therapy, but that was ok. I had a part time job. By the time I started college, I had switched jobs and was working at the mill where my mom had worked many years before. I was what they called, a floater. They had trained me on all the different machines so that I could fill in where needed. I took their first aid/CPR course so that when someone got hurt I was the first person. Because I could speak Portugese and Spanish, those were the languages spoken at the time at the mill. They had me do this. I worked in their weaving room a lot of the time. That was very interesting. I have to say that that was my first…I don’t know…the bosses were men. The person who distributed the work was a man. We worked with these huge textile…the machines that we worked on was in the basement, because weaving machines have such high impact, they are so noisy that the other floors of the mill can’t take the impact so they put them in the basement on the concrete floor. It’s incredibly noisy. At the time there were no requirements of ear protection. None of that. You were given lots of yarn to spin into tubing that would go on the weaving machines. It’s the first time I encountered sexual abuse, not abuse but just harassment. Harassment. There was this short little guy who thought he was God’s gift. You’d go into the back room and he’d be in there with some girl. You wondered why you were always getting the crappy work. Why does she get to produce so much more than I do? (laugh) …Well, the boss was getting the “good stuff”.
I was trained by a woman who was nearing retirement. A little Italian lady who had started working at that mill when she was twelve. She was sixty-five years old. I cannot imagine fifty three years of her life. She met her husband in that mill. They lived in one of the row houses. Raised three children. Some of the kids went to college, some didn’t. Not many of them were around. Her husband had died. There she still was. She was a skinny little person. A very wiry old woman. She was just sage and had all of this good advice. “You don’t want to stay here forever. She’d say “baby” or “honey”. You get out of here. You need to get your money, pay for college and get out. And don’t let Louis. Stay away from him. He’s not good.” And when you are young, you think you are going to tell someone cause this is wrong. I was learning all this stuff in my classes. So I went to the boss beyond Louis, and he looks at me like “and your point is?”. It was really good motivation to go to college working at the mills. It was just amazing experiences.
When I finished at CCRI, I transferred to University of Rhode Island and I took a year off to work and save money. During that year I worked evenings at the textile mill, from three to eleven. In the morning at five a.m. till quarter of three, cause literally they were half a mile away from each other, I worked at a slaughter house. I’d go in at five o’clock in the morning and count up the animals and supervise the kill floor, the slaughter room. My brother worked there as a butcher. It was all men. It was another one of those incredible experiences. People worked there that you paid in cash. You didn’t write them a check. There were people that couldn’t read. There were people who drank there money away. There were people you paid daily cause that’s what kept them coming back. It was just a very interesting experience. The neat part of it is, was, cause I was so young, twenty-one, twenty-two, and they were all older. They were convicts and who knows what. There was a man that the police came to the door cause his wife had a warrant out for his arrest for beating her. It was a real interesting place. The man who owned the slaughter house was Tony Carterelli. The man who he bought the cows from was Vinny Courtucci. It was a whole other side of Rhode Island life. Everything happens in cash. I was supposed to be doing “book keeping” such as it was. You weren’t keeping records of anything, just some paperwork.
My brother worked at the slaughter house for years and years. One time I was asked out on a date. Being old fashioned Portugese, if you went out on a date, even if you were eighteen years old, you needed to be home by nine o’clock. He picked me up at five or so to go to a movie on a Friday night. And as we are going out the door, my brother came in. And my older brother is over six feet. He had this belt with all the knives and gloves made of chain (so when you are boning the animals you don’t get cut). His apron was covered with blood. He walks up to my date as says to my date “so, taking my sister on a date, are you?” I could have killed him. Needless to say, it was our only date.
I worked at the slaughter house and the textile mill a year between going to the community college and going to University of Rhode Island. My kid brother was/is incredibly bright. So when I was in school I would come home after working all night and try to do my math. I stunk at it. He would sit down and figure it out and show me how to do it. My parents in the mean time, 1979, we bought a house in the same general neighborhood. It was a one story, one family house. I was going to college. My older brother had gotten his tractor trailer drivers liscense. He started driving truck. He would drive New England to California to Texas. A certain route. He’d be gone a lot.
I transferred to URI after I took the year off to save money. The meat packing company went under. That was an amazing learning experience. So I was still at the mill. When I went to URI I stopped working there cause URI was about forty-five minutes away. Now being a nice little Portugese family not only had I already gone to the junior college which was unacceptable. Now I was about to go to the university. So my aunts, when I was going to the university, my aunts would call my mother in tears to say how sorry they were that I was doing this to her. That I was going to college. And that most certainly that if I hadn’t gotten pregnant at the junior college, I would definitely get pregnant at the university. I commuted the first semester at URI forty minutes each way, every day. At URI I was a Phys. Ed. major. In order to go into Physical Therapy, and URI didn’t have a Physical Therapy program, so I wanted to do rehabilitation. The way it was back then you were a Phys. Ed. major with a rehab concentration. I graduated URI with something like 165 credits, some ridiculous amount. Because you had to get a Phys. Ed. degree with the concentration too.
I carpooled with friends. That year that I had taken off to work, I saved money to buy a car so I could commute back and forth to URI with. I bought a 1978 Mustang and I called it my mouse. I absolutely loved my Mustang. I went off the road a couple of times. They get a lot of icing and a rear wheel drive Mustang is just not a good car to drive in this. Finally I convince my father that I was probably going to get killed doing this and that it would be a good idea for me to live near campus. So I found a roommate down there. Of course, I happened to find two guys. But they were Portugese and my parents were ok with that. One of them was most definitely homosexual, so I only had to worry about one. The one who was a homosexual, Carlos, my good friend, would protect me from his brother who felt like he had to compensate for Carlos’ situation.
I lived at URI down the road in an apartment, not on campus. I figured if I was going to go into physical therapy part of what I should do was build up a good resume that had a lot of volunteer experiences that placed me in places working with people with disabilities. I got a job, actually started out as a volunteer, with the Office of Disabilities. They are the ones who said to me “don’t you have work study?” “Ha?” was my response. I had applied for financial aid but had qualified for none since I had spent the last year working so much and making so much money. I had no money. I had bought a car so I hadn’t saved up too much. I was still working part-time. I got a job at Dunkin Donuts. And I was still volunteer in the Office of Handicap Services. And at some point, now I understand from what I do, that they must have put me on Student Labor. At some point they started paying me for my volunteer work. I was so willing. In my culture, in the Portugese culture, the general sense is that people pity people with disabilities. Not looking down on to, but taking care of. I understood that needed to change. The only way I was going to change that was to make myself understand it and get beyond this cultural thing.
Another thing that was really important for me to do, even though I was living forty-five minutes from my family, was that every little family thing that happened I made sure I went to. Because I didn’t want my family to say “see, she’s miss big college educated person. She doesn’t care about her old little Portugese immigrants here”. It’s funny, I’ve talked to other people who have come from similar, not necessarily immigrants, but the first to go to college. There’s always that feeling of some guilt that you have to have a foot in both worlds. Not just bounce back and forth but have a solid foot in both worlds. Whenever there was a get together there would always be the men, discussing politics and the women took care of the kids. And, this is a cultural thing, the women would take the food to the table where the men were playing cards and having their big political discussion or whatnot. They would just bring the food. That’s all they did. Well, I couldn’t just listen to them and not give my input. They told my father that it was a wonderful thing that he had let his daughter go to college but that he really needed to put some reigns on me cause I was just not realizing what my place was. How I should really…you know, it was a man’s conversation.
What I tried to do was every weekend I came home. I came home every single weekend. I had a part time job at Dunkin Donuts at URI. I was a PCA, person care assistant, and note taker. Whatever they needed at the Office of Disabilities. Then I had a weekend job in Providence right on the main strip. I’d come home on Friday and I’d work Saturday and Sunday. And Sunday afternoon I would head back to URI and study. That’s really what I tell people I advise that you really just don’t want to do that. You want to study a little bit every night and your job should be what gets done in the marathon session. Because I feel I would have done much better in school. I couldn’t study everyday. I had no time to study every day of the week. It was Sunday, I’d get down to URI. We’d all sit in the coffee shop, Student Union, whatever, we’d all drink coffee, eat donuts, and study. And when you are taking kinesiology and physics you can’t cram it all in one weekend. I actually did myself a disservice. At the time it was how I thought I would do it.
One of the things that happened to me is that when I was at the community college, when I was still interested in the drama thing. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a big thing. The whole drama club did midnight shows. And I met this friend of mine, Steve Silva who is still really close. He was a really neat guy and had a totally different perspective on life than I did. Very much into the arts and stuff. One of the things he did for me is that he exposed me to museums. We were very good friends. We weren’t dating or anything. He would take me and really expose me to these things that I would never have been exposed to. There was a foreign film festival at Brown University. Brown was about ten blocks from my house. There was Rhode Island School of Design right there so we would go see international art, expositions, or collections that would come through. Things I never would have done. I have to mention him because I really think that he, here I was at community college and the year between community college and URI I worked at the slaughter house and this entirely different group of people. It was not a blue collar group. It was outside of blue collar. And on weekends Steve would take me to the Boston Art Museum to see Van Gogh. Or he took me to the Wang to see Swan Lake. I got home from the slaughter house, took a shower and (laugh, laugh). He and I have stayed friends. We have an annual Christmas get together. This will be our twentieth. We’ve done it for twenty years. It’s just interesting because one way or another I feel like all of these experiences, as different as they are from each other, slaughterhouse Monday thru Friday. Sexual harassment. And art on the weekends.
When I got near graduation, URI was supposed to start a Physical Therapy program. They were supposed to start a Masters and they never did. When it came time for me to graduate in 1983 and they hadn’t started one so I had an internship at the state rehab facility. I was all ready for URI to start its Master’s program in PT but they didn’t. So I sat down with my advisor, well, my advisors secretary. I don’t think I ever really met with my advisor. She suggested to me, she said “you have so many courses in psychology. Why don’t you stay and get another degree in Psychology?” I stayed and went full time, thinking that the PT program would be started after that year. It was the first year I got financial aid. I had taken out loans before, but this was real financial aid. So I took out a student loan which was like $4000 and to me it was my life. I thought I’d never pay it off.
So I was finishing my degree in Psychology. And by this time I was a live in PCA for this young woman who has muscular dystrophy. When I worked in the Office of Handicap Services I was the person assigned to do Orientation and she needed a PCA so I moved in with her cause I was staying that extra year and I had already let go of my lease on the apartment. So I stayed on campus with her. She had an apartment. Then I started working the summer of 83 for Shake a Leg which was a spinal cord rehabilitation. I did aquatic therapy.