THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Boy's Club

resurrecting Portuguese tradition on Trenton street

by by Grace Dunham

illustration by by Robert Sandler

The procession started around 7:30, a half-hour behind schedule. A young blonde girl walked in first, carrying a silver crown on a red velvet pillow, and an older blonde boy followed close behind with a large Portuguese flag. When they entered the Club, everyone in attendance—more than 50 people—stood up at their tables and put their hands on their hearts. When the kids were settled in at their spot at the front of the room, everyone recited a Portuguese prayer in unison. Then the feast began.

This was the third Dominga of the Holy Ghost Festival at the Portuguese Sporting Club, in Providence’s Fox Point. The Holy Ghost Festival is a slice of folk religion by way of Portugal and, in particular, by way of the Azores, a nine-island archipelago 1,500 miles west of Lisbon in the Atlantic. The festival begins every year after Easter and lasts for seven weeks, ending on Pentecost Sunday. Every Saturday during this period there’s a Dominga—a ceremonial feast open to the public, provided for and hosted by a different family. The host family keeps a silver crown in its house during the week leading up to the Dominga, and each evening members of the community come into their home for an hour of prayer. At the end of July, there is a three-day outdoor feast where the wishful put their names into a lottery in hopes of being picked for the following year’s seven Domingas.

Holy Ghost festivals happen in Portuguese communities all over America—there are over forty organized festivals in Rhode Island alone. They’re hosted by neighborhoods and Portuguese churches, but they’re also hosted by social clubs, like the Portuguese Sporting Club. In the early 20th century, these clubs functioned as centers of solidarity, giving men a place to play cards or raising money to provide self-sustaining community welfare systems. For over 100 years, social clubs have been a staple of the Portuguese-American experience. There are fewer clubs now than there used to be, but the Sporting Club, one of the oldest, remains open every day on the corner of Trenton and Gano.

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A Tuesday afternoon at the Portuguese Sporting Club: a white Cadillac stretch SUV limo parked in the empty parking lot. A few kids chasing a basketball around near the corner of Ives, while the rest of Trenton Street lays quiet. It was pretty quiet inside the Sporting Club, too. Jim Mitchell, who goes by Mitch, was, as usual, behind the wooden bar. A few men (who looked like they might have been there for a while) drank beer and ate pretzels under the fluorescent lights while an Indiana Jones film played on the television.

Three guys walked in through the side door and it was clear that they had arrived in the limo. Daniel Fernandes seemed to be in charge. He wore a turquoise shirt and a white jacket. A brown feather poked up from his white fedora. When he saw me at the bar—noticeably out of place—he asked me if I’d like to marry him. He offered to take me anywhere I’d like to go in his limo.

All three are career longshoremen—as Mitch tells me, “real hotshots.” After decades in the union, they make as much as a hundred dollars an hour. They rented the limo for the evening and were looking to have a good time. They were thinking about heading up to Boston, but, for the moment, they were drinking at the Sporting Club as they often do. Soon, Mitch approached Daniel Fernandes and told him that he was looking to get a swordfish. Fernandes nodded. Mitch tossed a twenty at him and Fernandes tossed it back. “These guys won’t ever take my money,” Mitch told me afterwards. “You need anything, go to them. They know everyone. They throw a Christmas party, buy the bar out, fill the place with food, invite everyone they know. Hearts of gold. They keep this club going.”

The Sporting Club is a non-profit organization, run by a board of directors with an elected president and owned in equal shares by its 160 members. The fact that it’s tax-exempt helps it stay open, but it still doesn’t make much money—beers cost far less than they do at other bars in Providence and, even so, Mitch likes to give them away for free. It can get crowded on weekdays, around five o’clock, when men—especially longshoremen—get off work. Friday nights are popular for dinner, but few people wander into the club who aren’t members or regular patrons, even though it’s open to the public. The club is kept afloat by a loyal group of men, like Daniel Fernandes, who see the Sporting Club as home.

The Club was founded by a similarly loyal group of men in the early years of the Great Depression. Before the club was official, its founders gathered in the back of Silvestre Cardono’s Ives Street barbershop every Friday night. After their shaves, they played dominos and cards, and—according to the framed charter in the current Club’s basement—“reminisced about the good old days in the motherland.” Soon, the group decided it wanted to start a soccer team. In March of 1934, a charter was approved by Rhode Island. The group called itself the Portuguese Sporting Club after Sporting Clube de Portugal, one of Portugal’s three biggest soccer teams.  By June, the Club had 214 members, a building at 107 Ives, and its own playing field in East Providence.

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After the prayer ended at the Third Dominga, the waitresses brought out the centerpiece of the meal: the symbolic Holy Ghost soup, made with cabbage, beef, and linguica sausage, in a white-wine broth, poured over pieces of day-old bread. Five waitresses, all in red shorts and red and white striped shirts, brought the soup out in large metal bowls and quickly replaced them as soon as the broth started to reach the bottom. They moved quickly through the dining room, dropping plastic pitchers of red wine off at each long fold-up table.  After the soup came the meat—big platters of it, chunks of beef and pink sausage piled atop potatoes. The first platters finished, the waitresses brought out seconds. By that point, adults had traded seats and kids had abandoned them altogether. Then the auction started: potted plants, espresso makers, bottles of expensive liquor. Two men in suits stood in the middle of the room holding up the goods and shouting out Portuguese numbers over the music. After the auction was a raffle—the waitresses had handed out strips of pink tickets with the salad—and after the raffle there was dancing.

The Holy Ghost Festival has something to do with Queen Isabel and bread, which explains the crown and the symbolic soup. Nobody seems to agree on exactly what the story is, but it dates back to the fourteenth century, when Portugal was ruled by Queen Isabel, famed for her charity. Some say that every Pentecost Sunday she would choose a peasant girl, give her a crown, and let her preside over the blessings of bread, meat, and wine to be handed out to the poor. Others say that she would ride through the streets tossing bread to the hungry. Manuel Limos, who used to head the Club’s Holy Ghost planning committee, tells a story with a miracle: “The king was a miserable bastard in Portugal, the Queen was a sweetheart, and she used to put it in her apron and give it to the peasants outside the castle. One day the bastard King says to the Queen, what do you have there? She tells him she’s got flowers… and then, she opened up her apron, and there were flowers! There was a miracle or something like that and this time there happened to be flowers. She was in for an ass-kicking if she had bread in her apron.”

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Sitting around a table in the Club dining room on a Friday night, Manuel Limos, who goes by Manny, his brother Mario, and their friend Daniel Joseph, who goes by Junie, told me their take on the evolution of the Club. They made it clear that they are the bearers of its history. Manny pointed to the photographs of past Club presidents that hang on the walls, repeating, “They know…they know…A lot of the old-timers are dead, but they’re the ones who know.”

Manny and Mario come from Faial, in the Azores. In 1957 a volcano erupted and covered Faial in car-sized boulders and ash. “The ground was shaking for days,” said Manny. “We slept in the middle of an open field.” After the eruption, Senators John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and John O. Pastore of Rhode Island passed a relief act allowing 1,500 families from Faial to enter the states. That’s when Manny and Joe came to Providence.

Even in the sixties, their lives were defined by their Portuguese heritage. Manny worked at a textile factory next to Rhode Island Hospital, since demolished, and in his 100-person department there was only one person who didn’t speak Portuguese, a woman named Dotty Wright. It wasn’t just Manny’s job: American Slater Wire, Imperial Knife, and Davol Rubber were all “Portuguese through and through,” Manny told me. “If you didn’t like a job, you went down to another street and there’d be a factory there that would take you.” Junie once had 12 factory jobs in one year, if only because he wasn’t particularly satisfied with any of them.

The men who worked at these factories lived in the same places and frequented the same clubs. And so when factories all over Rhode Island and the rest of industrial New England started closing, the social fabric of the Portuguese communities inevitably changed. Manny’s factory shut down in 1982, and Mario’s factory shut down soon after. Manny tried living in Pennsylvania, Mario in California. Eventually they came back to Rhode Island, opening a small copy center in East Providence. Their members no longer bounded by shared labor or even language, clubs became more luxury than necessity. The older generation was dying. The younger generation was losing interest. Membership dwindled. Dozens of clubs either closed or went bankrupt. In the face of deindustrialization and the related process of assimilation, the Sporting Club and others like it faced a kind of crisis.

Manny Limos revamped the Sporting Club’s Holy Ghost Festival 12 years ago in search of a renaissance. The Holy Ghost Festival offered a way of maintaining—even recreating—community through heritage-based family fun. If the Club had always been a place for men—“a place for card playing, drinking, and staying up until the wee hours of the morning,” as Manny puts it—the Festival brought in a new crowd. At the planning meetings, men brought their wives and sometimes even their daughters.

Junie and his wife were picked in the Holy Ghost lottery last summer. They will host the fourth Dominga on May 5, paying for the food and drinks and getting reimbursed by whatever money is made back in the auction. “I guess it’s the kind of thing you have to do once in your life,” he said. “You have to keep the Portuguese tradition alive… If you let it get away so far, you won’t ever get it back.”

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After the auction and raffle, the organization of the feast started to devolve: Manny sat in a chair against the wall flipping through a big wad of cash, kids ran around with plates of rice pudding, few people remained in their seats. At that point, Sabrina Bolarinho, a 12 year-old from East Providence, told me it was time to get desert and dance. Her mother, a DJ named Sedonia, played Portuguese pop over the speaker system. A large group of people had already moved to the dance floor.

Before the procession had even started, Sabrina made it her job to look out for me. She’s a singer and a traditional Portuguese dancer. She traveled to Portugal with her dance team last year, and when she got back she was named Miss Portugal at the Cranston Portuguese club, the largest club in Rhode Island. Introducing herself to me at the bar, she said, “I’m the last Dominga.” Her parents entered her name into the lottery. Sabrina jumped up and down when she won. They’ll pay, but the final feast will be held in her honor.

A few days later, in the late afternoon, the Club was empty except for Mitch and me. He let me go down to the basement, the club’s memory bank, lined with trophies and photographs: blurry sepia prints of serious looking men in high-collared shirts and suspenders; the board of directors, all side-burns and wide lapels, gathered around a Rhode Island Senator; men in short-shorts (and Tom Selleck mustaches) all holding soccer balls; portraits of past presidents, in black and white and color.

GRACE DUNHAM B’14 would like to marry you.