Doing It All for Us: A Memoir on Immigration and Sacrifice
Delia Da Rocha rushed around to the sound of a scratchy radio playing Portuguese opera and the slamming of dice on a wooden table. She carried plate after plate of food, from potato salad to traditional Portuguese filhos, a flat yeast donut coated in sugar, out of the kitchen and into the dining space.
“Ay, you guys, the food’s ready. Come and eat,” Delia said with a sense of urgency masked by her red-lipped, carefree smile.
Joe, Delia’s husband, ambled into the kitchen first, followed by other members of the Da Rocha family. Three generations of Azorean immigrants filed into the kitchen to make their dinner plates, with people smoothly gliding past each other and transferring serving utensils from hand-to-hand as if they were dance partners.
Within this home, nestled on a plot of land in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Joe and Delia Da Rocha, now 70 and 67 years old respectively, are taking back the things they sacrificed — familial bonds, a home, and the lives they knew — when they moved to the United States from the Azores Islands almost 50 years ago.
Across the Sea
The Azores Islands, known officially as the Autonomous Region of the Azores, are an archipelago of nine different islands in the north Atlantic Ocean. Portuguese navigators discovered the islands in 1427 and began populating them throughout the 15th century as trade began to grow in the area. Terceira is the second most populated Azorean island with 5,800 citizens and was once the economic, administrative, and religious epicenter of the archipelago until the early 19th century.
On Island Time
In Terceira, Delia lived a comfortable life. Her father, Francisco Dinis, owned a supermarket on a hilly road in Porto Judeu en cima, where her two parents and four brothers would take care of the shop and their small herd of goats. Francisco would sometimes leave the island for weeks at a time to pick fruit in the U.S. for his distant cousin, who had a few decades prior and started his own harvesting company.
Delia’s time on the island seemed to be a dream.
“I remember sitting at our window on the second story of our house, looking out into the ocean as the wind blew through my hair,” Delia said with a laugh. “I had much longer hair back then. I’d wave to the boys below, sometimes my cousin— who lived close by — would stand under my window and we’d talk.”
A few towns over in Santa Barbara, Joe and his family lived much closer to the ground, literally. Their small, one-story shack sat in the midst of pastures that each held a few cows on them. Joe, his father, and younger brother would care for the cattle and complete odd jobs alongside the boys’ schooling while Joe’s sisters helped with household chores.
Though Joe felt they could have gotten by in Santa Barbara, the possibility of gaining wealth and land in California’s San Joaquin Valley was promising. Many Azorean immigrants were making their way over to the United States in the 1960s as a result of the Azorean Refugee Act of 1960, which was implemented to assist Azoreans impacted by the eruption of Capelinhos on Faial. Joe’s parents were willing to take advantage of this opportunity and began searching for someone in the U.S. to sponsor their family.
For Delia’s family, the prospect of better pay in the U.S. also made Francisco rethink his family’s future on Terceira. The San Joaquin Valley, with its miles of farmland and temperate weather, was very similar to Terceira. Yearning for more than their small shop, the Dinis family soon made their way to the U.S. with only the clothing on their backs.
Ultimately, it was the promise of wealth in the U.S. that encouraged the Dinis and Da Rocha families to leave their little island in the Atlantic.
Reaching for the American “Dream”
Life in America for both the Dinis and Da Rocha families was not easy, according to Delia.
The Dinis family were able to pick fruit for a living in Chowchilla and Le Grand, California. Harvesting, was not something that Delia was used to, and she often returned home with scarred hands from her days picking tomatoes and peaches in the Central Valley.
It was a far cry from her days on Terceira.
Joe’s family was in a similar situation. Although they had managed to get the sponsorship that secured their entrance into the U.S., the men of the family went right back to working on various dairies across the Central Valley. They first spent five weeks in De Nair, California, then relocated to Chowchilla, where they would live for the next four years.
During those four years in the small town of Chowchilla, Delia and Joe met.
The Portuguese culture loves their festivals, referred to as the festas, which they throw to honor various religious figures in Catholic history. A standard festa may include a procession to the local church, traditional dance performances, a live auction, communal dinners featuring Portuguese dishes, and the crowning of the festival’s royal court.
Chowchilla was once regarded throughout the Central Valley as hosting a popular one, according to Joe. For years, the Azorean immigrants of the Central Valley have used these celebrations to preserve their cultural ties to the islands. Delia and Joe’s families were no exception.
The two attended the annual Chowchilla festa at the S.F.A. Portuguese Hall of Chowchilla with their families in the early 1970’s, where they met while dancing to a concertina, an instrument similar to an accordion. After a few more meetings with much less concertina, Delia and Joe tied the knot on July 29, 1973, at a chapel in the same town they met in.
A little over a year later, Delia and Joe had their first child — my father — and named him after the man who helped the Dinis family establish themselves in the U.S. In 1976, two years after Eddie was born, Delia gave birth to their second child, Elizabeth.
Delia and Joe’s limited English meant that their two children had to learn English as they got to school instead of before, like many of their classmates. The situation was even more difficult because, unlike the Spanish-speaking children who knew others at Le Grand Elementary, Eddie and Elizabeth were the only children of Azorean immigrants.
When Eddie started kindergarten, Delia decided to use that opportunity to learn more English. She began assisting the teacher by volunteering to cut papers for activities and interacting with her son’s classmates.
“The teacher and kids would talk to me in English, so it was good practice,” Delia said. “I liked it, it was fun.”
She returned a few years later for the same reason when Elizabeth was enrolled.
As a dairyman on the Mayo Dairy in Le Grand, Joe’s experience was slightly different. He mainly worked in the fields and would help out with the cattle when needed, and the large population of Mexican workers allowed Joe to pick up English from his boss as well as Spanish from his coworkers.
Both Delia and Joe worked to learn more English and acclimate to American culture until they were given citizenship in 1980, nearly twelve years after they arrived in the U.S.
“1980 [was] the day my parents gained citizenship,” Elizabeth said. “My parents make me so proud, everyday.”
The Way Home
Almost 50 years after leaving their homes to chase success in the U.S., Delia and Joe returned to Terceira with their two children, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, and five grandchildren — one of which was me.
To them, so much of the island had changed. New storefronts had been constructed, churches were erected, and roads connected the cities more than before. Even despite these changes, they found comfort in the nightly festas, authentic Portuguese cuisine, and surviving family members they reunited with.
Delia felt as if she couldn’t leave again. Standing amongst her cousin Maria Amelia Rocha Borges’s banana fields, she imagined herself back as a teenager in the 1960’s,
While Delia was already thinking of ways to save up money and convince someone to go half-in on a house with her in Porto Judeau, Joe was reluctant. Unlike Delia, he had a smaller amount of surviving family on the island, and Terceira didn’t have the same pull that it did for his wife.
He was able to visit a highly-remodeled version of the shack he lived in with his sisters and their families, who had arrived to the island about a week after Delia and Joe. Though the house still had the lush field of grass, minus the cows, and stone perimeter walls, it was much nicer than what he remembered.
A few nights before leaving Terceria, Joe noted that he liked coming back to the place, but wouldn’t trade what he had in the U.S. for it. Leaving the U.S. — even if only for a few months — meant distancing himself from his children, grandchildren, and everything he worked for, according to Joe.
“I love the Azores, I would love to come back every once in a while,” said Joe. “But, I also love what I’ve got in America. I love my life in America, and that’s what my parents moved us there for. I wouldn’t want to leave that.”