It seems impossible now, like trying to remember when I couldn’t read or didn’t have a scar on my shin from that time I toppled off a bicycle, but I had never heard of the Azores Islands when a photographer at the Fresno Bee dropped a picture on my desk of a man plowing a field with two oxen.
In California. In the 21st century.
The man stood on a flat cart. He had a cell phone to his ear. He was gesturing wildly with the other arm as great clouds of dust swirled behind him.
“I love this picture. I took it driving past,” the photographer said. “Do you think you could find a story?”
“Absolutely,” I told her. How could there not be a story there?
A couple of weeks later, I was on my way to the plower’s house for an interview. I drove to a ranch in Tulare County, a part of California where everything is big. Big trucks, big belt buckles, big dairies, big silos and tractors and loading docks. This was before the big drought in California, and even the unplanted fields were spring green. I could see the snowcapped Sierra Nevada. Later, when the snow went missing, I wished that I had looked at it harder. For a while, it seemed gone forever, and I wanted to be sure the memory would hold.
No one was home, so I stretched out on the lawn near a white ranch fence. Above me, there was a wide swath of sky and shape-shifting clouds. Say what you will about the hot, flat valley in the middle of California the rest of the year — but in April, after some good rains, I don’t think you could find yourself lying in a prettier spot than in grass so green that you can’t be sure whether the sky is really that blue or just looks brighter next to the blade you’re twirling in front of your face.
It had been a tumultuous week, and it occurred to me that in all levels of crisis, it is a good idea to lie down outside and look up.
A truck pulled into the gravel driveway. The driver got out and introduced himself with wild arm waving, so I knew I had the right guy.
He was Morais, a wiry, exuberant Portuguese immigrant. If anyone has ever spoken in capital letters and exclamation points, it was Morais. The oxen were Amante and Brilliante. They shared a marked resemblance, both red Holsteins with white stars on their foreheads. They weren’t yet full grown — at two years old, they were oxen teenagers, weighing, respectively, 1,940 and 1,860 pounds. Morais could tell them in Portuguese to turn right, turn left, and they did. He played Portuguese radio for them at night so they wouldn’t get lonely.
I asked Morais to follow his usual routine while I watched. “Vem para cá” — “Come here to me,” he called to the oxen in Portuguese, and they came over. He heaved up a wooden yoke carved by one of his cousins and slipped it over them. He hooked that to a 1,300-pound platform set on six earth-cutting metal discs.
He held a stick high in front of him and marched off like a drum major, his bulls falling in step behind him. He hadn’t trained them by hitting them with the stick or bribing them with food. Since they were calves, he had walked them, teaching them right, left, and stop, using the stick as a visual cue.
“These animals is so smart, you cannot believe it! And they love me. These bulls love me. If I’m ready to go, they’re ready to follow,” he said.
Amante gave him a lick, as if to back up the claim.
Morais walked his field, stick in the air. The bulls dragged the disc behind him, kicking up clouds of dust that settled to reveal deep furrows. The sun glowed orange. Man, beasts, and swirling earth looked like a Depression-era work-project mural celebrating a lost farming past.
After a while, Morais stopped, ran to an ice chest, grabbed a beer, popped it open, and hopped on top of the platform to finish plowing. He used his stick to tap brass tips that protected the oxen’s horns. “Levantem a cabeça” — “Lift up your head,” he told them, and they did.
His walkie-talkie phone rang, and Morais rode behind the bulls, carrying on a business conversation and juggling a bottle of beer, a phone, and two oxen. Someone drove by in a pickup, and Morais waved with the hand holding the phone.
Morais and the bulls took three hours to plow what would take 45 minutes with a tractor. That included a break to give the bulls a rest while he sipped another cold beer.
“This is a lot harder. This is work. But I’m more happy with my bulls, believe me, than I would be with a tractor,” he told me.
When he finished for the day, he leaped off the platform like a gymnast landing a jump with arms stretched overhead.
“This is my life!” he shouted.
He said that in the mornings he hauled cattle for a living and made good money doing it. He could afford a tractor. But the oxen were his tie to “the old country” he had left as a teenager — the Azores, nine Portuguese specks of land surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean for about nine hundred miles on every side. So he plowed the way they had during his childhood on the islands and, according to him, the way they still plowed them today.
He pulled a battered red photo album from his truck’s glove compartment and showed me pictures of green Azorean fields divided by hedges of lilac-colored hydrangeas. He showed me waves crashing against black volcanic rock and his ancient stone house next to the sea, the home where he returned every summer.
“Over there the air is so clean, so nice. The ocean is right there. The fish are fresh, you catch and eat them, and the potatoes are so good, you won’t believe it.
“We make wine. Put on shorts and get in there and smash grapes, and when you drink right away is sweet like juice. Every year when we get back from there, we’re fat,” Morais said.
He loved his island house in the Azores so much that at the end of each summer, when he left, he had to have someone else close the door for him.
“I’m a guy that came from the old country. I never go to school five minutes in this country, and still, I work and I do good. I love my money. God bless this country,” he said.
“But when I leave to close my door over there, I cry like a baby. I try so hard not to, but I cry.”
He told me he was throwing a party the next weekend and that if I wanted to see a piece of the Azores, I should come and bring friends. I couldn’t use the experience for my article; it would have run by then. I didn’t care. I wanted to see that party.
My next-door neighbor Donald, the paper’s arts and culture writer, was more into Broadway than bulls. But that Saturday, I rounded him up with my boyfriend, Das, a tall, shy designer who read books on the evolution of coat hanger shapes. Together we stepped out of my little Toyota and onto a ranch filled with super-sized white pickup trucks. The tail end of a parade came down the road — oxen with flower-decorated harnesses and a band of guitar players. Morais had no need for road closures or permits; everyone for about two hundred miles was some relationship such as: “my son’s fiancée is niece to his brother.” Who would complain?
Near the barn, a group of men was cheering on a “bull pull,” which is exactly what it sounds like — two bulls pulling in opposite directions, a bovine tug-of-war.
Then some of the younger guys, who owned pickup trucks that cost about as much as a country tract home, started trash-talking one another’s RPMs. Next thing we knew, it was the hell with the bulls, hook up the trucks. Tires screamed. People cheered.
We were handed plastic cups constantly refilled with ice-cold Budweiser. After a few more emptied kegs, the yokes that had been worn by steers were placed on men. They took off their shirts, put on the chains, and strained against one another with all their might.
Duo after duo pulled against each other in the mud until they collapsed. Donald and I were somewhat loath to turn our attention from the sweaty men. Even Das seemed transfixed, if not for exactly the same reasons.
But a group of older women, giggling and wearing drab, shapeless black dresses, encircled us. They waved one of the younger guys in the bull-pull audience over to translate. Which one of these men was my husband, they wanted to know, several of them wagging fingers between my gay friend and metrosexual beau. I told them they were both my boyfriends, and they laughed.
I asked the young man why the women were all dressed in black. He said they were widows but that the most recently bereaved had lost her husband twenty years ago and she hadn’t liked him anyway. I asked our bull-pull translator which one of the widows had the most boyfriends. They laughed, and all pointed to the woman who was by far the oldest.
I looked around in vain trying to find one sign that I was still in California. I got the feeling that I was in an Azorean Brigadoon — a village out of place and time. All the conversations and exclamations swirling around us were in Portuguese. That night, after a hearty meal of sopas ladled out of huge pots and linguiça and Portuguese breads and cheeses, the party moved into the barn for dancing. The walls were hung with tablecloths showing the nine Azorean islands. My first look at a map of the place that would come to have such a hold on me was on picnic linens.
Morais’s island was São Jorge, a long, thin oblong in the center of the map tablecloth floating between a pineapple, a windmill, and a whale. The last dance of the night in the candlelit barn was the chamarita — folk dance — of his island. The party’s mood changed. The music was slow and dark. The dancers took one step, two steps. They stopped and clapped their hands twice. It was more of a rite than a dance.
Morais was teary-eyed when he returned to us from dancing with a childhood friend. All the dancers seemed choked up.
I was chatting with an earnest teen who was telling me of her devotion to Azorean folk dance. I asked her why the dancers were crying.
“I think for the old ones, it’s because they are remembering,” she said. “And everyone else is longing for something that we don’t even know what it is anymore.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that night. I kept wondering about those islands smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic. When I stopped to consider it, I realized I had always had a thing for islands. In my 20s, trapped as a cocktail waitress/bookstore clerk living in an apartment where cockroaches dived for cover when I switched on the kitchen light, I had kept a poster of the Greek isles on my wall. Whitewashed walls against a blue stretching sea. Islands tend to be the go-to symbol for escape. Or maybe for me, it was more the feeling that I was an island, separate and alone.
I read up and found the Azores near the top of a National Geographic list of unspoiled island destinations in the world. It gave them points for being “authentic and likely to remain so.”
They are protected by their lack of the basic necessities for seaside tourism: resorts, white-sand beaches, and consistently warm weather. The saying goes that the Azores have four seasons — every day.
Even in ancient times, they were off the beaten path. They seem to appear on old world maps, then disappear again for hundreds of years, lost to fog and currents and the vagaries of the sea. Over the centuries, they were rumored to be the remnants of the lost continent of Atlantis or the last kingdom of the Lusiads, founded by Lusus, the son of Bacchus, the god of wine. Some Azoreans told me they believe their ancestors to be disgraced Portuguese nobles and bastard sons. Others thought the original inhabitants were peasants shipped from the mainland against their will to colonize. Recent archaeology finds suggest there may have been even earlier, unknown inhabitants who disappeared before the Portuguese arrived, raising the question of how people got to the middle of the ocean before the known advent of sailing ships.
Myths cling to the Azores like mist to their volcanic peaks. It’s a place where people speak of chatting to someone who died fifty years ago as if they were visiting with a neighbor down the street. Even modern discoveries are cast in otherworldly terms: when Europe’s rarest orchid was found atop a volcanic ridge in Pico in 2013, botanist Richard Bateman of Kew Gardens in London said researchers described it as a “Lost World.”
Mark Twain mentioned the Azores in The Innocents Abroad but only to say, “Out of our whole ship’s company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them.” The islands once exported oranges to England, but the Azores’ main export has always been its people. About a million people born in the Azores and their descendants live in North America — four times more than the nine islands’ population. During the latest wave of mass migration, between 1958 and 1980, more than one-third of the Azores’ population left, running from a volcano’s eruption, poverty, and a Portuguese dictator. Many of these people came from the island of Terceira (pronounced “ter-sey-rah”) and settled in California’s rural Central Valley, cows being the common denominator. In both places, Azoreans owned and worked on dairies.
The Azoreans who emigrated were homesick. Actually, it reached beyond that. There is a Portuguese word, saudade, that they say has no translation. It’s bigger than homesickness or missing someone. It’s a yearning that can be expressed in no other language. It is, as one Azorean friend puts it, “a strictly Portuguese word.”
They say it has something to do with death but mostly life and maybe the ocean and probably time, and the only way to understand saudade is to listen to fado, the Portuguese art of the sad song. Or, more accurately, songs of longing.
So in California — as they had earlier around Boston and Toronto — displaced Azoreans filled with saudade re-created island life as best they could. In isolated farm towns, they staged fado concerts with only the old songs and festivals that religiously followed custom. Even their language is a throwback, peppered with expressions of forty years ago.
Each summer, planeloads of Azoreans return to the islands. They stay in their family homes. They revisit old loves and feuds and family ties, and there is a culture clash between the New World and the Old World — with the Old World visiting from California.
For several summers, I had driven through miles of hot Central Valley landscapes with more cows than people. Mysteriously empty diners. Trucks that stayed parked in the same spot for months. I had also, for many years, longed for things swallowed in the past, forever out of reach. Now I finally knew where everyone went. And I may have found a word for something inside me that I didn’t even know what it was anymore.