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There’s a lot to digest in Jason Zengerle’s New York Times Magazine feature, “How Devin Nunes Turned the House Intelligence Committee Inside Out,” but, as a genealogist, one aspect jumped out at me more than it probably would for most. A healthy chunk of Zengerle’s exploration is devoted to the California congressman’s ties to Portugal and his curious efforts to establish American intelligence operations at Lajes Field on the Azorean island of Terceira, despite the notion being deemed impractical by many in the upper echelons of the U.S. government. Zengerle cites the frustration of those caught in the middle of Nunes’s agenda, like Jim Townsend, who served under President Obama as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for Europe and NATO:
“Nunes created so much rancor over the issue that some American officials came to question his motives, and even his patriotism. “I was having a hard-enough time being beaten up by the Azoreans and the Portuguese, but it was even harder seeing a congressman being in cahoots with them,” Townsend says. “It was like, ‘Whose team are you on?’ ” A former Pentagon official suspects that during the Lajes negotiations, Nunes was making the Portuguese privy to things they should not have known. “We would have a conversation about some proprietary matters with Nunes,” this official says, “and then the next day, somehow, Portugal knew some of that.”
It’s no secret that Nunes is of Portuguese — more specifically, Azorean — descent, so why should this grab my attention — aside from the fact that it would be peculiar behavior for any congressional representative and that the President of Portugal namechecked Nunes in a chat with Trump even before his inauguration?
Well, because his ties to Portugal are not as direct as many think.
How Far Back?
Perhaps due to his communications director incorrectly claiming that all four of Nunes’s grandparents were Portuguese immigrants, many accept this as fact so you’ll find this tidbit sprinkled in many pieces about Nunes. But it’s not true. Let’s start with some basics that are:
- One of his grandparents has no Portuguese ancestry. This portion of his family tree blew into California as a result of the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, and meanders back in time through Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Virginia, etc.
- The remaining 75 percent of his heritage is indeed Azorean, but none of his grandparents were immigrants.
So if Nunes’s grandparents weren’t the immigrants, who were? It turns out it was a mix of his great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents.
For those keeping score, that’s a total of nine immigrant ancestors, but we should probably add a tenth with an asterisk. One of his great-grandmothers, Della Nevis, was American-born, but lost her citizenship when she married a foreigner thanks to the Expatriation Act of 1907 (the same happened to Representative Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) grandmother). The moment Nevis was wed, she became a Portuguese citizen, even though she was living in California.
Over a Century
People have different ways of defining immigrant generations, so depending on your interpretation, Nunes is a combination of either third/fourth generation or fourth/fifth generation American. Now take a look at that last column in the table above. His Azorean ancestors all arrived in the States between 1870 and 1911 — roughly 100–150 years ago — so not exactly yesterday.
In fact, the most recent arrivals in Nunes’s family were both of his great-grandfathers who arrived in Boston on April 4, 1911. Mind you, they were just buddies from Fajã dos Vimes at this point. It would be another 35 years before their future children would marry, making them in-laws, but they brought up the rear in terms of Nunes’s immigrant ancestors.
I get it. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the Azores and am well acquainted with the nostalgic attachment many of us have to the countries of our families’ origins. My own family is similar to Nunes’s in the sense that most of my immigrant ancestors arrived between 1880 and 1913, with one pocket landing here earlier — like his Dust Bowl branch — and as a result, I have a soft spot for Ireland and Slovakia.
But there’s a big difference between having a fondness for an ancestral country and Nunes’s intense loyalty to Portugal that prompts him to repeatedly attempt to use his political clout for Portuguese benefit over strenuous and practical objections from a number of American military, congressional, and other governmental experts. If everyone in your family has been here for at least 107 years, if every branch of your entire family tree has been planted in America for a minimum of three generations, shouldn’t your allegiance be first and foremost to the United States?
Why So Slow to Assimilate?
Every time I write an immigration-related article, I get responses from pro-border wall people — yes, Nunes supports the wall) who invariably make the same three claims: My ancestors came here legally, they learned English, and they assimilated. Those familiar with the history of immigration in America know that it was pretty darn hard to come here illegally before the 1920s, so please read this if you’re new to the topic, but let’s consider the latter two claims with regard to Nunes’s family.
He comes from an area of California that has long been home to many dairy farmers of Azorean descent. Like so many immigrant communities, they stayed tight-knit and provided support for one another. The same happened in my own family, with the Irish who came to build railroads and the Slavs who came to work in the coal mines. What differentiates Nunes’s community is that it still exists — even generations after arrival.
One factor is the intensity of chain migration/family reunification. In Nunes’s case, the chart showing his nine immigrant ancestors is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. These nine include only direct line ancestors of Devin Nunes — in other words, it doesn’t include collateral relatives who also came over, such as siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles. But none of these nine came here in a vacuum. Those two great-grandfathers who came together in 1911? Both of them were going to meet their respective brothers who were already in California.
Here’s another example showing Joaquin A. Silveira, who had been in America for some time, returning from a trip to the Azores with his father, mother, brother, sister, and his brother’s wife. By the standards of the proposed Securing America’s Future Act of 2018 (H.R.4760), none of these relatives would be eligible to join Joaquin in the United States. That would be unfortunate for Nunes, as Joaquin’s sister, Maria Inez Silveira, would become his great-grandmother.
The Ties That Bind
It’s easy to understand why these families would stick closely together. They were regarded as outsiders, making existing connections that much more important. The concentration of Portuguese immigrants into the Tulare vicinity was so pronounced that a local accounting of deaths in 1920 specifies those of “American babies” and “Portuguese babies,” but no other ethnicities, even though an examination of the paper trail shows that there were a variety of immigrants in the area ranging from Japanese to Armenian.
One of Nunes’s grandfathers was born in Tulare in 1919 to Maria, the sister who had arrived with her whole family in 1908. These tight bonds were surely comforting, but likely made it harder for immigrants to assimilate. Here’s Maria again in 1930–22 years after arriving in America — still unable to speak English.
Maria’s brother who brought her over left the fold and became the president of a bank in Oakland, but she stayed safely ensconced in her community, and so continued to speak Portuguese. And that community continued to grow in place over the generations, partly because Nunes hails from an impressively long-lived people with large extended and interlacing families. Born when his parents were only 16 and 20 years old, the abundance of octogenarians and nonagenarians among Nunes’s kinfolk meant that he had an astonishing five living great-grandparents to welcome him into the world, and just missed a sixth by one week. The cousin density in his district may well parallel that of Amish, Icelandic, Mormon, and other closely knit populations.
No Rush to Citizenship
It also seems that becoming an American citizen was not a priority for Nunes’s family. Some of the nine immigrant relatives listed in the initial chart never went through the naturalization process, but here’s a summary of those who did. Collectively, they took an average of 30.8 years from their date of arrival to do so.
Even Della who surrendered her American nationality upon marrying took 18 years to address the situation. Her husband had skipped the chance for expedited citizenship — which would have restored his wife’s citizenship as well — by serving in World War I, but he wasn’t alone. All three of Nunes’s Azorean immigrant great-grandfathers had this opportunity, but passed on it. Instead, everyone waited a couple of additional decades until the approach of the next world war to take steps in this direction.
Perhaps the self-contained nature of the community in which Nunes was raised helps explain why he displays such strong allegiance to the country that three-quarters of his ancestors arrived from 100–150 years ago, even if it doesn’t entirely excuse it. That Nunes is willing to put the priorities of any other country over those of the United States is worrisome, though it isn’t his divided loyalty with Portugal, specifically, that most alarms patriotic Americans. For those troubled by his baffling behavior during the present administration, I leave you with a promising omen I stumbled across in my research. Lurking among the non-Azorean branches of his family tree is a relative with an unexpected and reassuring name: Robert Mueller.