Read Old Man Scanlon

My Little Portagees

01 December 2012

I was intrigued to find, during some basic genealogical research, that my grandchildren are one-sixteenth Portuguese, and are therefore adequately "ethnic." In this multicultural society, where differences are emphasized and it's so last-century to be an assimilated American, I am relieved that my grandchildren can now flaunt their diversity.

When I was their age, in the rosy Leave-it-to-Beaver days of my youth in our insular WASPy town in the Boston boondocks, the Portuguese were exotic, compared to the multitudinous Irish and French and even the occasional Italian. My grandmother commented darkly about "newcomers," but other than a low-grade and not necessarily malicious Yankee xenophobia there was no nationality-bashing. My friends and I didn't know about ethnic slurs. Our weapon of choice was sophisticated wordplay involving the judicious mangling of both surnames and given names.

It was a mixed blessing to have the Skitt family live down the street. The boys were widely feared; on the other hand, what a gift it was to be able to make a simple, rhyming, one-letter substitution in their surname and gain a valuable tool for subverting the pecking order. Indeed, even nominal adults are not above using this technique; witness's puerile ridicule of disgraced Gen. Petraeus in the days of the Iraq surge. I certainly appreciated and used our blunt instrument as often as I could—when the adults were out of earshot—but I had no clue about using nationality as a basis for slight regard. I learned, though, and have the Portuguese to thank for it.

Fearless Pete Blaisdell—he handled live garden spiders with utter coolness—was roaming our neighborhood one day and pissed off an adult. The adult called Pete, who was none of these, a "Portagee monkey bastard." This marvelous phrase delighted Pete. He wore it as an honor, and riffed on it endlessly, varying its pronunciation, accenting, and tone. We found it hilarious, and called each other "Portagee monkey bastards" at the slightest provocation. Amongst ourselves, of course. All we had to know was that it was forbidden language, therefore useful, if dangerous, and the why was irrelevant.

Yet I longed to know the why. It stunned my brain; it made no sense; it seemed an impossible violation of the laws of nature to use nationality this way. It was the kind of paradox that on Star Trek caused enemy computers to explode. Bastard was obvious, monkey was kind of iffy, but "Portagee"? We tended to disparage on an individual case by case basis. If someone were stupid, we called him retarded; if someone's face reminded us of a certain bivalve mollusk, we nicknamed him Oyster. Now here was this more abstract and generalized method that I just couldn't fathom. I knew from school there were intrepid Portuguese seafaring explorers and that you got corks from oak trees in Portugal, which all seemed inoffensive enough. I analyzed and speculated, but the knowledge of why "Portagee" was bad eluded me, given my grasp of the facts (sketchy enough) and of human nature and social nuance (abysmal).

It may be from obliviousness, but even after I became alive to the possibilities of ethnic slurring, I recall no really scurrilous stereotypes for the Portuguese. Portuguese stereotypes were for the most part assertively positive, and, as often happens, the Portuguese themselves adopted and embraced the term "Portagee." About the worst slur I ever heard was "dumb Portagee." One Portuguese friend told me years later, "You always hear 'dumb Portagee,' but you'll never hear 'lazy Portagee.'"

As a kid I'd stumbled right into the durable Shakespearian cliché: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." How easily something spoken with scorn and contempt insinuates itself into the language with its emotional load intact.