“You’ve Done Well for a Portuguese”: Exploring My Portuguese Identity through Curriculum Theory by Justine Sousa

“You’ve Done Well for a Portuguese”: Exploring My Portuguese Identity through Curriculum Theory by Justine Sousa

In June of 2008, Portugal had just beaten Turkey in a first round European Cup soccer match. My brother and I decided to walk down College Street to join the celebrations. Before leaving the house, I asked my brother if he was going to wear his Portugal jersey to be identified as a Portuguese. He replied, “No, I don’t need to. My face is Portuguese enough.” Amidst the jersey clad masses and shirtless boys with Portuguese flags tattooed on their bodies, we were harassed for not being Portuguese. As we walked down College Street, we were shouted at and told that this was a “Portuguese-Only” party.

The distance I feel between myself and my Portuguese heritage is growing as wide as the ocean between Canada and my “homeland”. I have never been to Portugal and I only speak broken Portuguese; so broken that I insert French and Spanish words in place of ones I do not know. Although most Portuguese families were beginning to re-locate from downtown Toronto to Mississauga in the late 1980’s, my parents decided to move us east to Scarborough. Consequently, we did not grow up in a Portuguese neighbourhood, nor did we have Portuguese friends. Regardless, my parents integrated us into the Portuguese-Toronto community by enrolling us in language classes on Saturday mornings and exposing us to Portuguese religious and cultural festivals every summer. We would dress up as religious saints or in traditional costumes and walk the parade routes down College Street. I felt a strong connection to my Portuguese roots and I proudly identified with this community. Being Portuguese was intrinsically linked to my currere and in turn, my own identity. Nonetheless, now that I am an adult, I struggle to integrate the Portuguese culture into my life. The cultural hyphen that once bound my two nationalities almost seamlessly, now divides them into two separate and distinct entities, with one having little to do with the other (Wah, 2000).

My curricular search to understand identity, or perhaps identities, has left me lost between them both. I now feel like a cultural refugee stationed outside the border of my Portuguese identity, trying to find a connection between myself and my culture. My behaviour does not express my Portuguese identity, nor does my physical appearance. In The Truth About Stories, Thomas King describes his attempts to outwardly convey his “nativeness” to those around him, so as not to be mistaken for a Mexican or a white man. He tells us, “I grew my hair long, bought a fringed leather pouch to hang off my belt, threw a four-strand bone choker around my neck, made a headband out of an old neckerchief, and strapped on a beaded belt buckle” (King, 2003, p. 45). Much like King, without our own Portuguese identifiers, my brother and I were mistaken for non-Portuguese, void of its cultural markers. We did not belong to the Portuguese celebration on College Street, nor could we relate to the Portuguese-Canadian youth that surrounded us. On the same street we had paraded down in our Portuguese folk costumes, we now found ourselves lost within the hyphen, in turn questioning our own identities as Portuguese-Canadians.

Between 1950 and 1975, the majority of Portuguese immigrants moved to Toronto from their homeland; a large number of them emigrating from the Azorean Island of São Miguel. Much like my own family, most immigrants left Portugal because “there was a particularly acute sense of limited opportunities for economic self-improvement and a general pessimism about the future” (Higgs, 1982, p. 6). They came to Canada to establish a better life for themselves and a brighter future for their children. Canada was seen as the land of opportunity, a place where their hard work would be rewarded and their families could prosper. This generation of Portuguese moved to Toronto and took available work on construction sites and as housekeepers (Higgs, 1982). They were determined to make an honest living for themselves, in order to give their children what they did not have. In choosing to move to Canada in search of a new future, they also adopted a hyphenated identity for themselves and for their families.

My parents have their own struggles positioning themselves within the hyphenated space between their Portuguese and Canadian identities. They have had to negotiate between the two ends of the hyphen, thus creating a daily curriculum unique to our family. This daily curriculum borrowed elements from both cultures as a way to unify and strengthen them within our lives. My parents wanted to give us the opportunity to better our own lives in the future, much like their parents had done for them. According to Pinar (2004), “currere provides students and teachers with an embodied understanding of the interrelations between knowledge, life experiences, and social reconstructions” (as cited in Freedman & Springgay, 2009, p.32). By exposing us to the cultures at both ends of the hyphen, they sought to create a bodied curriculum that prepared us to move from one end to the other and apply aspects of both throughout our daily currere.

As a way to create this bodied cultural curriculum, my parents saw education as an important aspect. Education has always been a priority in our household, as they felt it would enhance our future and improve our understanding of ourselves as Portuguese-Canadians. My parents did not go to university. They were never given the opportunity. Furthermore, it was not culturally acceptable for them to pursue higher education when they were younger, while there were other employment opportunities available. By emphasizing education as a vital part of the social construction of our identities, they were negotiating the hyphenated space between their experiences as Portuguese-Canadians, and the future they hoped for their children to have. Unfortunately, such values differ greatly from those of many other first generation Portuguese parents. “I’m a realistic guy,” a family friend stated during a holiday dinner one year. “My kid will never be a rocket scientist, so hopefully he can make us rich when he makes it to the NHL.” He failed to see the irony in his statement. His son’s educational growth was stunted before he was even given a chance. And in the end, his NHL career didn’t pan out.

In Michael Orstein’s (2006) study of Ethno-Racial Groups in Toronto, he found that “the proportion of young adults between 25 and 34 who have not completed high school is more than 30 percent for the Aboriginal, Portuguese, Iraqi, Afghan, Sri Lankan, Tamil, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Somali and Grenadian groups. Except for the Portuguese, these groups have experienced significant social and economic disruption, in most cases associated with violent conflict” (p. 44). Portuguese-Canadians are not an impoverished community in Canada and we are not limited by discrimination on the basis of colour or religion. Since the Portuguese are excluded from the possible contributing factors that may help to explain this lack of educational completion for the other ethno-racial groups, what is our excuse?

What could be the basis for this disconnect between the Portuguese-Canadian youth of Toronto and formal schooling? It is possible that perhaps the daily curriculum that these students were experiencing in their homes did not align with the curriculum of the schools. Perhaps many of their families educated them on Portuguese history and societal views, thus causing these students to feel detached from the Canadian curriculum. Just as Cynthia Chambers discusses the challenges she faced in connecting her Northern Canadian lifestyle to her textbooks in A Topography for Canadian Curriculum (1999), so too might Portuguese youth lack a sense of coherence between the differing curriculums of home and school. In this way, Portuguese-Canadian youth appear to struggle with this hyphenated space–a third space that represents the distance between their Portuguese education at home and Canadian education at school.

Within my extended family, I can see evidence of cultural standards already taking shape, when my cousins and children of family friends have taken up jobs as manual labourers in lieu of completing their high school diploma. Those that struggled to complete high school enter the workforce immediately following their graduation. Their priorities are a stark contrast to my feelings of being an Alienated Outsider, even within my extended family. Chambers (1999) uses the term Alienated Outsider to describe a theme used in Canadian speculative fiction, as the characters search to make sense of their surroundings and battle their Canadian environment in their quest for survival. As an Alienated Outsider, I am battling with myself, trying to re-connect to a culture I feel disconnected from. I am trying to make sense of my environment within the Portuguese community of Toronto, with our seemingly different values in terms of education. As both parts of my hyphenated identity struggle for dominance, each one is battling for cultural survival. I have taken refuge within the hyphenated space between my two identities, afraid that showing loyalty to one would make me a traitor to the other.

To compound the increasing distance between our families, we do not even share the same last name. When my father was born, the hospital listed his name as Sousa on the birth certificate, instead of De Sousa. Since my grandparents were new to the country and did not speak English, they were unable to correct this error. While the rest of my extended family members are all De Sousas, my father never bothered to make the correction. This separation now appears more symbolic than clerical. My small family of four is separated from our extended family by not only our name, but also isolated from the Toronto Portuguese community by our own value system.

At my great-uncle’s funeral this past summer, I overheard a conversation between my father and an old family friend from his childhood:

“So where about are you working?”

“I work for Enbridge”

“Oh, so you’re a gas fitter then?”

“No, I work in the office”

“Do you work maintenance for the office?”

“No, I’m a manager of Community and Municipal affairs.”

“Wait, so you’re not unionized? You don’t work in the shop?”

“No, I work in the public and government affairs department.”

“Wow, you did well for a Portuguese”

You did well for a Portuguese. What did he mean by this? By all accounts, there is no concrete reason why it should be surprising for a member of the Portuguese community to have a successful professional career. We seem to create our own barriers to success, convincing ourselves that educational or professional goals are out of our reach, thus falling back into the professions and work of our previous generations. As a community, we struggle with the dichotomies of modern and traditional Portuguese cultural values, rarely calling to question our conceptualizations of what it means to be Portuguese in Canada. As Portuguese-Canadian youth, we are unable to modernize our Portuguese identity to fit within our daily curriculum. We struggle to integrate the religious and cultural traditions passed through our families, and search for other ways to connect. Perhaps by maintaining the prescribed professions of our past generations, we are still holding on to what we understand as being “traditionally” Portuguese. While I may have misconstrued my parents’ attempts to distance me and my brother from the socially constructed modernized “culture”, I can now see that they wanted us to be a different generation of Portuguese-Canadians. They wanted us to be Portuguese-Canadians who have the skills and abilities to lead the next generation of Portuguese youth in Toronto. Without prominent Portuguese-Canadian leaders within the community, the culture our grandparents fought to preserve will become diluted with our own misconceptions of what it means to be Portuguese. The hyphen bridging our identities will remain silent giving up its battle to assert itself among its Canadian counter-part (Wah, 2000).

Through the narratives of my parents, my grandparents and my extended family, I am able to pull together pieces of the puzzle to begin to understand the meaning of what I believe to be a Portuguese-Canadian. By exploring my own personal narratives, I am able to connect the pieces of my identity puzzle. Although certain pieces may not appear as though they contribute to the overall finished product, each narrative plays an important role in my questioning the social constructions of Portuguese-Canadian identities.

Like Ted Aoki, I am on a bridge between my two identities: Canadian and Portuguese. It is a bridge between “both self and other” (Pinar, 2003). It is a bridge that was once very sturdy and built on cultural traditions and history, but it has deteriorated over time. There have been little improvements made to this bridge from the first generation to the second, but the foundation it is built on is wearing thin. As a child, this bridge was easy to cross, but now as an adult it has become more difficult. Instead of crossing back and forth as easily as I once did, I am caught lingering in the middle. Now that I am creating my currere as an adult, I will continue to search for ways to understand how the hyphen that currently divides my identities, will help determine who I will become. Eventually, I hope to overcome this internal struggle and re-define myself as a Portuguese-Canadian.


Chambers, C. (1999). A Topography for Canadian Curriculum Theory. Canadian Journal of Education, 24 (2), 137-150. Freedman, D., & Springgay, S. (2009) M/othering a Bodied Curriculum: Sleeping with Cake and Other Touchable Encounters. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 25 (2), 25-37.

Higgs, D. (1982). The Portuguese in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association.

King, T. (2003). You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind. Chapter 2 in The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative (31-60). Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.

Ornstein, Michael. (2006). Ethno-Racial Groups in Toronto, 1971-2001: A Demographic and Socio-Economic Profile. Institute for Social Research York University.

Pinar, B. (2003). “A Lingering Note” Comments on the Collected Works of Ted T. Aoki Educational Insights, 8 (2).

Wah, F. (2000). Half-Bred Poetics. Chapter in Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity, p. 71-97. Edmonton, Alberta: NeWest Press.