COVENTRY — Billowing at the top of a flagpole before the Coventry Town Hall, a Portuguese flag stands as a celebration of the heritage shared by many of the town's residents.
“Flags, like pictures, can evoke 1,000 words and emotions and stories,” Ana Isabel dos Reis-Couto said to a small crowd gathered outside the town hall on Wednesday, Day of Portugal.
The Portuguese and American flags both flying high above her, Reis-Couto added that the flags together symbolize “the connection between the country we live in and the country we left behind to find better opportunities.”
Held annually on June 10, Day of Portugal commemorates the death in 1580 of poet Luís Vaz de Camões, best known for his epic poem “Os Lusíadas,” regarded widely as the most important work of Portuguese literature. The holiday is recognized globally, in Portugal as well as across the diaspora.
In Rhode Island, Day of Portugal has been celebrated for more than four decades with a variety of festivities; an annual parade through Providence brings together traditional music and costume in a massive show of Portuguese pride.
The parade has been called off this year due to the pandemic. The cancellation in no way lessens the significance behind the week-long celebration, however.
“No matter how large or how small, as long as we are raising that flag, we are celebrating in our hearts and in our minds,” said Marie Fraley, a RI Day of Portugal Committee member who was supposed to serve as this year’s parade grand marshal. “Nothing is diminished, in my view, by the fact that we’ve had to re-imagine our celebration.”
A handful of people — each wearing a mask; many donning green and red — watched Wednesday as Reis-Couto carefully raised the Portuguese flag. Among those gathered were Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha, Dist. 25 Rep. Tom Noret and town councilor Ann Dickson, who accepted a citation on the council’s behalf.
Before the flag was raised, Noret took the mic to address the importance, especially during trying times, of supporting diversity and preserving cultural traditions.
“There are rich Portuguese culture, traditions and roots in District 25,” he said, adding that “sons and daughters of the Azores have given so much to American culture in their work, their cuisine, their art, their ideals and their way of life.”
The Day of Portugal Committee held several flag raising ceremonies this week, beginning Monday in Bristol and ending today in Cumberland. Wednesday’s ceremony was the first the committee had ever held in Coventry.
“I don’t think this year’s ceremony in Coventry will be the first and the last time,” Warzycha said. “I look forward to a future event where the town’s residents will be able to take part in the celebration of Portuguese heritage.”
A resident of Coventry, Reis-Couto was eager to finally bring the event to her hometown.
“I just thought it would be great to show the Portuguese who are living in Coventry that this is our town,” she said. “They are important.”
There’s a large Portuguese community in Coventry that Reis-Couto said isn’t all that well known.
Currently some 100,000 Rhode Islanders can trace their ancestral roots back to Portugal. In Coventry and West Warwick, alone, Reis-Couto estimates there are close to 20,000 Portuguese-Americans residing.
Still, there’s no official count. But through a national “Make Portuguese Count” campaign by the Portuguese-American Leadership Council of the United States (PALCUS), a separate Portuguese line has at last been added to the race category on the 2020 Census.
“It is highly important that we all remember to write ‘Portuguese’ under the race origin question, or else we’re not counted as Portuguese,” said Fraley, a charter member of PALCUS. “We were not counted in 2010, but this time it will be different.”
PALCUS has been working for more than a decade with the U.S. Census Bureau to get Portuguese-Americans counted.
“We went to Washington, we talked to the people at headquarters... and we will be counted,” Fraley said. “This is the time to stand up and be proud. No matter what else is going on in the world, we are Portuguese and we are resilient.”
Reis-Couto said she urges everyone of Portuguese descent to claim their heritage on the 2020 Census.
“We’re trying to bring awareness, and to get our politicians to understand that we do count — we’re doctors, we’re nurses, we’re attorneys, we’re masons, we’re everything,” Reis-Couto said. “It’s important to be acknowledged.”
Reis-Couto added that she encourages members of the local Portuguese community to become more involved within the town, and to be proud of where they’ve come from.
“Don’t be afraid to show your heritage,” she said, standing beneath the Portuguese flag. “Especially in the times that we’re in, it’s important that we learn about each other. Inclusivity is very important, and if we’re afraid to show our heritage, then the conversation never happens.”