Gilberto Fernandes, Ph.D.!


It’s done! After five long, labour-intensive years, I successfully defended my dissertation Of Outcasts and Ambassadors: the Making of Portuguese Diaspora in Postwar North America on September 12, thus fulfilling all requirements for obtaining my Ph.D. degree in History at York University. My dissertation committee – Dr. Roberto Perin (supervisor), Dr. Adrian Shubert, Dr. William Jenkins – and my defence examiners – Dr. Franca Iacovetta (external), Dr. José Curto (internal/external), and Dr. Gabriele Scardellato (Dean’s rep/ chair) – approved my dissertation and defense with no revisions and with rave reviews. Here is part of my opening statement:

As is usually the case, the idea for my dissertation emerged from out of my own personal experiences. My intellectual interest in migration started with my own experience of moving from Portugal to Canada in 2004, one that displaced, challenged and defined me in multiple ways, making me grow into two separate bines that I try to intertwine around a single identity. By removing me from the places and faces that I once took for granted, it also forced me to hold on to a lifetime of memories uprooted from their context and try to make sense of them in a more reflective manner than perhaps I would have, had I remained in the country that I still call home.

In my MA studies at U of T I delved deeper into this topic and became engrossed in the social, cultural, and political realities framing and developing from migrant experiences, as well as the tropes used to describe them. I was also fascinated by its incredibly rich human stories, which have been fodder for personal and collective narratives of many individuals, families, and even nations. Of particular interest to me were the narratives of Portuguese migration over time, as told by those who stayed, those who left, and those who governed them.
Initially I wasn’t so much attracted by a particular migrant narrative but by the simple fact that I wasn’t aware of one; that is, one that was articulated at the national level. Sure I knew of many personal stories of emigration, including in my own family, which has had members migrate to Canada, France, Brazil, Germany, South Africa and other countries. I also knew this was a common family history in Portugal, and that emigration has been a constant and widespread phenomena throughout the country’s history. I was also aware of the many stereotypes and ambivalent popular perceptions of emigrants held by Portuguese nationals. In many ways, the emigrant is an unavoidable character of Portuguese national imagination. Yet, in my undergraduate studies in Lisbon, where I took many courses on Portuguese history, there was little reference to this massive phenomenon, other than brief overviews on its impact on the country’s demographics, finances and economy. Absolutely nothing was said of the lives of these emigrants after they left, or the many ways in which their lives remained entangled with those of their loved ones (and not so loved ones) in their home country; it was if it was no longer Portuguese history once they left the country’s borders. In all honesty, I also only started wondering what had happened to these emigrants once I became one of them.
My interest spiked after reading Bela Feldman-Bianco’s contribution to the well-known collection of articles that introduced transnationalism to migration studies, where she described a diaspora-building project being carried out by the Portuguese democratic government after the fall of its empire in 1974; something that was, more or less, news to me. It didn’t take much research to realize that this was not something that was supposed to be hidden, but simply meant for the expatriated communities, with little iteration domestically.
My curiosity increased as I read more about another international project carried out by the postimperial government, which was the creation of a commonwealth of Lusophone countries, and the replacement of territory with language as the crux of Portuguese national identity. Again, the work of anthropologists helped me identify the power dynamics underlying these international and transnational relationships, and the echoes of imperialism within this postcolonial construct.
Inspired by this critique, I set out to study the genesis of the Portuguese government’s diasporic institutions and discourse, and uncover whether or not there was an imperialist rationale behind this post-revolutionary project. As I suspected, and as I hoped to have shown in my dissertation, there was indeed a significant degree of continuity from the colonialism and Cold War foreign policy of the Estado Novo and the diasporic-building process that followed. Hence, this dissertation is as much about Portuguese immigrants and their communities in North America as it is about Portugal and its national government.

Given the focus of my study, I have privileged government archives in Portugal, particularly those of the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the records of the various diplomatic offices in Canada and the United States, which constitute the core of my research. These records proved to be a tremendous treasure trove of information, much of which is yet to be explored by migration historians; and I suspect the same is true for other immigrant groups in North America. As I argued in my introduction, I hope my dissertation is a good example of how these archival collections are crucial for piecing together a more complete history of immigration in North America, since they contain a great deal of information about migrant communities on matters that were invisible to host government institutions and their record keepers.
Another indispensable collection of records were those I have helped transfer to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, here at York University, through the Portuguese Canadian History Project, a non-profit community outreach initiative that I have co-founded before I joined the doctoral program and since presided over. Through this project I was able to find, assess, ensure the preservation and accessibility, and ultimately research a large amount of documents produced and amassed by individuals and organizations in or associated with Toronto’s Portuguese community, from which I highlight the records of the Portuguese Canadian Democratic Association. These and other archival collections have provided me with a “bottom up” perspective of community relations and organization that would otherwise be lost to me had I only consulted “top down” government-produced documentation.

I hope to have written a dissertation that does justice to the complexity and diversity of Portuguese migrant experiences in North America, yet critically examines and analytically synthesizes and compares their histories; to have provided a fine balance of geographic and thematic breadth with engaging and informative detail about particular communities, individuals and their personal stories, or in other words, balance macro and micro perspectives; and to have contributed to pushing forward the scholarly debate on the themes of migration, ethnicity, race, diaspora, transnationalism, nation-states and globalization, and other topics discussed in this study.

Today, emigration is once again at the top of mind in Portuguese national and diasporic societies, as the number of emigrants from Portugal in recent years have matched the record numbers seen in the 1960s and 70s. But unlike the past, a large portion of these new emigrants are highly educated skilled workers and urban professionals; people of my generation who have greatly benefited from the policies of the post-74 democratic government, including the (nearly) free public education, and who have been forced to leave their country for lack of economic opportunities. In part because of their higher socioeconomic profile, education, cultural sophistication, and technological resourcefulness, this new wave of mass emigration has been represented in a very different light in Portuguese media and in the national political conversation, then their low skilled, largely uneducated, rural predecessors, who have for the longest time been referred to with an equal dose of respect and contempt, as somewhat culpable victims of want and greed. Today, we see a growing admiration for the emigrant as an historical character in Portugal, and a growing interest in knowing their stories, which are, after all, those of family members, friends, and neighbours, who one day left, sometimes never to come back, yet their presence is still felt by the various contributions that many of them continue to make to their hometowns and home nations.
Those arriving in Canada and the United States today will be joining communities whose identities, social structures and cultural practices comprehend over a century of history. Many of the close to 500 thousand Canadian residents with Portuguese ancestry, and the 1.5 million in the U.S., continue to trace their individual and family histories across the Atlantic ocean. Other descendants have lost a direct connection to Portugal, yet their lives, for the most part, continue to be marked by the decisions, beliefs, and expectations of their immigrant ancestors. These Canadians and Americans often trace their personal and family histories only as far back as the immigrant generation and their newcomer communities; their hyphenated identities stretch thin or tighten stronger depending on a variety of local, national and international circumstances, but they rarely ever break entirely. These are the ebbs and flows of ethnic and diasporic identities, which are deeply contextual and time sensitive.
As in previous decades, the arrival of new emigrants at these old North American communities will likely revitalize the social, cultural, religious, economic and political links with the homeland, once again evolving their profile in the multicultural societies of Canada and the U.S. In the past, and as I discussed in my dissertation, the relationship between newcomers and old immigrants and descendants haven’t always been the best, in large part due to the lack of mutual knowledge. With this dissertation, which I intend to publish, I hope to provide the intellectual means and opportunity for that intergenerational dialogue to take place.
The Portuguese communities of North America no longer have the need to “import” their history from Portugal to make sense of their own experiences and identities as minority groups in a host nation; they have their own history that must be acknowledged and understood, not only by the immigrants and their descendants, but also by Canadian, American, and Portuguese nationals, who largely ignore the rich histories of this ethnic group.

I look forward to doing my part in making this history known.

Here are some excerpts from the External Examiner’s Report:

This is an excellent – and clearly examinable – dissertation. Indeed, it is a tour-de-force: a thoroughly researched and rigorously, even brilliantly, argued historical study of the making of Portuguese diaspora(s) in post-1945 North America. That this is now a significant topic of historical study is made abundantly clear not simply by the growing scholarships on the Portuguese in North America but by the candidate’s impressive – and massive – primary research base of materials from archives, libraries and other repositories in Portugal, the U.S., and Canada.

Very well written (despite too frequent sign-posting) – and, at times, quite moving, the thesis is remarkably rich in insights. Fernandes demonstrates not only a sophisticated grasp of central concepts… but he engages critically with all of them to excellent effect, often revealing the shortcomings of earlier treatments or alerting us to new and fascinating ways of interpreting them in light of the Portuguese case.

Fernandes has done the study of Portuguese immigration an enormous professional service by producing this richly documented, comprehensive study. It will be the go-to resource book in the field for many years to come.

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