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Observatório da Emigração: Interview with SMU’s Caroline Brettell

Observatório da Emigração carried out an in-depth interview with SMU anthropologist Caroline Brettell about her research on Portuguese immigration. An internationally recognized immigration expert, Brettell is University Distinguished Professor and Ruth Collins Altshuler Professor, and Director of SMU’s Interdisciplinary Institute.

Observatório da Emigração carried out an in-depth interview with SMU anthropologist Caroline Brettell about her research on Portuguese immigration.

Brettell is University Distinguished Professor and Ruth Collins Altshuler Professor, and Director of SMU’s Interdisciplinary Institute. The Observatório da Emigração was established in 2008, based on a protocol between the General Director of Consular and Portuguese Community Affairs, and various research entities in Lisbon. Its principal objectives are to produce and disseminate information on the development and characteristics of emigration and of Portuguese communities; and to contribute to public policy in this arena.

An internationally recognized immigration expert, Brettell’s research includes “Portugal’s First Post-Colonials: Citizenship, Identity, and the Repatriation of Goans,” published in 2009 in the scientific journal Portuguese Studies Review. In the article, Brettell drew on archival research and field interviews to explore debates about nation, citizenship and identity and their implications for the repatriation of Goan people to Portugal after 1961.

Brettell’s most recent book, “Civic Engagements: The Citizenship Practices of Indian & Vietnamese Immigrants” (Stanford University Press, 2012), which reported that immigrants in North Texas develop their American identity by participating in ethnic community activities, then branching out to broader civic and political life.

She and co-author Deborah Reed-Danahay found that American Indians and Vietnamese Americans in North Texas develop and embrace their American identity over time — without shedding their culture of origin, as some say they should.

The research found that, for these groups, becoming a U.S. citizen is distinctly different from becoming American.

Read the full interview.


Observatório da Emigração (OEm) – Maybe you could start by saying how the Portuguese emigration came into your life…

Caroline Brettell (CB) – There is absolutely no connection to my personal life. I remember that in 1976, at a Conference in Toronto – where there is a large Portuguese community -, people from the community came up to me afterwards and asked me “a senhora é portuguesa”? And I said “no, not at all”. And they replied, “but you understand us so well”…

OEm – So, you spoke Portuguese at that time?

CB – When I was an undergraduate at Yale University, I was majoring Latin-American studies and one requirement for the major was to learn both Spanish and Portuguese. In my senior year in College I took intensive Portuguese. Then when I was applying to graduate school in Anthropolog – the field I decided to pursue for my Ph.D. I noticed that the Brown University had a new Program in Urban Anthropology. My senior essay at Yale had been on rural-urban migration, the migration from the countryside to cities, in Latin America. So, I was really interested in Urban Anthropology. I applied to that Program and when I was admitted, I had the chance in the summer, before I started graduate school, to work on a big project they had on immigration in the Rhode-Island area, in the city of Providence in particular.

OEm – Where a lot of Portuguese people live?

CB – Absolutely! So, that summer, because I had just learned the language, I started working with some of the Portuguese immigrant populations in the Rhode-Island area. So, it was really through the language that I got in to studying Portuguese immigrants. Then, the following summer we had to do a summer field research project, and then write a publishable paper. And I discovered that Toronto had a big Portuguese immigrant community. I went off to the city of Toronto, and I actually lived in what is called the Kensington market area, which is a downtown outdoor market in an old neighborhood of immigration, and the most recent arrivals in that neighborhood were Portuguese, mostly families from the Azores. So, I lived in a house with two Azorean families; I had the room in the attic. I spent two months in that neighborhood and my first published paper, on “ethnic entrepreneurs” was based on that summer of research. In that house, one of the men had spent time in France, before he had come to Canada. I had a conversation with him about the migration of the Portuguese to France. I was looking around for a project for my Ph.D. dissertation in Anthropology. What intrigued me about the migration to France was that it was obviously much more possible for the Portuguese to move back and forth between Portugal and France. There wasn’t a big Atlantic Ocean in the middle. At that time, there was no concept of transnationalism. We didn’t have such easy ways for people to travel back and forth and to communicate as they are communicating right now. So, I thought that the ocean was a divider, separating people from their sending society; I was really interested in the possibility of more back and forth movement that the migration to France might represent.

OEm – When was that study?

CB – I was in Toronto in the summer of 1972.

OEm – Forty years ago…

CB – Oh my God! So, the other thing that happened to me was that I was a student of Louise Lamphere and she was one of the founders of the so-called Anthropology of Gender. It occurred to me that everybody thought that migration was characteristic of men and I thought “well, nobody has worked with women immigrants”. I developed a research proposal to study Portuguese immigrant women in France and started the research in the summer of 1974 with funding from the Social Science Research Council in the US as well as the equivalent in Canada. I arrived in France in July of 1974, where I met Colette Callier Boisvert, a French anthropologist who had worked in Portugal in the 1960s and I think also Maria Beatriz Rocha-Trindade, who had done a study of the Portuguese in France. The Revolution had happened in Portugal, but immigrants in France were not the broad subject of study that they are today.

Read the full interview.

By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs