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It’s been said that the first world traveling Portuguese people to step foot in California did so in 1542 when they stepped off their ship in San Diego before continuing north to Ventura and Monterey Bay.

From 1830 to 1860 the Portuguese population went from 109 to more than a 1,000 with the biggest influx coming during the Gold Rush days. As was true of most of the Argonauts, those Portuguese who didn’t make a killing in the gold fields tried other occupations, many of which were in the dairy, farming and fishing fields.

I won’t cover the fishing and whaling industry, but will say that while New Bedford, Massachusetts was the Portuguese capital of shore whaling in the east, San Leandro was the Portuguese capital of the West. 

Portuguese could be found anywhere where the land was fertile, such as the Sacramento Valley, San Jose, San Leandro, Oakland, Castro Valley, San Joaquin and San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties, rarely living more than 150 miles from the ocean. They seemed to have a certain knack when it came to farming and marketing. 

The Portuguese refused to waste an inch of land. They’d buy the best land, knowing the best when they saw it and would pay top price without question. However, once they acquired it they wanted every inch to work for them, day or night, and every minute of the growing season, striving to get three crops per year.

Most came to California with only the shirts on their backs and worked on farms for about 10 years, all the time studying the various crops. Within time they sent for their families.

Once a Portuguese acquired a piece of land he never rested until it was paid for, not hesitating to sacrifice his personal ease and comfort until the mortgage was erased. In addition to being an untiring worker, he was an intelligent farmer.

In 1880, 84 percent of the Portuguese living in California were living in rural areas, with more than 82 percent of them operating farms. 

The Portuguese, who began to arrive in the Oso Flaco area from the Azores in the early 1880s, brought with them their expertise in running dairies, and there was a time when they owned two-thirds of the dairies in California. Like the Swiss people who came before them, they were incredibly hard workers. 

Records show that Manuel Jose Souza was the first Portuguese to purchase part of the Rancho Guadalupe, in Oso Flaco, from the LeRoys. The deed was recorded on Oct. 26, 1881. 

Those Portuguese who didn’t operate dairy farms grew beans under contract with the Federal Government during WWI when the United States fed half the world with beans. Most became very successful and their contracts ended when the war ended. 

The success of the farmers, although not bringing great wealth, did provide a comfortable living. Many Portuguese people continued to farm in the local area, doing dry farming on the Oso Flaco property leased from the LeRoys of France. 

Not wanting to stray further from their homes than they could drive with their own teams, the farmers (truck farmers) supplied fresh produce to surrounding communities with their success coming from hard work, ingenuity and trust.

Since most of the Portuguese people coming from the Azores are Catholic, many of their social events are linked with the church, one of which has roots going back to the 13th Century when Queen Isabel of Portugal, born in 1271, ruled the land. 

Queen Isabel was particularly noted for having dedicated her life to the poor by establishing orphanages as well as providing the less fortunate with food and shelter.

During a great famine the Queen made a vow to the Holy Spirit that if food arrived from England to feed her country, she would find the poorest girl in the land and make her a queen for a day. Almost immediately, so the story goes, ships loaded with enough food to feed the hungry arrived after which both classes shared a meal prepared by the nobility.

This act, creating a sense of equality and brotherly love, is celebrated each year throughout the Portuguese communities of the world.

Every year, beginning on Pentecost Sunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter, and continuing throughout the month of August, the Central Coast Portuguese communities celebrate this miracle.

The local Portuguese social life is centered around the DES Club on Chapel Street, near Depot Street. This building, constructed in 1947, was built for the annual Pentecostal celebration. With much hard work by the members, the building was fully paid for in 1965.

The Novo Brothers, Angelo and Frank, coming from the Azores in 1902, had a blacksmith shop on the south side of west Main Street, at the corner of Thornburgh for many years. During the Great Depression years, they helped the local farmers by repairing their machinery, carrying the charges on their books, awaiting better times. When the depression finally ended, the brothers wiped all of the debts from their books. Their brother Morris had a blacksmith shop in Guadalupe.

Joseph D. Brass farmed 260 acres 2 miles from Santa Maria on West Main Street while John Brass farmed property near the sugar factory in Betteravia. His son, John, was postmaster in Santa Maria during the 1960s.

Fred Pimentel is best known in Santa Maria as the protege of Frank McCoy, owner of the Santa Maria Inn. 

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Pimentel, who was born in the Azores in 1898, came to Santa Maria in 1913 at the age of 15, not only to attain some sort of success in life, but to finance the education of his two younger brothers that he’d left back home in the Azores. His brother Joseph later became a dentist and Antonio not only became a doctor, but also served as governor of some of the islands.

Pimentel served as manager of the Santa Maria Inn, and after the death of Frank McCoy he moved across the street to serve as manager of the Santa Maria Club.

Invited to welcome the Santa Maria Union High School class of 1924, Pimentel gave a speech that is true today as it was then.

“Always remember that the good name of our school depends on your actions. It is up to all of us to advance our school by showing the public, through our actions, that a high school education strengthens the student both morally and physically, and opens for him the road to progress and success.”

Joe Olivera , who spent many years on the Santa Maria Planning Commission, was on the City’s Landmark Committee for 14 years. In 1992 this civic minded disabled veteran was honored by the city as Santa Maria’s citizen of the year.

Robin Ventura, a graduate of Righetti High School played on the baseball team that competed in the Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea. After graduating from Oklahoma State, Robin went immediately into professional baseball, playing third base for the Chicago White Sox where he won four Golden Glove awards. After a brilliant career in professional baseball, Robin is now manager of the Chicago White Sox.

Other Portuguese who made their marks on the Santa Maria Valley include Souza, Silva, Luis, Pimentel, Pezzoni, Azevedo, Lopez, Santos, Enos, Trigueiro, Teixeira, Simas and many others.

On a worldy note, Portuguese is the sixth most spoken language in the world. Among those who went on to greater fame in the United States include The Great Gildersleeve, John Philip Sousa, Tom Hanks, Merridtih Veirra, many politicans and a host of others.

Portugal is England’s oldest ally, with a history that goes back hundreds of years. 

Many thanks to Jim Enos who provided me with much information about the Portuguese.

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Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 934-3514 or at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.

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