There’s a strong bond between Atlantic archipelago and its diaspora of emigrants who have settled overseas, many in California.
PONTA DELGADA, Azores — You can feel her pain.
The woman in Domingos Rebelo’s famous 1926 painting “Os Emigrantes” sits on a trunk at the port, sheltered from the sun by a large blue parasol held by the well-dressed, older gentleman sitting next to her. There’s a long voyage ahead of her, and her face and stance reflect her sadness.
The painting captures a key point of history for this scrappy and beautiful archipelago of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: It has sent off scores of emigrants, many of them to the United States, where they built new lives in such places as the California cities of Tulare, Manteca and Turlock.
A lot has changed in Ponta Delgada, the largest city on the island of Sao Miguel, the most populated island in the Azores. The port depicted in Rebelo’s painting is long gone, moved to a much larger setting. So is the waterfront avenue.
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But some things don’t change, particularly the strong bond between this archipelago and its diaspora of emigrants who have settled overseas.
In my first trip to the Azores, which also includes an extended stay on the island of Terceira, I take in the volcanic handsomeness of the archipelago: craggy cliffs, rocky shores, sweeping vistas of a rough and unforgiving ocean. There is so much green, too, with pastures extending at times to very edge of the sea.
On Sao Miguel, I find a bustling, modern and picturesque island, home to the biggest city in the archipelago and some of its most breathtaking views. (Plus: an appealing botanical garden with dozens of varieties of trees and flowers, some which I’d never seen.)
I also discover an artist I’d never known: Rebelo, born in 1891 in Ponta Delgada, who brought art and painting to the Azores, paving the way for others to come. I learn this from Rosa Simas, a professor at the University of the Azores, who introduces me to a nifty walking tour about the artist she helped put together with the city of Ponta Delgada.
There’s something about the Azores that makes me think “cozy.” The islands are actually the peaks of the towering “mountains” of the Mid-Atlantic range, the longest mountain range in the world, except most of it is underwater. The island of Pico, with the highest elevation, is the “tippy-top” of that range.
I’m struck by the visual image: determined and hardy groups of people bunched together on the tops of these towering peaks, separated from most of us by a lot of water.
Left and returned
Simas was born on Pico, then emigrated with her family to Manteca, Calif., in 1953 at age 2. She was 19 when she went back to the Azores, first to Pico, then finally Sao Miguel, with an interlude for a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s lived on the island now for more than 30 years.
I visit some of Sao Miguel’s notable sights, including the Caldeira das Sete Cidades, with two similar sized lakes adjacent to each other, one filled with striking green water, the other blue. (There’s a legend, of course, involving separated lovers, one crying green tears, the other blue.) And we tour the majestic coastline, where I’m entranced with a pasture that surely has the best views for cows in the world.
In Ponta Delgada itself, highlights for me are the botanical gardens and, of course, the Rebelo tour. Part of the fun is walking the beautiful stone streets and sidewalks of the city, done in the Portuguese style with intricate designs of contrasting basalt and limestone.
In essence, Rebelo has been remembered for just a few of his paintings throughout the years, Simas says, “when he has a vast, diverse production that has not been duly appreciated.”
On my last full day on the island, I look at “Os Emigrantes” once more and notice a figure standing in the painting next to the colorfully garbed emigrants and the people bidding them farewell. She is smartly dressed with an elegant hat. There are several interpretations of what she stands for, Simas says. Some would say she represents someone of higher society who didn’t have to emigrate for economic reasons.
But it’s commonly believed that she is a calafona, a Portuguese word used in the Azores to describe an emigrant who returns to the islands. (It has come to mean a person who is a bit ostentatious with his or her wealth, a bit of a showoff.)
Notice how calafona sounds a lot like “Californian”?
No wonder Simas is drawn to this famous painting. It captures the spirit of the Azores.