Reno Portuguese

Fallon, Churchill County, have benefited from 130-year old Portuguese presence

October 28, 2005 By David Henley

Northern Nevada, I am sure most readers of this newspaper are aware, has a rich heritage of being settled by immigrants from Western Europe who came here during the late 19th century seeking better lives for themselves and their children.

eturning recently with my wife from three weeks in England, France, Spain and Portugal, we've been learning more about the extensive bonds that bind Fallon, Churchill County and Reno with Portugal, where we spent a third of our overseas travels.
One day, for example, in Portugal's capital and largest city, Lisbon, we were approached by a fellow as we huffed and puffed up a steep cobblestone street on our way to St. George Castle, named for the man who slew the dragon and became England's patron saint.
"Are you Americans?" he asked.
When we replied "yes," he said, "Do you know my cousin, Tony, who lives in Reno? There are a lot of Portuguese living there."
Unfortunately, I don't believe I know Tony, but nevertheless I was impressed by my new friend's family relationship with Nevada.
On another day, as Ludie and I were visiting a cathedral to view the crypt of Vasco da Gama, the great Portuguese explorer who was the first European to see the Cape of Good Hope at the Southern end of Africa and then sail to India, another Lisbon resident came up to us.
"You must be Americans. All Portuguese love America. Many of us have relatives living in your country," he told us as we stood by the final resting place of da Gama, who died in 1524.
Back in Fallon, I've been speaking with several local citizens of Portuguese descent and have become familiar with the backgrounds of their ancestors who traveled to Churchill County more than 100 years ago to make significant contributions to this area's cultural, linguistic, agricultural and commercial heritages.
Valerie Serpa, for example, whose family has lived here for more than 90 years, tells me the first Serpas arrived in Churchill County from the Azores Islands, a Portuguese island group east (sic - it should be west) of Portugal in the Atlantic.
The early-day Serpas became dairymen and farmers, she added. Valerie also noted that there is a town named Serpa not far from Lisbon.
Valerie, executive director of the Churchill Arts Council, said she is particularly gratified that the Council-sponsored performance at the Barkley Theater two weeks ago of Portuguese music was so well received by the Fallon-Churchill County community.
The musicale featured an eight-member ensemble, led by singer Cesaria Evora, that performed numbers from Portugal and the Cape Verde Islands, a former Portuguese overseas colony off the coast of West Africa.
Rancher Lyle De Braga, whose family also came from the Azores Islands, said his grandfather's first Nevada stops were in Austin and Eureka, where he worked the mines there. Later, he acquired his own mining property.
In 1913, the De Bragas moved to Churchill County where they engaged in ranching. Lyle De Braga's brother, Ted, today farms the same acreage the family purchased in 1916.
Two other Fallon residents with close Portuguese ties also told me of their family ties with Portugal.
George Machado, owner of the Overland Hotel, says his grandparents emigrated to California from the Azores Islands in the early 1900s and that one of his uncles came to the U.S. from Portugal by stowing away on a ship.
Machado speaks no Portuguese, he said, because one of his grandmothers laid down a dictum that "We are now Americans, and we will speak only English in our home." Machado, like most others of Portuguese descent here, belongs to the Portuguese social organization I.D.E.S.
Karla Kent Mayfield, who is descended on her mother's side from the Portuguese Armas family, is involved each May with the annual Portuguese Festa held in Fallon.
During the weekend fete, families of Portuguese heritage take part in social activities that include festive meals, the crowning of a Festa queen, Catholic religious services and a dance.
The meals include such treats as "sopa," a meat broth with cabbages, potatoes, olives and pickles; "linguesa," a Portuguese sausage in a roll; and "feijada," a rice and beans dish.
Portuguese festas also are held in Lovelock and Yerington, and Fallonites of Portuguese background travel to these events each year to join in the celebrations.
"There are many families in the Lahontan Valley with Portuguese backgrounds," said Karla, mentioning such families as the Gomes, Vierras, Soares, Sousas and Fabels.
Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha, himself of Portuguese descent, says the migration of Portuguese from the mid-Atlantic Azores Islands and Portugal to Nevada began in the 1870s, with most immigrants initially settling on the East and West coasts.
In the West, Portuguese then spread out to inland areas where they engaged in ranching, farming, small business operations, dairying and mining.
Like the Basques who came to Nevada in the late 1800s, Portuguese also became sheepherders, writes historian Donald Warrin in his article "Portuguese Pioneers in Early Nevada" which appeared in the Spring, 1992 issue of the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Warrin said that in Fallon, Yerington and Reno, Portuguese immigrants were leaders in the dairy industry and by the early 1930s the Portuguese presence in Churchill County became so pronounced that the annual "festa"
celebrations had become a major local holiday and even a downtown business named "The Azores Store" had become a prominent commercial establishment.



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