Nassau County held its first Portugal Day celebration last Thursday night, observing an annual occasion celebrated by Portuguese worldwide, and honoring state Sen. Jack Martins as the county Portuguese-American of the Year.
Members of the local Portuguese community filled the county Legislature chamber at the Theodore Roosevelt Executive & Legislative Building in Mineola. They gathered to celebrate their heritage and to cheer Martins, the former Mineola mayor who has come to personify the ascendancy of Portuguese-Americans in the area.
“This is one of the proudest moments in our community’s history,” said Gabriel Marques, assistant to the county deputy comptroller and Portugal Day event chairman, in his opening remarks.
“Take a look at where this community came from. Think about the 3,000-mile journey you made,” he said.
Marques emphasized the transition the community has made, from several hundred Portuguese who migrated to the area in the 1930s to the 7,500 Portuguese-Americans who currently reside in the county, 55 percent of them born in the U.S.
“We are a native American community,” Marques said. “And all those great opportunities this country has given us, we have taken advantage of.”
Marques said Portuguese-Americans have risen as professionals in the community over the years, with 40 percent of those born here now holding college degrees.
In introducing Martins, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano called him “a shining example of a public official.”
Martins began his remarks speaking in Portuguese about the integration of their immigrant community and the “grand story” of Portuguese in the Americas, personified by explorers like Vasco de Gama.
Portuguese National Day, traditionally celebrated on June 10, commemorates the death of Portugal’s revered poet Luís Vaz de Camões, who died on that date in 1580. Camões, a literary icon of Portuguese nationalism, wrote the an epic poem retelling the exploits of Portuguese explorers.
“What an opportunity for a relatively recent immigrant community, how far we’ve come,” Martins said. “We are Americans, all of us. We are here as Americans who have not forgotten that we are Portuguese or of Portuguese descent.”
He called on them to contemplate what their “sacrifice” has brought to the community, including those members of the community they have elected to public office, including Mineola Deputy Mayor Paul Pereira. He thanked them for his support, thanked his parents, and thanked his wife, Paula, who he said “made everything possible” for him.
Following Martins, Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos said Martins’ “star has only begun to rise.”
Maragos recounted his own immigrant experience as a Greek-American who worked hard to put himself through school, eventually founding his own company, which he has passed on to his son.
“Everything is possible in this country,” Maragos said. “We are living the American Dream and it isn’t over.”
The observance was capped with a dance performance by members of the Mineola Portuguese Society, who temporarily turned the legislative chamber into a place of celebration. And Martins, his wife, Pereira and Mineola Mayor Scott Strauss all joined in the dance.
Reach reporter Richard Tedesco by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 516.307.1045 x204