My Luso Story is an open and honest series about the Portuguese experience in America.
Imagine waking up one day to find that your country is without a leader. And without a government. On April 25, 1974, the Carnation Revolution overthrew the standing Portuguese government and brought down the struggling authoritarian regime that still remained after Portugal’s fascist leader, António de Oliveira Salazar, died in 1970.
This was considered a peaceful revolution during which almost no shots were fired. Later, it was named for the immortalized image of soldiers marching with carnations in the barrels of their gun, the flowers of which were offered by a bystander, Celeste Caeiro (below, Celeste retells the story of how she became "Celeste dos Cravos" aka "Celeste of the carnations").
The Carnation Revolution successfully brought an end to a brutal dictatorship, introduced democracy to Portugal, and opened the door for independence in Portugal’s colonies. However, it was not without its victims. Once the Portuguese government and military left its colonies, independence in the colonies had yet to be formally established. In most instances, the former colonies did not have an appointed successor to lead, resulting in a power vacuum with several different political groups vying for power.
Wars create battlegrounds, and they don’t tiptoe around your home, your business, or your life. So what do you do when you wake up in the middle of a war zone?
Prior to the Revolution, Angola already had various factions aiming to take back control of the country from Portugal. After the Carnation Revolution, the Portuguese military quickly left Angola. Three political powers — the MPLA (communist party), FNLA (socialist party), and UNITA (democratic party) — then came together to sign the Alvor Agreement, which legitimized Angola’s independence. However, trust quickly broke down among the parties and they were soon fighting each other in a bloody battle for sole power of the newly independent Angola. This launched the Guerra Civil Angolana, or Angolan Civil War, which lasted on and off for over 25 years.
Wars create battlegrounds, and they don’t tiptoe around your home, your business, or your life. So what do you do when you wake up in the middle of a war zone? The answer? Anything within your means to survive. Once the civil war broke out, many feared for their lives, both Angolans and Portuguese nationals. And many were forced to flee the country. This is where Beta’s "My Luso Story" begins.
“One day, the Portuguese government and military disappeared. There was no one there to protect us from the guerrilla troops belonging to the political parties that were trying to take power. Our family decided to leave Angola. We could have stayed but our life would have been at risk everyday. My dad owned businesses and properties, so people would come after him for his money. They even came for him one day and arrested him.
My dad and his brother didn’t want to leave and abandon their businesses, losing the fruits of their hard work, but what convinced him to leave Angola was a day where rumor was spreading fast that the troops were going to blow up Benguela, our city. Families packed up their cars and decided to escape to South Africa or other places.
Even so, my dad did not want to leave and ‘abandon ship.’ He owned a gas station and had been giving free gas to everyone.
Our neighbor and her brother worked at Casa do Gaiato, an orphanage for boys about 30 minutes away from our town. They invited us to stay for the night. We packed up. We all had emergency bags ready. There were 3 cars. We got to Casa do Gaiato, but the priest in charge said there was no more room for us. We were sent away and told not to take the main road back because there was a checkpoint being enforced by the guerilla troops. Instead, we were instructed to take the back road through the dry river, Rio do Cavaco.
When we were driving down the dirt roads, we got stopped by a group of these guerillas. They wore camo uniforms with wine bottles in their pockets. And were drunk as they carried their rifles. There was a pit stop where they stopped you and asked to who you belonged, meaning to which political party you were affiliated with. If you gave the wrong answer, they would kill you. There was no way to know which political party they belonged to.
There was a pit stop where they stopped you and asked to who you belonged, meaning to which political party you were affiliated with. If you gave the wrong answer, they would kill you. There was no way to know which political party they belonged to.
We were placed in a lineup and my dad and uncle tried to negotiate with them. My dad saw the guns pointed at us. One of the guys recognized my dad and said he remembered working for him years ago. He said my dad had treated him well, at a time when many Portuguese business owners didn’t treat the native Angolan population well. Because of that, my dad and uncle were able to successfully negotiate our escape.
He was only going to allow our family to leave, but our dad said he wouldn’t leave without his brother and sister’s family. They let all of us go. We were lucky. All the other nights, there had been shooting throughout the night. Not that night though.
Someone had leased a small plane to leave Benguela. However, for some reason, they didn't show up. When we arrived at the airport, my dad ended up leasing that plane to get us out. We traveled first to the capital, Luanda, and stayed in a hotel the first night. Then, we were on a waitlist for a plane to Portugal. We had bought tickets to Portugal but didn’t have a confirmed seat on a plane, so we slept at the airport for two days to wait for our turn to get on the next flight.
This was in September. On November 11, Angola got complete independence from Portugal. At the time, I was about 12 years old, my younger sister was 10, and our youngest sister was about 16 months old.
We stayed for a couple of weeks in Portugal before immigrating to the United States. In Portugal, we were the ‘retornados’ — the returnees from the colonies. For many of us, our parents were born in Portugal, but we weren’t. The Portuguese of Portugal were not welcoming to us. We were second class to them.
My dad and my mom are the greatest example of humble, kind human beings. They were wealthy in Angola, but they lived a modest life. My parents taught us to not be angry or resentful of what we lost. They taught us to be grateful for what we had.
During our two-week stay in Lisbon, I overheard a woman in a bakery say ‘they mistreat the black people and think they can come to Portugal and do the same to us.’ Soon after, we were on a plane to San Diego, California, where my mom’s brother lived. About six months later, my uncle put in the paperwork for us to get green cards.
My dad and my mom are the greatest examples of humble, kind human beings. They were wealthy in Angola, but they lived a modest life. My parents taught us to not be angry or resentful of what we lost. They taught us to be grateful for what we had.
They arrived in the U.S at 40 years old and up until then, had always worked for themselves. In a new country, they started working at the Van Camp tuna cannery in San Diego. Many Portuguese families worked there. It was one of the few jobs available to many immigrants, especially those who didn't speak English.
From there, we rebuilt our life. None of us returned to Angola. At one point, Angola had offered those who had left the opportunity to return and reclaim some of what had been lost, but the civil war was still ongoing at that time. My dad said no. That that was his past. The civil war continued for years, even after independence was established.
46 years later, I treasure the place where I was born and where I lived for 12 years.
I'm still filled with wonderful childhood memories of Benguela. And I'm grateful for the life that I have now.
Today, I still live in San Diego with my husband of 36 years and my now adult children. Just like my father, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial kind of mind. I own a hair salon along with my son, Zé. Working with him is a dream job. And having my whole family around me is a dream life."
From: San Diego, CA
Portuguese Family From: Benguela, Angola
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