What I learned about my immigrant grandparents and my love for my heritage by traveling to Portugal
For as long as I can remember, my Portuguese heritage has been an important part of my life and identity. My maternal grandparents (whom I call Vovó and Vovô) are both immigrants from Portugal now living in Massachussetts. As their only granddaughter, I spent a great deal of time with them—even living in their home for a summer.
They delighted in teaching me Portuguese phrases and Portuguese drop cookie recipes, and they were thrilled that I couldn’t get enough of their stories about life in “the old country.” Due to our tight bond and my close relationship with my mom, I always felt connected to my Portuguese heritage and was far less interested in the Irish roots on my paternal side. (Ironically, my mom picked out the name “Caitlin” years before I was born because she’d never heard it before and thought it was exotic. Then she married an Irish man, and I ended up with one of the most Irish names possible.)
When my brother and I were old enough to appreciate our first European vacation, my family traveled to Portugal for several weeks. Although the country has recently become a popular tourist destination, that wasn’t the case in the early 2000s. In fact, it was so off the radar that many people expressed surprise when I told them Portugal is in Europe, not South America. Once we landed, we rented a car and drove all over the country to towns where my family has roots and absorbed the culture and history. I fell completely in love .
When it was time to apply to college, one of the reasons I picked Smith as my top choice was because it’s one of the few colleges in the country that offers a Portuguese-Brazilian Studies major. And, as luck would have it, Smith happens to be a 15-minute drive from my Vovó and Vovô’s home—so I saw them once a week while I was in college. On my first day of Portuguese class at Smith, I instantly clicked with a classmate who would become my best friend, so my heritage led to one of the most important relationships in my life.
I thought of Portugal often.
After graduating college and moving to New York City to take a job in book publishing, I didn’t exactly have the funds to plan my own Portuguese getaway. It wasn’t until recently that I had the opportunity to return to Portugal—this time as an adult, on a trip with the best friend I met over a decade ago on that first day of Portuguese class.
In the past, when my family and I landed in Lisbon, Portugal, the very first thing we did was explore the historic Alfama district of the city—an area that’s so beautiful it makes me forget my jet lag as soon as I step foot there. I continued this tradition when I landed in Lisbon after 24 hours without sleep. As I explored the Alfama on my own for the first time ever, it reminded me of how blessed I am to have had the privilege of trips to Portugal as a child. These visits brought my family and I closer together and shaped my identity as a Portuguese American, which ultimately lead to some of the most meaningful experiences and friendships of my life.
I wanted to make the most of my time in Portugal, so I called both my mom and my grandparents to ask them more about my family’s history. I did my best to trace where my descendants had lived—for example, it turned out that my great-great-grandfather grew up in Óbidos, a medieval village with a population of 11,000. I’d never visited this particular location on any of my family vacations, so I made sure to add it to my itinerary. Using my admittedly rusty Portuguese, I boarded a bus full of locals that would take me from Lisbon to Óbidos. Communicating in Portuguese, I explained to the friendly elderly man in the seat next to me why I was in Portugal and the reason I wanted to explore Óbidos. He was enthusiastic and eager to give me tips for how to make the most of my day trip.
In 1282, the village was given to to Queen Isabel as a wedding gift, and its history has been well-preserved. Once you enter the gates, there are no cars allowed on the narrow cobblestone streets. I spent hours walking through the winding streets, taking in the beautiful tiles, admiring the Gothic architecture, and sampling Ginja, a sweet cherry Portuguese liqueur that my new friend on the bus told me I must taste in Óbidos. I never knew my great-great-grandfather, but he was in my thoughts as I explored his beautiful hometown, and I imagined what his life might have been like there.
There was also a bittersweet aspect to my trip: My Vovó and Vovô are in declining health.
They’re physically ill, can no longer drive, and are only able to continue living in their apartment because my mother is able to take care of them. It’s deeply important to me that they know how much I admire them and how much they’ve influenced the woman I’ve become.
Neither of my grandparents finished middle school; they took factory jobs the moment they could work. They did this so that my mom could have a better life. Because they worked so hard and sacrificed so much to give this to her, my brother and I have had more opportunities than my grandparents ever dreamed of. They instilled a strong work ethic in my mom, which she passed on to both my brother and me.
As my homebound grandparents struggle physically and mentally and prepare for the end of their lives, it’s the little things that lift them up. That’s why I sent a postcard to them every few days during my trip. I told them what I’d done at each location, and wrote that I was thinking of them every single day. It was the least I could do.
On my first day back in America, my phone rang almost immediately. It was my Vovó, so happy that she was on the verge of tears. It wasn’t simply that she was grateful I’d mailed out a half dozen postcards—although she’s always known my heritage is important to me, my trip showed her just how much she and my Vovô have shaped my identity.
Yes, Portugal is a beautiful and special country full of rich history and culture. But when it comes down to it, to me, “Portugal” is synonymous with “family.”
It represents everything they’ve taught me—namely to live with a strong work ethic and to never take anything for granted. That’s the real reason this country is so special to me.
I don’t know when I’ll make it back to Portugal, but I’m so grateful I was able to return while my grandparents are still alive, able to receive my postcards, and call me to talk more about my trip. I don’t take a single day with them for granted, and I recognize how blessed I am to have spent so much quality time with them. We may have spent that time in Massachusetts and Connecticut, not Portugal, but they taught me some of the most important lessons of my life. Their wisdom comes directly from their experiences both in Portugal and as hardworking immigrants in America.