The Challenge of Building a Community-Sponsored Portuguese Studies Program at an American University: A Case Study of an Ultraminority in California




Elmano M. Costa, Ed. D.

California State University, Stanislaus

Paper Presented at the

Annual International Congress on Challenges to Education:

Balancing Unity and Diversity in a Changing World

Mexico City, Mexico

September 1, 2000



The Challenge of Building a Community-Sponsored Portuguese Studies Program at an American University: A Case Study of an Ultraminority in California

In the much discussed global economy of the twenty-first century, the ability to speak more than one language is seen as an asset. In this respect, the United States should be in an advantageous position due to the large number of children who learn a foreign language at home.

Yet, when the children enter school, in most cases there is no formal effort to develop the languages learned at home, and thus take advantage of a skill for which most industrialized countries expend large amounts of resources. Many have argued that this is an unwise policy for a country that is the most vocal advocate of global economic integration and free trade. Others take a very different approach, seeing the multiple home languages as a threat to national unity. They also point to the universal acceptance of English as the lingua franca of world business and the internet as another reason why schools do not need to teach foreign languages.

Arguably, California is the region in the United States where the need to balance unity and diversity is most hotly debated. It was in this setting that a minority community sought to bring about change at all levels of education. This paper presents a case study of the Portuguese-American community of Central California who collaborated with the local state university as well as local high schools to offer Portuguese programs. Their achievements in light of the conflicts surrounding heritage language programs may well be a model for other linguistic minority groups in the United States who are seeking to develop their own language programs.

The Portuguese Community in Central California

Portuguese Americans constitute a large percentage of the population in Central California. They are the sixth largest ethnic group in Stanislaus County, the second largest in Merced County and the ninth largest in San Joaquin County (see Table 1) (Census Bureau, 1990).

Table 1

Portuguese-Americans by County in Central California


County Portuguese Multi-ethnic: Multi-ethnic: Total

Only Port. First Port. Second


Merced 9,909 12,482 1,607 23,998

Stanislaus 13,292 16,832 2,919 33,043

San Joaquin 9,018 12,545 3,012 24,575


Economically, the community has been very successful, mostly through the ownership of dairy agribusinesses. Dairy products are the most valued commodity produced in these three agricultural counties (California Department of Agriculture, 2000) and Portuguese-Americans own from 50 to 80% of the dairies in this region (see Table 2). The typical dairy is worth over a million dollars.

Table 2

Value of Milk by County and by Portuguese Ownership

County Total Value Estimated Total Portuguese

of Milk Production Port. Percentage Value of Milk


Merced $440,961,000 80 $352,768,800

Stanislaus $374,196,000 73 $280,647,000

San Joaquin $232,355,000 58 $134,765,900

Politically, the community has also been successful in recent years. The two state assembly members and one member of Congress from this region are Portuguese-Americans.

With these numbers, one would expect the Portuguese community to be highly visible and influential in social and educational matters in the Central California. This is not the case, in part because the economic wealth is the hands of farmers who may not see a need nor feel comfortable involving themselves in educational issues. Secondly, the elected representatives of Portuguese descent, who would be expected to advocate for Portuguese programs, are assimilated into the American mainstream and have lost most connections with their ethnic community, including the ability to speak Portuguese. Furthermore, while there are many Portuguese-Americans living in this region, they do not have the political influence commensurate with their numbers because a significant number do not speak English, are not citizens of the United States and do not vote or become involved in the socio-political structures of their communities. Finally, they are eclipsed by other high-profile ethnic groups such as Latinos, who constitute over one-third of the local population, and Southeast Asians, who have large concentrations in the cities of the region (Census Bureau, 1990). A further drawback is that Portuguese-Americans are of European descent and, therefore, are not included in ethnic surveys, having only the option of selecting "white" or "other." That is, they are not even recognized as a minority group. Thus, the Portuguese community is an ultraminority, one that is too small to receive much attention from policy makers and elected officials.

A Brief History of Portuguese Immigration to the United States

Portuguese immigration to the United States has had two distinct phases. One coincided with the early part of the twentieth century and ended with the passage of the National Origins Act in the 1930s. The other began in 1958 when the eruption of a volcano in the Azores Islands led to the passage of legislation admitting Azorean Portuguese immigrants to the United States as refugees and continued through the 1980s after which immigration was reduced to a few thousand people each year (see Table 3) (Santos, 1995; Pap, 1992).

Table 3

Portuguese Immigration to the United States by Decade

Year Number of % of Total Portuguese

Immigrants Immigration

1820-1940 256,044 52

1941-50 7,423 1

1951-60 19,588 4

1961-70 76,065 15

1971-80 101,710 20

1981-90 40,020 8

The Portuguese community is Central California is representative of this dichotomy. There is one group that now includes second and third generation descendants of immigrants. Many of these people may have the surname and even some attachment to certain customs and traditions of their immigrant forebears but are also integrated into the American mainstream society.

The immigrants that came after 1958 and their children have a closer identity with Portuguese culture. Often they still speak Portuguese at home (see Table 4), are members of Portuguese social and religious organizations, and may take occasional trips to their native regions in Portugal to renew contacts with friends and relatives (Census Bureau, 1990).




Table 4

Number of People Who Speak Portuguese

at Home by County

County Speak Portuguese

at Home

Merced 5,180

Stanislaus 5,867

San Joaquin 3,356

The children of the recent immigrants, especially children of those who themselves immigrated as children or teenagers, are assimilating rapidly to the American mainstream culture. This is especially noticeable in their choice of English as the language of conversation. In fact, many do not speak Portuguese, except for a few words and phrases used mostly with grandparents.

It is the immigrants who arrived after 1958 that lament the loss of native culture and language and who seek to balance the two cultures, especially amongst the younger generations. In this community, language has become the critical element in the maintenance of native culture.

Establishment of Portuguese Programs

The first attempt to establish a foreign language program occurred in 1985 when an evening community school was started at a church in the city of Turlock. When over 100 children enrolled for classes, the organizers were elated. Yet, it was evident to most people that one central school could serve only a few students due to the dispersal of the immigrants over three counties. Furthermore, enrollment of high school age students was minimal. It was difficult to convince them to come to language school when they received no credit that could count toward graduation or university admittance. The shortage of trained teachers who could teach Portuguese as a foreign language was another obstacle. However, the main obstacle was the status of the school as perceived by the students. One would often hear older students say, "If it is so important to learn Portuguese, why is it not taught in our schools."

To counteract this situation, community leaders settled on a strategy to expand Portuguese language programs and, thereby, give them the status of other languages. The decision was to begin by implementing a Portuguese language program at the local state university and then proceed to high schools. It was the perception of community leaders that these efforts needed a formal structure which could only be provided by a formal organization. Thus, the Portuguese Education Foundation of Central California (henceforth Foundation) was incorporated in 1991 to advocate for this outcome.

Initial contacts with California State University, Stanislaus (henceforth, CSU Stanislaus), while very warm, did not bring an unequivocal endorsement. Administrators expressed a desire to offer Portuguese but countered that they could not afford the costs of a new program, especially at a time when the state was in an economic recession and the university budget was very tight. They also questioned whether there would be adequate enrollment to justify such courses.

Community leaders were faced with a dilemma. Waiting for the state economy to improve might take years. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that the university would then implement a Portuguese program. Rallying the community to pressure university administrators to prioritize Portuguese did not seem appropriate either, since it might create hostile attitudes that might hinder future developments. Thus, in order to avoid delays, the Portuguese Education Foundation agreed to pay the salary of a visiting lecturer who would teach a beginning Portuguese course. Enrollment in the beginning level courses exceeded the expectations of everyone, averaging around 27 students. However, hiring a part-time lecturer had its drawbacks. The first lecturer lasted one year, and finding a qualified person for the second year proved difficult. In their research, Foundation directors learned that the Camões Institute of the Portuguese Government provided visiting lecturers to foreign universities and paid their salaries. The Foundation decided to present a proposal for a lecturer at CSU Stanislaus.

While sending lecturers to American universities was a common practice for the Portuguese Government, in California all were at prestigious universities (University of California campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Davis and at Stanford University). Convincing the Camões Institute to send a lecturer to CSU Stanislaus in rural Central California and to a program which had no university paid faculty was a challenge, but it was approved.

The program began to flourish under the first visiting lecturer, a dynamic instructor from Lisbon, who stabilized the program, developed new courses, and then proposed and obtained approval for a minor and liberal studies concentration in Portuguese. Most of all, she obtained much support for the program by her ability to work cooperative and collaboratively with colleagues in the department and with university administrators.

As the minor became established, several important aspects became evident. While enrollment for the beginning level courses (Portuguese 1101 and 1102) was very good, enrollment in second year courses dropped precipitously, averaging about 4-5 students per course. Third year courses as well as literature courses had even lower enrollments, usually in the range of 1-4 students. Interviews with the students pointed to several factors: 1) only one year of foreign language is required for graduation, 2) the vast majority of the students had majors and minors that did not require a foreign language, 3) the courses, which had only one section of each, often conflicted with required courses in their major, and 4) most of the students were trying to complete degrees as quickly as possible and taking language courses beyond the required minimum was often perceived as extending the time to graduation.

To overcome some of the difficulties identified by the students, coordinators for the Portuguese Studies Program decided to pilot an Intensive Summer Institute in Portuguese Language and Culture. However, in order to offer some of the advanced courses, which would have low enrollments, there was a need for special funding. The Camões Institute would not assume this responsibility since the contract with their visiting lecturer was only for the regular school year. Fortunately, members of the Portuguese Education Foundation became aware that the Luso-American Development Foundation (known by the Portuguese acronym of FLAD) of Lisbon might be willing to sponsor such a program. Again, it was the community-based group that wrote the funding proposal and, in what was a fortunate moment, was able to present it directly to the executive director of this foundation while he was on a business trip in California. Soon after the meeting, FLAD awarded a grant of $40,000 to support the first year of implementation.

In its five years of existence, the Summer Institute has continually grown, enrolling 45 students in the summer of 2000. It has also undergone some changes. In its first year, the majority of enrollees were public school teachers who wanted to improve their language skills in Portuguese. Most of these were from a local elementary school which has a Portuguese bilingual program. Thus, the enrollment was mostly in intermediate and advanced courses.

In the third year of the program, a High Intensity Language Training (HILT) component was added. This was to attract students who were entering the California teaching credential program with a Crosscultural, Language and Academic Development (CLAD) emphasis. State law requires that candidates complete a HILT program or one of several other options to obtain the credential. The HILT component has been rapidly growing, enrolling 40 students in the summer session of 2000. All of these students had no previous contact with Portuguese and thus required basic language courses. The five advanced and intermediate students were placed in a combined course, thereby ending the four-year practice of offering separate courses for each group.

The growth in the HILT Portuguese program has encouraged program directors to offer a new option in January of 2001. At this time the University has what is known as a Winter Term. Traditionally, the Portuguese program has offered courses only in the Fall and Spring semesters. In the 2001 Winter Term, a three-week Portuguese HILT will be offered for the first time. Again, it is anticipated that enrollees will be students seeking to obtain teaching credentials.



Portuguese Programs in High Schools and Junior Colleges

The development of the Portuguese Program at the University led to similar developments in area high schools. Originally, only Turlock High School had a Portuguese program. In the last nine years, Hilmar and Los Banos High Schools, which are within driving distance of the university, have also added programs. The program in Tulare High School, which is farther south, has also expanded and new programs have been developed at Tulare Western High School.

It would seem that the program at the university has served to stimulate interest in studying Portuguese at the secondary level. However, the growth in these programs is more complex. In part, they are due to the efforts of the Portuguese Education Foundation to raise the percentage of Portuguese-American students who seek post-secondary education. These efforts have included fundraising for scholarships and efforts to educate parents. Parent education, which originally focused on making them aware of the importance of higher education and on how to pay for it, has also had the secondary effect of empowering the parents to become more involved in their schools and to request programs for their children.

The growth in high school programs is also due to the availability of teachers. In two cases, teachers, who were native speakers of Portuguese, obtained credentials to teach in other areas (there is no program in California to obtain a teaching credential for Portuguese). Once employed, they sought to establish Portuguese programs. Since both were in communities with large concentrations of students of Portuguese descent, they had a group ready to enroll in such programs, thus justifying their existence to school administrators.

Lastly, because the parents of today’s students are becoming more empowered, in part because they are more educated and affluent than their own parents, they are more willing to become involved in the schools and the political processes in their communities. Consequently, they are able to gain approval for programs that are important to the them. In fact, where there are educators of Portuguese ancestry who are willing to join with parents, Portuguese programs have been very successful.

As the university program grew, the local junior college also expanded its program. However, their program has offered courses that are not transferable to the university. Consequently, the enrollees in these courses are mostly professionals who have many Portuguese clients and feel a need to learn their language as a way to maintain or expand their business outreach.

The Center for Portuguese Studies

Parallel, but independent from the development of the Portuguese Studies Program at the University, the Stanislaus County International Exchange Committee was seeking to form a sister-relationship with a region in Portugal. They eventually chose Alentejo because of the topographical and agricultural similarities. Officials from the two regions exchanged visits and decided to ask their regional universities to form a partnership as well. In June 1999, the President of CSU Stanislaus visited the University of Évora to sign a protocol for future student and faculty exchanges. This protocol proved that the Portuguese Studies Program had grown beyond the offering of language courses. This opened the opportunity to create a more extensive program. Again, it was the community that asked for an expanded role. In May, 1999, the Center for Portuguese Studies was formally approved.

The Center has given the Portuguese program higher visibility in the university, which has facilitated efforts to implement other programs. One major accomplishment is the Pedro Alvares Cabral Visiting Scholar. Due to be officially signed on October 9, 2000, this collaboration with the United States Fulbright Commission will bring a Portuguese historian to CSU Stanislaus for the Spring semester of each year to lecture courses on the Age of Discoveries in which Portugal played a prominent role. For the Portuguese Program, this will be the first expansion of courses since the minor was approved seven years ago. It also involves the collaboration with the History Department which is already searching for other ways to integrate Portuguese history into its courses.

The next goal is to obtain approval and funding for ethnic studies courses focusing on the Portuguese-American experience. The university has a major fundraising effort targeting the Portuguese community with the goal of creating an endowment to fund the Center for Portuguese Studies. This is a long-range objective which may take many years to materialize. In the meantime, the Portuguese Education Foundation is once again ready to assume responsibility to subsidize a new ethnic studies course until the enrollment justifies its continuation with university funding.

Key Factors Leading to Success

The success of the Portuguese community is Central California can be attributed to various factors that are detailed below.

Patience - Many of the officers of the Portuguese Education Foundation said jokingly at the beginning, but with some foresight, that it would take ten years to establish the program. It took almost that many to get the Center for Portuguese Studies established. Often, groups which seek to bring about change want instant gratification. Institutional change is slow, and often incremental. Directors of the Foundation were willing to allow the university reasonable time to move proposals through the various levels of decision-making, which helped to establish a collaborative working relationship.

Empowered Professional Contacts - By this it is meant that the members of the community sought to maintain a most professional demeanor in all contacts and communications with the university. There was an understanding on both sides that this project had bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, and that these could seem capricious at times, but both sides were willing to give each other some room to negotiate with their stakeholders. Confidentiality, where appropriate, was strictly maintained. This established trust. However, members of the community did not just accept what was offered to them. They were empowered leaders who could be accommodating and understanding, but knew how to exert influence and gentle pressure when it was necessary.

Development of Networks and Collaboratives - The program, in fact, would not have developed without the collaboration of the Camões Institute of the Government of Portugal nor without the financial support of the FLAD Foundation. The sponsorship of the Fulbright Commission for the visiting scholar was also a direct result of a referral from an American embassy employee who suggested approaching the office in Lisbon, rather than the one in Washington. In fact, Foundation directors have developed an extensive network of contacts both locally and with the government and foundations in Portugal that have been instrumental in obtaining resources for the program.

Community Support - The success of this community is the result of its unity of purpose and of voice in the ten years of this process. While the officers in the Portuguese Education Foundation have changed, the message and the delivery style have remained consistent. Furthermore, the community has been willing to trust in this organization to articulate its message to the university. This has allowed the vision to remain constant over several years, so that programs could develop and become institutionalized. This has convinced university administrators that this group does indeed represent a collective rather than a factional interest.

Building this base of support has been a major achievement for the Foundation. It has been able to do so, in part, because it has avoided some of the self-centered attitudes of other community organizations, has been willing to share the credit with other organizations that support its efforts, has reported its funding sources and expenditures of funds in minute detail to the community, and has been able to obtain results which seemed unattainable.

Financial Support - A trademark of the dealings of the Portuguese community has been its willingness to fund start-up programs until they are established and worthy of university support. This has had the dual effect of getting programs approved much more rapidly and has served to convince the university of the sincerity of the people with whom they are dealing. It has also made it possible to move forward in years when the budget was forcing program cuts.

Celebrations of Successes - The Portuguese Education Foundation hosts an annual fundraising dinner attended by about 400 people, including key university policy-makers . It does not actually raise much money but it is a great success. At the dinner are presented scholarships to the students attending universities and awards to distinguished students, teachers, and community members. An annual report in the dinner program highlights the successes.

Failures are not highlighted in public venues. Focusing on the incremental successes has served to build momentum for future gains. Including an annual report in the program serves to hold everyone accountable, from Foundation directors to university administrators.

Formation of a Non-Profit Organization - Establishing the Portuguese Education Foundation of Central California, and getting its legal recognition, has had many positive consequences for this community. The Foundation made it possible to raise funds exempt from taxes, and to use those funds to support programs, such as scholarships, and pay salaries of lecturers, amongst others uses. The nature of a legal organization also imposed some structure on its members, including record keeping, election of officers, and annual reports. This has been most invaluable in building communication and trust within the community.

Perseverance - Anyone seeking to repeat the efforts of the Portuguese community must be ready to run the equivalent of a marathon. Results did not come quickly. Obstacles surfaced at the most inopportune moments. Leadership changes at the university level made it necessary to educate participants and establish trust anew. Yet, it is evident that this community has had a dogged tenacity in pursuit of its goals.

Hard Work - Simply put, it took much time and effort on the part of the community, especially the directors of the Portuguese Education Foundation, who spent countless hours researching grants and then writing them. They also spent their own money, in many cases, building the networks of supporters for this cause. All this was done on a volunteer basis by people who had other jobs.

Perhaps the hardest work was maintaining a unified focus in the organization. Over the years, membership changed. Personality conflicts sometimes appeared and these could have easily distracted from the goals of the organization. Yet, the directors were able to smooth the differences and focus their energies on the goals.

It was also a difficult task to mobilize a community behind the goals. Portuguese-Americans are not homogenous; there is a diversity of viewpoints. In order to unify this disparate group behind this effort, Foundation directors had to articulate a vision which could obtain wide support. Then, they had to disseminate it amongst the community and continually reinforce it. To do so, it was necessary to use the Portuguese radio stations and newspapers. For a while, the Foundation even had its own radio show, produced and hosted by volunteers. They also wrote stories for the two Portuguese newspapers because each has only one reporter/editor.

Directors have had at least one meeting a month since the inception. They also plan and work at fundraisers. Even with all the effort required, a core group has stayed with the Foundation for its ten years which has contributed to the stability of the organization.

Unity - Several years before, an organization had been established in the Portuguese community of Central California which had similar objectives to the Portuguese Education Foundation. It never obtained widespread support and it soon faltered. Comparing its failure to the current successes, one importance distinction is evident: there is unity of purpose at this time.

Unity in the Portuguese-American community has been elusive. Many times, leaders in organizations have been more interested in building image than on substance. Often, they compete to put on the most expensive festivals or have the best headquarters. Thus, funds are expended for causes that leave no lasting legacy. This is true of many of the festivals organized by community organizations. Once the festival is over, there are no funds for scholarships or for improvement projects.

Regional competitiveness also characterizes the Portuguese community. Members of one parish may not work with members of the other. Residents of one community may not want to support another community.

To counteract these traits, members of the Education Foundation have been very careful to involve leaders from all community organizations in their activities, especially those that bring the most prestige to the community. They have also adopted a policy where they share credit equally with all other organizations for the successes. In fact, it is almost routine practice for the Foundation directors to publicly acknowledge the efforts of all others while failing to take some of the credit.

Regional Focus - Portuguese organizations in California are often tempted to take on causes that are statewide. This has been a fatal flaw which has hampered the effectiveness of many of them. The success of the Portuguese Education Foundation is due to its focus on local issues. Thus, they have been able to make the most of limited resources, especially in time and energy. Consequently, they have been able to show steady process towards their goals. Furthermore, results attained in a small area are much more visible than if they were to be viewed in a statewide perspective.


The case study of the Portuguese-American community of Central California illustrates that a minority community, even an ultraminority, can influence educational organizations to implement programs that it considers importance. The success of this community in a state that in the last decade approved propositions banning services to immigrants and the use of minority languages for instruction in schools is a tribute to its audacity and tenacity.

The results are by no means spectacular but they are significant for several reasons. First, it is one of the few examples where a community has worked directly with a state funded university to implement a minority studies program. Secondly, it involved a comprehensive program to teach Portuguese from community schools through high schools and the university.

It is also significant for what it has done for the community. This was a community that felt unempowered; they did not feel that they could influence social institutions. This experience has shown to its members that they can be a significant force in Central California. An example of this is that ten years ago, no candidate running for public office would court the Portuguese vote. In the last two elections, all candidates from both parties who were running for state office courted the Portuguese community as evidenced by the number of Portuguese language advertisements that ran on the radio and newspapers.

An additional benefit of this process has been the establishment of the Portuguese Education Foundation. It is widely recognized by Portuguese-Americans of Central California as the organization that articulates its aspirations to local institutions. This organization has been able to attain the respect of the government of Portugal and consequently has been able to obtain funding for many of its projects.

Most importantly, this process has given the young generation many more options than were available to their predecessors. They can choose to take language courses and improve their "home" Portuguese. They can choose to learn about the history of their peoples. And they can do so at public institutions just as they can learn about any other ethnic group or language. This has elevated the status not only of their language and culture but also of their people.


California Department of Agriculture (2000). Agricultural Production in California, 1999. Sacramento: Author.

Census Bureau, United States Government. (1990). 1990 Census Data. Retrieved August 9, 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Pap, L. (1992). The Portuguese-Americans. Boston: Portuguese Continental Union of the U. S. A.

Santos, R. L. (1995). Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement. Denair, California: Alley-Cass Publications.