By: RAY HENRY
In 1924, Diario de Noticias, the largest influential Portuguese-language newspaper in the United States, denounced a sociologist who investigated the high infant death rate among Portuguese mill workers in New England, including whether their darker skin was to blame.
By the time the newspaper closed in 1973, those immigrants and their children were moving on from their jobs in the textile mills, had fought for their new country on battlefields around the world and elected their own candidates to political office.
Now more than 84,000 pages from the only U.S.-based Portuguese-language daily newspaper to consistently publish during the period has been preserved in a searchable, online archive available for free to the public. It’s believed to be the largest effort undertaken to preserve an ethnic newspaper, said Frank Sousa, director of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture.
“The reason why that newspaper became an obsession for me was that it was the single most important document on Portuguese-American history, particularly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island,” Sousa said.
Immigrants from the Portuguese Azores Islands and Cape Verde first arrived in New Bedford on whaling ships when the bustling port city, the setting of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” dispatched crews across the world to hunt whales and bring back their oil.
Guilherme Luiz, a businessman who arrived with a second wave of immigrants in the 1880s who came to work in the region’s textile mills, purchased a weekly newspaper in 1919 and turned it into a daily publication printing Monday to Saturday. In 1927, he renamed it “Diario de Noticias,” known as the “Portuguese Daily News” among English speakers.
Sousa estimates the newspaper had a circulation of more than 20,000, though business documents that would prove the circulation have been lost. While it primarily served the Portuguese community concentrated in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island — still the largest in the country — its circulation stretched via mail across the country.
“This newspaper circulates all over the United States, wherever the Portuguese reside, specially in New England States and California,” its banner read in English.
Correspondents for the newspaper covered Portuguese communities in California, New York, Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island, to name a few. Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar censored the media during his reign from 1932-1968, but Salazar’s supporters and critics could debate freely in the pages of the New Bedford newspaper, which employed journalists exiled by his regime, Sousa said.
Immigrants loyal to Salazar once urged the firing of a newspaper editor who criticized the regime. The paper was banned in Portugal for its political coverage, said Manuel Calado, who served as editor starting in the early 1950s. He stayed on the job until the paper closed in 1973.
“The paper was against the dictatorship,” Calado said. “We were democrats.”
Besides summarizing world news from sources including The New York Times, the newspaper also reported on Prohibition, happenings from local Roman Catholic parishes, recent arrivals by ship, immigration debates in Washington, local politics and business. John F. Kennedy visited the newspaper’s office to seek support during his first run for the U.S. Senate, as did his brother Edward.
“It was the only source of information at the time,” Calado said. “There was no radio, no television, nothing. And the people couldn’t read an English newspaper.”
The newspaper finally shut after its owner became ill but was survived by two local successors, the Portuguese Times and O Jornal.
The University of Massachusetts inherited its archives, which were yellowing and decaying, Sousa said. Those contents are now available to the public for free and can be searched by keyword, making the collection easy to use for historians, sociologists, language experts and genealogists studying the Portuguese Diaspora.
Digitizing the collection cost more than $130,000, a cost offset by grants from the Autonomous Region of the Azores, among others. Shortly after the Web site started, Sousa received an e-mail from Carlos Cesar, president of the region, who said he spent hours searching for stories about family and friends who immigrated.
“We have the only run of the paper that exists,” Sousa said. “If that paper had disappeared, if it had deteriorated beyond use … it would be 84,000 pages of American history that would have disappeared forever.”