Cultural Events as Sustainable Economic Development: Portuguese Festivals in S.E. Massachusetts

Together South Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island contain the largest concentration of Lusophone (Portuguese speaking) people in the U.S.A. Nearly 380,000 people in the region are of Portuguese heritage, mostly from the Azores, more than 250,000 people in the region trace their heritage to Cape Verde and nearly 200,000 people in the two states are of Brazilian heritage. We are the only state in the U.S. where the second most spoken language other than English is not Spanish; it’s Portuguese. One of our local favorite Portuguese-American sons, Emeril Lagasse, is from Fall River, Massachusetts. Our favorite local group is Tavares, the R&B giants from New Bedford. We eat linguiça, chouriço, malassadas and tons of seafood including polvo grelhado (grilled octopus). On weekend nights you can find live fado in some of the restaurants and in the spring smell sardinhas assadas (grilled sardines) in the streets.

The University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth has one of the top Portuguese language programs in the country, a Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, the Ferreira- Mendes Portuguese American Archives and offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in Portuguese, a Master of Arts in Portuguese Studies and a Ph.D. in Luso-Afro-Brazilian Studies and Theory.

There are two major Portuguese heritage events held annually within the region: The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford and the Great Feast of the Holy Ghost of New England in Fall River. Both draw visitors from the U.S., Canada and abroad. The former is billed as the largest festival of Madeiran heritage and culture in the world and has an annual attendance in excess of 100,000 visitors. The latter is one of the largest festivals of Azorean heritage and culture in the world and attracts over 200,000 people annually. Both events provide a huge economic boost to the regional economy.

The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament – Festa Do Santíssimo Sacramento

Since its beginning in 1915, this feast has celebrated the rich culture of the Portuguese people and in particular the heritage of the people of Madeira, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean. Featuring the culture of Madeira, highlights of the feast include great food (including a pit over which 5 foot skewers of beef are roasted – bring $10 for a rental deposit on the skewer and your own seasoning and vegetables), the single biggest distribution in sales of famous Madeira Wine, live music and folkloric dancing, carnival rides and a wicked good time. The Feast was highlighted in the movie Passionada (2002) as was much of the scenery of New Bedford and Dartmouth. The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament begins this Thursday evening (29 July 2010), culminating with a 10 pm free concert by the band Berlin featuring one of my favorite singers, Terri Nunn. The Feast ends on Sunday with a parade that begins at 2 pm.

The Great Feast of the Holy Ghost of New England – Grandes Festas do Divino Espírito Santo da Nova Inglaterra

From Thursday night, 26 August through Monday, 30 August, Fall River celebrates all things Azorean, from the Portas da Cidade to Kennedy Park on South Main Street. This five day Portuguese cultural event features food, entertainment, fireworks, classic car displays, blessings processions and parades. On Friday, there is a blessing and distribution of “pensões”, containing meat, wine and bread. On Saturday morning, a traditional “Bodo de Leite” departs from the Portas da Cidade processing towards Kennedy Park. On Sunday, after “Missa Solene de Coroação” (Solemn Mass) at Saint Anne’s Church, watch a religious procession that includes local and Azorean dignitaries, numerous Mordomias and marching bands from the Azores. Attendees come from the U.S., Azores, Portugal, Canada and Bermuda to celebrate their Azorean heritage including music, dancing and incredible food.

Economic Impact

Conservatively, assuming that each attendee spends an average of $20 at the venue the economic impact of the two events is impressive: $2 million in New Bedford and $4 million in Fall River. These figures don’t include hotel and restaurant receipts in the region related to the influx of tourists (including via motor coach from Toronto). Estimates of hotel and restaurant spending range from $500k to $3 million (many of the visitors stay with family). Regardless of the estimates used, there is no disputing the positive economic impact that the cultural events have on our regional economy: an influx of over $8 million.

If you have some free time this weekend and want to experience exotic tastes, Portuguese culture and general merriment, please consider attending the Feast of the Blessed Sacrament in New Bedford. Can’t make it? Then plan for the Great Feast of the Holy Ghost of New England in Fall River at the end of August. Either way, you win (and so do we).

Com muito prazer, Estêvão Branco

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One thought on “Cultural Events as Sustainable Economic Development: Portuguese Festivals in S.E. Massachusetts”

  1. Celebrations of cultural connections bring immediate economic impact in the form of spending from visitors outside an area, as this article explains. In addition, money re-circulates within the community if the region has done a good job of preserving or growing unique locally owned businesses, as opposed to being overgrown with franchises. A more subtle economic benefit may be simply the intra-cultural networking, which might lead to joint enterprises. The cross-cultural conversations between the Portuguese and non-Portuguese elements of the local population also are a win for community dialogue about opportunities and challenges. Every region with a significant ethnic festival should be paying attention.

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