Connect to share and comment

Back to the Azores: a brand-new world

The reverse flow of migration to this small chain of Portuguese islands is a modern marvel.

NORDESTE, San Miguel, Portugal — Danny Medeiros rests on his pilgrim’s staff as a silver Lexus skims over fresh pavement through the lush volcanic coast south of the town of Nordeste.

“This place looks nothing like the place I left,” says the 48-year-old building contractor from Hamilton, Ontario. Born here on San Miguel, Medeiros left the Azores for Canada when he was 11. He has returned with a group of fellow emigres for an eight-day religious pilgrimage around the island.

“I remember kicking up clouds of dust on this very road,” he says, two rosaries around his neck rising and falling with his breath. “I remember walking three or four miles every day after school to search for firewood. I remember villages without cars and families without food.”

Long the poorest region in one of Europe’s poorest countries, the Azores have recently leapfrogged into affluence. Set in the Atlantic Ocean 1,000 miles from Lisbon, the nine-island archipelago now enjoys per capita GDP levels approaching those of continental Europe.

New highways, roads and bridges — fruit of Portugal’s 1986 entry into the European Union — shorten the distance between Nordeste and Ponta Delgada, the islands' capital, from half a day to just over an hour. Modern airports on all nine islands put Lisbon, London and Madrid within two hours reach, and Boston and Montreal at just over five. Virtual distances have been shortened as well, with solid internet access, satellite television and a robust mobile phone network.

Horses in a barn in the Azores
Azores farmers struggle to compete in Europe.
(Ken Shulman/GlobalPost)

“We are not isolated as we once were,” said Pedro Moura, a journalist in Ponta Delgada who hosts Bom Dia Acores, the regional morning television news broadcast. “We can live and work here as we might live in Lisbon, or Paris, or London.”

Life wasn’t always so connected here. First settled by Portugal in the 1500s, the isolated backwater subsisted on whaling, fishing and tenant farming. Frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions — both products of the massive tectonic seam on which the islands perch — made a harsh life even harsher, and fueled a deep, fatalistic form of Catholicism that persists both in the Azores and in their broad diaspora. Migrants fled starvation in massive waves, first as crews on whaling ships, then to work in Californian dairies, Hawaiian pineapple plantations and New England textile mills. Between 1950 and 1990, 182,000 Azoreans — nearly half the region’s population — left their homeland.