Troubling times for the Portuguese community

AS beef sizzles on barbecue skewers, children run around the stalls and adults sip sangria at the People’s Park, an onlooker would be forgiven for thinking all is well with the Island’s Portuguese community.

Manuela Santos, the office and house manager at St Thomas’ Church and administrator for all Portuguese church affairs in Jersey
Manuela Santos, the office and house manager at St Thomas’ Church and administrator for all Portuguese church affairs in Jersey

The annual Portuguese Food Festival has been in full swing for two days now, but behind the smiles there is an undercurrent of sadness running through the community.

Last week, a large 200-year-old oak tree collapsed onto a group of worshippers at a religious festival in Madeira, killing 13 people and injuring 49. Several wildfires have swept through mainland Portugal this summer, killing more than 60 people.

And in Venezuela, where another large Portuguese population resides, there is a full-blown humanitarian crisis. An unprecedented rate of inflation – 700 per cent – and a severe shortage of basic goods in the South American country has seen the level of child mortality rise by 30 per cent in the past year.

‘Most Portuguese-speaking people in Jersey have a family member, relation or close friend in Venezuela,’ says Manuela Santos, the office and house manager at St Thomas’ Catholic Church in town.

‘We need to help Portuguese people in Venezuela who are starving – especially children – and the people who urgently need medical aid.’

In an effort to help, the Jersey branch of Catholic charity Caritas this weekend was due to launch its ‘A light for Venezuela’ fundraising appeal, with candles being sold at the food festival for £1 each from 3 pm to 10 pm today and tomorrow.

‘We have 5,000 candles and we are going to raise as much money as we can,’ says Miss Santos, who is also the Catholic Church’s administrator for all Portuguese church affairs in Jersey.

‘All the funds will go straight to Caritas Venezuela – they are the ones out in the field and they know who among the Portuguese population is in most need of what.’

Miss Santos says Caritas Portugal had intended to launch the appeal in its own country this month, but the fires in mainland Portugal have forced it to focus on helping those at home.

‘Caritas Portugal was supposed to launch the appeal, but they could not start it due to the fact that we had so many disasters in Portugal this summer. It has been terrible, most of the country has been burnt and because of this, the centre of the country is completely black.

‘And there was also the tragedy concerning the deaths and injuries caused by the ancient tree which fell during the Festa de Nossa Senhora do Monte in Madeira.

‘Caritas Portugal asked us to launch the Venezuela appeal in Jersey, even though they cannot do it themselves right at this moment.’

According to Portuguese media, residents in Madeira claimed that the trunk of the ancient tree was hollow and that two steel cables had been used to hold it up, before it collapsed.

However, Paulo Cafôfo, the mayor of Funchal, disputed the allegations and said the tree was healthy, on private land and that no complaints regarding the state of the tree had been received.

‘I think [people want to know] who to blame because someone should have checked the security of that ancient tree,’ says Miss Santos.

‘One group of people have blamed another group of people, and they in turn have blamed others, but I hope they can get to the bottom of this because it was a terrible thing to have happened – and it shouldn’t have happened.’

She says people also want answers about the death of Ana Rebelo, the 51-year-old Portuguese woman who was found dead in her home at 10 Victoria Street on Tuesday 4 April – almost five months ago.

A post-mortem examination found that she died from ‘compression to the neck by a third party’.

The police have called the investigation ‘complex’, and earlier this week, a 25-year-old man who was arrested on suspicion of her murder, was released without charge. A 58-year-old man, who was originally arrested in April, remains on police bail.

‘I knew Ana from the church,’ says Miss Santos. ‘In 2009, not speaking much English, she needed to speak with somebody in Portuguese so she came to me.’

She adds: ‘The investigation has been going on since April, it’s been very extensive and they’ve not got to a conclusion yet.

‘For her sisters to not have an answer yet is very frustrating, and they are anxious for this to have an end. They want answers.’

Having taken up the position as the Catholic Church’s administrator for Portuguese church affairs in Jersey in 1999, Miss Santos has been at the very heart of its community for 18 years.

‘I arrived in the summer of that year and in November, after Monsignor Father Nicholas France came across from the UK to be the Island’s Catholic Dean, I began working for Father France,’ explains Miss Santos, who is responsible for drawing up all of the marriage documents and baptism certificates for the Portuguese in Jersey.

‘I write the marriage certificates in English and translate them into Portuguese because most Portuguese people living in Jersey return to Portugal to get married.

‘They want to get married with all their family around them, so they need the certificates translated into Portuguese and sent back to their diocese in Portugal.’

Miss Santos says her decision to come to Jersey was prompted by the death of her father.

‘I wanted a change. My dad, who I was very close to, died 21 years ago and sometime after, I decided to move from Portugal. I did not want to live in a big city in Britain and I knew Jersey had a big Portuguese community, so I decided to come here.’

She is in good company – more than 10,000 Portuguese reside in the Island.

Asked why Jersey has proved to be such an attractive destination for her countrymen and women, she adds: ‘The Portuguese from Madeira feel good in this Island because they were living in an island before.

‘For the Portuguese from the mainland, what attracts them are the jobs they can have. People from my country generally fit in well wherever they go in the world.’

Although the Portuguese have made an overwhelmingly positive contribution to the Island ever since they started arriving here in the 1960s to work in the tourism and agricultural industries, Miss Santos believes many are not treated equally when it comes to the issue of housing.

‘Rents are too high, many Portuguese people – and many foreigners in general – don’t have enough space in the places they rent here, and some places shouldn’t be rented out for any money.

‘Most of the properties that myself and Father France have seen are horrible, and some people can’t put the radiator on in the winter because they can’t afford to pay for the heating.

‘It should be a fairer system where people can rent at affordable prices and you always have a decent place to live – not damp or dark.’

She would like to see members of her own community run for election, but believes political apathy prevents them from taking affirmative action.

‘Somebody has to do something. We have leaders in the Portuguese community who could apply and run for elections to become Deputies or Senators and make some difference for the community over issues of housing, but people accept how Jersey is.’

Despite the difficulties that some Portuguese people and other nationalities have faced here, Miss Santos is quite prepared to praise Jersey for its multiculturalism.

‘What I find amazing about Jersey is that when you are walking into town, you hear lots of different languages – it is like you are travelling throughout the world while you are walking to the supermarket. It proves it doesn’t matter where people come from, they can live in harmony together.’

And the willingness of the Portuguese to welcome others into their community is clear to see at their annual food festival in the People’s Park.

‘The Portuguese mix with anybody so when they hold an event, British people, Italians, Spanish and Filipinos all go to it. The festival includes everybody and it brings people together.’

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