I hadn’t been in Escamil a week when I learned our reputation had preceded me to California. I was visiting a ranch. The rancher was showing me around. He was proud of his fields, his crops, his animals.
“I’ve got some goats over that rise over there,” he said. “You want to take a look at them?”
“Sure,” I said.
We were standing in a field. We started walking across the field toward a barbed-wire fence. I looked ahead. I could see there was no gate. I felt some anxiety. The fence was too high for us to go over the top. We would have to squeeze through between the upper and middle strands of barbed wire. The problem was I was wearing my best clothes. The only decent suit coat I owned was on my back. I could see myself getting snagged on the barbed wire with a resulting tear in my coat. I took my coat off.
I couldn’t help saying, “You don’t have a gate, do you?”
“We got a gate,” he said.
I looked again. I couldn’t see one.
We came up to the fence, up to a heavy wooden post. This post was dug into the ground, but attached to it was a much lighter post and this post was not dug into the ground. It was joined to the anchored post with a noose of wire at the top and another at the bottom. The rancher pulled the top noose up and off and raised the lightweight post out of the bottom noose, and voilà! We now had an opening, or a gate, if you please. The lightweight post was free to move and the barbed wire which was attached to it was very flexible, as good as hinges.
How clever, I thought. How ingenious.
“We call this a Portagee gate,” the rancher said, laughing.
I gave a start. It was as if I had been unmasked. My immediate suspicion was that he was needling me. But I knew he couldn’t have been. There was no way he could have known I was Portuguese. I had traveled three thousand miles across the country, trying to outrun that word, and here it was, waiting for me. It was like our soldiers in World War II who would be sent to the ends of the earth and when they got there, there would be a sign waiting for them, “Kilroy was here.”
It was eerie. I was out West on an isolated ranch. The last word I expected to hear was “Portagee.” I had thought all the Portuguese were in the mill towns of Massachusetts. I hadn’t known there were a certain number of Portuguese living in California, working in dairies and on ranches. And they had obviously made an impression here.
I knew what that rancher meant. If I could have gone into his mind, I knew what he would have said: “We call this a Portagee gate because the Portagees are too tight to spend any money and do the job right. All you’d have to do is buy a little hardware and a little lumber and you could build a good gate, but the Portagees won’t do that. They won’t spend a nickel if they can avoid it. They slap something together, instead of doing the job right.”
Yes, they make do with what they have. That could be the Portuguese creed.
"Both comedic and comic, Da Gama, Cary Grant, and the Election of 1934 gives us a full and generous picture of a time and place that now exist because of words on a page, populated by individualized characters and characteristic incidents.
Frank X. Gaspar
"And Reis Felix, in his novel of vignettes, brings the Portuguese to life with wit and humor, and above all, with an eye for telling detail that any American writer—of any ethnicity—should envy. This book captures the nature of immigrant New Bedford in a way that will make it relevant and entertaining reading for decades to come!"
Llewellyn Howland III
"In his wonderful new novel, the octogenarian writer (and New Bedford native) Charles Reis Felix tells what it was like to be young and proud and poor and Portuguese in the city in 1934, while a quartet of ethnic Americans (including the Yankee incumbent) duke it out in a wild mayoral election. Generously observed, vividly drawn, and beautifully realized, the fictional city that the author evokes is a New Bedford to celebrate for all its faults—and to read about time and time again."
"Through a Portagee Gate is a plain-spoken, down-to-earth account of an American voyage, rich in fable, anecdote, and wit."
Frank X. Gaspar
"Through a Portagee Gate is a valuable document, a record, a history, an autobiography, a memoir, an elegy."
Llewellyn Howland III
"Through a Portagee Gate is the story of two men told with novelistic brilliance."
"Reading much like a novel, with its rich detail and emotive content, Through a Portagee Gate offers a profound look into the Portuguese immigrant psyche. . . ."
"Felix's is one of the most honest, unforgettable memoirs of the war I've read."
Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.
"This is absolutely the best volume I've ever read on the GI in World War II."
Edwin P. Hoyt
"Albeit the memoir tells largely of fear, death, mud, and other vicissitudes, it is laced with ribald soldier humor. . . ."
"For anyone wanting to know how it felt to participate in the events of World War II, this memoir is highly recommended."
"Extensive reconstructed conversations. . . lend authenticity and immediacy to Felix's account. . . ."
"His recollections of this paramount experience in his young life are vibrant, hilarious, descriptive. . . ."