PEABODY — Kyle Sousa isn't a typical 10-year old. While maybe too young to fully realize it, he's straddling separate worlds.
"Pretty much my whole family, they don't really speak English," he said, standing shyly in the lobby of Our Lady of Fatima Church, a Portuguese church on Walsh Avenue. Sousa's family resettled in Peabody from Portugal when he was just 9 months old. He speaks English easily and without an accent. But, he says, despite now living in a predominately English-speaking land, it's important for him to speak, read and write his parent's native language well. He is, after all, a much-needed family translator.
For more than 30 years Portuguese children like Sousa have been meeting on evenings throughout the school year to learn more about their family's heritage. The group meets Tuesday and Wednesday evenings throughout the school year at Our Lady of Fatima Church. It had met for more than a decade at the Thomas Carroll Elementary, but was forced to move this year due to new fees the school district began charging outside groups to use its buildings.
Though the faces and meeting places have changed a lot over three decades, the mission has not.
It's about "keeping the language and culture alive," said Ivone Barreto, who along with Rosa Romano is a co-director of the Portuguese language and culture program in Peabody.
"Culture, language and history — that's something everyone should know," says Maria DaSilva, one of the program's three teachers, and the mother of two graduates of the program. "If we don't know who we are, how can we accept others?"
Evolved with the times
Peabody is home to nearly 40,000 people of Portuguese descent, and an increasing number of Brazilians, who are also Portuguese speakers. The influx of immigrants hit an apex from the 1950s through the 1970s, Barreto said. They came to the city to seek jobs in tanneries and factories and once the first wave planted roots, it became a natural destination for other friends and family seeking a better life.
The Portuguese program in Peabody began in the late 1970s. The private organization at first was a kind of club — a place for Portuguese youth to meet and fine-tune their language and knowledge of the mother country.
After so many years in the community, it seems almost every student and teacher now in the program, has a parent, sibling or child who also attended.
"My older brother came here," said 12-year-old Sophia Avelino. Her younger brother, 11-year old David, is also a student. Both are eager to learn more Portuguese.
"I want to be able to speak to my grandparents," Avelino said.
Barreto, now director, was a student of the program back in the early 1980s.
"When I was a kid, (the program) was like a social network, everybody knew everybody," she said. "It was obviously bigger back then. It was first generation, the kids spoke it and the parents were interested in keeping that alive. Now, most parents speak English at home — immigration is not as intense as it was before. So it's a different challenge. Before we were fine-tuning it, now we're exposing it to them. The program has evolved with the times."
Students begin the Portuguese program in second grade and usually attend until middle school. This year, about 25 students, ranging from age 6 to 14, attend the program. As late as 1996 enrollment was double what it is now.
"It gets harder and harder, as people assimilate, to get people interested and keep it going," Berreto admitted.
"Our numbers have come down a little, but we keep plugging along," Romano said.
The students who trickled into Our Lady of Fatima Church for class last week range significantly, from first generation students like Sousa, to children whose parents speak little or no Portuguese at home.
"My husband doesn't speak Portuguese, I speak very little. My son wants to learn because he wants to be able to speak with his cousins," said Noelia Murphy, the mother on an 11-year student in the program. "I thought it would be, 'I don't want to go' but he was really excited about it. I was kind of surprised by that."
All of the students were eagerly answering questions and working diligently in notebooks during class last week. They actually seemed happy to be there doing extra school work.
"It's always good to know a second language. I use a second language at work all the time," said Clara Santos, a native of Portugal, and a fluent speaker who has two children in the program.
Santos's husband doesn't speak Portuguese and consequently the family mostly speaks English at home. But she doesn't want her children to forget where she came from.
"I think it's a good thing for the community and the Portuguese," she said.
The Peabody Portuguese program's schedule typically aligns with the school year, with classes beginning sometime in September. But this year the first class wasn't held until last Tuesday because of the uncertainty surrounding the location, said Ivone Barreto, the director.
For more than a decade, the program had met at the Thomas Carroll Elementary School at 60 Northend St. It was forced to move to Our Lady of Fatima Church on Walsh Avenue this year when the cash-strapped school district began charging for outside organizations to use its buildings.
"They're asking $1,500 for the year, and we couldn't afford it. We only charge parents $50 every two months," Barreto said. Before this school year, the program was using space in the Carroll school free of charge.
The new energy fee is a $50 flat rate for each time an organization uses a school building during a time when school is not in session. The Peabody School Committee adopted the fees this year to help the school district offset the expense of heating and lighting the building. A few youth programs, including Peabody Youth Football & Cheer and the Peabody Basketball Association, have already been hit hard by the new fees. The basketball program is on the hook for almost $10,000 more than it paid last year to use the school buildings.
Carroll School Principal Cara Murtagh did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"I don't think there will be a lot of difficulties with the move, but we will miss that classroom environment," Barreto said. "Luckily Father (Christopher) Gomes (at Our Lady of Fatima Church) was very welcoming. When we asked him he was ready and willing, no questions asked. But we will definitely miss being in an education facility."