Azorean Life: Part Two


Fabrics were spun by the women on household looms. Men wore pants of linen or coarse wool and a shirt and jacket, and often a skull cap with a tassel on top. Most went barefoot though some wore wooden shoes. Women wore long dresses, made from the same materials as the men’s clothing. Religious customs required widows to wear black for the rest of their lives, including a black-fringed square shawl and a triangular woolen scarf over her head. Women wore black for two or three years in the event of a parent’s death, one year for a brother. Men expressed mourning with simple black armbands, except on Sundays, when they wore black suits. Straw was used to make hats. Cedarwood was used to make galoshes.

Women braided their hair and frequently covered it with a handkerchief. But the most unusual article of clothing was the capote a capello. Perhaps as many as half the women on the islands wore the capote, a large hood and cloak. Usually women from the rural areas wore it, while town women went without. This comment was made by a visitor in the 1870s:

The strangest sight in Horta is the capote of the women, worn alike in summer and in the rainy season: this cloak is of heavy, dark-blue stuff, falling in massive folds to the ankles, and surmounted by a stupendous hood, stiffened with whalebone and buckram, and of astounding shape and size. Some pretty faces may occasionally be discerned under this grotesque guise.

The capote was deep electric blue and made of a strong, heavy, durable cloth, so durable that the garments often lasted long enough to be passed down from mothers to daughters for several generations. Mark Twain described it this way:

Here and there in the doorways we saw women with fashionable Portuguese hoods on. This hood is of thick blue cloth, attached to a cloak of the same stuff, and is a marvel of ugliness. It stands up high and spreads far abroad, and is unfathomably deep. It fits like a circus tent, and a woman’s head is hidden away in it like the man’s who prompts the singers from his tin shed in the stage of an opera. There is no particle of trimming about this monstrous capote, as they call it — it is just a plain, ugly dead-blue mass of sail, and a woman can’t go within eight points of the wind with one of them on; she has to go before the wind or not at all. The general style of the capote is the same in all the islands, and will remain so for the next ten thousand years, but each island shapes its capotes just enough differently from the others to enable an observer to tell at a glance what particular island a lady hails from.

—Innocents Abroad

The capote‘s origins are unclear. It may have been brought to the Azores by the Flemish beguines, a religious group. Another version of the story has the capote coming into use during a sixty-year period (1580–1642) when the Spanish ruled the Azores.


Traditional music of the Azores consisted of songs about love, the joys and trials of life, or saudade (see below) and were usually performed with a guitar-like mandolin. The man of the family would often play and sing after dinner, entertaining the family during evening hours of relaxation. The verses were largely improvised on the spot. Sometimes men turned this improvisation into a competition between performers, called odesafio.

The mandolin was called a viola dos dois coracoes. It had twelve strings and two heart-shaped holes in the body instead of the single hole of a western guitar.

The Portuguese folk dance was called the chamarrita. Similar to other European folk dances and to American square dancing, it involved a caller instructing the dancers on each move. Men and women began the dance in separate lines, then circled and paired off.

Religion and festivals

Almost all Azoreans are Catholic, though the islands have always included Protestant and Jewish communities, too. The islands were established under the religious-militant organization the Order of Christ. Monks, friars, and priests were among the first settlers, and they built churches, chapels, monasteries, and convents.

Catholicism provided solace to Azoreans throughout centuries of crop failures, starvation, and natural disasters. In difficult times, an Azorean would make promises of penance to God or to patron saints by praying at a particular chapel or singing hymns. Yet they also turned to other belief systems in times of crisis, including superstition and pagan witchcraft. They believed in evil spirits, evil eyes, witches, magical potions, and omens. For example, hanging diapers in the moonlight could cause one’s baby to get colic for three months. And it was believed that a piece of deer horn hung around the neck of a newborn would ward off evil spirits until the infant was christened. Other sources of bad luck included a hurt foot; crossed knives at the dinner table; leaving liquid in a cup; and laughing on a Friday. Harbingers of good luck included encountering a goat or frog on the road; a spider spinning a web; or spitting on one’s comb while playing cards.

The Azores are known for annual festas honoring patron saints, Jesus, or the Virgin Mary. Many of these festas originated with promises made by Azoreans to these saints in times of struggle. Some festas originated with miracles. The Festival of Our Lady of Miracles is celebrated on the island of Terceira. It began with a promise made by Azoreans when beseeching the Holy Mother to protect them from an invasion by the Spanish in the 17th century. The most common festa is the Festival of the Holy Spirit, which commemorates the feeding of the poor by St. Elizabeth of Hungary. It includes a coronation, a procession, and a feast. Azoreans carried these traditions with them to their new homelands. Azoreans in many cities and towns in California still hold these festas each year

Another Azorean tradition is a bullfighting, but it is a bloodless form of the sport in which the bull is not killed. The Azores also have their own version of the Spanish running of the bulls, the courage-testing tradition during which bulls are released in the streets and taunted with sticks and umbrellas while men run in front or alongside them. In the Azores, however, rather than let the bulls run free, several men keep loose hold of them via 250-foot cords; this way the animals can be brought under control if things get too dangerous. The event, called a tourado da corda, is not considered dangerous or cruel but rather a joyous affair, a celebration attended by everyone in the town.


Saudade (sow-DAHDJ-eh) is an important concept in all Portuguese cultures, from mainland Portugal to the Azores and Cape Verde to Brazil. The word has no English equivalent and can not be easily translated, though it is often described as a deep yearning for someone or something that is lost forever, or for something that never existed and can never be attained. Though sometimes equated with nostalgia or homesickness, neither word conveys saudade’s emotional depth.

Many cultures have similar concepts — for example, mono no aware (Japanese); sehnsucht (German); hireth (Welsh); dor (Romanian) — but saudade is unique, in part because of the extent to which it  permeates the Portuguese culture. It has become a sort of cultural trademark, almost a way of life. It is a sentiment that binds Portuguese people together and helps stamp them with their cultural identity. The theme appears frequently in their music, literature, poetry, and art. And one of the highest compliments a Portuguese can pay to someone is to say, “muitas saudades.”

Historian A.F.G. Bell wrote in his 1912 book In Portugal:

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.

In the sixteenth century, during the Age of Exploration, saudade described the emotions of the women and children left behind when Portuguese adventurers set sail for distant and unknown lands, possibly never to return. It not only spoke to the sense of loss over departed husbands, fathers, friends, and brothers, but also the emotions stirred by the prospect of never learning of their lost loved ones’ ultimate fate. Over time the word also was applied to those who sailed, describing their emotions regarding the loss of their homes, families, and country, and the uncertainty surrounding the possibility of return. A third meaning stemming from this era was born when saudade came to encompass  the people’s collective memory of the Age of Exploration as Portugal’s “golden era,” for soon afterward the country’s status and influence as an international economic and colonial power began a long, steady decline.

Later still, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the word became associated with Azorean emigres who abandoned the islands due to various cultural, economic, and societal stressors. Poverty and the difficult lives of these working-class people made it unlikely that they would ever return. Many carried with them the sense of a lost Eden, of a forced departure from an idyllic homeland.

Saudade today is more broadly defined. It has come to mean a deep yearning for virtually anything that is lost, or even something that never was — for dead loved ones, for old acquaintances, for old customs and ways of life, or for notions of home or family that were never attained and never could be; for unrequited love, or for experiences and relationships one never had but for which one still holds out hope even in the face of futility. It has also been described as a melancholic feeling of incompleteness or emptiness, or the love that remains after someone is gone. One writer described it as the emotion that would lead a parent to maintain a dead child’s bedroom exactly as the child left it.

Saudade can describe the feeling between two people who are together, expressing a sadness that their relationship now is not the same as it once was. That doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship has declined or come to an end, just that it has changed. For instance, a happy older couple may use saudade to describe the wistful memory of their early years together. Adult siblings may use it to describe the loss of their shared childhood.

At its root saudade is a sort of mourning for the fact that life is always changing, that nothing is permanent. It expresses a longing and sadness over what is gone, but with the full realization and acceptance of the fact that everything in life is temporary and fleeting. It can even include paradox: The word can contain both the sadness of loss and the joy that can come from the acceptance of fate; it can contain the wistful remembrance of things past along with the optimism that something else may come along to fill the void; it simultaneously contains acceptance of and resistance to the impermanence of life.

The Azores today

Modern electricity systems and conveniences like refrigeration did not arrive in the Azores until the 1970s. These transformed life on the islands in fundamental ways. Many foods that previously had to be grown and prepared in the home could be purchased at supermarkets. Meat no longer needed to be consumed shortly after slaughter, changing not only family habits but also some traditions and rituals surrounding festivals and feasts. Technology made communication with the world outside the islands easier and more timely. Today Internet access is fairly widespread and reliable.

Yet in many other ways, the Azores have changed little since the 19th century. Education still is not a high priority — Portugal has never supported much public education — though schooling is available for those interested. Traditional music and instrumentation are still in practice. Catholicism remains enormously important, though many of the superstitions mentioned above persist.

Today tourism is the islands’ major industry. Whale and dolphin watching and, in recent years, diving have also become significant industries. Cheese is the islands’ only major product. The capote faded from use in the 1930s, and clothing has become more modern. Retail shops and restaurants still are discreet, announcing themselves only with small signs or, often, no signs at all. Old-world craftsmen can still be found constructing cobblestones, crafting musical instruments, and making other local products and necessities. The basic Azorean diet has not changed dramatically since the 1800s, though a wider array of foods are available and are not as limited by season.




  • A History of the Azores, Volume V, James H. Guill, Golden Shield Publications, Tulare, Calif., 1993.
  • And Yet They Come: Portuguese Immigration from the Azores to the United States, Jerry R. Williams, Center for Migration Studies, New York, 1982.
  • Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement, Robert L. Santos, Alley-Cass Publications, Denair, Calif., 1995.
  • Azores, David Sayers, Bradt, 2010.