Portuguese and Lusophone World Studies in Newark
A bridge to academic strength and ties to the Portuguese community
Archived article from Nov 3, 2003
By Melissa Payton
Rutgers-Newark is quickly becoming a national center of Portuguese scholarship. For four decades, the Ironbound community near campus has been a focus of Portuguese immigration, so much so that today it has one of the country’s highest concentrations of Portuguese-Americans.
Since fall 2000, the Newark campus has responded to student and community interest by offering a minor in Portuguese and Lusophone World Studies. (Lusophone means “Portuguese speaking.”) That minor proved so successful that the university upgraded it this fall to a major, adding Rutgers-Newark to the handful of campuses nationwide to boast such a program. Enrollment in Newark’s Portuguese studies courses — 120 students this semester, for example — is the largest in the state.
The new major was celebrated Oct. 13 with a campus visit from the president of Portugal’s respected Camões Institute, who also helped to inaugurate the institute’s new Portuguese Language Center in the Dana Library. The language center is the institute’s first in North America, offering educational, language and cultural resources, workshops and conferences.
“With this new major, we’re identifying our constituency here in Newark,” said Edward Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in Newark. “We’re reaching out to the community and at the same time serving the educational needs of our students.” Under the agreement with Camões, the Portuguese institute sent António Augusto Joel to teach in Newark as a visiting assistant professor. Joel serves as Camões Institute Leitor. (“Leitor,” literally “reader” in Portuguese, is an honorific for a scholar who is also an official representative of the Portuguese government.)
The program’s other full-time faculty member is Assistant Professor Kimberly DaCosta Holton, who is also the program coordinator. Rutgers hired DaCosta Holton, an urban ethnographer with an interdisciplinary background in Portuguese language and culture, in 2000 after a nationwide search.
The new major, as well as the Portuguese Language Center, were developed in collaboration with the Lisbon-based Camões Institute, which seeks to establish an international network of learning centers for the promotion of Portuguese culture and language. The interdisciplinary program boasts 19 courses in language, Portuguese and Brazilian literature, music, culture, film and Portuguese for business and commerce. Students can also participate in an oral history project on the Ironbound, internships at Newark’s Portuguese consulate and other area offices, and summer studies in Portugal.
“The driving force behind the major, in terms of supply and demand, is the students we have here,” said DaCosta Holton. “You don’t have that in any other place in New Jersey — possibly in the country — in terms of the density of the Portuguese-speaking population and the incredible diversity within that population itself.”
The language is the sixth most used in the world today, spoken in such former Portuguese colonies as Brazil, Angola and Mozambique, in addition to the European continent. Portuguese immigrants to Newark in the 1960s through the 1980s mostly came from the continent, with Brazilian Portuguese arriving in large numbers in the mid-’90s.
Most of her students are first- and second-generation Portuguese-Americans, DaCosta Holton said, although two are from Brazil. The Rutgers–Newark program has carved out a niche by teaching Portuguese as it is spoken on the continent; the New Brunswick campus, which began offering a Portuguese studies major a few years ago, is more oriented toward Brazilian Portuguese, she said. “Knowledge of English and Portuguese is a huge plus in the job market,” DaCosta Holton said, “and I think students realize that. Portuguese is starting to be taught in the public schools, mostly in the Ironbound, but increasingly in a wide circle. There are also businesses that conduct a vast amount of business in Portuguese.”
Many students are motivated by a desire to learn more about their parents’ and grandparents’ culture and to stay closer to Portuguese-speaking family members. Susete Cesário graduated last spring from Rutgers–Newark with a double major in history and Portuguese. Her family moved to the Ironbound from Portugal when she was 9 years old, and now she hopes to enter a graduate program and eventually teach Portuguese at the college level.
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