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What role did race have in the integration of retornados?

By Cláudia Coelho


· Historical introduction:


One can easily say that the Portuguese Empire (“Império do Ultramar”) was one of the greatest colonial forces still standing in the mid 20th century. From South America to Oceania, the majority of the Portuguese colonies were in Africa, resulting in a vast Portuguese legacy, nowadays: Lusofonia. The Portuguese colonies in Africa were: Angola, Cape Verde, Guiné-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe.


The Portuguese colonial war started in 1961 only to end in 1974. Due to the fascist dictatorship that the country was experiencing for almost 40 years, Portugal was, at that time, one of the last nations with a colonial empire still standing. António de Oliveira Salazar, the then dictator Head of State, considered the overseas territories not as colonies, but as an extension of the national territory. As a result, many Portuguese families saw a window of opportunity here, and left for Africa, to try their luck on building a new life. My grandparents belonged to this group.


In the 50s, my family settled down in Angola, where they created their own business. My father and my aunt were born there and, despite having a Portuguese passport, they never knew the metropolis during their childhood. Like my family, throughout the Portuguese overseas territory, national families settled, founded their businesses and raised their children overseas. They did not return to Portugal. However, in 1961, everything changed.


Freedom movements, both of Africans and Portuguese colonists, claimed the independence of the colonies from the Portuguese State, an independence that Salazar was not willing to grant so easily. And this is how the Portuguese colonial war began, turning sons against parents, brothers against brothers, families against families. This conflict was the main cause of the “coup d'État” on April 25th, 1974, which ended with this war. Finally, the independence of the colonial territories, between August 1974 and November 1975 (except for Macau and Timor), integrated and reinforced the great transformation that Portugal went through after the revolutionary military movement.



According to the 1981 census, around 505,000 Portuguese were said to have returned to the Metropolis due to this decolonization. Portugal, which was obliged to welcome them, was a politically and economically unstable country, not prepared to receive generations of nationals and Africans who had barely been to the metropolis before. For many returnees, leaving Africa meant leaving their home countries: even with a Portuguese passport, what was Portugal, if not the distant metropolis that they had heard of in stories and classes, but had never seen with their own eyes? Leaving their homeland and the amenities of a safe life with nothing but a travel bag into the unknown, was the new reality.


Retornados is the word used to refer to the white Portuguese living in the African colonies, who were repatriated to Portugal. But Africans who stood beside the colonialist movements, or simply African families who felt unsafe in Africa, took this chance of boarding in the many airplanes serving as a “rescue bridge” between the crumbling empire and Lisbon, to pursue a new life in the metropolis.

Black or white, those who arrived in Portugal were looked at sideways, nicknamed as “slavers” and the misconception that they had come to steal homes and jobs from the Portuguese who had never left the country was quickly spread. The English translation, “returnees”, also lacks the both harsh and melancholic connotation given to this new word in the in the country's vocabulary, just as if one is referring to an “expatriate”.


Nowadays, I do not know many people who do not have at least a family member who is not part of this generation of retornados. These people are now grown-up adults, most with successful careers and a life of their own. Do they think about visiting Africa often? Which memories were left behind? The history of colonialism was undoubtedly changed with the African uprising; however, there are several individual stories to be told now. And there is a strong stigma no one talks about while openly speaking about the colonial past. So, what role did race have in the integration of retornados?



Throughout the 20th century, especially in the American society, the differentiation in race imposed discrimination with the assumption of the supremacy of the white man. Discrimination, selection, numeration and racialization were imposed to individuals, allegedly considered inferiors, as they were not gifted by Mother Nature with the characteristics defined as “correct”. This massive search for a pure race led to the extermination of millions of innocents Worldwide and, unfortunately, this tragic side of history is still not erased and daunts mankind every day. Repeatedly, men and women forget fraternity, cooperation and solidarity values, endangering the integration of so many human beings in this “global village”.


The average Portuguese citizen prefers not to talk about race. Maybe it is due to the colonial past the country has, and the many “social stains” left as a result. Or perhaps it is because of how attractive Portugal is for migrants and the multicultural society the country has, as a result. Either way, it is important to address the topic of race, to understand if there was any significance of colour when migrants equally had to build a new life in the 1970s. Asking such a question will definitely turn on a new light on how important race was in terms of integration, both for white and black people. In the Metropolis, they were all “in the same boat”.


· What did the interviewees say?



Interviews conducted with the people who lived all experiences first hand proved to be the best sources to answer my research question. In this section, many of the expressions in italic were used by the interviewees, but all the names are fictional.

In total, 6 people agreed to be interviewed for the project: 3 participants were white retornados and other 2 were black, being one of the participants a mestiço (mestizo). Sara, Clara and António, white Portuguese retornados shared their experiences, alongside Rita (mestiça), and Maria and Diana, Angolan black retornadas. The interviewees were born in Angola and in Mozambique, and all came to Portugal as retornados in the mid-1970s, meaning that all had forty plus years to reflect on what happened. Everyone stressed that they were Portuguese, even Mara and Diana; it became clear in the interviews that they had Portuguese citizenship but were both natural from Angola. Yet, it is important to note that many people in the colonies do have various kinds of mixed Angolan-Portuguese identities, for example. At the moment, all the retornados interviewed are in their late forties, early or mid fifties, and mid sixties.

Adapting to a different country is not easy. In the 1970s, Portugal was facing, for the first time, migration as we know it today: a wave of migrants fleeing from calamities and receiving all sorts of humanitarian aid and financial support was the reality. In the bigger picture, the most considerable difficulty my interviewees remember from the integration process does not necessarily relate to race, but to the general stigma Portuguese from the metropolis had towards retornados. This was a new word that became part of the Portuguese vocabulary, and IARN (Instituto de Apoio ao Retornado Nacional – National Returnee Support Institute) as well.


After 40 years of dictatorship, Portugal was a poor country. When Sara arrived to the metropolis with her family, they had to rely on the charity of family members to have a place to sleep. Even though her family was entirely white and Portuguese, having a car with the wheel on the right side (Mozambican style) was already enough to receive some side looks on the streets, and this was what made her feel most unwelcomed: having a different car, labelling the family. Like her, many retornados felt more comfortable being friends exclusively amongst themselves, as this social bubble was their escape from a harsh new reality.



With Maria’s family, the integration was more difficult, not for her skin colour, but because, in Portugal, she did not have any relatives to provide her a place to stay. As a solution, in such cases, the State put Maria and other families living in hotels, for a few years, until “everything was settled down”. Black and white migrants were, therefore, treated equally, sleeping under the same roof in hotel rooms, depending on State allowances and all looked at suspiciously when going out. Finding a job was difficult for everyone, being black, white or mestizo but, independently of race, they were all born “under the same flag of the Empire”.


At the metropolis, even though Rita was mestiza, she particularly never felt any form of favouritism for white students from her teachers at school, and she admits that if she and her family “were victims of the social stigma, then the same happened with all the other families of white retornados”. The State and humanitarian organisations tried to make the integration in the Portuguese society as equal for everyone as possible, and if there was some sort of distinction between colonizers and colonized, such distinction was not made on the hotel kitchen where Maria decided to volunteer, cooking for all guests (mostly retornados) with other white women, all in the same situation.


Is it possible, then, to even include the role of race in all this? Clara was the first one addressing the issue. As referred above, the white Portuguese colonizers were often named as “slavers”. Therefore, a big majority of the society felt sorry for the “poor blacks who were enslaved by the whites”. For this reason, at school, Clara’s black classmates were the teacher’s favourites. So, in fact, race did have a small significance when migrants had to rebuild their lives with the decolonization but, in Diana’s personal opinion, the biggest problem was in the Portuguese in the metropolis, and their lack of knowledge.


As an African, she (and all her fellow white retornados, in general), had another lifestyle. Those who came from the ex-colonies were more relaxed, wore colourful clothes, smiled more, were adventurous, shared an advanced mindset. Shockingly, when they arrived to the metropolis, no one had prepared them for the cultural surprise of what the country was like after 40 years of dictatorship. Citizens were suspicious, unhappy and “time seemed to be stuck 40 years in the past”. António, recalls that many Portuguese found it strange that the retornados were all mostly white, as the general idea was: if one is born in Africa, then he/she is black. This lack of culture and social knowledge was the biggest impediment to an easy integration, at times, because overcoming old habits was something extremely new for a country that was discovering the real meaning of freedom for the first time.



Finally, also minimizing the role of race, António said that each story of integration depended entirely on the will of the family to overcome the situation. If one wanted to rely on the IARN’s subsidies for 2 years, then this would mean 2 years living in a hotel, packed with retornados. But if the family was willing to immediately start looking for jobs and houses, then opportunities would come, and life would carry on. Retornados were, firstly, those who had it all, and had to start from zero in the metropolis; but this was also the generation that, years before, had departed to Africa to start from scratch. As a conclusion, António admits that race possibly had a certain influential role in the integration in this new Portugal, but the factor that largely boosted this event, was the individual will to start over.


P.S. - This is a short version of the Final Research Project I wrote for this course. If you wish the read the entire project, with more detailed info, an approach to the course's topics of migration and memory, and further bibliography and methodology, you can click on the PDF document attached. Thank you!



Final Research Project (Cláudia Coelho)
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