How I Got Here: Elsie Nunes

Ninety-year-old Elsie Nunes shares her family history and gives a glimpse of the Island during her youth.

Elsie Nunes and her family bought a summer home on the Island in 1970, and she moved here year-round when she retired in 1986.

I was born here, born in 1917. My birthday’s August eleventh. I was raised in New Bedford; I didn’t go to school here. My mother came over with my father and a group of ladies for the Feast of the Holy Ghost, and I was born here – in Mrs. Coreia’s house on School Street [in Oak Bluffs]. She was my mother’s cousin. Then, of course, after the feast, they wrapped me up and off to New Bedford we went. In those days, they had feasts through the year. There was always a feast going on. In August, they have the Holy Ghost Feast and we had Saint John’s Feast in June – oh, it was a big thing!

We are Portuguese – black Portuguese. My ancestors, my mother’s and father’s ancestors, came from Africa. There were plantations – cotton, rice, everything you could think of on the Cape Verde Islands [a Portuguese colony]. These people needed workers, so we Africans were dropped off there as slaves. We were dropped off there and were intermarried. We’re Dutch. We’re Germans. Also, the Jews were sent [to Portugal] during the inquisitions from France, Germany, and the Swedish countries. Portugal was neutral at that time, so many of the Jews would flee to there. They would flee to these islands, so there’s a mixture of the Cape Verdeans and Jews. My grandfather was a Jew.

The whaling [boats] would stop at Cape Verde and pick up [men to be] whalers, because they were great fishermen. As my father said, we could get up in the morning and look in the sky and tell you what the next twenty-four hours was going to be. The whale boats would come into New Bedford and some of [the Cape Verdeans] would stay with the boats and others would just run away. That went on as long as the whaling continued, and of course they decided they’d bring their families over. That’s how my father and mother and the rest of the family came to be in New Bedford.

I would stay [on the Vineyard] all summer. Our parents would bring us over and leave us with [relatives] and you’d get the sermon, you know, “If I hear” and so and so and so. And of course, after they disappeared, we’d do what we liked and had a great time. Everyone was wonderful to us.

Oh, Lordy, the Island was different. It wasn’t like this. It was quaint. Some of the streets weren’t paved. Nobody locked doors. When I was about eight, nine, and ten, we kids used to run around in groups. Get up in the morning, have your breakfast, and out the door you went. You got a good talking to from your parents or aunt or whoever you were visiting, “You behave yourself and I don’t want any tales” and blah, blah, blah, blah.

Every day, we’d cross the bridge from Oak Bluffs to Chicken Alley [in Vineyard Haven]. There was always somebody’s aunt and uncle we would go to visit. Sometimes we’d go fishing. We didn’t catch much, but it was fun. We’d go to the beach. All along Chicken Alley, there were families who sort of took care of us. We didn’t have to go home for dinner. We’d stop by to see this one or stop by to see that one, and they always fed us. We’d come back [to Oak Bluffs] in the afternoon. We’d say goodbye and see you tomorrow and skip along and go home. All along the way people would feed us, so by the time we got home we weren’t hungry.

Somebody always had jaga to feed us. That was rice and beans. And we had manchupa, corn cooked with pork, onions, and sausage. We had bufong – like a donut. And we had chicken soup. They had Portuguese bread that they would fry. We were always well fed.

There were always houses coming and going. There were always houses moving. That was the thing here on Martha’s Vineyard – houses moving constantly. There were houses coming from Oak Bluffs into Vineyard Haven being moved on rollers. I don’t know why, but there was always a cottage going somewhere. We kids would run and sit and watch the men as they changed the rollers. They would take the roller off the back and put it down in front. They had it down to a science.

Oh, yes! Oh, but we had some good times.

Chicken Alley, where the thrift shop is now, was full of houses that had been moved. Everybody had chickens, pigs, horses, cows – everything. As you went up toward where the shipyard is, we had farms. Eggs. Everything you would want. Beautiful gardens.

There were white Portuguese and us black Portuguese spread out all through the area.

Up on Pacific Avenue [in Oak Bluffs], there were lots of houses. You’d come along by the school and go down School Street. That was Portugueseville. A lot of the houses had outhouses. There were some young men who took an outhouse from the top of Pacific Avenue and rolled it down School Street and left it in a field. We kids sat there, you know, by the side of the road, watching them do it. They threatened us with death if we told anybody. I will never forget it. The next day, of course, we had to get up early to go see what they were going to do about it. We watched the men put it on a trolley and take it back up the hill. We never told. That was our secret.

There were very few cars. There was a woman by the name of Mrs. Townsend. She had a Model T. She would give us a ride. There were other people who had Model Ts, but there wasn’t the congestion that there is now. If you wanted to cart something somewhere, there were teams of horses.

Many of my relatives, they smoked pipes – a habit they had from the old country, and they still continued it here. I can still see them smoking their pipes. I know a lot of my aunts, they even smoked. They’d be down sitting in the chair, rocking, and a knock on the door and the pipe would go underneath them. Oh, but they were so lovely and endearing.

At night, the Cape Verdeans would get together on someone’s porch. One would have a harmonica and two or three of them would play violin, someone would sing songs from the old country, you know. Oh, my. And they’d tell stories and we kids would sit around. It was wonderful, wonderful. They treated us so nice, so good. Nobody bothered you. Everybody looked out for us.