Locked down on the island my ancestors once fled

The coronavirus creates a surreal stay in the Azores for a photojournalist and aspiring round-the-world traveller – whose lineage on the islands stretches back centuries.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020,
By Genna Martin
Photographs By Genna Martin
On April 3, 2020, the main street of Angra do Heroísmo hosts cheery flowers but few ...

On April 3, 2020, the main street of Angra do Heroísmo hosts cheery flowers but few people.

It’s a strange feeling to be trapped indefinitely in the place my ancestors worked so hard to leave more than a hundred years ago.

When my partner and I touched down in the Azores, a lush volcanic archipelago some 900 miles off the coast of Portugal, it was supposed to be the first stop on our round-the-world year of travel. We had both left jobs in Seattle—she as a corporate security trainer, I as a staff photojournalist. We needed a change, had a yearning to experience more of the world, and thought: Why not now?

So much for wanderlust. Now we find ourselves stuck at our first stop, long after our arrival in late February, well past our planned departure date, and with no clear end in sight to our tenure here. It doesn’t seem safe to fly and almost every country on our trip plan has closed its borders to international travel. We have no home, no jobs, and no health insurance back in the United States. So we wait.

The morning sun illuminates a rural town on São Miguel Island. Before the pandemic, Azorean tourism had been on the rise, with 698,325 visitors in 2019, a nearly 85 percent increase since 2014.

Photograph by Genna Martin

Growing up, I considered Portuguese the closest thing I had to a cultural heritage. My paternal grandmother, with whom I spent a good deal of time, was a first-generation Azorean American. She tried to teach me a smattering of Portuguese, and it was a sure bet that her cupboard would be stocked with King’s Hawaiian rolls—the closest approximation of Portuguese sweet bread that could be found at the grocery store. Beyond that, I have never felt or sought an ancestral connection to a place.

A boat normally used for tourist excursions floats idly in the Angra do Heroísmo marina.

Photograph by Genna Martin

But here on Terceira Island, it is ever present. As we explored the island before the shelter-in-place order, we found the church in the town of Santa Barbara where my great-great-grandparents were married in 1893. We walked through the tiny village of Fontinhas, where my great-great-grandfather was born, and his father before him, and his mother before him, and at least as far back as 1759 - the extent of my family records.

If you lost the cars and powerlines, this village of white-washed buildings trimmed in primary colours would probably look almost identical to the way it did when my ancestors were herding their cattle in the nearby fields. I think about them living through the 1841 earthquake that destroyed the town’s church; they later worked alongside their neighbours to rebuild it.

I imagine how they would have quarantined themselves, just as we are now, in 1908, when an outbreak of bubonic plague spread across the islands. This excerpt from a September 17, 1908, Associated Press article sounds disturbingly familiar:

New cases of the plague are occurring daily and the epidemic threatens to spread throughout the entire group. The sick are lying huddled in hospitals in the most miserable condition, lacking food, medicines and other necessities … Commerce is completely paralysed, the government having forbidden all communication with the infected islands.

My grandmother’s father was 16 years old in 1914, when he boarded a ship and made his way to America alone in search of a better life. Over the next few years, he worked his way across the country before settling in California’s San Joaquin Valley, a region that has become a haven to thousands of Azorean immigrants. Other family members, too, set their sights on California.

Cows graze on a hillside above the southeastern coast of Terceira Island, where the bovines outnumber people two to one. Barns are rare, so herds roam the island’s vast patchwork of pastures.

Photograph by Genna Martin

They were among an early wave of the Azorean diaspora to North America, fleeing plague, poverty, and natural disasters. The Portuguese farming community in California flourished, and by the 1970s, Portuguese Americans owned half the dairy farms in the San Joaquin Valley. Migration from the islands continued for much of the 20th century, and it is now estimated that the population of Azorean emigrants and their descendants living abroad is six times that of the archipelago. My own dairy-farming Portuguese family eventually left California for Tillamook, Oregon, in the early 1990s, and I grew up enjoying trips to visit cousins and their cows.

There is a cognitive dissonance to being in a place that seems both deeply familiar and deeply foreign. I sensed this tension the moment we landed in the Azores and arrived at our first lodging, an Airbnb on São Miguel Island serendipitously located on a dairy farm perched on bluffs above the ocean. The smell of the soil and the sea, the feel of the muck boots and muddy denim seemed to burst forth from my past. I could have been stepping out the door and onto my family’s farm on the Oregon coast.

The faces of the people we encounter are the faces of my cousins, all square jaws and dark eyebrows. The names on businesses, street signs, and gravestones—Borges, Vaz, Rocha, Pereira—are the names of my grandparents and their grandparents.

These islands are in me like a memory. I see them in my father as well, even though he’s never visited. I see them in his need to be near the ocean, as if the sea waves and salty breeze are what keep his soul powered. Being here, surrounded by green fields, black rocks, and blue surf, feels like coming home.

Yet I am still an outsider, set apart as much by my maternally inherited pale skin as by my American-brand hiking pants and lack of Portuguese fluency. The faces that look so familiar to me stare back with vague confusion and mild suspicion—and more so now that we have quite possibly become the only tourists left on the island. “Who are you and what are you still doing here?” their eyebrows say.

Because there’s no one else to interact with, save the occasional grocery clerk, our isolation has become three-fold. We are strangers here, on an insular island, hiding away from a deadly virus. It is a genre of loneliness I have never felt before.

Without the purpose of continued travel, we have been left somewhat rudderless. Thankfully we can still leave the house, so we go on walks and drives to experience the beauty of this island as much as we can—anything to distract us from our anxiety over the health of our friends and family an ocean away.

A plane leaving Lajes International Airport on Terceira Island soars above the Immaculate Heart of Mary monument in Praia da Vitória on March 16, 2020. Later that day, flights to and from the island were suspended for all but one airline.

Photograph by Genna Martin

My extended visit is far from how I expected to experience the Azores, and yet it turns out that a remote, sparsely populated island is one of the safest places to be during the pandemic. Although some 140 coronavirus cases have been reported in the archipelago to date, the hospitals are not overwhelmed with the sick, and social distancing is not difficult.

But I have come to realise that I am missing what I came here to discover. People are what make up the soul of a place, and it’s a loss not to be able to connect with the community around me. I have a feeling of home, but it’s incomplete. We anxiously watch the world through the window of our screens, feeling the weight of the unknown and yearning for the personal connections we once took for granted.

So we continue wandering through empty towns and past closed businesses, kept company by the ghosts of my people, who met their own challenges and survived.

As night falls in Angra do Heroísmo, a resident takes an evening walk alone toward the sea.

Photograph by Genna Martin
Formerly based in Seattle, Genna Martin is a photojournalist hoping to continue her travels around the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.