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Portuguese community in Groß-Umstadt: A story of leaving, arriving and staying |

In the 1960s, many Portuguese workers came to Groß-Umstadt – along with their families, hopes and fears. An hr film tells the story of the largest community in Hesse: It all started with a moped breakdown.

Sonja Sweet

More than 60 years ago, a Portuguese drove into Germany on a rattling little motorcycle until the engine gave up on the streets of Groß-Umstadt (Darmstadt-Dieburg). Workers were needed there, and so Antonio Carneiro stayed. Many of his compatriots followed him to the town in southern Hesse.

To this day, people in Groß-Umstadt tell this story about the “first Portuguese” who was stranded in the Odenwald due to a breakdown. A legend about leaving, arriving and staying. Is it true? Who knows.

Little Portugal in southern Hesse

It’s clear that the newcomers have changed Groß-Umstadt: The city is still a bit like Little Portugal today, says Adolfo de Castro Costa: “One in three people is Portuguese, there are Portuguese shops, a Portuguese school.”

Adolfo de Castro Costa came to southern Hesse at the age of eleven, squeezed between his siblings in his parents’ Opel Kadett. In the hr documentary “The First Portuguese” for the television station Arte, he and other residents of Greater Umstadt with Portuguese origins tell their story.

Group of men sitting around a tree

There was a lot to do in German factories in the 1960s, and word spread to Portugal. The wages there were often not enough to support a family. And so many set off. Later, out of 12,000 residents in Groß-Umstadt, more than 2,000 came from Portugal.

The town still has the largest Portuguese community in Germany in relation to the number of inhabitants. “Portugal is in the middle of Groß-Umstadt” – this is how the cultural association Clube Operário Portugès advertises, which was founded in 1969 by 30 Neu-Groß-Umstadt residents and where people still dance, eat and celebrate today.

“At first they avoided us”

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Portuguese brought their children, their music and their hopes with them to southern Hesse. Clara Pereira Ferreira came with her husband and, like many other Portuguese, packed glittering chandeliers and lamps at the Palme and Walter factory, often late into the night.

At over 80 years old, she looks back on the first time in the hr documentary: “At the beginning the Germans seemed as if they were afraid of us. Everything we cooked smelled bad to them. At the beginning they avoided us.” But Clara Pereira Ferreira wasn’t initially enthusiastic about Germany either. “I thought: This is Germany? It stank! I didn’t want to be here,” she remembers.

Clara Pereira Ferreira is still sewing the dresses for the Portuguese St. John's Festival

The fact that the Portuguese worked in the factories from morning to night contributed to the Germans slowly changing their minds, she says: “In the factory they slowly approached us because they saw that we were good for something.”

“Without Grandpa, none of them would be here”

One of the companies for which many Portuguese worked is the laminate board manufacturer Resopal. Albano Carneiro has been working there for almost 40 years, starting at the age of 14. Antonio Carneiro, “the first Portuguese”, was his grandfather and he also worked at Resopal. “Without Grandpa, none of them would be here,” says Albano with pride.

In Germany, immigrants are often measured by their benefits to the business location, assessed according to categories such as integration, assimilation, knowledge of German, willingness to perform, skills and the willingness to work for low wages.

How Saudade came to the Odenwald

The documentary by hr filmmaker Adrian Oeser turns this perspective around by letting the Portuguese community tell their view of Germany: about what it means to be stranded in a foreign country and start all over again – with hard work, longings and conflict.

“How Saudade came to the Odenwald” is the subtitle of the film. Saudade, explains Alice Coutinho, who came to Groß-Umstadt with her brothers as a small child, is a special word for which there is no German translation. “It’s actually the longing for people and the longing for a place. It’s beautiful, but also sad,” she says: “I’m the kind of person who lives in two worlds.”

Half-timbered houses, lots of cars, powerful men

Alice Coutinho grew up on a farm in Groß-Umstadt. The Germans who lived there became her second family. Until her parents went back to Portugal, took her with them and left behind her two brothers, who still live in Germany today.

Adolfo de Castro Costa on his motorcycle, in the background other men ride old motorcycles

One of her brothers is Adolfo de Castro Costa. When he arrived in Groß-Umstadt in 1968 at the age of eleven, he had tears in his eyes, he says in the film, because everything was so different: the half-timbered houses, the many cars. “The people were also different, tall, blonde, powerful men.” Video footage from the city archives shows what it looked like when the first Portuguese moved into the city.

A moped tour every Sunday

Adolfo and his friends still keep a tradition alive today: they maintain their Portuguese mopeds and meet every Sunday for a ride. When Adolfo rattles through the city on his little machine, the people of Greater Umstadt wave to him. You know the story of the first Portuguese.

This still arouses great interest today: Last weekend, the hr documentary “The First Portuguese” premiered in Groß-Umstadt. The town hall was full, 600 people came.

Further information

“The first Portuguese” on television

The film “The first Portuguese” runs on Thursday, April 18th at 8:55 p.m. on Arte. “Cloves for them Revolution” about the coup by left-wing officers in 1974 will also be shown on Arte on the same evening at 8:15 p.m.

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