Far away from the bustling streets of Boston, the quaint little island known as Martha’s Vineyard is New England’s favorite getaway. With its quiet villages and rocky shorelines, it’s inspired famous summer visitors like Barack Obama and Princess Diana. The island’s true heart, though, is found in the residents who live there year-round—when tourism slows down and the population drops from 115,000 to 15,500. Twenty percent of those residents are Brazilian immigrants, and according to the New York Times, Portuguese is recognized as the second language.
Throughout the history of Martha’s Vineyard, diversity has been the key component that defines the island’s off-season cultural identity—from the landmark deaf communities of the past to the increasing Brazilian presence today.
The Island of Noepe
When did it all begin? Well, centuries before colonial settlers ever set foot on the island’s shores, it was known as “Noepe,” home of the Wampanoags. In the face of European settlement, the Wampanoags dealt with the same story of violence, disease, and displacement familiar to all students of Massachusetts history. However, subsequent generations of Wampanoag descendants have maintained a strong cultural presence on the island, and today, many natural landmarks retain their original Wampanoag names.
In 1998, the Wampanoags were given back 500 acres of their original land, and recent decades have shown a renewed interest in old tribal customs and festivals.
From a Deaf Village to a Brazilian Launching Pad
While most of the world only knows the island for its affluent visitors, the birthplace of the “true” Martha’s Vineyard was not in those lofty vacation homes, but rather in a small fishing village named Chilmark. According to the Atlantic, in the 19th century, Chilmark became home to a thriving deaf community, where everyone in town—both hearing and non-hearing—communicated through a unique form of sign language that preceded ASL. Deafness was never stigmatized in this town.
Since then, other underrepresented groups have also found their footing in the Vineyard. The town of Oak Bluffs became a welcoming vacation spot for African American guests as far back as the 1930s. Many notable changemakers have stayed in Oak Bluffs, including Martin Luther King Jr., who is believed to have penned some of his famous speeches while sitting on a Vineyard porch. Oak Bluffs’ place in history goes back to the early 1900s when many former slaves and their children settled in the area around Baptist Temple Park—they later became some of the Vineyard’s most noted artists, musicians, lawyers, doctors, and more. The island’s place in black history can be examined today by touring the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, a tour similar to the Boston Black Heritage Trail. Another noteworthy resident of the area was Edward W. Brooke who was the first popularly elected Senator as well as the first Black politician from Massachusetts to serve in Congress.
Today, the group most responsible for keeping the island afloat is the growing population of Brazilian immigrants. After first coming to those rocky Massachusetts shores in the 1980s, according to Thomas Dresser, Brazilians have become the island’s primary labor force. However, the overall picture still isn’t perfect. Brazilian workers struggle tirelessly to maintain underpaid jobs, pay high rents, and send money to families back home. However, as these Brazilian workers become increasingly involved in the island’s restaurants, churches, and stores, they’re also becoming a powerful cultural influence and voice.
A community that the island proudly celebrates is its many LGBTQ+ residents and visitors. The island has a gay-friendly reputation, proudly serving as a hot spot for numerous LGBTQ+ weddings, and events like the Spectrum Film Festival.
When it comes to the future of Martha’s Vineyard, diversity must be embraced. While tourism will always be a part of the island, the Vineyard’s history of accepting and embracing all groups of people must not only continue forward but be expanded. Looking ahead, the island’s newer, more Brazilian identity will become increasingly important, and the off-season residents must do everything possible to protect the immigrant population from dangerous federal legislation that would seek to do them harm. After all, these immigrants are the force that keeps the island running.
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