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VOLTAS by Elaine Ávila PART I


Voltas: The 2019 Encontro Pedras Negras on Flores

by Elaine Ávila

“Remember how?” asked the 90-year-old Senhor José Lisandro, the last whaler on Flores Island, as he handed me the harpoon.
“Sim,” I said, taking the front of the harpoon with my left hand, holding the back end with my right, squatting slightly to engage my thighs to deal with the rocking of a boat, because, as Sr. Lisandro said, “o mar não é a terra,” (“the sea is not the land”). Then I swooped the harpoon up high, arcing it down, while taking aim.
He chuckled, shook his head. Not quite. The first thing is to balance the harpoon in your left hand. As I opened my hand, it balanced perfectly. Like most gear used in life threating situations, it was very well-designed.

This was the beginning of the last day of Encontro Pedras Negras, a weekend during the Azores Fringe Festival. Terry Costa, the Artistic Director, had arranged time for this meeting, along with the help of Gabriela Silva. Soon most of the writers at the festival would join me in listening as Sr. Lisandro brought his experiences to life with his stories. Poet José Efe from Porto, Portugal, prepared to write him a tribute. Dutch painter Pieter Adriaans drew a sketch of him. “You’re famous!” I said to Sr. Lisandro and he laughed with delight.

I’m here because of my appointment as the Fulbright Scholar to the University of the Azores, researching and writing two new plays inspired by my ancestors, motivated by my Azorean grandmother’s writing. I have a photograph of her with her sisters, at Carnaval (Carnival) in the 1920s-30s on the island of Pico. She and her sisters are all dressed in men’s suits, holding guitars, dangling cigarettes, laughing, joyous. On the back of the photograph, perhaps after she emigrated to America and observed the process of assimilation, my grandmother wrote, “those beautiful days that will never return,” or “que já não voltam.”

“Voltas,” the noun associated with the verb voltar, has twenty-two definitions in one online dictionary. A plethora of meanings for one word can be one of the difficult aspects of the Portuguese language, but on Flores island these multiple meanings proved invaluable. One by one, the meanings of “voltas” came to pass:
1 .the act of returning to a place from which you came,
2. turning and turning
3. an interpretation or solution
4. a sinuous curve, like the ones we traversed by car to get to the village of Lajes das Flores, where Sr. Lisandro lives.

On my first night on Flores, the village was having a procession, just like the ones my ancestors used to walk, to celebrate their official designation as a sister city with Santa Catarina, in Brazil, where people from Lajes had been emigrating for decades. As writers arrived for Encontro Pedras Negras, we joined in the procession. There was a mass, a parade, a flag raising with music, including the Portuguese national anthem my grandfather taught me to sing and the Azorean anthem (the first time I’d heard this lovely song), and we ended in the Espirito Santo Hall for a banquet feast. This is where I met Sr. Lisandro who informed me that he knew my grandfather, great grandfather, and great uncle, all the “Ávilas of Ribeiras” on Pico island who were whalers, especially the trancodores, or harpoonists. He let me know he could meet me at the museum, patting his chest pocket: he had the keys. I promptly agreed. Next there was a serenade with the village band, like the one my great-grandfather led in our village. I had never been invited to take part in these rituals before, I’d never heard this music, but this is part of the magic of Encontro Pedras Negras. Doors fly open, which have been closed for years.

...to be continued PART II 



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