There’s something to be said about a spirit for adventure. And for those living in or hailing from the Azores, that spirit is not in short supply. To paraphrase an article from The New York Times, “roughly one million North Americans were either born in the Azores or are of Azorean descent”. That means roughly four times more Azoreans live and flourish outside their home region rather than in it.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they have abandoned their roots or relinquished their national pride. In fact, an argument for quite the opposite could be made; many Azorean emigrants have indeed spent the past century making their homeland proud.
Geographically speaking, the Azores can be described as an autonomous volcanic Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic Ocean. Pair that with an enviable, temperate climate and unrivaled views, and it is understandable that this environment has cultivated a people who are hardworking, with altruistic ideals. What’s more, the Azorean diaspora living abroad share a vested interest in ensuring their home nation remains a place to which they can one day return.
Gina Savoie has never been a stranger to hard work. Even before she knew her true lineage, the ability to overcome even the most seemingly impossible hurdles came naturally to her. A lifelong learner and the daughter of a widowed mother, Gina was raised in Joliette, Canada, where her mother encouraged Gina’s fierce curiosity about the world around her.
As Gina evolved from a girl to a young woman, so too did her inner drive and work ethic. Her natural inquisitiveness and tireless work ethic are what took Gina from working in retail as a teenager to the co-founding and managing of a thriving corporate risk management enterprise with interests across the globe as an adult.
Not one to rest on her laurels, further proof that the destination has always been about the journey for this powerhouse, Gina returned to the classroom at the age of 48. Obtaining a coveted spot at UCLA’s competitive Anderson School of Management, she honed her executive skills while earning a certification in Advanced Management and Leadership.
Gina seems to have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and life experience. But from where did this tenacity come? Perhaps there was some influence from her hidden paternal lineage. Growing up with the belief her biological father had passed away due to a work-related accident when she was just three months old, she was 43 when she discovered the likely source.
Believing she had been paternally orphaned, it was in her 43rd year that Gina experienced two life-changing events. The first, sadly, was the loss of her mother. Closely following this traumatic event came the jolt of learning the surprising identity of her true biological father. This unexpected gift came in an even more unforeseen form. It came from a close friend of the family, a man Gina had known her whole life. He shared with her the truth about her heritage; that he was, in fact, her biological father, and that they were both of Azorean descent. Armed with the revelation of her newfound identity and rich cultural heritage, Gina threw her full energies into learning all she could about her Azorean ancestors.
And not just of any Azorean descent. Gina would come to find she was of a storied bloodline in the Azores; that of Captain João Bettencourt, her biological paternal great-grandfather and João Junior Bettencourt (school director) her paternal grandfather. He was said to have been possessed of legendary, fiery passions that represented everything about the Azorean spirit. He also stood for strong democratic ideals, vehemently resisting the communist regime in power during his formative years and military career. Although his life ultimately culminated with imprisonment and deportation from Portugal’s mainland to the Azore Islands, he remains a source of lore.
As is often the case between grandfather and son, it seemed Captain Bettencourt’s own grand-son, João Norberto da Rosa, was destined to follow in his defiant grand-father’s footsteps. The Capelinhos volcanic eruption on Faial Island in the late 1950s (September 27, 1957, to October 24, 1958) lasted for 13 months. During this time, nearly 2,000 Azoreans were displaced by the devastating effects of the eruption. At the time, Canada and the United States opened their doors to many of the immigrants seeking refuge from the ravages of their homeland. However, the legal age of majority in Canada was 21 years of age, and João Norberto da Rosa was only 18. The answer to his predicament was simple. He lied.
At the tender age of 18, this young man boarded the first North American flight available and landed in the midst of the unknown. In a strange country, without speaking the native language, having no family to rely on, and with no plan for a place to live, João embarked upon the journey of his new life and what would also be the beginning of Gina’s story.
The tenacity that delivered him to a full recovery from tuberculosis as a child proved to have strengthened João Rosa for the long game. He taught himself how to speak, read, and write in French. Once he was able to communicate fluently within his new surroundings, further successes abounded, and an entrepreneurial streak saw him starting his own enterprise as a traveling appliance technician.
And now, João and Gina’s story has come full circle. Gina and her partner, Benoit Grenier, traveled to the Azores in 2017 after meeting members of her biological father’s extended family Montreal. It was there that this Azorean tapestry came fully into focus for Gina. It was then that she was finally able to forge bonds with a family she completed simply by her presence, that she learned just how deeply those familial roots are embedded in the Azores’ essence.
So magical did the Azores become for Gina and Benoit that they decided to establish permanent residence, create a subsidiary of PARM (Grenier & Savoie Lda) on the island of Faial; relocating from Los Angeles in early 2019. It must be said that the lush views and seaswept beaches are the perfect backdrops for the sailing enthusiast couple’s home, but Gina – possessing Azorean DNA – took to the Azores like a native.
You don’t have to cast a very wide net to find another significant link between Azorean lineage and the PARM team. Remarkably, despite already having the great-granddaughter of one of the most rebellious spirits the Azores have ever known at the helm, Lady Fate still had another Azorean gift to bestow.
Bryan de Lima was an unsuspecting commercial insurance broker with a proven background in sales strategy when he answered the phone on behalf of a vacationing colleague one day. It just happened to be the day Benoit Grenier, Gina’s husband, called to inquire about a policy for their fledgling company.
The son of Azorean emigrant parents, Bryan is no stranger to the hard work and sacrifice of staying the course, no matter what obstacles life throws his way. He was a bit skeptical, though, when a stranger called and started asking Bryan personal questions about his Azorean background.
As Bryan acquiesced over time, the story went something like this.
Despite the small population of the Azores, the families of Bryan’s parents didn’t know one another before they each emigrated to Canada. Still, it would be in Canada where his parents would eventually meet and fall in love. Owing to the fascist dictatorship ruling at the time, both families fled to Canada in hopes of escaping the widespread stranglehold of poverty gripping the Azores. His maternal family made the trip across the Atlantic in 1964 when his mother was just seven years old, and his paternal family followed suit in the early 1970s, just before his father’s 18th birthday.
Over time, more members from both sides of Bryan’s extended families made their way to Canada and the New England region of the United States. Among his mother’s people, at one time that meant 14 family members, living in a 3-bedroom house, for one whole year – a house his family still owns today. What’s more, is this was a decision made as a family; a decision made not out of need but out of sacrifice. They decided to undertake this unique home situation together in order to save money. They envisioned saving enough to begin purchasing real estate investment properties to support their new lives as Canadians. Within three years, that vision became a reality.
Determined to leave a life of poverty behind in the Azores, Bryan’s family wholeheartedly poured their souls right along with their determined, blue-collar work ethic into creating a better future for themselves and future generations of their family.
Working relentlessly in the garment industries of New York, Toronto, and Montreal, Bryan’s maternal grandmother was destined to be the second of three generations of widows. However, she was resourceful and frugal, making all of the family’s clothing and saving every dollar she earned. She eventually achieved financial comfort. By the time Bryan was born as a first-generation Portuguese-Canadian in Montreal, his family’s sacrifice and hard work had effected tremendous change within a single generation.
Over the years, Bryan has come to understand that while his family, along with thousands of others, may have emigrated to North America and become successful in their new lives, their decision to move was most often made out of necessity, perhaps, even desperation.
It was a question of survival; It was not born of a desire to leave their homes, extended families, or culture. And so, what remains from this almost forcible removal is longing. A longing for the homeland that Azorean emigrants, en masse, remain deeply connected to through their heritage while dreaming of the day when they might return to their island home.
Today, Bryan visits the Azores several times each year, where his mother has resided on the island of San Miguel since retiring from a 40-year career as a paralegal in Canada. Bryan highlights the house rule he grew up abiding by and is thankful for to this day, having grown up in Canada where both French and English are spoken. His family spoke only Portuguese inside their home. Today, because of that rule, he can communicate clearly and effortlessly during his visits to the Azores.
In July of 1998, an earthquake rocked the islands of Faial, Pico, and São Jorge. The remarkable recovery that followed is one of the more notable and recent examples of how Azorean determination continues to endure devastation, again and again, then rise from the rubble to prevail over conditions austere enough to destroy less cohesive communities.
Similarly, after having suffered the devastating losses of his father and beloved grandmother just six months apart at 16 years old, Bryan struggled mightily to find a place for himself in a world that no longer made sense to him. And so – like the 1998 earthquake survivors – he began to dig through the rubble of his life. Layer after layer, he kept going.
He kept going until he found something to cling to, something Bryan now credits with bringing him through the worst years of his life following the loss of those who played such crucial roles in making him who he is today.
What he found was the world of martial arts. A practice he shared with his father and still practices today in the forms of Mui Thai and Brazilian Jui-Jitsu. With the same discipline and commitment he displayed in earning his Brazilian Jui-Jitsu blackbelt, Bryan has become a husband, father, and successful corporate leader, now taking the reins of managing and operating ProActive Risk Management Inc (PARM), at just 40 years old.
Although some might call it stubbornness, it is the Portuguese, and more specifically, Azorean traits of adaptability, perseverance, and resiliency, which have allowed many of the nation’s people to flourish and thrive abroad.
There exists amongst Azorean emigrants a deep well of national pride; it is from this bottomless well that her people abroad nourish their hearts and souls, and it courses through their veins, no matter where they make their homes. So much so, that the Azorean government has established a Regional Department for the Communities.
By its own declaration, this committee, headed by the Regional Assistant Secretary of the Presidency for External Relations exists “to promote the dialogue between the communities of immigrants and emigrants and their representatives, and stimulates their civic and political participation in the societies in which they have settled. Its action is based on a double-strand: the preservation of cultural identity and the integration of emigrants, immigrants, and returnees.”
While the earliest waves of Azorean emigrants sought a new future in North America through work in the whaling industry and gold rush era, today’s dispersed populations of extended families can be found within all manner of industry and commerce. Many have found that holding dual citizenship and routinely traveling back and forth between North America and the Azores has enabled the formation and preservation of close ties to island life and family.
Gina’s and Bryan’s are but two in a million success stories from emigrant Azorean families. But they are glowing examples of what the Azorean people’s resolve, dedication, and work ethic can bring to fruition in the modern world. What are the odds that they should cross one another’s paths and successfully combine forces to continue the Azorean legacy? As history demonstrates, those odds are pretty favorable.
Note: Other posts about Gina Savoie. From Joliette to Los Angeles