Did the emigrants come back for the holidays?

Beginning of July 2020, and after months of lockdown, followed by timid bits of return to normal life, I decided to travel north and visit the villages I had seen for the last time in January.

I was in touch with two families in particular: one split across France and Bragança area; and the other reunited because of the effects of the sanitary crisis on employment (the oldest son was abroad, and his workplace closed, forcing him to go back to Bragança’s region). For the first family, the summer is the time the grand-children come to the grand-parents, and this for the entire holiday period. We talked by messenger for a while, and they told me they would try to travel south and to cross the border the same night I travelled north.

After a night in the village, early morning, the grand-parents and myself were anxiously waiting for the message saying that they had effectively crossed.

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Winter is coming

The title of this post is obviously a marketing ploy.

But more seriously, after a week in Trás-os-Montes, I believe again in the power of seasons over our overall rhythm.

While the Christmas decorations were mere reminders that a week before, families were celebrating the end of the year’s festivities together, I arrived in Trás-os-Montes through a thick fog, and surrounded with the smell of burnt wood.

I had a plan to shoot some images at the houses of the people I met during the summer. Unfortunately, everyone was gone, had a cold, and in general, was not as eager as during summer days to show outside of their home.

First, I was frustrated. But I thought this was part of winter life in the region: empty villages once the sun sets, cold and foggy weather… So I took the decision to film just this. The absence.

To be fair, there were some people: the ones working – in agriculture in the villages, and in shops and services in Bragança. In the city, it seems that winter was also an opportunity to renovate the roads and sites. I decided to expand my horizons, and I visited Vimioso, Mirando do Douro, Vila Real and Chaves. Every where were works, renovations, and… empty streets, closed shops… The north was getting ready for its visitors!

Celebrating return: emigrants’ festival(s)

My former institution, Migrinter at the University of Poitiers, hosts for the last years a large project called CAMIGRI – Les campagnes françaises dans la dynamique des migrations internationales. And CAMIGRI publishes regularly works carried out by their team, or by collaborators in their newsletter.

I was happy to be invited to present a short account of my work in Trás-os-Montes this month, and here is the result!

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Airbnb is even in far away rural Tras-os-Montes!

Summer is over, and so are my trips to the north – well, surely I will do some follow-up in the upcoming weeks, but I will not be able to stay as long.

In order to make some sense out the data I collected, I courageously decided to end up the summer with a short presentation at the Royal Geography Society annual conference in London. I say courageously, because I felt quite stupid standing there after such a short time in the project… I was included in a great panel on rural areas and migration, with colleagues working in the field for much longer than me.

My idea was to share a first round of analysis. I decided to map in details of one of the villages I spent time at, and get a full picture of its current occupation. Here is, below, the result. This includes all the houses I could see while walking around.

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From Galegos to La Fontañera: walking on the smugglers’ path

I spent the week-end in northern Alentejo, in the natural park of Serra de São Mamede. And what started with a family hiking week-end, ended up in a research stroll!

On Saturday, we made our way to Castelo de Vide. The village hosts a museum in the old Synagogue, at the top of the old Jewish quarter (or the Judiaria), which was about to close for lunch time. We ran up the Judiaria to enter the museum. This was not the first time that I found myself in a museum dedicated to the Jewish communities that once lived at the Portuguese borders. In Bragança, a museum is dedicated to the Sephardic culture in the northern Tras-os-Montes region.

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Dream house for sale: a glimpse in the real estate of returnees in Northern Portugal

This winter, I received a beautiful book entitled Dream Houses, by Roselyne de Villanova, Carolina Leite & Isabel Raposo (1994).

This was a great preview before I decided to spend a long week-end doing fieldwork in the north. I felt ready to identify the houses built by returnees from the 1980s on, houses that seemed to have upset many. In fact, built based on a French-style construction at the outskirts of the villages, these houses were accused of ruining the landscape. 

With this in mind, on a Friday morning beginning of February, I drove out of Lisbon towards Tras-os-Montes. After Mirandela, I left the highway in direction of Vinhais. I passed a beautiful countryside, green and pampered. However, throughout the villages, I was amazed by the amount of houses, including the immigrants’ houses, which looked unfinished, closed or abandoned… some had a sign VENDE hanging. For instance, Mouca looked like a beautiful place, but on Wikipedia, you could read that residents dropped from 800 to 260 residents in the last sixty years. And many houses were closed.

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First visit to Trás-os-Montes

Memorias do Salto.

That was the event I came across while scrutinising the webpage of Vinhais municipality last month. The cultural centre of Vinhais was hosting, after Bragança’s Museu Abade de Baçal, and Mogadouro, the interactive exhibition Memorias do Salto.

I decided to go to the opening, organised last Friday evening in Vinhais. I took an early bus in Lisbon, and… seven hours later, I arrived at the neighbouring city Bragança.

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The shrinking Portuguese village and its emigration politics

This week, and after a month of investigation, the mayor of the Italian village of Riace – the most symbolic of the villages that have developed an immigration policy – was arrested, and the immigrants living in the village will be removed

I first came across the story of Riace and his charismatic mayor last year, when I saw the documentary film Un Paese de Calabria. Two elements can be connected to the experience of the villages I aim at surveying during this research project: the demographic loss villages such as Riace have experienced during the large waves of out-migration decades ago; and the extent to which immigration has been central to the daily lives of the villagers. As a matter of fact, many remember being themselves or having family members being immigrants; and they remember helping smuggling immigrants – those experiences can be extended to the ones of villagers in northern Portugal.

From this month to August 2020, I will work on villages in the north-east of Portugal, located in the region of Terras de Trás-os-Montes, Guarda and Castelo Branco. As one can see on this map, the red markers represent cities that include more than 50,000 residents (such as Castelo Branco), the ones in green, more than 20,000 (such as Bragança), while the majority of the municipalities, in blue, are in fact villages with less than 20,000 residents.

Pre-selected municipalities for fieldwork – MigRural project

Once I figured what was the repartition of the villages and cities in these areas, I looked for demographic statistics. And I could not believe what I was seeing: all the region experienced a huge loss of population between 1961 and 2011, with some villages like Vinhais or Miranda do Douro losing two thirds of their residents.

I therefore immediately wonder if migration was seen as a viable option to attract new residents to these shrinking villages. The international immigration numbers are actually rather low (a few hundreds at most for a city like Bragança), so I looked at return migration. Even though I could not find (yet) numbers, I found this: the repartition of GAE – the municipal office in charge of supporting returning emigrants – in the areas I will study is incredibly important.

What I see, is that for each city and village marked, the yellow marker indicates the presence of a GAE in October 2018. How exciting to see the correlation!

Presence of GAE in pre-selected municipalities – MigRural project

There are obviously close to zero answers, and at least ten new questions now. But the relations between the demographic loss experienced the last decades, the emigration experiences of inhabitants in the region (directly or through relatives and neighbours), and the institutional network put in place today, are already interconnected and should be further explored.