Mary Soderstrom is the author of Making Waves: The Continuing Portuguese Adventure as well as The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond, both from Véhicule Press.
Rain glistened on the granite last week, but the words of 12 Portuguese writers shone though the bad weather, even triumphing over graffiti left by taggers.
The words–short quotations in Portuguese with French translations–are a unique tribute to a culture that changed the world five centuries ago and changed Montreal much more recently. They are engraved on a dozen granite benches on St. Lawrence boulevard, a joint project of the city of Montreal, the Institut Camões and other groups. The series was inaugurated on the 35th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, that spontaneous upraising on April 25, 1974 which saw the Portuguese sweep away five decades of dictatorship practically without bloodshed.
Each bench is decorated with ceramic tiles by Quebec artists of Portuguese origin. The first bench sits on the east side of the Main, near Bagg Street. It commemorates Dom Diniz (1261-1325), the poet monarch of the young kingdom which had just shaken off several centuries of Muslim rule.
From there the series passes through the centuries as it follows St. Lawrence north. Portugal’s bard Luís de Camões (c 1524-1580) is represented with “E se mais mondo houverá, lá chegara“–“if there were another world, they would have found it.” Fitting words, from the author of an epic about how the Portuguese led Europeans in the exploration of the world.
António Vieira (1608-1697), a Jesuit priest, the grandson of an African woman and considered one of the greatest stylist of the Portuguese language, is featured as is Eça de Queiros (1845-1900) who spent time in Montreal as a diplomat. “Montreal is a little city that one would like to display on a shelf, It doesn’t have streets, but a succession of gardens, and that enchants me,” Eça de Queiros wrote.
The Azorean poet Antero de Quental (1842-18910) as well as the enigmatic 20th century literary cult figure Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) have their benches also. So does Nobel prize-winner José Saramago (1922-2010) whose words resonate with many people in Quebec: “Today a language that does not defend itself, dies.”.
“A people that reads will never be a people of slaves,” reads the last bench, honoring António Lobo Antunes (1942-) It is found next to the Parc du Portugal, a little square set aside by the city of Montreal in the late 19th century. It got its present name in 1975 at a time when the Portuguese had put their stamp on the neighborhood.
Beginning in the 1950s, they moved in as earlier immigrant groups moved out. It was a time when “urban renewal” was advocated by planners around the world and razing the “slum” housing on the Plateau was openly advocated. But the Portuguese bought, rebuilt and loved the modest old houses. In 1974 the Ordre des architectes du Quebec honoured the whole community for renovation work in the area bounded by Park Avenue and St. Denis, Sherbrooke and St. Joseph. Anyone who enjoys the Plateau today owes the Portuguese community a great debt.
If you’d like to learn more: the Parc du Portugal will be the starting point for a Jane’s Walk Saturday May 7 (in English) and Sunday May 8 (in French.) (Reserve on www.janeswalk.net). Both will deal with the great contribution that the Portuguese have made to Montreal, and both will allow promenaders to admire the benches.
And perhaps by then the graffiti that defaced them last week will be removed. Mile End City Councilor Alex Norris–a great fan of the Portuguese himself–has brought the problem to the attention of the Plateau-Mile End borough’s anti-graffiti squad which has promised to clean them as soon as the weather improves.