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A crowd of people in rainy weather stand and look at a mural that covers a wall of a building. It depicts a dark-skinned woman lifting a white-skinned mask off her face.
Street mural by Nomen in Quinta do Mocho, Lisbon, to highlight immigrant experiences in Portugal. PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images

How young Santomean immigrants in Portugal deal with identity and language

‘My teacher always tells me, “Ah Clara, Clara, Claaaara, you have to speak like this!"’

Clara is a young Santomean woman who immigrated to Portugal to pursue her senior high school education. She grew up in São Tomé and Príncipe, a group of islands in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. She was a key participant in my study on this immigrant experience.

Colonised by the Portuguese in the 1490s, the islands became independent in 1975. The new republic adopted Portuguese as its sole official language.

Today, Portuguese is the language spoken by over 98% of the Santomean population. The remainder are mostly elders who speak one of four creole languages. In post-colonial times, Portuguese universities have continued to receive students from the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa.

Clara speaks Portuguese as her first and only language. But, she says, her teachers often comment on the way she speaks it. European Portuguese and Santomean Portuguese are very similar. They could be likened to British and American English. For example, there are some differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and sentence structure.

The fact that Clara’s Portuguese teacher picks her out about her pronunciation is not surprising. It reflects the idea that one variety of language is superior to others. This has implications for people’s identify and sense of self.

In my study I found that a crucial issue for Santomean students who immigrate to Portugal is that identifying as both Portuguese native speakers and as Black Africans means negotiating two potentially conflicting identities – in a place where most native speakers are white. This means they also have to adapt to deal with racism.

Forming identities

As a sociolinguist, my research set out to explore the use of Santomean Portuguese among young immigrants in Portugal and how this is linked with their identity.

How do Santomeans in Portugal negotiate being both native speakers of Portuguese and Black Africans? Answering this question is key to understanding the role that language plays in racial boundary-making and identity processes.

To address the question, I conducted in-depth interviews with 18 Santomean immigrant youth (7 women and 11 men) in two towns in Central Portugal. Clara was one of them.

Identity is created at multiple levels at the same time. It becomes meaningful only when we engage in processes called alignment (Do I identify with this person?) and authentication (Is this real and genuine?). For example, think about your school or peer group experience and the different cliques that exist – the nerds, the popular kids, the jocks, the loners. All acquire meaning in relation to the other groups.

So how do Santomeans in Portugal self-identify? My research showed that young Santomeans identified on three levels: their language use and practices, racial categorisation, and the PALOP social category.

"PALOP” stands for Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa, which means Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa. It refers to the six African countries in which Portuguese is an official language – Angola, Cabo Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Equatorial Guinea. Santomeans use this term to describe people from these countries.

I examined each level of identity formation.

Language use and practices

One could say that Santomeans linguistically align with Portuguese nationals since they speak the same language. But from a Portuguese perspective, the variety of Portuguese spoken by the African students is problematic. For the Santomeans a poor command of the language is often considered to be one of the main elements that hinders their success at school. Not being understood by the Portuguese is detrimental to Santomeans’ integration.

But many Santomeans found strategies to be understood by the Portuguese. The most common is imitation, highlighted by one of the participants in the study:

We have to speak in a way that they… like, try to imitate them so they can understand us.

But even so, Santomeans said they were frequently reminded that they spoke differently based on three main characteristics: slang words, speech rate and a different pronunciation of the r-sounds.

Based on these elements, Santomeans did not feel that they aligned with Portuguese nationals even though they spoke the same language.

Racial categorisation

When it comes to racial categorisation, Santomeans did not align with the Portuguese either, but with other African students.

For Santomeans, the racial conversations and practices in Portugal differed from their experiences back home. The focus in São Tomé was not on the common Black/white distinction, but rather on distinctions among local ethnolinguistic groups (groups unified by both a common ethnicity and language). All these groups identified as Black.

A few of the Santomean participants expressed how strange and uncomfortable it was for them to be part of a visible minority in Portugal. Santomeans in Portugal learnt that they were seen as Black, and what this meant in a dominantly white society. This process was mainly derogatory, as there are few benefits of being Black in Portugal.

Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa

Finally, there was the positioning of identity through the social category of belonging to an African Portuguese-speaking country. Here the affiliation was not as clear-cut.

Sometimes, Santomeans included themselves in the category and sometimes they didn’t. Santomeans often referred to Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa students as being Portuguese-speaking Africans who also have a home language other than Portuguese. The Santomeans I interviewed lived together with Guineans and Cabo Verdeans, most of whom spoke a creole as their first language.

In contrast, most young Santomeans typically didn’t have a common language other than Portuguese. As such, Santomeans didn’t always align with other members of the category of belonging to an African Portuguese-speaking country in relation to language use.

Why this matters

These findings reflect two main divisions: authentic versus inauthentic speakers of Portuguese; and white versus Black individuals.

What does this mean and why does it matter?

Beliefs, likely perpetuated since colonial times, indicate that “authentic” speakers of Portuguese are white individuals, and “inauthentic” speakers of Portuguese are Black individuals. But Santomeans are Black individuals and speak Portuguese as their first (and often only) language. Therefore, young immigrant Santomeans in Portugal have to adapt to align with different categories according to their needs.

Read more: How the dimensions of human inequality affect who and what we are

My findings served to highlight the importance of race in the process of identity formation among these Santomeans. It creates challenges which can result in lower achievement in school and lower chances of good employment. Santomeans in Portugal learn that they are being seen as Black, and discover what this means in a dominantly white society.

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