David F. Brand is a Brooklyn-based writer and social worker. He runs preventive health programs for low-income New Yorkers throughout the city.
Casas do Benfica aren’t just gathering spaces to cheer on a wildly popular football club. In cities everywhere, they’re support networks for the Portuguese-speaking diaspora.
Ever since Jose Pereira moved to New England from the Azores, his Portuguese identity and community have been tied to his beloved soccer team, Benfica.
“When I came to the United States, the first thing I did was find a Portuguese newspaper and look for the Benfica score,” says Pereira, surrounded by photos, posters, and scarves honoring his favorite team. “Benfica means a lot to me. More than I want.”
He’s sitting in the basement of the Casa do Benfica do Nova Inglaterra, a fan club he founded in 1995 with his friends—fellow Portuguese immigrants and Benfica supporters. From the street, there are only a few subtle signs of what’s inside this brick building in Cambridge, Massachusetts: A Portuguese flag flaps alongside an American one, a vinyl banner celebrates the club’s most recent domestic championship, and a Benfica crest above the door might be mistaken as the logo for the U.S. Marines.
Inside, however, passion for the team is impossible to miss. Here, as in Casas do Benfica around the world, fandom is a catalyst for organizing the Portuguese diaspora, welcoming immigrants and their descendants, as well as fellow Portuguese-speakers from Brazil and Cape Verde. The Casas do Benfica exist as cultural clubs and informal social service organizations, helping members in need and enabling Luso-Americans to preserve their ethnic identity.
“We’re not easy to find, but if anyone walks in and needs something––help finding a job or a place to stay––we will help,” Pereira says.
Sport Lisboa e Benfica, known simply as Benfica, is Portugal’s most beloved soccer team and one of the country’s Os Tres Grandes—the three big clubs that dominate the Primeira Liga. In 2006, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Benfica as the most widely supported soccer club in the world, with more than 160,000 socios, paying members of the team's fan club.
Outside Portugal, which has at least 186 registered supporters’ sites, the Northeastern United States contains the highest concentration of Casas do Benfica in the world. With light traffic on I-95, an ardent Benfiquista could conceivably visit all 10 between Cambridge and Philadelphia in one day, or at least one weekend. Overall, North America hosts 14 Casas, with two in Toronto, one in Montreal, and another in San Jose that serves as a Portuguese restaurant. In October, leadership from each will gather in Danbury, Connecticut, for their annual conference.
Meanwhile, there is a Casa in Pretoria and another in Johannesburg. London, Brussels, and Paris all have one, too. In Sydney, a Casa do Benfica hidden behind a tennis club is a locals-only bistro serving authentic Portuguese cuisine. In Hamburg, another Casa do Benfica restaurant in a traditionally Portuguese section of the city near the Elbe received a 3.5-star rating on TripAdvisor.
“The fact that it is a business family [sic] makes it even more authentic than all other portuguese restaurants in Hamburg that I've tried so far,” one German reviewer wrote.
Building community in Cambridge
On match days in Cambridge, supporters pack the basement bar stuffed with team memorabilia alongside several televisions, a projector screen, and a pool table. For big matches, like when Benfica faces rival teams Sporting or Porto, club members set up an additional projector in a hall upstairs.
During calmer occasions, the bartender serves glasses of Sagres and Heineken to the middle-aged patrons, including several original members of the club who play dominoes and watch the day’s other matches.
Many long-time members work in construction or at local colleges—Pereira is a maintenance supervisor at Boston University—and use their contacts to help others find jobs or apartments, Pereira says. They also enable older residents—like the man who visits everyday for a glass of Beirao liqueur—to maintain community in a neighborhood that has experienced a real estate boom and corresponding wave of displacement.
The club continues to entertain visitors from Portugal, serve Portuguese dishes and run a youth soccer program. In addition, members organize a folklore group and host national festivals.
Though he is not Portuguese, writer Doug Mulliken also found community at the Cambridge Casa do Benfica as a college student.
“What interested me then, and what I still find fascinating, is the way Portuguese emigrants have used the idea of getting together to support a team as the basis for the construction of their culture and society in foreign countries,” Mulliken wrote on the blog FootballPortugal in 2006. “Casas do Benfica are much more than just places for the Portuguese to watch football matches, however, as the basement of the Casa do Benfica in Cambridge tellingly proved: watching football matches is the basis from which all other activities spring. For many Portuguese living in foreign countries, being a Benfica fan is a large part of what makes them Portuguese.”
Serving the diaspora
Throughout the late-19th century, thousands of working class Portuguese immigrants arrived in Eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to work in the whaling industry, an economic force in towns like New Bedford and Fall River. The two cities still maintain the highest Portuguese population by percentage in the country and have their own Casas do Benfica.
When whaling stopped, Portuguese migrants who settled in the area found work on commercial fishing boats or in textile factories until Congress instituted nationalistic immigration quotas in the early 20th century. After Congress lifted the quotas in 1965, Portuguese immigration again surged until the early 1980s.
In 1969, Benfica supporters established the United States’ first Casa do Benfica in Newark, today located just outside the traditionally Portuguese Ironbound District. Between 1990 and 1996, after the wave of Portuguese immigration had ended, seven more clubs opened in the United States as supporters achieved more financial security and sought to preserve Portuguese identity.
While Cambridge’s Casa do Benfica has done this for younger people raised in the United States, the participation and patronage of the city’s Brazilian and Cape Verdean residents sustain the club, says financial director Jose Rego.
A hall on the first floor hosts Brazilian capoeira classes and Cape Verdean cultural events, including receptions for visiting dignitaries. A few years ago, a former president of Cape Verde visited the building for a party in the first-floor hall.
Benfica, which has historically represented the Portuguese working class, transcends sports.
“We all speak the same language and we help each other,” says Rego, a banquet chef whose wristwatch features a bejeweled Benfica eagle. “It’s almost like a religion. You feel that spirit. You’re united in values and it’s a union of faith in something that everyone can be proud of.”
Membership at the Cambridge club costs just $30. Behind Pereira and Rego, a life-size cardboard cutout of ‘90s Benfica and national team star Nuno Gomes holds a sign advertising a $55 fee to become a North American socio and receive a special membership kit, emblematic of the club’s aggressive push to maintain the title of World’s Most Supported Club.
Though a scarf embroidered with that slogan hangs on the wall near the bar, not every member at the Cambridge site roots for Benfica.
A man in a pink polo walked into the bar and greeted a laughing Pereira who explained that the man, a long-time member of the club leadership, actually supports arch rival Sporting Clube de Portugal.
“We call him a watermelon: Green on the outside for Sporting but red on the inside for Benfica,” Pereira says. “See, we are all connected. Benfica embraces passion and love.”
Later that afternoon, Alberto Braga, vice president of the Casa do Benfica Hartford, sat with his wife Gina and watched soccer highlights on a large screen inside a squat hall decorated with a Benfica logo stitched in lace, homages to Benfica icon Eusebio, and an elaborate wood carving where three eagles surround the club crest.
The Hartford Casa, located near a strip mall and across the street from an auto repair shop, resembles a tidy Elk’s Lodge or American Legion. The hall hosts Portuguese cultural events like fado performances, where guitarists play Portugal’s national music on stage near a small bar.
The Bragas both grew up in the Azores and adored the club well before they met and moved to Connecticut. Alberto Braga tugs on his polo shirt and explains that much of his wardrobe is Benfica red.
“Benfica is my life,” he says.