A Slice of Portugal Thrives in Tarrytown 

Ricardo Serra, Cecilia Silva, and Alexander Xisto inside the Portuguese American Cultural Center of the Tarrytowns. Photo by Marc Ferris

After World War II, many Portuguese immigrants arrived in Tarrytown seeking steady income.  

“The men worked at GM [General Motors] and the women took sewing jobs on Central Avenue,” said Cecilia Silva, whose father arrived in 1957 and helped build the clubhouse that houses the Portuguese American Cultural Center of the Tarrytowns. 

The center’s name references North Tarrytown, now known as Sleepy Hollow, where many Portuguese immigrants toiled at the former GM plant, a site now occupied by the Edge-on-Hudson residences. 

Portuguese social clubs once dotted Westchester County as immigrants also settled in other shoreline communities along the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. But the clubhouses in New Rochelle and Port Chester are gone and the Portuguese Club of Ossining is a quiet place. 

The cultural flames still flicker at the Tarrytown center, founded in 1945, which counts 200 member families. They serve food on Thursday nights and the place bustles on weekends. When the 500-seat upstairs banquet hall fills up, expect music, dancing and laughter. 

“Everyone is welcome here, even if you’re not a member,” said Ricardo Serra, the club’s genial president. “Anyone can join. One of our members is from Hungary.” 

Everyone is welcome at the Portuguese American Cultural Center of the Tarrytowns. Photo by Marc Ferris

On a recent Friday evening, people bantered in Portuguese as they sipped Sagres and Super Bock beer. Port wine, still wine made with bagasse grapes and arguadente bagaceira brandy also lubricated tongues. 

As the SIC Noticias channel delivered news from the homeland, several foursomes gathered around small tables to play the card game Sueca. Loud cheers mixed with groans whenever anyone scored a goal in the furious foosball competitions. 

“They play for drinks,” said former club president Alexander Xisto. 

Several members of the robust community contend that they are forgotten European immigrants to the United States whose cultural and historical contributions are often omitted from the books. 

“We’re a small country, but our language is one of the biggest in the world,” said Serra. 

Seafarer Vasco De Gama opened up European exploration in the 1400s, and Magellan met his fate in the early 1500s, but after that, what’s the story? In part, it includes settling in southern New England port towns, where Portuguese sailors spearheaded the whaling industry in the 1820s and eventually introduced the ukulele to Hawaiians. 

Center members are still abuzz over the visit of Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in 2021. 

“They closed the streets and there was FBI and Secret Service everywhere,” said Serra. “He was really impressed with the place, especially after we took him upstairs.”  

Yes, the president of Portugal, who is still in office, shares a name with famous bandleader John Philip Sousa. Other well-known Portuguese Americans include actor Tom Hanks, chef Emeril Legasse, novelist Danielle Steele, singer Katy Perry, Journey frontman Steve Perry, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry (Perry is a common Americanization of the name Pereira) and Meredith Viera, who lives in Irvington. 

Silva, whose father worked at the former GM plant, married a Portuguese immigrant whom she met when the club occupied 45 Beekman Ave. in Sleepy Hollow. Their granddaughters attend Esola Fernao de Magalhaes, the center’s language and culture school. 

“Keeping young people involved is a challenge,” she said. Her parents dealt with the same thing. “They wanted to keep us Old World, with different priorities. They didn’t want us to enter American society.” 

One time, she and her sister wearied of socializing at the club. “We begged them to let us go to our school dance, but after we got there, no one was dancing,” she said. “We realized how much fun we had at our get-togethers.” 

Club members also point with pride to last June 10, celebrated as Portugal Day throughout the Portuguese-speaking world. For the first time ever, the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge bathed in the red and green colors of the mother country’s flag. 

“It didn’t just happen,” said Xisto. “It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears.” 

Portuguese Americans may be overlooked, “but for a lot of us, we never forget where we come from,” said Silva. “It’s so easy to get lost in the mainstream but if we don’t preserve our culture, no one else is going to do it for us.” 

PHOTO: Ricardo Serra, Cecilia Silva, Alexander Xisto
CAPTION: Ricardo Serra, Cecilia Silva, and Alexander Xisto inside the Portuguese American Cultural Center of the Tarrytowns. Photo by Marc Ferris 

CAPTION: Everyone is welcome at the Portuguese American Cultural Center of the Tarrytowns. Photo by Marc Ferris 

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About the Author: Marc Ferris