The Portuguese fishing families of Point Loma

Tunaville times

Normandy Seafood Co. "No trip begins on a Friday, because it’s bad luck. When we weren’t catching enough fish, the men concocted a brew of burning herbs and weeds and carried it around the boat to get rid of the evil spirits."
  • Normandy Seafood Co. "No trip begins on a Friday, because it’s bad luck. When we weren’t catching enough fish, the men concocted a brew of burning herbs and weeds and carried it around the boat to get rid of the evil spirits."
  • San Diego Historical Society

Thousands of dollars’ worth of floral arrangements filled the sanctuary of St. Agnes Church in Point Loma. Below the statue of Our Lady of Fatima were anchors and nautical wheels made of blue and white carnations. Floral replicas of tuna vessels were laid beneath Our Lady of Good Voyages, whose plaster arms held the infant Jesus and a tuna clipper. A blanket of white orchids covered the casket containing the remains of a ninety-three-year-old fisherman, and when members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit filed past the cherrywood coffin, each placed a single red rose on top.

A Portuguese community religious procession in Point Loma; 1915. Today there are no Portuguese-speaking priests at St. Agnes.

A Portuguese community religious procession in Point Loma; 1915. Today there are no Portuguese-speaking priests at St. Agnes.

San Diego Historical Society

After hymns were sung in English, a Portuguese choir sang songs of the sea. The president of the American Tunaboat Association extolled the deceased as a pioneer in San Diego’s tuna industry – Manual Oliver Medina was responsible for starting the high-seas tuna fleet in the United States, and he was first to build and skipper ocean-ranging tuna clippers, the speaker noted. “M.O. was first to use radar and first to install refrigerated holds and radios,” he added in tribute. On this March Wednesday in 1986, Medina’s body made its final voyage to Holy Cross Cemetery, where it received the last blessing. Afterwards, hundreds of mourners paid their respects at Medina Castle, the hilltop mansion on Point Loma’s San Elijo Street, where they had often sought the padrinho’s counsel.

Portuguese fisherman at the foot of Kellogg Street in Point Loma; 1905. Ninety percent of the early immigrants were earning a living from the tuna industry.

Portuguese fisherman at the foot of Kellogg Street in Point Loma; 1905. Ninety percent of the early immigrants were earning a living from the tuna industry.

San Diego Historical Society

Two years earlier, in July of 1984, Van Camp, the world’s largest and most modern tuna cannery, closed its Harbor Drive plant. With it went millions of dollars from San Diego’s economy and an estimated 12,000 jobs. Both the demise of San Diego’s last cannery and the death of M.O. Medina symbolized the end of a 110-year-long Portuguese colonization of Point Loma.

In The Portuguese-Americans, published in 1976, author Leo Pap cites Point Loma’s Portuguese enclave as the wealthiest (per capita) in the nation. During the boom when the book was written, fishing was lucrative beyond all expectation. Fishermen provided expensive family and vacation homes, sleek new automobiles, precious gems, lavish furs, and top-quality imported leather goods. It was not unusual then to celebrate a Portuguese wedding at the Hotel del Coronado with a thousand dinner guests. While male relatives fished off the coasts of Mexico and South America for two or three months at a time, women raised their children on the same Point Loma streets on which their parents and grandparents lived. When the providers returned from the sea, enormous celebrations were held. Extravagantly decorated Portuguese fishing boats lit the embarcadero at Christmas.

San Diego’s tuna fleet then numbered 200 and accounted for eighty percent of the world’s catch. Nearly half the vessels were owned by Portuguese dynasties that had been living in Point Loma for several generations. Crew members, nearly three-quarters of whom were Portuguese, addressed each other in the idioms of their native villages while they laid the huge black purse seine nets on the docks. Nautical designers and employees in ship-building trades and in marine supplies and repairs also had Portuguese surnames, although some had converted Oliveira to Oliver, Rodrigues to Rogers, and Machado to Marshall, for instance, to avoid being confused with Hispanics. During the boom, there were two weekly Portuguese-language radio broadcasts from San Diego-based stations.

In 1976, when the earliest Portuguese immigrants arrived on whaling ships from the Azores, they settled in the area on Point Loma now known as La Playa, from Talbot Street to the southernmost end of Rosecrans. The men caught barracuda and yellowtail, which the women salted on drying racks to keep fresh until it reached the market. As the fish dried, the women chased away the marauding seagulls who were hoping for an early lunch. Perhaps it was because their economic life was so connected to that particular area that the immigrants considered themselves residents of the peninsula, rather than of San Diego.

There were a dozen or so Portuguese families in La Playa when Manual Oliver Medina first arrived in 1912. According to legend, he came with only the knapsack on his back and the address of Joao Monise, who ran a fish market near the bay. While he boarded with the Monise family, Medina fished for mackerel from February through May. By the end of that first season, he had supplemented his savings with enough borrowed cash to by an eight-horsepower gas engine boat with a four-ton capacity. (Its fishing jigs were made in Portugal from whale bone.) What he caught in Baja, Medina supplied to the local fish markets that lined up Broadway from the railroad station to the bay. By then, the Pacific Tuna Canning Company had opened next to the Union Fish Company at the foot of F Street, and ten vessels were homeported in San Diego.

Within two years, Medina owned and operated a fifty-one-foot vessel with a thirty-five-horsepower engine; the holds were often full of lobsters that he carried from Ensenada to San Diego. Five years later, there were ten fish canneries in San Diego. By the time the rest of the Medina family emigrated from the Azores in 1920, Medina’s reputation as an entrepreneur was solid; that August. The diminutive fisherman was skipper of a sixty-foot vessel that he brought back to San Diego with a phenomenal thirty-two tons of tuna.


Three years earlier, word had reached a small, primitive village on the Portuguese island of Madeira (360 miles from the African coast) that San Diego was the lobster capital of the Pacific Coast. Paul do Mar villagers also knew there was a Portuguese settlement on the southwest peninsula. A few fishermen came. After they established themselves, they sent for their families, pooled resources, and bought shares in boats. By making their own wine, by growing their own fruits and vegetables, and by depending on the sea for protein, they were able quickly to pay off the trust deeds on their new homes.

Ninety percent of the early immigrants from the Portuguese islands were earning a living from the tuna industry. Because they clustered in the south end of Point Loma, in what we now call La Playa, Roseville, and Fleetridge, the whole community became known as Tunaville. Herbs, lemons, loquats, tangerines, guava, and cherimoyas flourished in Tunaville’s gardens. Distinguished by both live and plaster parrots in cages and by statues of the Virgin Mother, their open greenhouses nurtured tropical flowers. Inside their homes, native flags and handmade musical instruments were a source of pride. Enormous efforts were made to recreate pockets of old-country living on the peninsula; there was very little desire to assimilate.

Frank Medina. His brother's (M. O. Medina) death symbolized the end of a 110-year-long Portuguese colonization of Point Loma.

Frank Medina. His brother's (M. O. Medina) death symbolized the end of a 110-year-long Portuguese colonization of Point Loma.

Although his nautical life consumed most of his time and passion, M.O. Medina had a vision of a united community that would be created by native-born and foreign-born, islanders and mainlanders, laborers and entrepreneurs, without resentment of rivalry. Between fishing trips, he raised funds, chose a site across from what is now Shelter Island, and was responsible for the construction of the Portuguese Hall on Upshur Street. When the wooden building as completed in 1922, it was dedicated to the Holy Spirit, and for half a century, Medina was its president. His drive (and the community’s cash) built St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in 1933, on Evergreen Street, three blocks from the hall. Fifty cents went to Saint Agnes from every ton of fish caught by a Portuguese boat, and fifty cents went to the hall.

By 1935, the pride of Tunaville was the world’s largest tuna clipper, the 135-foot Cabrillo, which had a capacity for holding 350 tons of tuna. During World War II, the United States Navy recruited forty-nine tuna clippers to carry supplies and troops. Crewed by Portuguese fishermen from Tunaville, the boats were sent to the western Pacific, where fifteen were lost.

The Fifties brought big changes to the tuna industry. Japanese competition forced prices down, and in order to sell cheaper, crews had to catch more fish. By the end of 1958, it no longer took three men with three poles to catch a hundred-pound tuna. Huge nets hauled by hydraulic machinery were used to scoop up many tons at a time. Helicopters spotted large schools of fish and guided the ships to them. These were golden days for the industry. Key men – skippers, navigators, and engineers – were getting a percentage of the tonnage. Those in the top-producing fleets were earning $200,000 per year. If the men owned all or even part of the vessel, like the seven Medina brothers, who skippered their own vessels, the profits were much greater. Although financial success could have provided mobility, a fierce attachment to their roots kept the fishermen in Tunaville. The steady influx of relatives coming in from Madeira and the Azores preserved Tunaville’s language and mores and accounted for most of Tunaville’s population; only a small percentage came from the Portuguese mainland, which Tunaville people still call “the continent.”

The last wave of Portuguese immigration in 1974 brought political refugees from Angola after the African colony was granted independence from Portugal. That same year, the turmoil in Portugal from a military coup, the subsequent nationalization of banks and insurance companies, and a sudden counter-coup brought more immigrants to Tunaville. They quickly blended into a well-established economy and a vast network of nepotism among an estimated 5000 fishermen and a few large families, some of which had become 300 and 400 strong.

The early Seventies brought a boat-building boom to San Diego. But builders did not anticipate rising fuel prices, soaring insurance rates, and price cuts — tuna that had brought $1100 per ton soon were bringing only $700 or $800 per ton. As tuna fishing became less profitable, the fleet size dwindled. When the warm El Nino currents sent the tuna toward the western Pacific, the canneries also migrated. First Bumble Bee left in 1982, then Van Camp. Fleet owners expanded their operations to Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand, where profits were greater and cannery workers were paid far less than U.S. workers. Here at home, shipyards cut back on the work force, fuel docks closed, and heavily mortgaged $12 million tuna clippers sold for a fraction of their worth.

Those were hard times in Tunaville. Most crewmen had no marketable land skills. Those who did operated fork lifts or worked in offshore oil drilling. Hotels and motels in Point Loma and on Harbor and Shelter Islands absorbed some of the former cannery workers into their cleaning and maintenance crews. Some fishermen joined the housekeeping department at Balboa Naval Hospital. Among retired laborers, there was a small exodus back to the old country, where their American Social Security checks would stretch further. Most stayed.

Today, immigration has stopped. There are no Portuguese-speaking priests at St. Agnes, the docks are quiet, and the Portuguese presence in Point Loma appears diminished. But whenever a big fishing boat comes in for repairs, old-timers hang around Southwest Marine and National Steel and Campbell Shipyard docks to watch and to reminisce. After the closing of Van Camp’s and the subsequent industry crash of ’84, when many vessels were repossessed, only the most solvent survived; most of them operate under foreign flags.

Their owners and skippers have become flying fishermen. Rather than driving out to the embarcadero to inspect their boats, they fly to Samoa and to Puerto Rico. The wives visit while the children stay in Tunaville with the grandmothers, who seldom leave the peninsula except to visit the old family homes in Madeira and the Azores. Two years ago, the thirty-five-year old treasurer of the American Tunaboat Association began managing his Samoa-based vessels from his Tunaville home, where he buys supplies and arranges for unloading via computer and radio. Some of the fishermen invested their earnings in income property and have been able to retire in their early forties.

Portuguese Hall, which now occupies a square-city block, is still the center of life in Tunaville. There, kids who went to the first grade together talk about their grandchildren. In the next room, retired fishermen play cards — bisca and sueca — in the afternoons, as they did when they were on the boats. On special occasions, octogenarian Margaret Madruga, a direct descendant of the first family that settled here from the Azores, cooks bacalhau for hundreds of people in the hall’s mammoth kitchen. On weekends, the hall is filled with families celebrating an elderly fisherman’s birthday or a wedding. Today the austerity is noticeable; 500 guests are more the norm than 1000.

During the festivals in the hall last Christmas, in keeping with the old Iberian maritime tradition of making precious jewels and metals the symbol of successful voyages, fishermen in soft leather jackets decorated themselves in thick gold chains and flashy gold and diamond rings. Their equally bejeweled wives, some in full-length furs, dressed their sons in three-piece gray suits; they looked more like miniature bankers and insurance salesmen than three-year-old boys. Gathered conspicuously in the corners were some of the old-timers who have never learned to speak English. The center of the gathering was a miniature barca, a boat elaborately decorated with lights. As the generations celebrated, one ninety-two-year-old fisherman said to the person sitting next to him, “The kids are going to school now to learn other ways of making a living. But fishing or not fishing, the Portuguese will always be in Tunaville.

“When we first came over in 1920, we rented a three-bedroom house in La Playa for twenty dollars a month from the Zolezzi family,” recalls Frank Medina, one of M.O. Medina’s younger brothers. “There were lots of Portuguese families in the neighborhood, but only four families had cars then. We walked everywhere, just like we did in the Azores. People gathered at our house. They played Portuguese instruments. We also had mandolins, twelve-string guitars, and violas. And we danced the chamarita.

“I was ten years old when we came, and I enrolled in Cabrillo Elementary School. I was in its first graduating class. Before Shelter Island was filled in, my brothers and I dug for clams in the shoals after school. When I was thirteen, I did some serious fishing. I spent that summer catching albacore on the San Joaquin, which my father and M.O. owned. The boat was eighty-five feet long. I made $500 that summer. That was a lot of money in 1923. In the fall, I went to Point Loma High, when it was brand new. I got pretty good grades in print shop. Know how? Because I traded fishing stories with the print shop teacher.

“The following summer, when I was fourteen, I went to sea again, and I never returned to school. I wasn’t encouraged to. The notion of going to school was a foolish waste of time when an industry was developing in the ocean. At fifteen, I was earning a full share, the same as a householder. I remember fishing before refrigeration, even before ice. I caught tuna with poles and lines until I was nearly fifty. In 1972, my 130-foot purse seiner caught fire at Campbell Shipyard. That’s when I retired. Tuna fishing is a young man’s game. I was sixty-two years old then. But it’s hard to stay away. For fifteen years, I’ve been a daily fixture at the American Tunaboat Association. I’m there every morning telling fish stories – about the storms, the rescues, the shipwrecks, I still get goose pimples thinking about it.”

Helen Labruzzi

Helen Labruzzi

“Although the men were gone most of the time, there was plenty of activity in Tunaville in the Twenties, when I was growing up. Everyone was poor then. We didn’t have toys, but we stuck together and made rafts that we floated in the ponds,” remembers Helen Labruzzi. “During the Depression, there was an American grocer on Rosecrans who gave us credit when we had no cash. We kids trapped crayfish and put them in vegetable cans and sold them to the fishermen for bait. We used the money to help pay off the grocery credit. After the Depression, things got better, and the boys who quit high school to go fishing were pulling up in brand-new Buicks and Cadillacs. All paid for.

“Portuguese was the only language we spoke at home. At school we spoke it among ourselves. Every September, we stopped what we were doing and got involved in making wine. Mt grandfather was the kingpin of winemaking. I’d come home from school, and there he was in our backyard, where the Sun Harbor Motel is now, with black rubber rain boots. There were five of us kids. We all crushed grapes with our feet, but he didn’t let us go barefoot. We crushed Concord reds we got from a vineyard in Escondido. There was lots of competition – who had the best grapes, who made the best wine. Everyone tasted everyone else’s wine. After the war, people either had their own wine presses or they borrowed them from neighbors. The vats were mostly in yards and garages. Some of the old Tunaville houses had wine cellars.

“Most of the girls quit high school and went to the canneries. We packed mackerel and sardines. I worked at the High Seas Cannery, where the Rondelet apartments are now (across from Portuguese Hall). I was earning thirty-three cents an hour flaking mackerel. Later, the canneries were paying on the piecework system. That was more challenging.

“Most of us stayed in the canneries until we married fishermen. That’s what I did. Arranged marriages were common. Sometimes cousins married cousins.

“We lived so close to town, but we also felt separated from the mainland. I went to a movie once. It was about forty years ago. I took my grandmother to see Song of Bernadette. I never go downtown. What for? Everything I need is here in Tunaville.”

Frank Fernandes

Frank Fernandes

“My mother and I came in 1940 to join my father,” muses Frank Fernandes. “He’d been fishing on the peninsula for two years. I was eleven when I left. My schoolmates in Portugal knew about Point Loma. They thought it was a dreamland. Maybe they were jealous. When we first came, we lived with my aunt on Canon Street, but then we found our own place on Dickens Street, we still visited our aunts and uncles every day. All the Portuguese boys played soccer at Cabrillo playground, and about 400 people came to watch us. We played baseball too. The Tunaville Wildcats were the older kids, the Tunaville Sluggers were younger. During the summer, we’d sail downtown in a small boat. We landed at the foot of Grape Street. Before the land was filled in, we’d row from one area of Point Loma to another.

“During the war, the Tunaville kids felt patriotic about our new country. Everyone was involved in civil defense. We collected grease, metal scraps, and newspapers, and we turned them in at Cabrillo Elementary School on wooden wagons that we made ourselves.

“Tunaville celebrations centered around St. Agnes Church. Live animals were brought in as contributions – goats, calves, chickens, rabbits. In Portugal, only the old women and little kids went to church. In Tunaville, everyone went. After Mass, we’d begin at the house next to the church – singing, eating, dancing, and drinking homemade wine. We’d stop at each house, and by the time we got to the end of the block, we were pretty happy. No one in Tunaville locked any doors. Every door was open. Everyone fed us.

“When I was sixteen, I left Point Loma High. Most of my friends did. The war had just ended and I wanted to get a car, so I went fishing. When I was seventeen, I got shipwrecked off the Mexican coast. We lost everything. My cousin and I were walking down the streets of Puerto Vallarta in our underwear. When I was twenty-two, I was part owner of the Golden Glow. I used to get homesick for Portugal. On my first trip back there, I met a Portuguese girl and we got married. I’ve been retired for nearly ten years. But I miss the old days when everyone went fishing. I spent thirty-four years at sea. Sometimes In go out to the rocks and I catch a few fish.”

Phyllis Rose.

Phyllis Rose.

“My brother and I used to walk to school with Frank Fernandes,” says Phillis (Feliz) Rose, who is a lifelong Tunaville resident. “Folkways in Tunaville died hard. Relatives kept coming over from these primitive villages, and they made sure the double standard was kept alive. Boys could do whatever they wanted, but we weren’t even allowed to ride bicycles. Even roller skates were frowned upon. We girls stayed home learning domestic skills under the watchful eyes of aunts, grandmothers, and other female relatives. We all attended the monthly gatherings of the Portuguese-American Society and Portuguese civic clubs with our families. We put on parades and fireworks, There were dances at the Portuguese Hall. Portuguese bands played Sousa marches — he was Portuguese, you know.

“Even in the Fifties, chaperones were still around. We weren’t allowed to date in high school. Wearing make-up was absolutely forbidden. The American girls did. Our parents called them boca vermelha. The literal translation is ‘red mouth.’ That meant lipstick. After a while, boca vermelha came to mean anyone who wasn’t Portuguese.

“I married a Tunaville fisherman. When he was at sea, I’d socialize with the other women. They were all married to fishermen. We had sewing groups in each other’s houses. Sometimes we played cards. We had no outside interests. We never thought of going to a movie. Today my children and my grandchildren all live nearby. My daughters work on Harbor Island. My son is chief engineer on the Captain Frank Medina. He’s fourth.

Mike Mascarenhas

Mike Mascarenhas

“I was born on Fenelon Street on the same block as three great-aunts, three great-uncles, and a bunch of cousins. When I was growing up in the Fifties, I thought the whole world was Portuguese,” explains Mike Mascarenhas, whose late father, Captain Tony Mascarenhas, was responsible for creating the Tuna Hall of Progress, a center that documented San Diego’s tuna industry. “Winemaking was a big tradition on Fenelon Street. It was big in our family. During Prohibition, my grandfather went overboard one year and made 400 gallons. When he was questioned by the police, he explained that it was all for personal use, which it was. Even us kids, we drank wine with our meals, diluted with water. One of my favorite childhood memories was the smell of grapes on Fenelon Street. After the neighbors were finished making wine, they rinsed out the equipment and you could actually see the wine flowing down the street.

“Two years of fishing and some time in Vietnam took me away from Tunaville to twenty-seven states and six countries. When I was in the service, I realized that not everyone grew up like I did. These guys I was with – they didn’t have any community hall. I couldn’t figure out where they got together. By the time I got back, Point Loma land values had skyrocketed. I was married then, and I couldn’t afford to live in Tunaville. I was banished to Imperial Beach until the property I owned there matured in value. It took me eleven years to get back home. This is the only place I want to be. My real-estate management company is five minutes from home. I’d no sooner leave Tunaville than go to the moon.”

John Reis

John Reis

“When I left Tunaville nineteen years ago to live in Pacific Beach with my wife, my mother’s heart was broken,” explains John Reis, who was born in Tunaville forty years ago to a maritime family from Madeira. “I haven’t really left. I go there at least once a day, sometimes more. I just don’t sleep there anymore. I don’t remember speaking English until I was seven years old. I remember the widows dressed in black sitting on their front porches waving to all of us. They’re still there – and they’re still waving. They’ll always be there.

“When I was twenty-one, I was skipper of my father’s boat. Fishermen are very superstitious. No trip ever begins on a Friday, because it’s bad luck. When we weren’t catching enough fish, the men concocted a brew of burning herbs and weeds and carried it around the boat to get rid of the evil spirits that were keeping the tuna away. Even today, my mother uses folk remedies. She rubs a clove of garlic on a bruise. It works.”

Reis’s wife Dannie says, “In our marriage, and in every other marriage where one spouse is Portuguese and the other isn’t, the Portuguese culture is dominant. When John was at sea, a car pulled up to my house and four or five ‘black widows’ came unannounced, carrying candles and statues of the blessed virgin. They hung a broom upside down over the front door so no witch could enter. Despite the witchcraft and the terrible gossip, there’s a lot of comfort in being part of this tradition. When there’s a crisis, we drop whatever we’re doing and make food. Then we go to the scene of the crisis and we stay until it’s over. When my father-in-law was dying of cancer, forty of us moved into the house for six weeks. Even sadness is made bearable because no one is ever alone.”

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