Portugal Table of Contents

Portugal's population was remarkably homogeneous and had been so for all of its history. This lack of ethnic variety helped it become the first unified nation-state in Western Europe. For centuries Portugal had virtually no ethnic, tribal, racial, religious, or cultural minorities. Almost all Portuguese spoke the national language, almost all were Roman Catholic, and almost all identified with Portuguese culture and the nation of Portugal. Whereas neighboring Spain had been deeply divided along ethnic, linguistic, and regional lines all through its history, Portugal, which historically represented but one of the Iberian Peninsula's many regional entities, was united. In Portugal, ethnic unity and homogeneity were the rule, rather than the exception.

Although Portugal lacked socially significant ethnic differences, some regional differences existed. The north was generally more conservative and Catholic than the south and was said to be less "tainted" by Moorish or Islamic influences. Regional dances, dress, festivals, and customs had once been very distinctive, but modern communications and transportation had opened up and connected formerly closed regions and produced a greater homogeneity. The Portuguese language still exhibited regional differences, and linguists could often pinpoint a person's geographic origin from his speech, but these differences were not extreme enough to impede understanding among Portuguese.

Protestants lived in Portugal as of the early 1990s, but they were largely confined to the communities of foreigners residing in the country. The small but growing Muslim population from North Africa, mainly guest workers attracted by Portugal's new prosperity, were concentrated in the Algarve and in Lisbon. The number of Jews in Portugal was very small (from 500 to 1,000) and, like Protestants, mainly limited to foreign residents.

Portugal had a sizeable Gypsy population, perhaps as many as 100,000, most of whom lived in the Algarve. Despite government efforts to integrate them into the larger society, Gypsies remained a group apart, seminomadic, earning their living by begging, fortune-telling, handicrafts, and trading.

Portugal's foreign community numbered about 90,000 in 1987. It consisted mainly of Africans (about 40 percent), Spaniards, British, Americans, French, and Germans, most of whom lived in Porto, Lisbon, the area around Cascais, the Algarve, and the Azores and Madeira. These communities were not large and generally did not become involved in Portuguese life.

Portugal's long colonial history, more than half a millennium, has left some traces of ethnic diversity. Former colonists were found mainly in Lisbon, particularly after the colonies were granted independence in the mid-1970s. Groups of Angolans, Mozambicans, São Tomans, Timorese, Goans, and Macaoans have settled in the capital city, and, along with Brazilian immigrants, amounted to perhaps 100,000 persons.

The Goans came from the Indian subcontinent and were usually educated, Roman Catholic, and Portuguese speaking. They were better assimilated than most other groups. The Macaoans were generally of Chinese descent, and many had opened businesses. Another group from Asia, the Timorese, were not as well educated as the other eastern groups. A population of less than 100,000 black immigrants from Portugal's African colonies often lived together in small ghettos in Lisbon and did not generally assimilate. Many of these minorities used Portugal as a stoppingoff point en route to more prosperous countries in Western Europe, but as the Portuguese economy began to improve in the second half of the 1980s, more chose to stay permanently. These ethnic minorities from the former colonies were not fully assimilated and often faced to a varying degree racial and cultural prejudice. However, the small size of these diverse ethnic groups prevented this apartness from being a serious social problem.

The only group from the former colonies that was fully assimilated, despite some cultural and adjustment problems, comprised those coming from the former colonies in Africa who were of Portuguese descent. They had much the same racial and cultural background as the Portuguese themselves. Some of them, like some of the Brazilians, did very well in their cultural homeland and even became wealthy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress