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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Street nationalism in Portugal

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Portugal, in my mind, has never been associated with any strong nationalistic sentiments. When I arrived in Lisbon in 2009, right in the middle of the current crisis (which meant delays with salaries, grants, cuts, and sour faces on the streets), nothing really showed the signs of overt nationalism.

Over the next five years of my residence in Lisbon, however, my suspicions that nationalism was growing were confirmed. Some visible signs of national resurgence became quite evident. Even the left were asking for a "patriotic" government, and this kind of language is usually associated with right-wing ideology.

The Portuguese may say, "no, there is no nationalism here." OK. But I have an ace up my sleeve.

Where else in the world can you find a book of the favourite sayings of the country's ex-dictator in a prominent place at the post office? Just check your nearest Portuguese Post (CTT) bookshelf for the last edition of Salazar's maxims on nation, state, women, and so on.

But this is still low-hanging fruit. You have to fish around for real bacalhau (Portuguese for cod). After all, what is wrong with Salazar–apart from the fact that he ran an authoritarian regime from 1932 to 1968?

In times of crisis, countries do often find that they need to readjust or reinvent their national symbols, icons, myths, traumas, and heroes. Portugal is a tourist country with sun, sea, and gastronomy, so promoting Portugueseness pays dividends. Why not commercialize a few national symbols?

Today, you can buy your pastel de nata (iconic Portuguese custard tart) in metro stations. Fado monuments like the one near Rossio in downtown Lisbon remind us that this unique singing performance is a Portuguese contribution to UNESCO heritage. More curious relics like yellow trams become tourist icons and feature on a wide range of commercial products as well.

But there are many less visible "flags of Portugal." They might not count as nationalism with a capital "N"–the kind that is out on parade on national days–but they are a sort of "street nationalism" that is made perceptive to everyone on a daily basis. We are all familiar with the kind of nationalism that involves ceremonies with flag raising and anthems sung, but nationalism is equally or maybe even better understood by looking at things like magazine covers, national beverages, and national sport.

What kind of nationalism can be seen on the streets? How can itinerants like me experience the nation in everyday life, at bus stops, in the shops, in telephone booths, or in the airport?

Let's just go for a walk and fish around on the streets of Lisbon to get an idea if "street nationalism" is indeed something observable. Where do we start? How about some shopping?

A taste of Portugal

Arguably, food is one of the major vehicles nationalism that exist, and also the one that we encounter the most. Surprisingly, bacalhau, a Portuguese major food icon, is exclusively fished and salted in Norway, but consumption of national products is also encouraged.

Nationalism in Pingo Doce: check-outs display the slogan "By Portugal and for the Portuguese." Photo by Dennis Zuev.
Nationalism in Pingo Doce: check-outs display the slogan "By Portugal and for the Portuguese." Photo by Dennis Zuev.

As soon as you arrive at Pingo Doce (one of the biggest Portuguese supermarket chains) you are invited buy national products: national pork, national apples, national dried fruit. Pingo Doce's slogan, For Portugal by Portuguese, reinforces the important role of the customer, whose choice to buy national products can help save the nation. Displayed at the supermarket's entrance is the newspaper Sol (The Sun), which has a supplement for children called "Sons of the Nation." It is dedicated to the Portuguese Nobel Prize winners Antonio Egas Moniz and Jose Saramago.

Children's books tell the story of Portugal's Nobel Prize winners. Photo by Dennis Zuev.
Children's books tell the story of Portugal's Nobel Prize winners. Photo by Dennis Zuev.

In the last few years, Lisbon Portela Airport has undergone major changes and a whole section of the Duty Free area has been designated to national products. Every airport sells souvenirs, but Lisbon Airport has a very explicit Portuguese showcase. The products are mainly for tourists to take home, but the display sends an implicit message to the Portuguese as well: "we have a country that we can be proud of."

Time to celebrate Portugalidade

And now we are at the bus stop. It is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that Portugal is not a beer drinker's paradise (there are only two brands here, Sagres and Super Bock). But Sagres's advertising campaigns in bus stops amaze me. They suggest that everyone identifying as Portuguese, no matter where they live, can be united under the Sagres flag. I don't have my sun (in London) but I have my Sagres. I don't have my Alfama (in New York) but I have my Sagres. Nao tenho pastel de nata (in Rio), mas tenho a minha Sagres. The advertisement collects a nice mélange of the best of Portugal.

Advertisement for Sagres beer, says "I don't have Alfama but I have my Sagres." Photo by Dennis Zuev;
Advertisement for Sagres beer, says "I don't have Alfama but I have my Sagres." Photo by Dennis Zuev

National Day is always the favourite day of small nations. Just take a look at ecstatic Norway on their Constitution Day and the sea of national flags carried by children. Surprisingly, although Portugal technically has a national day, called the Day of Camões (after the Portuguese sixteenth century poet and the author of a national epic), but it is not celebrated here. When I searched in the Internet, I came up with links to Portuguese celebrations in Toronto, London, and Geneva, but nothing in Lisbon. Portugal used to hold Independence Day on the first of December, but it was canceled permanently in 2013 in an effort to reduce the number of public holidays.

Advertisement for cheese, says "The king of your birthplace." Photo by JCDecaux.
Advertisement for cheese, says "The king of your birthplace." Photo by Dennis Zuev;

A colleague of mine, who is an historian, noted that the declaration of independence from Spain was not such an important event in Portuguese history anyway.

Sometimes Portuguese nationalist discourse attempts a humorous touch, such as in the Licor Beirao advertising campaign in 2011. They feature caricatures of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy holding a bottle, saying "Portugal gives you its best." Is this an allusion to corruption, or a humble Portuguese response to European Union hardliner nations?

It wouldn't be the only time that the Portuguese have publicly shamed European countries for their (in)actions during the financial crisis. In 2011, Finland was threatening to block Portugal's economic bailout. In response, the Portuguese made a video listing all the ways that the Portuguese have contributed to world culture and society, including helping out poverty-stricken Finland in the 1930s. This YouTube battle went viral, using nationalism as an argument in favour of regional solidarity.

Although these remarks may seem to be minuscule observations of things as grand as nations, I would argue that it is exactly these microlevel signs that create a framework for belonging. This is especially true during this moment of struggle when the Portuguese are assessing their financial worthiness and considering their national spiritual unity.

No, no, Portuguese national identity it is not just about fado, football and Fatima. There is more fat in bacalhau than you think.

What kind of nationalism can be seen on the streets? How can itinerants like me experience the nation in everyday life, at bus stops, in the shops, in telephone booths, or in the airport?

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A celebration in downtown Lisbon. Photo by Dennis Zuev.
A celebration in downtown Lisbon. Photo by Dennis Zuev.