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.
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.
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.