NEWARK, N.J. — In the Portuguese-speaking section of New Jersey’s most populous city, virtually no one, when asked, had heard of António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations and a one-time prime minister of Portugal.
At a popular restaurant on Ferry Street, the main drag nicknamed Portugal Street, one person eating his platter lunch of chicken and rice was asked if he knew who the leader of the UN was. He responded, “Nikki Haley.”
After clearing up that Haley was the United States envoy to the UN, the man, born in Peru but now an American living in Kearney, N.J., digressed into the state of the UN, as a large TV screen on the wall broadcast the RTP network — Rádio e Televisão de Portugal. Without provoking, he said the UN could work more on “educating people here” — the Ironbound section — about what it does and why it matters.
A daylong informal survey of shopkeepers and residents in the Ironbound, a bastion of not only Portuguese-speaking people but also Spanish speakers, revealed such little knowledge of the UN and Guterres that it was hard to believe that only 20 miles separate this urban pocket from the UN’s home in Midtown Manhattan. Guterres has been leading the UN since Jan. 1, 2017, for a five-year term.
Do you know who António Guterres is, I asked repeatedly in a bakery, fish shop, liquor store and a pack of teenagers on the street. “I don’t know,” was the standard answer, though Manuel Nata, the owner of Popular Fish Market, on Ferry Street, said as he counted a giant stack of dollar bills: “Who? Oh yeah, he was prime minister, all right. Sure, I know he runs the UN.” (Guterres was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002.)
Nata hails from Portugal but has lived in Newark for 56 years. His store has so many different kinds of fish for sale, row upon row of fish, that you don’t need to guess the local residents’ preference for lunch and dinner.
“He was a good prime minister,” Nata said. When asked about the UN itself, he added: “I don’t know. It’s got a lot of work to do. Lots of things going on in the world. The people are starving.”
Does the UN still have a purpose? “Yeah, God help us.”
When I broached the office of the mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, about the idea of Guterres’s coming to the Ironbound neighborhood, the response was terse but welcoming, saying, “your proposal is extremely intriguing.”
“We will pass it on to the Mayor and if an invitation from the Mayor to the Secretary-General should be possible, we will let you know so that you can cover that event,” David Lippman, the mayor’s press officer, wrote in an email.
Guterres actually visited the Ironbound as prime minister in the 1990s, his UN spokesman said, noting that Guterres would be “delighted to return.”
His travel schedule has swept him from continent to continent in the 14 months he has led the UN. Yet his appearances in the US beyond the UN compound have not been far-flung or frequent. He has spoken at New York University and flew to South Carolina — the home state of Nikki Haley — for an appearance in 2017. Other than those jaunts, he has journeyed to Washington, D.C., three times. On April 28, he is expected to visit Cambridge, Mass., to receive the Person of the Year award from the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers.
The Ironbound, with a population of 50,000, has always been a neighborhood of striving immigrants, many of who stayed on for generations or fanned out to towns nearby or farther afield. The area encompasses about four square miles and is named for its network of iron railroad tracks, forges and foundries in what has been a busy hub across centuries. The neighborhood, a 10-minute walk from Penn Station in downtown Newark, began its immigrant status as a stop for Germans, Lithuanians, Italians and Poles in the 19th century.
In the 20th century, African-Americans migrated to the area, along with large numbers of Portuguese and Spanish immigrants, followed by people from Central and South America — “all contributing to the richness of Ironbound’s cultural diversity,” its community center says. Two out of three Ironbound residents came to the US as immigrants to better their lives economically rather than as exiles.
Portuguese immigration to America peaked in the early 1900s, when from 1911 to 1920 almost 90,000 Portuguese arrived, leaving stark poverty behind and a revolution in 1910 in Portugal. In 1917, the US required a literacy test for every person over age 16 who wanted to immigrate to the country, which kept many Portuguese (and others) out.
An immigration act in 1924 set up a quota system, squeezing more people from entering. (President Trump would be undoubtedly pleased to hear that.) The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 dropped the quotas, enabling Portuguese immigrants to flock in, expanding their base in the New York metro area; and in New Bedford and Fall River, Mass., California and Hawaii, among other places. (Montreal also has a Portuguese-speaking section.)
The rivalries in the Ironbound stand out: national flags and soccer jerseys from Portugal and Brazil compete for space in shop and home windows. Men’s clubs and churches ensure a clannish civility. Outsiders come to the neighborhood because it feels deliciously foreign. The community center describes the immigrant enclave as “an economic engine within Newark, driving 40% of its economy and contributing to 33% of its top trade.”
The rumbling of cars and trucks on highways fringing the neighborhood and the proximity of Newark International Airport reinforce the sense that the Ironbound has always nursed a tight community despite its industrial surroundings and the rise and fall and rise of greater Newark.
At Hamburgão, a cafe on Lafayette Street, people ate lunch in the calm, window-filled space, viewing the goings-on outdoors. Portuguese was prevalent, with some of the servers barely mumbling English. When asked whether they knew who “António Guterres” was, they answered with blank looks.
One employee, Vladimir Deoliveira, said the name was Spanish after I wrote it down, pronouncing it as if it had the letter “i” in it, or “Gutierres.”
Most people working at the cafe came originally from Brazil, like Deoliveira, so that could explain their lack of awareness of Guterres. Deoliveira said, “Maybe they know him outside the area” — Ironbound. Of the UN, he added, “I know about the UN.”
Would it be useful for the Ironbound community to have him visit, since he is close by? “It would be a good experience for him and for us,” Deoliveira said. His fellow workers at the cafe were surprised to learn that a Portuguese runs the UN, saying that “someone from my language running the UN is important.”
Questions about the UN’s functions elicited broad generalizations, but the gist of the responses from the Hamburgão crew was that the UN was a “good” organization. Isn’t the UN, they asked, where “Lula and Rousseff” — Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, past presidents of Brazil who have been convicted of corruption — go every year? To which the conversation drifted into the topic of Brazil’s corruption.
“That’s why we’re here,” said one woman behind the counter, Priscilla Mariani.
At GRP Signs, down another side street of family-run shops and narrow three-story homes, Guterres’s name drew more shrugs, although the woman at the counter, Brazilian-born, asked other employees in the back of the shop if they could help answer the question. But they had too much work to do.
It was Friday afternoon, with a harsh lateral wind cutting across the streets and the sun barely perceptive, a far remove from the more temperate climates of Brazil and Portugal. In the skyline, Newark airport was receiving and sending flights from across the world. TAP, the Portuguese airline, is popular at the airport, and a travel agency in the Ironbound advertised flights to Europe and South America with photos of beaches.
At a liquor store that also sold snacks, attracting schoolboys just let out of class for the day to rush in for Cheetos, the clerk, who said her name was Carlota, had Portuguese roots via Angola, a former colony, where she left with her parents 33 years ago.
“He was president, right?,” she said of Guterres after being given a big hint: he was from Portugal. He runs the UN, I nudged her.
“Oh yeah, I know,” Carlota said. Should he come to the Ironbound to get acquainted with the Portuguese here? She thought it would be helpful, given that he was a “UN ambassador.”
As to what the UN does throughout the world, she described it perfectly. “They help the governments” and “talk with each other to come to an agreement for a better world — but sometimes not.”
Carlota wanted to talk more about President Trump, adding that she knew who Haley was but had “no opinion” of her. As for Trump, Carlota said she hoped “he does a good job for the country.”
“On CNN, they ask the same questions about him, but he’s there now [in the White House], so let him do the best he can. We have to help him do what he can.”
Back to roaming the streets again, I dared to ask a pack of middle-school boys if they had heard of Guterres. He runs the UN, I repeated, as I’d done all day. To which they laughed, embarrassed, as one joked: “The UN? What’s the UN?,” prompting a friend to swat him on the head.
This article was updated.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.