Lares: A Reflection on the Portuguese Third Generation and Placemaking

Originally Published in Pool LA, no. 6: PLANT (2021)

by Zachary Torres

“Now, what took place in the beginning was this: the divine or semidivine beings were active on earth. Hence the nostalgia for origins is equivalent to a religious nostalgia. Man desires to recover the active presence of the gods; he also desires to live in the world as it came from the Creator’s hands, fresh, pure, and strong …. it could be called a nostalgia for paradise….”1

The nostalgia for paradise is the condition of the exile, which is a multifaceted state of existence: When one is in exile from a place, one is also in exile from the self. Nostalgia is longing for the reunion of place and self. For the immigrant, truly in exile, the nostalgia for paradise transforms the original nation into patria, fatherland or motherland; it sanctifies it as the home of the ancestors, as the sacred site, as the origins of the world from which the immigrant is de-rooted and from which they still find their center. But here, the immigrant is like the first mythic hero who, having quit the homeland, founds a new world, establishes a new cosmogony. And it’s to their progeny that the burden of nostalgia will fall. For the second and third generations will not have firsthand accounts of the patria, and with the struggle of assimilation, they long for an understanding of themselves and their history, their origin, which can only be satisfied, if barely, in the sacred pilgrimage back to the motherland that so many immigrant-descendants undertake. And this is another type of exile: the liminal space between ethnic minority and assimilated citizen. It is an exile of shame, one in which the innocence and fragrance of childhood customs are corrupted and forgotten. It is the binding of the confessional tongue, the submission of your mother’s language to another one that your grandmother garbled in her throat and forced out with no conviction. It is the shame of needing your mother to translate your grandmother’s sister’s stories. It is the shame that even now I write this confession in English, having surrendered to the ease of what it means to be born American in a home full of gold crucifixes. These children long for the tree of knowledge rooted in the soil of their edenic homeland. They are de-centered, between two lands, between remembrance and forgetting.

The rootedness they seek is lares: the god of the dwelling, the god of the parcel of earth belonging to you, the god that roots you to earth, the god of your space. For the Romans, “Lares were propitious spirits that guarded the home and fields.”2 Along with the penates and genius loci, they ensured the prosperity of the household and their veneration was considered more important than that of the Olympians. In later centuries, the lares, originally chthonic spirits, were conflated with the spirits of ancestors. And thus, the gods of the earth and the mythic heroes were joined as one deity.

Architectural philosophers, such as Christian Norberg-Schulz, wrote of the genius loci of a place, borrowing this other deity’s name to describe the unique quality of a place, of a particular framing of the earth, of an architectural moment. For Norberg-Schulz, the genius loci is intimately tied to the earth; it is the spirit of the smallest division of the earth: a man’s property. Yet, my issue with the term genius loci is that it denies the human role in placemaking. It does not account for the collective memory of the people who dwell therein. Genius loci is the spirit of the earth, unfiltered. I propose then, that lares is the spirit of the earth imbued with the memorial blood of the ancestors. 

In my parents’ kitchen we have a plaque invoking Christ: “O Senhor, abençoai o nosso lar.”3  These words, written in a red Gothic font, accompany an image of O Nosso Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, of whom there was also a large statue in the Portuguese church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His shallow, sorrowful face, with crimson red blood dripping from the crown of thorns, his frail body wrapped in a matching crimson shawl with gold encrusted swirls and fleurs-de-lis, inhabited the shallow narthex of the brick church and used to terrify me as a child, and even now evokes in me that feeling of terror, of abandonment. Today, processing past him while bearing the weight of the casket of my last grandparent, he looks at me with quiet judgment, calling me back to venerate the original statue in my ancestors’ home, their lar lar, whose etymology is intimately linked to lares, to the spirit of home.

Norberg-Schulz stated, “the house remains the central place of human existence, the place where the child comes to understand his being in the world and the place from which man departs and to which he returns.”4 When I recall childhood, I imagine the space of my grandmother’s apartment, a cut in American space where Portuguese scents and sounds could roam free. This apartment, imbued with my grandmother’s nostalgic placemaking, was more home than my parents’ generic suburban ranch. Lares roots dwellingness, it gives meaning to existence in establishing a direct connection to the earth and to the community of ancestors who inhabited this same piece of earth. Lares is the force that constructs the personal cosmogony. Immediately, one is at home when the lares is manifested because one has the protection of the soil sanctified by the family. Lares is the god of the family: it is the soul of every ancestor joined to the soul of the earth. It is the family. It is the earth. For the Greeks and Romans, this was a literal union, as Robin Dripps explains in Site Matters: 

“The souls of the dead did not depart for a foreign world; they continued to exist underground in close proximity to the living, from whom they required regular attention. This gave to the soil a meaning of considerable personal import, suggesting an unexpected fatality. The advice to bury the dead near the front entrance of the house to facilitate consultation with one’s ancestors when leaving or returning reveals much about this vitality and the grounding anticipated from generational continuity.”5

This is not the only example of home-burial, and the ancient world is rife with examples, such as the civilization of Çatalhöyük, whose people slept over the shallow graves of their parents and grandparents. The earth and the ancestors are inseparable. Even my family’s last legal ties to the Portuguese earth, a small, empty, house on São Miguel, is adjacent to the village cemetery, and I wonder if the souls of my grandparents, all buried in America, do not long to be reunited with the earth that nourished them in childhood. And I wonder if one day, when I too am buried, if my soul will be united to theirs and to those of their grandparents, and their grandparents, and all those before them, and if I will continue the lares down through the generations after me.

The lares is our preordained spiritual allotment of the earth from which we derive meaning, connection to the earth and to the ancestors, and thus to our place and role in the community. It is from the lares that we discover our centers — they are our centers — from which we branch out to manifest the earth, and thus ourselves. But in immigrating, is the lares severed? How many generations to re-establish its roots ?

In every nation, the homeland, patria, is mythologized as a sacred ancestor. There is Marianne in France, Columbia for America, Ibu Pertiwi in Indonesia; in Portugal, we are descendants of Bacchus. It is the earth, the country,  itself that is mythologized. The country, in this sense, is equated to Lefebvre’s description of space as, “neither merely a medium nor a list of ingredients, but an interlinkage of geographic form, built environment, symbolic meanings, and routines of life.”6 Country: A word related to the earth. The country announces a geographic territory. The country stretches out across some square miles, enclosed by natural phenomena like mountains, rivers, oceans (which are themselves mythologized). The country dissects the earth. It replaces the term “earth,” by rendering it more specific, more unique. The country divides the monotheistic goddess into multiple local gods. The country gives birth to polytheism. The lares, in turn, reunites all the gods into the god of place. The lares is the spirit that roots one to the earth and to the community. It is the continuity of existence.

In immigrating, the patria is mythologized a second time as an edenic paradise to which the immigrant longs to return. It is not necessarily a physical return that is sought — especially not for those who have fled violence or oppression — but a spiritual return to the bosom of the ancestor, to the time of childhood innocence. When my uncles profess, “Back in the old country…,” they recall the sweetness of the grapes springing from tilled soil, the clearness of mountain water, the purple of roadside hydrangeas. But when they speak of hardship, of not having shoes, of the grueling work, of the army and the dictatorship, they do not begin with, “Back in the old country…,” because for them the old country is the innocence of childhood; they behold and sing of the patria as children looking into the divine. It is the paradise where one’s tongue does not stumble over foreign words, where the fruit is sweet and at-hand, and the colors are vibrant as the earth that holds the collective memory that lends them their being.

As Harvey Molotch explains in his summary of Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, “… groups, classes, or fractions of classes ‘can not constitute themselves, or recognize one another, as ‘subjects’ unless they generate a space.’”7 This second mythologization of the patria is an attempt to regenerate the paradisiacal space in the adopted land, and thus to reestablish the immigrant’s being. Mircea Eliade explains, “Man desires to recover the active presence of the gods; he also desires to live in the world as it came from the Creator’s hands, fresh, pure, and strong. It is the nostalgia for the perfection of beginnings that chiefly explains the periodical return in illo tempore.”8 In the case of the immigrant, the lares is severed from the earth on which they dwell now and there is longing for reunion of place and self. Because the immigrant is de-rooted from their physical space on earth, they are disconnected from their lares, and whereas before they nourished themselves both spiritually and physically from the same land as their ancestors, they must now spiritually nourish themselves on a mythical space disconnected from the physical nourishment found in the adopted land. This mythical space is a reconstruction of the lares achieved via the recounting of stories and descriptions of land, plants, and animals, in perusing photos like sacramentals, in reestablishing its physical parameters in language and image. Karsten Harries speaks of this severance as displacement, saying, “Displacement here means not so much a loss of adequate shelter, but a tearing of a social fabric, a fabric that cannot be divorced from a certain land, a certain history, a certain language, religion and custom.”9 This is why, in walking through Somerville, MA I encounter “bathtub Marys and Jesuses,” those 4-foot statues, sometimes illuminated in neon blue light, that dot the narrow front yards of the city’s three-story tenements. They are attempts to replicate the quintal10 and street shrines, to manifest the patria, to replant the lares in a foreign land. Thus, in, “the reactualization of his myths,” — in this image implantation — “religious man attempts to approach the gods and to participate in being; the imitation of paradigmatic divine models expresses at once his desire for sanctity and his ontological nostalgia.”11 Chinatown gates do the same. Little Italies’ winding streets. Pastel stucco in winter climes.

The severance of the lares from the earth is enacted by the immigrant but manifested in their progeny who grow up in the liminal space between myth and reality. The lares cannot be fully replanted in the adopted land. It takes the form of image and story, but it is never imbued in the earth. It is a veneer, like the azulejo tiles decorating the facades (but not the rear or side walls) of the same three-story tenements. Like the fake marble lions guarding driveways. Like the bata12 my mother wears while cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Cultural theologian Belden C. Lane explains the connection to the earth as, “a reciprocity between persona and place. As one has been nurtured by the soil and ambience of a given locale, one learns — in turn — to revere the site that has become the anchor of memory.”13 The second and third generations, unlike their parents who have direct memory of the original earth, are spiritually nourished on a mythic space while receiving physical nourishment on the real space of the adopted land. Their collective memory ceases to be anchored to the real earth on which they stand. There is a disconnect, or as Lane says, “a discontinuity in existence,”14 whereas before, the lares provided both means of nourishment, and the nourishment was the same. Via assimilation, the lares is aestheticized; it becomes an ethnic stylization, watered down through generations as half-customs, broken sentences. It is the Baroque crucifix hanging in my white apartment. It is the used vinyl record of Celeste Rodrigues singing fados that I put on while doing chores, because it reminds me of my grandmother cooking. It is the bathtub Jesus and Mary. It is the black I prefer to wear in all seasons, like the quietly proud widows whose loneliness I idealized. All are but discrete, particular moments, attempts to capture god in an icon. But none of these rebuses are as strong as the earth.

I think of my own restlessness, my own discontinuity with the land on which I was born, associating my being instead with the in-betweenness of my grandmother’s apartment, where American sounds still snuck in through television cables and open windows to mingle with her Ave Marias. “Americans have felt little awareness of being rooted to place or region, little sense of love for the land. America has no holy places,”15 says Lane.

There is a longing in the second and third generations to be reunited to the earth, to fully experience the lares, to unite place and self, to experience a whole existence. The pilgrimage of the contemporary American is to return to the homeland, to understand from whence one came, to reestablish roots in the community of ancestors, to sleep under the same stars that guided them, to be baptized in the oceans and rivers they swam in, to climb the mountains and traverse the deserts they held in awe, to be kissed by the same sun they worshipped. The American pilgrim, searching for rootedness, longs to see the world through the eyes of their ancestors, to taste as they tasted, and hear what they heard. To unite their souls to the earth. It is a deep and eternal longing, summarized by Simone Weil: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”16 After though, they will return to the placelessness of America, and the cycle repeats, this time edified with souvenirs they fill with personal memories their tongueless children will not recognize.

Psalm 137, verse 4 asks, How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? We cannot. The words must be adapted and translated. By the fourth and fifth generations, the words are forgotten.

Endnotes

1.  Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959): 92.

2.  John Pollini, “A New Bronze Lar and the Role of the Lares in the Domestic and Civic Religion of the Romans,” Latomus (Juin 2008): 392.

3. Translation: “O Lord, bless our home.”

4.  Christian Norberg Schulz, Meaning in Western Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1981): 224.

5.  Robin Dripps, “Groundwork,” in Site Matters, ed. Carol J. Burns and Andrea Kahn (New York: Routledge, 2005): 64.

6.  Harvey Molotch, “The Space of Lefebvre,” Theory and Society, vol. 22, no. 6 (Dec. 1993):888.

7.  Ibid.

8.  Eliade, The Sacred and Profane, 92.

9.  Karsten Harries, “Displacement and Architecture,” 2A: Architecture and Art  vol. 25.45 (Summer 2020): 15.

10.  Translation: backyard, vegetable garden.

11.  Eliade, The Sacred and Profane, 106.

12.  Translation: buttoned apron.

13.   Belden C. Lane, Sacred Landscapes: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, (John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2002): 6.

14.   Ibid., 34.

15.  Lane, Sacred Landscapes,

16.  Simone Weil, “Uprootedness,” 1949.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: