Ritual, ethnicity and transnationalism: Holy Ghost Festivals in North America

Principal researcher: João Leal

Research group: Practices and Politics of Culture


Ritual | Ethnicity | Transnationalism | Cultural globalization

Funding Institution

Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT)



Start date


End date





According to recent USA and Canadian data, there are approximately 1,700,000 individuals of Portuguese origin living in North America. Of these 1,700,000 immigrants, almost 1,340,000 live in the US, especially in California and New England; 360,000 live in Canada, especially in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. It is widely known that the large majority of the Portuguese emigrants in both countries come from the Azores: 90% in the case of the US and 75% in the case of Canada. Given their Azorean origin, most Portuguese emigrants in North America have strong ties with Azorean culture. The latter, although sharing several traits with general Portuguese culture, is also characterized by some specific cultural aspects, one of the most important being the Festas do Espírito Santo - or Holy Ghost festivals - a complex religious celebration which constitutes a central feature of Azorean religious and social life. Given their importance in Azorean culture, Holy Ghost festivals - which can be viewed as a travelling ritual - have been recreated by Azorean emigrants in the contexts to which they have migrated. As a result, some 170 Holy Ghost festivals take currently place in the US, mainly in the states of California (100), Massachusetts and Rhode Island (70). In Canada, preliminary research suggests that at least 80 festivals currently take place in the provinces of Ontario (60), Quebec (10) and British Columbia (10). Despite their importance, Holy Ghost festivals in North America, with the exception of California, have not been thoroughly studied. The main empirical purpose of this research project is precisely to fill this empirical and analytical gap. Its first objective is to map and describe, both in historical and ethnographical terms, Holy Ghost festivals in North America, with special emphasis in four areas where Azorean emigration is particularly relevant: New England (US), Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia (Canada). Its second objective is to develop a number of case studies in order to explore three major analytical topics. The first is the interplay between roots and hybridity in the processes of recreation of the festivals. Organized in North America as part of a traditionalist project of "recreating home way from home", Holy Ghost festivals actually enter a cultural dialogue with the new context in which they are recreated, that leads both to the transformation of some of the sequences and meanings they had in the Azores and to the introduction of new ritual sequences and meanings associated with US and Canadian cultures. One of the objectives of the project is to study the particularities of these cultural dialogues between tradition and translation within the framework of contemporary discussions on modes of cultural production linked to globalization and migration. The second topic relates to the role of Holy Ghost festivals in the processes of emergence and management of Azorean ethnicity. Organized by Holy Ghost brotherhoods, which also often promote all-year round activities, Holy Ghost festivals provide major occasions for the regular meeting of Azorean communities and have become the most important public ritual among Azorean-Americans and Luso-Canadians. The social and cultural role they play in the development of an ethnic identity among Azorean emigrants will thus be examined. The role of the festivals in the reproduction of Azorean ethnicity among 2nd generation youngsters, who play pivotal ritual roles in the North American versions of the ritual, will also be addressed. In the US the connections between the festivals and the emergence of forms of symbolic ethnicity among 3rd and 4th generation Azorean-Americans will also be analysed. The third analytical topic to be addressed by the project relates to the connections between Holy Ghost festivals and forms of transnationalism among Azorean emigrants. Given the fact that Azorean emigration to North America has come to a halt in the 1980s, Holy Ghost festivals seem to provide, in particular, a very good context for the study of the enduring nature of transnational connections between the emigrants and the homeland. These connections will be studied in relation to (a) processes of circulation between host and home country among the participants in the ritual; (b) institutional processes of religious and socio-cultural transnationalism, such as the circulation of ritual specialists between North America and the Azores and the relationships between North American brotherhoods and the Azores. By focusing on these issues, the project will not only seek to probe into some major trends of contemporary Portuguese migrant cultures, but also to innovatively contribute to some important anthropological debates on processes of de-territorialization and re-territorialization of cultural forms and identities in current global ethnoscapes.


Full members

Filomena Silvano

Practices and Politics of Culture

Full members

José Mapril

Circulation and Place-Making