Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Finding Napa or Napa Finding Me” July 2006.
Finding Napa or Napa Finding Me – Maestor Helio & Maria Beirao
By JoAnn Busenbark
Maestro Helio and his wife Maria Beirao are Azorean Portuguese-Americans who have lived in our community for over 30 years. The Portuguese Tribune, published in Modesto, California named them “Persons of the Year” for 2005. How did this fascinating couple from the small island of Terceira in the Azores find their way to the Napa Valley? It’s an interesting story.
They were born and raised on Terceira, an island that is only 35 miles around the perimeter and where you can see nothing but the Atlantic Ocean on all sides. Maria grew up with her two brothers and sister in a hard working poor family. Her mother was a dynamic woman who believed in fairness and justice for all people and was quite outspoken on political issues of the times, much to the concern of her husband. In those days, comments against the government were not welcomed. Maria’s mother worked very hard to encourage her to think about attending college and supported her in all ways to that goal. Maria did graduate from college, the first one in her village, and become a teacher on her island. Following in the footsteps of her mother, she occasionally wrote her thoughts to the newspaper about injustice to poor people or other disenfranchised groups.
Helio, who had five siblings, grew up learning his fathers’ trade, skill and mastery of woodcarving and wood craftsmanship. His strong love was music drove him to teach himself to play the classical guitar and the 15-string guitar, called viola da terra, an instrument originating in the Azores.
On such a small island, Maria knew of Helio through his music before she ever met him. They married and have three children, Joe, Maria and Connie.
Helio’s grandmother had visited the United States several times and on her return would tell Helio, “You must go to America and see for yourself.” It became a dream for him that remained with him constantly.
As the children reached school age, Maria and Helio knew it was time to pursue his dream and leave Terceira for America. Helio came to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit relatives and see for himself. He and Maria had agreed if he found it to be what his grandmother said, he would stay and make a way for the family to come. The dream started to come into focus.
Helio found a sponsor, and went through the immigration process for the family, including Maria’s widowed mother. The family was reunited in the Richmond area where Helio, highly qualified with his woodworking skills, had found employment. Several years into the job a serious industrial accident almost severed three fingers on his right hand, and he was required to find another line of work.
Through the rehabilitation process Helio was educated at USF to work with the disabled teaching and training them in a sheltered workshop setting.
In 1971, Napa Valley College was looking for an instructor to teach disabled adults woodworking skills at a local sheltered workshop. Helio and his family relocated to Napa and completed his dream. After his retirement from working with the disabled he started a family business. He was now ready to return to his hobbies full time – classical guitar and the 15-string viola. Helio uses his wood carving talents restoring antiques.
There is a large Portuguese-American community in California who continue to share their culture, music, and events with each other and anyone interested. Any community that has a Portuguese Hall welcomes all to attend concerts and events and especially the once a year Holy Spirit Celebration. The hall in Novato celebrated their 100th year anniversary during the month of May 2006. During this event Helio and Maria were asked to participate, she to speak and he to play the viola.
Maria continued to submit her thoughts to the Portuguese newspapers, most often to the Tribune. Helio said she would write thoughts on slips of paper and then continue with her family chores and he would collect them and store in a safe place.
Maria’s mother helped with the grandchildren for her family and her brothers who lived in the North Bay area. When the children were grown, grandma, a very independent woman in her 80s, said, “Now I want my own apartment.” This was difficult because culturally she should have stayed in the protective family environment.
They found an apartment for her in Napa and she made the move. Speaking no English, she made friends with her welcoming personality and lived out her dream. She continued to support Maria in her writing and expression of political issues related to how all people are treated in their culture, especially women and immigrants.
Groups in the Portuguese-American communities around the state and nation began to invite Maria to speak to them about specific concerns. Helio continued to collect Maria’s notes and, along with poems she had written, a book was eventually published, “Beijo de Abelha – Kiss of The Bee.” It was published in Portuguese by Portuguese Heritage publishers in San Jose.
As word of Helio’s talent on the viola has become known he has been invited statewide and nationally to give concerts. He has written many songs and recently produced a CD –“Dona Viola, Minha Dama” a collection of his original work along with traditional Azore and Portuguese music. He donates all proceeds from sales to Portuguese Organization for Social Services and Opportunities (POSSO), an organization based in San Jose that provides assistance to the elderly and needy.
Miguel Valle Avila, of the Portuguese Tribune, describes the CD as “one of the best musical works ever edited in the Portuguese-American community.”
The “team” Maestro Helio and speaker Maria have been acclaimed across Portugal and other countries of the world, and are often invited to share their talents. Teaming up (marrying) to raise a family, start a business and now spreading their culture throughout the Portuguese-American community, they are a powerhouse couple.
Thanks Napa Valley College for bringing this family to Napa.