As Toronto’s Little Portugal faces changes, the ongoing push to protect the area’s heritage

Like many of Toronto's distinct multicultural neighbourhoods, Little Portugal has seen changes fuelled by redevelopment and other factors. Nick Westoll has more on the efforts to preserve Portuguese and Lusophone culture.

Little Portugal on Dundas Street West has been a hub for Toronto’s Portuguese and Lusophone communities for decades, but like many other culturally distinct neighbourhoods in the city is changing with redevelopment and other factors.

Bairrada Churrasqueira Grill is a 34-year Portuguese restaurant mainstay that has grown to three locations in and around Little Portugal. The location on College Street is the biggest, boasting a 4,000-square-foot patio. Regardless of the locale, their mission is serving up authentic cuisine to the masses.

At the restaurant near Sheridan Avenue and Dundas Street West, general manager Denis Pirez and members of his team were working to get ready for the day as CityNews visited. Day in and day out, preparations often involve roasting mouthwatering piri piri chicken — a staple in Portuguese cuisine.

“It’s the sauce that really makes the chicken and it’s a special recipe that we’ve had in our family for probably 80 years,” he said.

Other items available at the hot table included cod (a process that takes the staff three days to wash out the salt it’s cured in), stewed rabbit, roasted potatoes, vegetables and custard tarts. Other menu items can include fresh seafood and steak as well as wines and other beverages imported right from Portugal.

Pirez said he and the staff want to make sure Portuguese culture and the approach to food is extended to visitors.

“There’s something to be said about breaking bread together and having a family dinner and it’s very always very important … people come together at night because everyone’s busy during the day and then making sure that they sit down together and have a meal together,” he said.

Manuel DaCosta is a producer at Camões Radio in Toronto, a Portuguese radio and broadcast outlet located on College Street. He echoed the importance of food in Portuguese culture.

“Portuguese are not only known for hard work, but we are known for our cuisine. Our gastronomy is probably one of the best in the world. I’m not suggesting that here is as good as in Portugal, but we do have some excellent restaurants,” he said.

DaCosta said there are an estimated 180,000 Portuguese people in the Greater Toronto Area plus many other Lusophone populations (people from countries where Portuguese is spoken). He said he and others at the station are continually trying to serve the audience.

“We do discuss world views and world events, and particularly we have a lot to discuss about Canada,” DaCosta said, noting every Friday evening he hosts a call-in show to discuss a variety of issues.

“The Portuguese community in Canada is vibrant (and) contributes to the betterment of this country.”

RELATED: Historic chocolate factory in Little Portugal aims to give back to the community

When it comes to Little Portugal, he said the area became a go-to destination — particularly during the 1950s when legal immigration took off — and eventually expanded east toward Kensington Market.

The Little Portugal neighbourhood today is roughly bounded by College Street, Dovercourt Road, the GO Transit Kitchener line and UP Express rail corridor, Dundas Street West and Brock Avenue.

“These are historical pathways for us. That’s where it started,” he said.

Similar to Little Italy and Greektown, DaCosta said the name has taken on more of a symbolic meaning.

“These are places that have more of an historical place today than actually Portuguese or Greeks or Italians living there,” he said.

Outside the radio station at Crawford and College streets, the Portuguese Walk of Fame was setup to honour the community and extraordinary individuals in it. Recently a large sculpture was erected to mark 70 years of legal immigration.

“We shouldn’t hide who we are we should really promote who we are to be able to integrate ourselves socially and politically. Otherwise, communities die,” DaCosta said.

Among those working to preserve the past is the Little Portugal Toronto Business Improvement Area.

“Even if the last thing, the last person, that speaks Portuguese leaves the area, this will continue to be Little Portugal,” BIA chair AnaBela Taborda said during an interview.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic, younger generations wanting to leave family businesses, and real estate growth have all contributed to change in the area.

The BIA has turned to the arts to help tell its stories — past and the present. Taborda said they’ve helped put up murals and public art pieces. The organization is even in the midst of developing an augmented reality installation.

“We are very arts-oriented in this area,” she said.

We have some unique stores that I think people will be quite surprised … it is amazing what you will find, like little areas you didn’t expect them.”

One of the eye-catching murals is on the north side of Dundas Street West, west of Brock. It pays homage to women who immigrated from Portugal and worked as janitorial workers throughout downtown Toronto and at Queen’s Park in the 1970s, eventually leading to the “Cleaner’s Action” labour organizing movement.

Despite the changing demographics in Little Portugal, the spirit of togetherness lives on.

“You can drive around in bicycles and you see a lot of people with their children taking them to school, which has a beautiful sense of community. So definitely this community is extremely vibrant and I think that will continue,” Taborda said.

Meanwhile, back at Bairrada, Pirez said they’re trying to embrace changes in the community.

“We look forward to greeting and seeing new people in the neighborhood … I think we don’t have to be scared of losing people. I think people will always come to the area. We’ll always be known as Little Portugal,” he said.

“As a business, we have to change how do we perform as well and adapt to the new clientele — that’s our responsibility and (we’re) trying to come up with something for the new neighborhood.”

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