Williams School senior, a Peru native, embodies 'quiet strength'

The Williams School senior Antonella Portugal, front, performs 'The Time Machine,' a dance she also choreographed with classmates, on Thursday, May 18th, 2017, during the school's Enviro7 performances in New London. Dance is just one of many passions for Portugal, whose family immigrated from Peru. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
The Williams School senior Antonella Portugal, front, performs "The Time Machine," a dance she also choreographed with classmates, on Thursday, May 18th, 2017, during the school's Enviro7 performances in New London. Dance is just one of many passions for Portugal, whose family immigrated from Peru. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

New London — If you came across a quiet, pensive Antonella Portugal, it wouldn’t be unusual.

Likely The Williams School senior would be watching a situation from afar, observing and trying to understand it before weighing in.

“She tends ... to wait and watch,” said Melissa Moss, who chairs the school's classics department and has advised Portugal since her Sophomore year. “She takes in information. When she gets to know you better, then she will tell you what she thinks.”

Moss and Portugal credit The Williams School with magnifying the 16-year-old’s more confident and outspoken side. But Portugal has been a keen observer for as long as she can remember.

A native of Peru, she left the country with her family when she was just 1. Her parents believed they could give their kids better lives in the United States. Bundles of paperwork later, they became legal permanent residents. Years after that, they became citizens.

Even at her young age, she saw the frustration her parents felt in their new home. In Peru, her mother had proudly held a law degree and practiced civil law. But with different cases of precedent in a different language, that degree became all but useless here.

Her father, a civil engineer, had skills that would have translated more easily. But he struggled to learn English and fought with immigration officials over paperwork they said was incomplete. His citizenship came much later than the rest of his family’s.

“The challenges that await people that immigrate can almost be worse than the process itself,” Portugal reflected.

As she grew up, she observed the others on her New London street. They, too, were Hispanic immigrants working through a bilingual world: two sets of foods to enjoy, two types of games to play, two different languages to speak.

And she understood how her parents’ foresight — they saved money while in Peru — and priorities — they wanted the best education for Portugal and her older brother — set her apart.

“Growing up, I always thought my life (in the United States) wasn’t any different from others,” Portugal said.

Then she landed at a predominantly white Catholic school.

“Everybody had a tree house, a giant backyard, a playroom,” she said, a smile breaking through. “That just wasn’t something I could relate to.”

She remembers her peers questioning with disdain what exactly she was eating for lunch.

“I felt pressure to assimilate,” Portugal recalled. “I would go home, eat my favorite Peruvian dinner, tell (my mom) I loved her cooking ... but ask if she could buy me Lunchables.”

“Lunchables are gross,” she continued. “But at that point I would do anything. I didn’t like the feeling of being ‘othered.’”

Nevertheless, Portugal persisted.

She skipped fifth grade. She joined Williams in eighth. She played soccer and tried theater. She found love in dance.

“It’s a different way to express yourself that other people may understand better — or at least appreciate the character of,” Portugal said of dance.

Inspired by her mother, Portugal has taken a deep interest in law and political science. She took advantage of an opportunity to take a 300-level Connecticut College course that examined how — and whether — U.S. Latinos are portrayed in the arts and pop culture. She participated in Model United Nations. And she became heavily involved in her school’s Political, Social Justice, Awareness Club, or P.S.A.

Through the latter, Portugal has exposed her peers to a variety of speakers, including one who was shot in the face in a hate crime. The goal, she said, is to get the students to observe and understand cultures that are different from theirs.

Portugal, who graduates June 7 — she’s in the top 10 percent of her class — is next headed to Brown University. There, she’ll study political science with the intention to go on to law school. She wants to be an immigration lawyer — something she got a dose of recently by volunteering with the Immigration Advocacy & Support Center in New London.

“I got to see the forms my own parents had to fill out,” she said of her role. “I can see why lawyers are necessary. Legal language is difficult to understand even if you’re a native speaker.”

The experience, she said, turned her dream career into one she now knows is within reach.

“I want to help people get through this,” Portugal said. “I want to prevent families from being ripped apart.”

Moss said she believes Portugal will excel in her career path of choice.

She had select words for Portugal: Independent. Driven. Opinionated. Intellectual.

In sum?

“Quiet strength.”

l.boyle@theday.com

The Williams School senior Antonella Portugal is seen Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
The Williams School senior Antonella Portugal is seen Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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