RICHMOND—He lost almost everything on his first day in Canada.
John Braganza, born in the strongly-Catholic Indian province of Goa, had immigrated to Canada and was out grocery shopping one day after his arrival when his car was stolen.
Police recovered the vehicle three days later, but his passport, cash, and documents had been cleared out. They guessed the criminals knew he’d just immigrated and wanted to nab his identification.
“We had a tough time,” but “we didn’t give up,” said Braganza. “I like this country.”
Now, 18 years later, Braganza still loves Canada and his Goan heritage. He is also the president of Vancouver’s Goan Overseas Association (GOA), a group built on the desire to support fellow immigrants from Goa, serve the Church, and enjoy familiar cultural food, dancing, and music.
GOA has 450 registered members, but the group estimates a few thousand Goans are living in the Lower Mainland.
Cleto Dos Remedios was one of the founding members of GOA 43 years ago. “As far as I knew, there was no one else from Goa,” in Vancouver when he first set foot on Canadian soil.
Dos Remedios found it fairly easy for himself and his wife to settle in, both having completed post-secondary studies in England, but the same could not be said for many Goan refugees fleeing Uganda in the early 1970s, when that country’s president told people with Asian roots to get out.
“When they came here, they felt lost,” said Dos Remedios.
He jumped into action. Knowing Goans the world over like to form community clubs, he started putting together a group and officially founded the association in 1976.
“Goans are good cooks, good singers, and good dancers,” he said.
Besides being known for their delicious food (inspired by Portuguese cuisine, due to Portugal’s 450-year rule over Goa) and fundraising dances, he said the association is a community of service.
“We like to care for other people. I always try to stress that fact,” he said. “It should be a caring society. It should not just be for social events, but we should look after each other.”
Goan Caroline D’sa has seen this in action. She found out about a new immigrant from Goa, who had just been married, landed in the Lower Mainland, and found out he had cancer.
“He was brand-new to the country, didn’t know anybody, and there was no extended health coverage for him,” she said. GOA sprang into action, hosting a fundraising dance and raising $25,000 for his care.
“His new wife was so overwhelmed. They will never forget that,” she said. “We love to dance, but we are alert for where we can help and foster that caring community.”
She said the group also offers scholarships for students and hundreds of hours of volunteer labour to good causes.
“The minute you say Goans, we all come together,” added member Villa Pinto.
In a country like Canada, where multiculturalism and integration into community is celebrated, she said one can find pockets of people – like Goans – who form clubs and stick together.
“What is it that connects us? It is the commonality that we have,” she said. “I see any of us, and instantly I won’t have to explain anything. Giving my name, they know a lot about me already.”
Another uniting factor for Goans is their strong faith.
“Catholics form the majority,” in Goa, said Braganza. “It’s like people say about Mexico: if you throw a stone, it will fall on a cross.”
Back in January, the arm of St. Francis Xavier landed in Vancouver for a short tour. The relic had religious significance for many Catholics, but possibly not more so than for those from Goa.
The saint and missionary is credited for bringing Catholicism to Goa, and while his arm (which was said to have baptized thousands) is kept in Rome, the rest of his body is buried in that Indian state.
“Had it not been for St. Francis Xavier, we would not have been Catholics,” said Dos Remedios, with admiration in his voice.
For its small size, Goa has produced a noteworthy number of cardinals, bishops, and priests around the world, said Dos Remedios. In the Archdiocese of Vancouver, at least nine priests and one deacon are of Goan descent.
“Every parish where there are Goans, you will find at least one or two of them on the parish council, or readers, lectors, ushers. They are always involved in any parish activity.”
GOA has faced ups and downs in membership over its 43 years. Now, with the rise in second-generation Goans and the election of a new president, the association is rebranding.
“While the Goans were the original nucleus for why the group came together, two things have happened since then,” said member Joe Pinto.
“Although we use the term Goan and Goans are the majority of the people, it’s no longer a Goan association other than in name,” he said. Catholics from across India are becoming members of GOA.
Also, the children of those refugees and immigrants are growing up, marrying, and having children who are half-Goan, and half something else. “You’ll see a lot less homogeneity and a lot more fusion of culture,” he said. “Some might call it ‘Goans and friends,’ rather than just Goans.”
D’sa put it this way: “The definition is expanded. If you know a Goan, you’re a Goan!”
Now, as the group looks to the future, it has taken up a legacy project to tell the unique stories of its members and dig into what unites them. They hope to have it ready by April 2019.
“GOA has survived since 1976, so we must be doing something right,” said Dos Remedios.