João Crisóstomo – New York

on Jan 1, 2010 in Departure | 2 Comments

They call him the activist butler. Living in New York for 34 years, João Crisóstomo spends his free time fighting for things he believes in. He helped bring about a happy ending for the Foz Côa rock paintings and the self-determination of the East Timor people – only a couple of causes among the many he has embraced.

João Crisóstomo por / by Marisa Cardoso

João Crisóstomo grew up in a family with a grand Catholic tradition. Many of his relatives followed a religious vocation and dedicated their lives to the priesthood. In his youth, he frequented a Franciscan seminary, but ended up treading a different path. His desire to help others was similar, however: “I’m not a fervent Catholic, but the basis of my life is to follow the word of Christ”, he admits. It is fair to say that over the last few decades this Portuguese New Yorker has dedicated himself to causes almost always related to Portugal or the Portuguese.

If Foz Côa today boasts the largest open-air Paleolithic museum in the world, it is because João Crisóstomo bears some responsibility, through the international campaign he launched in 1995 to prevent the flooding of this sanctuary of rock art. “The whole affair, for someone like me living abroad, was a surprise. I had no idea that Foz Côa existed, but when I read an article in the New York Times, I thought that we in the USA could lend a hand.” So the emigrant published an open letter to the editor explaining what was happening in Portugal. He also sent a letter to Boutros Ghali, then UN secretary-general, demonstrating his concern about the fact that construction of the Vila Nova de Foz Côa dam involved the submersion of the rock figures. The Times, the BBC, Le Monde and Liberation gave him much support. His epistles also reached Portugal in newspapers such as Público, Expresso, and Diário de Notícias.

“The Times of London championed the defence of the Foz Côa engravings. I even reached the owner, press baron Rupert Murdoch, because I was friends with the Portuguese butlers who worked for him, and I asked them to deliver a letter”. The result was an article which read: “Portugal must halt this 20th century vandalism”. At the time, these words were a bombshell in Portugal, he remembers. Peter Jennings, anchorman at ABC World News Tonight, dedicated a whole programme to the subject having been convinced by Crisóstomo: “If there hadn’t been world public opinion in favour of the engravings, there wouldn’t have been sufficient pressure to stop this”.


An example of diplomacy

The career of this Portuguese activist is unique to say the least. He left Portugal for Europe to improve his language skills, intending to return and work in the tourist sector. But life held several surprises for him. He went to Britain, France and Germany, working in hotels, and studying English and French simultaneously. In the 1970s he headed off to Brazil, where he started to work as a hotel receptionist, and took a course in hotel management at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro. On the invitation of a professor, he even went to the USA and studied at Cornell University. While he was preparing to return to Brazil, he found out that a certain lady needed a butler. It was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “It was an amazing experience. She was a lady in all senses of the word. Kind, diplomatic, highly intelligent, she had all the qualities of a First Lady.”

She must have set a good example in the years he worked for her, with various projects such as sending books to prisoners and going onto the streets with placards to protest the demolition of Grand Central Station in New York. “Unconsciously I was affected by her determination. In the movements I started she wasn’t a direct influence but John John Kennedy (her son) was”.

His work as a butler, and later as a maître for a bank, put him in contact with high-profile American personalities from the worlds of high finance and politics, which has helped his work as a defender of causes. Following Foz Côa, João Crisóstomo fought for the independence of East Timor. When they asked him to take up the cause, he met Anne Treseder, a US attorney well-informed on the subject. Her advice also led him to find out about Portuguese consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes who saved thousands of Jews in Bordeaux from the concentration camps during the Second World War.

“To help East Timor, you would need to get the support of the American press. This is considerably influenced by the Jewish lobby. If you want their support, talk to them about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the lawyer told me”. The Portuguese consul in Bordeaux became a way in, and “a passionate cause for me”. LAMETA – the Luso-American Movement for East Timorese Auto Determination – of which he is President, took up various lobbies of American institutions, including petitioning President Bill Clinton: “When I sent him the petition, I highlighted the fact that it had been signed by Portuguese leaders and prestigious members of the international community like Patrick Kennedy (Ted Kennedy’s son).” This contribution was decisive in making Indonesia change its policies in relation to Timor and accept a referendum, a step in the direction of self-determination for the Timorese people.

Meanwhile, on learning the story of Sousa Mendes, João Crisóstomo started another movement in parallel to do justice to the name of the Portuguese diplomat who, with a simple stamp in a passport, saved around 30,000 lives, including those of 10,000 Jews. In the exhibition Visas For Life, in June 2003 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, Sousa Mendes was celebrated, although the Portuguese butler reminded the exhibition’s curator of the relevance of other Portuguese and Brazilian diplomats, namely Luís Martins de Sousa Dantas, Sampaio Garrido, Teixeira Branquinho and Guimarães Rosa, whose actions also saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

The most extraordinary act, however, happened on 17th June 2004. On Crisóstomo’s initiative – to mark the day when Sousa Mendes started issuing visas in 1944 – with the help of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and several cardinals, he organized a Thanksgiving mass in 22 countries, to commemorate not only the Portuguese consul, but also the Swede Wallenberg and the Swiss Carl Lutz regarded by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations”. The following April, on the 50th anniversary of his death, he managed to get the “Portuguese Schindler” to be honoured at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

João Crisóstomo tells us that he is currently campaigning for the independence of Western Sahara: “They say that together you can achieve anything, but only with a lot of persistence”. With his house as his headquarters and armed only with a fax machine, the activist butler has managed to move mountains.


By Maria João Veloso



Oliveira da Serra TAP Campanhas


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