Massachusetts' ethnic mosaic

Ever since the Pilgrims landed, waves of immigrants have come to Massachusetts, weaving themselves into the fabric of cities and towns with their food, music, idioms, and culture.

By far the largest, and most defining, were Irish, tens of thousands of whom crossed the ocean in the mid-19th century to escape famine. Many moved south of Boston, settling in coastal suburbs that became known as the Irish Riviera. Statewide, nearly one in four residents are of Irish descent, newly released Census data show.

Until the late 19th century, immigrants to Boston were almost exclusively from western Europe, primarily England, Scotland, and Ireland. But in the 1880s, immigrants began arriving from Poland, Russia, and especially Italy. Like the Irish before them, they settled in Boston, then gradually migrated outward.

In recent decades, an influx of immigrants from Portugal and Cape Verde, Asia, and an array of Spanish-speaking countries have settled in Massachusetts, creating vibrant clusters across the state that endure today -- from Puerto Ricans in Holyoke to the Portuguese in the New Bedford area. - Peter Schworm

Clusters of interest

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  • Adams, a small town in the Berkshires, has long had a significant Polish presence. Immigrants came in the early 1990s to work in the textile mills, and today about 28 percent of residents report Polish ancestry. Lisa Mendel of the local chapter of the Polish National Alliance said they hold a Polish dance classes for kids each Tuesday night. "We still try to hold onto our Polish culture and traditions," she said. Yet some have faded. A Polish deli closed a couple years back, as did a Polish Catholic church.
  • On the western tip of Martha's Vineyard, the tiny town of Aquinnah has only a few hundred year-round residents, including many Native-Americans from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. The community was known as Gay Head until 1998, when residents voted to change its name to reflect the Wampanoag heritage.
  • Lawrence, one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, is about 71 percent Hispanic or Latino, primarily from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Last year, voters elected the state's first Latino mayor, William Lantigua. For decades, Lawrence was dominated by European and Canadian immigrants drawn by jobs in the textile mills, before the Hispanic influx began in the 1960s.
  • Ware was once a booming center of industry, with thousands of workers manning the mills along the Ware River. Immigrants came from Ireland, Poland, and especially France, and today one-third of those in the bedroom community of 10,000 claims French heritage.
  • Sharon, a wealthy suburb south of Boston, has a sizeable Jewish population that traces its roots to Russia and former Soviet republics. Many escaped to America during the Cold War and were drawn to Sharon's Jewish community.
  • By the early 1800s, Petersham contained four sawmills, three cider mills, a grist mill and two blacksmith shops, an attractive prospects for Canadians looking for work. Today 28 percent of the town is of French-Canadian descent. The town of around 1,300 even has a curling club.
  • Holyoke has one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in the state, and each July hosts a festival celebrating Puerto Rican Day. The community took root in the 50s when workers took jobs on farms and in factories. About 40 percent of city residents have Puerto Rican heritage, the highest concentration in the state.

-- Text by Peter Schworm

State average

Total population 6,511,176
Arab 1.0%
Czech 0.2%
Danish 0.3%
Dutch 0.7%
English 11.9%
French (except Basque) 8.6%
French Canadian 4.3%
German 6.8%
Greek 1.3%
Hungarian 0.3%
Irish 23.7%
Italian 14.1%
Lithuanian 0.8%
Norwegian 0.5%
Polish 5.3%
Portuguese 4.9%
Russian 1.8%
Scotch-Irish 1.9%
Scottish 2.7%
Slovak 0.1%
Subsaharan African 1.6%
Swedish 2.0%
Swiss 0.2%
Ukrainian 0.4%
Welsh 0.4%
West Indian (excluding Hispanic origin groups) 1.6%
Black or African American 6.1%
American Indian and Alaska Native 0.2%
Asian 4.8%
  Asian Indian 1.0%
  Chinese 1.7%
  Filipino 0.2%
  Japanese 0.1%
  Korean 0.3%
  Vietnamese 0.7%
  Other Asian 0.8%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 0.0%
Hispanic or Latino (of any race) 8.3%
  Mexican 0.6%
  Puerto Rican 3.7%
  Cuban 0.1%
  Other Hispanic or Latino 4.0%

See census website for more.

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, 2005-2009 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates
NOTE: The US Census's American Community Survey numbers are estimates based on sample data collected from January 1, 2005 to December 31, 2009. The data are estimates, not counts, unlike the US Census, whose numbers are released every 10 years. Because they are estimates, the data has margins of error, which generally are larger with smaller communities or groups.
Daigo Fujiwara, Tom Giratikanon, Robert Davis/ Globe Staff