How a Portuguese immigrant made it in Geneva

Helena Rigotti advocates greater participation of women in politics.

Helena Rigotti, a Portuguese councillor for the city of Geneva, says that her success in forging a new life as a small business owner in a foreign country is down to a lot of hard work.

This content was published on April 4, 2016 - 11:00
Nelson Pereira, Geneva,

The owner of a restaurant in Geneva’s Old Town, Rigotti was invited to fill a vacant seat on the city council on behalf of the centre right Radical Party in 2014. She was re-elected in last April’s local elections, and has made defending the interests of small business owners a focus of her political activities.

Married to a Swiss and having adopted the use of his name, not many of Rigotti’s electors – Portuguese or otherwise – realise she is a foreigner. That is set to change, however, as Rigotti signals her intention to become more involved in Geneva’s Portuguese community and associations.

The Portuguese in Geneva live in “a very closed, ghetto-type community”, says Rigotti. She says she wants the Portuguese community to better understand that “choosing a life in Switzerland inevitably implies involvement in the political processes and the issues that concern citizens in Geneva as they go about their daily lives”.

Tough start

Arriving in Switzerland as a young, seasonal worker in 1987 from Portugal’s northern Aveiro district, Rigotti’s type A resident’s visa restricted her to fixed-term work contracts only, at the end of which she had to return to Portugal.

“The beginning was very difficult and I almost cracked,” says Rigotti. “I had nine-month contracts. Once the contract ended, we had to go back to Portugal for three months. Health checks at the border were still required at that time.”

Rigotti completed two such contracts before deciding to return to Portugal permanently, because “it was very hard for me to be so far away from my family”. But with work scarce in her hometown of Vale de Cambra, Rigotti’s only option a year later was to return to Switzerland for another stint as a seasonal worker in the mountains, after which she found a job in a restaurant in Geneva.   

“It wasn’t easy because there were quotas for work permits at the time,” she says, adding that “these are difficulties that all immigrants experienced.”

To improve her situation, Rigotti completed a secretarial course that included accounting and IT studies. Ten years after her arrival in Switzerland, she met her husband, and in 1999 opened a jewellery store in Geneva’s Old Town. She later transformed the store into a restaurant, which turned out to be another big challenge.

“It was not easy to develop a clientele; it took a lot of work,” she says.

Woman politician

The idea of entering politics came to Rigotti through her work at the restaurant.

“There were clients who were Radicals, and sometimes I discussed politics with them. They insisted that I get involved in politics,” says Rigotti. She mulled over the decision for two years, hesitating over whether to give her allegiance to the Radical or Liberal Party. The merger of the two parties was already underway when she was added to the joint list for local elections in 2010. 

For Rigotti, her experience as a small business owner played a key role in her decision to join the Radicals.

“If I had to explain why I opted for the Radicals, I would sum it up in two words: individual responsibility,” she says. “When you run a small business, it is natural to have a leaning for a party that promotes individual freedoms and individual responsibility; that defends entrepreneurs and encourages a spirit of enterprise. For me, the Radical Party was the party that best encompassed these beliefs, because it creates opportunities and encourages those who make an effort.”

Now a member of three committees reporting to the Geneva council – housing; development and environment; and security of the public domain, information and communications – Rigotti is enthusiastic about the challenges of working with people of other political persuasions. She says it is possible to alter opinions in the committee process “when we have sound arguments that are sufficiently strong to convince other parties and gain a consensus”.

Encouraging participation

The fact that Geneva’s Portuguese community keeps largely to itself means that they remain removed from Swiss political life, says Rigotti. Sensitive to the isolation of the Portuguese-speaking community, Rigotti suggests that Portuguese politicians like herself should band together to discuss ways of encouraging more of their compatriots to participate in the political system.

Although it is easy to vote “because we receive the envelope at home and all you have to do is fill it out and send it back”, Rigotti recognises that it is not that simple for some because “the Portuguese receive it and don’t know what to do with it”. This is an issue that needs to be addressed because “freedom and responsibility only become a reality when people are aware of their rights”, she says.

During last year’s elections, most people didn’t know that Rigotti was Portuguese, she says. To rectify this, she plans to list both her married and maiden names during the next election in two years’ time.

Rigotti has also recently been elected to head the Genevoises PLR – the section of her party dedicated to promoting greater participation of women in politics, business and society.

“We have few women on our party lists, and our aim is to encourage more to participate,” Rigotti says, though she admits that the idea of creating a “separate area” for women in politics could be controversial.

“At the beginning, I had some doubts and the idea irritated me,” she says. “But I realised that this kind of structure is necessary because women are still underrepresented.

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