The narrative voice for my work draws from my childhood memories of family, friends, textures and sounds of that community during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Urban renewal and gentrification in the 1970s forcibly displaced our Cape Verdean community in Fox Point. The uprooting was wrenching and traumatic, especially for those of my generation who were the last to grow up in “The Point.” For me, the displacement meant searching for my roots in Cape Verde, crossing the Atlantic to explore the ties to the islands, and retracing the path and journey begun by my grandparents when they arrived in America in the early 1900s, then returning back to Fox Point and beginning another journey.
The title of my first feature length documentary,
“SOME KIND OF FUNNY PORTO RICAN?:” A Cape Verdean American Story©2006
about the Cape Verdean community in Fox Point is derived from an actual comment made many, many years ago. My beau’s brother was a student at Brown University in Providence, RI. Upon learning that his brother had met a Cape Verdean girl from Providence, the Brown student replied, “Cape Verdean? Oh, there are a lot of them around here, they’re some kind of funny Porto Ricans.”(Note: spelling of “Porto” is the way it was pronounced, hence the spelling of the title). This is a classic example of the (mis)perceptions of Cape Verdean Americans. Rich anecdotal stories like this abound, adding texture and shape to the reflections, observations and experiences-joyous and painful-of growing up in this close, self-contained New England community. Cape Verdeans have been a vital part of the cultural and social history of Southeastern New England and the American immigrant experience for close to two hundred years. Yet few people are knowledgeable about Cape Verdeans and the unique relationship between New England and the Cape Verde islands. (Click here to view video clip “Voyage of Dreams.”)
Lying 240 nautical miles off the coast of West Africa, (click here for more information) the tiny, drought stricken archipelago of ten islands remained in the backwaters of world history until 1975 when the islands gained independence from Portugal. Uninhabited prior to discovery in 1462 by the Portuguese, Cape Verdeans developed as a mix of Africans, Portuguese, and other European voyagers to the islands. This volcanic archipelago, bathed in dazzling natural colors and light, is a land of stark beauty-soaring mountains, desert terrain and endless beaches.
Yet for Cape Verdean these five hundred years also represent devastating cycles of drought, starvation and death where up to half the total population of the islands died. Stories from the old country talk about people dropping dead in the street from thirst or hunger, or “nuvem ingrata” cruel clouds, that hover within sight on the horizon, pouring their rain into the sea, leaving the land parched and people dying for lack of water. Eyes turned always to the horizon, searching for rain, or a sail, the symbol of hope and opportunity. Emigration was not a choice, it was a necessity.
The connection between New England and the Cape Verde islands began in earnest after the American Revolution. Desperate for crews to work in the dangerous and low-paying whaling industry, whaling vessels from New Bedford and Nantucket regularly sailed to Cape Verde to pick up sailors. These early ties to New England made the United States the primary point of debarkation for Cape Verdeans. The trickle of immigration to New Bedford and New England in the early 1800s turned into a flood at the turn of the century, as Cape Verdeans fled cycles of severe drought, starvation, perennial economic hardship and colonial neglect. (Click here to view video clip “The Ernestina”)
They came across the Atlantic to New England on voyages lasting up to three months on packet ships of dubious seaworthiness, arriving in the ports of New Bedford, MA and Providence, RI, the oldest and largest Cape Verdean communities in America. (Click here to view a video of “Granny Coming to America”.)
Until the early 1960s, the packets were the vital link between Cape Verdean and the New England communities, carrying passengers back and forth, and most importantly the barrels of food and clothes back to the families in the islands. Equally important were messages from loved ones that arrived in the New England ports, either by letter, or a personal message sent by way of friends from the same village or island. (Click here to view a video of Pres. Pereira talking about the importance of the packets.)
The anguish of the separations of distance, years, or a lifetime, is immortalized in Cape Verdean music, especial the “morna” (made famous by Cape Verdean world music diva, Cesaria Evora). That feeling of “saudade,” or longing and sadness is a visceral component of Cape Verdean culture and resonates throughout every aspect of society. “Tristealegria,” happy and sad together, bittersweet, is the essence of stoicism that characterizes the Cape Verdean determination to survive against almost insurmountable odds. (Click here to listen to “Nantasket One Evening,” a traditional Cape Verdean song).
These tight-knit, self-contained communities are concentrated most heavily, in descending order, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and then Connecticut. Cape Verdeans worked in Cape Cod’s cranberry bogs, as well as on the waterfronts and textile mills. The door on Cape Verdean immigration closed by the Johnson Immigration Laws of 1922 and 1924, reopened in 1968, beginning the second major wave of Cape Verdean immigration in the 20th century. Today’s population of Cape Verdeans in New England, now more than 300,000 strong, is greater than the population of Cape Verde.
The community of Fox Point was situated near the waterfront and the Port of Providence. Clustered in tenements, families, relatives and friends lived within shouting distance from one another. (Click to view video clips “The Old Neighborhood” and “Granny’s.”) Once a bustling port for loose cargo-lumber, coal, scrap iron-most of the men from the Point “worked the boats” as proud members of the Longshoremen’s Union Local 1329. (Click here to view video clip “Working the Boats.”) The neighborhood abutted Brown University and the affluent East Side. It was an uneasy and sometimes hostile relationship. An uncle told me that children were warned not to go out on the streets at night because they would be snatched up and used in experiments in the labs at Brown!
It was close to the St. Antonio Society, one of the main beneficent organizations that provided benefits and insurance for its members, as well as sponsoring dances and fundraisers for sick members, funeral expenses, or scholarships. Social activities revolved around organizations like the St. Antonio Society, church events and family gatherings. (Click here for more information on the St. Antonio society.)
Every activity included music. Violins and guitars were pulled out, and favorite mornas, and coladerias would be played, and invariably the dancing would begin. One of the first things a child in the Point learned was to dance to the morna and the coladeria. Most of us have vivid recollections of the dances at the St. Antonio Society: small children dancing together, two old women, maybe widows, slowly moving to the morna, little girls learning to dance standing on the feet of their fathers. (Click here to see and hear Fox Point and Cape Verdean music legends, Flash Tavares and Vickie Vieira.)
What really kept the boys out of mischief was the Boys Club on 226 South Main Street, another venerable institution and the home away from home for generations of boys from the Point. From the moment the doors opened in 1916, the Boys Club on S. Main Street served the urban poor and kept the boys away from dangers of the streets and juvenile delinquency. The Club was a haven from crowded, cold water tenements with limited indoor plumbing or pull chain toilets.
The Cape Verdean community was totally destroyed by gentrification and urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. It was an urban massacre that displaced three generations of families, friends, neighbors to make way for highways, expansion for Brown University, and historic preservation. (Click here to view video clip “Community Displacement.”) Our history and voices were erased before we had a chance to inscribe our stories.
In l986 I turned my skills as historian/filmmaker to tell the stories of my community. I made THE SPIRIT OF CAPE VERDE (SCV) in l986, a half-hour documentary about the first state visit to the United States in l983 of the first president of Cape Verde after independence. (Check out these two clips: “Pres. Pereira speech in Pawtucket” and “Pres. Pereira visits the Ernestina”)
SCV was the sketch pad for series of documentaries that began in earnest in l995 with the first pre-production grant for SKFPR, the first of a trilogy of feature documentaries about the Cape Verdean community in Fox Point. The second feature, ATLANTIC PORTAL, follows what happened to the Cape Verdean community after the displacement in the l970s to the present, and the third, WORKING THE BOATS, is the story of Local 1329 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, founded in l933 by Cape Verdeans.
This work also is part of the mission of my company SPIA Media Productions, Inc. created in l998 and dedicated to the documentation, preservation and dissemination of cultural productions from Africa, the Caribbean and the United States, with a particular emphasis on Cape Verdean-American and Cape Verdean history, culture and traditions. This includes films, videos and multi-platform productions that explore, in innovative and qualitative ways, the multiplicity of voices, images and stories that are rarely seen or heard.
SKFPR has started a movement. Since the premiere in 2006 the documentary has become a catalyst in awakening and revitalizing the Cape Verdean community. Now, over forty years after we were physically displaced from Fox Point, we are returning to Fox Point-not physically, but as a presence: our memory is still alive, and we are working to maintain that space for ourselves and the generations following us.
A unique opportunity to presented itself in 2007 when the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Brown University invited me to be as a Visiting Scholar in 2007 to develop the Fox Point Cape Verdean Project, an initiative dedicated to telling the Cape Verdean Fox Point story in our voice, in multiple formats and genres, and creating an archive of primary source materials and oral histories to preserve our legacy, culture and history for generations to come.
The Fox Point Cape Verdean Project is a broad coalition of ad hoc members, many of whom have been friends to SPIA Media Productions, Inc. and related projects since SPIRIT OF CAPE VERDE. We are grateful for the support of The Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, at Brown University, the Brown University Library and staff and community organizations of the “new” Fox Point for helping us with our work.
The core committee is composed of:
Dr. Claire Andrade-Watkins, Project Director
Associate Professor, Emerson College & Visiting Scholar Brown University, Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America since 2007 & 2009 Swearer Center Community Fellow
John B. Cruz, III, President, John B. Cruz Construction Co.
John Murphy, President & CEO Home Loan Bank
Dr. Danielle Taylor, Dean of Humanities, Dillard University
Ana Lisa Silva, Peace Corps/Cape Verde Program Manager for community development/small enterprise development
Ron Locke, Esq. Brown University ‘72
Cheryl Locke, Brown University ‘76
Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer
Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center
Dr. Evelyn Hu-Dehart, Director, CSREA
Roberta Gianfortoni Assistant Dean for Professional Education for MPH,
Harvard School of Public Health
Institution Collaboration, In-Kind &Technical and Financial Support:
CSREA, Brown University
JNBC, Brown University
Swearer Center, Brown University
Center for Digital Initiatives, Brown University
Friends of India Point Park (FIPP)
Fox Point Neighborhood Association (FPNA)
Cape Verdean Sub-committee Of The RI Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission