Between Race and Ethnicity: Cape Verdean American Immigrants, 1860-1965
1993, by Marilyn Halter. Chicago, University of Illlinois Press. © 1993 by the Board of Trustees, University of Illinois. Used with Permission from the University of Illinois Press
Introduction: The Cape Verdeans – All Shades, All Hues
A profound analysis of cultural reality removes the supposition that there can be continental or racial cultures…The fact of recognizing the existence of common and special traits in the culture of African peoples, independently of the colour of their skin, does not necessarily imply that one and only one culture exists on the continent. In the same way that from the economic and political point of view one can note the existence of various Africas, so there are also various African cultures.
- Amilcar Cabral, leader of the successful struggle for the independence of Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, 20 February 1970
The story of American immigration, when written in other form than that of lifeless statistics, has many strange chapters. Perhaps there is no more curious chapter than that of the people of the Cape Verde Archipelago.
- Albert Jenks, anthropologist, 1924
Many inhabitants of the Cape Verde archipelago, twenty-one islands and islets in a crescent shape stretching from 283 to 448 miles off the west coast of Africa, have immigrated to the United States, constituting a little-known racial-ethnic group in this country, the Cape Verdean Americans. Though relatively small in numbers, these Afro-Portuguese settlers represent the only major community of Americans of African descent (albeit of mixed ancestry) to have voluntarily made the transatlantic voyage to the United States.
Most historians agree that the Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited until the mid-fifteenth century when Portuguese explorers landed there, although some historians maintain that the Cape Verdes may have been known to Arabs and Africans before the Portuguese discovery. Actually an Italian navigator, Antonio da Noli, sailing with a Portuguese expedition, is credited with first coming upon the archipelago in 1455. For over five hundred years, until 1975, when the islands became an independent nation, known as the Republic of Cape Verde, the inhabitants lived under Portuguese colonial rule. In the early years of colonization, the Portuguese tried to establish large-scale sugar and cotton plantations on the islands using a system similar to that which had already been implemented in southern Portugal, the Algarve, the Azores, and Madeira. Almost from the very beginning of settlement, West African slaves were being brought to the Cape Verdes to labor on plantations, but the arid climate of these Sahelian islands prevented truly successful commercial cultivation of the land. What soon became more important to the Portuguese than agricultural production was the strategic location of the archipelago at a crossroads in the expanding slave trade. Situated near the Guinea coast and on the Trade Winds route to Brazil, the Cape Verdes served as an entrepot for the distribution of goods both legal and clandestine, for supplying foreign vessels with needed supplies and salt, and for transporting slaves to the New World.
As these exchanges were taking place, the sparse Portuguese population intermingled with the greater numbers of slaves to produce a rich and distinctive Cape Verdean society and culture. From the start, the island population was ethnically diverse. Among the Europeans, in addition to the Portuguese were Genoese, Castilians, and Spaniards while it has been estimated that a minimum of twenty-seven different West African ethnic groups were represented among the early settlers. Because of the inhospitable climate and isolation of the archipelago it was always difficult to attract white migrants.
Adventurers and refugees, including Jews fleeing persecution as well as criminal and political exiles or degredados, made up much of the Portuguese influx. The degredados, who comprised a significant proportion of the white settlement, began arriving as early as 1500. Oftentimes their banishment to the Cape Verdes was temporary, but, in some cases, they did remain permanently. Exiled with their families, the degredados formed liaisons with slave women, increasing the mulatto sector which was as likely to have free status as not. Some of these settlers also crossed over to mainland Africa to trade along the rivers of Upper Guinea, forming a broker class. Known as lancados, they organized trading relations between African chiefs and visiting European ships, often marrying African women during their stay. The role of middleman would reassert itself at various points in the history of Portuguese colonization, particularly under the Salazar regime when Cape Verdeans were utilized as government administrators in other colonies.
Another factor that contributed to a easing of distinctions between master and slave and that also expanded the free black population resulted from the frequent pirate attacks on the islands. During these assaults, landowners would flee to the mountains and in the ensuing confusion, their slaves too would run away to the interior, forming autonomous communities, particularly in the mountaintops of the island of Sao Tiago. In addition to these self-liberated slaves, unlike the system in the United States, Cape Verdean slavery was marked by frequent manumissions. Freedom was granted routinely for good behavior as well as for those considered to be descended from the master, including nieces and nephews as well as sons and daughters. During periods of extended drought conditions, slaves were let go because of severe shortages of food and the absence of a demand for their labors. In those periods, however, while freed from political bondage, these individuals then had to face dire economic circumstances with large numbers succumbing to starvation. Finally, at no point in the history of the governing of the archipelago were there legal sanctions prohibiting interracial marriages or liaisons.
Consequently, by the twentieth century, almost the entire population of the Cape Verdes was made up of people of mixed descent.
Hence, in this mesh of African ancestry, Catholicism, and Western presence, it has not always been possible to discern whether the European of the African influence predominates. Rather, the interweaving has been so complete that it is almost appropriate to speak of the evolution of a separate culture with its own distinctive customs, folklore, cuisine, music, literature, and, finally, language. Though based in Portuguese and several West African languages, the mother tongue of the Cape Verdean people is a full-fledged, creolized language of its own called Crioulo. The official language is still Portuguese, but Crioulo is the vehicle of everyday communication in Cape Verde for everyone at all levels of society. Although varying from one island to another, it became a defining feature of the Cape Verdean cultural identity that has been transmitted to the United States and other parts of the world.
Always plagued by scanty and erratic rainfall, the effects of the dry climate in the Cape Verdes were exacerbated by colonial mismanagement of the land, so that by the end of the eighteenth century, the people of the Islands were experiencing severe and recurrent drought with its resulting famine and high mortality. Unable to escape overland to more favorable conditions, the young Cape Verdeans seized the chance to leave home in search of a better life as crew aboard the United States whaling ships that were beginning to arrive at the archipelago’s protective harbors. American merchant vessels were already a familiar sight, as by this time the Islands had become a regular stopover in the trade with the west coast of Africa, the Canaries, Brazil, and other parts of the world. Beginning in 1816, the United States established consuls on two of the islands, Sao Tiago and Sao Vicente. Furthermore, in the 1840s and 1850s in an effort to curtail the imports of slaves, the United States formed is African Squadron, a fleet of sailing cruisers used to further the antislavery mission by boarding suspected ships and seizing their human cargoes. Some of these vessels were based in Cape Verdean ports.
Especially as Yankee seamen began to lose interest in whaling due to decreasing profits in the industry, the ship captains looked to the Cape Verde Islands in order to recruit hands who could be paid less money than their American counterparts. At the same time, because of the impoverished conditions, the men of the archipelago were eager to obtain a berth on a whaler, no matter what the pay, as a means to escape the constant suffering.
The Cape Verdean recruits quickly earned a reputation as valued seamen who made up a disciplined and able crew. Despite their skill and desirability as whalers, however, they were routinely allotted the lowest rates in the division of profits and were frequently subject to harsh treatment in the mariners’ hierarchy because of discrimination based on race and ethnicity. The exploitation of their labors at sea foreshadowed a similar prejudice that they would face in their land-based occupations once the immigrants began to settle in southeastern New England.
By the late nineteenth century, with the advent of steamship travel and the decline of the whaling and sealing industries, the old sailing vessels became obsolete and were therefore available at a very low cost. Some of the early Cape Verdean immigrants took advantage of this opportunity to buy up these old Essex-built “Gloucester Fishermen.” They pooled their resources and converted them into cargo and passenger ships, known as packet boats, for regular sailing between fixed destinations. With the purchase of a sixty-four-ton fishing schooner, the Nellie May, Antonio Coelho became the first Cape Verdean American packet owner. He hired a former whaleman as captain and the ship set sail for Brava in 1892.
Before long Cape Verdean American settlers owned a fleet of these former whalers and schooners that regularly plied between the ports of New Bedford and Providence and the islands of Cape Verde, particularly Brava. Thus, in a situation unlike that of most immigrant groups, black or white, the Cape Verdeans came to have control over their own means of passage to this country.
During the same period, cheap sources of labor were being sought for expanding textile mills and the cranberry bogs of southeastern Massachusetts. Larger numbers of immigrants were arriving to fulfill the demand, fleeing their land of continual hunger. In the first decade of the twentieth century, drought conditions became even more intolerable, accelerating the economic disintegration of the Islands. The people booked passage on the packet ships, with the hope of surviving through emigration to America. This movement continued steadily until the enforcement of the restrictive immigration laws of 1921 and 1924.
It is this history of Cape Verdean immigration to and settlement in southeastern Massachusetts that I will examine in the following pages. To date, a comprehensive study of the Cape Verdean American experience has not been written. The relatively small size of the population accounts for some of the inattention, but the invisible nature of Cape Verdean ethnicity stems from other factors as well. Deirdre Meintel, the only American anthropologist to have done extensive field work in the Cape Verdes, concluded that the continued obscurity of Cape Verdeans in this country parallels their historical lack of recognition within the colonial empire, a phenomenon she called “double invisibility”.
The social invisibility Cape Verdean Americans experience as a small Afro-American ethnic group, is nothing new to them. Time and again the insignificance of the archipelago in Portugal’s empire was made clear; for example, by the lack of maritime contact with the metropole for years on end, the indifference of the Portuguese government to the plight of the islands during droughts, and even by the new social science texts, introduced during the colonial wars, that were oriented to the larger, more economically valuable, mainland colonies.
Moreover, in part because of the ambiguity of their regional placement, not only have Cape Verdeans been eclipsed from Portuguese history, they have also been marginalized in the field of African Studies despite their long-standing socioeconomic and political ties to continental Africa. Thus, to acknowledge the social identity of Cape Verdean Americans is to have some cognizance of the Cape Verde Islands themselves, a part of our world history and geography lessons that has traditionally been overlooked.
Another explanation for why this group has been neglected derives from the manner in which white racism has functioned in North American society. Historically, racial classification in the United States has been an oversimplified matter of black or white, a dichotomy that has virtually obliterated cultural differences among people of color. The Cape Verdean Americans are an example of such cultural invalidation with their history having been systematically ignored. Even more recent studies that have been done in the wake of ethnic revivalism, such as Stanley Lieberson’s A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880, have failed to note the place of this group in our past. In this book, the author has amassed an abundance of data to explain why white immigrant groups have fared better than blacks in America. While he touches on the histories of other nonwhite groups besides native black, such as the Japanese American settlement, he makes no mention of Cape Verdeans. This omission is not surprising and is typical of the literature on the subject. What is glaring is that in his discussion of newcomers to this country from 1890 to1924, he inaccurately asserts that, “As for blacks, there was virtually no voluntary migration from either Africa or some of the areas of black settlement in the New World.” This gap in our collective knowledge of the history of Cape Verdean Americans has detracted from even some of the better attempts at multicultural research.
Finally, those who have previously embarked on studies of Cape Verdean Americans have been continually frustrated in their efforts by the absence of reliable sources necessary to produce a profile of this population. Again, as a result of the hegemony of a dualistic racial system, the U.S. Census and other official records have subsumed the Cape Verdeans under other broad categories, most often as “Portuguese” but also as “African Portuguese”, “Black Portuguese” and “Atlantic Islanders.” This confusion has discouraged many a researcher on the subject. My own work has only been possible through the discovery of a previously unexamined source: ship manifests that specifically name the Cape Verdeans and that have enabled me to cull a wealth of demographic information about this group.
That the history of this distinctive ethnic and racial group in America has not yet been systematically recorded is reason enough to suggest such an undertaking. But the story of Cape Verdean American immigration is of a particular significance when considered in the framework of recent historical scholarship that compares with the adaptation and social mobility patterns of native blacks with European immigrants during the process of large-scale urbanization and mass migration that occurred in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in this country.
Here is a people who immigrated to the United States freely as Portuguese colonials and who identified themselves in terms of ethnicity but who, because of their mixed African and European ancestry, were looked upon by the rest of society as a racial category. Although the Cape Verdeans sought recognition as Portuguese Americans, the “white” Portuguese, chiefly from the Azores and Madeira, disassociated themselves from them. From very early on in their settlement here, Cape Verdeans were excluded from Portuguese national parishes, social clubs, and neighborhoods. At the same time, the Cape Verdeans chose not to identify with American blacks. Their Catholicism tended to keep them apart from the primarily Protestant African American population but, more powerfully, the Cape Verdean Americans quickly perceived the adverse effects of racism on the upward mobility of anyone considered nonwhite in this country. Though no match for the pervasive racial discrimination, Cape Verdeans also had to confront the virulent anti-Catholic sentiment rife at the time of their immigration to the United States.
Furthermore, the Anglo or dominant culture regarded Capre Verdeans as black not only because of a biologically defined and rigid racial structure but also because of social class. The jobs they were able to obtain were the same type of menial jobs held by black Americans and as a result, their place in the economy of southeastern New England was not very different than that of African Americans. Thus, the definition of race that was imposed upon them was based not only on the color of their skin but also on the role they placed in the local economy and social structure.
Because of their unique geographical location as well as their ethnic and racial identification, the Cape Verdean experience does not readily fall into either the literature on black migration from the rural south to the urban north or that of southern, central, and eastern European immigration to the shores of America. However, certain ideas resulting from this theoretical material can still be of use as applied to the particular example of the Cape Verdean Americans. Conversely, the Cape Verdean case itself can serve to further illuminate the historical experience of both white and black immigrants and migrants in the United States.
Very broadly speaking, the work on black migration and European immigration falls under one of two conflicting interpretations. The classic assimilationist theory, when applied to southern rural blacks, depicts them arriving in northern cities much as the European peasant did. Unfamiliar with the urban environment or industrialization, they were accorded the lowest paying jobs, lived under poverty conditions and suffered from family disorganization. In time, however, over at least one generation, they began to overcome these odds and, like other immigrant groups before them, were able to get themselves onto an upwardly mobile track and finally make the adjustment to city life. This model of urban adaptation has been called “ethnic succession” and can be applied to European immigrant groups as well.
In the case of both the descendants of slaves from the South and the European newcomers, urbanization would effectively wipe out the vestiges of premigration culture as the migrant accommodated to the new society. Each successive wave of immigrants would make in into the middle class but at the expense of cultural disintegration and individual anomie.
At the other extreme is more recent research on urban adaptation. These efforts argue that new arrivals to the city retained their premigration culture and emphasize that race and ethnicity are independent factors that can account for varying patterns of adjustment and social mobility among different ethnic groups. From this point of view, the migrant is seen as being more in charge, less a pawn in the urbanization process. Family continuity and preservation of the old ways persisted despite the tremendous turmoil of uprooting. Whether ex-slaves or peasant immigrants, the settlers used their various cultural backgrounds to facilitate accommodation and survival in the new environment. In some cases, moving to the city strengthened traditional customs rather an accelerating assimilation.
In fact, the adaptation process, especially in the case of the Cape Verdeans, was much more complex than either of these interpretations suggests. At best, the ethnic succession model incorporates the phenomenon of race in terms of African American exceptionalism. Within ethnicity theory the experience of slavery and its legacy of institutionalized inequality is recognized as being a special obstacle to the black population in the adaptation process. Without minimizing the extent of rabid anti-immigrant bias in this country, it is now clear that racial minorities have encountered a different kind of rather than a different degree of prejudice than white ethnic groups have faced, an institutionalized form of discrimination that is deeply embedded and tenaciously endures. Only African Americans were enslaved, Native Americans nearly exterminated and removed to reservations, and Japanese Americans – not German or Italian Americans – relocated to concentration camps during World War II, to cite some of the most striking examples of the differing consequences of racism versus ethnocentrism. Moreover, prevailing racist attitudes have been the major deterrent to the kind of successful adjustment that the ethnic succession approach postulates.
A further limitation of the ethnicity paradigm when applied to foreign-born blacks in particular is the absence of recognition of the diversity of cultures among racial minorities in the United States. African Americans are seen within this construct as simply another ethnic group, as undifferentiated population. Like the larger society itself, the discourse of ethnicity theory reveals a biracial rather than multicultural mode of analysis. Ethnic differences within the black population are too often overlooked in the scholarship on race relations as well. The peculiar but widely held belief that whites – whether Anglo-Saxon, Polish, or Greek – are defined by ethnicity, while blacks are defined by the color of their skin alone, persists. As the sociologists Michael Omni and Howard Winant succinctly state: “Blacks in ethnic terms are as diverse as whites.” This concept has been missing within the entire body of literature on the history of North American immigration, race, and ethnicity, resulting in a seriously flawed interpretative framework with which to work.
Related to the ideal of cultural homogeneity among migrants of color is another myth that permeates the scholarship on immigration; that is, the belief that all our forbears came from Europe. For example, the usual assertion in our history books or, for that matter, in immigration texts, is that the first restrictive immigration laws were passed in the early 1920s, when the doors slammed shut. To make such a statement is to completely ignore the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed over 40 years earlier in 1882 and subsequently renewed several times, the fist such prohibitive immigration legislation. Yet, this error is commonplace in the literature, the result of seeing United States immigration solely in terms of European arrivals. As Ronald Takaki states and reiterates in the very title of his fine history of Asian Americans, Strangers from a Different Shore, “Eurocentric history serves no one. It only shrouds the pluralism that is America and makes our nation so unique, and thus the possibility of appreciating our rich racial and cultural diversity remains a dream deferred. Actually, as Americans, we come originally from many different shores – Europe, the Americas, Africa, and also Asia.”
Certainly, the policy makers were acutely aware, though clearly not appreciative, of the varying shores from which the second wave arrivals came as is evidenced by this rationale given by an authority on immigration policy in support of the 1921 quota act:
We believe that our best interests will be served by keeping the United States as far as possible a white man’s country. Our own history, as well as the history of other countries, affords many examples of the serious difficulties that arise when members of very diverse races come into intimate contact. We cannot assimilate the yellow, brown, and black races…There is a need at the present time of excluding other dark skinned races, a need which will undoubtedly increase unless some action is taken. From 1889 to 1922 there were admitted to this country 115,000 African blacks, and during the same period more than 25,000 West Indians other than Cubans. One would think that our Negro problem was already large enough without adding to it that way…But it would seem, since we have applied the principle of exclusion to such people as the Chinese and Japanese, that we should go the whole way and totally exclude the black immigrant-aliens. The barred zone should be extended to African and also to the West Indies, especially to Jamaica and the Bahamas, to stop the coming of blacks from those quarters.
While immigration scholars would do well to differentiate ethnicity within racial categories and to recognize the varying continental origins of immigrants, it is of equal importance to grasp the links that have been made between racial minorities by those representing the dominant culture. For example, what is the relationship of the history of anti-Asian bias to discrimination against blacks in the promulgation of white racism in this country?
Including immigrants of color and including those who have migrated here from places other than Europe presents a formidable challenge to each of the major theories of assimilation where racial minorities have been incorporated by analogy only. This problem exists whether utilizing the traditional paradigm of the melting pot or the concept of Anglo-conformity, which posits a dominant Anglo-Saxon majority culture under which all others should be subsumed. Even subscribing to the more currently popular model of cultural pluralism that allows for the possibility that ethnic groups can coexist, each retaining their varying cultural forms without fusing into one another of having to submit to Anglo-Saxon supremacy, is not fully adequate to explain the experience and adaptation patterns of certain immigrant populations. The failure of all American assimilationist theory to date is that race, if discussed at all, is treated as a derivative of ethnicity. Or similarly, the tendency in the scholarship is to meld together ethnicity and race, using both terms interchangeably as if they were the same. Furthermore, all three models emphasize the European immigrant to the exclusion of Asian, African, Hispanic, and Caribbean groups, all of which have had a significant presence in this country even before the recent wave of immigration.
While the Cape Verdean people do represent a blend of racial and ethnic elements in their cultural identity, it is necessary to distinguish the racial and ethnic aspects of their history to best understand the meaning of their experience in the United States. It has not been useful for scholars to conflate the two social categories, in part because what often occurs is that the European or white ethnics become the norm. The particular issues of being a racial minority in this society get lost, as with the example given above, of the recurring obliteration of the history of discrimination against Chinese Americans. Studies of those populations that are simultaneously racial and ethnic groups are of particular value in their potential to reveal the most to us about the social nature of each of the categories.
My analysis of issues of race and ethnicity among the Cape Verdean immigrants turns on a theoretical premise that views race as a social construction. Race, in this context, is no longer solely a by-product of ethnicity or social class but, indeed, has an epistemology of its own. Omni and Winant in Racial Formation in the United States emphasize the malleability of racial meanings, arguing convincingly that race cannot be seen as an ahistorical phenomenon or physical fact, Rather, it is an ever-changing set of notions subject to the influence of shifting ideological and power structures within society. This reformulation of race can be understood both in terms of external social perceptions and from the point of view of a people’s own self-identification. In her pivotal 1982 essay, “Ideology and Race in American History,” Barbara Fields writes, “Ideas about color, like ideas about anything else, derive their importance, indeed their definition, from their context.”
Over twenty years ago, in White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, Winthrop Jordan brilliantly deconstructed the language and rationale for enslavement in this country. He traced the origins of the earliest white ideas of blackness and the evolution of this racial imagery down to the antebellum period in the United States, arguing that English beliefs about black inferiority were already in place before the development of the slave system. By so doing and although he is writing in the tradition of the intellectual historian, in this case utilizing a theory of psychosexual analysis, his interpretation demonstrates the fluidity of racial notions, implicitly refuting the concept of race as a biological and fixed category. Interestingly, given the subject of this book, the first example Jordan gives us of initial contacts between Africans and the English occurred in 1564 at the Cape Verde Islands: “The most arresting characteristic of the newly discovered African was his color. Travelers rarely failed to comment upon it; indeed when describing Negroes they frequently began with complexion and then moved on to dress (or rather lack of it) and manners. At Cape Verde, ‘These people are all blacke, and are called negroes, without any apparell, saving before their privities.’”
The theory of racial formation needs to be further elaborated to strengthen the view of race as a factor, like gender, which is historically constructed and which changes social meaning in time and place. Such an approach to ideas about race owes a debt to the body of knowledge that has been developed among feminist scholars. Writings such as Joan Scott’s prize-winning book, Gender and the Politics of History, help us to understand that women’s and men’s roles are not rooted in nature but that, in fact, they are always subject to historical construction. Gender as a tool of historical inquiry offers a conceptual framework that looks at the changing ideas of womanhood and manhood and ways in which actual behavior has met these prescriptions Likewise, in the United States racial classification has historically been viewed in rigid categories of black and white. Yet, the Cape Verdeans are an excellent example of a nonwhite immigrant group whose ethnicity has been obscured and whose racial self-concept and labels have shifted over time, falling into categories of identification that are historically nuanced, complex, and ever-changing.
Theoretical models of ethnicity, of social class, and of nationality have taken precedence in the literature, but have been woefully inadequate when applied, as they have been, to racial minorities. In fact, a person can be white one day and black the next, or an individual’s race may change simply by moving from one country to another. In societies with more fluid racial structures and at times when historical conditions allow greater possibilities for flux, education, wealth, and other cultural or economic factors can have as much importance or more than phenotype or skin shade in determining one’s social position. Hence, in her study of Jamaicans, Nancy Foner speaks of individuals who “change” color in Jamaican society as their life circumstances shift while Karen Blu found that the American Lumbee population who were initially regarded as a race but who perceived themselves as “a people” (in ethnic terms) have now reconfigured their own identity so that they are currently considered an ethnic group by all. If race really is a biological fact, then why is it that states have had to engage in such lengthy judicial deliberations to legally and socially designate racial identities? And how is it that governments differ in the official labeling of certain populations as racial groups? Jews were a race in Nazi Germany; South Africans define the Japanese as “honorary” whites. Several of the oral history accounts in this volume illustrate the evolution of varying racial identification in time and place within a single lifetime.
Sometimes, however, self-definitions do not match the assigned social designations, leading to psychologically painful consequences. This kind of personal turmoil stemming from a sense of being unseen is a recurrent theme in the Cape Verdean life histories as well. Omni and Winant discuss the psychosocial origins of such a crisis of identity: “One of the first things we notice about people when we meet them (along with their sex) is their race. We utilize race to provide clues about who a person is. This fact is made painfully obvious when we encounter someone whom we cannot conveniently racially categorize – someone who is, for example, racially mixed or of an ethnic/racial group with which we are not familiar. Such an encounter becomes a source of discomfort and momentarily a crisis of racial meaning. Without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity.”
The absence of an identity is precisely how one journalist titled his commentary on the Cape Verdean immigrant – “A People without a Race.” Also unable to readily classify the Cape Verdeans by race, another referred to them as “the green people,” taking literally the translation of Cape Verde. Confusion about identification crops up often in the literature about and by Cape Verdeans. “Black, White or Portuguese? A Cape Verdean Dilemma,” an oral history by a Cape Verdean American woman, speaks directly to these contradictions. Neither black nor white, but sometimes white, at other times black, African, Portuguese, brown, even green, Cape Verdean immigrants are continually having to redefine their identity. And it is not simply a matter of changing self-definitions. In terms of successful adaptation, how they are defined by others often had had greater social and economic significance than how they see themselves.
Yet the experience of invisibility is certainly not peculiar to Cape Verdean Americans alone. On the contrary, it is an issue they have in common with other black ethnic groups in this country, familiar and troubling to all. Carlos Guillermoo Wilson refers to Afro-Hispanics as “los excluidos” (the excluded ones). On Black Cubans, Heriberto Dixon writes, “’To be or not to be’ that is the question facing black Cubans although they may not be aware of it. Are they a black minority within the larger Cuban minority? Or, are they a Cuban minority within a larger black minority?” and in another of his articles on this subject, he simply begins with the title, “Who Ever Heard of a Black Cuban?” In Puerto Ricans: Born in the USA, Clara Rodriguez calls her chapter on race “The Rainbow People” and speaks of dialectical distance, the phenomenon of Puerto Ricans caught between two polarities. Haitian immigrants, too, express the contradictions and ambiguities of being a “minority within a minority.”
According to Roy Simon Bryce-LaPorte, “Black immigrants operate – as blacks and immigrants – in the United States under more levels of cross-pressures, multiple affiliations and inequalities than either native blacks or European immigrants…On the national level, they suffer double invisibility, in fact – as blacks and as black foreigners.” Once again the term double invisibility emerges as a way to understand the Cape Verdean experience. While Meintel used the phrase to refer to the confluence of Cape Verdean obscurity, both within the system of Portuguese colonialism and in terms of social identity, Bryce-LaPorte suggests a meaning that is reminiscent of the underside of W. E. B. Du Bois’s paradoxical notion of African American “two-ness.” According to Du Bois, “two-ness” reflects both the spiritually empowering and deeply conflictual nature of the double consciousness that blacks inevitably experience in American society. Yet because of the potentially crushing force of white cultural dominance, the possibilities for obliteration are twofold as well. Certainly, Ralph Ellison understood this phenomenon in relation to blackness when in his introduction to the novel Invisible Man he declared, “despite the bland assertions of sociologists, ‘high visibility’ actually rendered one un-visible – whether at high noon in Macy’s window or illuminated by flaming torches and flashbulbs while undergoing the ritual sacrifice that was dedicated to the ideal of white supremacy.”
For the Cape Verdean immigrants or perhaps, for all people of color in the United States, the struggle to be seen, the extent to which identities have been eclipsed is so exponential, that “double” may not suffice to name it. Rather, the invisibility is a multiply configured legacy, the result of centuries of global colonizing efforts based on notions of racial inferiority. At the very least, then, this study is an attempt to provide a coherent history and explanation of the Cape Verdean experience that will assist in making this people of mixed racial and ethnic background a less invisible, more recognizable entity.
Perhaps because the United States has had a history of institutionalizing racism within such fixed genetic categories as compared to other societies, even those with a history of slavery such as Brazil or even the Cape Verde Islands themselves, it has been more difficult for American historians to view race as anything but a physical attribute. Yet it must be understood that the intellectual past that we inherit, the privileging of certain kinds of knowledges, in this case the powerful theory and methods of biological determinism were also historically constructed. That the social or cultural dimensions of race in the United States have been less generally evident does not mean that race in this country is more inherent than elsewhere. Exploring the history of a foreign-born population of color, such as the Cape Verdean migrant to this apparently immutable bipolar racial system, gives us an opportunity to jar essentialist notions of race that have permeated our understandings of the United States racial order. It also point to the need to collapse the traditional and arbitrary division between black history and immigration studies, a schism that reflects, in part, the tendency of historians to think of race relations primarily in terms of the African American experience alone.
While the Cape Verdean example raises questions initially concerning the changing racial meanings of black and brown, those who deal with the social construction of race need not make the mistake of only focusing on people “of color” when analyzing shifting definitions. Some of the best work, like Jordan’s White Over Black or Marlon Rigg’s 1987 film, Ethnic Notions, are not actually about blacks but rather are interested in how whites conceptualize the “other,” whether African or African American, both in terms of racial and sexual constructs. They are as concerned with what racial imagery can tell us about Anglo-American culture as about black society.
However, we ought to take this approach one step further and ask the same questions about whiteness as we do about being black when discussing race. That is, how has the idea of being “white” changed over time and just what color is “white” anyway? Did not the “white” Portuguese immigrants – those from mainland Portugal, the Azores and Madeira – already bring with them their own autonomous racial baggage – that of colonizers toward the colonized, that of migrants who back at home were also socially white, not black, but whose ethnicity still held connotations of Moorish, hence, dark-skinned ancestry in this country? The entire second wave of southern and eastern European migrants were arriving in a period of rabid nativistic sentiment that rested in part on the fear that white Anglo-Saxon purity would be undermined by the infusion of darker-skinned peoples. Perhaps, part of the process of adaptation and legitimization for the “white” Portuguese in the United States was to learn to become “whiter” than ever in the new society and to do so by purposefully defining themselves in sharp contrast to the “black” or Cape Verdean Portuguese. At the conclusion of his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, Malcolm X came to understand “whiteness” as a social construction in a profoundly transformative moment for him:
It was when I first began to perceive that “white man,” as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, “white man” meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men…
You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen and experienced has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions…During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the “white” Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I had felt among the black Africa Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana.
We were truly all the same (brothers) – because their belief in one God had removed the “white” from their minds, the “white” from their behavior and the “white” from their attitude.
Largely through analysis of legal documentation, Virginia Dominguez begins to grapple with these issues, including the examination of the meaning of white in her study of Creoles in Louisiana, White by
Definition. She explains:
To begin with, the existence of alternative definitions of Creole and of alternative criteria by which persons come to be identified as Creoles undermines a number of common assumptions about ethnic identity….
For one, most individuals have a large number of potential identities by ancestry alone. A person who moves back far enough in the family genealogy is likely to find ancestors of different national origin, social class and in many cases even racial origin….
But there is more. The dispute between the two sectors of Louisiana’s population that identify themselves as Creole, in addition, hinges of the status connotations of the labels Creole, white, and black…Thus to identify someone as Creole is to invoke in the course of a particular conversation historically linked connotations of social and economic status.
Furthermore, not only can a Creole, mulatto, or biracial identity stir up uneasy historical questions of social and economic standing, it can also visibly connote a problematic sexual history as well, a factor that, perhaps more than any other aspect of crossing the fixed boundaries of racial definition, makes people extremely uncomfortable even in the contemporary social milieu. It is instructive here to remember that the Cape Verdean immigrants were beginning to arrive in large numbers during the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, a period that coincides with the zenith of what could be termed, in the language of social psychology, a national phobia concerning interracial intimacy. The specter of the reproductive legacy resulting from widespread miscegenation under slavery (white male/black female) precipitated much of the fear of racial intermingling in these years. The near maniacal preoccupation with prohibiting contact between the races reached its height at this time with widespread southern vigilante action in the form of lynch mobs acting under the pretext of protecting white women from free black male sexuality. While Omi and Winant above, certainly make an important point in their description of what typically occurs in an encounter with a person of mixed racial heritage when they state that “Without a racial identity, one is in danger of having no identity,” at other times it is not merely the absence of recognition that triggers a crisis of racial meaning. Rather, peering into the face of a multiracial person can unveil the existence of a cross-racial sexual liaison – living proof that this strict legal and social taboo had been violated, a realization that disturbs the state of denial about such activity that operates in most peoples’ consciousness about race and sexuality. Under the gaze of the person whose security and worldview depend upon a clear, state-sanctioned separation of black and white, the mestizo becomes a sexual transgressor. More than simply facing an individual of indeterminate racial background, what transpires in this case is an even more complex and unsettling clash of racial meanings. When significant numbers of people cannot be readily categorized, it threatens to undermine the entire system of social classification.
Finally, in addition to questioning received notions of racial and ethnic categorization, this study endeavors to overcome another limitation of much of the work in the field of immigration history. For the most part the story of American immigration has been written from the perspective of an assumed male actor, although it is the case that in the last several years the trend had begun to reverse itself. In part to combat the traditional approach, some recent publications have focused solely on the female experience. Although there are noteworthy exceptions within the latest scholarship that do successfully intersect analysis of gender, race, ethnicity, or social class, in monographs such as this study, where a particular ethnic group is the subject, women, if present at all, are usually lumped in with the children and known only as the “family” of the [male] migrant. To insure that the female voices would be heard above the clatter of immigrant family activity, approximately half of my oral histories were conducted with women.
As has been shown to be the case with women of other ethnic groups migrating during this period, Cape Verdean women rarely were involved in formalized institutional activities such as labor unions or mutual benefit societies. Rather, their lives were lived through informal kinship, neighborhood, church, and workplace connections within the ethnic enclave. Like African American and other racial-ethnic women, the vast majority of Cape Verdean female migrants, whether single or married with children, worked outside the home. They labored primarily as pickers in the cranberry bogs along Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, or as domestics in urban neighborhoods adjacent to the Cape Verdean community. A smaller number worked in the textile mills of southeastern New England but held the lowest paid and least desirable positions, under hiring practices based on race and ethnicity as well as gender. The Cape Verdean immigrant woman’s accommodation to the labor market and the ways that her family and work responsibilities converged as she found strategies to support family survival will be addressed in this volume.
More challenging has been the attempt to explore the interplay of issues of gender with the variables of race and ethnicity within this framework. While I had consciously attempted to give equal attention to women’s voices from the onset of the project, gender analysis was not an initial priority of this work. Since the research phase was completed, I have come to recognize the extent to which a fully integrated interpretation based on gender serves to strengthen our understandings of all other aspects of the immigrant experience. Yet, this book remains centrally concerned with issues of race and ethnicity. My hope as of this writing has been to simply raise the question of how the social construction of Cape Verdean racial/ethnic identity may itself be gendered.
In the chapters that follow I will demonstrate ways that Cape Verdeans do resemble the other “white” ethnic groups arriving during the period of mass migration. Moreover, in many respects, the newcomers from the Cape Verde Islands were a classic sojourner immigrant population. Yet, unlike their European counterparts, the Cape Verdean arrivals faced a country of racial as well as ethnic hostility. Their decision to relocate in this country began a long and challenging search for a distinctive social identity within North American society.
The daily life of the cranberry pickers who settled on Cape Cod will be contrasted to that of the city dwellers who worked on the docks and in the mills and households of the wealthier residents in New Bedford. Many Cape Verdeans had a seasonal rural/urban migratory patterning, working the bogs in the late summer and fall, back to the city and the factories in the winter. In this sense the rural and urban communities were not such separate entities. Like some communities of southern African Americans, Cape Verdeans spanned a rural/industrial continuum. This comparison will be approached from the perspective of how rural and urban experiences differed when put through the crucible of racial definitions. The question of what it meant in relation to cultural adaptation and economic advancement for a people with African ancestry to have emigrated to a country of racial hostility out of a self-willed search for opportunity and flight from hardship versus forcible capture and enslavement will also be explored. Although the Cape Verdean American immigrants have never been free of the difficulties that have stemmed from having to reconcile their mixed European and African ancestry with a society that exhibits such sharp racial differences, it will be seen that the ethnic communities that they did establish in southeastern Massachusetts facilitated adaptation in the primary period of settlement.
These questions will be addressed using a variety of sources. Reconstructing the history of Cape Verdean Americans has been hampered by a scarcity of written materials as well as the absence, noted earlier, of accurate population records. Official governmental sources on Cape Verde itself are also extremely limited, like the record of the entire modern history of Portugal during the period between 1920 and 1974, the era of the Salazar dictatorship and the formation of Estado Novo, the “New State.” As political freedoms disappeared so were any vestiges of critical inquiry squashed. Records were haphazardly kept with no attempt to systematically preserve or catalogue them. Wide gaps in official documentation exist from these long years of authoritarian rule and neglect.
Official Census figures have not been of use in defining the Cape Verdean immigrant population; therefore, I sought to locate an alternative source of reliable data and found it in the record on microfilm of the actual passenger and crew lists of arriving vessels from the Cape Verde Islands to the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. These ship manifests, required first by the United States Secretary of the Treasury and then by the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, contain an abundance of information on each arriving alien. Passenger lists of vessels coming in from the Cape Verde Islands cover the period 1860-1934. In all, a total of 23,168 entries arriving on 450 different voyages were recorded, providing a solid demographic base from which to proceed.
Like many other recent works of the new social history, this study had benefited from anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s model of ethnographic research both in terms of its validation of the significance of lived experience and in the interest in a dynamic and multitextured cultural analysis. However, by using both statistical data and “thick description,” my hope is to avoid the pitfalls of solely relying upon either approach. The potential limitations of applying Geertzian semiotics to historical inquiry have been compared by Ron Walters to “those of quantification, its methodological rival in social history. Both tend to freeze theory at a middle level short of anything all-encompassing. Both can turn in on themselves to an obsession with method over content. Each ironically, has the potential to divorce itself from the gritty experiences of the common folk it intends to study, the one by reducing people to numbers, the other by elevating them to literature. In fact, the two methods can be complementary. Rich ethnographic data in the form of oral accounts that individuate human experience serve to enliven the numbers while the statistics are a constant reminder that this is not the unraveling of a make-believe world, an intriguing plot in a work of historical fiction. Rather, real life histories are being explicated. These are episodes filled with possibilities for symbolic analysis, but nonetheless played out within the social realities of the power structures, racial climate and economic conditions existent in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The other sources essential to this study are the personal recollections of the Cape Verdean immigrants themselves. There are still living today Cape Verdean Americans who can give firsthand accounts of the process of settlement in the early part of this century, bringing to life and complementing the quantitative data furnished by the logs of the packet ship trade. Alone, the individual narratives would not have been adequate to support broader historical conclusions, yet they became invaluable when presented in conjunction with the demographic findings and the available secondary sources. While the statistical analysis sets the stage for the drama of the immigrant experience, the life histories are the dialogue, a script filled with a range of emotion and private testimony that transcends the more static evidence of the public record.
The oral history approach has by now become an accepted method of historical research, offering important insights into the lives and struggles of ordinary people. Perhaps the greatest contribution that this methodology has facilitated, however, is in gaining access to the folk history of groups whose heritage might otherwise be lost. This is particularly true of cultures that have a predominantly oral rather than written tradition. Cape Verdeans are such a people. The Crioulo language is a primarily spoken one, as are all creole languages. Only in very recent years has there been a systematic attempt to preserve it in written form. Furthermore the oral histories themselves can become documentation for future researchers, despite the emphatic statement that “unlike historians, anthropologists create their own documents,” made by Roger Sanjek in the preface to his recently published and delightful collection, Fieldnotes. When it comes to the work of the oral historian, this disciplinary distinction dissolves. Just like the anthropologists, we, too, generate primary source material to add to the documentary pool.
The period of time covered in this work lent a special urgency to the interviewing process. The first generation of immigrants who are still with us are now in the twilight of their lives. Several of the respondents have passed away since this research was undertaken, and others were either hospitalized or too ill at home to be able to participate in repeat sessions. Their memories are a precious gift to us. As one former whaler so wisely pronounced, “The whales can still be saved. But the whaler can only be remembered by his stories.”
In conducting my interviews, I was always accompanied by a trusted member of the Cape Verdean community, a procedure which resulted in a much more quickly established rapport with the respondents. It also meant that cultural and linguistic nuances that might be difficult for an outsider to discern were usually recognized as such and an attempt at explanation would be made during the course of the taping. In many instances, I already knew, in some other capacity, the individual being interviewed, which also enhanced the quality of the oral accounts. At the time of my first trip to the Cape Verde Islands in 1984, I was one of a handful of non-Cape Verdeans in this country to have journeyed to the archipelago. Once this investigative expedition was completed, news of the visit impressed the local Cape Verdean community with the seriousness of my effort. Before long, word spread that I was hard at work on this project and subsequently, it would not be an unusual occurrence for me to be stopped on the street by a Cape Verdean American acquaintance with a request for me to interview a family member. Such was the eagerness of some to ensure that the history would be written and that their own legacy would not be lost in it. Hence, the usually challenging tasks of locating and making contact with willing subjects for oral interviews as well as gaining their confidence fell into place with relative ease. The oral histories that I myself was able to generate for this study were supplemented by a sprinkling of additional excerpts from the narratives of Cape Verdean immigrants that have appeared in published form in recent years.
The rich and varied Cape Verdean oral tradition had produced an original and noteworthy literature that is undeniably Cape Verdean and should not go without mention here. In spite of the dominant prestige of the Portuguese language, some Cape Verdean writers such as Pedro Monteiro Cardoso, Eugenio Tavares and Sergio Frusoni have boldly and proudly used Crioulo as the medium in their mission to describe Cape Verdean life. Love of their homeland and the inconsolable pangs of separation are themes that recur again and again in the literature. The Crioulo epigraph that introduces the pivotal novel of Cape Verde, Chiquinho, reads: “Corpo, qu’e nego, sa ta bai; Coracom, qu’e forro, sa ta fica. (The body, which is a slave, departs; the heart, which is free, remains.)
Through the morna – a distinctive Cape Verdean literary form consisting of poetry put to music and conveyed through gestures and dance – the hardships and hopes of the people are lyrically phrased. It is an expression of nostalgia and longing, of saudade, with elements resembling the African American blues. But, unlike the blues, the words to the morna, have, as often as not, dealt with the anguish of departure. For it was only in emigration, through leaving what they loved the most, that the Cape Verdeans could take control of their lives, support those dear to them and catch a ray of hope for survival. It is one of the great ironies in the history of the Cape Verdean people that the emigrants to America have been so economically dependent upon occupational ties to the water, whether in maritime jobs or working the moist swampy land of the bogs. Meanwhile their homeland has been parched with drought, the scarcity of water being a fundamental historical constant.
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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