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Exploring a Racial Riddle in Cape Verde

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A melody of guitar strings and singing floated down the darkened beach, accompanied by the purr of surf. The songs came from a party, but their lyrics were not festive. They mourned for family lost, separated from the islands they called home.

The songs were mornas, traditional melodies of these islands, my grandfather’s homeland.

I had never heard them before, and I eagerly set out with a few new friends through the moonless night, the music guiding us.

At the beachfront gathering, a dozen men bent over guitars and lyrics scratched on wrinkled notebook paper. One drummed a wooden table with his hands, another scratched a rhythm with a stick on a ridged glass bottle.

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They crooned in Criolo, a blend of Portuguese and African languages that is the native tongue of Cape Verde.

I’m already in the middle of the sea.

Oh follow my destiny,

Sailing toward America.

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Their faces could have been pulled from my family’s albums: the man with a cocoa complexion, the peach-cheeked toddler with blond curls and the others with skin of every brown hue in between.

They were singing my family’s story, one of hopeful immigration and lost heritage. This was musical weeping, the deepest, saddest of longings.

It is Cape Verdean destiny

To go far away from his land

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It is a cruel destiny

We must all accomplish.

I thought of my Cape Verdean great-grandparents, young adults wrenched by poverty nearly a century ago from their home. I thought of all my relatives who knew almost nothing about this place, their homeland. I felt a sudden rush of sadness that I had never before heard these melodies, that I was only just beginning to understand part of my family history.

“These are your roots,” a friend whispered into my ear. “This is where you come from.”

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I turned away so he would not see my tears.

*

I had not gone to Cape Verde looking for this.

When I applied for a fellowship from the National Assn. of Black Journalists, I hoped to explore the islands 350 miles off the coast of west Africa that my grandfather had left 80 years ago, a place he never revisited and barely talked about.

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I planned to write a straightforward story on Cape Verde’s national and racial identity. I had no idea my journey would become intensely personal, even painful.

My time in Cape Verde forced me to reexamine where--and who--I come from, to confront the deep, unspoken racial chasm that divides my family.

It also made me face a question that American families increasingly are struggling to understand--what it means to be multiracial and multiethnic in a nation that hardly seems ready for such a thing.

For generations, my family lived in the treacherous terrain between black and white in America. Some are pale-skinned, some dark. Most, like me, are light brown.

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Throughout my childhood, I listened to countless family conversations laced with racial tension, conversations that sometimes erupted into bitter arguments about identity and politics.

Always, there was an unasked question.

Were we black, white or something else?

In my family, race is the subject over which brothers barely speak and cousins avoid attending the same family gatherings. Once, when I was a teenager, my aunt, who looks white, referred to African Americans as “they.” As my grandfather looked on in silence, accusations rang out. “What do you think you are?” Some walked away in disgust. My aunt flushed.

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These racial signposts have been there as long as I’ve been alive. For years, I thought it was all quite normal.

Yet as I made my way through the islands and villages of my grandfather’s country, I found myself accompanied by vivid memories of those comments, conversations and arguments.

I saw in Cape Verde a racial identity as complicated as my family’s.

Everywhere were people who looked and sounded like my cousins and aunts, people who embody the range of the nation’s European and African history.

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Cape Verde is a dynamic, multiracial nation unique in Africa, perhaps the world: Its land mass was empty before the 15th century Portuguese slave trade because the islands are dry beyond belief. No lakes or rivers, and almost no rain.

One fact sheet on Cape Verde reads: “Natural bodies of water: 0%"

Historically, repeated droughts and famines devastated the European slave traders and their captives who settled there. The yearning for rain became part of Cape Verde’s fabric, the focus of prayers, poems and economic aid.

Such hardship forced tens of thousands, including my ancestors, to flee the islands. Known to be skilled whalers and shipbuilders, many young men were hired on foreign ships passing through, and most eventually settled in fishing communities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

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Today, there are more Cape Verdean expatriates than Cape Verdean nationals, who now number 400,000.

Though scattered, many stay connected to the islands, sending money and personal items to relatives, visiting often and sometimes retiring there. As a result, such cultural aspects as fashion, food and language in Cape Verde bear the stamps of America and Europe.

Before leaving, I studied this history and modern culture and I began to understand that, through historical twists, Cape Verde had emerged as a thorough racial blend of those who suffered and profited in the slave trade.

The result was a conflicted identity: Cape Verdeans pulled between Europe and Africa. It sounded eerily like my family.

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Somehow, this place was both white and black, Portuguese and African, neither here nor there.

Could one place be both? Could one family be both?

An Isolated, Beautiful Group of Islands

On descent, the Cape Verde airport lights look like specks of glitter on black velvet. The place is, literally, in the middle of nowhere.

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Much of the 2,500-square-mile country, spread over 12 volcanic islands, is a moonscape: cracked earth, sparse vegetation and very little natural shade.

Yet Cape Verdeans are charming people, and their islands are gorgeous.

In my first days there, I climbed steep, cobblestoned roads--each new stone is still carved by hand--and took photographs of pastel-colored Portuguese-style homes.

Every vista, it seemed, revealed a pristine turquoise ocean, home to some of the most abundant fishing seas in the world.

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Still, lack of rain has been the nation’s historical linchpin--the reason the Portuguese found the islands empty and the reason their attempts to build an agriculture-based slave society failed.

Early Cape Verde became a supply post for slave traders. Tens of thousands of West African captives were sent to the windy islands and stripped of their cultures before being shipped to the Americas.

Cape Verde was as vicious as any slave society, but the frequent droughts forced a different dynamic: When hard times hit, blacks and whites struggled side by side to survive the famines that killed as many as four in 10. Whites frequently freed their slaves or didn’t bother hunting those who escaped.

“There were no conditions for classical colonization,” said Dr. Onesimo Silveira, the mayor of Mindelo, the country’s second-biggest city, on Sao Vicente island. “There was no culture to be oppressed here and no resources to exploit.”

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Though the Portuguese crown tried to enforce racial separation, it didn’t work. The place was too poor, too isolated and had too few white women.

“The culture,” Silveira said, grinning as we talked in his office, “started to mix.”

By the early 1800s, Cape Verde had more free, multiracial blacks than slaves. By the time slavery was ended in 1869, the mixed society was maturing. But, in both Portugal and the African mainland, Cape Verdeans were viewed as a bastardized people, their language--Criolo--a crude slang.

A new culture had emerged from the middle ground between the continents. After more than 500 years of mixing and remixing, today about three-quarters of Cape Verdeans call themselves Creole.

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Many Cape Verdeans resemble African Americans: They are every shade of brown, from pale tan to deep ebony, with sprinklings of freckles, kinky hair and green eyes. Most would look at home in Panama City or New Orleans, Cairo or Baldwin Hills--places I’ve been and blended in unnoticed.

I was half a world from home, yet everywhere I saw people who would not stand out at my family gatherings: Here was a man who could easily use my father’s passport, there was a woman with my aunt’s eyes and smile.

This was a nation of people whose brown-red skin, high cheekbones and square jaws were framed on my walls in Los Angeles.

People in the shops and restaurants were quite sure I was a local, and repeatedly spoke to me in Criolo. I couldn’t understand them, yet I felt an unexpected connection to the place.

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I had planned to write unemotionally about race and Cape Verdean identity, but I was struggling with my feelings.

Another, more personal story was emerging.

We Are Portuguese/ African/Cape Verdean

The subject of identity came up one breezy Sunday afternoon at a patio restaurant in Praia, the hustling capital city of 85,000. A handful of Cape Verdeans watched dust clouds roll down the street and debated over Kleps beer.

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“The question is,” one woman said, pointing a finger in the air, “Is Cape Verde Africa or is Cape Verde Cape Verde?”

One man blurted, “We are all Africans. We are all the same!”

“Yes, we are African, but we are--I don’t know how to say it--diverse?” she said. Africans, she insisted, are as culturally varied as Americans.

Joao Andrade, a new friend who was giving me a city tour, was visibly uncomfortable. “All this about Africa,” he scoffed, steering me away from the group. “What is the point?”

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We sat down to plates of fish, rice and French fries and he insisted, “We are Cape Verdeans.”

I was confused. How could one man feel Cape Verde was Africa, one man say it was not, and the woman say it was both? And how could this group of strangers look and sound so much like my family in their heated racial discussions over my grandmother’s Sunday dinner table? I recalled the times when it seemed everyone had a different take on sharing the same pile of genes.

Were we black, Cape Verdean, Creole, white or Portuguese?

I thought of a book about Cape Verde by African scholar Basil Davidson and remembered a passage I had underlined: “Was this culture finally dependent on Europe or on Africa?” he wrote. “Or was this merely a mulatto or mixed population of divided loyalties?”

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Is mine a mixed family of divided loyalties?

Identity questions have haunted my family for generations.

Carlos and Maria Dias Teixeira (the original spelling of the name), my Cape Verdean great-grandparents, immigrated to America in 1910. They would go back and forth several times, living in both places and having three children (the youngest, my grandfather) in Cape Verde before they permanently settled near a burgeoning Cape Verdean American community in Carver, Mass., in 1921.

I’m told that when they arrived, they--like most Cape Verdeans--identified themselves on immigration papers as Portuguese.

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My grandfather, John Francis, was a dapper brown-skinned man. He became a mechanic for Western Airlines, and could fix or make just about anything mechanical, from building engines and boats to welding tools.

He died in 1992, but long before that--in the 1960s--my family lost its ties to his islands. In my lifetime, my Cape Verdean relatives rarely talked about “back home.” When they did, they used “Cape Verde” and “Portugal” interchangeably, though none have ever been to the latter country.

The pattern continues in my generation. Recently, my first cousin, who has ivory skin and blue eyes, asked about this article. Yes, he was told, I had traveled overseas to research Grandpa’s homeland in West Africa. “Africa?” he said. “You mean Portugal?”

Only a few in my family can easily locate Cape Verde on a map, let alone recognize the sound of Criolo.

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Most would deny the country is attached to the African continent at all. My great-aunt, Julia Grace, is 64 and known for her irreverence. She told me, “Cape Verde is not in Africa. It’s just a group of islands. As far as I know, we have no Afro-American relatives.”

Many of my kin have collectively discarded all sense of being African.

To my mind, this has been my family’s sad, unspoken truth.

As a child, at family picnics and birthday parties, I knew not to question my aunt, daughter of a Cape Verdean, when she referred to African Americans as “they.” I never asked why my uncle wore a T-shirt that read, “Portuguese Power.”

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Though my father and his siblings (whose mother was born in Ireland) share similar facial features, they have various shades of skin from mahogany to pale tan to cream. Thus, they move differently through the world.

My father and two of his sisters identify strongly as African American, the other two as white.

They all have the same parents.

The way I see it, my family fits neatly into a sad paradox of African American life: We are undeniably black, yet thoroughly American. This country’s repugnance for blackness pushes many among us to deny our African roots, to invent a more convenient history.

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You’ll be hard-pressed to find an African American who doesn’t know about “good hair” and “light eyes,” traits considered desirable in black communities the world over because they are decidedly un-African. But selective self-identification for blacks is about more than physical beauty and convenience. Historically, it also has been about survival.

My great-grandparents came from a place and time of colonialism that embraced Europe over Africa, and they immigrated to a country known for lynching its black men.

With their Portuguese names and blended physical features, it must have been relatively easy--and socially expedient--for them to turn away from their African heritage, to call Portugal home and pass this perspective on to their children.

Generations later, my parents and some in the family who came of age during the civil rights movement flipped the script. They raised their children to be black and proud. Not Portuguese, not mixed, not even Cape Verdean. These were terms they scoffed at as code for “better than black.”

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Thus, the family squabbles.

‘This Is Africa First of All’

Many in Cape Verde went through a similar politicization and identity shift during the nation’s bid for independence from Portugal in the 1970s.

Veronica Carvalho Martins is a Cape Verdean geologist who lives in Praia. In the 1960s, she, with her husband Pedro Martins, worked to overthrow colonial rule--a movement that led to a relatively peaceful revolution under the leadership of Amilcar Cabral in 1975. The Martins have since worked to build their nation as an African land.

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We talked over white wine and fresh fish in her home a floor above her husband’s downtown architecture office.

She told me that, long before their children were born, the Martins decided the babies would have African names. The decision didn’t go over well with their family and friends.

Veronica Martins arched her elegant eyebrows in indignation. “Our family and friends thought the names"--Kunta and Yani--"were too African,” she said.

“This is Cape Verde, and we are distinct in our own ways,” she said, sipping her wine. “But this is Africa first of all.”

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Indeed, her husband was jailed for seven years for pushing for Cape Verde’s independence, which came hand-in-hand with the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and in collaboration with those of Angola and Mozambique--all former Portuguese colonies in Africa.

Cape Verde is a member of the Organization for African Unity and has countless political and economic ties to the continent.

When they can afford it, Cape Verdeans will catch the short flight to Senegal for medical treatment, business meetings and schooling. Cape Verde has no four-year university.

They also jet to Lisbon with the same ease.

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Though many Cape Verdeans historically viewed themselves as distinct from other Africans, during the revolution, “We discovered we were African,” said Dr. Dulce Almada Duarte, a respected linguist in Praia who also fought in the independence struggle. “It was an exciting time.”

For the first time, Criolo music and poetry flourished, and many finally embraced a Cape Verdean history that was not Portugal-centered.

This process--of recognizing and celebrating Cape Verde and its language as valid enough to stand on their own--is still in motion: Last summer, for the first time, the nation’s democratically elected Parliament discussed making Criolo an official language (in addition to standard Portuguese).

Scholars are working on the first dictionary and primer, first steps on the road to teaching the language in schools.

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“Life,” as one Cape Verdean told me, “is lived in Criolo.”

Looking for a Link to Heritage

As I slowly began to understand Cape Verde’s complex identity, I yearned to find my lost relatives. I wanted a tangible connection to this distant place, a connection that would help me reconcile my family’s turmoil.

After about a week in Santiago, the largest island, I headed west to Fogo, where my great-grandfather was born. The island is breathtaking, dominated by a massive volcano hulking over the sea. It last erupted in 1995.

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I had brought pictures of my grandfather, his sister and his parents. And a copy of my great-grandmother’s passport, dated 1921. The document listed the home of Maria da Graca Teixeira as a Fogo village called Mosquito.

In typical Cape Verdean style, through a friend of a friend of a friend in Praia, I was introduced to a local man, Sebastiao Batista, who was happy to help me during my time on the island.

Born and raised in Fogo, he retired as a 30-year administrator in American schools and returned to do similar work. We would share many hours together in his minivan traveling the bumpy roads of Fogo talking politics, development and education and looking for my family.

We quickly found Teixeiras in Mosquito, but they were young, in their 40s, and did not know of my grandfather.

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For more than a week, I asked around the island, showed my pictures and scoured government offices for birth, property or marriage records. Once, I knocked on the door of a Teixeira family who had gathered because their father had recently died. They were friendly and helpful, but no one knew of my relatives.

But, as usual in Cape Verde, nearly everyone looked like a potential family member. Many had the same serious dark eyes, square jaw and freckled brown skin of Texeiras in America.

I prepared to spend a few days in Brava, my great-grandmother’s birthplace. I could see the tiny, remote island off the west shore of Fogo. It is Cape Verde’s most isolated island.

When I arrived in the mountaintop capital, Nova Sintra, I found a chilly, eerie place, full of the empty houses of Cape Verdeans who have immigrated to the United States or Portugal or Spain to make a living.

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But, again, there were no family leads or records. It irked me that no one back home had bothered to keep track of details of the family’s past.

Back in Fogo, folks in Sao Filipe, the capital, had heard that an American Cape Verdean journalist was in town asking about Teixeiras. I got word from an old man named Antonio Dias Teixeira that I should visit him.

At Antonio’s modest home, up a steep hill just a few steps away from my hotel, I was greeted by familiar-looking faces. Antonio and his wife, Agda, grew excited looking at my family photos. Agda poked her husband, exclaiming that pictures of my grandfather looked like her son. Pointing to another photo, she said, “And look! This looks just like Nelhino!”

Manuel “Nelhino” Dias Teixeira, an elderly Cape Verdean living in Boston, was a distant cousin of Antonio’s. More than a few people had assured me he would be my connection to the islands.

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Though Antonio didn’t know of my grandfather or his father, weeks later, back home, I contacted Nelhino and learned that Antonio is my grandfather’s second cousin--and that there is a large clan of Teixeiras originally from Mosquito living in Boston, the Netherlands and Cape Verde.

They had always wondered what happened to our branch of the family.

Weaving the Strands Together

My journey from Santiago through Fogo and Brava and back to Praia had continually challenged my understanding of Cape Verde’s racial identity. I had seen in Santiago, the most African of the islands, some European influence but Africa, undeniable.

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I had seen it in cuisine of beans, maize, rice and fish, in the quiet dominance of men in society, in the round-bottomed women with babies tied to their backs and towering bundles on their heads.

In Fogo, however, I saw more racial variation, more pale skin and green eyes, and in some areas quite a bit of blond hair on dark faces.

In Brava, known to be the whitest island, I marveled at the people who looked more Latino than African. I sat in the town square and watched children with silky dark hair and sunburn-prone skin show off in their festive Carnival costumes, and I began to understand why many Cape Verdeans insist that their nation is distinct from the rest of Africa.

At my pension in Brava one morning, I ate breakfast and watched cartoons with the owner’s 5-year-old daughter, whose skin was the color of an apricot. She soon tired of eating and handed me a comb, indicating she wanted me to de-tangle her kinky blond hair.

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I played with her yellow locks and wondered, “Is this Africa?”

“One sensation is becoming familiar,” I wrote in my journal. “Thinking what I’m seeing fits into one race/ethnic category, something I’ve seen before, and the next minute having my conclusion shattered.”

Later that day, I went to the other side of the island, to a tiny town called Faja D’Agua and met Henry Rodrigues, a gregarious 55-year-old railroad engineer who was born in Cape Verde. He now splits his time between Sacramento and Brava.

“I’m Portuguese and I’m Creole and I’m Cape Verdean,” he said, noting that his brown arms were mostly the result of a tan. At home, he said, “my grandchildren are white.”

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“But, hey, you can take the monkey out of the tree but you can’t take the tree out of the monkey. Africa is here. It’s what I eat, it’s what I breathe, it’s what I am.”

I asked if he thought America would be like Cape Verde--mostly racially blended--in a few hundred years?

“A few hundred?” he burst out laughing. “Maybe 100. America is going to be the biggest Creole country in the world!”

Rodrigues was a perfect example of Cape Verde’s “mix of mentalities"--a term used by Fausto Rosario, a literature teacher and gravel-voiced chain smoker I talked to back in Fogo.

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As we lingered in the courtyard of the dingy Hotel Xaguate, Rosario said with undisguised glee that the Portuguese colonizers had failed to dominate the African culture and spirit in Cape Verde. He pointed to music and religions from around the world--from Brazil to the United States to Cape Verde--that blend Europe and Africa.

“Mixing,” he said with a smile, “is the most beautiful thing.”

Beginning to Understand

Indeed, I look at my family and other Cape Verdeans and I see, above all, this beauty.

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My relatives are some of the loveliest, kindest and most generous people--inside and out--that I know.

Now that I’m home, I’ve listened with extra curiosity to what they say about who they are and where they come from. I’ve interviewed my parents, and have grappled mightily with how to tell this story.

Now, months after I returned, I recall the questions that had tumbled through my head before my trip and I realize I didn’t much understand my own curiosity about the place. I didn’t know I was taking the first tentative steps toward retrieving something my family had discarded.

I suppose I went to Cape Verde to reclaim the place. To reclaim Africa.

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Some in my family will be none too thrilled with this prospect. Others will be delighted.

I am beginning to understand that each nation, each family and individual must define itself. We may resemble one another and share blood, but individuals within a family and a culture will assign themselves different labels. The definitions should shift to suit each generation, each historical and personal reality.

None will be right or wrong.

In my tribe, some are white and some Portuguese. Some are black, African American, Cape Verdean.

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I am all those things. I am every attempt at identity politics, every crafty racial maneuver that has come before me, even the ones that make me cringe.

I’m all of it. I’m a Texeira.


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