Cape Verdeans build a new life on New England's shore

What does an arid speck of land, sitting 400 miles off the west coast of Africa, have to do in common with New England. Sixteen thousand people of Cape Verdean descent live in the old whaling capital of New Bedford, Mass., making it the largest ethnic community of Cape Verdeans in America.

And some 10,000 new immigrants have made Boston the largest immigrant community of Cape Verdeans in the Western Hemisphere. Other communities include Fall River, Mass., Providence and Pawtucket, R.I., Bridgeport and New Haven, Conn., and even Sacramento, Calif.

For three centuries, the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde (Green Cape) has struggled with periodic droughts and famine, earning itself the unfortunate name of ''Sahel in the sea.'' This year, for example, it cannot produce enough maize and beans to keep its 300,000 islanders fed. Trade in fish, bananas, and salt does little to boost its gross national product of $60 million, a sum Exxon can earn in five hours.

This bleak economic situation, as well as a historical link to America's 19 th-century whaling industry, is what accounts for as many ethnic Cape Verdeans in the United States as on the islands themselves.

Originally, Cape Verdeans signed on with passing whaling ships in the final years of the trade, taking over from American crews who realized petroleum would eliminate the need for whale oil. Cape Verdean seamen ''stayed on in New Bedford and began working in local cotton manufacturing industries or agriculture,'' says Mary Barros, a New Bedford resident.

Cape Verdeans eventually bought wood ships no longer used for whaling and brought their families to the relatively lucrative New Bedford job market. These Cape Verdean ''packet ships'' kept up a constant trade until World War II.

''There used to be hundreds working the cranberry bogs on Cape Cod, but that's all mechanized now. You mostly see white people running the machines. There are a few Cape Verdean women working in the scoop houses sorting berries, '' Mrs. Barros adds.

The situation on the islands has kept Cape Verdeans coming.

Politically, Cape Verde has enjoyed nonaligned status since gaining independence from Portugal in 1975. Praia, Cape Verde's capital, has gained international prominence as the current venue for talks between South African and Angolan officials over independence for Namibia (South West Africa) and the withdrawal of some 25,000 Cuban soldiers from Angola.

The droughts and the troubled economy, however, perpetuate the flow of Cape Verdeans abroad. The United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that 6,000 Cape Verdeans emigrate each year, many going to Europe or South America.

Traditionally, however, ''the educated Cape Verdeans have gone to Portugal to make it in the intelligencia,'' says Raymond Alemeida, a public-relations officer at the Cape Verdean Embassy in Washington, D.C. ''Cape Verdeans going to the United States have usually been the rural poor - unskilled workers from the islands of Brava and Fogo.''

The types of jobs Cape Verdean immigrants now find in US cities are usually ''unskilled jobs such as farming and manual labor,'' says Valerie Gregory of Boston's Cape Verdean Community House. Since many Cape Verdeans only speak Creole - and cannot understand Portuguese or Spanish - the language barrier is a big problem.

''We try to find them jobs in hotels, factories, and places where communication is not needed,'' Miss Gregory adds.

''Many newly arrived Cape Verdean workers don't know any better - it's a job, '' says Manuel Monteiro, who works for the Boston public school system. ''The attitude of 'I'll do anything' lands many immigrants in jobs in sweatshops - a situation employers unfortunately thrive on.''

Then second-, third-, and fourth-generation Cape Verdeans, who have been educated in the US and have taken American citizenship, begin to compete for jobs, the situation changes.

''In the past, jobs were there (in the United States),'' says Virginia Goncalves, an educator in Rhode Island's Bilingual Education Department, who was born in Cape Verde. ''We came for economic reasons. We've always known America was a place to go to. There is a strong feeling this is a land of opportunity. Now I question whether we made it.

''Unskilled labor is no problem; that won't go against the tide. But a lot of people are going elsewhere because there aren't that many opportunities here (in Providence). It's a combination of the present economy and living in a small area.

''But we also must realize there is a racial problem,'' she says. ''So many state and city positions are based on politics, and Cape Verdeans are not part of that power bloc. We get a double whammy. In industry, it's the same thing because we're new to these jobs.''

Part of the reason for the difficulties encountered by Cape Verdeans is that ''there is a tremendous lack of knowledge here,'' Mrs. Goncalves continues. ''For over 100 years, people have been rubbing elbows with Cape Verdeans. More people should know about us. We're still at a point where we have to explain to people where the islands are. . . . Americans as a rule do not make a great effort to find out about other people.''

New Bedford's Mary Barros, just back from a Washington, D.C., meeting of some 200 professionals of Cape Verdean descent, describes a similar situation.

''We've lost many, many valuable 'heads,' '' she says. ''The majority of these professionals - 70 percent, say - were from New Bedford originally.

''I talked to doctors, lawyers, university deans, court clerks, and foreign-service officers. . . . They all left because qualified people in New Bedford simply cannot find jobs. They leave and go to other places such as Washington or Chicago.''

What's behind it?

''It's racism in the city. It's a cultural thing. It's because of our color. My husband navigated a ship from Cape Verde to New Bedford without radar, he pounded the waterfront looking for a job, with no success. New Bedford is run by white, Anglo, Catholic males. White Portuguese can't even get jobs,'' she explains. ''The only reason our people stayed on here was because of our culture. When my father said, 'You're not going to Boston,' I stayed.

''That strong cultural link has kept Cape Verdeans' communities intact throughout the US, despite the drain of professionals. The Creole language is still taught, families continue to sponsor new immigrants and help out when they arrive. ''But it's an American-born custom, not a tradition,'' Manuel Monteiro says.

''When a new immigrant comes to town, people come to visit and get the latest news of the islands. At the same time they give him advice and some money. Within a few months, he can have $5,000 up front - in cash. If he handles it wisely, it's enough to get started with,'' Mr. Monteiro says.

And once here in the US - even several generations later - Cape Verdeans do not forget their tie to the islands, Raymond Alemeida says. And, adds Virginia Goncalves, ''It is the dream of many people to go back someday.''

Cape Verdean communities maintain this link by sending money, clothes, and other goods back to relatives.

''We send things by post office or on vessels,'' Mary Barros says. ''I stay up late collecting clothes from friends and neighbors and get them ready to put in oil drums to send along on the freighters that go to the islands. It comes naturally because we've always done it.''

And Cape Verde depends on these citizens living abroad. Each year some $24 million comes to Cape Verde's Central Bank with no strings attached. The bulk of this is from Cape Verdeans working temporarily in Europe. The Cape Verdean Embassy in Washington estimates about $5 million comes from the New England area.

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