Race and Identity Among Cape Verdean and Afro-Brazilian Americans

By Nadiyah Fisher

New England has one of the largest populations of Brazilians and Cape Verdeans in the United States (Boston Planning & Development Agency Research Division, 2017). What attracts those from tropical environments to the blistering cold of New England? After the 1964 military coup in Brazil, many Brazilians were sent into exile and immigrated to the United States (Boston Planning & Development Agency Research Division, 2017). Furthermore, connections between Brazilians and New Englanders date back to WW2. Bostonian technicians were sent to Minas Gerais “to work on the mining of sheet mica used to insulate radio tubes and detonators” (Global Boston, 2019). According to Global Boston (2019), the interactions between the Bostonians and Brazilians grew. The Bostonians encouraged the Brazilians to seek work in the United States. By the same token, due to the recruitment of Cape Verdean sailors for whale ships in the U.S., many Cape Verdeans emigrated to New England as well (Jacobson, 2008).  

Along with the whaling industry, the railroads attracted foreigners to work in America. My bisavo traveled from Cape Verde to work in the United States’ railroad industry  due to the severe droughts and famines in his country from the 1940s to the 1960s. In the search for survival, my bisavo took a chance. While working on the railroad in the United States, he had his hand cut off. My bisavo had no idea that his accident on the railroad would bring my family to America. The $10,000 he received after his accident was used to buy land in Cape Verde and provide a better life for his children. Due to the opportunities for work in the United States, my vovo and donu chose to emigrate from Fogo, Cape Verde to the United States in the 1960s. 

The Civil Rights Era. Jim Crow Laws. The One-Drop Rule. These were all foreign concepts to my grandparents. The concept of race is clearly defined in the United States. After slavery, anyone who possessed one drop of African blood was considered to be Black (Davis, 1991). However, racial identification is less distinct in Cape Verde. Most Cape Verdeans are of mixed African and European ancestry (Sawe, 2018). Cape Verde was virtually an “uninhabited island” in the early 1400s. Around 1450, Portuguese and Genoese explorers colonized Cape Verde due to its proximity to West Africa. The Portuguese kidnapped and bought West Africans, bringing them to Cape Verde (Shaw, 2021). During the 1536 Inquisition in Portugal, newly converted Christians were suspected to be practicing Islam and Judaism instead of Christianity. They were forced to either submit to the government or flee. Along with the Jewish and Muslims, Portuguese prisoners were exiled to Cape Verde and called lançados (throw-aways or outsiders). This accounts for the heavy racial mixing of the Portuguese with enslaved North and West Africans to “whiten the population” (Shaw, 2021).  

My grandparents settled in Boston and quickly became acquainted with these “foreign concepts of race” in the United States. Many Cape Verdeans tried to pass as strictly Portuguese to avoid the racism and police brutality that came with being considered Black. Sanchez (2013) explains that many Cape Verdean families denied their African heritage to pass as Portuguese. Passing as Portuguese allowed them to experience the same privileges as white Americans such as sitting in the front of the bus and drinking from the “whites only” fountains. Despite their efforts to “pass, their African ancestry was still recognized by their neighbors (Sanchez, 2013).  

Along with Cape Verde, Brazil was also an important colony to Portugal. Brazil imported up to 5.1 million enslaved Africans (Araujo, 2016). Like Cape Verde, the Portuguese masters and settlers were involved with heavy racial mixing with enslaved Africans. In the PBS documentary, Black in Latin America, Brazil: A Racial Paradise, Dr. Gates visits the city of Serro. The city is known for one of its most affluent enslaved Africans, Chica Da Silva. Chica was given the same luxuries as rich white women because she was married to João Fernandes de Oliveira, a rich white man (Gates, 2011). Due to this privilege, Chica is seen as a role model to Afro-Brazilians. Chica’s proximity to whiteness came at a price. Chica had to erase her African heritage and many of her children “passed” as white to maintain their status (Gates, 2011). In contrast to Cape Verde, after the abolition of slavery, the Portuguese claimed that Brazil was a “racial democracy.” Post slavery, the Brazilian government implemented a practice known as blanqueamientoBlanqueamiento occurs when European immigrants would reproduce with Africans to “whiten the race” (Gates, 2011). In the documentary, Professor Nascimento states that “the idea of a racial democracy inhibited Afro-Brazilians from forming a civil rights movement and demanding equality” (Gates, 2011).  

Due to the propaganda of racial democracy and the negative connotations associated with the word black, many try to escape. Brazilians who would be considered black in the United States defined themselves as morenapardobrancaamarelocaboclo, mestiço, and cafuzo Negra and preta are both words for “black” in Portuguese. However, identifications like pardomorenaor mestiço are used more frequently. These three words represent someone from mixed ancestry, which is closer to whiteness rather than being preta onegra. Unlike morena and mestiçopardo does not translate to “mixed” but instead is the word for “bird” (Travassos et al., 2011). Similarly, Cape Verdean immigrants defined themselves as their ethnicity or as Portuguese (Texeria, 2000). 

As more of my family trickled into the United States in the 60s, they continued to distinguish and separate themselves from African Americans. They discouraged marriage, friendships, and pure association in fear of being seen as “one of them.” The stereotyping of African Americans by Cape Verdeans and Afro-Brazilians only enforced self-hatred, colorism, and fear-mongering that is still present in my family today. How can we try to separate ourselves from blackness when the blackness of my bisavo made it possible for us to escape poverty in Cape Verde? I ponder on this question as my family argues about our genetic makeup at the dinner table for the fifth year in a row. Is their pursuit of “pure-blood” worth the loss of their African roots?

 

Translation:

 

In Cape Verdean Kriolu (A Dialect of Portuguese) 

English 

Vovo 

Grandmother 

Donu 

Grandfather 

Bisavo 

Great-grandfather 

Mestiço 

Someone of mixed ancestry 

Preta 

Black 

Negra 

Black 

Cafuzo 

Someone of mixed Portuguese and Native  ancestry 

Pardo 

Bird but is also used to described someone of mixed ancestry and/or light skin 

Cabo Verde 

Cape Verde (Green Cape) 

Morena 

Someone with olive skin and dark hair 

Caboclo 

Someone of mixed Brazilian and Indigenous Ancestry 

Branca 

White 

Amarelo 

Yellow 

 


References 

Araújo, A. L. (2016). Slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in Brazil and Cuba from an  

Afro-Atlantic Perspective. Almanack.  

Boston Planning and Development Agency. (2017). Brazilians in Boston.  

Brazil: A Racial Paradise? Black in Latin America, with Henry Louis Gates Jr. (2011). PBS 

Davis, J., F. (1991). Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition. PBS.  

Global Boston (2019). Brazilians.  

Jacobson, E. (2008). Cape Verdean crew manned whaling ship's final voyage.  

Keese (2012). Cape Verdean Officials, Subsistence Emergencies, and the Change of Elite  

Attitudes During Portugal’s Late Colonial Phase, 1939-1961.  

Sanchez, D. (2013). Passing for Portuguese: One family's struggle with race and identity in  

America. Not Even Past 

Sawe, B. E. (2018). Ethnic groups of Cape Verde. World Atlas.  

Shaw, C. S., Bannerman,W.,M., & L., Richard, A., (2021). Cabo VerdeEncyclopedia  

Teixeira, E. (2000). Exploring the Racial Riddle in Cape Verde. Los Angeles Times.  

The Brazilian Report. (2020). Slavery in Brazil. Wilson Center 

Travassos, C., Laguardia, J., Marques, P.M. et al. Comparison between two race/skin color  

classifications in relation to health-related outcomes in Brazil. Int J Equity Health 10, 35  

 

 

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