From Cape to Coast: An Exploration of the Cape Verdean Community in Boston

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From Cape to Coast: An Exploration of the Cape Verdean Community in Boston

Cape Verde Playlist
Restaurant Cesaria in Dorchester, 2022. Photo by Sommer Stokes

The influence Cape Verdean culture has had on Massachusetts, and Boston specifically, is shown throughout food and art. Restaurant Cesaria is a staple in the Boston Cape Verdean communities. Located at 266 Bowdoin Street, Restaurant Cesaria has been serving traditional Cape Verdean cuisine for nearly two decades. The interior of the restaurant is colorful and lively with art from Cape Verdean artists on display throughout the restaurant.

Restaurant Cesaria’s most popular menu items are Polvo Grelhado, Katchupada Refugado, and Arroz de Marisco. Polvo Grelhado is a grilled octopus dish dressed in a mirepoix of olive oil, onion, pepper, tomato, parsley, lemon, and vinegar tropical sauce. Katchupada is the national dish of Cape Verde and consists of retired beans with two eggs and linguica sausage. Arroz de Marico is a casserole of seafood, rice, and assorted shellfish. Each dish is made to order and the family behind Restaurant Cersaria has been perfecting their recipes for years.

Restaurant Cesaria is named after influential Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora. Cesaria Evora won a Grammy in 2004 for her album Voz D’Amor and was known for her soulful voice and barefoot performances. In order to honor her legacy and highlight Caper Verdean artists in the Boston area the restaurant hosts live music nights once a month.

The melodic sounds of the guitar, drums, and the cavaquinho (a small Portuguese string instrument in the European guitar family, with four wires or gut strings) pour out of Restaurant Cesaria on an otherwise unassuming Thursday night. The smell of fried sausage and spices lingers in the air as people of all ages dance around each other. Time is lost under the multi-colored lights as the true spirit of Cape Verde is on full display. Lucius Firmin, a first-generation Cape Verdean American has been to a few of the live music nights.

“ I personally love when Restaurant Cesaria has live music. Dinner and a show what more can you ask for? I’m not as connected to the art scene back home so it’s nice to see what kind of music is popular in Cape Verde. It’s always nice to see my grandmother reminisce on her childhood.”

The most popular music genres in Cape Verde are Coladeira and Funaná. Coladeria is characterized by a variable tempo, a 2-beat var, and a harmonic structure based on a cycle of fifths. While Funaná is both an accordion-based music and dance genre, similar to Caribbean ripsaw music. The music on display at Restaurant Cesaria is a fusion of traditional Cape Verdean genres with contemporary Western genres, such as hip-hop, r and b, and reggaeton.

Fogo, and island in Cape Verde, 2009. Photo by Getty Images
Fogo, and island in Cape Verde, 2009. Photo by Getty Images

Cape Verde, also known as Cabo Verde is a small island country off the coast of West Africa. It consists of ten volcanic islands and has tropical conditions year-round. It became the first European settlement in the tropics in the 15th century and played a direct role in the transatlantic slave trade. The official language of Cabo Verde is Portuguese, however, the majority of the natives speak Creole; a language formed by mixing Portuguese and native African languages. Lucius describes the confusion of learning three languages growing up.

“It was confusing for sure. My grandmother only speaks Creole, but my mom was raised during the ’80s when Portuguese became a way to distance yourself from the older generations so she speaks Creole but prefers to speak Portuguese. The languages are so similar yet so different. Even though I don’t speak it that well, I think Creole represents my roots better than Portuguese ya know. I don’t love to be reminded that my ancestors were colonized.”

Lucuis Firmin

The history of Creole and its erasure is directly tied to the transatlantic slave trade; there were enslaved people from different West African countries who spoke different languages, in order to communicate with each other they formed their own language. Creole is the mother tongue of Cape Verde, however, due to its proximity to whiteness and Eurocentric standards of commerce Portuguese is used in official government situations, at schools, and in the media. Given that the official language of the United States is not Portuguese, the majority of Cape Verdeans living in Boston speak both English and Creole.

Demographics of Boston, 2022. Graph by Sommer Stokes
Demographics of Boston, 2022. Graph by Sommer Stokes
The foreign-born population of Boston, 2022. Graph by Sommer Stokes
The foreign-born population of Boston, 2022. Graph by Sommer Stokes

Cape Verde is a part of the Macaronesia ecoregion and has a population of 483,628. All this to say the tropical islands of Cape Verde are drastically different than Massachusetts, however, Massachusetts is home to the biggest Cape Verdean population in the United States. Approximately 65,000 Cape Verdeans live in Massachusets; primarily in Boston, Brockton, Taunton, and New Bedford. In fact, Cape Verdeans make up 7 percent of Boston’s foreign-born population, according to the 2020 Census.

Cape Verdeans first immigrated to Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century for whaling and maritime jobs as their lives on an island prepared them for such work. Severe drought and poverty were also driving factors in the first migrant shift which peaked between 1890 and 1921. Immigrants at this time came mainly from the islands of Brava and Fogo and were primarily male. The second wave of immigration occurred in the 1980s as Cape Verde gained independence. Independence made attaining a foreign visa more widely available. This wave of immigrants where more diverse ranging in age, gender, education, and social class. Lucius details why his grandmother and mother made the choice to leave Cape Verde.

“ My grandmother immigrated to America in 1979, when my mother was young. My grandmother had saved up a lot of money and thought that my mother would have a better life in America, More opportunities, and all of that. We had some family in Massachusetts already but not much. Leaving your home and moving somewhere where you don’t know the people or speak the language was difficult. I’m not going to lie my grandmother and mom struggled a lot in the beginning. Life on the island is much different than living in the states”.

Lucius Firmin

The Cape Verdean population in Boston is incredibly tight-knit; the majority of the community is concentrated in the neighborhood of Dorchester. Certain organizations such as the Cape Verdean Association of Boston have made it their mission to promote the power and potential of the Cape Verdean community in Boston. Through fundraising events, parades, COVID-19 clinics, and family outreach programs the CVAB, has highlighted and supported a community that is often overlooked in the greater Boston area.

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