If the Cape Verdean people have often been invisible in popular history, then Cape Verdean women (Kriolas), even more so.
But two New Bedford women have done their part to make the lost history of the Kriolas better known.
This is a fresh story more than worthy of Black History Month in New Bedford.
Singer Candida Rose and poet and visual artist Iva Brito are two of the writers in a recently published scholarly collection of essays that has documented the achievements of noteworthy Cape Verdean women throughout history. The collection of academic studies and written reflections, including two poems by Brito, will be an important contribution to the effort to celebrate Kriolas’ achievements.
Rose and Brito sat down with The Light last week to talk about their work in the book.
“So often we’ve been seen behind the scenes and not really valued,” said Brito.
But as in many cultures, Cape Verdean women have been active all along, helping their families, sending messages during the 1970s Cabo Verdean struggle for independence from Portugal, and even acting as warriors.
It has been a trial by fire in many ways for the Cape Verdean people whose history starts when the Portuguese in the 16th century created Cabo Verde as central point for slave trading before Africans were sent to the Americas. The Cape Verdean people literally began from the relationships, including forced ones, between the Portuguese and other European men and African women.
The collection is called “Cabo Verdean Women Writing Remembrance, Resistance and Revolution — Kriolas Poderozas” and was edited by Terza A. Silva Lima-Neves and Aminah N. Fernandes Pilgrim. Lima-Neves and Pilgrim, along with Jess Evora, have run a biennial conference called “Poderozas” since 2016 as part of an effort to raise consciousness for Cape Verdean women about their power and their history.
It is a history that the people have worked hard to transcend, including Cape Verdean women, but the women’s stories have largely remained unknown until the work of recent scholars and activists.
“Behind every strong man there’s a woman and behind every strong woman there’s a strong man,” Brito said.
Writer and Cape Verdean government official Vera Duarte, as part of the collection, has meticulously documented that women were among the earliest, if not the earliest, of Cape Verdean writers, first publishing in the 19th century even though they have not been recognized in the early canon of Cape Verdean writers, which included only men. Two of them wrote under pseudonyms.
Candida Rose’s chapter in the book traces the contributions of a litany of Cape Verdean women musicians and singers who have succeeded — some with international reputations — for their work in genres as diverse as Morna, Cabo-Zouk, doo-wop and hip hop.
One of them, Margo (Lopez) Sylvia, was from Massachusetts and was once the husband of local singer John Sylvia. Both were in the group Tune Weavers, and Margo wrote the popular jazz/doo-wop recording “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby.”
Rose, who has researched Cape Verdean women singers since she was a master’s student at UMass Dartmouth in the early 2000s, said she was floored when she first learned who wrote the 1950s pop hit.
“If I’m not knowing it, as a Cape Verdean-American woman — and here’s this Cape Verdean-American who had basically a million-seller in the fifties and sixties!” she said, shaking her head.
“It’s time we know these things, because how are we going to grow ourselves if we don’t know that our ancestors and the people who came before us, and the women who came before us, already did this, and opened doors?” she said.
Brito cited the work of Vera Duarte and the poet Shauna Barbosa as among the Cape Verdean women writers she admires, but she said that more than just individual poets, she thinks of Kriolas themselves as art.
“I think as Cape Verdean women, we are poetry, and the way we walk, and the way that we dance, and that’s just part of who we are,” she said. “It’s not just to say one poet, or this woman.”
Brito has depicted some of these women in her book of poetry “Essence, Tones, Whispers and Shouts.”
“As Kriolas I think that we embrace an artistic sense in all the things that we do. So it’s not one thing but just the beauty of our culture that is poetic to me.”
The scholarly study is subtitled “Kriolas Poderozas,” which roughly translated means “Empowered Cape Verdean Women.”
The term is “about the resilience, the strength, the courage, how Cape Verdean women particularly have held the country pretty much on their shoulders,” said Rose.
She described poderoza as referring to a strength that past Kriolas have shown current ones that they possess.
“We have the ability to do anything and everything that we need to keep our culture and our family and our culture and our community strong,” she said. “We are poderozas.”
“Kriola” is from the Portuguese Creole language, similar to French and Spanish creole, meant to describe a people who were a combination of peoples, she said.
“We’re this African-Portuguese mixture from our roots. That’s where we start,” she said. “And then of the history of colonialism and all of the different things that have brought all these different people to Cabo Verde for these branches to spread out.”
Brito described being a poderoza as an uplifting state of mind.
“You think of a lot of the challenges that women of Cape Verdean descent have faced, from prior to slavery and during slavery, and now,” she said referring to the current era of immigration when you might be separated from your child and have to figure out how to provide for them.
“It’s always carrying this sense of strength within there,” she said.
She said she spoke to that quality in her book. One of the poems is called “Kriola” and the first line is “She’s grounded in her roots.”
It’s about knowing who you are and where you came from.
“So being grounded in our Afro-centric rich history of Cape Verde, that regardless of where you go, my perspective is, ‘Whether I’m in Europe, whether I’m in the United States, whether I’m in Indonesia, I’m a Kriola first,” Brito said.
“And that is something we carry in our heart and in our soul. And that is knowing that that strength is within us, and we carry that lineage and strength to the next generation, to the next woman,” she said.
One of the ancient musical traditions that Rose describes in the collection is “batuko,” an acapella, almost spoken-word type singing that Cape Verdean women historically did when they were on their own.
“It comes out of the women’s community. Deep,” Rose said. “This is a tradition that comes more from, I would say, from our African side. Women are the ones in the community who kind of keep the community together. And this particular way they do it is through music.”
Batuko is very rhythmic and includes a form of speaking that Rose explained is almost similar to rap.
“It goes back. It’s very ancient,” she said. “And it was kept alive by the women in the inner islands of Santiago,” she said. Rose described a famous practitioner named Nacia Gomi, who she included in “Cabo Verdean Women Writing…” who just died in 2011.
Her batuko was a rallying point during the revolution.
“Amilcar Cabral — who is sort of our Martin Luther King Jr. — he called upon her to help to bring it forward, in the 1970s, as they were going through the independence struggle,” she said. “She did a whole lot to strengthen Cabo Verdean culture through music.”
In Brito’s poetry, there is a strong focus on social justice and activism that she says came to her from her parents who were in Cape Verde during the independence movement led by the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde).
“Cabral was the central figure but there were many folks here in the United States and there (Cape Verde) that supported it,” she said, recalling stories that her dad told her about sending secret messages and that her mother told her about how children didn’t have to go to school before independence.
Art — poetry, music, visual art — is always about social justice, she said, and in many cases the stories of the Cape Verdean women.
“We’re talking about women and injustices that occur, and continue to occur, within domestic violence, within the lack of some feminist thought, and some criticial issues happening in Cape Verde,” she said. “So those things always need to be addressed.”
Rose and Brito say they believe the Kriolas Poderozas book is going to be an important repository of the facts about the history and achievements of Cape Verdean women and how they intersect with the country and the world’s history, and the effort to be connected to that history and power.
Each person passes on the knowledge to another person, and that’s the importance of keeping the knowledge alive, Rose explained.
“And that’s all we can really do,” she said. “Don’t hide our light under a bushel!” she added laughing.
Brito agreed, saying that as Cape Verdean women share their unique culture unapologetically, they will reflect similar experiences of others in the world.
Our stories are unique to Cape Verde but it’s a story of culture, it’s a story of longing. And we all have that,” she said.
“To me, I think one of the reasons this book is so important is it’s continuing to tell the stories for generations and generations,” she said, “Because what can happen, and has happened in the past, is that stories get lost, and cultures get watered down.
She gave the example of a “Conta di Ojo” necklace that she has used in a poem.
One of the lines I say is “Put this Conta di Ojo around your soul.”
A Conta di Ojo necklace is said to protect you and is like an omen to shield one from evil or bad things, she said.
“So that we are intentional in telling our stories, that we are intentional in sharing this culture, because if we don’t, then the next generation or two generations will not know it,” she said. “So that some child that here is maybe second or third generation, understands that they’re still connected, although they may not speak the language, or may not have been born there, that they still have that lineage, that poderaza within them, or that poderoza within them.”
It may be that the descendant feels they had not been connected to anything, but this connects them even though they may express it in a different way, she said.
“Maybe it’s through a rap, maybe it’s through something different in their own artistic or way of being. But to know that that’s part of them is so important. And some people have lost that, and some people are searching for that. And that’s why these stories need to be told,” she said.
Brito and Rose are among many contemporary Cape Verdean women getting in touch with their Kriola Poderoza heritage.
Brito said she always tries to embrace Cape Verdean culture in her poetry and other art.
For instance, she uses the Kriolu word “Morabeza” in one of her poems to describe a grandmother’s kiss on the forehead before one departs.
“Which is something that’s really hard to encompass into an American word,” she said. “Because it’s so encompassing of so many things. It’s the smile that someone gives you when they know you’re Cape Verdean. It’s that hug.”
She describes it as a feeling in your soul, a wholeness or a blessing that’s going to stay with you.
“And I do my best to try to encompass that in my poetry and in my art. To feel that, if I’m not in Cape Verde, this is that wholesomeness that I can try to grab onto,” she said.
These traditional feelings are things you can’t put your finger on, she said, and art is the best way to convey it.
“That space that is non-linear but still felt in the soul,” she said. “And I do my best to try to encompass that in my poetry and in my art. To feel that, if I’m not in Cape Verde, this is that wholesomeness that I can try to grab onto.”
Rose nodded her head in agreement
“She took the word right out of my mouth. It’s Morabeza,” she said. “That’s the first thing that comes to my mind. When someone asks me what it is that is within me that comes out in my music. I definitely want to always bring forth what makes me me.”
Sometimes she hasn’t even realized the Kriola that was within her because it is so deep within, she said.
“So I had to kind of rediscover it,” she said. “But I know that it is that beauty that comes from within, that Morabaza, that warmth, that love.”
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
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