“Massachusetts,” I reply.
But often what they really mean is where are you from-from. Where are your roots? What’s your ethnicity? What the eff are you?
I don’t mind the question at all — doesn’t everyone like to talk about themselves? — but it just takes a little while to explain.
My mother’s side is pretty easy. She is from New Zealand, I think third-generation, with Scottish ancestors.
My father’s side is where it gets complicated. His father, Mario Rose, was a first-generation America, born in New Bedford, Mass. in 1916. Marty’s parents immigrated here in 1901 (his father) and 1912 (his mother), both from the Cape Verde Islands.
If you haven’t heard of Cape Verde or know where it is, you’re not alone. Hardly anyone I tell this to has. Cabo Verde is actually not a cape at all but an archipelago (chain of islands) about 400 miles from Senegal on the west coast of Africa. Unlike most places colonized by the West, they were uninhabited until Portugal founded a settlement in 1462, three decades before Columbus set sail.
Positioned midway between Africa, Europe and the New World, Cape Verde became an important shipping center in the transatlantic slave trade. Most Cape Verdeans today are descended from both Portugese settlers and African slaves, with features to match: pale and green-eyed to dark-skinned and dark-eyed.
There’s also a large diaspora, with more Cape Verdeans living outside the country (it gained independence in 1975) than in it. Many came to live in New Bedford, Mass. (as well as Fall River and Providence, R.I.) for opportunities in the whaling industry. In the 1800s New Bedford was the whaling capital of the world, and the initial scenes from Melville’s Moby Dick were set there. By the time my great-grandparents had arrived whaling was in decline (my great-grandfather worked in the cotton mills), but the large Portugese population attracted more immigrants. In fact New Bedford was also known as the Portugese capital of the U.S.
Cape Verdean immigrants face the question: what race are they? Here’s an interesting 2001 article from the New Bedford Standard-Times on the dilemma facing Cape Verdeans when it came to the census:
The census short form, sent to five out of six people, has no specific category for Cape Verdeans, and those who claim Cape Verdean ancestry are left to decide what census category they fit into.
Some chose black. Some chose white. Some chose a category called “other,” and then write in Cape Verdean. …
Even within the Cape Verdean community, the issue of race can be problematic.
“I can always start an argument in my family with whether we’re black or white,” said Dorothy Lopes of New Bedford, whose mother was Portuguese and whose father was Cape Verdean. “Some people in the same family consider themselves different things. I have no problem saying I’m black, but some people in my own family have a problem with that.”
Jack DeSousa of Dartmouth, playing a game of cards at the Bisca Tournament Club in the city’s South Central neighborhood, said Cape Verdeans are “a combination of Europe and Africa. We’re a mixed people. Whites, blacks, Creoles, all mixed together.”
Part of this difficulty in classifying Cape Verdeans by race, according to Mr. Ramos, is that in Cape Verde, your skin color is not what defines you.
“It goes from blue eyes and blond hair to dark skin and curly hair,” he said of Cape Verdeans in Cape Verde. “There, we talk about which island we are from, and which class. Skin color is not the issue. Here, it is.”
So get this: my then-4-year-old grandfather was listed on the 1920 census as black. (“B”) Along with the rest of his family.
In 1930, there’s a “W” next to their names. They were white! Pretty strange, huh? Don’t tell me that race isn’t partially a social construct…
In World War II my grandfather enlisted in the Army. They asked all the “colored men” to take one step forward. He said to himself, “if they can’t tell a colored man from a white man, I’m going to stand right here.” So he did.
My paternal grandmother’s mother was from Germany (Prussia) while her father was from the Azores, another archipelago of Portuguese islands in the middle of the Atlantic. (You may remember that’s where George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar held a summit during the buildup to the Iraq war).
On both the 1920 and 1930 census my paternal grandmother, Evelina Gomes, was listed as black (or “Neg.” for Negro). But her mother, from Germany, was classified as white.
(I describe how I got these image files here.)
So what race were they? Does it even matter? What is race, anyway? Well, you be the judge — here are some pictures.
And then this is me: