my ethnicity

meSo this is often one of the first questions people ask me when they meet me: “where are you from?”

“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.

mom and meMy 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.

cape verdeIf 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.

gardeniaPositioned 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 new bedford whaling shipsinitial 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. …
cape verde shellsEven 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.”
cardsJack 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.

1920 census image file

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…

1930 census image

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.

azoresMy 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.

1920 census gomes

evelina gomes

(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.


my grandparents

And then this is me:

me on cape cod

28 comments to my ethnicity

  • Tallman

    Very interesting. As one of your friends, I can attest that I’ve seen you get asked this question countless times. Maybe you should carry around a print out of this page so you can hand it to people. It certainly would be easier, and it would be educational as well.

  • When you told me your dad’s family was from Cape Verde, I knew where that was. But I’ll admit the reason I even know about Cape Verde at all is because of my interest in Brazilian music–and by natural extension–Lusophonic music in general.

    Re: the seemingly “complicated” racial classification of Cape Verdeans, it sounds to my ears that their approach to classification mirrors that of Brazil, where they see a spectrum of colors, instead of the USA style that says “one drop of black blood makes you black.” Either way, they are social constructs.

  • great post! I am actually going to Cape Verde in 2 weeks, and I am so bloody excited. I used to have a CV roommate in New York, and even though we lost touch, she infected me with CV fever and I’ve been planning to visit ever since.

    I hope it will be as awesome as I dream about.

  • Estefania

    That`s really interesting, I have some friends from Cabo Verde, for them it was also always the question to define their people.but I Have also never seen other guys who were so “cool” with the topic colour, or with comments about their colour, just because Cabo Verde itself is so diverse. (english is not my mother tongue:-))

  • Kelly D

    I’m doing a project on race issues among Cape Verdean people I would love to chat if you have a second!

  • stephen perry

    are you related to any of the rose’s from cape cod , the rose family of harwich is one of the largest . my mother elizabeth rose is the youngest of 21 children. she has a sister named julia mendes (aunt chunkie) new bedford , or souza. their’s many families on the cape.(brava or fogo) rosario,martins,gonslaves,fernandes,pina,pena,perrys hala if your family.if no fyi. peace

  • RMRose

    There was an Aunt with a bunch of cousins on the Cape at one time. Think she was half sister to D’s grandfather. But the family wasn’t all that close. Derek’s grandfather was Marty — and was well known in New Bedford. If the family is related I’d like to reconnect.

  • RMRose

    p.s. Marty, was Mario Rose — he was a standout football player and is in the NBHS Hall of Fame.

  • stephen perry

    The rose’s of harwich are a very close group, as well are The perry’s which my late father John perry was one of 14. 7 brothers well known for thier boxing skills.. my uncle carlie and aunt chunky have 5 boys jojo, tony,george,carlie,robbie mendes all of new bedford.. I’m also related to the gomes’s meranda’s, rodricks , lumbards, vara’s (flash)… ya never know!!!!! 🙂

  • […] step forward. The military was segregated at the time. Grandpa said later he thought to himself, “If they can’t tell a white man from a black man, I’m going to stand right here.” So he did and served with a white unit in the 8th Air […]

  • Earl (Rose) Crowe

    I am looking for the family of Frank Rose of Fogo then Harwich, MA. His sister’s names were Julia, Mary and Delfino and Mrs. Joseph Fernandes ( these were listed as his sister’s in the death notice). My father, Philip was their brother and died tragically in a boating accident in Sept. 1957. I was born 4 days later. I was adopted and am now looking for any members of Rose family that may be related. Related family names are – Fernandes (my grandmother – Lottie), Nunes, Mendes and Fernandes.

    Any info would be greatly apreciated! Earl

  • Joseph Rose

    hey man….it’s a beautiful thing ur doin here…the info and all. Listen…I’m ur cousin MAN!!! it’s wild, my grandfather (Joseph Rose) and ur grandfather were brothers (God rest their souls, I’m actually sittin here with ur grandfather’s obituary.) I’m from New Bedford (do u know “Jo-Jo ‘s” sons Dennis and Pete)…I’m son of Pete. but yea man, good to find u blood….stay strong and positive.
    – Joseph Rose

  • Lois Sprague

    I can only praise your efforts. My husband’s grandfather came from Cape Verde Islands, and settle in New Bedford, Ma. His name was Antonio J Spencer. He married an African American and the rest is history.
    Best Wishes to you,

  • Susan Figuerido

    Do or did any of your fernandes family or silva/silvia family live in falmouth on the cape? My grandfather was Frank G Fernandes and his wife was lena Silva/Silvia

  • isabella livramento


    I believe will be interested in the following articles. I have attempted to send the website links but am no very certain
    it will work but I am positive that you will be able to find

    Diaspora Encounters: Kriolu in New England, The Cape Verdean-American Story on Afropop Worldwide,%20The%20Cape%20Verdean-American%20Story

  • Quinha

    I am also looking for info on my ancestors. It looks like we could all be linked. My grandfather was born in Cape Verde, Fogo, I believe around 1889, but he moved to Angola and I know nothing about his ancestors. His name was Leao Lopes Mendes Fernandes.
    Any information would be appreciated.

    Thank you,


  • this is so interesting. My maiden name was Rose and I grew up in New Bedford. Live in boston now. My father’s brother;s name was Joseph Rose and he married a Cape Verdean woman named Virginia. Guess my grandmother and some of the family disinherited Uncle Joe, but my Dad was his best man. Lost touch through the years and tried to find him. Now know that he died many years ago, but would love to know if his two sons are around. I think one was named Ken and maybe Steve. Not sure. Also just learned that the family name was actually DaRoza. They told me the name came from my grandfather having “rosy cheeks” Love the history.

  • Terry (Lopes) DaLuz

    Well..Well..Who would have guessed that I would find a cousin “by accident” while looking for something else..but I’m glad..the saying things happen for a reason is true, don’t you agree..our parents were siblings so if I’ve sparked your curiousity get in touch with me real soon..lokking forward to hearing from you

  • David Rose

    Hi Derek ,Marty had a light complexion. I guess they couldnt tell.I am dark ,and when i came to Quebec in 1975 the people declared me black.I experienced all sorts of racial discrimination.My mother showed me my father’s death certificate,your great grandpa,where he was declared as white.What was important is that I know who I am ,and where I’m from .I represent all of Cabo Verde here in Quebec. In the construction here, I am getting around and the people are starting to know me .And I’m letting them know I am Portuguess de Cabo Verde.both my parents left CV under the Portuguese flag.My mother has an olive skin color,with long black hair,so she used to settle in white neighborhoods,then I would pop up!We are 5 kids Im the darkest,so people would wonder, dazed and confused.When ever i filled a census i would write OTHER CAPE VERDEAN.Hey Joe Rose my mother was asking about Jo JO ‘skids must connect!

  • Hey Terry,
    I don’t think so. My father was an only child.

  • Hi there,
    For those of you interested in Cape Verdean Families of Harwich, please email me.

  • The Rose family is quite large. Earl, I think I know which Frank Rose you are talking about, but I have different siblings: Maria Rose, John Rose, Margaret(Rose) Fernandes, and Palmira(Rose) Gonsalves. Palmira was married to Delfino Gonsalves. I only know of Phillip’s kids that were born before 1940.
    Stephen, did your mother also go by the names Betty or Janet?

  • Cindy rose

    I have done extensive research. I have Phillip Rose’s death certificate and have followed the family through adoption records now available and probate court in yarmouth. Phillip Rose had two more children by his third wife Barbara Gay, Phillip (1956) and Earl (1957). Earl was born 4 after his death. I have located his sister, but have been unable to talk with her as she rejected my calls. I would like a picture of my father which will conclude my search.

  • Celeste

    Very interesting. After researching my family line, it sounds very much like yours. So much so, I wondered if we are related LOL My family line began in the Cape Verde Islands and the Azores, and then New Bedford Massachusetts. The census also has them listed as Negro and then White 10 years later. I am still learning more about my ancestors and have a lot more research to do. My great grandfather is John Rose. Most of my family live in New Bedford still. I am in California where my grandfather and grandmother moved back in the 1960’s.

  • Gena Fernandes

    Upon research and reading various sites, I’m the Granddaughter of Margaret(Rose)Fernandes & John Fernandes from Harwich, MA. My biological father John Fernandes whom I only seen once and met Grandmother in early 80’s. I’m seeking closure to who I am and trying to locate relatives. I grew up in Connecticut now reside in Georgia please advise if I found actual family members ROSE/FERNANDES.

  • Cindy Rose

    Gena, I would love to talk with you. My father, Phillip, was your grandmother, Margaret’s, brother. Your grandmother would have been my Aunt Margaret! WOW. Not sure what relation that makes us, but we are related by blood. I would love to talk with you. My father, Phillip, would have been, 46 when I was born in 1957. I never knew him, nor do I have a picture of any Rose family members. Unfortunately, I cannot provide Rose family history. This what I am searching for too. I have the Rose family tree back to Frank Rose’s father “John Rose” on ‘”Rose Family Tree”.

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