First Voice Narrative
Building history one story at a time
Creating a history that matters to the people the history is about is the imperative that informs and shapes the stories I tell and the movies I make. This is the mission of SPIA Media Productions, Inc., the company I founded in l998. "SPIA" means to "see" in the Cape Verdean language, or in this instance, vision. SPIA's vision is to build history one story at a time, in different forms and media. The goal is to create a sustainable legacy that engages and draws from the voices, memories, hopes and dreams of a community connected to New England by a unique transatlantic history.
The narrative voice for my work draws from my childhood memories during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s of family, friends, textures and sounds of the community in the Fox Point section of Providence, RI where immigrants from the Cape Verde islands settled.
Lying 240 nautical miles off the coast of West Africa, (click here for more information) the tiny, drought stricken archipelago of ten islands remained in the backwaters of world history until 1975 when the islands gained independence from Portugal. Uninhabited prior to discovery in 1462 by the Portuguese, Cape Verdeans developed as a mix of Africans, Portuguese, and other European voyagers to the islands. This volcanic archipelago, bathed in dazzling natural colors and light, is a land of stark beauty-soaring mountains, desert terrain and endless beaches.
Yet for Cape Verdeans these five hundred years also represent devastating cycles of drought, starvation and death where up to half the total population of the islands died. Stories from the old country talk about people dropping dead in the street from thirst or hunger, or “nuvem ingrata” cruel clouds, that hover within sight on the horizon, pouring their rain into the sea, leaving the land parched and people dying for lack of water. Eyes turned always to the horizon, searching for rain, or a sail, the symbol of hope and opportunity. Emigration was not a choice, it was a necessity.
The New England connection to the Cape Verde islands began in earnest after the American Revolution. Desperate for crews to work in the dangerous and low-paying whaling industry, whaling vessels from New Bedford and Nantucket regularly sailed to Cape Verde to pick up sailors. These early ties to New England made the United States the primary point of debarkation for Cape Verdeans. The trickle of immigration to New Bedford and New England in the early 1800s turned into a flood at the turn of the century, as Cape Verdeans fled cycles of severe drought, starvation, perennial economic hardship and colonial neglect.
They came across the Atlantic to New England on voyages lasting up to three months on packet ships of dubious seaworthiness, arriving in the ports of New Bedford, MA and Providence, RI, the oldest and largest Cape Verdean communities in America. (Click here to view video clip “The Ernestina”)
Until the early 1960s, the packets were the vital link between Cape Verdean and the New England communities, carrying passengers back and forth, and most importantly the barrels of food and clothes back to the families in the islands. Equally important were messages from loved ones that arrived in the New England ports, either by letter, or a personal message sent by way of friends from the same village or island. (Click here to view a video of Pres. Pereira talking about the importance of the packets.)
The anguish of the separations of distance, years, or a lifetime, is immortalized in Cape Verdean music, especial the “morna” (made famous by Cape Verdean world music diva, Cesaria Evora). That feeling of “saudade,” or longing and sadness is a visceral component of Cape Verdean culture and resonates throughout every aspect of society. “Tristealegria,” happy and sad together, bittersweet, is the essence of stoicism that characterizes the Cape Verdean determination to survive against almost insurmountable odds. (Click here to listen to “Nantasket One Evening,” a traditional Cape Verdean song).
The community of Fox Point was situated near the waterfront and the Port of Providence. Clustered in tenements, families, relatives and friends lived within shouting distance from one another. (Click to view video clips “Granny’s.”) Once a bustling port for loose cargo-lumber, coal, scrap iron-most of the men from the Point “worked the boats” as proud members of the Longshoremen’s Union Local 1329. (Click here to view video clip “Working the Boats.”) The neighborhood abutted Brown University and the affluent East Side. It was an uneasy and sometimes hostile relationship. An uncle told me that children were warned not to go out on the streets at night because they would be snatched up and used in experiments in the labs at Brown!
It was close to the St. Antonio Society, one of the main beneficent organizations that provided benefits and insurance for its members, as well as sponsoring dances and fundraisers for sick members, funeral expenses, or scholarships. Social activities revolved around organizations like the St. Antonio Society, church events and family gatherings.
Every activity included music. Violins and guitars were pulled out, and favorite mornas, and coladerias would be played, and invariably the dancing would begin. One of the first things a child in the Point learned was to dance to the morna and the coladeria. Most of us have vivid recollections of the dances at the St. Antonio Society: small children dancing together, two old women, maybe widows, slowly moving to the morna, little girls learning to dance standing on the feet of their fathers. (Click here to see and hear Fox Point and Cape Verdean music legends, Flash Tavares and Vickie Vieira.)
What really kept the boys out of mischief was the Boys Club on 226 South Main Street, another venerable institution and the home away from home for generations of boys from the Point. From the moment the doors opened in 1916, the Boys Club on S. Main Street served the urban poor and kept the boys away from dangers of the streets and juvenile delinquency. The Club was a haven from crowded, cold water tenements with limited indoor plumbing or pull chain toilets.
These tight-knit, self-contained communities are concentrated most heavily, in descending order, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and then Connecticut. Cape Verdeans worked in Cape Cod’s cranberry bogs, as well as on the waterfronts and textile mills. The door on Cape Verdean immigration closed by the Johnson Immigration Laws of 1922 and 1924, reopened in 1968, beginning the second major wave of Cape Verdean immigration in the 20th century. Today’s population of Cape Verdeans in New England, now more than 300,000 strong, is greater than the population of Cape Verde.
Urban renewal and gentrification in the 1970s forcibly displaced three generations of our Cape Verdean community in Fox Point. Our history was erased before it was written. For me, the displacement meant searching for my roots in Cape Verde, crossing the Atlantic to explore the ties to the islands, and retracing the path and journey begun by my grandparents when they arrived in America in the early 1900s, then returning back to Fox Point and beginning another journey.
In l986 I turned my skills as historian to documentarian, producing THE SPIRIT OF CAPE VERDE, a half-hour documentary that aired on WGBH-TV in Boston, and chronicled the first state visit to the United States in l983 of the first president of Cape Verde after independence in 1975. Watch THE SPIRIT OF CAPE VERDE. THE SPIRIT OF CAPE VERDE laid the foundation for a trilogy of feature documentaries about the Cape Verdean community in Fox Point series of documentaries that kicked off in l995 with the first pre-production grant for “Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican?”: A Cape Verdean American Story which premiered in 2006 to popular and critical acclaim. is the untold tragedy and scandal of what happened to this vibrant community of immigrants from the Cape Verde Islands in the Fox Point section of Providence, Rhode Island who were forcibly displaced by urban renewal to make way for fancy coffee shops, antique stores and elegantly restored houses.Watch SOME KIND OF FUNNY PORTO RICAN
The remaining two features are currently in post-production: ATLANTIC PORTALS follows what happened to the Cape Verdean community after the displacement in the l970s to the present, and WORKING THE BOATS, captures the golden years from the l940s to early 1970s of Local 1329of the International Longshoremen’s Association, founded in l933 by Cape Verdeans. Watch the WORKING THE BOATS trailer
The prequel to the trilogy, Hi, Neighbor, produced in 2011, is a short film/ memory conversation, where a little girl who lost her home to urban renewal asks her wealthy neighbor, ‘Why?” It is a classic story of American immigrants and what happens when society displaces them. Related to the Fox Point series, and also in post-production is Nantucket Strolls: Forgotten Byways, a homegrown Nantucket documentary told by Nantucketers about stories, large and small, remembered or forgotten about the communities of color on Nantucket. Watch the NANTUCKET STROLLS trailer.
SKFPR has grown to be much more than a movie: it is a movement that celebrates “first voice” narrative, building history one story at a time, reaches both a targeted and general audience through an effective distribution strategy, and is a catalyst in reconstituting a community and history that was erased before it was written. The documentaries are one part of SPIA’s work. We also are focused on preserving the archives and records of our community, and creating a virtual and physical presence of our history in the new Fox Point of the 21st century. And of course, continuing to create new work that celebrates all aspects of the rich culture and traditions of Cape Verde and Cape Verdeans.
Serenata de Amor, SPIA’s most recent production, is a Cape Verdean love story told in song. It is a reflection of the stories embedded in the collective consciousness of Cape Verdeans and channeled in the music and Crioulo language of Cape Verde. Language and music are windows to the soul, and are the fuel and inspiration for our stories. Embedded in the notes and lyrics of the mornra are the core elements of Cape Verdean identity, memory, culture and traditions. Mornas are about love, but also the loss of love, loved ones and separations. Mornas are how we celebrate life and also how we grieve. The last few years, our community has lost scores of the remaining elders of the first-born generation of Cape Verdeans in America. The loss of community and homes by displacement, compounded by the loss of those familiar faces, voices, laughter and music has brought us to our knees.
Serenata de Amor , is an homage to those who came before us, and a gift, from us- all generations of the Cape Verdean community who, with our friends, students, alumni and colleagues at Emerson, came together over the last year to create and tell this story. Our dream is that the music soars, forever after, as a sustainable legacy and reminder of those values and traditions that have sustained this remarkable community of the Diaspora for almost five hundred years, and for close to two hundred years in this land of America.
Serenata and all of the other work and projects that SPIA produces touches on our immigrant roots. It is about home, and at the same time recognizing that home is a state of mind, not a specific zip code or location. It is about emigration; it is universal-everyone comes from somewhere. Its about love: contemporary, classic, timeless.