Just seven hours away by car from Washington, DC is the small state of Rhode Island. I find that while I enjoy the vibrant nation’s capital, there are days that I spend reminiscing about my previous home in the Ocean State. Most of my memories are centered around the large Cape Verdean community that surrounded me daily. The desire of comfort is one that an individual cannot find just anywhere; it has to feel right and most importantly the environment has to be right. However, these emotions regarding my culture and community were not always present in my life. There was a period of time that I experienced what I would call “an identity crisis.”
On April 9, 1991, my mother gave birth to me in Boston, Massachusetts. It had been a couple of years since she first migrated from Praia, Cape Verde. My mother was born in Guinea Bissau, but as a child moved with her parents to Cape Verde given the critical civil war that was waging. During this time, as a result of revolutionary efforts to gain independence for West African countries, countries such as Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau were fighting ardently against the colonial power of the Portuguese. With a courageous heart and significant strength, my mother made the difficult decision to migrate to the United States in order to seek a better life for herself and her family. My mother, who knew of some relatives in the area, decided to call Boston her “new home.” I often look at pictures of my mother when she first arrived in the land that, according to her, would give her a renewed sense of hope. Her distinct features automatically stand out to me: long and curly brown hair, with a hint of blonde highlights, her light skin complexion, and the beauty mark close to her lips were the things that I thought made my mother beautiful. Most people thought she was either Brazilian or Hispanic, but to think she could perhaps be African never came to mind. However, my mother staunchly defended her roots. She was African and it did not matter if this was her new home, her identity remained. Me, on the other hand, I cannot say the same. There are times where I wonder if my mother had ever gone through the crisis I did, but in the back of my mind it did not seem plausible.
You may be thinking to yourself, how is it possible for me to go through an “identity crisis” when I was surrounded by my culture on a rather constant basis? The answer to that question is complicated. After my parents got divorced, my mother decided to move my younger sisters and me to Rhode Island. Here the Cape Verdean community was also diverse. It would not take long to walk a few blocks on a Saturday morning, and smell the rich aroma of “cachupa” cooking, a typical Cape Verdean dish made of pork chunks, beans, hominy, kale, Portuguese sausage, and a wide array of spices. It was common for various Cape Verdean families to live in close proximity to each other. Weekends were notorious for neighbors to come to our house and tell tales of the past days in the homeland, before the war struck. You could hear “funana,” the fast playing music that entails women to move their hips while men swing you around in a fast tempo, playing at parties and prominent festivals. All around me this culture was evident, but still I just could not connect. Much of my dilemma was directly linked to the fact that at the time I lacked an appreciation for my culture: I was made to feel that I was not deserving of my identity.
I still hold memories from my African friends telling me I was not “African enough” because of my light skin and curly hair. Those simple words were like a sword to a freshly cut wound that continued to fuel my insecurities and lack of interest in my culture. My mother would always tell me to not pay them any mind and instead to embrace all that was wonderful and exceptional about our culture.
It wasn’t until my enrollment in college that I began to understand the meaning of her words. Being far from home I began to crave the feeling that I felt when I was back home. I wanted to embrace my roots and not feel ashamed of the motherland and, most importantly, my people.
During my travels around the world I was reminded of how diverse my people are and how important that is to constructing my own identity. I remember when I went to The Netherlands and felt so proud to find out about the small population of Cape Verdeans that lived there as well. I will never forget our flag hanging in the air with the bright blue, white, and red colors gleaming in the sky. The blue symbolic of the Atlantic Ocean that borders the small archipelago islands of Cape Verde, the white symbolic of peace, and the red symbolic of the freedom my people fought so hard for. These small memories are reminders that my people are diverse in every single way. To think there was ever a time that I did not appreciate my culture is a bit unreal to me at times. I believe that life often opens doors to truly give important significance to things that matter. I realize now that all around me I had a significant part of me that I did not know held so much power. I had the ability to connect with my culture in different ways: songs, cuisine, arts, folk tale, and most importantly, with family. There are still times I look outside the windows of my Washingtonian home and remember that the feeling of being at home is not something distant and forgotten; it is a fire that still burns within me. No matter how far I am away from the culture and people who contribute significantly to my identity, they are very present in my heart and soul.