I’m not Portuguese, I’m Cape Verdean!

9 Mins read

Jéssica Sofia Cardoso Silva, 20, is first generation Portuguese-born, and would normally be considered as Afro-Portuguese, however, she tells Artefact why claiming her hybrid identity is not an option and never will be.

“I am not Portuguese! Don’t say that,” exclaims Jéssica. “I do not identify myself as being Portuguese even though I was born and raised there and my ID says that I’m Portuguese. It is not a piece of paper that is going to define my identity.”

“I was born and raised in Portugal but my origins are in the little islands of Cape Verde off the west coast of Africa. I moved to London in 2016 because I got into SOAS to study African Studies.”

Silvia takes Artefact on a journey as she shares her experiences living in one of the underprivileged locations in Lisbon.

picture taken by Denise Paganini

Cape Verde [Denise Paganini]

“I’m one of the many Cape-Verdeans born in Portugal. I was born in Portugal due to the immigration.”

“I was born and raised until I was about 13 years old in an area called Prior Velho, in [the borough of] Loures, Lisbon. Prior Velho had an area which was poorer than the rest of town, and I lived there.”

“I lived in what the Portuguese call bairro de lata” or “favela” like the Brazilians say, in English would be something like ‘slum’. It was an area considered a ghetto, it had its problems with drugs, crime and all that, but besides all this I actually lived well.”

“Even though my parents were, and still are, not rich they always made sure my brother and I never went to bed or to school hungry, we still travelled a few times to Cape Verde and my ‘slum’ had all the basic conditions of every ‘normal’ house; electricity and running water, but it was just considered a slum because of the area.”

She explains, “Most of the people who lived there were Africans and of African descent. The majority were Cape Verdeans, but also people from Guinea Bissau, Angola and some other Portuguese-speaking countries. There was also some white Portuguese people and gypsies as well, this is why I sometimes say that I was born in one of the many little Africas inside of Portugal.”

Many Africans colonised by the Portuguese have immigrated to Portugal in order to have a better life for themselves and their families. Cape Verdeans being the most populous, followed by Angolans, Guinea-Bissauans, Mozambicans, Sao Tomeans, and other Africans.

Afro-Portuguese citizens make up 1.3 per cent of the Portuguese population according to Portuguese Foreigners and Borders services.

“The ‘slum’ area was constructed, I believe, around the sixties and seventies in the surrounding areas of Lisbon by immigrants, mostly Africans that came to Portugal to work. My dad went to Portugal first and then my mum. My dad used to live somewhere else and when he moved to Prior Velho was in the 80s but a lot of houses were already build there,” she says.

Jessica, her brother and mother in Portugal, Lisbon

Jessica, her brother and mother in Portugal, Lisbon

“This area was destroyed in 2009/2010 and all the people who lived there were reallocated to other areas.”

“The houses were illegal because they were simply constructed without authorisation. We didn’t pay rent nor water, only electricity and some people didn’t even pay that. My parents always worked from early morning till late so they were able to save. But again there were people who really struggled but thank God my family wasn’t one of those.

“Some [went on] to council houses and others decided to buy a house, like my parents, where ever they wanted. The rest of town had more white people than black or other ethnic minority living in arguably better conditions, because I had colleagues at school that did not live in the so-called ‘slum’ but struggled way more than me and others that were from the ghetto area.

“I grew up in one of those places where all the neighbours knew each other, and could knock on the next door and ask for whatever you needed. There really was a sense of community there.

“I made a lot of friends, friends that I still have and that I consider family. I cried a lot when the government destroyed the area. Whenever I pass by there I just feel like crying because people who don’t know that there were hundreds of people living there. [The government] would never tell.”

Jéssica expresses what it is like being black in Lisbon: “Portugal is still a very racist institutional society and white people do discriminate black people and other ethnic minorities in their day-to-day normal life activities.”

“We face discrimination in every area, from education to the judicial system, we suffer from police violence and inequality of treatment in all areas. Portugal doesn’t even have any type of data based on ethnic/racial identity and it is illegal to do such thing, which the UN recommended in a report a few years ago and in which they recognised the subtle racism that Africans and Afro-Portuguese face in Portugal.

“[But] I feel like we live in such an unacknowledged racist society and the racism is so ‘well covered’ that some black people don’t even know they are being victims of racism. Some will even go on TV and say that there is no racism in Portugal, which is absolutely nonsense.”

Jessica explains why the idea of hybridity is far-fetched: “I have never actually felt fully accepted as being Portuguese, I heard too many times during my life that I should go back to my country and that I did not belong there. Imagine the confusion this can make in one’s head while growing up, knowing that I was in fact born there.”

She told us: “I have been asked too many times where I’m from, and when I answered Portugal they would ask again where really I was from, expecting me to answer an African country because they cannot accept the fact that there are black Portuguese people as well.”

“Black Portuguese citizens are only acknowledged as being Portuguese by white Portuguese people when we positively represent Portugal in some way. That’s what’s been happening with famous football players in Portugal but they still face enormous criticism by white Portuguese people.”

Cape Verde, Denise Paganini

Cape Verde [Denise Paganini]

“I do not identify myself with their culture, and especially not with their history of them being the “heróis do mar” (heroes of the sea) as they would say.”

“I also, feel like it would be absolutely absurd and ‘coon-ish’ of me to just forget my origins and claim to be Portuguese just because I was born there. Knowing that I was born in the country that was one of the first of not only Europe but from the rest of the world to enslave, exploit, rape, murder, colonise my ancestors just makes me feel disgusted and so angry,” she said.

“How could I ever claim this identity?” she questions.

“The fact that they do not take ownership of the awful things they have done to Africa and Africans, the fact that they actually glorify the times they call the ‘Era dos Descobrimentos’ (Discovery Era) by saying that they discovered and conquered this and that, and that they were strong and brave men of the sea’s and also the fact that this is what they teach in schools, just angers my whole being.

“The educational system in Portugal does not teach the atrocities they committed. They glorify those times, it can be seen by the history discipline curriculum, by their national anthem, by the monuments, etc.

“They make it seem like colonisation was actually something positive and beneficial to black people and that we probably should be grateful for it and to able to speak their language.

“I realised that I’m not Portuguese and I don’t identify as being one when I started to become more conscious of the racist world we live in, about three years ago.

“When I was growing up I never felt a hundred percent Portuguese because I always knew about my cultural background and white Portuguese people also made sure I did not forget.”

Artefact asked whether being born in Portugal has affected her identity: “Probably yes, but not in a negative way. I would still be Cape Verdean if I were born elsewhere.

“I do wish I was born in the African continent though, but since we don’t get to choose I’m just glad I was born in a predominantly African community because I believe that that was one of the ‘musts’ for me not to lose my African identity.”

Jéssica at school in Lisbon. Image provided by interviewee

Jéssica at school in Lisbon. Image provided by interviewee

Jéssica mentions how her identity differs from some of her other family members because of where she grew up: “My cousins grew up in a different environment than me; they grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood.

“They don’t really speak our language, they do know how to say some stuff and understand a bit but they don’t really speak it fluently.

“Their parents did not teach them to speak creole because of the fear of them not being able to speak and understand Portuguese fluently. Also, they feel like it’s not the Cape-Verdean creole that is going to take you ‘far’ in life, [and this is] something that is unfortunately common amongst African people and indigenous African languages.

“Like Ngugi said, ‘language is a carrier of culture’ and ‘language and culture are bond together in such a way that is almost impossible to separate them’,” she adds.

However, Jessica’s family opinions have not influenced hers as she says: “I do feel that for someone to be able to fully understand a culture you must, not only but also, have knowledge of the language of that culture. I think these are the main reason they identify as being Portuguese.”

She says: “Growing up Cape Verdean in a Cape Verdean environment is really growing up in a community. I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to. I grew up learning about my culture and practicing it through music, dance, language, food and etc. I have no doubt that helped me set good values for myself and I’ll make sure I’ll pass them on.

“Having an identity and a cultural identity to me is important. The feeling of being fully accepted by being who you are, the feeling of feeling at home and comfortable among my people, to be able to speak the same language, to share the same traditions and values, is important to me. I cannot and I wouldn’t ever deny my Cape-Verdean identity” she adds.

Jessica shares more about her beautiful country as she says: “Cape Verde is really a beautiful place, we are a very warm and friendly people.”

Cape Verde is an island country bridging an archipelago of ten volcanic islands in the central Atlantic Ocean.  The population is only about 500,000 and there are more Cape Verdeans in the diaspora than in the country itself. The country covers only 4,000 square kilometres.

Cape Verde archipelago was uninhabited until the 15th century, when the Portuguese explorers discovered the islands and colonised them. They established the first European settlement in the tropics. The islands were situated for the Atlantic slave trade. In the 16th and 17th centuries the islands expanded, attracting merchants, privateers and pirates.

When slavery came to an end in the 19th century the caused economic decline and emigration but gradually recovered as an important commercial centre and stopover for shipping routes. The islands achieved their independence in 1975.

“We are most known for our beautiful beaches and by our ‘Morna’ music which was made famous by a singer called Cesária Évora who has passed away.

Processed with VSCO with nc preset

Cape Verde [Denise Paganini]

“I’m from the island of Santiago, which is where the capital is, Praia. Santiago is the only island I know, but I do plan to travel to the other islands as well.

“We have amazing food, ‘cachupa‘ is the most famous dish, which is corn stew with beans, vegetables and several types of meat.

“We have amazing temperatures all year around, it’s a place with beautiful people with variation from the most light skinned with green eyes to the dark skinned with dark brown eyes, it’s just truly an amazing place.

“We do have our problems like every country, with drugs, crimes and poverty too, but Cape Verde is much more than that and has been making great changes in recent times. It is one of the most democratic countries of Africa, and in the world rank is also in a good position.”

She also states that she plans to live there one day, as she highlights “I need and want to do something for my people. I have some ideas that I would like to make them happen there.”

Artefact asked Jessica to explain what her African heritage and blackness means to her: “To me being black and being African is like being a special being that ‘everyone’ wants to be but doesn’t want you to exist, if it makes sense?

“I say this because it can be seen throughout history that the most oppressed people have always been the darkest people, even pseudo-Scientific theories were created to try to prove that dark skinned people are inferior to people with lack of melanin. All this must have happened for a reason.

“I believe that one will not pursue, oppress, destroy and try to restrain others and their civilisation if they don’t feel that they have something special which makes them scared,” she told us.

“I love being black.
I love my melanin.
I love my kinky hair and all my African features.
Like Maya Angelou once said
“I can’t believe my good fortune.
I’m so grateful to be a black woman.
I would be jealous if I were anything else.”




Featured image by Cheyanne Ntangu

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