HARWICH — The Cape Verdean Museum located in the Cultural Center will open its doors to the public on Friday with a goal of educating and expanding the knowledge of Cape Verdean culture.
Southeastern Massachusetts has a large Cape Verdean population. Many inhabitants of the archipelago located about 400 miles off the West Coast of Africa came to Nantucket and New Bedford on whaling vessels several generations ago.
Harwich has a large Cape Verdean population and there has been a lot of interest in recent years in educating Cape Verdean offspring and the community about their heritage. The “So Sabi” exhibit, celebrating Cape Verdean culture in 2012 at Brooks Academy Museum, was a great success and led to Cape Verdean education programs in the local schools. The Cape Verdean Festival held last summer in Brooks Park was also well received. A second festival is planned this summer.
Museum President/Curator Barbara Burgo said the common response when talking about Cape Verdeans is “'Oh, they are the immigrants who picked cranberries.' We are not just cranberry growers, we're judges, doctors anthropologists and entrepreneurs,” Burgo said.
The museum, which recently received non-profit status, is filled with information about Cape Verde, Harwich and Southeastern Massachusetts. It contains several rooms dedicated to Cape Verdeans and the sea; Cape Verdeans in uniform; Kriolas (women) in the Arts; a Cape Verdean kitchen and a children's room.
There is a wealth of history about the 10 islands that make up the archipelago and its battle for freedom after five centuries of Portuguese colonization, which came to an end with Cape Verde Independence on July 5, 1975. Visitors can learn about Amilcar Cabral, the nationalist leader who led the fight for independence and who was assassinated a year and a half before achieving that goal.
The stories include that of U.S. District Court Judge George N. Leighton, a New Bedford-born Cape Verdean who advised a young Senator Barack Obama in Illinois and served for years in the Chicago district. He celebrated his 105th birthday Oct. 22 and currently resides at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Brockton.
Visitors can also learn about Eugenia Fortes, born in 1911, who came to the Cape at age nine from the Cape Verde islands. She co-founded the Cape Cod Chapter of the NAACP in 1961 and served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for 14 years. A beach in Hyannis was recently named The Eugenia Fortes Beach in her honor. Her nephew is Robert Cutts, a four-time world bench press champion, who was born in Harwich and has been active in local Cape Verdean projects.
And then there is the story of the Grand Banks schooner Ernestina, which was purchased and raised from the oceans depths and restored in New Bedford in 1948 by Henrique Mendes, a former resident of Cape Verde. The Ernestina became a trans-Atlantic packet, making trips to Cape Verde, and was the last sailing vessel in regular service to bring immigrants from the archipelago across the Atlantic to the United States. It is the official vessel of Massachusetts.
There is a lot of local material in the museum, including a Cape Verdean quilt made by Virginia Pena and given to Burgo in recognition of her efforts in curating this exhibit. Pena, a painter who is also renown for her quilts, will have her work on display at the museum. Other artists whose work is on display include Eva Brito of New Bedford and Aminah Fernandes Pilgrim.
If music is of particular interest, there is a display about Pena's son, the late Paul Pena, whose blues style music brought him international recognition for his his album “New Train” and song “Jet Airliner,” which was recorded by The Steve Miller Band. He was also featured in the award-nominated documentary “Genghis Blues” about the blind singer's trip to Tuva to learn throat singing.
“I've always wanted to know about Cape Verde,” artist Leslie Gomes Preston said. Preston grew up on Nantucket and now lives in Hyannis. Her paintings will be on display and for sale in the Kriolas room in the museum and she and her daughter, Lisa Preston, a jewelry maker, will be volunteering at the museum. Lisa Preston's earrings and necklaces often features the colors of the flag of Cape Verde and will also be for sale.
Lisa Preston said she has always wanted to know more about her Cape Verdean roots and sees the museum as an opportunity to provide that information. The younger Preston said she speaks Portuguese and Spanish, but always wanted to learn the Cape Verde creole (kriolu). Burgo said that learning opportunity will be available at the museum. She said there will be other studio events held there as well.
The museum is all about the Cape Verdean term “D'junta mon,” which means “hands helping hands,” said Burgo. Leslie and Lisa Preston said they will be there to volunteer their services to the operation of the museum.
“I'll teach them as much as I can about the whole exhibit. They will be my first member partners,” Burgo said.
“Whatever they need me to do, I'm here,” Lisa Preston added. “As a people we take nothing and turn it into something.”
The plan is to open the museum each Friday starting June 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. along with the open house schedule for the cultural center. There will be no admission fee initially, Burgo said, but there may be a modest one in the future. She will be writing grants to assist with costs and to fund language courses.
Burgo said this week she has established non-profit status for the museum working through the Brockton Cape Verdean Association. “In Brockton they love the idea of assisting us with this and becoming a partner.” Burgo said.
Brockton does not have a Cape Verdean museum, she added. There is one in Rhode Island and the Zion Union Heritage Museum in Hyannis, which is dedicated to African-American and Cape Verdean-American history. The Brockton association wants to bring some of their youth groups down to participate in the second annual Cape Verdean Festival scheduled for July 14 in Brooks Park, Burgo said.
She said Warren Miranda is organizing the festival activities. Because of the Fourth of July celebration and a Cape Verdean festival in Rhode Island on July 8, Burgo said it is not feasible to schedule the Harwich festival on Cape Verde Independence Day, July 5.
Burgo said she'd love to see many more young people get involved. She will be working with teachers in area schools to draw interest in internships at the museum and with the festival.