Tom Sullivan / Herald
Living in Providence since 1981, Soares maintains her own fragment of Cape Verdean culture in her study at the heart of her Cypress Street home
Updated Friday, Nov. 21 at 1:08 a.m.
Sylvia Ann Soares '95 flits about her living room, adjusting piles of documents and dusty plaques as she weaves her way through to her study.
"I'm grateful to have this place, but it makes me move muscles that I wouldn't be moving otherwise," she laughs.
Soares motions to an altar, adorned with flowers and a picture of her mother, that she lights on Sundays. Looking at the pieces of history strewn among her hanging plants and prints of African goddesses, she finally settles behind a desk covered in yellowing pictures and postcards.
"This room is very karma-dharma," she said. "Karma is what connects between the last life and this life, and dharma really means duty." Soares' study was once a bedroom, where her father died in 1988 and where she tended to her mother, who battled Alzheimer's up until her death in 2002. Today, Soares conducts extensive research about her family's story. And in this narrow house down Cypress Street, Cape Verdean history collides with modern-day Providence.
Looking out the window with nostalgia, Soares reminisces about her childhood, discussing the neighborhood in which she grew up, just four blocks south of her current home. The area, stretching from Olney Street and Doyle Avenue back to Camp and Hope streets, started as a home to poor immigrants in the 1860s. At the time, it bustled with ex-slaves who had migrated north; poor Polish, Irish and Jewish immigrants; American Indians; and Cape Verdeans.
Tom Sullivan / Herald
The carefully preserved pieces of the past that populate Soares' home come together to paint a picture of her family's life in the United States.
In 1462, the Portuguese established Cape Verde, a previously uninhabited cluster of islands off the western coast of Africa, as the first European colony in the tropics. Cape Verde gained importance because of its ideal location for shipping ports, which fielded goods and fueled the slave trade from India and Africa.
But with the abolition of the slave trade, the country's economy witnessed a sharp decline in the 19th century. The islands consistently fell prey to drought — about one every five years, with the first recorded in 1747. More than 100,000 people died of starvation over the next century and a half. "People were really poor. They were starving and dying," Soares says, explaining that many men left the islands to become whalers and fishermen.
By the time Cape Verde won its independence from Portugal in 1975, many islanders had already chosen to leave, spreading throughout the world and building up an ever-expanding diaspora. The United States is home to more of these emigrants and their descendants than any other nation, with the population of Cape Verdeans in the United States exceeding the number living on the archipelago today.
Credit: Angelia Wang
Though Cape Verde forms a small cluster of islands off the Western coast of Africa, its people have dispersed throughout the globe and form a community of immigrants in the United States.
Courtesy of the RI College Special Collections
The naturalization papers of Edouardo de Garca, one of Soares' relatives, are among many documents recording the Cape Verdean Migration.
Blinking at the flashes of a camera as her portrait is taken, Soares chuckles nervously. But the 73-year-old actress is not unfamiliar with the spotlight. She participated in New York's black theater movement during the 1960s, has performed plays on national tours and has appeared on television.
She eventually returned to Providence in 1981, leaving the buzz of Los Angeles for a quiet house in Mt. Hope.
Courtesy of Sylvia Ann Soares
Soares' acting career brought her to New York, where she helped to pioneer the 1960s black theater movement. Decked out in red and pictured above, Soares plays Lady Capulet for the Los Angeles Shakespeare Festival in the 1970s.
Soares was a founding member of the Trinity Repertory Company. She later graduated from the Community College of Rhode Island in 1993 and earned a degree in theater arts from Brown in 1995.
As a second-generation Cape Verdean in the United States, Soares' experience of diaspora began before her lifetime. Her maternal grandparents, Joãode Dade Rodrigues and Sylvañia Gonçalves Pena came from Brava, the smallest inhabited island in Cape Verde. They immigrated through Boston and settled down on a farm on Cape Cod, though the unintelligible tangle of names on immigration records leaves the exact dates of their passage unknown.
Her mother, Dorothy Maria Rodrigues Soares, grew up on Cape Cod, and her records are as nebulous as those of her parents, with Dorothy's actual birth date differing from the one on record. "I'd always say, Ma, pick one of them!" Soares chuckles, remembering how her mother fluctuated between the two dates.
The farm on Cape Cod proved idyllic for Dorothy's family. Lying near the ocean, it was reminiscent of the islands of Cape Verde. Soares recalls childhood visits there, perched under the grape arbor with her grandfather, reaching up to pluck grapes as she witnessed Cape Verdean gatherings with food, grog — the traditional whiskey — and music.
Courtesy of Sylvia Ann Soares
Soares's trumpet-playing father, Arthur S. Soares, carried on the melody of Cape Verdean culture (bottom), while her grandfather and mother's stepmother continued the archipelago's traditions at the small farm on Cape Cod (top).
In her early 20s, Soares' mother left Cape Cod and moved to New Bedford, later ending up in Providence, where she was wooed by the trumpet-playing Arthur S. Soares, Soares' father.
Unearthing a picture of an old-time barber shop with two men looking out of its crumbling edges, Soares points out her grandfather as one of two men in the photo. Sebastian Jose Soares, known to his sons as Bud, owned multiple barbershops along Wickenden and South Main streets.
He also formed his own Creole band and crafted violins and mandolins, a testament to the integral role music plays in Cape Verdean culture.
With a mazurka — the musical accompanimant to a lively dance — still playing in her ears, Soares recalls the tears of the elderly that sprung up when bands played morna, a form of Cape Verdean folk music. She remembers one song in Cape Verdean Creole about the "old country," with lyrics describing the last words of a mother who couldn't afford the trip to America.
"Cape Verdean music is very beautiful and soulful," Soares says. "People don't play it anymore," she adds,referencing the traditional musical style.
Faded photos plastering Soares' desk picture her grandfather's barber shop, her paternal grandparents and Deacon Joseph Andrews at his desk. Together, these recreate the community that has since dissolved into memories.
Courtesy of Sylvia Ann Soares
Philanthropy was also a critical part of Sebastian's life — and a defining feature of the entire culture of the Providence Cape Verdean community. Sebastian was the secretary of the Cape Verde Brotherhood, the first Cape Verdean beneficent society in the United States, which provided a small daily allowance to locals, primarily Cape Verdeans, with disabilities or illnesses.
Courtesy of Sylvia Ann Soares
In the 1950s, loose lumber flowed into Providence's ports, which bustled with Cape Verdean workers. The ships traveled back to Cape Verde with barrels filled with goods for family members left behind.
Soares, who inherited this charitable tradition, recalls her familymusician's alto saxophone gleams in one corner, while a cranberry rake leans against the opposite wall. Pictures of Cape Verdean immigrants working on cranberry bogs and performing domestic jobs mingle with photos of the Cape Verdean Progressive Center and copies of records by Tavares, a hit Cape Verdean band.
"One thing about Cape Verdeans — they like to party," Smart laughs, gesturing at a picture of an annual clambake on the wall.
Like a tapestry forming a coherent image, the Cape Verdean Museum Exhibit pulls together culture across generations, livelihoods and places. "What's left of Fox Point that's there for all of us are the memories."
Walking down John Street, Smart remembers a completely different version of the area. Now dotted with students zipping by on bikes and families strolling to cafes on Wickenden, the neighborhood used to be characterized by Cape Verdean women with their hair piled on top of their heads and black-clad Portuguese widows wading through the streets. Shared backyards and unlocked doors allowed neighbors to flow freely in and out of houses. A web of clotheslines crisscrossed between houses, sending bags of borrowed goods to and from households with minimal effort. "You'd just clip it to the line and send it over," Smart chuckles.
Smart recalls bringing supper to her grandfather every evening and returning home with his dirty dishes. Traffic separated her house from his, but Cape Verdean men sitting at the bars would escort her across the street. "They didn't have to, but they watched out for me because I didn't have any older brothers," she says.
Outdoor stoops served as places to socialize and eat messier fare, such as crabs fresh from the nearby seafood market and pomegranates, which they called "love apples," Smart reminisces.
Smart remembers walking down the street during her time as a librarian in Fox Point with tears rolling down her eyes as she witnessed the drastically transformed streets of her childhood. "I could hear the echoes of people's voices. I could imagine my friends, myself, my parents, my mother's friends walking down the street and doing chores."
Much of the preservation happens on an individual level, she says, including by poets, artists and writers who document Cape Verdean culture through their work. In both individual records and organized documentation, oral histories are often preserved through memoirs.
"We became popular in the early '80s," Soares wryly states of other people's sudden, almost fad-like, interest in her culture.
Soares worries about how Cape Verde will be remembered and how its culture will be kept alive among younger community members, especially because those most interested in preservation belong to her generation. "Unless you maintain culture at home, children think it's commercial. They don't realize they're carrying thousands of years of history," she says.
"It's kind of painful to think that there existed a very thriving community, and there are only vestiges of it left," said Yvonne Smart, Education Coordinator for the Cape Verdean Museum Exhibit.
"Not a lot of the younger generation are doing anything new, they're just maintaining what the older generation has already started," says Alex Lopes, 21, a former student at Providence College. Lopes was born in Portugal and lived in Cape Verde between the ages of two and three, before moving to Boston so his mother could pursue a degree. He eventually found his way to Providence.
Growing up in Providence, Lopes remembers his elementary school classroom filled with Cape Verdeans, all of whom looked different from one another. "Cape Verdeans come in weird shapes and colors," Lopes muses, comparing his light skin, likely due to his half-Portuguese descent, with the dark skin of his cousins, who are fully Cape Verdean.
"It was a lot of 'What are you?' for me," Lopes says, the perpetual question raised by his tanned skin and green eyes.
Lopes culturally identifies as Cape Verdean. He says he relates completely to his Cape Verdean roots in terms of core cultural elements like cuisine. But he cannot ignore the stark differences between himself and many other Cape Verdeans, who he says cling to what has gained popularity on the islands, where Michael Jackson and Akon still reign.
Despite these superficial differences, Lopes remains in communication with family members who have stayed on the islands, sending them oil drums filled with Hershey bars and welcoming them during their visits to the United States. He remembers his mother and aunt exchanging stories about life on the island, where TVs had three channels and faulty electricity regularly caused the lights to flicker off.
And while the younger generation's connections to Cape Verde may rely on individual relationships, as Lopes' does, community events remain a way to keep the culture alive in a broader sense. An annual celebration by the Cape Verdean Progressive Center brings together denizens of Fox Point and East Providence, preserving history through the same traditions older generations embraced decades ago, such as dances and music.
Lopes works at the Rhode Island Cape Verdean Independence Day Festival with his friends every year, and he says anyone with a drop of Cape Verdean blood in Rhode Island and even Massachusetts congregates at the festival.
As new cultures and experiences mold the Cape Verdean diaspora, the local definition of a Cape Verdean grows thinner, calling into question whether anything distinctive will be left for future generations.
"It's kind of painful to think that there existed a very thriving community, and there are only vestiges of it left," Smart says with a sigh. Though the buildings have morphed, her memories remain alive, along with a glimmer of hope. She believes Fox Point Cape Verdeans share a certain connection that extends beyond geography.
"You can take the person out of Fox Point, but you can't take Fox Point out of the person."
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Soares moved from New York to College Hill in 1981. In fact, she moved from Los Angeles to Mt. Hope. The article also incorrectly stated that Soares joined the Trinity Repertory Company in the 1990s. In fact, she was a founding member in the 1960s. The article also incorrectly stated that Soares’ mother moved to New Bedford in the early 1920s. In fact, it was in her early 20s, in the late 1930s. A photo caption also mistakenly identified Soares’ step-grandmother as her grandmother on a Cape Cod farm. The Herald regrets the errors.