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Cadernos de Estudos Africanos

Print version ISSN 1645-3794

Cadernos de Estudos Africanos  no.24 Lisboa July/Dec. 2012


“The Cape Verdean Race”: Identity-building in a suburban council estate[1]

“A raça cabo-verdiana”: Construções identitárias num bairro de realojamento suburbano


Ana Luísa Mourão

Universidade de Brunel, Londres, Reino Unido



This article explores local articulations of identity among Cape Verdean descendants in a council estate near Lisbon. The argument addresses their notions of ‘Cape Verdeanness’ and ‘Africanness’, analysing how these are built and sustained in opposition to the “Portuguese”. It begins by pinpointing weak transnational (material and symbolic) ties with Cape Verde, moving to highlight widespread racism in Portugal’s political, media and social responses to African immigrants. Finally, it examines Cape Verdeans’ identity constructions, arguing that the categories, tacit meanings and group attributes they forge speak less of feelings of belonging to Cape Verde than of a “looping effect” whereby discursive elements of racism and segregation in Portuguese society are appropriated and reworked by the subjects themselves.

Keywords: Cape Verdeans, second generation, identity, racism, opposition, council estate



Este artigo explora as articulações identitárias de descendentes de cabo-verdianos num bairro de realojamento na região de Lisboa. O argumento aborda noções locais de “cabo-verdianidade” e “africanidade”, analisando a sua construção em oposição ao coletivo dos “portugueses”. Começa por assinalar-se as conexões transnacionais (materiais e simbólicas) fracas com Cabo Verde, salientando-se em seguida o racismo subjacente nas respostas políticas, mediáticas e sociais de Portugal aos imigrantes africanos. Analisam-se por fim as construções identitárias locais de cabo-verdianos de segunda geração, frisando como as categorias, os sentidos e os atributos coletivos por eles forjados se referem não à pertença subjetiva a Cabo Verde, mas antes a um “efeito de looping” pelo qual os preconceitos raciais da sociedade portuguesa são apropriados e reelaborados pelos próprios sujeitos.

Palavras-chave: cabo-verdianos, segunda geração, identidade, racismo, oposição, bairros de realojamento


Migration studies have recently turned to issues of modernity and global flows (Rouse, 1995; Vertovec, 2007). Against old bounded notions of space and culture, they emphasise multidimensional spatial configurations, whereby state borders are continuously interpenetrated by human and cultural movements (Gupta & Ferguson, 1992; Appadurai, 1995, 1996; Kearney, 1995). The complexity of these phenomena has fostered interdisciplinary studies of “transnationalism” (Vertovec, 2007), a new term forged to lift analysis above and beyond national borders.

Anthropology has contributed its particular insight to this multidisciplinary field. Maintaining its traditional interest in culture, ethnicity and identity issues in local settings (Ibid.), it has redefined these concepts in view of the newly-acknowledged global complexity. It has particularly strived to highlight the specific ways in which migration is lived, mediated and imagined in local contexts, and how culture and “locality” are there continuously produced and maintained – against both local human heterogeneity and national political controls (Gupta & Ferguson, 1992; Appadurai, 1995, 1996).

This article will set out to explore local representations and articulations of identity among descendants of Cape Verdean migrants in a suburban council estate near Lisbon, which I will call Topia[2]. The discussion will address notions of ‘Cape Verdeanness’ and ‘Africanness’ forged by Portuguese-born “Cape Verdeans”. The argument will examine how their identity is sustained less by reference to their parents’ home country than to oppositional relations with the host society of “Tugas” (slang term employed to mean white Portuguese). After briefly introducing the research setting, discussion will develop in three parts. It will first examine the kinds of relations forged in Topia across national borders, underscoring how ties with Cape Verde are maintained mainly by first-generation migrants (at both material and symbolic levels). The argument will then move to consider political, media and social responses to African immigrants in Portugal, stressing pervasive racism and discrimination. Finally, it will examine identity constructions of second-generation Cape Verdeans[3] in Topia, drawing from the previous points in the argument. In particular, identity categories, meanings and group attributes forged by young Cape Verdeans[4] will be argued to speak less of feelings of belonging to Cape Verde than of a “looping effect” (Hacking, 1986) whereby discursive elements of racism and segregation present in Portuguese society (partly a colonial legacy) are appropriated and reworked by the subjects they refer to.

Topia: the setting

Topia is a council estate built around a decade ago to shelter a few hundred families formerly residing in shantytowns in a Lisbon suburban municipality. The rehousing process took place under the PER program (Programa Especial de Realojamento)[5]. Around two thirds of the population relocated to the estate are composed of Cape Verdean immigrants, their children and grandchildren, also including a significant number of white Portuguese migrants (especially from the North) and their descendants, as well as immigrants from other African countries. In 2010, a municipal survey indicated that roughly 74% of relocated residents were born in Portugal, and overall 85% hold Portuguese citizenship. The population is also relatively young, with around 50% of relocated residents under 30 years old. I have conducted 14 months of fieldwork in Topia over 2010 and 2011, living in the estate, volunteering part-time at a local NGO, and conducting participant observation and semi-structured life-story interviews with residents. Due to access and other practical constraints, research ended up focusing more closely (although not exclusively) on Cape Verdean female residents, especially of younger generations. Although initial research interests targeted stories of migration and the life course, fieldwork unveiled more pressing and interesting issues to study. These have included, among others, local identity-building processes and second generations’ positioning in between Cape Verdean and Portuguese cultural and identity horizons.

Transnational ties: flows of goods and people

Most Cape Verdean families in Topia maintained regular contact with relatives in Cape Verde. They called them to exchange news, keep in touch (several families claimed to call every week) or mark special occasions. The initiative was mainly taken by first-generation migrants, who had left family members behind. This makes sense in light of the fact that emigration from Cape Verde is often motivated by an aspiration to help one’s family (Åkesson, 2004, p. 94). A few people also claimed to send regular remittances to relatives, while others uneasily stated they sent money “when they could”, suggesting a more sporadic deed. Residents sent occasional packages or money through trusted acquaintances who happened to travel to Cape Verde (to avoid postal and transfer fees).

While money flows were unidirectional (from Portugal to Cape Verde), packages travelled both ways. According to interviewed informants, more common products sent and requested from Cape Verde were foods and ingredients di téra (i.e. from the home country): corn, beans, plantains, “Cape Verdean biscuits” (bola-cha de Cabo Verde, a typical thick, consistent bland biscuit), grogu (sugar-cane rum), among others. Some clothing and textile items were also appreciated, namely so-called “Cape Verde knickers” (cuecas de Cabo Verde) for children, said to be more resistant than European underwear. Women also sent lace, crochet or other home-made crafts from Cape Verde. Although many of these products may be found in Portugal, people commonly remarked that “di téra is better/tastier”. Linked to this was the notion that people in Cape Verde live longer because their food is especially healthy (common versions see it as free from agricultural chemicals). This notion of a “healthier” life in Cape Verde was also found by Bäckström (2009, pp. 277-278) in her research on health ideas and practices among Cape Verdeans in Lisbon. “More natural” food, fresher air, favourable climate, amicable social relations, less stress and more free time (namely for physical exercise) were pinpointed by her informants as features of life in Cape Verde. Bäckström interestingly found that distinctions put forth between the two countries took the form of symbolic associations of Portugal with health “threats” and “dangers”, seen as absent from Cape Verde (Ibid.).

In turn, packages sent to Cape Verde often contained fashionable clothing, house textiles, shoes and money – stylish products from European markets. Åkesson (2004, pp. 155-156) finds that on the receiving end these items are symbolically linked with “modernity” and “affluence”, connecting people in Cape Verde to the imagined world of the rich emigrant. If the host society is connoted with a hostile and dangerous environment, it is also a “modern” stylish one. And while Cape Verde is portrayed as a hospitable natural environment, it is also deemed materially destitute and even backwards, especially by second generations. This was explicit in notions of not having job or life prospects there, but also tacit in symbolic associations with a more ‘primitive’ setting. On one occasion, a second-generation woman wanting to style her hair realised she had lent her straightener to a neighbour. She was left to use a brush and dryer, complaining in contempt “It’s like I’m in Africa!” (N sta sima na África!). Even the positive valuations of Cape Verde’s natural environment were weakened among second generations. Although they might comment on the nice beaches, they also complained about mosquitoes, portrayed to feast lavishly on visitors of any colour, “even through clothing!”

Some residents attempted to make business out of the positively valued assets of each country, selling European-styled products (namely clothing) from Portugal in Cape Verde, and buying products di téra to sell in Portugal. The kinds of goods flowing in each direction were again conditioned by symbolic representations of the traits and lifestyle of each country, namely immigrants’ portrayal of life in Cape Verde as healthier, quieter, more pleasant. This positive imaging also engendered plans or desires of returning. However, despite some manifest projects to return, many migrants seemed resigned to the fact that their children and grandchildren had been raised in Portugal and would not want to move to Cape Verde. Indeed, their children would not think of it – “I’d like to visit, sure, but not live there” was their most common reply.

Visits were more frequent from Portugal to Cape Verde, though the reverse sometimes happened. They could be motivated by special occasions (e.g. weddings, funerals), a simple plan to visit relatives and go on holiday, or the wish to have younger generations meet old relatives in Cape Verde before they died. Yet visits were commonly hindered by unaffordable air-fares (especially if travelling with children). Most interviewed residents did not visit regularly or often. Migrants I interviewed had been to Cape Verde usually one to three times since coming to Portugal, while their children had more commonly been there once (if at all)[6].

Transnational ties: interest and knowledge

People maintained contact with Cape Verde in other ways, which again highlighted differences between first and second generations. During my stay in Topia there were two important polls in Cape Verde, for presidential and parliamentary elections[7]. Both MpD and PAICV (the two main parties competing[8]) conducted campaigns in immigrant settlements across the diaspora. Some signs of it were apparent in Topia in the days running up to the election: a couple of cars with speakers and party flags driving up the main road, small posters and stickers on lamp posts and stairwells, a few people wearing campaign t-shirts. A local cultural association in Topia was active registering willing voters among holders of Cape Verdean passports. Although the polling station for Topia included the whole Borough (making it hard to assess the volume of Topian voters), a total of 218 Topia residents were registered by the association on the weekend before the first election poll[9]. Conversations taking place around that time further suggested first-generation migrants were involved and alert to the topic. On the day of the poll a middle-aged woman (registered voter) stood by her building, urging passing neighbours to go vote. A few days after the presidential election, I sat with an old Cape Verdean man (in Portugal for decades), a young immigrant recently arrived from Cape Verde and his girlfriend (born in Portugal). The young man expressed disappointment that PAICV had lost, and explained to his girlfriend (a complete stranger to the subject) his views on MpD. The older man joined the conversation and they exchanged opinions, while the girl kept silent. They told me migrants in Topia had been registering during the campaign and confirmed many had taken part in the poll.

This active involvement and interest was largely lost in generations raised in Portugal. For them, Portuguese national polls (which also occurred during my fieldwork) generated much more commentary and interest. When the topic of election in Cape Verde arose a few days after the poll, a second-generation woman remarked she knew about it but didn’t much care (passa-me ao lado), she did not even know who had won. In this and other issues, younger generations were visibly more distanced from Cape Verde than their parents, supporting a common observation that cultural and ethnic references are eroded across generations in the diaspora (Sardinha, 2010, pp. 238, 250).

Although younger people shared in and identified with several elements and practices of Cape Verdean culture, including language (Creole), food, music, dance (funaná and batuku) and traditional rites (such as faze kriston and stera)[10], they also displayed some unfamiliarity or even criticism about them. On some ritual occasions, young generations seemed ignorant about normative words and gestures. At the end of a child’s ceremony of faze kriston, the father let slip a surprise remark: “That was it?” (Dja sta?). The so-called “Cape Verdean tradition” was also at times deemed “exaggerated” by younger generations. For example, several young Cape Verdeans condemned families’ obligation to feed neighbours around death occasions, and admitted they would like to end the custom, only “the old folk [os cotas] won’t let it happen”. “Tradition” was sometimes broken, particularly on account of parties (by hosting them or attending them on inappropriate occasions, such as when mourning for a relative), or simply not adhered to (e.g. unlike their parents, second generations rarely wore sibitxi, protection amulets against the evil eye). These and other behaviours indicated younger generations did not follow “tradition” as closely as their parents.

There was also some degree of ignorance regarding Cape Verde itself. This became clear on the occasion of a local celebration of Cape Verde’s independence (5th of July). It used to be celebrated yearly in the old shanties, but in 2011 it was taking place in Topia for the first time. Music and dance groups were called to perform in a square in the estate, gathering a large crowd. Performances were mostly by young Cape Verdean women (dancing funaná and batuku) and men (rapping in Creole). In between songs, the announcer grabbed performers on stage to ask them the year of the independence of Cape Verde, and what they thought about it. With one exception[11], people invariably tried to flee, smiled embarrassed, and in the end admitted: “I don’t know”. This was consistent with younger people’s ignorance about the main parties running in the election. Transnational ties maintained by Cape Verdean migrants were evidently weaker among their children, at both material and symbolic levels. And yet, first and second generations both described themselves as “Cape Verdean”. A shared “sense of belonging” and identity claims to a common “Cape Verdeanness” (Góis, 2010, p. 268) were built, in each group, upon visibly distinct references and grounds.

Immigration policy: citizenship laws

Over the past three decades, Portugal has shifted from a country of emigrants to a destination for massive immigration movements (SEF, 2010, p. 17; Horta, 2000, p. 66). Among other factors, decolonization, accession to the E.U. and the Schengen area have caused significant inflows of migrants from Africa (especially from the 1980s) and later from Brazil and Eastern Europe (Santos, 2004). In 2010, foreign citizens in Portugal officially amounted to 445262 individuals (SEF, 2010), roughly 4,2% of the population[12]. Official responses to immigration changed over time in reaction to the nation’s shifting migratory profile.

Portugal kept political rule over colonial territories until the end of the dictatorial regime in the mid-seventies, under a purported “civilizing mission” of “primitive peoples” (Marques, 2007, p. 24). However, international pressure and criticism against colonial and racial discourses after the Second World War led the Portuguese dictatorship to endorse a more “integrationist” stance (Ibid.). It embraced the ideology of “lusotropicalism”[13], proclaiming a Portuguese vocation for easy contact with colonised peoples, highlighting proximity, miscegenation and milder forms of slavery in settler-native relations (Fikes, 2009, pp. 31-64; Marques, 2007, pp. 24-27; Batalha, 2004, p. 51; Castelo, 1998; Meintel, 1984, pp. 73-74). It also introduced a new citizenship law[14] based on a principle of “jus solis”, rooting the right to Portuguese citizenship in territorial belonging (Carvalho, 2009, p. 37; Góis, 2008, pp. 15-16) and extending it to natives of all Portuguese colonies, now termed “overseas provinces” (províncias ultramarinas). The new ideology strived to present the colonial empire as a unified plural nation reaching across the sea instead of an illegitimate system of human exploitation (Marques, 2007, pp. 25-26).

Following decolonization and the arrival of masses of African repatriates and refugees to Portugal (Horta, 2000, pp. 68-69), a new legal frame[15] adopted the principle of “jus sanguinis” (Ibid.), based on descent ties. It restricted citizenship to descendants of Portuguese natives or long-term residents in Portugal at the time of the law, causing many people to retroactively lose citizenship status (Góis, 2008, pp. 14-15)[16]. In former African colonies, Portuguese citizenship was basically restricted to white settlers (Carvalho, 2009, p. 38; Healy, 2011, p. 52). Many newly-arrived Cape Verdeans, formerly Portuguese, now became foreigners in Portugal, while their children were made official citizens of Cape Verde.

From the early nineties, new waves of immigrants from Brazil and Eastern Europe, along with Portugal’s participation in concerted European policies and treaties on immigration[17], generated new sets of regulations altering the 1981 law (cf. Carvalho, 2009, p. 135; Santos, 2004, pp. 109-132). These changes followed the different agendas of consecutive governments in Portugal (Santos, 2004; Carvalho, 2009), attempting to reconcile privileged historical ties to the former colonies with restrictive E.U. border policies (Santos, 2004; Horta, 2000, pp. 63-86). Among other things, they created a network of institutions and services[18] informing and assisting immigrants (Healy, 2011, pp. 79, 95-97), consistent with ongoing public and academic discourses against racism (Rosário, Santos & Lima, 2011, p. 70) and concerns for issues of “interculturalism, multiculturalism, ethnic minorities, ethnicity, immigration policies and integration” (Horta, 2000, p. 5; cf. Fikes, 2009).

The new migratory realities, including the rise in situations of ‘irregularity’ among migrants and their descendants, encouraged a new citizenship law in 2006 (Organic Law 2/2006, April 17). It reinstated the principle of “jus solis” (alongside other criteria), allowing long-term residents and Portuguese-born children to access citizenship regardless of their parents’ nationality (Healy, 2011, p. 63). A political concern expressed in the law was precisely that of “fighting the social exclusion” among second generations (Ibid., p. 67). This very recent change in law has come “to (re)include (or readmit) within the space of Portuguese citizenship those Cape Verdeans and their descendants, present on national territory, who had been excluded from it” (Góis, 2008, p. 15). In Topia many second-generation Cape Verdeans, though born and raised in Portugal, were only able to acquire citizenship status recently (some still struggle with the process). Aside from symbolic exclusion from one’s birth nation, foreign citizenship carries an array of perceived practical obstacles. Healy’s (2011, pp. 105-112) research on immigrants’ views on the 2006 law has revealed some of the complications faced by foreign residents in Portugal. They include numerous bureaucracies and paperwork, hindered access to jobs and bank loans, and obstacles to international mobility. Healy’s interviewees also reported feelings of social discrimination, fewer legal rights and deficient integration, acknowledging society’s hostility towards them.

Immigration discourses: media and “systemic” racism

A heavy colonial legacy, political agendas and law-making have significantly affected the place of migrants and their children in Portuguese society. The media have further contributed to shape public attitudes towards migrants, especially the ‘second generation’. Several authors have noted the close connection between ideologies of racial difference and Nation (e.g. Wade, 2001; Harrison, 1995). Images of ethnic “outsiders” can be promoted to affirm and define national features and boundaries, thereby portraying immigration as a threat (Wade, 2001, pp. 846-849). This was apparent in Horta’s (2000) examination of media coverage of shantytowns and council estates around Lisbon in the nineties. She described the stress placed by newspapers on “images of ethnic difference, disadvantage and black youth idleness”, “marginalization, disenfranchisement and potential social disorder”, “delinquency and drug abuse”, violence and criminality, prominently linked to groups of African youth (Ibid., pp. 182-184). In her argument, this kind of portrayal, reinforcing a “semantic field of foreignness, deviance and exclusion”, has contributed to conflate “immigration and marginality” in public imaging, both in official discourses and popular views (Ibid., pp. 185-186). Residents from the squatter settlement analysed by Horta (Ibid.) criticised and opposed these views by ‘outsiders’ as inaccurate and reductive, recognising the role of the media in these sensationalistic portrayals.

Similarly, Cape Verdeans in Topia explicitly criticised those images as unreliable and unfair. The following interaction is illustrative. One afternoon, as I introduced the topic of interview contacts, a young Cape Verdean woman suggested I would travel to another council estate to meet some friends of hers. Most of them worked during the day so I would have to travel there at night. I asked about safety for an outsider like me – for I argued, “one hears stories”. She dismissed my concerns: “It’s people from the outside [pessoas de fora] who tell those stories, not residents. These feel safe inside. That’s why neighbourhoods [bairros] are safe. Even [her old shantytown]. There were many stories about it. Sure there was a lot of [drug] traffic at some point, but no people were killed”. She insisted: “People might get mugged, but not killed”. When I interviewed an NGO worker in Topia and former resident in the old shanties, he spoke of media misrepresentations to justify why Topia residents were suspicious of outsiders. He criticised newspapers and their “made-up” “sensationalistic” headlines about the shanties, featuring exaggerated tales of drug trafficking, false robberies to taxi drivers, pictures taken without permission and removed from context to convey false stories[19]. This idea was confirmed by other residents, familiar with these negative discourses, as it transpired from their use of debased terms (such as “problematic” or “degraded”) to refer to migrant settlements (including their own).

Political, legal and media discourses, amid legacies of a close colonial past, have contributed to shape public mentality regarding migrants and their children. Rosário, Santos and Lima (2011) found widespread racism in conversations about minority groups among Portuguese subjects of different profiles. They tended to adopt inferiority rationales to justify social inequality and exclusion of immigrants (even if sometimes anchored in “cultural” explanations). Marques (2007) similarly concluded that African migrants and their children are targets of “inegalitarian” (desigualitário) or “inferiorisation” types of racism, which delegate them to lower depreciated social positions, calling on perceived “natural” traits or features to warrant hierarchy (Ibid., p. 22). He sees this kind of racism as indebted to European colonial ideologies, marked by “discrimination” discourses authorising the “exploitation” of purportedly inferior peoples (Ibid., p. 23). About Portuguese colonialism in particular, Marques argues that “lusotropicalist” ideas that the Portuguese are inherently non-racist have become an effective national “myth”, spreading to political and academic circles and, in time, popular mentality (Ibid., pp. 24-33). However, Marques stresses precisely the “mythical” quality of that idea. If “lusotropicalist” legacies may moderate doctrinal manifestations of racism (for instance by right-winged parties) (Ibid., p. 54), they do not avoid the pervasiveness of “popular” (often verbal) and especially “systemic” (i.e. implicit and widespread) kinds of racism. From interviews with citizens and institutional key figures, Marques has concluded that prejudice and discrimination against Africans and their descendants[20], linked to conceptions of “inferiority, lack of ability, laziness and violence” (Ibid., p. 40), are widespread across different sectors of Portuguese society (namely the job market, housing, transport, commerce or leisure venues) (Ibid., p. 39).

From a different angle, Fikes (2009) analyses “race” relations and discourses in Portugal following its accession to the European Union. She also portrays “lusotropicalism” as a myth coexistent with racial prejudice. She goes further to argue that European citizenship ideals, though endorsing strong “multiculturalist” anti-racist morals, have also not prevented racism in Portugal. On the contrary, European regulations of urban order, hygiene and visa renewals, as applied selectively by white Portuguese in daily work interactions with African migrants, have rather served to amplify and polarise the distinction between “migrants” (associated with black skin colour) and “citizens” (seen as white) in Portuguese mentality (Ibid.).


The reaction of Africans and their descendants to continued official, symbolic and social “systemic” discrimination within Portuguese society (following a long colonial legacy of exclusion) is complex and ambiguous. And it is key to identity-building processes of second-generation Cape Verdeans in Topia. In the following sections, I will examine young Cape Verdeans’ identity representations building on Brubaker & Cooper’s (2000) threefold typology of “identity”. I will describe Cape Verdeans’ identification with broad homogenising categories of “Cape Verdeans” and “Africans” (Batalha, 2004; Fernandes, 2006), arguing these do not entail a sense of belonging to Cape Verde, but rather tacitly conflate racial/colour and residential identity markers. I will then examine young Cape Verdeans’ understanding of those categories as essentially relational, in particular opposed, in identity and ‘moral’ terms, to the “Portuguese” and their perceived traits (Ibid.). This “oppositional” (Batalha, 2004) and “reactive” identity (Sardinha, 2010, p. 247), partly indebted to colonial racial ideologies, will be argued to combine rebellion against perceived discrimination with some ingrained expectations of inferiority. Finally, these aspects of Cape Verdean identity-building will be linked to racial discourses imposed by colonialism and Portuguese society over time, evincing a “looping effect” in Hacking’s (1986) terms.

Identity (especially coupled with ethnicity) is a complicated term. It can refer to a multitude of notions, feelings and practices, and is loaded by theoretical debates in the social sciences. A basic one is that between “primordial” and “situational” perspectives, the latter highly influenced by Barth (Jenkins, 2004, p. 87; Góis, 2010, pp. 266-267). While primordial views see identity as fixed and stable, situational stances stress manipulative negotiation in specific situations, namely interaction and relationships with others (Ibid.). Brubaker and Cooper (2000) examine the multiple hazy meanings the term “identity” assumes, pinpointing its basic underlying contradiction: subtle “essentialist” connotations of stable commonality over time; invariably rectified with rows of adjectives stressing its rather fluid, complex, subjective, constructed, situational qualities (Ibid.). This conceptual predicament is compounded by multiple analytical difficulties, especially when examining transnational groups (such as is the case with self-defined “Cape Verdeans” born outside of Cape Verde). Some of these difficulties arise from the dynamic, historical and mutable qualities of identities; from the role of place, translocal sociocultural contexts and social others in identity attribution; from factors of personal choice and emphasis; and from the complex interactions between multiple individual variables (including gender, age, ancestry, phenotype, nation, language, religion, class and education) (Sardinha, 2010, pp. 234-238; Góis, 2010). A “Cape Verdean” transnational identity is taken by Góis (2010) as a unique example of the scale of complexity involved in analysing ethnicity. The complicated feedback interactions between all relevant variables makes Góis equate identity with a chaotic system of “autopoiesis” and “organised complexity” (Ibid., pp. 266, 270-273). In his argument, the system’s self-referential quality and the intertwining of all its parts does not allow for any of its elements to be examined separately (Ibid., p. 270). Faced with this utmost complexity, it becomes clear that identity as such “cannot be measured” and the concept “resists operationalisation” (Ibid., p. 169). As a result, Góis makes too far a leap to suggest that “Cape Verdeanness” must remain ultimately “indefinite”, and “not empirically checked” (Ibid., p. 274).

While ‘identity’ is unarguably a tricky subject to approach, adhering to this kind of methodological and epistemological despair risks throwing out the baby with the bath water. The awareness that analysis will inevitably produce merely a “synoptic illusion” (Bourdieu as quoted in Jenkins, 1992, pp. 34-35), a fictional and simplified rendering of reality, is integral to anthropological reflexivity. It should lay at the core of a continual search for more productive and heuristic analytical tools[21], rather than a denial of any possibility of useful analysis.

In precisely this spirit, Brubaker and Cooper (2000) discard “identity” in search of more operational terms, putting forth three sets of alternative concepts. First, “identification”/“categorisation” refer to discursive acts of naming and placing people within relationships or categories, highlighting subjects’ active role in producing identity (Ibid., pp. 15-17). “Self-understandings” and “social location” stress subjects’ situated perspectives on their own identity, often tacit and unarticulated (Ibid., p. 18). Finally, “commonality”, “connectedness” and “groupness” highlight ties, feelings and affective dimensions of group belonging (Ibid., pp. 19-20). Though not exhaustive, I find this typology useful to explore identity notions among young Cape Verdeans in Topia.


Daily actions and behaviours of second-generation Cape Verdeans in Topia draw from both Cape Verdean and Portuguese cultural references. Yet they identify and categorise themselves mainly as “Cape Verdean” and “African”. Phrases such as “we Africans are...”, “you know Cape Verdeans are...” appear frequently and seamlessly in daily discourse. When enquired about it, informants claimed to be “Cape Verdean”, usually explaining it through shared cultural habits and their parents’ provenance. They also referred to their culture and themselves as “African”, especially when describing behaviours they considered different from Portuguese ones. “African” was also deemed a politically correct term, as became clear from the following interaction at a café. Amália (white, married to a Cape Verdean immigrant) chatted to Eva, a second-generation Cape Verdean. They are close neighbours and display deep familiarity. Amália wished to refer to another black woman but was unsure of how to put it. She usually employed the term “black” (preto) without much thought, as most white Topia residents do. But this time she wanted to be especially polite. She asked Eva: “I can’t say black ’coz that’s offensive. Do I say coloured [de cor]?” Eva and another Cape Verdean near the table declared that was even worse: “If you say coloured we’re gonna ask you what’s the colour”. “So what do I say?” Amália inquired. Eva retorted as if the answer were obvious: “African people!” In fact, on more than one occasion I have heard young Cape Verdeans in Topia mockingly counter white neighbours’ use of the term “black”: “I’m not black, I’m brown” – openly refusing to identify with that marker[22].

“Africans” and “Cape Verdeans” were therefore both self-identifying categories and polite identifiers by whites. However, differences were contextually pointed out between the two. When certain traits were seen as specific of Cape Verdeans, as against other Africans, the distinction was clarified. For instance, Eva commented once about Cape Verdean women having children with many different partners, stressing afterwards that “not all African women are like that, I’m just talking about Cape Verdeans”. The fact that she felt the need to clarify this further indicates a frequent conflation between the two categories. It also evinces a “situational” negotiation of these identification practices, dependant on local interactions and relationships, and incorporating both “self-attributed” and “hetero-attributed” identifiers (Góis, 2010, p. 272).


More tacit meanings of those categories transpired from the contexts and ways in which young Cape Verdeans used them. They show, for one, that even though shared cultural practices are important, identification as “Cape Verdean” does not imply identifying with the nation of Cape Verde – as further testified by the weak (material and symbolic) engagement of younger generations with their parents’ home country. This ambiguity of being “Cape Verdean” was also present in young people’s discourse:

(...) I don’t stop having a connection with Cape Verde, my roots [a minha raiz] are African. And I never forget! And I quite like being Cape Verdean, I really love it. Only it’s like they say ‘you’re a fake Cape Verdean [caboverdiana falsa]! Because you were born here’. That’s what they always say: ‘You were born here so you don’t know anything!’ (...) But one day I’ll know the land of my parents [Interview transcript with a second-generation woman].

Awareness among young Cape Verdeans of a “fake” or contradictory quality to their ‘Cape Verdeanness’ came up in other accounts:

Sometimes they ask ‘Where’re you from? So you’re from Cape Verde. But do you know Cape Verde?’ ‘No, I’ve never been there’ ‘Oh, so you’re from Cape Verde but-’ ‘Well I was born here, I haven’t been able to visit so far’. But when I have the means... [Interview transcript with a young Cape Verdean man][23].

Despite active cultural habits, there was a strong sense among second generations of not belonging to Cape Verde, not being “100% Cape Verdean”, often not even knowing the country[24]. Even among those who had visited it, nobody expressed a will to live there, and some even denied having any connection to it:

I’ll tell you the truth: I have no contact with Cape Verde. It’s true, I don’t. My sister’s there, but I don’t call her, because she doesn’t call me either. Even going there... But I will, I’ll go. I’m planning on going there on holiday [Interview transcript with a second-generation woman].

A young girl arrived from a visit to Cape Verde with her family covered in mosquito bites across her face and arms. Seeing the girl, a young Cape Verdean woman recalled her own trip to Cape Verde some years before and remarked that “for mosquitoes there, immigrants carry a stamp on their foreheads” [têm um selo na testa], claiming they only bit outsiders. She was including herself, the young girl, and all ‘Cape Verdeans’ strangers to Cape Verde as “immigrants” there (even though she presently held double citizenship, and was officially Cape Verdean at the time of her trip). Identity is indeed a complex matter. Researching identity categories among second-generation Cape Verdeans in a council estate, Fernandes (2006, pp. 76-77) also concluded that citizenship does not necessarily imply or coincide with national identity. In Topia that is true both of Portugal and Cape Verde. Second-generations’ identifications as “Cape Verdean” do not carry feelings of belonging to Cape Verde. Similarly their Portuguese citizenship does not entail identification as “Portuguese”. What seems to underpin young people’s understandings of ‘Cape Verdeanness’ is rather a racial construct, based on shared skin colour.

“Race” is a loaded word. Recent world history (fresh with colonial scars and memories of genocide) and the roots of anthropology are both closely entwined with the wrongs of hierarchical classification systems, based on purported natural/biological differences between human groups (Harrison, 1995, pp. 50-52). The lack of a genetic basis for racial classification, along with the diversity of ways and contexts in which rhetorics of “race” have been (and continue to be) used, has made the category exceedingly broad and nebulous, even while its presence across societies remains hard to exorcise (Ibid., pp. 48-49, 53; Wade, 2004, pp. 160-161). Consequently, the scientific validity or even usefulness of the concept has been questioned, popularising “ethnicity” instead as an analytical term (Harrison, 1995, pp.  48-49, 53). However, a focus on “ethnicity” or other replacements (cf. Wade, 2012) seems to ignore the persistence of “race” in social discourse. For that reason, Wade (e.g. 2012, 2004) has argued the heuristic value of “race”, defined not in reference to any fixed “natural” human traits, but to the diverse “cultural” ways of conceiving human differences, including those inherited from colonialism (Wade, 2012, pp. 1169-1170). For Wade, the term’s value resides precisely in its breadth, able to encompass multiple social and historical classification systems underpinned by ideas of “genealogy, ‘blood’, and inheritance” (Ibid., pp. 1670-1672; Wade, 2004, pp. 157-158). The fact that Cape Verdeans in Topia recognise and employ the term “race”, alongside the fact it is indebted to Portuguese (namely colonial) racial ideologies, makes this the appropriate term to tackle understandings of identity in this setting.

The expression “our race”, sometimes compounded into “the Cape Verdean race” or even “the African race”, was commonly employed in Topia, among both first- and second-generation Cape Verdeans. It stands loosely in reference to black skin colour, carrying a homogenising and all-encompassing effect (like “Africans” itself): different nationalities, citizenship statuses, generations and cultural references are tacitly fitted into the same category. “My colour” was also mentioned on rare occasions. It belied the conflation of cultural and phenotypic meanings implicit in Cape Verdeans’ identity categories.

There were various stereotypes circulating among Cape Verdeans in Topia about other African groups (including Angolans, Guineans, Santomeans). Yet perceived differences did not dismiss a sense of shared identity, based on a loose understanding of common ‘blackness’. The following situation is revealing. I accompanied a young Cape Verdean woman from Topia to a post office in Lisbon. The queue was long at the counter, and some people grew tired and gave up. We pulled out a numbered slip and awaited our turn. After a while, a black young woman gave up the queue, crossed over to us and handed her own slip to my friend, to reduce our waiting time. They exchanged smiles, my friend thanked her in Portuguese and the woman left shortly. They were the only two black people at the post office. My friend smiled at me and explained she “did the same”: “when I give up, I give my slip to someone my colour”. She now had two slips. By the time we were done at the counter, the number on her second (original) slip had not been called yet. There were no other black people in the post office then. As she was about to leave, I suggested she give her slip over to someone else. She dismissed it “oh, it’s not worth it” [não vale a pena].

The fact that identity for second-generation Cape Verdeans is closely linked with skin colour was also apparent in other small indicators. For example, cakes on festive occasions would often carry black figurines (e.g. the bride and groom on top of wedding cakes). At the café one day, a young woman picked out her birthday cake from a picture catalogue. As she considered one with a Barbie doll at the centre, and made out to be the doll’s skirt, she asked the owner if they also made it with “black dolls”. Also when pointing out famous actresses[25] or singers as admirable in beauty or style, I noticed they tended to be black, irrespective of nationality. Such was also the case with pictures and names chosen for fake hi5 profiles[26].

The entwining of cultural and racial markers in Cape Verdeans’ self-understandings of identity was sometimes also conflated with residing in shanties or council settlements: “neighbourhoods” (bairros). A young Cape Verdean woman used interchangeably “blacks”, “Africans”, “Cape Verdeans” and “people from neighbourhoods” (pessoas de bairro) in an interview. This does not of course entail that all categories were seen to coincide. It was quite obvious to them that not all Africans were Cape Verdeans (as stereotypes about other African groups confirmed), nor were all shanty or council-estate dwellers Cape Verdean, nor even black. However, there was a certain degree of tacit overlap between these different types of categories. They were closely entangled in young Cape Verdeans’ identity self-understandings.

The reason for this can be traced to a “relational” (Brubaker & Cooper, 2000, p. 15), in particular “oppositional” (Batalha, 2004) or “reactive” (Sardinha, 2010, p. 247) definition of identity.  Sardinha’s (Ibid., p. 268) research on Cape Verdean associations in Lisbon has found that “cultural identities for Cape Verdean youth are often built upon feelings of rejection by, as well as discrimination from, the host society, in the media and from the state”. In this sense, being “Cape Verdean” for young generations is rooted not only in feelings of belonging to a group of shared cultural practices and habits (a “categorical” mode of identification [Ibid.]), but also defined by its positioning in a relationship: in this case in opposition to Portuguese society.


Besides Cape Verdean cultural practices, common attributes and traits among “we Africans”/“blacks” were frequently perceived and pointed out: “we Africans love taking pictures”, “we are very sociable”, “our race doesn’t care about being sick”, “blacks only appreciate hearty dishes”, “African women give birth very young” – this kind of broad statements was common among Cape Verdeans in Topia. And they were often raised against perceived Portuguese behaviours. Some months into my fieldwork, I was invited for lunch at a woman’s house. I barely knew her husband at the time, who came home to find me at his table, making me feel a bit awkward. A few days later, talking to their daughter (25 years old), I mentioned the subject. Her reply was short “So what? That’s normal in an African household, it’s only strange in a Portuguese one”. On a different occasion, I met a woman I had not seen for a few weeks. Last time we had met, her grandson had an eye inflammation, and so I politely enquired about it. I was perplexed when she mumbled in return how “whites are worthless” [brancos não valem nada]. She made her point clear in a second: “blacks are much tougher than you”. She meant that the inflammation was not worth mentioning to her (nor apparently “blacks” in general), as opposed to (perceivably weak) “whites”, who took that sort of thing too seriously.

A particularly awkward instance of this habit of claiming “black” (versus “white”) attributes arose at a Cape Verdean party where several guests actively tried to persuade me to have sex with a “black man” [um preto]. They argued that “blacks are a hot people” [um povo quente], insisting they were better at sex than “whites”. One woman was particularly uninhibited and imaginative in her contrast: “with a white man it’s like a ride across Portugal’s landscape, you see the sights, it’s nice... But with a black man! He’ll take you on a spaceship and you’ll rise to the moon!” Some women laughed at her audacity, others insisted more seriously with me on this notion.

Perceived “Cape Verdean” or “African” traits were sometimes also defined against hypothetical criticism. When a tiny bug set on a muffin and a young Cape Verdean woman refused to eat it, fiercely complaining to the white café owner, it generated approving claims from women around the table that “Africans are a poor but clean race!” Although everyone visibly agreed with the claim, it was set in defensive terms, as if an opposing one were implicit. Other times, comparisons took the form of complaints about the Portuguese, defending perceived “African” or “Cape Verdean” behaviour against “Portuguese/white” attitudes. I witnessed several examples of this. A Cape Verdean woman who lived in a residential block outside of Topia threw a lunch party at her house and invited several young women from Topia. An old man and I were the only white people there. Music and talking grew very loud and around 7pm the police knocked on the door, requesting they kept the noise down because of neighbours’ complaints. An inflamed discussion began in the kitchen and lasted throughout the party: all guests agreed that it was unacceptable to call the police at that early hour on account of noise, and that Tugas (slang term used to mean the Portuguese) “are always the same, always calling the police”. They had pressured me to go talk to the policemen “because you are white”, but the white old man (who proudly claimed to “know the environment [conhecer o ambiente]” and “be used to African parties”) came forth. Although music was turned off, talking continued as before: people shouted and argued, seemingly more indignant about neighbours and the police than worried about the latter returning (which they did). The conflict clearly assumed a colour line, with neighbours and the police on the side of “whites/Tugas”, who “always” harassed “Africans” at their parties.

Despite frequently codified in idioms of race and colour, interrelations between Cape Verdeans and white Portuguese conflated phenotypic, cultural and national markers: “whites” and “Portuguese”/“Tugas” were used interchangeably by Cape Verdeans[27]. Residence was also entangled in Cape Verdeans’ definitions of group boundaries, and set in opposition to the host society. A particularly striking example took place one morning at the café. The café owner was white and employed a Cape Verdean (non Topian) waitress. Five women, including me, sat at the table outside. Eva was the only Cape Verdean. Two others were white Topians married to Cape Verdean men, and the fourth was a white outsider working at a local NGO. We often met at the café, and had a habit of ordering at the counter and then sitting outside to eat. We might wait for the food inside or the waitress might bring it over to our table. That morning she brought Eva her coffee and went back inside. I waited for my tea at the counter and carried it over to the table, as did the two white Topians. This was a familiar routine. Then the NGO worker arrived to order, and shortly after the waitress brought her food over to the table. Seeing this, one of the white Topians snapped at the waitress, crying out in outrage that “you only bring coffee to the doctors [doutoras] here! How about the rest of us, is our money not worth the same?” The bewildered waitress tried to explain it had to do with the number of customers inside, but her attempts were muffled by the shouting: “don’t tell me it’s white money and black money now!” The other white Topian grinned and nodded approvingly, while the NGO worker looked as perplexed as I was. Eva smiled coyly, but was soon engaged into the argument by the woman protesting: “Isn’t that right, Eva?” “Yeah it is...” Eva agreed unconvincingly, saying nothing of the fact she had herself been waited on. The matter had evidently nothing to do with colour. The outraged woman (whose skin was fairer than mine) was arguing with a Cape Verdean waitress about not being served at the table for being “black”. The discriminatory line, though expressed in terms of colour, referred to a perceived distinction between herself and the NGO worker, who were both white. She ignored inconsistencies (namely that I was white and had not been served, as opposed to Eva who had) and grouped me and the NGO worker (“the doctors”) along with the waitress she accused of racism, against herself and Eva. Her identity claim as “black” drew from sharing in the identity of her “black” husband and neighbours (one of whom she asked to support her claims). The lines expressed in racial terms actually referred to a putative distinction between Topians (Eva and herself) and outsiders (the NGO worker, the waitress and myself). In his research on Cape Verdeans immigrants, Batalha (2004) also found residential markers to be prominent elements of identity within “neighbourhoods”. In his words:

Segregation also seems to affect people independently of differences in skin colour. Within the bairros people tend to override “racial” differences. Their common class position is superimposed on the rest of their identities. The people in the bairros tend to construct their identity in opposition (…) to the surrounding world of the middle and upper classes (Batalha, 2004, p. 189).

I often witnessed this fierce sticking together against ‘the outside’. This type of incensed defensive claims sometimes belied feelings of inferiority among Cape Verdeans. At times strongly objected, especially when discriminatory or superiority claims were perceived to spring from the outside, a sense of inferiority would on occasion be explicit in familiar chats (including with white neighbours). As a Cape Verdean woman talked to a white neighbour about employers, she complained that “I’m black, but blacks can have no authority”, because they always “abuse it” and “make life miserable” for employees.

Self-denigration, like all talk about common “African” attributes, would often follow a relational logic of contrast to “whites/Portuguese”. At times these comments were directed at me, suggesting informants felt like they were being judged, not so much by a researcher as by a ‘white’ person. I spent an afternoon with a group of young women at the house of one of them. They cooked, styled their hair, chatted and engaged in other activities. At different points in the afternoon they turned to me with apologetic remarks such as: “you must think we sound like a fish market” [peixeirada] – because of the loud noise they thought I would not be used to and find reproachable; or “you must think this is filthy” [uma porcaria], as one of them styled another’s hair at the table, adding “I know, because I’ve been married to a white”. In this context, the distinction between “we” and “you” clearly followed a colour line. Another facet of Cape Verdeans’ self-depreciation was the occasional association of positively valued traits with white Portuguese. A middle-aged Cape Verdean woman was telling me about her grandson’s good performance at school, and when I praised him for being smart she explained “well, he’s the son of a Tuga”[28]. It was interesting that although interrelations of Cape Verdeans and white outsiders were sites of tension and often protest claims against potential discrimination, sometimes Cape Verdeans would themselves express self-criticism as opposed to perceived positive “white” traits, or ascribe higher entitlement or legitimacy to “whites” in certain contexts. A particularly illustrative case was the wedding of a Cape Verdean young man from Topia. As usual, an open bar was run by volunteer party guests. The large majority of guests were Cape Verdean, as were the bar volunteers. Halfway through the party they ran out of glasses and announced they would only serve people carrying their own. A woman from my table returned from the bar frustrated, informing us of just that. Another one promptly suggested I go order their drinks. I repeated in disbelief what her friend had just said, but she argued “you they’ll give: you’re white”. It was interesting that at a Cape Verdean party with mostly Cape Verdean guests (whom she knew far better than I did) she would naturally expect me to attain special treatment for being “white”.

These expectations and notions of inferiority in relation to “whites” are integral components of Cape Verdeans’ constructions of “commonality” (Brubaker & Cooper, 2000, p. 19). The familiar use of the offensive term “blacks” in self-reference, while defied and resented in outsiders, is illustrative of racial and denigrating implications in Cape Verdeans’ identity constructions. Perceived Cape Verdean attributes are clustered into a bundle of “black” traits, set in relation to “white” ones, carrying an opposing contrast, indignant protest and tacit feelings of inferiority. The nature of that relationship reveals a particular appropriation by Cape Verdeans of racial categories and meanings imposed by Portuguese society, law and media representations, and indebted to colonialism.

Meintel’s (1984) pioneer study of race relations and ideologies in Cape Verde (and America) under colonialism described that legacy in detail. From the times of settlement and slavery practices, to the end of Portuguese colonialism, Meintel examined the racial discourses and attitudes current in Cape Verde and the metropolis, which came to establish and sustain a fluid and contextual type of racism in Cape Verde. An interesting aspect of the colonial system of relations she described was the way in which it was appropriated by subordinate subjects themselves. The ambiguity underlying racial meanings and categories helps shed light on identity practices in Topia. In Meintel’s field setting, categories of skin tone or phenotype were not neutral, carrying moral undertones and assumptions (Ibid., pp. 101-107). On the one hand, slavery and economic dependency promoted the domination and ideological superiority of “whites” over “blacks” – who were, in practice, devoid of civic, economic or political rights (despite the fluidity of racial categories and diversity of skin tones suggesting a milder, “Iberian” racial system) (Ibid., pp. 159-163). Dark skin colour was denigrated as signalling “backward”, ugly, or inappropriate features, closer to an African heritage and opposed to the purported “cultural” superiority of Europeans (Ibid., pp. 103-107). However, popular resistance to colonialism (especially in the case of badius, the rural population of Santiago[29]) lent an ambiguous quality to ‘African’ features, at the same time incorporating and countering Portuguese racial ideology (Ibid., pp. 151-153). In this sense, negative stereotypes of metropolitans were perpetuated, while African traits became symbolically tied to both “Cape Verdean-ness” (Ibid., p. 151) and resistance to “Portuguese-ness” (Ibid., p. 142).

Meintel interestingly observed that colonial racial ideology was appropriated by Cape Verdean migrants in the U.S., whose identity remained ambiguous, located in-between Portuguese and African migrant groups, disparaging the latter as ‘backward’ while refusing the former’s ”superiority” (Ibid., pp. 164-165). In the Portuguese context, elements of colonial racial ideology were likewise appropriated by subordinated subjects, but in different, specific ways. Although negative stereotypes of other African groups still arise in Topia, and the identity marker “black” may be contextually refused, legal changes, political agendas and media images of black ethnic ‘outsiders’ have contributed, in young Cape Verdeans’ minds, to the conflation of ‘Cape Verdean-ness’ and ‘African-ness’, defined in both cultural and racial terms, and in definite contrast to the Portuguese[30].

“Moving targets”

The power of categories to build “kinds” of people has been put forth by philosopher Ian Hacking (1986, 2006). His argument, advanced through the historical exploration of emerging scientific categories (such as “multiple personality”) (Hacking, 1986), has examined how categories open specific possibilities for action, thought and meaning, under which individuals may live and see the world differently (Hacking, 1986, 2006). And how in turn people come to appropriate the categories imposed upon them, reworking the possibilities of action and meaning they predict (Ibid.). His thinking may be usefully applied to young Cape Verdeans’ identity constructs.

In a different text, Hacking (2005) examines the pervasiveness of racial discourses across space and time. After analysing different explanations, he argues that the prevalence of racial classification springs from an “imperial imperative” of ruling powers to classify their subjects in order to “magnify” their dominion over them (Ibid., pp. 112-116). Racial classification legitimises ruled subjects as essentially different kinds of people from the ruling, justifying their conquer and exploitation (even under egalitarian European ideologies) (Ibid.). Before the advent of “lusotropicalism”, racial discourses imposed by the Portuguese colonial empire indeed served to essentialise differences between the ruling and the ruled (cf. Fikes, 2009). Over time, racial discourses shifted in Portuguese society. Distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was reinvigorated in citizenship law after colonial independence, excluding under “jus sanguinis” Portuguese-born immigrants’ children as foreigners. European citizenship discourses, though aimed at promoting equality, have in practice consolidated the “citizen”-“migrant” distinction in Portugal, significantly coded in racial terms (Ibid.). Current media discourses have targeted immigrant settlements and youth gangs, conflating nationality, colour, residence and associations to crime, deviance and an uprooted second generation (Horta, 2000). In the process, racial prejudice has settled into public mentality, enacted daily in both implicit and explicit forms of racism. New categories have sprung (“second generation”, “youth gangs”, “problematic neighbourhood”) and old ones (“Cape Verdean”, “black”, “immigrant”) have taken on new meanings.

These changes have provoked a “looping effect” in Hacking’s (2006; 1986, p. 222) terms, making categorised subjects into “moving targets” (Ibid.). Hacking observes that even as categories mean to crystallise people “as definite classes defined by definite properties”, they will transform individuals through “interacting” with them (Ibid.). As subjects are classified, they become different kinds of people, reworking their own horizons of thought, action and meaning in light of the new categories. Portuguese racial discourses and categories have similarly been appropriated by subjects – in this case second-generation Cape Verdeans – in specific modes of identity-building. Cape Verdeans have come to adopt the essentialist distinction of “whites” and “blacks”, citizens and migrants, subsuming all internal diversity (of culture, nationality, age)[31] under broad bulk categories of ‘us’ (“Africans”, “Cape Verdeans”, “blacks”, “people of neighbourhoods”) and ‘them’ (“whites”, “Portuguese”, “Tugas”). Cape Verdeans’ identity categories hereby assume a reductionist and homogenising stance – common to racist assumptions, citizenship laws and sensationalist media headlines – conflating colour, nationality and residential markers. The dichotomy carries a rhetoric of opposition, whereby one side is what the other is not: “African” traits become visible mainly against “Portuguese” ones. Moreover, in this duality only one of the poles is perceived in each case to be ‘appropriate’, re-enacting the kind of moralising stance on racial features inherited from colonialism (cf. Meintel, 1984). Race is not a neutral type of classification, as Hacking (2005) has argued. It entails hierarchy between ruling and ruled, warranting domination of deemed inferior “kinds” of people by purported superior “kinds”. The element of hierarchy in racial discourses has been appropriated and transformed by young Cape Verdeans. “White” and “black” attributes were addressed in moral terms, each compared and judged as better or worse than the other. Cape Verdeans presented each feature of “Africans” as either good or bad, a reason for pride or shame; with a Portuguese trait standing as its counterpart, in complementary (negative or positive) terms. Often, praising perceived “African” traits served to counter outsider discrimination. Yet “African” features were not always judged better than “Portuguese” ones. Cape Verdeans sometimes denigrated their own perceived attributes against those of “Tugas”, suggesting that racist prejudice against African migrants in Portuguese society has to some extent been taken up by Cape Verdean subjects themselves.

Not all Topians are Cape Verdeans, nor of African descent, and racist remarks are common among both white and black neighbours. Nor do the borders of Topia follow strict lines of race or colour. Yet local identity-building by Cape Verdeans re-enacts the same conflation of racial, cultural and residential markers present in popular and media representations. The racist opposition of subsuming categories of “white” citizens and “black” low-class neighbourhood dwellers is mirrored in local constructions of identity against the outside. So a fair-skinned woman can claim to be discriminated against by outsiders for being “black”. “Segregation” (Batalha, 2004, p. 189) is a common feature of local life. It begins at symbolic and discursive levels of exclusion, and by a “looping effect” is enacted daily and carried as an identity banner by the same subjects it is imposed upon. The neighbourhood in the process becomes a significant place, a stronghold of identity, as it stands in opposition to the outside.



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Recebido 27 de março de 2012; Aceite para publicação 23 de setembro de 2012



[1]    This research has been funded by FCT-MCTES (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia), through doctoral grant SFRH/BD/44641/2008.

[2]   To protect informants’ privacy and anonymity the real name of the estate will not be disclosed.

[3]  I refer to people born of Cape Verdean parents and raised from birth or an early age in Portugal.

[4]  For the remainder of the article, the term will be employed as an ‘emic’ category.

[5]   Created by Law-Decree 163/93 on May 7, and later altered by Law-Decree 93/95, May 9; Law 34/96, August 29; Law-Decree 1/2001, January 4; and finally Law-Decree 271/2003, October 28.

[6]  There were of course exceptions. One woman I interviewed, for example, claimed to go every year.

[7] Cape Verdean citizens in the diaspora may vote in both presidential and parliamentary polls, and their impact on results can be significant (Carling & Batalha, 2008, p. 23).

[8]    Respectively, Movimento para a Democracia, and Partido Africano da Independência de Cabo Verde.

[9]  In 2010, there were roughly 270 first-generation Cape Verdeans in Topia.

[10]   Cf. Esteves & Caldeira (2001, p. 108). Faze kriston (lit. “to make Christian”) is considered a “first christening” (primeiro batismo), performed in order to spiritually protect the young child against evil until she can be properly baptised in church. It is carried out at home by a ritual expert, in the presence of parents and godparents, using certain ritual objects (including a white baptism candle) and a script similar to the one used for the church sacrament. Stera (lit. “mat”), on the other hand, resembles a small house ‘altar’ set up for seven days (possibly a month) after a person’s demise. White and black cloths are placed in the living room of the house, on top of which will rest a picture of the deceased, a crucifix, religious figurines of the Virgin Mary or selected saints and candles burning for the deceased’s soul. Each day people come to pray before the stera and pay their respects to the family. After seven days the mat is lifted, inviting the soul to leave the altar and move on.

[11]  One rapper, who seemed politically minded, gave a small speech on the importance of unity among Cape Verdeans.

[12] Not including all foreign-born individuals who hold Portuguese citizenship.

[13] Based on the writings of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre.

[14] Law 2098 of July 29, 1959 (Carvalho, 2009).

[15] Law 308-A/75, June 24 and Law 37/81, October 3 (Carvalho, 2009, pp. 37, 135).

[16] Though several were able to reacquire it, including through Portuguese ascendancy (Healy, 2011, p. 53).

[17] Namely the Schengen Agreement (1995), the Amsterdam Treaty (1999), and the Summits of Tampere (1999) and Seville (2002) (Santos, 2004, pp. 111-112).

[18] Including a High-Commissariat for Immigration and Ethnic Minorities (ACIME, presently ACIDI), a National Centre of Support to Immigrants (CNAI), and a Plan for the Integration of Immigrants (PII).

[19] He told the example of an old man photographed on the street without notice and portrayed in a newspaper as a drug lord.

[20] The other group primarily targeted by racism, although of a different kind, are Romani (cf. Marques, 2007).

[21] Not unlike the process, also described by Góis (Ibid., pp. 261-263), of superseding classic theories of migration with transnationalism.

[22]   Though often employed colloquially without remark, by both white and Cape Verdean neighbours, instances like this reveal the negative connotations of the term “black”.

[23]  Both informants simulated a dialogue with an imaginary “they” (possibly migrants born in Cape Verde).

[24]   Similarly to the duality described by Góis (2010, p. 268), in the United States, between “cachupa” Cape Verdeans (generations born in the U.S.) and “true” Cape Verdeans (those in contact with the home country).

[25]    I observed this among young Cape Verdean women, but am not aware of whether it also applied to men.

[26]   Hi5 is an online social networking platform. It allows users to know who has visited their profile. To avoid being tracked, people created fake profile accounts with names and pictures of famous celebrities to spy on others’ pictures untraced.

[27]  With the same meaning but different uses: “Portuguese” was considered polite, and less colloquially used. Cape Verdeans sometimes apologised to me for saying “whites” (considered offensive).

[28] His mother is Cape Verdean, his father white Portuguese.

[29] Where most Cape Verdean families in Topia originate from.

[30] Another interesting difference from the American context as observed by Meintel is the absence of a “myth of upward class mobility” (Meintel, 1984, para. 165) in Topia, where faith is slim that education or effort will further the ‘black’ individual’s social position.

[31] As well as the diversity and gradation in racial categories present in colonial ideology (Meintel, 1984).

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