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A scientist studies violence in a Cape Verdean community

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A scientist studies violence in a Cape Verdean community

For generations, Cape Verdeans in the region lived in relative anonymity and were largely unbothered, often mistaken for Puerto Ricans or Dominicans.

This neutrality took a negative turn in Boston in the 1990s, when its young male population began to form gangs, first without protection, before turning to drug dealing, gun ownership and murder.

Shattered Innocence exposed the fault lines of families moving from a small pastoral homeland to a modern inner city with no historical precedent, language skills or urban sophistication to deal with what was suddenly thrust upon them.

The toll taken on the community, with hundreds of victims of gang violence, widespread incarceration and even permanent deportation, is catastrophic, while also having unintended consequences for law-abiding people whose path is made more difficult by the community’s tarnished reputation.

Boston Public Schools teacher Ambrizet Lima has researched this three-decade-long dark age and shared her findings in her recent book, The Socialization of Cape Verdean Immigrant Youth in Urban America: Family, School, and Neighborhood Contexts.

Lima, who has a Ph.D. in education from Harvard and has taught at BPS for 32 years, said that despite the bad exposure, there was always resilience and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

“The community is intact and there are a lot of good things to tell about the young people who are doing wonderful things,” she said. “But you have to talk about the bad things and the people involved in them, because they are the ones who lose their lives and get deported.”

Lima said she and others have been trying to analyze exactly what is causing this change in youth, hoping to help stop the problem. These incidents occurred primarily in Boston, where the population of Cape Verde is listed as 40,000, but criminal activities were also found in Brockton and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The fieldwork for the book included many personal interviews with gang members, inmates, and even some deportees. In the interest of safety, she preferred not to reveal their names.

“Even though I had gone through the same acculturation process, I didn’t have the theoretical framework to interpret what was going on,” Lima said. “I didn’t have the knowledge. So we were all trying to figure it out. It was a whole bunch of professionals in Boston. We would have meetings. The Cape Verdean consulate was involved. Finally I said, “I have to learn about it.”

This academic sojourn took her to Harvard University, but even there she found scant information.

“We haven’t had any research based on Cape Verdean youth, and that’s not surprising,” she said. “So I had to extrapolate and look at other ethnic groups. I looked at the research of Haitians, black Americans, Dominicans to understand what was going on and to recognize that it was not [solely] something from Cape Verde. There were even Portuguese (Azorean) youths who were deported from Toronto and from Fall River.

The study revealed that the female population remains relatively unscathed from street violence due to the unwavering protection of girls by families. But the boys were left vulnerable and abandoned by their families, the school system and the lack of after-school programs in the communities to mitigate the inherent dangers of the street.

“One percent of Cape Verdeans were deported — and 99.9 percent were young men,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It’s such a small percentage of the population, but it has such an impact on everything else. In the 1990s, you remember sweeps going into homes, picking up young men, taking them to jail, and then deporting them.

The biggest crimes committed were drug trafficking and possession of unlicensed firearms, but she stressed that older men, outside the typical gang age, were caught for domestic violence and statutory rape.

Many of these same crimes were committed by young adult men from the Azores, a group of Portuguese-speaking sister islands in a region known as Macaronesia, which includes Madeira and the Spanish Canary Islands along with Afro-Portuguese Cape Verde.

“I think you have to take into account the context that these children come from rural areas of Cape Verde,” she added. “They are coming to urban America. Their parents are socially illiterate and cannot follow them. They go to schools where the context is also hostile. If they are not in the bilingual program, they are included in special education. Then they generally don’t see the value of going to school, so they drop out and end up on the streets.

Lima said the kids who fell through the cracks were invariably those who arrived in Boston very young or were born in America, with a different cultural framework, while those who arrived in their early teens had an old world upbringing in a safe environment surrounded by extended family and a strong sense of right from wrong.

“Those who did well were in bilingual programs,” she emphasized. “The ones who did well came here when they were 13, 14, 15. The ones who were on the deportation list came when they were about 6 months old. So they came very early.

Lima said the factors that have contributed to the teenagers’ predicament is a three-pronged failure of the people who love them the most and those elected or hired to improve the daily lives of the city’s youth.

“So that’s the question: How do families, communities and schools work together to help youth in the socialization process?” she said. “Something broke. Something went wrong because many of the parents were absent from the school process from a very early age. That played a big factor. Also, many of them said that they don’t have their parents there, and if the community itself doesn’t provide programs for them to go to, they’re left to fix that community on their own.

Simple daily routines that others take for granted are at great risk in big cities for youth of all backgrounds. Those involved could barely hide their confusion or fear.

“They said, ‘What do you think I should do, living where I live, knowing that the other guys here have guns and they can come and kill me, so why shouldn’t I carry a gun?'” They asked me, “What do you think I should do?”

She added: “I just go from their house to school and ask parents, ‘Give me a ride’, and parents don’t understand how dangerous it is if you’re in the Wendover neighborhood that you can’t cross certain streets because it’s the other group’s territory. “

Religiously Roman Catholic, but also imbued with a strong African frame, the families still seem to have gone out of their way to protect their girls.

“There’s another thing I mentioned in my book, and that’s gender roles,” Lima added. “Many of the children told me how the parents protected the girls, but the boys were left to walk the streets alone. Like “Boys will be boys”. I know as a teacher the girls couldn’t go on field trips but the boys could. The girls grow up very close to the family. They went to Catholic, all-girls schools. The boys told me they were left to roam free and had no guidance. They were boys and they weren’t going to get pregnant, so they could go out and do whatever they had to do. I don’t think the parents realized how dangerous this was for the boys.

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