Robert Cutts And Barbara Burgo: Cape Verdean Strength And Wisdom

By: Jennifer Sexton-Riley

Topics: Aging , Cape Verde

Robert Cutts and Barbara Burgo with a model of the schooner Ernestina, the last ship to bring immigrants to this country under sail from the Cape Verde Islands. The real Ernestina is a National Historic Landmark.  JENNIFER SEXTON-RILEY PHOTO

Robert Cutts and Barbara Burgo, both Harwich-born and of Cape Verdean descent, have only known each other for a few short months, but the two have joined forces in a labor of love. Their shared passion is the creation of the Harwich Cape Verdean Museum in order to preserve and share the unique culture, food, language and history of the nation of islands off the coast of West Africa which gained independence from Portugal in 1975, as well as the beauty of their tight knit Harwich Cape Verdean community.

Cutts, imposing of stature with a welcoming nature, was a sheriff in Virginia for over 30 years. A four-time world bench press powerlifting champion, he has recently returned to his birthplace of Harwich, where he was raised within Harwich's close Cape Verdean community. Encouraged by the interest in creating a Cape Verdean Festival earlier this year, Cutts joined the Cape Verdean Festival and Museum Committee and, with his decades-long commitment to community and his deep roots in Cape Verdean culture and the town of Harwich, soon accepted the position of president of the new museum organization.

Cutts is the nephew of Eugenia Fortes, who was born in 1911 and came from Cape Verde at the age of nine. She co-founded the Cape Cod Chapter of the NAACP in 1961 and served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for 14 years. Fortes knew such luminaries as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and became a close friend and confidant to Ted Kennedy. Fortes once was forbidden to walk on a beach on Hyannis. That beach is now named The Eugenia Fortes Beach.

Burgo, a member of the Cape Cod NAACP, the Brewster Housing Authority Commission, past state president of American Association of University Women and vice chairman of the Barnstable County Human Rights Commission, was born in Harwich and raised in Taunton. She returned to the Cape a few years ago, determined to use her considerable energy to honor her mother, grandmother and her culture. She curated the 2012 Cape Verdean exhibit at Brooks Academy titled "So Sabi: Celebrating Cape Verdean Culture." Her experience of success with that exhibit made her more certain than ever that a Cape Verdean museum in Harwich would be a vital and welcome addition to the community. Burgo naturally became a member of the first annual Harwich Cape Verdean Festival Committee, which created the very successful first annual Harwich Cape Verdean Festival last month. With her degree in cultural anthropology and passion for her culture, Burgo is a natural for the position of museum curator.

The first annual Harwich Cape Verdean Festival took place in Brooks Park on Saturday, July 15 to great success.

The hundreds of visitors enjoyed delicious Cape Verdean food along with the music of international Cape Verdean singer Candida Rose, a history of Cape Verde presented by Dr. Richard Lobban (Ret.), a lesson in Cape Verdean Kriolu by dictionary author Manuel Gonsalves and a welcome by Harwich Selectmen, followed by African drumming by Tara Murphy, more music by DJ Lady K, Spencer and Friends and a lot of what in Kriolu is called d'junta mon, or hand helping hand.

The hands helping hands continue as the Harwich board of selectmen approved the use of the former administrative office space within the former Harwich Middle School, now serving as a cultural center, to house the museum. An agreement was reached in which the museum's space will be provided free of charge for the first six months, to help the museum get started. When the six months is over, in February 2018, the $500 monthly rental fee will officially begin. During that six months, several fundraisers are in the planning stages to make sure the museum will sail into 2018 with success.

"The board of selectmen welcomed us with open arms," Burgo said. "They have been very supportive. We have some great fundraising ideas in store including talent shows, a poetry contest, a quilt show, and of course our events will involve lots of Cape Verdean food and music. Candida Rose has expressed her desire to come back and perform again."

Burgo, Cutts and other committee members have been hard at work moving artifacts into the new museum space and making plans for seeing their vision of a vibrant, successful Harwich Cape Verdean Museum become a reality. Cape Verdean objects are filling the space, including photos, quilts, artifacts of early Cape Verdean life and a model of the schooner Ernestina, the last ship to bring immigrants to this country under sail from the Cape Verde Islands. The real Ernestina is a National Historic Landmark. The first two framed photographs on the walls of the Museum are of Eugenia Fortes and Judge George N. Leighton, a U.S. District Court Judge born in New Bedford to Cape Verdean immigrant parents.

Things have come full circle for Cutts, who attended fifth and sixth grade in the building where he is now president of a museum celebrating the culture and community that made him who is is today.

"I am honored to be able to give back to this community," Cutts said. "When I was growing up here, it was a very close community. If anyone was hungry, they could come into any house in that community and they would be welcomed and fed. Everybody knew everybody, and everybody helped everybody. Now I have come back home to my roots. I am grateful to have this opportunity to honor our elders past and present while teaching our culture and language to the next generation of kids. They need something to hold onto, something from their roots to take into the present and into the future."

"In the past, diversity has kept people apart," Burgo adds. "Now it is time for our diversity to bring people together. It is a time to celebrate. This is our opportunity to come home to our culture and create something for Harwich to be proud of.

"It's our destino," Burgo adds with a smile. "Our destiny."