HARWICH — With old-timers getting older, and with the town’s demographics changing, there’s a real danger that parts of Harwich’s history could fade from memory. The new Cape Verdean Heritage Oral History Project, a video documentary series produced by Angelina Raneo Chilaka, aims to keep that from happening.
“I’ve got a list of people we want to interview,” Chilaka said. Their stories will help form a permanent record of Harwich’s Cape Verdean descendants, “so that 50 or 100 years from now there will be something for the kids,” she said.
The video series, which has been in the planning stages for many years, recently finished its first episode. For her first interview, Chilaka chose her cousin, 85-year-old Albert Raneo.
“We’re trying to get the older ones first,” she said with a chuckle.
The video was recorded and edited by William Collins of Punkhorn Productions.
“Growing up was fun,” Raneo told Chilaka. “We didn’t have TV, we didn’t have radios, we didn’t have any of the luxuries that we have now,” he said. He had chores to complete each morning before school, like bringing in the cows for his grandfather. He attended the lower grades at the North Harwich school, “which at the time was segregated,” Raneo said. Though his house was closer to the school in Harwich Center, he had to walk to the other schoolhouse. “The school bus would go right by us in the snow, or whatever,” he recalled. There, two or three students would share a textbook, and when it came time to attend the higher grades in Harwich Center, the Cape Verdean kids from North Harwich struggled because they were used to working together.
“When we went to high school the following year, we could not speak Cape Verdean on the property,” Raneo said. But one day, Raneo slipped up and got caught, and had to stay late at school. When he arrived at home, he apologized to his grandfather for being late for his afternoon chores.
“He says, ‘In America, you learn everything you can, listen to the teachers and do what they say, and make yourself a good life,’” he recalled.
Raneo graduated high school in the old Exchange Hall, where he had enjoyed skating in the upstairs roller rink and sneaking up to the off-limits observation tower to enjoy the best view in town. Raneo was a star player on the local baseball team until, suddenly one afternoon, he discovered he couldn’t move his leg. Stricken with rheumatic fever, he was partially paralyzed for the better part of a year before his body healed. Part of the doctor’s prescription was outdoor activity, which Raneo got by helping his father work with the construction crew that was building the Mid-Cape Highway.
After a stint in the Air Force, where he experienced real discrimination during an assignment in South Carolina, Raneo came back to New England and married Josephine, a girl who lived a few houses down the road in North Harwich.
“Would you say it was love at first sight?” Chilaka asked.
“Sort of. It was for me, anyway,” he said with a chuckle. They’ve been married 63 years. “It was the best thing that ever happened.”
Raneo took a job with a private construction company, where he experienced more discrimination but also learned valuable skills like how to operate heavy equipment. He and his crew helped build the roads in the newly-created Cape Cod National Seashore.
After a run-in with Harwich’s highway surveyor, Raneo decided he could do that job sought election to the position. (Later, the position would become an appointed one.) When Raneo’s father had run for the same job, he lost by seven votes – in part, Raneo said, because many of his Cape Verdean neighbors didn’t know how to vote. He spent the months before the election teaching his neighbors how to vote, and won office by a large margin.
When once they had been marginalized, Harwich residents with Cape Verdean heritage picked up political clout, holding a number of key offices in town, including seats on the board of selectmen and school committee and the position of chief of police.
“When we look at the town today, that’s an issue I have always questioned,” Chilaka said. “Why don’t we have more Cape Verdeans involved in various leadership roles around the town? Congratulations to your generation,” she said.
Though proud of his heritage, Raneo had never been to Cape Verde.
“I’d been wanting to go there for 20 years,” he said. He finally had the chance, and visited with his wife and her cousin. “When I got off the airplane, I kissed the runway.” Though he had never been there before, Raneo was embraced by distant relatives and others. “It made me feel great. It was an honor.”
He began to learn more about the Cape Verdean struggle for independence from Portugal, and the high price paid by residents who struggled under colonial rule. Portuguese oppression and economic decline caused great hardship in the island nation – something the Harwich Cape Verdeans didn’t usually speak about.
“Because they were starving to death,” Raneo said. In Harwich, Cape Verdeans who had come for better economic opportunities found them by working hard in various industries, including cranberry farming. “They build the bogs by hand, right from the bottom up,” Raneo said. But those old-timers didn’t talk about the struggles in their homeland.
“They just wanted to tell you the good things,” he said.
It was that trip that led Raneo to become more interested in his own heritage, and to eventually work to preserve it. For years, he has visited local schools to talk about Cape Verde, its culture and its history, and said he was glad to share his story with Chilaka.
Keeping that culture alive is one of Chilaka’s passions, handed down to her from her father, and which she passed to her daughter. Amanda Chilaka spent years researching “Early Cape Verdean History And Portuguese Genealogy of Harwich, Mass.,” which was published in 2013.
Chilaka said a number of other locals have agreed to participate in the video project, and she’s looking forward to taping those interviews as soon as possible. In addition to being posted online, the videos will be archived at Cape Cod Community College, the Brooks Library and the Harwich Historical Society, she said. Eventually, it might be nice to have public screenings of the documentaries.
“Right now, we’re just hoping to get them recorded,” she said.