Maria Patriarca, 65, Anizabela Amaral, 49, and Amália Santana 24 years-old, represent three generations of the African presence in Portugal. Before silenced, today, more and more empowered.


September 13, 2020, 12:00 CET | Updated on October 12, 2020, 16:18 CET

As soon as she set foot on the ground of Lisbon after 16 days of sailing, regret set in. “It was the worst day of my life,” says Maria Patriarca, receding into her memories until June 1974.

A newcomer to the Portugal that just before, on April 25, started moving towards revolution, Maria found the opposite of the freedom that the country celebrated: “We were authentic slaves, with no time to lie down, but always time to get up. I could only go out on Sundays at 5 pm, and I had to go back in at 7 pm.”

The burden of work, at that time common for domestic servants who, like Maria, came from the ex-colonies, imprisoned her dreams for two and a half years. “I cried every day because I wanted to go back to Cape Verde.”

In addition to her day-to-day imprisonment, today the grandmother of five boys remembers how everything around her made her feel foreign. “Before arriving in Lisbon, the boat spent four days on Madeira Island. There it was like it was in my hometown. There was water running in the middle of the plants, just like in Cape Verde,” she says, not forgetting the desolation of the first contact with the capital city of Portugal. “I never thought it would be like this.”

Photo Credit: ©Mario Rui Andre (Unsplash)

Resistance to marks of dehumanization

The first bad impression, especially severe for those coming from a village on the island of Santo Antão, was not only aggravated by the cloistered routine but also by the continuity of an old colonial enslaving practice: the dehumanisation of Black people.

“A lot of things happened back then, and they left marks that we cannot forget,” says Maria, now 65 years old, looking back to a Sunday in which a bad memory was made. “I [once] came back [to the house] a little after 7 pm because I had gone to a popular fair with my cousins. The house owner was at the window. She saw me from upstairs, but she didn’t open the door. She left me outside to sleep on the stairs.”

The punishment took on the form of torture because, outside the apartment, Maria was hearing footsteps in the hall, as if inside someone was violently making a mockery.
“April 25th was still recent,” she stresses, in an effort to frame this and other episodes of humiliation that she endured. “It was a lot of pain to get until here, but I learned how to fight. If I fall today, I’ll get up tomorrow.”

Freedom in Portugal, blood in Luanda

The philosophy of resistance also stands out in the history of Anizabela Amaral. While Portugal was waving the flag of a peaceful revolution, Anizabela’s family dealt with the most painful side effects of carnations in Luanda.

“There was a conspiratorial context. Harm to anyone who says anything against the regime,” she observes, recalling the repressive and persecutory logic imposed by the PIDE, the International Police and State Defense of the Empire, which gained roots in the colonised territories when she was a child.
“My father was shot outside his house on the sidewalk as he was getting out of his car. My mother always said it was a mistake, that my father was not the target, because he was driving someone else’s car on that day.”

The execution took place in a pre-independent Angola and forced the family to move to Portugal in June 1975. Any illusion of justice was left behind.
Although the murderer was identified and arrested, he ended up free, among threats of new deaths. “My mother withdrew the complaint against him because there were goons in our house, threatening us: ‘If you don’t withdraw the complaint, neither you nor your daughters will see the light of day again.”
Anizabela, two years older than her sister, reconstructs the story from family conversations and fragments of memories from here and there, especially from her childhood and adolescence.

Anizabela Amaral

Trauma legacy and anti-racist struggle

The share of tragedies instilled in Anizabela the assumption that her father, a Portuguese military man transferred to Angola, had some political involvement—a suspicion that gained even more weight once she heard references to his participation in a rally.
It proved to be true once she was in college. Challenged by a fellow classmate to join and get radical in a political party, the then-law student faced her mother’s reaction: “No way! I already lost your father; I won’t lose you.”

Anizabela, now 49, considers the words she heard from her mother the ultimate evidence that her father’s life was not just the business of selling and buying cars.
“Then I had confirmation that my father was politically involved. My suspicion is that he was connected to UNITA [the main opposition force in Angola], but the truth is that I am not exactly interested in which side of the barricade he was on.”

Whatever her father’s affiliation, history evokes a strong sense of identification. “Maybe that’s why they say I take after my father.”
The former leader of the SOS Racism Association, Anizabela pushed everything and everyone to make laws against racial discrimination for years.

The group succeeded in 1999, and although the lawyer believes that the crime of racism is not yet recognised in the penal typology, she underlines the importance of the existing legal framework.
“We have a misdemeanour, we have an aggravation of racially motivated crimes in the Penal Code, but there is a way forward.”

Amália Santana

The new Fado of Afro-descendants

Perhaps Anizabela’s three children, aged between 14 and 8, will roll up their sleeves to complete the missing tasks. “They’re very informed kids and therefore very much mini-activists.”
They are also the new outcome of the African diaspora: the generation of Afro-descendants.

The daughter of São Tome natives, born in Lisbon 24 years ago, Amália Santana fits this designation. But shouldn’t she simply be Portuguese, without any disintegration labels attached?
Reflecting on her own belonging, do not represents a weigh on the history of this medical student, who shares a passion for health with a passion for music.
“The values my parents passed on to me are that I can do anything,” points out Amália, who recently found herself thinking about a mental conditioning that had never before crossed her mind.

It all began with the video recording of a theme immortalised by Amália Rodrigues, acclaimed worldwide as the “Queen of Fado.” “I had seen that it was the 100-year jubilee [of birth] of the Fado singer. Even without knowing much about her story, it spoke to me, [and I thought] I’m going to learn this Fado and sing it.”
In one single day, Amália, who is part of a church choir and has a musical background, grabbed her notes and her mobile phone camera and recorded her interpretation of the song “Foi Deus.”

The recording was shared on social media by the end of June and received almost 800,000 views in just over a month. It demonstrated the importance of Black representation. “It wasn’t until I started receiving messages [about it] that I realised some people weren’t expecting to see a Black woman singing the fado.”

Amália Santana

Black identity empowered

Although she maintains that her video “shouldn’t cause such a stir,” the aspiring nurse acknowledges the possible multiplying effect. “It turns out to be a way of saying what I’ve always heard from my parents: ‘We can be whatever we want, no matter what our outward appearance is. If we want it, we will do it.’”

The legacy of encouragement always presents in Amalia’s life, is now more than a family inheritance and a heritage of global reach. Along with the virtual impact of Fado production, the student trusts in the positive effects of the volunteering experience in São Tomé and Principe she had last year.

“I took my violin on the trip, and I was with many children who had never seen one. They were so happy with the hope of developing a music project that I couldn’t help but support them. I told them they can do whatever they want, as long as they believe.” More than rehearsing a speech, Amalia left a donation of flutes: “I see it as an incentive for our children who don’t have as many opportunities.” Let Maria Patriarca tell it. If in 2019 Amalia found São Tomé and Príncipe without many options,1955, the birth year of Cape Verdean Maria, made it seem as if migration was the only possible option.

This is shown by the immigration statistics of the then-empire: from 1955 to 1973, 87,000 Cape Verdeans entered Portugal, including workers, students, and people in transit to other destinations and arriving for short stays.

The survey presented in the publication “Cape Verdean Community(s): The multiple faces of Cape Verdean immigration” also indicates that before the Independence, Portuguese authorities, like those of other European countries, initiated “a policy of recruitment within their colonial empire to supply labor needs to the metropolis.”

Black to work, not to integrate

The creation of a labor force from overseas was achieved through the sending of so-called “call letters,” especially in the 1960s, when the impulse of Portuguese emigration as a response to privatisation, colonial war, and the harshness of Salazar’s fascist regime left Portugal lacking an active population.

“The Cape Verdean workers were inserted in the sectors of the economy that, at the time, were most in need of labor. Namely in the construction and public works sectors, which, for the most part, were concentrated in the Lisbon metropolitan area,” we read in “Cape Verdean Community(s): The multiple faces of Cape Verdean immigration.”

In the same publication, produced in 2008 by the High Commission for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue—since renamed High Commission for Migration—it is also stated that although the presence of Cape Verdean migrants was still residual, “there was already a concentration in domestic work,” either as a day laborer or as domestic servants.

Back in those days, when the Black body was recognised as necessary but treated as inferior and invasive, “sometimes I was passing by the Avenida de Roma in Lisbon and people stopped and stared at me.” Maria did not step down: “I did not have any choice.”

To begin with, the Cape Verdean says she didn’t even go to school, something common in the former Lusitanian colonies, where the illiteracy rates were between 90 and 95%.
“This represents, by the way, one of the great crimes perpetrated by Portuguese colonialism, which completely neglected the school system and with that kept African populations away from any possibility of obtaining schooling,” points out Paulo Alves Pereira in his work “The End of the Portuguese Colonial Empire and its Consequences.”

Forty-five years after the proclamation of the independence of the African countries occupied by Portugal in 1975 —an exception being Guinea-Bissau, which became sovereign in 1974—the oppression persists. Not only in the educational reality of the former colonies, but also in the old metropolis, where segregation logic continues to be reproduced.

The problem is recognised in the report “Racism, Xenophobia, and Ethnic-Racial Discrimination in Portugal,” which was presented in the Assembly of the Republic last year. According to the document, this marginalisation is fuelled by the education system, which segregates students of African and Roma descent, both in the composition of classes and the identity of schools.

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa at O Coqueiro Restaurant

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa at O Coqueiro Restaurant and Maria Patriarca and Cape Verde Prime Minister José Ulisses Correia e Silva

Cachupa with presidential honours

The practice of segregation is seen in establishments in the municipality of Amadora, where the neighbourhood of Cova da Moura was born and growing clandestinely. Here, on the outskirts of Lisbon, Maria Patriarca lives, raised three children, and follows the education of her grandchildren, without losing sight of the management of her own business: O Coqueiro Restaurant.

The space, famous for its cachupa, has already received the President of the Republic of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, and his Cape Verdean counterpart, Jorge Carlos Fonseca.
“President Marcelo came twice. He always ate the cachupa with rice because he says that our rice is out of this world. He also tried the tuna steak,” she points out.

The popularity of Coqueiro’s menu, thanks to Maria’s spice, makes the restaurant’s walls too small to document all the illustrious characters who have visited. In addition to the state figures, the house attracts other media personalities, such as Dino d’Santiago, a Portuguese-Cape Verdean musician who collaborated with Madonna.

The parade of stars helps to brighten up the potential of Cova da Moura and obfuscate stereotypes of supposedly bad neighbourhoods that are held against predominantly Black neighbourhoods.

Hate that kills

Used to take off these and other labels, Anizabela Amaral reinvents herself in the fight against discrimination. “When I left SOS Racism, I saw that there were so many people around me who needed my support, even on a legal level, so I soon realised that I’d continue my activism,”.

From family members and other close friends to friends of friends, the support network woven by the lawyer is not limited to the fight against racial discrimination, but it is the main focus of intervention. “With everything we live inside, it’s impossible for SOS Racism to come out of us,” defends the former leader, adding that the experience has taken her out of a place of naivety.

“I remember that before joining the association I thought they were all slight fundamentalists who took exaggerated positions, for example in press releases. So I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be a consensual person there, we’re going to try to build bridges, create alliances, get support, sponsorships, we’re going to spread the message, we’re going to call white people, we’re going to try involving as many people as possible.’”

Anizabela’s anti-racist strategy took only two months to hit a daily storm of macro-aggressions. “All the denunciations made against us were so serious and sick that being moderate in that context was not an option.”

The importance of strong positions became even more evident in 1995 with the assassination of Alcindo Monteiro, a black Portuguese man beaten to death by a group of skinheads. The crime sent 17 defendants to the dock, judged for murder and physical harm, but relieved of the charge of genocide, which was abandoned by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Eleven of the accused were punished with sentences between 16 and a half years and 18 years, while the others served sentences between three and a half years and four years and nine months in prison. In reading the sentence, the racism, nationalism, fascism, and Nazism of the murderers were fully apparent.

“Salazar and his regime are pointed out as a model to follow. The racist aspect is always present. They appeal to white supremacist beliefs, considering Black people to be inferior. In general terms, according to a policy they call “racialism,” they do not condone the mixing of races; they are against the immigration of Black individuals to Portugal, namely those originating from former colonies. They defend the expulsion of all Black individuals from national territory, and in order to achieve this in the name of the “nation” and the “superiority of the white race” they find all aggressions against this group of individuals legitimate.”

Education that saves

Twenty-five years have passed since Alcindo Monteiro’s barbaric death, and other murders have been littered with evidence of racial motivation—including the recent death of actor Bruno Candé—but the denial of racism remains a common practice in Portuguese society.

“We cannot give up,” Anizabela points out, concerned about the populist offensive of extreme-right ideologies.
Firm in her fight against hatred, the jurist notes that she was pushed to act: “My life was showing me that I needed to get involved.”

First, in an association structure which she left between the challenges of motherhood, now in the education of her children and in the denunciations of discrimination cases that she publishes on social networks, Anizabela recalls that only by openly confronting the structures that sustain racism is it possible to put its disintegration into perspective.

“From the moment I was a mother and the matter came home, with my three-year-old son asking me to paint my face white, it became evident that I had to strengthen myself.” A little more than a decade after that episode requiring her pedagogy, Anizabela tells us that she renews her strength in reading, debating, and sharing experiences with other racialised people.

“I realised later that my son just wanted to protect me because he observed at school that brown people were treated differently, for the worse.” The chromatic variations in the family, resulting from the ethnic diversity of the parents—Anizabela’s husband is a white Portuguese man—soon opened the Luso-Angolan’s eyes to identity clashes.

“I know the story too well, of a friend who, when she took her 13-year-old son to school, left him at the beginning of the street because his friends couldn’t see that his mother was Black.

When my son showed up with that conversation, begging me to paint my face in white, I told my husband that I would not let this happen to me, I wouldn’t stop accompanying my son to school because he was ashamed [due to internalised racism].”

Skin shocks for the curriculum

The feeling of rejection of African ancestry that Anizabela managed to keep out of the house is inseparable from the spread of a white ideal beginning in preschool education.

Without school material that promotes and celebrates diversity, the Portuguese collective image continues to associate darker skin colour with foreign identity, a perception aggravated by the failure to collect precise ethnic-racial data.

Even without ever having experienced blatant racial discrimination [herself], Amalia Santana, the youngest of three sisters, prepares to enter the job market with increased consciousness. “I hope I won’t have to deal with someone who refuses to be treated by me,” anticipates the nursing student, aware of the obstacles Black professionals face.

“I have a friend who is a doctor and works in a private hospital, and she has had cases where patients didn’t want to be treated by her just because she is Black,” she laments. Although she doesn’t understand the bias— “only trained personnel are allowed to practice [as doctors]”—Amalia admits to giving in.

“Maybe, as a recent graduate, I’ll accept that someone might not want to be treated by me, but with a few years of experience, I can begin to answer, ‘If you don’t want to be attended by me, then you’re not sick and don’t need help.’”

Maria Patriarca and Cape Verde Prime Minister José Ulisses Correia e Silva

Maria Patriarca at the award ceremony for women entrepreneurs in Europe and Africa, in Lisbon, Portugal


Liberation through words

In the challenge of emancipation, which Amalia longs for among other typical aspirations for a 24-year-old, she finds a parallel of revolutionary molds in the history of the sexagenarian Maria.

Before settling into O Coqueiro Restaurant, the Cape Verdean had to free herself from the restrictive treatment and oppression she faced when she arrived in Portugal. “To get out of that house I had to be rude, really rude. They even offered to call the police and everything.”

Impassive in the face of intimidation, Maria started working for another family, and for the first time since leaving Cape Verde, she discovered the meaning of a day off and vacations.

From her right to succeed without ever giving up her goals, the Cape Verdean still found the energy to learn how to read and write. “It was a wish of mine. All my life I wanted nothing more: I wanted to know how to read, just anything.”

The dream of primary education was fulfilled “a few years ago” between preparing lunches and dinners at Coqueiro and managing family responsibilities. “Sometimes I keep thinking about my life, and not even I know how it was possible. I can only say that I’ve been doing things, I haven’t forced anything.”

The journey that transformed Maria into a mentor for other women in Cova da Moura is heading toward retirement. “Maybe I won’t even get a pension, but I have the dream to stop working in a couple of years, to be healthy and go on trips with my husband, because I love to travel.”

Whatever the destination, the Cape Verdean remembers that she has a past full of reasons to maintain her optimism. “In the old days, we were blacks [derogatory]. Just blacks. We weren’t Black [as a self-determined denomination], which is beautiful. We were just blacks,” she reinforces, with a focus on change: “Now we are ladies. We fought to be called by our names.”

Maria Patriarca, Anizabela Amaral, Amália Santana. All names matter. All stories must be told.

This article is supported by Stars4Media pilot project.