Cape Verdeans struggle with crime

INTRO TEXT

In the recent incidents of violent youth crime in Boston, no community has been turned inside out more than that of immigrants from Cape Verde. To judge from a packed neighborhood meeting in early December, coming up with a coherent community response to the violence may be almost as wrenching.

More than 80 people gathered in a Dorchester community center to talk about the crimes, which have left few families untouched since problems first emerged in the mid-1990s. The latest horror to hit the community was the arrest three weeks earlier of two Cape Verdean teens, charged with killing a 16-year-old Dorchester boy at an MBTA station over a gold chain. But not long after the session started, the talk turned from violence on local streets to a march on City Hall. “We need resources, we need money,” said neighborhood youth worker Paulo Barros, his voice rising in anger as he called for a show of force at the mayor’s door.

Adalberto Teixeira, left, and John Barros:
promoting trust, responsibility.

The crowd seemed with him, but a woman in the front row chimed in with a note of caution. “We need to be clear about what we’re going downtown for,” she said. “We might be jumping the gun here.” Then a young man in the back of the room wondered aloud: What about parents doing more to rein in their out-of-line children?

“There are problems in the community that we can’t avoid,” Officer Miguel Pires, one of a half dozen Cape Verdeans on the Boston police force, told the crowd. “We have to say they are our problem.”

The scene captured the quandary of the city’s Cape Verdean community, where the strict lines of authority that defined the social fabric in their native country have frayed, and a need for services sometimes competes for attention with the need for adults to reclaim their rightful parenting roles.

“We were there to talk about the youth violence in the community, youth delinquency,” Adalberto Teixeira, the city’s deputy chief of human services and the mayor’s liaison to the Cape Verdean community, says of the meeting. “They were willing to march and demand services, and nobody was willing to talk about personal responsibility for their own children.”

Many trace the difficulties to a breakdown in Cape Verdean culture that has coincided with families’ arrival here from the small island nation off the west coast of Africa. “Back home, if your child misbehaved, parents, neighbors, relatives–they have the power to discipline the children,” says Teixeira. “They came here and they assumed things would be the same.”

Instead, in a role reversal unthinkable in Cape Verde, kids in some families seem to rule the roost, community leaders say. Many parents are working several jobs to make ends meet, and with limited English skills and little way to tell that their teens are headed for trouble in this strange new land, they don’t see problems until it’s too late.

Adelia Goncalves, the 27-year-old vice president of the Cape Verdean Community Task Force, says some Cape Verdean youth, anxious to blend into American culture, are taken with its worst trappings–the media and music imagery that glorifies flashy clothes and jewelry, gunplay and street-corner bravado. When the posturing spills over into real violence and crime, “they’re perpetrators,” Goncalves says of the Cape Verdean youth, “and they’re victims.”

Some of the violence has been rooted in battles between groups of young toughs staking out ground in Roxbury’s Dudley Street area and the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester, the two centers of Boston’s 35,000-strong Cape Verdean community. “Some of the kids can’t even tell you what the beefs are about anymore–it’s that crazy,” says Boston police Capt. Robert Dunford, who oversees the Bowdoin-Geneva area.

Dunford concedes that some of the police-community partnerships that helped drive down Boston crime rates in the ’90s need recharging. But he’s frustrated by the difficulty he’s had getting the Cape Verdean community on board. “It seems to be, ‘what are you going to do?,'” Dunford says of the community’s posture toward the police. “It isn’t, ‘what are we going to do together?’ We can’t do it alone.”

Relations between the Cape Verdean community and police have been strained. Indeed, the three-year-old Cape Verdean task force took root in early 1999 when a police sweep rounded up 19 young Cape Verdean men, all but one in their teens or 20s. Police said they were arresting those responsible for a wave of violent crime washing over Boston, Brockton, and other Massachusetts cities with substantial Cape Verdean populations. But Cape Verdean leaders, who had just begun discussions with police about ways to reach out to troubled young people, felt betrayed. Only four of those arrested were sent to jail–evidence, some Cape Verdeans felt, that the police were sweeping too wide.

“It wasn’t just the sweep that people were upset about, it was the lack of trust,” says John Barros, director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and a leader of the 30-member community task force. Barros, 28, and others have worked to repair the breach, lobbying the police department to assign Cape Verdean officers to local neighborhoods.

“Commissioner [Paul] Evans was really responsive,” says Barros. But efforts to build ties between the community and police remain “in the ground stages,” says Sgt. Tony Fonseca, the department’s highest ranking Cape Verdean officer.

Meanwhile, no one disputes the need to keep young people on the right path. A Dudley Street site that was once a Cape Verdean settlement house–it closed down more than a decade ago–is undergoing a $3.8 million renovation that will turn the Greek Revival building into a city-run community center. The Cape Verdean Community Task Force has begun filling gaps in services, from mentoring and tutoring programs for elementary and middle school students to family visits to court-involved youth. And since late November, city leaders, local service agencies, and officials from the Archdiocese of Boston have been meeting at St. Peter’s Church to develop a plan for expanded youth programming in the Bowdoin-Geneva area, which has among the highest concentrations of residents under age 18 of any section of Boston.

“The Catholic Church needs to step up to the plate,” says the Rev. John Doyle, the pastor at St. Peter’s, where roughly a third of the 1,200 parishioners are Cape Verdean.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“Our youth need a lot of support,” says Isaura Mendes, whose 23-year-old son was killed in a 1995 knifing involving feuding Cape Verdean young men. “They need somebody to reach out, and they need to be heard.

“We also have to work with the grown-ups,” adds Mendes, whose son’s killing remains unsolved, it is widely believed, because no one will report the whereabouts of the suspect wanted by police. “Because if the grown-ups don’t do the right thing, how can the kids?”