RI Cape Verdean History Comes to the Big Screen

The Italian heritage of Federal Hill or the Irish background of Smith Hill are well known to anyone versed in Providence mythology. A less widely known cultural enclave of yore is the Cape Verdean community that thrived for decades in Fox Point, built largely on the ship building industry that prospered in the nearby port of Providence.

That heritage is now captured on film in the new documentary Working the Boats: Masters of the Craft by RI native Claire Andrade-Watkins, a professor of Africana and postcolonial media studies at Emerson and a visiting scholar at Brown.

A few years ago, Some Kind of Funny Puerto Rican documented personal stories related to the gentrification of this neighborhood and was a popular local film that went on to international screenings and awards. That documentary was the first of a trilogy – all three films assembled from footage shot over the course of 30 years by Andrade-Watkins. The second entry in the series, Masters of the Craft, has its Rhode Island premiere next week at the historic Avon Cinema.

“We were able to capture a lot of people, a lot of stories, that would now be lost otherwise,” says Andrade-Watkins. The story of RI’s Cape Verdean experience is particularly personal to her, as she grew up on Fox Point and interviewed her mother and grandmother in depth about the history and evolution of the neighborhood, including the College Hill Study that led to Brown University’s expansion into the area and the displacement of the local community. “The buildings were preserved, but not the people,” she explains, describing the nostalgia of many in her generation who revisit the buildings they grew up in – or lots where those buildings used to be. She began shooting footage in 1983, 30 years before ubiquitous camera phones made video selfies de rigeur, and she’s integrated footage both old and new to tell this multi-generational tale.

Masters of the Craft focuses on the ship-building trade that supported generations of Cape Verdeans and helped establish the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) with the support of Local1329, founded by Manuel Ledo. The strong union was part of the draw that drew so many from Cape Verde to Providence during the last century. Although it’s the story of a specific community, Andrade-Watkins also describes it as a universal story. “Everyone’s from somewhere in this country,” she points out.

“All of history is constructed narrative. As a Cape Verdean, I grew up wondering, ‘What is our story? Where is it written?’” says Andrade-Watkins. The quest to answer these questions led her to start filming. “Cape Verdeans are a very persistent people,” she says, which may explain the 30 years of passionate effort that followed and resulted in the trilogy of films. “These documentaries are a continuation, a rediscovery of a community’s history that was erased before.”

The third film is in progress and will address the international connections between Providence, Cape Verde and the boating industry, particularly Nantucket.

As this screening reaches the Avon, there are two displays being presented at the Providence Public Library – one by the Providence Preservation Society, describing the College Hill Study effort to preserve the historic buildings in that part of the city, the other describing the displacement of Cape Verdean families caused by that effort. “It’s two tales of one city,” says Claire, “And it’s a remarkable juxtaposition, that both stories can be told side by side.”

The entire series is aimed to benefit the Fox Point Cape Verdean Heritage Place, a community effort to create a lasting memorial to this community through a monument park on Fox Point, as the 195 relocation allows the area and parks to be reimagined. ”Now it’s not just a movie, it’s part of a movement,” says Andrade-Watkins, sounding both excited and a bit pleasantly surprised. Fundraising has begun, and you can get more details at fpcapeverdeanhp.org.

Working the Boats: Masters of the Craft screens at the Avon in downtown Providence, 260 Thayer St, on Wednesday, July 27 at 6pm (show at 6:30). Learn more at spiamedia.com

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