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GONZÁLEZ: Hey, everybody. I’m Ana.

NUNES: I’m Alex. And you’re listening to Mosaic. So, Ana. I’ve been thinking lately that the cranberry is under-appreciated.

GONZÁLEZ: Oh, really?

NUNES: Well, people either say they’re too bitter or too tart, or it takes too much sugar to turn them into jam or dried fruit. 

GONZÁLEZ: Cranberry haters.

NUNES: But I think they taste pretty good just the way they are. And, I think they’re special for a reason that goes way beyond the kitchen table. 

GONZÁLEZ: Yes. Because cranberry growing is a big part of a singular and complex immigration story. The story of Cape Verdeans in Southern New England.

DOM FERNANDES: That’s another driving motivation for me to not just walk away from this, because it’s a history and we’re part of a legacy in this business, and there’s a story to be told.

NUNES: That’s Dom Fernandes, a 64-year-old family farmer from Carver, Massachusetts. He’s a third generation cranberry bogger and a Cape Verdean-American. 

GONZÁLEZ: Hundreds of Cape Verdeans used to work the cranberry bogs in Southeastern Massachusetts, but today there aren’t many left. 

NUNES: And in this episode of Mosaic we tell the story of a family, their farm, and their mission to keep it going.

NUNES: I’m with Dom in the sorting house at Fresh Meadows Farm in Carver, Massachusetts, a little over 30 minutes northeast of New Bedford. The sun’s coming in through the windows and the room smells like the inside of a bag of Craisins. 

DOM: And the focal point of the sorting house are these separators.

NUNES: We’re looking at an old school contraption. Bigger commercial growers today use laser and optical separators. This wooden machine divides the fruit from the chaff, carries it up a conveyor belt more than 10 feet high and then drops it down a series of wooden boards. 

DOM: The concept is good fruit will bounce and bad fruit won’t. And the good fruit will bounce in and get into the next section of the operation, whereas the poor fruit will keep not making that jump and will drop down into containers on the bottom.

NUNES: Watching them bounce sounds a lot more fun than a laser machine.

NUNES: Dom says the technology is about 100 years old. And that’s also about how long his family has been working in the cranberry industry. 

GONZÁLEZ: But the story of how Cape Verdeans wound up in the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts goes back even further to a cluster of islands off the coast of West Africa.

NUNES: Cape Verdeans are the first major group of Africans who don’t come to the U.S. enslaved. They arrive here because of the whaling industry.

GONZÁLEZ: In the 19th Century, whaling ships out of New Bedford stop in Cape Verde for salt, supplies, and hired hands. Cape Verdean men looking for work hop on the ships and eventually make their way to America.

NUNES: There aren’t many other options for survival back in Cape Verde. At the time, the archipelago is still a Portuguese colony and has been since the 1400s. 

GONZÁLEZ: The islands are uninhabited when the Portuguese arrive, and over time a society forms out of people who are the descendants of both the Portuguese colonizers and the enslaved people they bring over from West Africa. 

NUNES: The Portuguese exploit and mismanage the land. And that, combined with a lack of rain, hits farmers really hard. At the end of the 19th Century, they’re eager for other opportunities. 

DOM: A lot of it was drought related in the Cape Verde islands. And so that’s what was pushing some of the Cape Verdeans out initially. 

NUNES: Thousands of Cape Verdeans come into the U.S. and settle in the New Bedford region, drawn by jobs in the whaling industry.

GONZÁLEZ: Eventually, that industry collapses. So Cape Verdeans look for other work. But they also buy up the old whaling ships, convert them, and start shipping supplies to the old country. 

NUNES: On trips back to America, they bring more Cape Verdeans with them.

GONZÁLEZ: They take control of their own means of immigrating to the U.S., something that also makes Cape Verdeans pretty unique.

NUNES: And Dom’s mother, Albertina, travels to Massachusetts on one of these boats in the early 1920s. She’s less than a year old.

DOM: She came over on a journey that took roughly 30 days on a schooner to get here. She came over with her mother and her older brother, who at that point was like three.

GONZÁLEZ: Dom’s younger brother John says the ride for his grandmother is uncomfortable and bumpy.

JOHN: Her mother was seasick the whole way over. It was rough seas and some of the other women sort of pitched in to help her out.

NUNES: Dom and John’s grandmother and her two kids join their grandfather when they get here. He’s already gotten the lay of the land and started work in the cranberry bogs.

GONZÁLEZ: At the time, the cranberry industry is taking off on Cape Cod and in the South Coast of Massachusetts. That expansion draws hundreds of Cape Verdeans to work in the bogs.

DOM: Cranberry industry was really in an escalation in terms of the commercial production. And there was this huge need of laborers. And that’s where most of the Cape Verdeans came in and began to fill some of that void whether it was in regards to building cranberry bogs, harvesting cranberry bogs. That was really the reason why most of them came in and then settled down here in this region.

NUNES: Cape Verdean immigrants not only play a role in building the cranberry industry. They really make it happen with their labor. 

GONZÁLEZ: In 1924, one anthropologist studying cranberry operations on Cape Cod estimates that Cape Verdean workers are responsible for 90 percent of harvested cranberries. And he calls them quote “the very best harvesters and spreaders of sand.”

NUNES: They’re the best at a job John says is tough and demanding.

JOHN: It was a lot of physical labor involved. Even harvesting involved using a snap, which was a hand-held little scoop where you manually combed through the vines. And then it progressed to larger wooden scoops, which still involved being on your knees and using a rocking motion in order to separate the berries from the vines. And then you had to transport them to a box, typically on a wheelbarrow, and roll them off the bog, up a plank, and onto a truck, to transport it to its destination.

GONZÁLEZ: The industry exploits Cape Verdean labor. The hours are long, the pay is low. The work is temporary, and there aren’t many guarantees you’ll have a job through the end of the season. Kids work side-by-side with their parents out in the fresh air, but it is child labor nonetheless. 

NUNES: The conditions are so tough that, in 1933, 15-hundred, mostly Cape Verdean, cranberry pickers go on strike. 

GONZÁLEZ: And the Cape Verdeans face another major obstacle: racism. 

NUNES: They’re coming to the U.S. from a Portuguese colony, so many of the early Cape Verdean immigrants identify as being Portuguese. 

GONZÁLEZ: But they’re entering a highly-racialized, post-Civil War society that separates and discriminates people along racial lines.

NUNES: A lot of Cape Verdeans get into cranberry picking because they’re generally denied jobs in other industries. They have to work on the docks rather than on the fishing boats where white Portuguese immigrants are making a living. 

GONZÁLEZ: They work custodial jobs in factories instead of on the line, and women clean wealthy people’s homes.

NUNES: Discrimmination extends to the cranberry bogs as well.

GONZÁLEZ: Dom says the old boy network in Massachusetts didn’t mind using Cape Verdean labor to build their businesses, but they didn’t like having Cape Verdeans compete as owners.  

DOM: There were some obstacles based on skin color with regards to ability to get financing. The ability to buy in--you would generally buy in from, sometimes they were already a multi-generational family farm or multi-generational family land. And sometimes those opportunities were restricted if it was a person of color trying to buy property that was in a family for two or three generations. So that was always a potential obstacle.

NUNES: Dom’s grandparents become some of the few Cape Verdean farmers who are able to purchase land. And it’s pretty remarkable when you step back and think about the context.

GONZÁLEZ: Right. At this point in history, African Americans have predominantly worked in agriculture as enslaved people and sharecroppers, not landowners. Owning land is a major accomplishment. 

NUNES: So, in the late 1940s, Dom’s grandfather sets about building his own cranberry bog. But he dies young before he can complete it.

GONZÁLEZ: Dom’s mother, Albertina, and her brother set about finishing what their dad started, and they open up for business a couple years later.

NUNES: And the stories of young Albertina Fernades are legendary. 

GONZÁLEZ: She’s a standout student but drops out of school early to work. In World War II, she’s a virtual Rosie the Riveter, working in a shipyard in Quincy, Mass. She bakes cakes on the side to make extra money, and around town she’s known as “The Cake Lady.” 

NUNES: On the cranberry bog, John says, she can outpick and outbox anyone.

JOHN: At one point, managing to scoop 100 boxes in a day. And she claimed it was 96. But I remember this one oldtimer swearing, “No, you got it wrong. You actually did 100 boxes,” which was unheard of.

GONZÁLEZ: Albertina marries John and Dom’s father, who’s also Cape Verdean, they have eight children, and they all become cranberry bog kids. 

NUNES: Their parents are part of the Ocean Spray co-op, selling large, unsorted loads to be processed into juice. They raise animals and grow vegetables they sell to vacationers driving by on their way to the Cape Cod beaches.

GONZÁLEZ: They drink homemade cranberry juice, and their mom makes cranberry sauces and cookies. At one point, a newspaper reporter comes out to the small farm and writes an article on the family titled, “Raising a family of 10 on 10 acres.”

DOM: They intentionally created an atmosphere, as we grew up on this farm, that we have fond memories of.

GONZÁLEZ: Dom especially remembers an additional property his dad buys in the 1960s in Kingston, Massachusetts.

DOM: We spent a lot of time there in the summertimes. He set up a little site there, which was a campsite. We had a waterhole there that was used for irrigation that turned into a swimming hole. There was a little charcoal grill that he built outside. So it became not only a work site but it became a campsite for us when we were growing up. And I remember many times we’d be out there for three, four, five days at a time. I think back now, and I think it was an intentional way of maybe instilling in us something that a lot in our generation didn’t get. There were many of our generation that look at that experience, and it was: it’s hard work, it’s demeaning, you know it’s kind of beneath you. Why would you want to go and work on a cranberry bog? And yet, I don’t think we ever looked at it like that.

NUNES: But Dom and John say their mom and their dad, Domingo, want them to have the same opportunities as other kids who don’t work on family farms.

GONZÁLEZ: They push the importance of school hard on their kids. And they also let them take breaks from farm work to do things like play sports.

DOM: I remember some of my father’s friends, who had cranberry bogs, who would say, “Domingo, why are you letting your kids play football when you got the cranberry harvest going on?” But he pushed us to expand, be the best that we could be.

NUNES: Dom also remembers Cape Verdean culture being present in his life growing up.

GONZÁLEZ: They go to parties with drummers and dancers. Dom says the old timers get up out of their seats and cut a rug. 

DOM: We used to refer to them as what we called gichi dancers back then, particularly the older folks. It was really a rhythmic dance that went along with the drums at some of these functions. A lot of the, even newer Cape Verdean music, brings back a lot of fond memories for some of those functions that we were at.

NUNES: Dom’s parents speak Cape Verdean Creole with their friends, and the kids pick up words and phrases here and there. At home, they eat dishes like cachupa stew, jagacida rice, couscous, and gufong pastries.

GONZÁLEZ: All eight kids go off to college. After graduation, John becomes a high school social studies teacher, and Dom moves to Rhode Island to work in social services. 

NUNES: And the idea of working full-time in the cranberry industry is the last thing on Dom’s mind. He wants to go back to school to get a master’s in business administration and build a career from there.

GONZÁLEZ: But as he’s planning all of this, things change quickly back on the farm.

NUNES: Their father gets cancer and passes away, and Dom decides, for the time being, he’s going to help his mother on the cranberry bogs.

DOM: I felt like the vultures were kind of circling over my mother, and I could kind of keep things in play until we could figure out how best we were gonna transition the farm out of the family. 

GONZÁLEZ: So Dom finishes his MBA, but after graduation, he doesn’t even apply for a job. Cranberry prices are rising, so he thinks the timing is probably right to get back into the family business.

NUNES: Although, he’s still not sure how long it will last.

DON: But I decided I was going to make a run at it for a while and then see where things went. And that was 35 years ago. So--still here. [Laughs]

NUNES: I’m with Dom and John in the biggest building at Fresh Meadows Farm. There’s equipment stored in here, and cranberries are packed up into neat little 12 ounce bags to ship to online customers, grocery stores, and CSAs. Some of the fruit is sitting, unpackaged, in open crates.

ALEX: Can I try a bite of one of those or is it going to screw up your count?

DOM: Dive in.

JOHN: The darker the better. The darker the better...

NUNES: The Fresh Meadows property is a certified organic cranberry bog. Dom and John run this bog along with additional acres where they grow conventional cranberries for the Ocean Spray co-op. 

GONZÁLEZ: Dom’s been at the business ever since he made the jump back in the 80s. John helped out part-time for years. But, after retiring from teaching, he’s working full-time with Dom, helping his brother with the day-to-day operations. 

JOHN: Those are the machines that are used to dry-harvest the berries, all of the organic are harvested with those machines.

NUNES: Right now times are tough for the family business, like they are for other cranberry growers in Massachusetts. 

GONZÁLEZ: Dom says prices were strong for years. But competition crept in from producers in regions with much more open space to work with. So right now, more cranberries are being harvested than the market can support.

DOM: Kind of a growing issue for us over the last 15 to 20 years has been this oversupply. And that is directly related to the fact that Wisconsin expanded so fast and then more recently the Canadians. 

NUNES: And other challenges have piled up too. 

GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. For instance: today, people are a lot more concerned about sugar for health reasons. And to make bitter cranberries into tasty products like Craisins, you got to use a lot of sugar. So a lot of consumers don’t purchase them. 

NUNES: And more recently the trade war has hurt sales in the Chinese market.

GONZÁLEZ: So, today, the Fernandes family is at a crossroads. 

NUNES: The farm made it into the third generation successfully. But Dom says he has serious doubts it can make it any further.

DOM: I’m not sure that same perfect storm could occur again where you could bring in a fourth generation to run this operation.

NUNES: If the economics don’t change, Dom says he also isn’t sure he even wants to encourage the next generation to get into cranberry farming. 

GONZÁLEZ: But he’s been working hard to position the business to potentially move onto the next generation.

NUNES: That’s why he got organic certification eight years ago for Fresh Meadows. He’s thinking the best case scenario is for the farm to serve a smaller market and operate on a part-time basis.  

GONZÁLEZ: And Dom has considerations a lot of other family farmers don’t. Cape Verdean cranberry farming is a tradition that’s fading fast. Dom says you can probably count on one hand the ones who are left, and he’s by far the largest operation. 

NUNES: Cape Verdeans really built this industry in Massachusetts. And Dom says keeping Fresh Meadows up and running is part of keeping that tradition alive.

DOM: That’s another driving motivation for me to not just walk away from this, because it’s a history and we’re part of a legacy in this business, and there’s a story to be told. 

GONZÁLEZ: Dom’s mother, Albertina, passed away in January 2019, and now he and his siblings are the ones left to tell that story. 

NUNES: For now, Dom’s place is here on Fresh Meadows in Carver. He’s made a life in cranberry farming, and looking back, he says he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

DOM: We’ve had our struggles. But the rewards of the lifestyle of growing cranberries is the lifestyle of being out here. The little, small, intrinsic value of being outside has just been incredible. I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t trade the last 39 years for anything. It’s been a good run.

NUNES: Another day with the birds, the land, and a chance to do what his family’s done for generations. You couldn’t ask for much more.

GONZÁLEZ: Mosaic is a production of The Public’s Radio, edited by Sally Eisele with production help from James Baumgartner and Aaron Selbig. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. And a special thanks this episode to Boston University professor emerita Marilyn Halter for providing us with background on the history of Cape Verdean immigration. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. I’m Ana Gonzalez.

NUNES: And I’m Alex Nunes. Thanks for listening. If you've enjoyed the stories you've heard over the last few months, we'd like to ask you for a small favor: Share this podcast with someone you know. You can tweet about it, post it to Facebook, or email your family with a link. We'd like for as many people as possible to hear about Mosaic, and we know that when you share it with friends, that can make a big difference. You can share it from your podcast app, or find all the links at thepublicsradio.org/mosaic. Thanks!

Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org.