The first time I saw Dr. Claire Andrade-Watkins’ film, “Serenata de Amor”, I immediately sent her a message thanking her for putting on screen the story of my ancestors. To see with my eyes a story I have visualized time and time again as I’ve dug through thousands of immigration records was nothing less than emotionally moving and satisfying. Those names listed as the “nearest family from where you came” are usually the wives, known as American widows. What was it like for the American widow and the families left behind?
The opening scene begins with the strumming of a guitar as two men play ouril, also known as “ouring” or mancala. This game was typically played with tamarind seeds. The first evidence of this game being played comes as early as the 7th century in Ethiopia. As the two are playing, “Djedje” played by Benvindo Cruz, is holding a picture of Laura, the object of his unrequited love, to his chest as he stares up at her window.
Among the men gathered are the Miranda brothers; sons of famed Cape Verdean musician and composer Jose Miranda, known as Josezinho. Joao, Napoleon and Ney Miranda continue to preserve the memory and the music of their father through performances around New England and abroad, as well as, by passing down the family tradition to Josezinho’s grandsons, Domenic and Craig, who are also featured in this film. The men encourage Djedje to serenade Laura.
Djedje begins to sing “Wake up, Laura. Open your window. Come listen to this morna that comes from heaven. The world doesn’t want us to be happy. You are mine. I love you so much” (my translation). Laura’s shadow can be seen behind the curtain of her window just as her grandmother comes to the window immediately spewing insults at Djedje. She threatens to kill Laura if she even tries to come to the window because she will marry an “embarkadia”, someone who’s traveled from abroad, who has a good family name… and fat pigs. While my criteria for a life partner may differ a bit, it gives us a glimpse of the priorities of that time.
Just short of fifteen minutes, Serenata de Amor (Serenade of Love) packs a lifetime of experiences, memories, joy, pain and love against a backdrop of the melodies of mornas I grew up listening to. There are so many stories intertwined in this piece dealing race, class, immigration, and family dynamics, to name a few.
Watching the story of the other side of the Cape Verdean migration history unfold in the scenes with the grandmother, portrayed by Ana Joia, hit home the most for me. Whether on a whaling ship or schooner, the people who braved the trip across the Atlantic left family behind. We don’t often hear about the “American widows”, like Laura’s grandmother or my great-grandmother. These were the wives who were left behind as their husbands worked abroad, often sending money and materials to build homes they would one day return to. This was the case with my great-grandparents. My family lived in the home built with resources my great-grandfather sent to Cham de Sousa. The house was meant to be a two level sobrado that would never be fully completed due to his untimely death.
As the grandmother stands outside her home, she remembers Casimiro, her lost love. The scene turns to a younger woman dancing with Casimiro dressed in a naval uniform. This part brought me immediately back to a memory of my great-grandmother, Bibi, telling the story about the day she watched my great-grandfather, Avelino Rodrigues, board the schooner, Volante, in February, 1923. They had only been married for two months before he would board the ship headed for America. And it would be the very last time she would see him. He died in a factory accident in Waterbury, Connecticut on June 26, 1929.
Bibi’s own mother, Rosa Goncalves, was an “American widow” as her husband, Antonio Coelho, lived and worked in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. Rosa’s mother, Carolina da Lomba and Rosa’s grandmother, Anjelica Pires, were also “American widows”. Five generations of women, including my grandmother, held the fabric of our family together as my ancestors came to America. I am the person I am because of them. They are my heroes.
Dr Andrade-Watkins said in an interview with Sodadeonline.com, that “I do this for the older generations, it’s part of their memory and they have entrusted me as a steward”. She also told me that “Serenata” is a gift to be shared. We may come away with different memories and stories our ancestors passed down through the generations. Each of these memories pay homage to these people and we should continue to tell their stories for the generations who will come after us. Enjoy this film and share this gift with others.