Unlocking your Cape Verdean Heritage: A quick dive into Genealogy

Matilde Ferreira
6 min readNov 1, 2023

How I started to trace my Family Tree

Genealogy is a journey that can bring lost stories of our ancestors, connect us with our roots, and shed light on the mysteries of the past. For me, this journey began with a burning curiosity about my “lost” great-great-grandmother, a woman who had to leave her two children behind to immigrate to the United States. Little did I know that this initial spark of curiosity would lead me on an exciting path of discovery through the history of Cape Verde.

Short story about Rufina Lisboa

Rufina Lisboa

I never understood why I knew so little about my great-great-grandmother although we have this tradition of keeping oral stories about our family. Rufina was born in 1879, 22 years after the great cholera pandemic that killed thousands of Cape Verdeans.

Rufina’s baptismal record, source: Family Search

Being the eldest of 11 siblings, she assumed responsibility for them after her mother’s premature passing, the cause of which remains unknown. It wasn’t easy to find this information, I remember it took about 6 months to uncover Rufina’s past and I still find new information these days. She had 2 children back in S. Nicolau, one of them being my great-grandfather. Also, she couldn’t read or write, so I found several variations of her name such as Rouphine, Balbina, Rofina, Rophina…you have to be creative when it comes to spelling in your research!

According to my mother, Rufina lived shortly on Brava’s Island, waiting for her visa to move to the US. Meanwhile, she had a daughter called Anna Lisboa who passed away at the age of 5 months. No one in the family was aware of this child. The record also omitted information about the father. Why?

Catholic church and ‘single parenthood’

The Catholic Church was responsible for maintaining baptismal, marriage, and death records during the Portuguese monarchy. After the establishment of the first Portuguese Republic, the government took over and created the civil registry. In the eyes of the church, having kids before marriage was immoral so, if a woman had a baby but wasn’t married, in most cases the father would not assume the child. The father’s identity would be listed as ‘Incógnito,’ which means ‘unknown’ in this context. Or simply the record would state the child as ‘Ilegítima’ (illegitimate) or ‘Natural’.

I was shocked. This makes my research 10 times harder than already is. As you can imagine, tracing children in an ex-slave society is not an easy job. I still haven’t found out who Anna’s father was. And probably I won’t.

Life was hard back in the early 20th century, so it wasn’t uncommon to find Cape Verdean communities in the USA, Australia, Portugal, Brazil, and so on, trying to find better living conditions. Rufina moved to the US in 1913 and I felt so lucky when I found out that I could get most of her records online without paying a dime. All thanks to the Family Search project!

Immigration record, List of passengers, 1913. Source: Family search

She got married in 1914 and had 4 more children. I felt an overwhelming urge to learn more about this mysterious woman. During my research, I uncovered interesting details about her husband and the children she had in the United States, opening a new chapter in our family’s history. Rufina passed away in 1953 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. As far as I know, she spent her last days at a nursing home. She never came back to Cape Verde, and my great-grandfather was never able to meet his mother.

After uncovering most of the Lisboa family in S.Nicolau, I felt lost. Just when I thought I had reached my goal, I realized that I was merely scratching the surface. The more I uncovered, the more I wanted to know. The family tree grew, and the past began to take shape. I was wondering if I should extend the research to my paternal side. It was a hard decision because I’m not that close with my paternal side of the family and I needed someone to ask the right questions. But I kept going and I’m not planning to leave this new hobby. I’m not going to lie, I cried a couple of times and felt blessed for being born at the right time. My ancestors struggled with slavery, famine, drought, discrimination, and forced labor. If you are curious about the famine in Cape Verde I recommend this book (if you are a Portuguese speaker) “Alguns apontamentos sobre as fomes em Cabo Verde” written by Cristiano José De Sena Barcelos.

However, not everything was dreary. Rufina managed to thrive, and her children born in the US undoubtedly enjoyed far more opportunities than those born in Cape Verde. Michael ‘Tunes’ Antunes is a known saxophonist mostly famous for his membership in the John Cafferty and The Beaver Brown Band and also was part of the movie Eddie and the Cruisers back in the 80s. He is Rufina’s grandson and my cousin. I felt extremely proud of my great-great-grandmother after watching the movie, moving to the US was a great decision. I mean, feels good to have a celebrity in the family, now I can brag a bit!

Michael had 11 children, with 2 of them choosing to pursue a musical career, following in his footsteps. Kevin worked as a musical director for Madonna and Matthew was the musical director for Tavares, a great disco and R&B group from the 70s. I’m a bit obsessed with music myself, so I couldn’t be happier to find out about them. I only spoke with one of my American cousins, they had no clue of my existence. I don’t know if I’m ever going to meet them, but I would like to. I wonder if they speak Creole and if they kept some of the Cape Verdean culture.

The tools I used to help me get “unstuck”

1. Family SearchFamily Search has an extensive record collection from all over the world. Without this platform, my research would be impossible. If you are curious about your family’s past, I strongly advise you to start here.

2. MyHeritage DNA Testing: I took a DNA test to find out about my roots. The service offers not only valuable insights into my genetic heritage but also the ability to explore the family trees of other members who shared connections.

3. GEDmatch: I uploaded my DNA test results to GEDmatch, enabling me to compare my genetic data with potential family members and expand my network of connections.

4. Educational Resources: I took a deep dive into books and watched documentaries that delved into the history of Cabo Verde and Portugal, providing me with a deeper understanding of the cultural context that shaped my ancestors’ lives.

5. Social media communities: Facebook groups like Cape Verde DNA Inc. allowed me to connect with other users and find new family members (and not that distant!!!).

6. BarrosBrito: Jorge Brito is a genealogist and college professor based in Cape Verde. His research is extensive and his website helped me in my first steps.


Genealogy is a lifetime challenge. For me, it’s a therapeutic journey where I find answers and gain a deeper understanding of my family that I couldn’t get any other way. Don’t let impatience overwhelm you. Instead, enjoy the journey and use this experience to strengthen your connection with your family. Not everyone will be supportive, some may view you as a ‘weirdo’ for exploring something less common in younger generations. Criticism and assumptions that you’re wasting your time may come your way. Be prepared for family secrets to surface. Remember, DNA doesn’t lie, so brace yourself for surprises, whether they are welcomed or unexpected.

With love,