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Weeping for her sons: from Africa to the streets of Boston, Cape Verdean mother tries to stop a wave of violence.


Two of her sons were murdered. Three of her nephews killed. If anything happened to her precious grandbabies, her heart just might stop. So Isaura Mendes stomps and stamps for peace, yelling her message from the rooftops, from her "peace van" and in the parking lot of a community center in the heart of a Boston neighborhood whose streets have absorbed the spilled blood of far too many young men.

This is why Mendes dances in the rain on one recent Tuesday night and no one tries to stop her. She shouts and yells and cries and waves her hands with abandon, as if possessed. The spectacle captures the attention of others in the parking lot. Even those who don't know her personally remember the grisly deaths of her beloved Bobby, then 23, and his brother Matthew, 24, killed in two separate incidents in 1995 and 2006.

So Mendes twirls and chants: "We're gonna continue to be strong. We're gonna continue to talk about peace. We have to be strong. I am strong. I feel I can forgive."


The crowd stands silent, both horrified and encouraged by this caramel-colored woman whose clipped English is tinged with the Portuguese accent of her native Cape Verde, a tiny island nation off the western coast of Senegal in Africa. Her blow-dried hair is curling in the humidity, but she no longer cares. She has outlived two of her four children, seen one of her children's alleged murderers placed in jail without bail and, this chilly night, is literally screaming for change and closure.

This chapter of Mendes' ongoing story is about her search for the one thing continually eluding her: peace.

Mendes and the crowd are ending their two-hour "peace march" around two Boston neighborhoods, which seemingly attract the most media attention when someone of color gets killed. Many of the dead are her countrymen, fellow Cape Verdeans who long ago waded their tiny archipelago for the big cities of New England. Once here, Mendes says, they caught the "disease" of violence and began to fall prey to murder. Her Bobby was the first to die so painfully, she says, stabbed in the heart while stopping a fight. A teenaged Cape Verdean neighbor killed him, marking the beginning of a decade-long spree of retaliatory killings and a seemingly endless trail of blood in the city's hills.

Votive candles and a lighter get passed around as Mendes continues to dance. As the flames rise and white wax drips into the parking lot of the Freedom House, a pastor calls out.

"We have been through this nightmare for too long. Can I get a witness?" asks the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, co-founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, a group known nationwide for its anti-gang violence work. "You want a new Civil Rights Movement? You got one right now. Every child has a right to grow up in a violence-free community."

A young man standing beneath a streetlight mutters "Amen" under his breath. He waves a paper sign covered in shrink-wrap. It reads: "Murder hurts."

Dealing With Death

Weeks before his murder, Matthew Mendes somehow knew he would be the next to die. He was still mourning his brother and his mother feared he could get into trouble if he mouthed off to a beat cop and got taken into custody.

So it was a good thing when a nonprofit organization offered to send both Matthew and his mom to England to speak with at-risk youth about crime. It was April 2006 and finally, after getting on the airplane--the one place in the world where there likely would be no gang violence--Matthew's attitude lightened. As their plane took off, he turned to his mother and said: "Momma, we're on top of the world."

A week later, Matthew portended his own death. As he talked about the 150 or so people he knew--directly or indirectly--who had been murdered in Boston over the years, he answered questions about his own fears. "This is how it is in Boston," Matthew told the Birmingham, England, youth group: "If we don't stop, it'll be too late ... I might be next."

Two weeks later, on May 6, 2006, Matthew was dead at 24.

The day Matthew died, his mother had been visiting the parent of another murdered child. She did these visits frequently, whenever a life was lost on the streets. After the meeting, Mendes came home and curled up with her husband, Pompilio, who is also Cape Verdean and a quiet force in their relationship. Not even five minutes had passed when she and Pompilio heard someone knocking on the door of their green triple-decker home.

"They came and told me my son was shot," she says.

Following the wail of ambulance sirens, she ran outside and around the corner. She found her baby boy surrounded by police and a crowd of young people. His blood ran down the slightly inclined avenue. Someone in an unidentified car had shot him in the back as he ran for a doorway.

She tried to get to him, to push people aside, but the police held her back. She tried to get into the ambulance with him, but the authorities said no. Matthew possibly breathed his last breath as his mother watched him die.

At the hospital someone took her to the chapel to pray.

That's when she gave it all up to God.

"I was there praying and my son didn't come back," says Mendes. "Either I stand up on my feet and believe in God or I stay in the hospital and let them [sedate me] or I'll be in the street hurting people because my son died. So I chose God."

Soon after, the police commissioner, state representatives, community activists, Boston's mayor and all manner of media descended upon Mendes' home. For the reporters, the story of an African expatriate who lost two good-looking sons to violence was a compelling tale. They camped outside of her house for days. They went to the funerals and the schools and the houses of her boys' ex-girlfriends. Some even sneaked inside of her home during the wake, only to be kicked out by furious family and friends.

Through it all Mendes tried to protect her children or her memory of them: Steven (who is still alive), Bobby, Matthew and Barbara (alive as well)--kids named after her favorite characters from '80s soap operas Another World and Santa Barbara. Yet it seemed that Mendes' peace crusade, started after the death of her first son, was largely ineffective up to the death of the second son. The years of marching and talking and making buttons and banners and partnering with other peace organizations had done little to save Matthew.

But this woman, this immigrant with no high school education who made her living working at a fish nugget factory, refused to give up.

Walking For Peace

On this day, the day of the march, Isaura Mendes is ready for the camera. Her short 'do is freshly washed. Pictures of Bobby and Matthew are lovingly arranged in the living room. Her honorary degree from Boston College is propped near the window. Her peace work is what earned that degree. Pictures of murdered relatives adorn the walls.

She complains that her English isn't so good and she fears that people don't get her message. Yet somehow, even through split infinitives, she's easy to understand. The words spill out.

"In 1995 my son [Bobby] was killed and there was no one to talk to," explains Mendes, wringing her hands, not sure if this reporter would "twist" her words or let her words speak for themselves. Pompilio stands off to the side, silent and gracious. He prefers to let her do the talking. "Too many of us keep our mouths shut," she continues. "Living after murder is hard."


Mendes' decision to talk to other mothers about the murders of their sons, and to create the anti-violence campaign called the Bobby Mendes Peace Legacy and later the Matthew Mendes Courage Fund have made her a local celebrity. Now, it seems, she talks nonstop. She's a favorite speaker on the anti-violence circuit and she's one of those neighborhood women all the kids know about. "Oh, the lady with the peace signs on her car? That's Mrs. Mendes," the kids say, guardedly looking down Groom Street, aka Bobby Mendes Way.

She's got stickers and purple bracelets and even a purple banner with a button beating the picture of every teen or young adult from her neighborhood that died in the last decade or so. There are more than 150 faces on the banner. She didn't have space for them all. But with the death of Matthew in 2006, she stopped collecting the faces of the dead and instead began to direct her efforts toward helping kids get college scholarships.

Mendes denies that Matthew's death has anything to do with gang violence or bad Cape Verdean relations. Boston police have said otherwise, suggesting that the violence kicked off by Bobby's murder launched several retaliatory killings. While EBONY's attempts to reach Boston police superintendent Paul Joyce by deadline were unfruitful, The Boston Globe has quoted Joyce saying that the Mendes family tragedies "touched off retaliatory violence that hurt so many others ... You can't blame all the violence in that community on what happened that night, but it influenced many acts of violence."


However, Mendes does believe is that Bobby's death was her people's first experience with violent crime in Boston and is something unique to immigrating to the United States. The "disease" has now spread to Cape Verdeans in Rhode Island, Maine and all across the northeastern seaboard, she says.

"Before 1995 no Cape Verdeans died like this," says Mendes. "I feel like it's a disease. It's like a virus and I don't understand it. Our children was doing well until they got the American disease."

No Rest For A Weary Soul

Bishop Felipe Teixeira of Boston's St. Martin de Porres Church is a Mendes family friend. He's also another one of those neighborhood pastors who counsels the survivors and tries to get boys to lay down their weapons.

He's worried about what this story could mean as it pertains to Cape Verdeans. The 100,000 or so folks from "Cabo Verde" who are living in New England are no more violent than anyone else, he says. And it's not an American thing, he insists, it's a world thing. Even his beloved islands are not immune to violence.

"The behavior is not totally acquired in this country," says Teixeira, who wolfs down lunch before a new counseling session at his Dorchester-area church. "It's only a few number, a very small percentage of young women and men and adults are involved in this type of violence."

Teixeira also worries about Mendes.

"Matthew, the last one killed, is a young man I mentored," says Teixeira. "Isaura has lost a lot and I'm very concerned about her. There are a lot of people I know in the community who have talked to her to get her to slow down. To take a break. She does need to rest. I don't think she's taken a break."

Mendes resists the rest. Instead, she turns to God. She's got the Bible on tape and The Purpose Driven Life on her iPod. She goes to several churches beyond her Catholic upbringing, determined now to understand how everybody worships in their own way. She preaches her religion of peace every chance she gets, shouting her message via a megaphone kept behind the living room couch she bought in the 1970s.

Besides fearlessness, she's got gumption. Early last year, when Deval Patrick became Massachusetts' first Black governor, she remembered his campaign promise of having an open-door policy. Shortly after he was sworn in, Mendes went to visit. With no appointment and no prior phone call, she demanded to see Patrick.

Patrick's aides say the governor cleared his schedule and talked with Mendes. Her meeting with Patrick was followed again by tragedy of a different sort. After years of searching and enlisting the help of crime task forces across several states, the police had finally caught up with Nardo Lopes, the next-door neighbor alleged to have killed Bobby more than a decade ago. City officials came to her house to share the news.

Mendes wasn't filled with joy, or hate. She felt suspicion.

"When they told me about Nardo, I didn't know how I felt," she says. "I said, 'Don't tell me you picked up another innocent boy for something he didn't do.'"

Later, when she was sure it was Nardo, she prayed for guidance and understanding. Deep down, she knew that nothing could bring Bobby back, so forgiveness of a sort soon became the only option. That, and more peace marches. "Did I hate him? No, I told all the papers that it was God. It was all God." Lopes is currently awaiting trial.

Boston College calls Mendes the "mother of sorrows," and last year gave her an honorary doctorate in social science.

The degree is proof, she says, that someone else gives a damn about her marching and her talking and her praying. It also pushed her toward finishing her own education, and now she is learning to read and write. The void and uncertainty caused by sudden death will always be there, but she is finally beginning to recapture, or perhaps redefine, the normalcy of life--even if it includes dancing in the rain. "I didn't go to high school," she says. "I got married at 17 and started having children. Two of them die. Now I go to school every day to learn. I'm an immigrant trying to lead my life."


Cape Verde is a tiny collection of volcanic islands of the western coast of Africa, near Senegal.



VIOLENT CRIME RATE: Relatively low, by regional standards

LANGUAGE: Portuguese, Crioulo

SOURCE: U.S. State Department, National Geographic

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Title Annotation:EBONY IN AFRICA: an occasional series; Isaura Mendes
Author:Samuels, Adrienne P.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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