Neighbors: Conversation, Cape Verdean cooking and Cecilia's love

Courtesy photo – Berthoud resident Cecilia Bessette with her late husband Dennis Brutsche.

By Amber McIver-Traywick

The Surveyor

Cecilia Bessette has an open-door policy to her life and her home – all are welcome. The 79-year-old Berthoud woman sat down recently for an interview to discuss her life and experiences including being a person of color in a predominately white, small Colorado town. 

 Bessette who was born and raised in Rhode Island still has a noticeable eastern accent despite leaving the Northeast 45 years ago. If you have spent any time in Berthoud the very active and friendly senior may be a familiar face as she volunteers at both the library and Ivy Stockwell Elementary School. 

 The things that are important to her come across quickly in conversation, her faith in Jesus Christ, her family, her love for people and, her pride in the culture she comes from.

 Bessette’s grandparents came to the U.S. as immigrants from the small island nation of Cape Verde. The islands were colonized by the Portuguese who brought African slaves with them. She said her grandfather’s side was very dark complected and her grandmother had lighter skin, blue eyes and straight hair. Cape Verdean culture is a colorful combination of African and Portuguese traditions and Bessette is proud of her roots and happy to share its traditions with anyone who would like to know about it. 

 She explained that being raised where she was on the east coast exposed her to a wide variety of people and cultures, “Growing up like that I always felt very comfortable with who I am and growing up in Rhode Island we didn’t have the segregation as they did in the south. I went to school with a wide mix of ethnicities.” 

 Bessette’s first husband Pete was French Canadian. A friend thought they would make a good couple but she said when she found out he was white she was hesitant to have a relationship with him despite having friends from many ethnicities. “This was the 60s and mixed couples weren’t common,” she said. Their first date was at a drive-in theater so she was sure no one would see her with him. But despite her hesitation, it was love at first sight. Her family was 100% on board with the couple eventually marrying but his was not. A relative told Pete he had ruined the Bessette name by marrying Cecilia to which Pete responded by slamming his face down into a plate of food at a cafe. “He would hug and kiss me in public all the time,” she reminisced. Sadly, when their boys were just 2 and a half and four years old Pete was killed in a car wreck. 

 After raising her boys as a single mother Bessette wanted an adventure and decided to move to Los Angeles, California. There she got a job working for Bon Appetite magazine as an administrator. She also met the man who would become her second husband, a Nigerian engineer who was raised in Ghana and educated in Germany. Tragically just 6 months after their marriage cancer would take his life. 

 Life once again shifted and after a friend encouraged her to visit Colorado in 1989 she stumbled on Berthoud, “I just fell in love with this little town – no one looked liked me and I think I might be the only Cape Verdean,” she said, but despite the differences around her she knew she was home. 

 Bessette then set her sights on a job at CSU as she had enjoyed previously working years before at Brown University. “When I set my mind on something you know I go for it I’m determined,” she said of her persistence that landed her a job advocating for black students, the position she eventually retired from. 

 Shortly after moving to Berthoud Bessette met her husband Dennis. The two traveled the country together in their motor home visiting all of the lower 48 states. After 28 years of marriage, Dennis passed away last July 4. She is quick to mention how appreciative she is of the support she received from the community after her husband passed away, even coming from people she had never previously met. Despite so much loss an unflappable positivity permeates her outlook, “I pray a lot and I talk to God and I say why has this happened but I was married to three wonderful men, they were good husbands and fathers. Some people never have that kind of love – they gave me so much joy.”

 Bessette continues to be a positive voice and an advocate as she encourages her neighbors to get involved in their community, places of worship and for causes they believe in. 

 In light of the current events surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police and the protests and riots that followed, the media and the country’s attention has been turned toward the issues facing black Americans. Bessette wrote a letter to the editor at the Surveyor recently where she stated that she had always felt comfortable in Berthoud despite being one of the few people of color in the town after another reader had suggested she might feel otherwise. 

 When asked about her own experiences with racism it was far into the conversation before she recounted an incident as a young adult with a white police officer during a visit with family in Provedence, Rhode Island where she was chased down, called a derogatory word and kicked while trying to get away from an incident she wasn’t personally involved in. “I could have just hated every police officer for the rest of my life…that was a bad cop,” she said while reiterating the importance of not lumping everyone in a certain category all together or assuming everyone has had the same experiences. 

 Thankfully, Bessette says her experiences with racism are few and she personally hasn’t felt that she has seen white privilege affect her life and opportunities. 

 When asked what she felt would be a positive step to improving the current divides in our country Bessette said, “People need to do some soul searching, what can I do better to help someone and make it better for someone else.” She said she has always tried to be involved in her community and her neighbors know that if her front door is open they are always welcome to come in for a listening ear, good conversation and maybe some Cape Verdean home cooking.