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Photo of entrepreneur Lena Britto

Rock Village Publishing

Born and raised in Rochester, entrepreneur and activist Lena Britto (1921-2007) owned and operated Van-Lee Beauty Salon in East Wareham for over 18 years. Proud of her Cape Verdean heritage, she mentored new immigrants and became an unofficial ambassador between the United States and Cape Verde. At age 64, Lena earned a Bachelor of Science in Human Services from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Political and social activist Lena Britto (1921-2007) was born in Rochester on April 27, 1921 to immigrant parents Thomas and Matilda (Cabral) Semedo. Her maternal grandfather, Ben Horta Varella, had brought his family on a harrowing voyage to America in 1903, escaping extreme poverty in Cape Verde. He went whaling out of New Bedford, and later worked in the cranberry bogs in Rochester. Money was tight for Lena’s family. They were one of only four or five Cape Verdean families in Rochester at the time.

Lena attended schools in both Rochester and Wareham. She left Wareham High School at age 15 to help her family during the Great Depression. Lena joined her older sister in Boston to work as domestic help for wealthy families. During World War II, Lena became one of the first women welders to work at the shipyards in the Boston area. While working at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Lena met her future husband John Britto. Lena and John married in 1943 at the Onset Portuguese Methodist Church and settled in East Wareham. The couple had three children, sons Thomas and Julius, and daughter Vanessa.

Lena became a political and social activist. A self-proclaimed Republican, a rarity among Black Americans in the 1960s, she became an acquaintance of Massachusetts politicians, including Governor Volpe. Lena actively supported Cape Verde’s struggle for independence and became an unofficial goodwill ambassador between the United States and the new nation of Cape Verde. She spent much of her time as a mentor to new immigrants from Cape Verde, providing interpretive services and assistance with their preparation for the citizenship test.
Lena became particularly well known for her charitable fundraising. In 1947, she spearheaded a community benefit for a local five-year-old girl from nearby Plympton who was hospitalized after having her feet amputated due to frostbite. Lena was able to bring world-renowned concert pianist Hazel Scott to play a benefit concert in Wareham. The concert raised funds for the girl’s rehabilitation.

As an entrepreneur, Lena was a door-to-door saleswoman of strawberries, brushes and Avon products. In 1962, she opened her own business, the Van-Lee Beauty Salon, which she owned and operated for over 18 years in East Wareham. In 1968, she attended Lee Institute Real Estate School and became a licensed real estate broker for Century 21 and Jack Conway Real Estate.

As a social worker, Lena worked with farm workers through the New England Farm Workers Council and then with children through the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. When the state offered its social workers the opportunity to complete their education, Lena enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston and earned a Bachelor of Science in Human Services at the age of 64.

Lena wrote her memoir Yankee Mericana: My Cape Verdean Odyssey, with its first printing in 2002. Five years later, Lena passed away at the age of 85 in 2007.

Connie Eshbach, Rochester Historical Society

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