How My 
Good Life 
Began

    I was 12 when I discovered that my mother
    had married again and left us.
    I realized that my sister and I were alone.
    I never thought that my mother would have the nerve
    to leave us but I didn’t cry. I didn’t even
    worry about the rent that was due the next week.
    By Dona Maria Flor’s story as told to
    KATHLEEN BOND and MARGARIDA MAGALHÀES

    I was 12 when I discovered that my mother
    had married again and left us.
    I realized that my sister and I were alone.
    I never thought that my mother would have the nerve
    to leave us but I didn’t cry. I didn’t even
    worry about the rent that was due the next week.

    Dona Maria Flor is a short woman in her 50’s with large brown expressive eyes who is a
    bundle of energy. We met her near a small hotel in Baía da Traição, Paraíba, where she
    was selling doces, Brazilian sweets made out of local fruits such as mango and
    guava. She invited us to her nearby modest home to talk.

    Flor now lives among the Potyguara people who, during the 16th century, dominated the
    northeastern Brazilian coast from the state of Paraíba to the state of Maranhão. An
    estimated 200,000 of them lived in Paraíba alone. After five centuries of invasions, only
    approximately 5,000 Potyguara today remain in 18 villages on a constitutionally protected
    reservation in Paraíba and Rio Grande do Norte.

    The Potyguara people continue to be exploited today by sugar cane distilleries that
    invade their territory, pollute the rivers, and destroy natural ecosystems. The indigenous
    are mostly subsistence farmers but the quality of the land is poor. Lost hope and lack of
    work have contributed to internal disagreements, killings, alcoholism, begging and
    malnutrition. Women suffer greatly because much of the care of children and the sick fall
    on their shoulders. For all the 18 villages there is only one health clinic. If a child
    falls ill, a mother has to walk over eight hours in order to get help. There are no buses
    during six months of the year because rains and mud make the road impossible to traverse.

    When we ask Flor what it is like being a woman, she replies: "I’ve never accepted
    that idea that some have that I am weaker because I am a woman. I’ve always viewed myself
    as strong, and a little crazy. Hard work is not something that I fear. Saying this I must
    admit that there are disadvantages of being a woman. I’ve always wanted to be able to
    travel to isolated places without worry for my well-being. Also, it would have been great
    to be able to cover my house, climb up on that big ladder, and do the work myself. I’m
    strong but I’m tiny. Anyway, I wouldn’t trade being the woman I am for any of the men I
    know."

    Here is Flor’s story in her own words.

    My grandmother says that I was born in Sete Cabeças, Pernambuco—a place that
    until this day no one has heard of. [Many people in the rural Northeast were not
    registered at birth because of the cost. This creates some confusion around age and exact
    place of birth.] When I came into the world, I [was told that I] cried for three days
    until my father hit me with a paddle. As I look back today, that was how my good life
    began.

    When I was two, my parents separated and I went to live with my aunt and my
    grandmother…. Until I was 10, I hopped back and forth between my mother’s house and my
    grandmother’s house [which] I preferred. During these years, I think that I was a nuisance
    to my mother. Not because I wanted to be, but because I responded to my grandmother when
    she inquired about my mother’s romantic life. My mother was a worker and a fighter but she
    also liked to love a lot.

    When I was 10, my sister, Miriam, and I returned definitely to live with my mother. It
    wasn’t because my mother wanted us back but because my aunt had married a widower that
    didn’t accept nieces. My recently wedded aunt and grandmother went to live in a place a
    long way away.

    Back with my mother, I had to start working as a [live-in] maid in order to earn money
    for food and clothes. Originally, I was hired to take care of a small infant. But when the
    infant napped, I also had to wash clothes, iron, sweep, and tidy the house. I was
    exploited. When I was finally allowed to visit my mother who lived on a sugar cane
    plantation, I begged her to let me stay home in order to rest awhile. Initially my mother
    agreed but right away she began complaining about the lack of money and I had to start
    looking for another job. Even with all the exhaustion, I managed to study a bit while
    working as a maid in various homes.

    When I was 12, I moved with my mother to Abreu e Lima in greater Recife. My mother who
    always had worked in the sugar cane fields began to work as a maid. Quickly tiring of the
    drudgery, she started to sell clothes. But I stayed as a maid and this was when one boss
    started to show an interest in me. I quickly told his wife everything but the situation
    got complicated and I had to leave. I wasn’t even a woman yet, just a little girl and I
    sure didn’t want to be a whore.

    Unemployed, I returned to my mother’s house. Upon explaining why I left the boss’
    house… My mother said that Seu João was a man of respect and responsibility and
    that she didn’t believe me. One day while I was buying bread at the corner bakery, I
    caught sight of my mother all dressed up as she entered a bus. I didn’t think [anything]
    of it. But when I found my sister crying as I arrived home, I discovered that my mother
    had married again and left us. I realized that we were alone. I never thought that my
    mother would have the nerve to leave us but I didn’t cry. I didn’t even worry about the
    rent that was due the next week.

    Knowing of our situation, a seamstress named Dona Prazeres who lived close by decided
    to adopt us. She simply arrived one day and said, "I have four daughters but I I’ll
    take you in and from now on you will also be my daughters." Even with the welcome of
    Dona Prazeres, I passed through a very difficult moment in my life. Without knowing where
    my mother and grandmother lived, I felt alone in this world. Out of the blue, the adopted
    daughter of my aunt suggested entering into an orphanage run by Americans. The orphanage
    had the reputation of being very good but like a prison. One couldn’t go out. Because of
    this, my sister didn’t go but I went to the Orphanage Talita in Recife. I didn’t see any
    other way out.

    When I arrived, I felt the weight of reality falling on my head. I cried and cried and
    cried so much in this world that no one or nothing could console me. The orphanage people
    tried everything. The fear I felt was of the papa figo [boogey man] that everyone
    talked of constantly. I also was amazed by the Americans, so great was my fear that I
    thought I would surely die, killed in that place. One day I overheard, without wanting
    [to], the director saying that I had no future, and that if I continued in my ways, I
    would surely go crazy.

    The director decided to take me to look for my mother, Alice. We left at 3 in the
    morning with the director herself driving the van. We drove around for hours, stopping and
    asking, backtracking, asking more people, until we found her. The director gave us 15
    minutes to talk. Even though my mother had abandoned me, I was very happy to see her. And
    she was even happy to see me. We hugged, talked, and went our separate ways.

    From that day forward, the emptiness passed and I was able to get on with my life in
    the orphanage. When I was 15, I became a monitor responsible for taking care of the other
    children. I also studied and taught by the way of Paulo Freire [Brazil’s most famous
    writer of literacy issue].

    With time, the board of the orphanage changed and there was a selection of young women
    that would go to live with the Americans [Baptist missionaries in Brazil] to help them
    learn Portuguese, and also do their chores. I was chosen by Dona Mae Minter, who I
    recognize as my true mother today and from whom I heard the very first time, "I love
    you. You are my daughter." For my birth mother, I always wrote but never received a
    response. I’ll let God deal with that one…

    Finally, I entered a calm period of my life. While at the orphanage, I had the chance
    to see films about indigenous communities. From that day forward I resolved to go and work
    with these peoples. I began to prepare with bible and other courses. I also started trying
    to convince Dona Mae Minter and all the orphanage folks to let me go because no one wanted
    to lose me. Even though they protested, I was convinced that this was my calling…..

    My dream was to go to the Amazon but I ended up in Baía da Traição (Rio Grande do
    Norte) with the Potyguaras where I was a missionary nurse [beginning] … in 1966. At
    first I thought that I was just going to evangelize but right away I saw it didn’t work to
    just focus on the spiritual side without looking at the social one because the misery was
    great.

    In the Potyguaras’ villages I spent 13 years as a missionary. I taught reading and
    writing, worked as a nurse, and made many trips denouncing the horrific conditions of the
    village and raising money. I left the missionary life in order to marry an índio
    [local] named Galdino. That was when my name changed to Maria Lima da Silva, not by my
    desire, but by the will of the local judge. I didn’t spend many years married, only enough
    time to end up with six children, four daughters and two sons: Natan, Natali, Nely Mae,
    Noalice, Nadja, and Georgeta.

    I ended up separating from my husband for an apparently trivial reason. One day I had
    to cut my Natali’s hair because she had an epidemic of lice. My husband got angry and ran
    after her. When he caught her, he shaved her head completely clean and then went looking
    for me. I didn’t [get] a beating because my young Noalice latched onto Galdino’s
    outstretched arms, preventing him from hitting me. Galdino still managed to pull my hair
    that no one had ever touched, not even in the orphanage.

    When I was three-months pregnant, I separated definitely from my husband and returned
    to Recife. With my five children and growing belly, we went to live near my youngest
    brother where I worked selling vegetables. We were poor but I affirm today that we never
    were lacking food. I left Recife after three years because the violence during those days
    was great. Every day [someone] died… Upon returning to Baía da Traição, everyone
    doubted whether I could make it on my own and care properly for my children. I went to the
    fields, worked hard, and today I can say that my children are rich. I have Christ in my
    life and many friends. João Pessoa [the capital city of neighboring state Paraíba] is
    full of my children. Those surfers [Flor lives near a famous surfing beach and often lets
    visiting surfers sleep in her shed] that I took in generously ten years ago are now
    doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. They are my friends such as Osmar that makes labels in
    his computer for the homemade sweets of cashew fruit that I sell and that also is trying
    to encourage the government to help organize a theater group in the community.

    So today I say I made it…

    About the authors:

    Kathleen Bond is a North American Maryknoll lay missioner who for the
    past six years has written about and worked with women and human rights in João Pessoa,
    state of Paraíba. She coauthored "Mulher: Saúde, Sexualidade e Direitos
    Humanos"(Woman: Health, Sexuality, and Human Rights. You can contact her at katiaflavio@uol.com.br 

    Margarida Magalhães is a Professor of Geography in João Pessoa. Dona
    Maria Flor’s story will be included in the forthcoming book "Mulheres do Brasil: 500
    Anos Abaixo dos Panos" (Brazilian Women: 500 Years Hidden from View), published by
    Schuma Schumaher (schuma@redeh.org.br} of the
    Brazilian Non-Governmental Organization REDEH.

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