By It is often said that Brazilians live under a racial democracy,
meaning that in Brazil miscegenation has created a cultural mélange in which all races
are equally valued. Nothing is farther from the truth.
During the elections of 1997, Margarida Pereira da Silva was the leading candidate for
mayor in Pombal in the interior of the state of Paraíba, Northeastern Brazil. Margarida,
beloved for her community work with youth, decided to run for office to offer an
alternative to the corrupt, special interest politics that dominate the Northeastern
region. With little money, she ran the campaign from her home. One week before Election
Day, two strangers offered her a R$100,000 (US$50,000) donation for her youth program.
There was just one conditionMargarida had to drop out of the race. She politely but
firmly refused, "I’m running for my people not for money."
Within days of the refused bribe, all of her posters were painted over with the words
"Negra Feia", Ugly Black Woman. Unable to discredit her honesty or merits, her
opponents orchestrated a smear that focused solely on race. Long-time friends and even
some relatives, most likely paid off, suddenly were working against her. Margarida lost by
a landslide. When Margarida’s nephew caught his girlfriend tearing down Margarida’s
posters, she responded, "I’m not going to waste my vote on that ugly, black
Margarida’s story of racial discrimination is not isolated to the rural areas of the
Northeast. Every day millions of Afro-Brazilians experience racism. From the family living
room, where darker skinned children are often discriminated against, to Church pews,
barbershops, classrooms, and the Halls of Congress, racism gnaws at the fabric of
Brazilian society. The South American giant is often considered by foreigners and
Brazilians as a "racial democracy" because of the high number of interracial
marriages and seemingly easy banter between the races in every day life. Racial Democracy,
coined by the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre in early 20th century, is the theory
that a history of extended miscegenation has created a cultural mélange in which all
races are equally valued. Nothing is farther from the truth in contemporary Brazil.
Race in Brazil is complex and distinct. Most Brazilians claim a mixed African,
European, and indigenous ancestry. In practice, however, the weight of racism causes
people to continually "whiten" themselves. For example, many "morenos"
straighten their hair, people search for lighter-skinned marriage partners, and people
identify themselves and each other with nicknames indicating a lighter skin tone, such as moreninho
(browny), café (coffee), mulato, bronzeado (tanned), and escurinho
(darky) to name a few. Rarely will someone assume an identity as negro (black).
Even those who call themselves black often have a hard time convincing other Brazilians
not to identify them as "moreno" or "mulato". Calling
someone black, for many, is still an insult.
Skin color profoundly influences life chances. According to a 1992 study by Carlos
Hasenbalg and Nelson do Valle Silva, Brazilian nonwhites are three times more likely than
whites to be illiterate. The numbers deteriorate in the high echelons of academic study.
Whites are FIVE times more likely than people of mixed ancestry and NINE times more likely
than blacks to obtain university degrees. This pattern repeats itself in the work force
where according to government statistics whites have access to the highest-paying jobs,
earning up to 75% more than blacks and 50% more than people of mixed ancestry. Brazil’s
prisons and youth detention centers are bursting at the seams. The vast majority of
detainees and victims of police brutality are non-white Brazilians. Not surprisingly,
health statistics paint a similar picture. For example, non-white Brazilian infants are
almost twice as likely to die as their white counterparts.
Not all of the consequences of racism can be neatly packaged into statistics and
charts. Effects on self-esteem are not easily measured. At a recent reflection group of
Afro-Brazilian women in João Pessoa, state of Paraíba, Cida painfully recounted the
termination of her relationship. For several years, she dated Chico, a lighter-skinned
black, and their color difference never created difficulties. When they got engaged,
Chico’s family exploded with his mother leading the attack, "This little blackie is
going to pollute our blood. Go and find someone who will purify our blood." Chico
caved in and broke the engagement within days. Two years later Cida painfully asked in the
group, "How can you tell me not to feel inferior because of my color?"
Brazil’s black movement struggles to address this question by introducing a positive
black identity and fighting racism at all levels of society. According to anthropologist
John Burdick, the movement exploded in the 1970s, when a whole generation of non-white
students was caught in the contradiction between the promise of upward mobility and the
reality of labor and educational barriers. Blacks on the world scene, including
revolutionaries in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola
and militants in the North American black power movement offered encouraging symbols of
power and self-confidence for the fledgling Afro-Brazilian movement.
Over the past 25 years, the black movement in Brazil has developed various facets. Some
groups exclusively dedicate their energy to judicial and legislative arenas, such as the
enforcement of the 1989 Caó law that makes racism a crime. Other organizations focus on
cultural programs. The most famous example is the internationally acclaimed percussion
band, Olodum. Various research institutes, primarily in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo,
focus on black identity and tend to cater to the middle class. Segments of the Catholic
Church, most notably the Agentes de Pastoral Negros (Black Pastoral Church Workers), offer
educational courses for the economically disadvantaged.
The black movement here in the state of Paraíba is one example of this diversity.
Participating organizations include: Caiana dos Crioulos, a black community of descendants
of runaway slaves; Banda Ylê Odara and other musical, martial arts and dance groups;
Afro-Brazilian religious groups, including Candomblé and Umbanda centers; women’s
reflection groups; coalition and organizing entities including the Agentes de Pastoral
Negros; and education groups that focus on literacy programs, training and school
curriculum development. During the annual, statewide Black Movement Conference in
September 1999, more than 100 activists from these groups gathered for three days in the
capital city. With Brazil approaching in April, 2000 the anniversary of the Portuguese
colonization, this year’s theme was "500 Years of Black Resistance."
In addition to gaining new insights on cultural, religious, and political resistance,
coming together in solidarity is an important aspect of the annual conference. In the
rural regions, blacks are often isolated. They suffer intense discrimination, especially
in the school system. Paulo César, a 26-year-old community activist in Sousa, shared a
story that echoed the childhood experiences of many of the participants. In his junior
high school there were only 3 or 4 black students in the class. When he was called "negão
besta" (big, stupid black), his teacher refused to intervene. His mother, lacking
formal education and self-confidence, also failed to react when he came home crying from
"That experience left a profound mark," stated César. "My involvement
with the black movement reinforces in me that being a black is not horrible, it’s being a
human being like any other person." César directs cultural groups, including capoeira
(a combination of martial arts and dance that slaves practiced, training for escapes). He
also gives workshops about racism in local schools. "I come to these gatherings to
learn," commented César, "but perhaps more importantly I carry back with me a
renewed pride and self-confidence in being Afro-Brazilian."
Other black activists also work to the interior regions in the state. Tanzanian
Maryknoll Sister Efu Nyaki and her Brazilian colleagues travel extensively throughout the
drought-stricken, poor countryside to offer two-day formation courses focusing on
identity, self-esteem, and empowerment. During the visits, Nyaki discovered an abysmally
low educational level among most blacks in the interior. "We’ve been to all-black
rural communities where only one or two people are literate, which has led us to seek
funding to begin small literacy programs," commented Nyaki.
Lagoa Raça is one of those communities. Five years ago, when Nyaki’s team first
visited the community 10 hours from state capital, there was no school within walking
distance and only one of the 200 residents could read and write. With help from outside,
that man, Chagas, was trained to offer adult literacy courses. Over time, a school was
built to serve the community. "There are Lagoa Raças all over the Northeast,"
lamented Nyaki. "The government has simply abandoned these people."
Educational work is also occurring in the urban areas. Activists are giving workshops
on racism and Afro-Brazilian identity in schools. Very few school children admit being
black when the question is posed at the beginning of the sessions. For most Brazilians,
regardless of color, being black is not a positive thing. In the schools, the complete
lack of educational material about Afro-Brazilian history and culture reinforces negative
images. Nyaki’s team is working with black university professors to develop a primary
school curriculum that includes the history and achievements of black Brazilians.
Black Religious are coming together for reflection in various groups nationwide.
GRENI(Group of Black and Indigenous Religious) in Paraíba is one such group. One of the
goals of these small clusters of Catholic priests and sisters is to begin the process of
reclaiming their identity as blacks and indigenous. Many participants find strength from
the groups to face the racism in their own religious communities.
Catholics are not just talking with each other about race issues. Over the last decade
some Catholics have attempted to dialogue with Afro-Brazilian religious members who have
suffered intense discrimination, often condoned by the Catholic Church over the years.
Until the 1950s, acts of destruction against Candomblé houses of worship by either the
police or common citizens were never punished by law. Even after practice of
Afro-Brazilian religion was legalized in the early 70s, participants were required to
request permission from local authorities on the day of worship until the end of the
decade. Persecution continues even today when Afro-Brazilian religious symbols such as
drums and colorful vestments are considered by some as "coisas do diabo "
(things of the devil).
One of the first Catholics involved in this inter-religious effort was the late
Combonian Fr. Hector Frissoti, who began his ministry by simply attending the terreiros
(the sacred Afro-Brazilian place of worship). After educating himself, Frissoti began to
write and publish his reflections. He carried these experiences first to his own Comboni
community in Brazil and later to the larger Brazilian Catholic Church. The issue reached
the agenda of the 9th Annual Inter-Ecclesial Base Community leaders meeting, a gathering
of 8000 people, including 67 Bishops, in 1997 in São Luiz, Maranhão.
Frissoti and others involved in the effort have met resistance on both sides. The
inclusion of Afro-Brazilian religions on the agenda caused conflict among the bishops, who
feared that including the Afro-Brazilian religions would tarnish the image of the Catholic
Church. Others argued that inter-religious dialogue and celebrations would be more
inclusive of the many Catholics who participate in terreiros.
There is resistance from the practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions as well. After
suffering a century of persecution from the Catholic Church, many Afro-Brazilian religious
leaders are cautious. Ana Rita Santiago, a Candomblé priestess from Salvador, Bahia,
expressed a common concern, "I am wary of a process that is limited to taking some of
our symbols and simply incorporating them into the Catholic mass."
But Fr. Frissoti’s spirit of reconciliation continues to touch many in Brazil,
including some at high places. The National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB)
announced recently that it plans to ask publicly for forgiveness from indigenous and black
peoples for not speaking to injustices committed against them as Brazil approaches 500
years of European presence. For Sr. Nyaki, who has accompanied the emerging dialogue for
the last six years, this is only the beginning. "Public statements from Church
leaders is a step but, we also ask that Brazilian Catholics open their hearts and
Kathleen Bond is with the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful.
You can contact the author at SEJUP (Serviço Brasileiro de Justiça e PazBrazilian
Service of Justice and Peace): firstname.lastname@example.org
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