Note from BW of Brazil: Just looking at the title of this story should give you the idea that this is a disturbing and difficult story to report. It also has numerous layers to it to consider. I had read a headline about this story maybe four days ago and knew I would need to cover it. Then, when I received a message from a long-time follower of this blog, I knew I needed get into the details of the story. It’s tragic, a shame and was totally unnecessary. But even though this blog focuses on issues of race in Brazil, when I first saw the way the media was reporting it, I didn’t want immediately blast out a headline speaking in black and white, although race does play a role in the incident. It’s just not the first thing that came to mind when I learned about it. For me, the racial factor came into play in other ways. Let me explain why.
The headline above presented by El País Brasil immediately went into the racial aspect of the situation. Again, I want to stress that there is a very important racial aspect to the story that cannot be ignored, but I will get into later. My first thought after reading the details of the story is that the young boy’s mother’s boss was clearly negligent in letting the boy wander around the apartment building alone, obviously making a few wrong turns and putting himself in the danger that led to him plummeting to his death.
The boss was obviously wrong…No debating that. But I don’t think that her negligence was absolutely influenced by race in this case. Had the child been white I truly believe the same thing would have happened. So, for me, race is not the initial main factor, this still considering the fact that the child’s black mother and black grandmother both worked for the white family.
What I am seeing in Brazil today is that race is becoming an issue that black Brazilians are positioning themselves on far more than in the past. What I’ve seen in my two decades of studying Brazil from a perspective of race is that, with access to education, Brazil’s black population as a whole is far more perceptive than in decades past. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, for decades, Brazil declared that racism didn’t exist in the country and millions of Brazilians, black, brown and white kind of accepted this.
Today, racial issues are being openly discussed and debated more than ever before, with black Brazilians challenging their country and its past mythical theories of racial harmony. The screams and demands for the state to stop killing young black people continue to get louder, as they should. Police forces in Brazil kill five times more people than police in the United States, with 75% of victims of homicide being black/brown people. As such, Brazilians are in no place to continue to point the finger at the United States as the country with the real racial problems.
With all of this in mind, still the story of the death of a five-year old black boy due to negligence touches on so many issues that Brazil needs to deal with. I will address some of these issues later in this post. For now, let’s get to the facts of the tragedy.
Death of black child neglected by his mother’s white boss shocks Brazil
Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva, 5, fell from the ninth floor of a luxury building in the city of Recife in Brazil’s northeast on Tuesday, while under the care of his mother’s employer, who will respond in freedom. “If it were the other way around, I believe I would not even have the right to bail,” laments the child’s mother
By Diogo Magri, Débora Britto and Maria Carolina Santos
Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva, 5 years old, died on Tuesday, June 2, when he fell from the ninth floor of a building in the neighborhood of São José, in the downtown region of Recife, Pernambuco. The boy accompanied his mother, the maid Mirtes Renata Souza, in the apartment where she worked and, according to the neighbors, started to cry when she went for a walk with her boss’s dog. Miguel decided to go after his mother, left the apartment, entered the elevator alone – with the consent of Mirtes’ employer – and got lost in the building. Then he fell from the ninth floor from a height of 35 meters (115 feet). The lady of the house was arrested the next day on suspicion of manslaughter, when there is no intention to kill, but she got out on bail and will respond to charges in freedom. The case comes amid protests and debates against racism around the world.
“I’m not going to say that I am angry, I hate nothing, because the pain of my son’s death is prevailing. But I hope that justice is done. Because if it were the other way around, I believe that I wouldn’t even have the right to bail. My name would be printed and my face would be in all over the media,” said the boy’s mother in an interview with Globo TV on Thursday. “He got on the elevator. They didn’t have the patience to get him off the elevator, take him by the arm and get him off the elevator. Because if it were the children of my ex-boss I would have taken him off. She entrusted her children to my mother and me. And the moment I entrusted my son to her, unfortunately she didn’t have the patience to take care (of him), to take [off of the elevator]. He was a child. The employer didn’t have her name disclosed by the police, but according to Mirtes, she is the first lady of the city of Tamandaré, a city 100 km from Recife, Sarí Corte Real. She and the mayor, Sérgio Hacker, have yet to speak publicly about the tragedy.
In the video below, at a certain point, we see the child inside of the elevator. We also see thew moment in which Sarí Corte Real actually punches a high floor number button instead of removing the child. The elevatir first stopped on floor sevewn, but young Miguel didn’t get off. Two floors later, at the ninth floor, the child is seen exiting the elevator where he had access to the terrance in which he would eventually fall to his death.
Classes being suspended due to the pandemic of the coronavirus were the reason why Miguel needed to spend Tuesday with his mother. According to the rules of the quarantine in Recife, educational institutions, shops, bars, cinemas, beaches, parks and other non-essential activities are closed. Social isolation measures, however, began to be eased on Monday, June 1. With nowhere to leave the child, the employee took her son to her employer’s home, for whom she had worked for four years.
The apartment where Mirtes worked is on the fifth floor of Condomínio Píer Maurício de Nassau, known as Torres Gêmeas, meaning Twin Towers, in Recife, the capital city of Pernambuco. The owner was at home, with a manicurist, when the maid went to take the family dog for a walk and left her son with the owner of the property. At that time, the employer “was legally responsible for the momentary custody of the child,” said police chief Ramón Teixeira, responsible for the case, at a virtual press conference on Wednesday.
The building’s cameras show that the child tried twice to enter the elevator without a companion. Once he managed to get into the elevator. The boss appears in the images talking to the boy, but ends up allowing him to be alone in the location. Miguel ended up getting off on the ninth floor and, according to the expert André Amaral, climbed a height of 1.2 meters, climbing on the parapet that gives access to a machine room. There, he climbed onto the aluminum railing, which gave way and made the boy fall. “We registered that the child was screaming for his mother. Possibly, the boy saw his mother walking the dog on a public road,” said the police chief. One of the broken bars of protection was left with the child’s footprints, which supports the expert theory.
The mother and a doctor who lived in the building helped the child until Samu arrived, who took him to the Hospital da Restauração, in the Derby neighborhood, where Miguel’s death was confirmed. While the family was in the health unit, the police went to the accident site to analyze the scenes and images. “She [the boss] had a duty to look after the child. There was negligent behavior, by default, of leaving the child alone in the elevator,” said Teixeira. The next day, the woman was arrested by the State Civil Police on suspicion of wrongful death, when there is no intention to kill. The investigated obtained provisional freedom by paying a bond of BRL$ 20,000 reais. The police chief is also investigating whether the condominium had responsibility, since it was discovered on the day of the initial examination that the ninth floor had no doors and windows locked in the common areas of the building.
During Miguel’s wake, the relatives were revolted by the negligence of the owner of the apartment. “We don’t understand. Having two adult human beings in a house and not looking after a child?”, Miguel’s aunt, Lourdes Cristina, said in an interview, also referring to the manicurist that was in the apartment with her boss. It’s worth remembering that Recife’s quarantine doesn’t include beauty salons as an essential activity. “We don’t believe in fatality”, commented Miguel’s aunt. He was buried in the district of Bonança, in Moreno, in the Zona da Mata Sul of the state.
According to the Civil Police, the investigation has a period of 30 days to be completed and forwarded to the Public Ministry of Pernambuco. After receiving the document, it’s up to the MP to decide whether or not to report the case to the Courts.
Mother and grandmother contracted Covid-19 and were still not released from work. Family asks for justice
Miguel’s case exposes the entrails of violence that doesn’t give a day of peace to black families and, especially, black women and young people.
Miguel’s family lived with the family of her boss Sarí Gaspar Côrte Real, wife of the mayor of Tamandaré, Sérgio Hacker, but the distance that separates them – including access to justice or impunity – was constructed over centuries of exploitation and contempt for vidas negras (black lives).
Not only Miguel’s mother, the maid Mirtes Renata Souza, but also his grandmother, Marta Santana, worked for the same family. The two resigned after watching the video of the building’s internal circuit that shows when the child entered the elevator and was left alone by his mother’s boss.
It was Mirtes’ mother, Dona Marta, who first started working at the home of the mayor of Tamandaré, in 2014. Four years ago, Mirtes also went to work there. On the day of Miguel’s death, he had said that he missed his mother and that he wanted to spend the day with her. Mirtes then took him to work with her, although it wasn’t customary.
“My aunt didn’t have time off, even when she had a coronavirus. So Miguel was really missing his mother. He was a very happy child, very smart, kind, sincere,” recalled Amanda Souza, Mirtes’ niece, in an interview. Miguel was an only child and his parents had recently separated.
The family wants justice
“If it were me, my face would be printed, as I have seen several cases on television. My name would be printed and my face would be all over the media. But hers cannot be in the media, it can’t be divulged,” said Mirtes, in an interview published on TV Globo this Thursday (4).
Until Miguel’s burial, Mirtes had not seen the images showing the child alone in the elevator. The mayor of Tamandaré Sérgio Hacker and his wife, Sarí Gaspar Côrte Real, went to the child’s funeral, but were expelled.
“My aunt was unresponsive when she saw them, because she didn’t know yet that it was that woman who murdered my cousin. But I was outraged when I saw her. I asked her to leave the funeral and started shouting for her to leave, my mother also shouted at her. She and her husband left running. My aunt later saw the images of the elevator and sent a message to our family saying that she wants justice. That’s when we decided to protest. Twenty thousand reais (price of Sarí’s bail, accused of manslaughter) doesn’t pay for my cousin’s life. If the killer were not rich, she would not be free,” says Amanda.
It must be remembered that domestic work is not essential in this pandemic moment. But two domestic workers were not allowed to stay at home, even in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Mirtes’ report, when she had Covid-19, she returned to Recife with her bosses and her mother stayed at the beach house taking care of the children – Miguel and the employers’ children.
Sarí Côrte Real’s neglect of Miguel’s life, a boy full of vitality and joy, is what resulted in the child’s death. Fatality is something that cannot be avoided. Black movements and organizations denounce that what happened was not an accident and demand justice.
Miguel’s death exposes structural racism behind inequalities in Brazil; work exposed family to Covid-19
Another of Mirtes’ nieces, Karina Souza, said that Miguel’s mother contracted the coronavirus with her boss and continued to work in the apartment where the crime occurred. “From what I discussed with my aunt, when she was still in isolation, she said that she had gone there to Tamandaré with her mother and son because the bosses and the bosses’ children were going to escape from the focus (of the virus), which would be Recife. And there she contracted the virus, with her boss,” she says.
With the diagnosis of Covid-19, the bosses decided to return to Recife, and brought Mirtes. “Even though she was sick, she continued to work in the apartment: washing, cooking, doing the housework she had to do. She just had access to medicines and tests. Miguel stayed in Tamandaré with his mother (Mirtes’ mother) and the boss’s children. Also known is that Miguel also caught the virus, but he was asymptomatic,” says Karina.
Mirtes’ mother would also have contracted the virus with the boss’s family in Tamandaré, and had only mild symptoms.
For Luiza Batista, president of the National Federation of Domestic Workers (Fenatrad) and of the Union of Domestic Workers of Pernambuco, the feeling that Miguel’s death can go unpunished reinforces a series of injustices that still exist in the labor relations of the category.
“We regret what happened and we join all the groups that ask for justice for Miguel, but we see that we are experiencing a moment of impunity in the world. What will be the next step? What will be the punishment? It was clearly a willful homicide. What if it were the other way around?,” she asks.
The fact that Mirtes continues to work even though infected with the coronavirus is proof of social injustice and racism, according to Luiza. “These people (the bosses of Mirtes) unfortunately are the ones who most disrespect the workers’ rights that are won, they are the ones who most disrespect the law because of impunity. The worker should be at home.” Miguel had his life ended on the day the PEC das Domésticas (maid’s law) completed 5 years, legislation that guaranteed the minimum recognition of the rights of domestic workers.
For the president of the union, up to MP 936, a Provisional Measure that allowed the suspension of contracts and reduction of wages due to the pandemic, would be a better option for domestic workers at this time than receiving full salary but having to work. Early in the pandemic, Fenatrad ran a national campaign for domestic workers to stay at home and have their jobs guaranteed. Luiza also warns of the fact that domestic workers have no one to leave their children with as schools and daycare centers closed.
Act in memory of Miguel
Miguel’s family is also mobilizing to protest this Friday (5) in front of the Torres Gêmeas. The act is scheduled for 3pm. “Our family wants her to pay for what she did to Miguel,” says Amanda Souza, one of the organizers of the demonstration. One request is for people to wear white and carry posters that support the demand for justice.
Another act will concentrate at 1 pm in front of the Pernambuco Court of Justice and will continue with a march to the Torres Gêmeas. The idea is that the acts can be found there. The family will not participate in the walk because members are fragile, the organization said.
The articulation of the walk in memory and for justice by Miguel came from several activists, organizations and movements that denounce the structural racism that victimized Miguel. The recommendation is for people to stay 2 meters away from each other and wear masks, in addition to taking alcohol gel.
Criticism of the characterization of “manslaughter”
The Civil Police’s understanding of the case was disclosed at a press conference on Wednesday (3), by police chief Ramon Teixeira. At the same press conference, however, the police admit that there are images that prove that Sarí let the child of just five years enter the elevator alone, even pushing a button on the upper floor where they were.
Both the family and lawyers’ organizations ask for the responsibility of the employer, who was responsible for the child at that time.
For the coordinator of the Office of Legal Advisory to Popular Organizations (GAJOP), Edna Jatobá, there is an expanded responsibility that must also be charged to the State. The organization has created a board of lawyers and is organizing how to legally collect other actions that support workers like Mirtes.
“We need to think about the role of the State in protecting [this child]. Housework service is not essential. These women are not in a position to leave their children at home in the context of a pandemic, and because of this context, they could not leave their children in someone else’s home because of isolation, the danger of contagion, but Mirtes had to take the boy to work, when it’s not even essential,”he explains.
For Edna, it is urgent to demand justice and protection for women who are domestic workers. “We are talking about a woman who killed a boy. We have to be anti-punitive when we are making a systemic discussion of the black population that is the majority within the prison system and we request extrication. That is not so. We have to have the punitivist discussion within the antiracism discussion. This is a funny case of structural racism and will we be protecting the boss? The name is justice,” defends Edna.
Note from BW of Brazil: So as we can see, the death of little Miguel speaks to numerous issues that have gone unchecked in Brazil, some for years and decades, and others, in the case of Covid-19, for months. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, the race factor wasn’t the immediate first issue here, but rather the fact that an employer’s negligence led to the death of a child. But while I wouldn’t place race in the category of 1A in its level of importance, I would place it at perhaps 1B or 2 because, first of all, as has been pointed out, social/racial inequalities place black and brown Brazilians in a more vulnerable position in relation to the coronavirus pandemic.
Non-white Brazilians, the group of which represents Brazil’s poorest people, mostly don’t work in positions that would allow them to simply work from home. They are also more likely to be in need of the use of public transportation. These are two immediate factors that would expose black and brown people to more situations in which they could contract Covid-19.
Back in March, activists began to call on employers of men and women that provided domestic services in homes to allow their employees to remain home and still receive their full pay. This became an issue after a black maid contracted Covid-19 from her employer who had returned from a trip to Italy. Many people that have maids and cleaning people working in their homes are in the financial position to allow their workers to remain home and continue paying their salaries. In the situation above, Sarí Gaspar Côrte Real didn’t seem to have any problems paying BRL$20,000 for her bail and getting out of jail.
Most black and brown Brazilians (as well as most white Brazilians) aren’t in a position to come up with such a large sum of money. And as black/brown Brazilians make up the majority of Brazil’s poor and extremely poor, this exemplifies another facet of endemic racial inequality at the root of Brazilian society for centuries.
Another facet of the racial/social factor has to do with domestic service itself. We have long known that Brazil has one of the highest totals of people working as maids in the world, and, as we also know, most maids in Brazil are not white. Over the years, reports and studies have pointed out how domestic service in Brazil is a kind of remnant of the three and half centuries of slavery in Brazil with maids receiving low pay and working long hours to serve their bosses and their families.
The exploitative nature of this employer/employee relationship, even when bosses claim that their maids are “like one of the family”, was recently exposed on a social networking page and book in which maids throughout Brazil reported the way their employers treated them. This is why the maid’s law mentioned above was so necessary to grant to domestic workers a minimum of rights in their workplace. Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva died on June 2, exactly five years and one day after President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned the bill on June 1st of 2015. Considering all of these facts and measures that could have been taken, I think it’s reasonable to say that little Miguel’s death could have avoided.
One other thing I’m torn on. When Sarí Gaspar Côrte Real and Sérgio Hacker appeared at the boy’s wake, they were basically told to get lost. As a father of children that are about the same age of Miguel, I certainly understand the outrage that the family must have felt toward the couple. I can only imagine that the loss of a child, particularly in such a violent manner, must be emotionally traumatic. But at the same time, I wonder how I would have reacted in the same scenario. In such a painful moment, would I have been capable of forgiving the couple at that moment? I really can’t say for sure. How would you have reacted?
The judgment of this case hasn’t even started yet, but people have every right to demand that justice be served in this situation. After all, how many young black children has Brazil murdered or allowed to die in just the past decade alone? And with state actions that take away the lives of young black people everyday seemingly with impunity, it’s also understandable that many want to see justice served in this particular case.
Since this whole case started, people have rallied behind Miguel’s mother when she said that, if the case were in reverse, with a poor black woman’s negligence being the cause of a white child’s death, her face would be plastered all over the media, but that the white boss lady’s face couldn’t be divulged, by posting Real’s photo all over Twitter.
“This is the woman!!! The media doesn’t want to divulge her name nor even the images of her. But we’re going to show it!!!”
“I’ve already seen the face of Miguel’s mother on all the websites, TV channels, the boss that killed the boy I almost didn’t see”
“What agony, the whole report is the boss, living in the blah blah building and not showing the woman’s face on the elevator video!! The woman, the boss who left Miguel alone in the elevator has a name and face SHOW IT! SARÍ CORTE REAL”
“If it were me, my face would be stamped, as I’ve already seen various cases on television”, says the mother of Miguel, the boy that died after falling from a building in Recife.
“Sarí Gaspar Corte Real, the first lady of Tamandaré, is the boss lady charged with the death of Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva, a 5-year-old boy who fell from a building in Recife. Let’s not forget this face!”
I can’t say that I feel sorry for Sarí Gaspar Corte Real because her negligence that lead to the death of child must have consequences. And in the minds of many, with the number of young black people having their lives taken away by a state that seems hell bent on eliminating as many black lives as possible, the possibility of punishment seems more likely in this particular case. Real’s punishment can’t bring back all of those young lives taken away, but with such pent up anguish/anger/frustration, I believe a lot of people will certainly feel just a hint of vindication with whatever judgment Corte Real receives.