Black Women of Brazil

The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent

“In a class of 40 new flight attendants, all were white”: Kenia Aquino details how she became a stewardess in yet another area in which black Brazilians are rare


Kenia Aquino, nossa comissária voando o mundo

Flight attendant Kenia Aquino

Note from BW of Brazil: So much controversy! The happenings in Brazil in terms of race keep this writer/translator steadily busy trying to keep up with the absurdities of a racist country that doesn’t see itself as such. True to form, I have still more stories to cover that will make you shake your head in disbelief, but sometimes I like to back away from these depressing incidents and share stories that are a little more uplifting. But guess what, even in those stories you often happen to go through the negativity just to get to the positivity. Today’ story is a good example of this. Before I get into today’s feature, let me first share how this story reminded me of my first trips to Brazil.

When I began traveling to Brazil, back in 2000, I began my explorations in the state of Bahia. At that time, because there were no direct flights to Salvador, I had to first catch a bus from Detroit to New York’s JFK Airport. Now, if you’ve ever been to JFK, you KNOW it’s as international as the city itself. At JFK, everywhere I looked, it seemed that there were citizens from every country in the world walking around as well as working. I saw African-Americans, white people, Chinese people, Indians (from India), Jamaicans, Nigerians, Koreans, Latinos…It seemed that JFK was an enormous United Nations.

Taking the flight from the largest city and economic engine of the US to the equivalent in Brazil, São Paulo, was like night and day. Getting off the plane in in São Paulo’s Guarulhos Airport I was immediately struck by the lack of black people in the place. I mean, in September of 2000, I didn’t even see black people sweeping the floor at Guarulhos much less taking flights. I remember claiming my luggage for my flight to Salvador, Bahia, and one of the airport assistants asking me if I was going to Bahia. I asked him how he knew. “You look like you would be going to Bahia”, he replied. Must be the black skin, right?

Varig

Plane of the defunct Varig Airlines

After catching the bus to Congonhas Airport to get my connection flight, I suddenly noticed that ALL of the flight attendants were also white. All pretty, dark-haired white women. Afer three weeks in Salvador, on my flight back to São Paulo, I remember once again noting how all of the flight attendants were white women. A few years after that flight, I remember reading an article in my further research on race in Brazil. I don’t remember the source, but I just remember reading how the city of Salvador purposely hired all white flight attendants because, in an 80% black city, city officials didn’t want passengers to think they were landing in Africa! In my years of flying back and forth to Brazil, I can attest to the fact that it is rare to see a black Brazilian flight attendant. Yet another area where black Brazilians are for the most part shut out. 

1ª Marcha do Empoderamento Crespo de Salvador

Women of Salvador, Bahia, at a natural black hair march

To close out my personal experience with flights to Brazil, back in 2012, I published a few articles on how many black Brazilians had began to enter the middle class and have access to things that, previously, were thing exclusively enjoyed by white Brazilians. Two decades ago, it wasn’t as common to see many black Brazilians driving cars, having costly home appliances, or also, taking flights. I can attest to this, because I traveled to Brazil every year, sometimes twice a year, between 2000 and 2012. It was around 2006 or 2007 when I began to notice more black Brazilians taking flights in Brazil; still an extreme minority, but a noticeable difference. Of course, today, with a new president who seems to be on a mission to take away all of those gains, sadly, many of those black Brazilians are once again descending down the social ladder as the country is witnessing perhaps its worst economic recession in its history

Well, it was cool to reminisce for a few. Now for today’s story about Kenia Aquino.

kenia aquino_aeromoça_negra-1

Kenia Aquino, our flight attendant flying the world!

Courtesy of Sotero Preto

The profession of flight attendant or stewardess arose on May 15, 1930, on the demand of a woman. Initially, its function was to take care of the health and safety of the passengers during the flight. Nowadays, when talking about aviation, the first image that comes to mind is that of the pilot with his blue cap and stewardesses, white and slender.

Although this is the most well-known position, Kenia Aquino is one of these curses that we can find in our comings and goings through Brazil. She is one of the few black women in this space. Raised in Porto Alegre (capital of Rio Grande do Sul state), she recalls that when she decided to pursue this career – 12 years ago – not everyone supported her. Let’s get to know a little of her history:

Portal Soteropreta – What made you follow this profession, what difficulties did you experience and how you understand this market today?

kenia aquino-9-768x512

Kenia Aquino, flight attendant

Kenya Aquino – I decided to go into this profession for several things, among them because I believed I could fly the world. The difficulties I had when I decided to fly were mainly the lack of information and knowledge about the area. I didn’t know anyone. As much as I wanted, one day I simply opened the phone book and started looking for aviation schools. At the time, in 2006, I was a general service assistant and worked in the laundry room of a hospital. My salary was low and the course cost almost 50% of it. But I didn’t see a problem, I did not think about it, I just wanted to keep going.

“In 2007, I decided to do a raffle to get money and pay for the tickets. Thanks to my family and friends, who helped me sell the 600 raffle tickets, I managed to go. I did a selection in a great airline, I went through three phases of the selection process and got approval! Only a few weeks later, I discovered that my place went to a moça loira (blonde girl) and – in the class of 40 new comissários (flight attendants), just white people! “

Portal Soteropreta – And how was that for you, how did that change?

Kenia Aquino – I’m sure this was the worst moment of my career, but in February 2008 my dream came true, YES. I did a selection process in another company and finally, I was approved. I moved with a suitcase and my things to the capital of São Paulo. I was 23 years old and a suitcase full of expectations. I lived in a rented room (it was what I could afford), I shared a room with strangers, and I learned a lot. A new era, a new life!

Portal Soteropreta – What are your plans for these flights and what is it like to be black in this area?

Kenia Aquino – My dreams have always been with travels. Some I will still manage – like seeing the pyramids of Egypt and the Taj Mahal. Over the years, I have learned to realize that very few passengers are black. Fewer crewmen. When many blacks on a flight, you can be sure it’s some band, or dance group. But I believe that things are improving in our favor. The market may still have prejudiced traits, but each year we are gaining space. A clear example is that ten years ago I could not fly with my natural hair, today I can. I act as cabin chief and realize that when I say my name to customers, some are surprised. Would this surprise be the same if I were white?

Portal Soteropreta – What’s your message to black women who also want to fly?

Kenya Aquino – I have today two black cousins trained in a flight commissary course waiting for their turn in the sun. And I make no effort to make them succeed. To all black women and men who have the desire to fly: FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS! I was a joke in some places, many discredited me. The girl who passed by and folded hundreds of sheets in the hospital basement, wearing a beat-up coat, is now flying the world. Pretas (Black women): write your story. One day I will still write a book telling the story of the washerwoman who flew the world. And if I did, you can do it.

Source: Portal Sotero Preto

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