Note from BW of Brazil: Today we bring you another story of struggle, survival, commitment and victory. This short biography is taken from the book, Mulheres Negras na Primeira Pessoa (Black Women in the First Person), a collection of life stories told by various black women from various areas of Brazil. The title of the book is symbolic for a few reasons. One, the stories of black women are rarely told in Brazilian society even though Brazil as we know it today would not exist without the contributions of black women. Two, when black female characters are presented in the Brazilian media, they are usually the work of a white male writer in which they are invariably presented either as a maid or the sensuous mulata type. And three, black Brazilian women are usually invisible in literature, again, save for the aforementioned figures. Primeira Pessoa presents black women of Brazil in a variety of capacities, as is their collective experience in history.
Like the first piece by Dandara Correia featured here, today’s life trajectory written by Antônia Lopes dos Santos once again brings a very personal touch to a life of trials and tribulations of another black woman. And like Dandara’s piece, touches upon a number of issues that regular topics (sexism, racism, poverty, career and education) here on the blog. Rather than the typical story that presents only the difficulty of being black and a woman, Antônia’s story is one of victory and triumph.
Read for yourself.
Antônia Lopes dos Santos of Ananindeua, Pará
“Looking back I feel, in a certain way, victorious.”
I am Antônia Lopes dos Santos. I’m 62 years old, born in Goiás and raised in Marabá, the second most populous city after the capital of Pará. Today I live in Ananindeua. I am the daughter of north-easterners: My father was from Piauí and my mother from Maranhão, both were rural workers.
My mother, despite not knowing how to read nor write, had a dream that her children get an education. There were eight brothers and sisters. Living in Marabá I studied in a public school, I worked in a family home as a domestic. When my mother died, I worked in commerce and in this. In my quest to study, I tested at the Escola Agrotécnica de Castanhal (Agrotechnical School of Castanhal). Then I came to study in Belém, in the Escola Técnica Federal (Federal Technical School), studying Sanitation. I ended up in the gym.
I started working in an office and then in various places. But I always pursued a more secure place because, in a certain way I was the family breadwinner, because at that time I had already lost my mother. I sought to take care of my younger siblings. I lived in the house of a family friend, here in Belém, to finish the the Sanitation courses. When I finished the course, I took the vestibular (entrance exam) at the Colégio Moderno for Accounting. At that time I had already worked in Emater, being an employee studying in this institution.
In Accounting, I took a test for the Banco do Brasil (1) and went to work at the headquarters of Marabá (Pará). I worked as a clerk, then as a cashier. At Banco do Brasil tended to many rural workers, which was the strongest line of Banco in the 80s. I came to Belém in ‘73, I stayed 10 years, studied, graduated, and returned to Marabá in ‘83. I again returned to Belém in late ‘88. I still work at the Banco do Brasil, I am an analyst. From 2004 to 2012 I coordinated a Banco program of digital inclusion. My job was to take computer rooms to the poorest sections of the population. I coordinated this program in the states of Pará and Amapá, which was an extension of the Programa Fome Zero (Zero Hunger Program), launched by (then President) Lula (da Silva) government. I left in March of this year, because the program suffered reformulations.
I don’t have any biological children. I raised my brothers and sisters. I know what life is like when a woman doesn’t have direct family. It behooves us to assume an indirect family. Me, because of having always had formal jobs, I ended up being responsible, in part, for the support of the family. Of eight siblings, only I and one other went to a university.
Even today I help. My house is a real hostel. This is where my brothers and sisters come to take care of themselves, where the nephews and nieces come to study. I have a nephew who, with the support of the family, went to study medicine in Cuba. Many nephews have lived with me.
People always tell me I don’t think of myself. Sometimes I think that’s true. My family and I are very much stuck together. I’ve had in my house all the children of all of my brothers and sisters. I am pleased at having many nieces and nephews graduate, even coming from a family of illiterate peasants. At a certain point in life, my brothers and I sat and thought of how we could improve the standard of living of our family. And the chosen instrument to change that was education. With this process I have nephews and nieces that are doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses, teachers, sociologists and even a priest. We have problems, but we’ve managed a lot of family progress.
My involvement in unions started when I came to Belém in ’88. I had contact with unionists within the Bank. I joined the movement to democratize banking in Belém. Now (with) the Movimento Negro (Black Movement) and the question of blackness, you must first take consciousness. There were moments where I did not have as much consciousness as I have today. We feel different things, but don’t know how to explain them very well. I remember that when I lived in Marabá, I was always a good student and got good grades in school. Once, I was called to work in a pharmacy; the owner didn’t tell me, but I learned later that I didn’t stay in the post because he thought it wouldn’t work out having a black person working in customer service.
(There was) another time was when I took a test in Fundação SESP (SESP Foundation) in Marabá. The test was only to fill one vacancy. The job paid well and had some importance, because it was in the Federal Government. By chance, in first place was myself and second was another black person. In third place was a white person from a traditional family. They canceled the test in order to call the white person. At the time it was complicated because as I was approved, there was a whole perspective. I left the job thinking that I would take the job and I ended up unemployed. One of my teachers called my attention to it, even wanting to begin a lawsuit and such. Then came the story of my coming to Belém. After when I had more knowledge, I made a trip, I made contact with many black people from the movement. I was in Rio de Janeiro, and in Brasilia. And then, well, I started to notice much difference between you being black in these places and not being black. I understood that even having money, you would be discriminated against. At that time in the ‘80s it was very difficult. As I’ve always liked to travel, I started taking more account of this reality. I discovered the dimension of a world, between being white and being black, that even having money, we black people don’t have real power.
Thinking about the origin of my family, I consider myself a black woman of success, for sure. I thank God because I know that even with so much suffering, we can indeed consider ourselves a family of success. I see that the new layer in the family doesn’t have that junction as we brothers and sisters, but they come together for something. Maybe not as militants, seeking rights for others, but they do many things together. I am very much into family. Looking back I feel, in a certain way, victorious. I’ve done two college courses, I was a teacher, I’ve gone through several tests, did a post-grad, assumed positions within the Banco do Brasil, where I work. Sometimes we only speak of the negative aspects, but get this: I, a black woman, still a unionist, when I was in union leadership, I coordinated research to identify the positions of blacks in banks here in the metropolitan region of Belém. We identified that in the private banks, virtually no blacks enter. You can look and hardly see blacks in these banks. At Banco do Brasil, Caixa, Banco da Amazônia and Banco do Estado do Pará, which are public institutions, we proved that people enter, but they don’t grow. Even entering by through a test, a black person hardly climbs positions in these companies. At the time, to do research, our interviewers ran into very strong barriers.
The officers found it absurd to deal with the subject in banks. These are the things that we faced. The company still reserves the best positions for white men, then white women, black men and at the end of the line, are we, black women.
Working in a union gave me the opportunity to have contact with the social movements that I had not had before. Because when we fight for survival, we hardly have time for these things. It was through the union that I found the women’s movement at the time of Beijing. I was leader of the Fórum de Mulheres da Amazônia Paraense (Women’s Forum of the Amazon and Pará). I was leader of the Articulação de Mulheres Brasileiras (Articulation of Brazilian Women) for a long time, representing the northern region. And in this space, we include the discussion of black women. I was very happy to participate in the women’s movement. It was a tough fight, but with many achievements.
To push the issue of black woman in areas where I serve is a very difficult process, because almost all the movements have, in their statutes, the issue of diversity. There is the homosexual (issue), there’s the black (issue). So what happens? You push for this, discuss this, but in the time of the practice, it’s always difficult. In my case, I’m a woman and I’m black, so I’m filling a quota for women and blacks, either in the party or in the union.
Often the person feels very lonely, because they think that it’s enough that they just put you there that everything is resolved. There’s really a lack of an investment in this issue.
In year 2012 I ran for the office of councilor for the Workers Party. It was the third time that I ran. The first time was in Marabá in 1988. I applied for the position of councilor. The second time was in 2008, here in Belém, in the same position. Often times they say that women don’t want to apply. And we wonder, but why? What happens is that when a woman proclaims her candidacy, she has no backup. She has to do everything. When the candidate is a man, we women prepare all the spaces for them. When it’s us women, we don’t have spaces prepared for them.
My candidacy was well accepted, but as I said, I had no structure. There were candidates who inaugurated several committees. I rented a support center, a small house where I put my things. I relied on the help of family. I also had great companions helping me. But it really wasn’t easy.
What does the candidacy of a black woman represent? Just think: Belém already has a very large volume of inhabitants. About fifty -four percent of the electorate is female and in the term ending in 2012 we had 33 councilors, only three women councilors and all of them white. If black women were able to elect at least one black councilor in Belém, it would make a difference. Many people, in the parties, still think we have to discuss the issue of black women only with black women, which is wrong.
We’ve managed to progress, but we blacks still have a hard fight ahead. The inclusion process in universities is very important to make this differential. Today already you’ve seen a lot of blacks on television giving interviews with high positions. No longer are we only professionals of the kitchen, only domestics. We’ve already see black lawyers, doctors, black women doing other things in society. I hope that the future will give us brave people to fight against racial inequality. To fight for gender equality. We need to get out of the discourse and go into practice, experience racial equality. For a black girl born now, I want make mine a few of the words of President Dilma when she says “look in our eyes and believe we can.” I don’t have to bow my head because we have different colors. We can live without so many strings attached as we live today. That she can live in a happier world, of power and without discrimination.
Source: Werneck, Jurema, Nilza Iraci and Simone Cruz, editors. Mulheres Negras na Primeira Pessoa. Porto Alegre. Redes Editora, 2012
1. Founded in 1808, Banco do Brasil is the largest Brazilian and Latin American bank by assets, and the third by market value. Source