First in his family to go to college, João’s story is the human side of why Brazilians are protesting President’s education cuts

João, during a protest
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João, during a protest

Note from BW of BrazilLet me first say that João’s story is not rare in Brazil. In fact, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of young black Brazilians who have fought, struggled and succeeded to attain a college education in a country that, up to only recent years, was a distant dream. The numbers are just part of the story. In the year 2000, only 2.2% of the black/brown population in Brazil held college degrees. But the personal stories of families and individuals sacrificing so much in order that just one of them can cross the finish line are the reasons the struggle against budget cuts to the education system have stimulated massive protests in the past few weeks (see here and here).

When we consider how the system of affirmative action policies and access to publicly funded universities have changed the lives of so many non-white people, is it any wonder that so black Brazilians see the Bolsonaro Adminstration’s education budget cuts as a direct attack on their dreams? By 2017, 9.3% of black/brown Brazilians had attained a college diploma, a four-fold increase in 17 years. We add this to the fact that the black/brown population is now the majority in free, federal universities, while 75% of the overall population attends expensive private universities.

As most black/brown families cannot afford tuition rates of these private schools, cutting investment in the federal universities threatens to block the bridge to a better future for hundreds of thousands of people who grew only believing that the college classroom is a place that is almost exclusively reserved for people with white skin. Reading the article below, gauged through the eyes of just one black family, you will begin understand why so many people have taken to the streets against the actions of a president who seems bent on rolling back the progress that was made over the past decade and a half.

Brazil behind the poster of a demonstration

João da Silva was photographed in an act for education in Rio, with a poster that showed the reality of many young people from the periphery: he was the first of the family to enter a public university

By Beatriz Mota

João da Silva got up at 5 o’clock, when the sun had not yet risen behind the Monte das Oliveiras – an anonymous hill nicknamed so by Francisca, his grandmother, and is stuck to the popular condominium where they live. He followed a routine: bath, cuts his hair, makes sure his cloths are perfect, pauses for a selfie in the bathroom mirror, prepares his lunch and a blessing from the matriarch of the family before rolling out. In the neighborhood of Senador Vasconcelos, in West Zone Rio de Janeiro, he took a 397, a bus that takes about two hours towards downtown. João works from Monday to Saturday as telemarketing clerk, until 3pm. On working days, his next destination would be on the other side of Baía de Guanabara (Guanabara Bay), in the city of Niterói, at the Federal University of Fluminense (UFF), where he studied history. Classes would go until 10:00 pm and the university student would rarely return to his grandmother’s house before midnight. But it was Wednesday, May 15, 2019, and on this day the college joined the strike against the reduction of the Education Budget announced by the MEC (Ministry of Education). Beside a friend, the 20-year-old wrote a protest poster and went to the demonstration, where he bumped into this journalist, who photographed him.

The image of the guy, a firm stare, a written message – “I am the first of my family to enter a public university and I will fight not to be the last one” – was published in social networks, liked and shared hundreds of thousands of times, generating a wave of testimonies with trajectories similar to his. “This picture represents me so much, it brought me to tears, remembering that my mother, when she arrived from the countryside exhausted, she said that the only thing she could put side was going to school, and that it was in order for me to study because the weight of the pen was less than the hoe,” user Delton Felipe wrote on Facebook. “I was the first in my family to have the right to study until the end. My parents, grandparents, didn’t have this opportunity, in a time that they had to stop going to school to work and that the vestibular (college entrance exam) was something almost impossible to overcome,” said Ruth Tamires in the same social network.

Like João, black, poor, and the first member of the Silva family to enter university, there are many. The latest data from the Census of Higher Education, prepared by the Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira (Anísio Teixeira National Institute for Educational Studies and Research) (Inep), in 2016/2017, show the growth of registrations in higher education in Brazil: from 2002 to 2017, the number of students went from 3.5 to more than 8 million. Six out of ten institutions of higher education (1,481 out of 2,448) use the Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio (National High School Exam) (Enem) as a selection tool for undergraduate courses. The unified exam, which completed 20 years in 2018, holds the position of second largest public entrance exam in the world (the first is Gaoka, in China) and is pointed to by experts as one of the engines of democratization of higher education in Brazil.

The weight of the dream of generations

Enem was also the gatewayfor João, who went on to graduate in history at UFF in his first experience with the exam at the age of 17. He studied online courses at a friend’s house because he had no internet where he lives, and under the burden of fulfilling a dream that belonged to an entire family. “When he went to do the Enem, he called me saying ‘Grandma, I don’t think I’m going to get through. If I don’t go to college, will you be sad?’ I said yes, I would be very sad. And he gave me this joy, he passed with good scores,” says Francisca Gomes, 75.

Francisca is the head of a family that is the portrait of a Brazil. Born in Recife, Pernambuco, where she gave birth to her five daughters, she moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1995 betting that in the city, her girls could have a better future than her own. And who knows until entering a university. Widowed, the cosmetics saleswoman alone raised the five women, among them Wanderlucia da Silva, João’s mother. They lived for ten years in Guadalupe, of North Zone Rio. In 2005, they moved to Senador Vasconcelos condominium, in their own house, which they acquired through a financing program sponsored by a federal housing program (at the time called PAR, prior to another program, Minha Casa, Minha Vida).

João, durante a formatura no ensino médio
João’s high school graduation from Colégio Estadual Hebe Camargo (high school)

None of Francisca’s daughters managed to get a diploma 24 years later. Fumbling around in a new and challenging city, the girls had to spend all their time working to help their mother. She was working as a receptionist in a hotel on Rua do Lavradio (street), in downtown, where Wanderlucia met João’s father and became pregnant. “He looked at the pregnancy test and said, ‘Another problem.’ I replied, ‘My child will not be a problem, to the contrary’. I wasn’t raised with dialogue, but with João I always said: ‘I don’t want you to have the life I have now. Son, I didn’t go to college, but I believe you. Focus on your studies. Because society doesn’t forgive’. We are a from a Northeastern, poor, black family… Here, you can’t make it without studying. Society demands that people like us present our capacity to gain respect,” says Wanderlucia.

An unmarried mother, she had to leave her son with his grandmother, Francisca, throughout his first childhood while working. It was during this period that João fell ill, stayed a month in the hospital, and almost died of bacterial meningitis. At age six, he moved in with his mother and her new companion in Santa Cruz, in the West Zone. From there, he only left after entering college, to his grandmother’s house, reducing the distance from downtown by 30 minutes. João received all of his elementary education in the municipal schools, Luís Caetano de Oliveira (Amarelinho) and Eduardo Rabelo, in Santa Cruz. His mother struggled to pay for a private school for him for a few years. Unemployed and working as a street vendor, she soon had to find a place for the boy in the public education system. For high school João attended a technical school (in telecommunications) at Colégio Estadual Hebe Camargo in Pedra de Guaratiba. To get a space, he studied in lanhouses, set up reading groups with friends and enlisted the help of some teachers in free preparation classes for the exams. In the pré-vestibular (entrance exam prep courses), he also organized his time between materials found on the internet and exchange with friends. Recalling his story, João considers himself being in a “place of privilege.”

“Even though I was in school from 7am to 5pm, I had time to study when I got home. But what about the young man who has to work before he graduates from high school because he needs to contribute financially at home? And the older people, who need to support the family? The entrance into the university is still extremely unequal,” says João, who also receives the support of his aunts, redeemed today by the young man’s conquest.

“We really want to see him win, because we still carry the failure, the frustration, of not having been able to go to college. We came to Rio with the intention of evolving, but we had to choose: either work or study. That’s why we give all our support and backing to him,” says Wanderlene da Silva, 49, who is an evangelical pastor. João’s aunt still dreams of having a degree, but working as an administrative assistant in Saquarema, a city in the Região dos Lagos region, she can’t afford a university, nor time to prepare for the heightened competition of public higher education.

In addition to the issue of access, the maintenance of the student in a university is still a challenge in the implementation of the democratization of higher education. This is because, of the more than 8 million students enrolled, according to the Census of Higher Education, only 24.68% (just over 2 million) study in public universities. The other 75.31% (6,241,307 million) are in private universities. The same indications appear in the profile of the institutions: of the 2,448 registered today, 296 are public and 2,152, private. According to the Census, only 37.2% of university students got their degree, 251,793 in the public sector and 947,976 in the private. Most of them drop out along the way, probably due to lack of financial conditions. Even enrolled in public universities, students like João can only keep themselves in the classroom with financial incentives. Through the UFF (Universidade Federal Fluminense), the student received, during a period, a Reception Grant, aimed at students who are in situations of socioeconomic vulnerability. Today, he funds transportation and food with the salary he receives at work.

João com a mãe a avó
João with his mother and grandmother

João’s black-and-white portrait at the rally also brought to light the perspective of racial inclusion in the universities. Figures show that in the last few decades, the chance of earning a degree has increased by almost four times for the black population. According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), after more than 15 years since the beginning of the insertion of quotas, the percentage of pretos (blacks) and pardos (browns) graduating from college grew from 2.2% in 2000 to 9.3% in 2017. The Inep Higher Education Census shows that in 2011, 11% of enrollments in undergraduate courses were for preto or pardo students. In 2016, the percentage rose to 30%.

Last Sunday, while João’s family received reporters from the EL PAÍS website at home, acts in favor of the actions of the Bolsonaro Government and the reform of Social Security were happening all over the country. In Rio, the pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators’ meeting took place on Copacabana beach. Also on the fringe of Rio’s southern zone, on Ipanema beach, a much smaller protest mobilized Cariocas (Rio natives) against the public policies of intervention and police occupation in residential areas. “Parem de nos Matar” (Stop Killing Us), was the motto of the protest against the murder of blacks in the city.

João celebrates the opportunity to be a model for future generations: “Being news is important to demand that we have to exist, that we have to live. But also cherish the heart of us, pessoas pretas (black people), that there is a group that is seeking not only to stay alive but to improve our existence. When a criança negra (black child) sees that someone with this haircut, who came from the favela, who talks and walks in the same way entered a university, you are showing this child that he can and should go there too.”

Source: El País Brasil

About Marques Travae 3150 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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