Note from BW of Brazil: It is with great sadness that BW of Brazil recently learned that on the night before the Day of the Afro Latin America Caribbean Black Woman, a shining example for women of African descent everywhere passed away. Rilza Valentim was the first black woman to be elected mayor of the city of São Francisco do Conde in the northeastern state of Bahia. She was 52 years old. Although Rilza was featured here a few times in articles of accomplishments of black Brazilian women, she was never featured in a full BW of Brazil article although her trailblazing victories and leadership were certainly known.
Below is a brief write up about this tragic news.
Rilza Valentim dies at age 52 from sickle cell anemia
by Patrícia França
Mayor fell ill on Sunday and was admitted to hospital in Salvador
The mayor of São Francisco do Conde (1) (state of Bahia), Rilza Valentim (PT), died on Thursday, 24, at 5.30pm, at the Hospital Aliança in Salvador, Bahia. She had been hospitalized since Sunday in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) due to a crisis of sickle cell anemia, which evolved into pulmonary embolism.
The body of Rilza, who was 52 years old and a mother of three, will be veiled all day on Friday, 25, in the City Council of São Francisco do Conde. The burial is scheduled for 4pm in the Paz Celestial cemetery.
Rilza was in her the second term as mayor of the city with the highest per capita income of the country, the result of taxes generated by Landulpho Alves. In 2008, the PT (Partido dos Trabalhores/Workers Party) candidate was elected with 96% of the votes and re-elected in 2012 with 75%.
The sudden death of Rilza has surprised the political world, especially her companions from the PT.
Governor Jaques Wagner said he was “saddened and dismayed” by the untimely death of his friend. He defined her as a gutsy woman who fought for her ideals and bravely defended the people of her town.
“Rilza was a genuine and idealistic leader who fought injustice and defended freedom and equality. She left a legacy of great achievement and development for the city where she was born and built her political career,” Wagner said in a statement.
The governor was among the friends who went to the Hospital Aliança at the beginning of Thursday night, as soon as they heard. Among them, the former mayor of Lauro de Freitas, Moema Gramacho, state Rep. Rosemberg Pinto, the state president of the PT, Everaldo Anunciação, the counselor of the Tribunal de Contas (Court of Auditors) of the State Zezéu Ribeiro and Rilza’s vice-mayor Evandro Almeida (PP).
“I’m shocked,” Moema said, remembering that last Saturday Rilza participated in Caravana 13, a campaign activity of the gubernatorial candidate Rui Costa (PT), which ended with a concentration in the central square of São Francisco do Conde.
“She was happy. I remember the governor hugged and kissed her and asked the people: ‘Is this or is this not a beautiful woman?’, and the people cheered and shouted in agreement,” reported Moema.
Rui Costa, who in respect to the family friend canceled the caravan that would occur in seven Bahian municipalities on Friday, said he was saddened by the death of Rilza Valentine.
“She was a woman of great energy, with a high approval rating among the population of São Francisco do Conde. On Saturday, I was able to sense how she was beloved among her people,” said Rui Costa, who, like most friends, was unaware that Rilza had sickle cell anemia.
One of the most shaken was state Rep. Rosemberg Pinto, who defined the mayor as a politician that changed the city and the way to govern. “She faced situations firmly, but was always very affectionate. She treated everyone equally.”
Valentim had to face sexism, racism and “coronelism” (2) in an election campaign in which few of the political world of her region believed she would survive. She came back and became the first black woman mayor of São Francisco do Conde – that thanks to royalties from oil has the highest per capita revenues in Latin America.
The district is also the largest in Brazil in number of inhabitants who declared themselves black (according to IBGE, over 90% of the population). With a bachelor, master’s and doctorate in chemistry from the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA or Federal University of Bahia), Rilza is one of the youngest and most prepared leaders of the new crop of Bahian politicians. After holding office of councilor, she has given lessons of administration aimed at the most needy population with strong emphasis on the afrodescendente (African descendant) question.
Note from BW of Brazil: In an interview with Raça Brasil magazine a few years back, Rilza spoke about the principal barriers she faced in attaining political power:
“Female, black, fragile, who will be dominated by all, ‘I’ll put her in her place.’ At first, everyone thought this. Today, I’m sure that those who believed that, betting that someone could put me in my place, failed. This little girl woman that looks fragile, when she needs to defends what she believes…It’s a matter of training yourself. I strengthen myself in the difficulties I need to overcome.”
In her opinion, her main obstacle was:
“People think, because of being a woman, they will all order you. It’s a sexist culture, understand? They believe the woman was born to be dominated by men, that she in fact, may even show herself to be tough, but it will be dominated.”
Rilza was an amazing woman and accomplished many things in her short political career that most thought were simply not possible in a majority black state that is often compared to apartheid era South Africa in the fact that it has been historically dominated by powerful, white male political elites. This comparison to apartheid was also visible during the most joyous time of year: Carnaval. Valentim spoke out and represented her people and was loved for this. The people of Bahia and the movement for black equality has lost a great voice and leader and she will be greatly missed!
1. São Francisco do Conde is a town and municipality in the state of Bahia in the North-East region of Brazil. In 2013, its population was estimated to be 36,677 residents.
2. Coronelismo was the system of machine politics in Brazil under the Old Republic (1889-1930). Known also as the “rule of the coronels”, the term referred to the classic boss system under which the control of patronage was centralized in the hands of a locally dominant oligarch known as a coronel, particularly under Brazil’s Old Republic, who would dispense favors in return for loyalty. Source