Note from BW of Brazil: The following story of struggle in the life of an Afro-Brazilian woman is very common. It’s always great to see when people overcome what appear to be insurmountable odds and reach the light at the end of the tunnel (see related articles below). This is not always the case. But Josefina Serra’s story of working as a maid in perpetual slavery at a young age, humiliating experiences with racism and the attitude that as a black girl she would never amount to anything (besides a domestic or dancer) is pretty much an accepted ideology in Brazil. But like thousands of Afro-Brazilians who have recently graduated from college and attained their dreams, Josefina’s story is yet another example of what people can do when given the opportunity.
Pain, prejudice and overcoming
by Victor Martins, Bárbara Nascimento and Maíra Streit
A quilombola, woman and a maid, Josefina Serra dos Santos, 51, was born in a Brazil with no social mobility, where carrying all of these labels was a virtually insurmountable burden. A quilombola is an inhabitant of the fugitive slave societies known as quilombos, maroon societies established by persons of African descent where blacks, whites and Indians lived independently of Portuguese colonization. More than 40 years after leaving the Quilombo de Picada, in Maranhão (state in northeastern Brazil), Jô, as he prefers to be called, says she never allowed herself to be a victim, much less fragile.
Today, a lawyer in the nation’s capital city of Brasília, she has no doubt that prejudice against the color of her skin has followed her since the day she was born. The shadow of slavery, which led her ancestors to isolate themselves in the interior of Maranhão, she says, also made her a slave. While employed in the home of a family, from the age of five to 20, she worked in exchange for a roof over her head, food and clothes.
“I’m from Cajapió, in the state of Maranhão. My mother was a babassu coconut breaker and my father worked in the fields. I was separated from my family at five years of age, when they took me to a farm to help wash clothes, take care of the cattle and serve the cowboys. I was treated like a slave. At age 6, I started working in the home of a family in the capital city, São Luís. And from there, I was taken from one place to another, and also lived in Rio de Janeiro and Brasília. I hadn’t received any payment.
“Most black girls are very humiliated, very abused. I received old clothes. The shoes that I got once were much bigger than my foot and covered my feet with wounds. I couldn’t watch TV, only that I always found a way to watch hidden behind the door. Time went on and nothing changed. I washed, ironed, cooked, cleaned the house and took care of other children, but I couldn’t come up with them in the same elevator. I had to take the service (elevator) without understanding why (1).
“I insisted a lot to be able to study. And at school, it was not easy. I was called cabelo de bombril (scouring pad hair) (2), urubu (vulture), macaco (monkey), miserable. I was a laughingstock, and this marks you. I said nothing, I just held it in. My colleagues didn’t invite me to play because I was a maid. Being black and studious, they said I was stuck up. In childhood, I had no friends. In fact, I can’t even say that I had a childhood. At night, I kept reading alone in the dark room, by candlelight, because I couldn’t even use the light.
“I was sexually harassed by several employers and suffered threats, insults. I continued in this life until college. I woke up very early, always tired. I slept in the classroom. When I passed the vestibular (entrance exam), some people pooled their money together to pay for my enrollment. I majored in Law, I’m a lawyer and I am active in the Movimento Negro (black movement). I still feel very fragile, insecure. Today, I wonder how I tolerated it all. Actually, I think that we can never fully overcome.”
“I carry with me a certainty: knowledge is power,” affirms Jô. “I’ve always been very curious, and when I was a domestic in a home in Brasília, the bosses would not let me read. So I finished things pretty quickly and, hidden, I read all the fairy tales of one of the children of the family,” she recalls. She explains that she believed in formal education as a means to improve her life and succeeded in getting enrolled in a public school. “I would wake up at 5am, leave lunch almost all ready and went to class. Before 12:30 I had to return to finish and set the table,” she says.
With much effort, she managed to graduate with a degree in law, worked in some offices, sometimes as a secretary, until she could have her own office. Today living in Guará, a middle-class area of the Federal District, she tries to rescue others living in quilombos in poverty. “We brought 64 people from Maranhão,” she says with pride. But not everyone will achieve a successful path.
Josefina believes in the idea that education opens doors. “They always told me that, (being) black and a maid, as much as I would study, I never leave the place. I showed them,” she celebrates. For eight years the lawyer was a defender of the old Telebras (telecommunications company). Today, she lives surrounded by books. She often donates some to children with little access to reading. Whenever she can, she returns to Maranhão to visit her mother in the quilombo and to see friends and relatives who resist abandoning the land. Jô believes that much remains to be done to reduce racism and inequality, but at no time does she speak in a hateful manner. The lawyer defends tolerance.
1. Elevators are a common location of Brazilian racism. In apartments/condominiums there are usually a social elevator for residents and guests of residents and there is a service elevators that employees of the building are expected to use. The assumption is often that any black person in a middle class apartment/condo must work there and thus must use the service elevator. For more on elevators and racism, see this article.
2. Discrimination due to hair texture that is associated with having cabelo ruim (bad hair) is very common in Brazil. As is the insult associating cabelo crespo (curly/kinky hair) with the steel wire scouring pad known as bombril. Various articles refer to this particular insult.
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