With the exception of Nigeria, Brazil has the largest population of Blacks in the world, hence I could not let this Black History Month end without acknowledging at least one of Brazil’s Black female freedom fighters. There’s no better heroine to feature than Benedita Souza da Silver Sampaio (1942-) who went from being born and raised in a Rio de Janeiro favela to becoming the first ever Afro-Brazilian member of the Senate in the country. And to this day, Ms. da Silva is still an active advocate for racial equality, women’s rights and improved working and living conditions for the poor.
The granddaughter of a slave and the youngest of 13 children, Ms. da Silva first started working at the age of five delivering laundry for her mother who worked as a laundress. The young girl also shined shoes and sold candy. Six years later, she worked in a factory that manufactured belts and purses. She was the only one of her siblings to learn to read and write.
Ms. da Silva was just 15 years old when her mother died. To make up for the loss of her mother’s income, she was forced to drop out of school though she did begin volunteering with a community literacy and health project to try to garner aid for her family. The next year, however, she was married off to her first husband. To make ends meet for herself, her husband and her five children, she labored as a maid, a street vendor and a cook. Sometimes they were homeless. Sometimes they were so hungry they tied strips of cloth around their mid-sections to help ease hunger pangs. Sadly, three of her children died of curable diseases.
During the 60s, Ms. da Silva became involved in activism to urge city government to deliver running water, electricity and primary school to her community. This was a pioneering move in and of itself as few of the poor, suffering, predominantly Black and mixed-heritage people of Rio dared to speak out against the tyrannical and murderous military regime which governed the city at the time.
In the 70s, Ms. da Silva secured a job with the Department of Transportation along with a part-time job at a hospital as a nurse’s aide and began to study at home to pass her high school equivalency exam. She also continued her grassroots community activism efforts and won a municipal health center for her community. In 1982, she helped found the Worker’s Party, campaign for a seat on Rio’s city council and won during the first free election after the end of military rule.
“Racial democracy only exists in school books and official speeches; the elite in Brazil have promoted the myth of racial harmony to make people accept certain forms of discrimination and to deny the need for affirmative action.” – Benedita da Silva
In 1986, she was elected to the National Congress where she took part in drafting the new Constitution for Brazil. The amendments she made included a section codifying domestic workers’ rights and benefits, combating and punishing racial crimes, assuring 120 days of maternity leave, prohibiting wage discrimination and ensuring the rights of prison inmates to breastfeed their children. She led a commission to investigate women’s sterilization and the annual murder of some seven thousand homeless children in Brazil. She also spearheaded efforts on land reform, public education restructure, and prevention of multinational corporate influence on Brazilian policymaking.
Ms. da Silva was a part of the committee to invite Nelson Mandela to visit Brazil in 1991. Though Mandela believed that a certain level of racial equality had been achieved in Brazil, a candid talk with Ms. da Silva soon convinced him of otherwise. Before he left Brazil, Mandela broadcasted to Blacks throughout the country to seize upon their rightful share of political power.
Ms. da Silva became the Vice-Governor of Rio de Janeiro state in 1998 and assumed the governorship in 2002 thus making her the first woman and the first Black person to hold the office. From 2003-2004, she left government to assume the post of Social Action Secretary and tried a mayoral run for the city of Rio de Janeiro in 2008 but lost by ten points.
To this day, Ms. da Silva still resides in the favela in which she was born and continues to be an outspoken voice for democracy.