For the original articles in Portuguese by Thamyra Thâmara de Araújo and Marcela Lisboa published by Agência Naya on Medium, click here. To listen to the full interviews in Portuguese, click here.
“To do what I do, you must have the will.” The statement may sound arrogant to unprepared listeners, but when speaking about black women, it becomes self-explanatory. You know that woman who is commonly called the “kitchen lady?” Or the one who is on her feet all day selling sweets? Or perhaps the priestess to whom you run in moments of despair? Or the woman who you insist on not calling “woman?”
Our tribute to them is a reminder that to be and to do what they do is to keep humanity afloat, it is necessary to have the will to do so.
Do you think it’s easy to carry the weight of the world on their backs? There’s no Indiana Jones here. They’re black women who do politics (even outside of politics) and create life in the midst of death. In the words of Conceição Evaristo: “You had to water your dreams so that they would flower, come alive, and become real. It was necessary to reinvent life.”
Mãe Aparecida de Xangô: The Woman Whose Doors Are Always Open
When Mãe Aparecida begins speaking, your only desire is to spend hours listening to the wise words of someone who truly knows the reason for their presence in this world. A daughter of Xangô and Oshun of the Efon nation (one of the branches of Candomblé), she runs the House of Ile De Xango Ayra. She is a woman, a daughter, a mother, a friend, and a partner who communicates with others with affection—always on the basis of sharing. She says that her doors are always open and wishes to be remembered as a priestess.
“I share when I am sitting alone at home, someone knocks on my door, and I ask if they need any help.”
The eldest of five brothers, Mãe Aparecida was raised in Morro de Santo Antônio, a favela in Central Rio. She affirms that she is proud to be black, a practitioner of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, and a resident of Nova Iguaçu, in Rio’s Baixada Fluminense, where she raised her own children.
She reveals that her mother was once strongly present in the house of Umbanda, but that she became an evangelical Christian a few years prior to her death.
“My mother was always a very intelligent person. We reached a consensus that we would not fight over religion.”
When Aparecida was a young child, she frequented the religious center together with her mother. Her mother later converted to Evangelicalism and brought her along. As an adult, she chose to involve herself with Candomblé. Her mother, who hoped for them to sing together in the church, eventually gave in. Deep down, she simply sought for her daughter to be happy—and she succeeded.
“We were very honest and didn’t lie to one another. In some regards, I demanded more respect from her. She loved God, as did I, so the two of us loved God.”
While Mãe Aparecida allowed us the pleasure of listening to her story, she also told us that she believes that women will occupy extremely important places in Brazil in the future. She reminded us that these days when a girl is born, she doesn’t just hear that she must cook, but also that she must study. For her, as black people, we must know the truth of our history in order to end slavery. “Most of the time, we must repeatedly yell in order to be heard. Because if we don’t fight…the truth is that… politically speaking, they won’t want to hear us,” she points out.
“We, who are the mothers, must guide our men to be more caring and clever with healthier minds—because no one wants a foolish man.”
When she is not divided between her congregants and charity, Mãe Aparecida enjoys strolling around with her lifelong partner. “I deeply enjoy plants, spices, flowers, and foliage, but I also enjoy showing off and can be a bit scandalous. I am a priestess but all women have a touch of vanity.”
Monica dos Santos Francisco: The ‘Nega do Borel’
Swaying to the rhythm of funk, Monica dos Santos Francisco* frequented dances in her youth and didn’t even think about the possibility of relationships because she hates the sensation of feeling trapped. Raised by her grandmother, she began working at the age of 14 in a cloth factory but didn’t stop studying. Among her fondest childhood memories are swimming in the Maracanã River, Three Kings Day celebrations, and the delicacies of Northern Brazilian cuisine—which she cherishes to this day. On every Good Friday, she opens the doors of her house in the Morro do Borel favela in Rio’s North Zone, to feast on the classic Northeastern dish vatapá with moqueca fish.
“It is in this place that I developed as a person and began to understand the world.”
At 16, she got pregnant. She wanted to be a mother. Leaving the factory, she took up all of the low-wage jobs designated for black women: domestic employee, café server, silver factory worker, supermarket bagger, and even a gold buyer at Saens Peña Square. Any dignified job so long as she could help her family and take care of her dear son Diego.
At 18, she converted and joined the evangelical Universal Church. “I believe in divine cures. I believe in being cured by faith, and I was cured,” she comments. She soon became active and began assuming collective responsibilities. Little by little, she started to stand out and suddenly, almost without realizing it, she became one of the young leaders. The readings were no issue as she had been surrounded by books her whole life. She began studying at night again with the understanding that she needed an education to improve her circumstances. Inquisitive by nature, she was unable to deal with the denomination’s internal contradictions for long and ended up leaving.
“I didn’t agree theologically.”
Monica was always involved in politics, even unconsciously so. “I always felt like I was a ‘street’ person [someone in the public sphere]—a person who enjoyed helping others in some way,” she ponders. During the heavy rains of 1998 that damaged many favelas in Rio, she found herself helping families from Morro do Borel. In the midst of many deaths and a tragedy occurring in her own community, she felt the need to act.
“I didn’t have the understanding that this was political action, but I did realize that I am a collectively-minded person.”
Places form people, but people transform places. With her, this would be no different. Her story meshes with those of people who kneel so that their children can stand. Reading As Lutas do Povo do Borel (“The Struggles of the People of Borel”) awakened her desire to continue in her fight against these struggles. She later helped to create the Borel Community Radio and, from there, moved on to the Rio Social Agenda alongside [the world renowned anti-hunger] activist Herbert “Betinho” de Souza.
Since then, she hasn’t stopped. From there, she started to develop proposals for the solidarity economy. In between speeches, caregiving, and daily life, she opened a prayer site together with other women. She has been a preacher for two years now, though she was already considered one by her parishioners. As a black woman, she affirms: “I see black women at the center of a process of re-appropriation.” Us too, Monica. Us too.
Lúcia Cabral: The Woman Who Dedicates Her Life to Serving the Favela
She is known as Lúcia Cabral on her ID, but to the children of Complexo do Alemão, in Rio’s North Zone, she is simply “Aunty Lúcia.” Yearning to change realities from a young age, at 51, she can be found running the Democratic Space of Union, Coexistence, Learning, and Prevention (EDUCAP) in Complexo do Alemão and seeking new partnerships to expand the reach of her work.
“If we work as a network in favelas, we are more powerful than those outside.”
In her journey, Lúcia carries with her memories of activities and achievements in service of the community. During our conversation, she takes the opportunity to recall a saying that she learned from her father: “We grow to fight against inequality.” Her memories “evoke not a revolt of violence, but a revolt of resistance” to fight against inequalities, she reveals. “There is no way to grow while accepting all the burdens placed on favelas. Especially because poverty generates wealth for the upper strata [of society],” she affirms.
Aunty Lúcia has a deep love for Complexo do Alemão, the place that welcomed her family and her as a child—where her brothers were born, where she created a family, and where all of her childhood memories are rooted. “I grew up with funk. Look, I met my husband at a funk dance,” she recalls. She is able to remember dates, streets, names, and people who passed through Alemão. She has a twinkle in her eye as she remembers the Baile dos Paranhos funk dance, Three Kings Day celebrations, outdoor church festivals, the Bloco do Pereira carnival parade, and all of the cultural life that surrounded her childhood and adolescence. Perhaps this is her motivating force: to see Alemão thriving once again—despite the world insisting otherwise. “The government seems to work to destroy favela culture,” she ponders.
“The word ‘favela’ is not synonymous with negative things. It’s nature, the environment. It’s the chlorophyll that gives us life. Why is it seen as synonymous with negative things?”
One thing is certain. If the government works to destroy, Lúcia exudes life in all directions. She has been the director at a preschool and at a schoolyard, taught lessons to children and adults, managed a bar and a movie theater, and even organized a disease prevention campaign at dances. Since 2008, she has headed EDUCAP. Each day she seeks to renew herself and work in the direction of the future that the favela indicates.
“This technology—human technology together with machine technology—generates stories, growth, and entrepreneurship.”
If outside her home she is the one to care for and shelter those in need, at home, she is cared for by her husband Marcos. “He massages my feet when I come home tired and he cooks for me,” she recounts. Her family remains her primary love and support base. In addition to her good humor and lighthearted disposition, her family keeps her from falling into a state of depression in the context of violence in the community.
The conversation ends with Lúcia calling upon us to continue creating, beyond what her generation was able to create. “The journey continues and grows. Those who remain will create.” She adds: “I believe that we must look to the future together—with the favela family successful, happy, and joyful and with its potential recognized worldwide.” For this many other reasons, for her, being called “aunty” is no issue. Everyone here becomes part of the family.
Adriana Evangelista: The Woman Who Makes Things Happen
When you look at Adriana, you see a woman who has always had to be independent due to the severity of life, but who knew how to transform each necessity into an opportunity. When Adriana was only ten years old, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and from a young age, she had to assume responsibilities. In the absence of her working mother, she would run to the kitchen to cook her favorite meals.
“I don’t like being dependent. When I want something, I chase after it.”
A woman with a wide smile and a strong voice—always laughing and singing—her presence doesn’t go unnoticed. If she’s a rock on the one hand, on the other she’s a river. When she cries, she vents. When she speaks, she thunders. When she dreams, she floats.
“I enjoy placing everything on clean plates.”
Adriana is an entrepreneur and owns her own business in the food service industry. She sells small pastries in the streets of the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro while parodying funk songs. She created her own work methodology and in her creativity and words, she found her own way of affording to be her own boss. But it wasn’t always this way: in her previous jobs, she realized that she was always placed in auxiliary positions. Her first job was as an assistant seamstress at 16. She later worked as a service assistant, followed by a job selling cosmetics until she decided to start her own business.
“I was always the assistant, the assistant, the assistant—I was very much bossed around. I never accepted the ways in which they bossed me around. I believe that when you have the calling to be a leader, you lead…”
Adriana eventually recognized the power of her own voice. Her neighbor Eunice suggested that they make pastries, another suggested that they wear white coats, and she made the rest happen. While baking her pastries, she would hear children’s games and the songs that they would sing, and so she decided to remix street vendor jargon with the funk songs that kids sing in favelas. In this way, she created her own repertoire and style of vending—one that was uniquely her own.
In ten years selling pastries, Adriana has been featured on the Brazilian soap opera “Salve Jorge,” appeared on Ana Maria Braga’s cooking show, and her story has been shared around the world. But none of this caused her to put her clients on the back burner. She continues to be the woman at the center of attention when on the street, who prepares her pasties with the utmost care, who arrives home with clothes to wash and a husband to care for, and who never passes up the opportunity to wake up later than usual on her days off.
“You are capable; all you have to do is put your mind to work and to think… I strive to use lemons to make lemonade.”
For her, women must make things happen—they can’t simply wait for men to take initiative. She had strong female role models who were providers and recalls that women have always had a thousand things to do: housework, taking care of children and partners, and even working outside the house. “Women today drive trucks, build on construction sites, and study,” she highlights. Believing in female power, Adriana places her bets on a future in which women will have many more opportunities. “Yes, women will have more possibilities and the conditions [to achieve them] in the future. Yes, they will study. Yes, they will own businesses,” she says.
Joana Pinheiro: The Woman Who Puts Her Foot in the Door and Says ‘I’ve Arrived’
Joana is a young trans woman who is always on the run as she traverses the city—rushing between the Baixada Fluminense, Complexo da Maré, Alemão, and Centro. She may not be a producer, photographer, social organizer, or journalist—at least not yet—but she’s in the process of becoming these things and more through her jobs at the Favelas Observatory, Bela Maré, Baphos Periféricos, Querendo Assuntos, and Canal Plá.
Three years ago, Joana went through the transition process to more truthfully become who she really is. “When I stop to look back, I see that I always was Joana. This transformation was meant to happen a long time ago, and no one let it. Now, I want it to happen—and it will,” she comments.
“I wanted to get out of the place that was imposed on me throughout my life.”
She is a product of her time and part of a generation that no longer wants to hide. Joana simply put her foot out the door and left. What she reaps today is the fruit of many who have come before her—a future that others will reap as well. She will help to sow these seeds. “I can envision the impact of what we are doing now in twenty years,” she highlights. But until then, she lives in the present.
“It’s all chaotic because things are changing. We are still unable to see the mirror of diversity, but it is evolving.”
Joana knows that being a trans woman is difficult in Brazil. The statistics are alarming (every 48 hours, one trans person dies in Brazil—not to mention the labor market and life expectancy indices). She worries every time she leaves her house. What clothes should she wear? Should she wear makeup or not? On the other hand, she did have the privilege of an accepting family, which massively eased her process of transition so that it could occur as smoothly as possible. “My mother and my family support me. They are the most precious thing to me,” she states. The right to affection for LGBTQ+ people has been a daily achievement and our desire is to contribute to creating a world in which more ‘Joanas’ can simply be.
Thaís Ferreira: The Audacious Woman Who Runs the World
Thaís Ferreira* was the child who wore mismatching socks and loved making funny faces and pouting to tease her friends. She was the gifted girl who took naps in school—having finished her work before everyone else—and who corrected her teacher in the middle of history class, pointing out that Pedro Álvarez Cabral did not truly discover Brazil. “My mother used to visit the newspaper stand every day and bought us Discovery Channel VHS tapes because I was a child who loved to ask questions,” she recalls.
Those days, she was known as the child with “the hair” and with strange interests due to her different way of thinking. But none of this affected her; to the contrary, since her childhood, she has been fascinated by being different. Being an outlier was where she found her potential. The girl who wore braces in her school days now has a beautiful smile. She enjoys teas, herbal baths, playing, and writing music and poems. She retreats to the darkness and silence of her bedroom to connect with herself.
“I already knew that I wanted to be different, and people understood this strangeness of mine as audacity.”
Thaís told us that she felt extremely audacious when her first live son was born. Having previously lost a son in an unsuccessful Caesarean-section, her son’s birth re-signified the act of bringing life into the world for her. “When Athos was born it was the purest happiness that I had ever experienced. I felt a marvelous pain—the pain of life,” she recalls.
“I don’t know if it was painful, if it was wet, if it was raining—I was creating life.”
Despite her loss and the fear of being an overprotective mother, when her son was born, she saw a life beyond her own. From there, the fear began to dissipate. Everyone who has met Athos and João, the sons of Thaís and Douglas, knows how autonomous they are. They owe this autonomy to an education premised on the understanding that early childhood is a primordial time for human development. It is no coincidence that Thaís, beyond being a mother, is the founder of Mãe & Mais (“Mother & More”)—an organization that offers healthcare services and information in an efficient and dignified way to mothers of all ages and their infant children.
“It’s necessary to understand fertility and the ‘blossoming’ of people—to understand that this can only occur with ‘pollination,’ not alone. We need a hive.”
Thaís is a woman who moves structures and generates life, always in a collective way. She believes in the power of women’s self-realization. To her, the future of women is a network that is supportive of everyone. “I believe that the future of women is a network—one that is very much our own, very special, very specific—in which we understand that it’s not enough to have one central source of light, we must have several with access distributed throughout.”
Taísa Machado: The Brazil That Worked Out
Taísa is a whirlwind woman who brings a storm of change wherever she goes. An actress, dance teacher, and founder of AfroFunk, at 28 years old, she understands herself as a woman of her time—even if slightly different from expectations. Taísa doesn’t follow standards; she creates them. Having grown up in the Baixada Fluminense, she recalls her childhood with affection. “Did you have a Barbie? I did.” She says this because she is often viewed as a woman from the favela due to her musical influences and form of speech.
“Some people like funk music. I like funk parties. See the difference?”
She’s a person who is full of stories, but her major influences come from the men in her life: her father, her uncle Luizinho, and her grandfather. From her father, she inherited storytelling skills and a love for acting. He would say things like, “You must speak in your own way so that people remember you for who you are,” she recounts. Her uncle was the first to gift her with books and to openly speak of men and sex. Her grandfather’s wise words she forever treasures.
“I’m a big fan of the men in my family. And for a long time, I was too ashamed to say this, precisely due to working in an environment in which we only speak of women”.
Early enough, she learned that there is more to life than good conversations with her elders, books, and movies. At 14, she lost her friend Galo to a stray bullet. At the time, she found violence to be an alternative more fascinating than life itself. After her friend’s untimely death, she developed a love-hate relationship with funk music.
“With every path, you have a choice: do you want it? Are you able? Can you afford it?”
At about 15, her grandfather called her to have a conversation she would never forget. At that moment, Mr. Machado decided to point out to her the responsibilities of those who wished to live the street life. In this case, it wasn’t enough to want it: it was necessary to know if she could handle it—and, if she responded affirmatively, whether she could ‘afford’ what that future would bring.
Today, she understands that she needed (or still needs) to take small steps along the long road to maturity. Today, she admits that she’s a thinker and confesses that she stopped feeling ashamed of writing properly and being intelligent.
“In the right, for the right, refusing to accept cowardice—in other words, the Brazil that worked out.”
Art became the love of her life. Used to dribbling her fate, she realized that she inherited the family’s artistic bohemianism. Her circus troupe was called Tá na Rua (“On the Street”), directed by Amir Haddad. There, she opened herself up to the possibilities that artistic creation allowed and met her best friends—the ones who make you laugh so much your stomach hurts.
Between many laughs and a wide smile, there was a fissure: her best friend, Adriano Cor, was murdered in an act of homophobia. His body was found naked floating in a river five days after the attack. “I can say that I was an extremely happy person before that happened,” she says. In the country that most kills LGBTQ+ people in the world, it was an announced tragedy. Anxiety and depression set in. Over the course of a single year, she lost her uncle, her best friend, and her father.
At that time, questions emerged surrounding the political use of art and the low financial return that it generates. For Taísa, it became necessary to question the way things are, but also their price.
“I found myself making incredible pieces, but having to ask for bus money from my mother. It was then that I saw that this kind of theater was not for me.”
Today, her biggest dream is to be recognized for what she does. On this journey, she sees again her early role models pointing out the way once again. Above all, she remembers her grandfather. She concludes the conversation by saying, “Alright, shall we overthrow capitalism? One day—but first, I need money in my pocket.”
*Since the original date of publication in Portuguese, Monica dos Santos Francisco has been elected as a Rio de Janeiro state representative and Thais Ferreira has been elected as a first alternate state representative, both for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL).