Anielle Franco: From Maré’s Alleyways to Minister of Racial Equality

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva claps during the inauguration ceremony of the ministers of Racial Equality, Anielle Franco, and Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara. Photo: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva claps during the inauguration ceremony new ministers of Racial Equality, Anielle Franco, and Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara. Photo: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil

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Born and raised in Complexo da Maré, in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone, Anielle Franco has become Brazil’s second ever federal minister originally from a favela, alongside Benedita da Silva who headed the Ministry of Social Welfare and Social Action in 2003 after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was first elected president. Nineteen years later, also under a Lula government, the new Minister of Racial Equality (MIR) gave a historic speech, putting an end to the myth of racial democracy and standing in defense of democracy with social justice.

At a joint ceremony at the Planalto Palace together with Sonia Guajajara, the new Minister of Indigenous Peoples (MPI), Anielle Franco incorporated the concept of Sankofa in her acceptance speech: looking into the past as an essential step for building a new future.

In her speech, Anielle recited the poem “Voices-Women” by Conceição Evaristo—one of the most important poems in Brazilian literature—which narrates the path of resistance undertaken by Black women of the same ancestral lineage, in the face of a project which silenced their voices from when their ancestors were kidnapped from the African continent up until the present day. In the text, the poet “echoes” the trajectory of a Black woman in Brazil from yesterday to today, and now.

“In the midst of a policy of death, our response was the fight for life. A fight that brought us to the first day of January of this year, when the Brazilian people finally climbed this palace’s ramp in a remarkable gesture that moved the whole world, because it made a point. When our president received the presidential sash from the people, handed to him by a Black woman from the urban periphery, he showed that Brazil’s future path will be led by those who have resisted for centuries the violent project that founded this country.” — Anielle Franco

At the inauguration of Anielle Franco and Sônia Guajajara, from left to right: Minister of Human Rights Silvio Almeida, Franco, Guajajara, President Lula, and First Lady Rosângela Silva. Photo: Matheus Alves/Jornal O Cidadão

Held three days after the attacks in Brasília by supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro (Liberal Party – PL), the inauguration was especially symbolic: “We stand here as a sign of resistance to each and every attempt to attack institutions and our democracy. Fascism, just like racism, is an evil that must be fought in our society,” stated the minister.

Anielle Franco during her Ministry of Racial Equality inauguration speech. Photo: Matheus Alves/Jornal O Cidadão

During the speech, Anielle denounced the genocide of Black youth from favelas and urban peripheries and the lack of access to rights. She presented a proposal to transform the country and paid homage to social movements such as the National Network of Mothers and Relatives of Victims of State Terrorism and the Brazilian Black Movement of yesterday and today. Above all, however, she paid homage to her sister, Marielle Franco, the former Rio de Janeiro councillor who was brutally executed on March 14, 2018 in one of the most high-profile political crimes in Brazil’s history, which has had no resolution from the State to date.

“It’s vital we recognize that this country was founded on racial hierarchies, consequences of colonial slavery, eugenicist policies, and narratives based on racial inequality. It was here that ‘Brazilian-style racism’ was developed, denying our history and distorting a memory in favor of the farce of racial democracy. Racism warrants an effective response, and we would like to invite everyone; women, men, and non-binary people, Black and white, to formulate and execute this proposal together.

We are here because we have a new NATIONAL PROJECT: a project for a country where a Black woman can access and participate in different decision-making positions of society, without having her life torn away with five shots to the head, without being interrupted or violated.

A project for a country where a mother of a young Black man does not suffer every day doubting whether her son will come home because he runs the risk of being murdered by the State itself. A project for a country where our Black youth can have access to free, quality, public education through schools and universities, and public services that allow them to dream and build other possibilities for the future. A project for a country in which Black, white, indigenous, traditional populations, and all people regardless of race, color, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality have their constitutional rights guaranteed, and are treated with dignity and equal opportunities. A national project based on the search for collective well-being, for the improvement of quality of life, and for the guarantee of citizenship. — Anielle Franco

(Read the Minister of Racial Equality’s speech in full here.)

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Worker’s Party – PT), together with his wife and first lady known by Janja, took part in the inauguration ceremony and signed Law 14.532/23, approved by the National Congress, which equates the crime of racial slurs to racism, increasing punishments. The sanctioning ceremony took place during the inauguration of ministers Sônia Guajajara and Anielle Franco. Now, racial libel is punishable by imprisonment from two to five years. The new legislation is in line with the Federal Supreme Court’s (STF) October 2022 understanding that racial slurs equate racism, making slurs, as well as racism, a non-bailable and imprescriptible crime. In Brazil, up until the enactment of this new legislation, cases of racism were constantly typified as racial slurs, which in practice led to impunity for the crime.

Racial slurs are offenses against someone, an individual, on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, or background. And racism is when discrimination affects an entire group, for example, preventing a Black person from taking on a job or entering an establishment because of the color of their skin.

Who Exactly is Anielle Franco, Brazil’s New Minister for Racial Equality?

Anielle signs her book. Photo: Reproduced from FLUP Collection

Anielle Francisco da Silva is a human rights activist, Black feminist, journalist, teacher, writer, and founding executive director of the Marielle Franco Institute. Born and raised in Maré, a complex of 16 favelas located in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro, she’s known as Anielle Franco in Brazil and internationally.

The story of how her sister Marielle shortened the last name “Francisco” is told in her recent book My Sister and I: Diaries, Memories and Conversations about Marielle. The book was launched at the Urban Peripheries Literary Festival (FLUP) which took place in Maré on December 11—exactly 30 days prior to Anielle becoming Brazil’s first Minister of Racial Equality.

“When we hung up the phone, Dad joked and reminded us that you [Marielle] changed the surname Francisco to Franco because you were bullied when you were very young; but the Pope was Francisco like us, and no one complained. He knows that you never felt embarrassed by our name, but you needed a snappy sounding political last name. Marielle Francisco became Marielle Franco.” (Book excerpt)

The book includes letters she wrote to her sister after her assassination, but also childhood memories and memories of the life of the “Franciscos.” These are escrevivênciasa method and term coined by Conceição Evaristo of writing about the Black experience in Brazil. Anielle narrates the pain of grief transformed into a fight—not by choice, but out of the need for survival. In the work, the now minister Anielle Franco echoes the voices of generations of the “Franco” family advocating for Marielle’s memory and legacy, for justice for the crime, but also recounting emotional experiences.

Anielle with her sister Marielle Franco in the background. Photo: Reproduced from social media

However, those who think the journalist’s arrival to the role of minister is just in response to her sister’s execution would be mistaken. Former athlete, Anielle studied under a volleyball scholarship at the University of North Carolina. There she majored in Journalism and English, and later studied English and Literature at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ). She progressed in her academic career with a master’s in Journalism and English from Florida A&M University (FAMU) and another master’s in Racial-Ethnic Relations from Rio de Janeiro technical school CEFET. From her personal experiences and brilliant academic trajectory came the master’s thesis Marielle Franco Institute: Escrevivências, Memories, and the Legacy of Marielle Franco, with passages which tell us a lot about the current minister’s life story:

“While still very young, I started playing volleyball at the Vasco da Gama sports club, where I stayed for three years. I then played at the Botafogo club for many more years. There I was one of the first players of my age group to receive a basket of basic foodstuffs and bus vouchers. It was also my last club in Brazil, a club located in the South Zone of the city, and which made me see another reality that wasn’t my own every day.”

In another escrevivência from the thesis, Anielle tells of how she “left the favela for the world, but the favela never left me”. And assures that “it will never leave.” She adds: “I took my name, my last name, the strength of my roots, the pride in the Maré favela complex and in my country to the US sports courts.”

As a teacher, whether in the USA or Brazil, she has dedicated herself to prioritizing the study of racial issues. She is currently working on a PhD in Applied Linguistics at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Her thesis title is Do You Speak English?: Anti-racist and Decolonial Escrevivências and Uses of the English Language Through a Black and Feminist Lens.

Anthropologist Fátima Lima is professor of the Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Program in Applied Linguistics (PIPGA/UFRJ) and has been involved in Anielle Franco’s academic journey as a supervisor over the years. According to Lima, Anielle’s integrity, discipline, and racial awareness have always drawn attention.

Anielle Franco at her ministerial inauguration ceremony. Photo: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil

“I was her supervisor for her master’s degree and currently supervise the now Minister Anielle Franco in her doctoral studies. I speak as a professor, but also as an activist in the Black women’s movement and, mainly, as a friend of Anielle much like I was a friend of Marielle’s. What I have to say about Anielle is in relation to her incredible integrity. I’ve told her this in person: Anielle is someone who does not forget where she came from,” said Lima.

She highlights: “Her critical racial awareness and ethical positioning, as well as knowledge of the reality of favela alleyways, mean that Anielle Franco will develop a landmark positioning for the Ministry of Racial Equality. Mainly through the recognition of Brazil’s inequalities that the new minister has. Above all, by understanding that these inequalities are of class and gender but are first of all racial.”

Lúcia Xavier is one of Brazil’s most important Black intellectuals and coordinator of the NGO Criola. In an exclusive statement for RioOnWatch, she says:

“Watching the inauguration of Minister Anielle Franco to lead on racial equality is progress in terms of demonstrating the capacity of Black women to create mechanisms, processes, and even organisms to confront the racism present in Brazilian society. Anielle is a young Black woman and feminist who was born and raised in the Maré favela, who takes on this role providing the Brazilian State and society with knowledge, articulations, and political processes already developed by Black movements, Black women, and Black youth. And more: from the context of political experience that a woman, a young Black woman has in a society like ours. We celebrate and recognize Anielle’s courage to confront one of the main challenges facing Brazil: recognizing, eradicating, and repairing [racism] and developing initiatives which strengthen the Black population.”

For Reparations, Memory, and Social Justice

Over a period of two weeks, RioOnWatch interviewed Black female feminist and human rights activists who agreed to give statements on the significance of Anielle Franco’s inauguration. In addition to Fátima Lima and Lúcia Xavier, Mônica CunhaPâmella PassosAmanda MendonçaCamila MoradiaFlavia Cândido, and Pâmela Carvalho were interviewed.

The mosaic of voices brings together generations of Black women academics, favela leaders, and social and human rights activists, and expresses the perceptions of these women—who have in some way been part of Anielle Franco’s journey—on the arrival of someone born and raised in the favela at the Ministries Esplanade.

In moving statements, the five women interviewed speak of the representation of Anielle Franco’s body, work, and life, expressing a common point: the recognition of the minister’s capacity and her commitment to rebuilding society and proposing reparations policies for the Black population through the Ministry of Racial Equality.

The statements relay a strong sense of political representation which also extends to Sônia Guajajara as Minister of Indigenous Peoples, outlining a vision of collective struggle realized by these women over years together with Anielle Franco.

Inauguration of the Minister of Indigenous Peoples, Sônia Guajajara, at the Planalto Palace. Photo: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil

Mônica Cunha: ‘We’ve Arrived!’

Mônica Cunha is co-founder of the Moleque Movement of mothers whose children were victims of police violence and a member of the Black Coalition for Rights. She’s a human rights defender and one of the most active mothers in the National Network of Mothers of Victims of State Violence and Terrorism. Cunha will be inaugurated as a councilor for the municipality of Rio de Janeiro on February 2 as an alternate for the seat left vacant by Tarcísio Motta (Liberty and Socialism Party – PSOL), who was elected federal deputy in the 2022 elections.

Mônica Cunha at the inauguration ceremony. Photo: personal archive

“I have witnessed Brazil taking possession of Brazil and occupying its space… [the] inauguration [of the two women ministers]: one indigenous and the other Black. It’s what we from the social movements on the frontlines have been saying, mainly us Black women: we’re finally starting to take our place and actually make democracy come true in this country.

Anielle Franco’s inauguration has been a fight for all of us for many years. It’s the start of reparations. It’s the retaking of our place that was taken away 500 years ago, so we can really occupy and build Brazil, as we should have when we got here.

These two peoples—indigenous and Black—have always been treated with inequality, racism, and discrimination. We are the bodies of people who have always been… seen or viewed without rights.

In her speech, when Anielle cites the names of various Black women who have accompanied her since the tragedy that occurred in her life and the life of her family—Marielle’s assassination—we feel that the person occupying this place is our daughter, our granddaughter, our niece, our cousin… Anielle Franco was inaugurated on a Wednesday. Her sister Marielle was assassinated on a Wednesday. Anielle Franco became Minister of Racial Equality on a Wednesday, on the day of Xangô, the orixá of justice, and of Iansã, mistress of the winds. Do you remember how windy it was when Marielle was executed? How an inexplicable storm fell? Having seen and participated in this historic moment means seeing my struggle of 22 years, the struggle of the movement of mothers of victims of State violence, being recognized, because when Anielle talked about the genocide of Black youth she took us there. Because this is a term [genocide] that’s always been articulated by us from the mothers’ movement so that people understand, so that everyone comprehends what we’ve lost: our children… So, when she brought that there, she echoed all our voices.” — Mônica Cunha

Pâmella Passos: “We’re Ready!”

Pâmella Passos was at the inauguration ceremony, representing IFRJ. Photo: personal archive

Pâmella Passos is a professor of History at the Rio de Janeiro Federal Institute of Education, Science, and Technology (IFRJ) and a member of the Marielle Franco Institute advisory board. As an academic researcher, she supervises two post-doctoral traineeships, one in Social Anthropology at UFRJ and another in Education at The Fluminense Federal University (UFF). She is head of the Technology, Education, and Culture Research Group (GPTEC), and an author with a vast body of work in the area of human rights.

Passos was a close friend of Marielle Franco and acted in a voluntary capacity on the former councilor’s policy development. Following her friend’s death, she also became friends with her sister Anielle, who she already knew but with whom the bonds of friendship deepened, going from grief to struggle.

“As a Black woman, historian, friend of Marielle, friend of Anielle, teacher, and educator, I can say that having Anielle Franco as Minister of Racial Equality is recognition, reparation, and memory.

It is recognition of her personal trajectory, which is always important to highlight: Anielle Franco is a student, researcher, and international and national articulator who in the last five years, even amid so much pain, has built bridges, dialogues and the Marielle Franco Institute—recognized internationally for its capacity to articulate policies and denounce, for example, policy violations suffered by Black women in Brazil. So, the first point about Anielle’s inauguration is this: it is recognition given to her trajectory and also reparation not just in relation to what was done to her sister Marielle, but what has been done to Black women in Brazil over centuries.

And to repair is to say that Black women are qualified and can be anywhere they want. ‘We’re ready!’ as the material produced by the Marielle Franco Institute itself says and with Anielle’s fundamental participation.

But it’s also about memory, because Anielle also brings the figure of Marielle with her, and not just Marielle but all the unresolved and forgotten deaths of Black people in this country, from the time of the [military] dictatorship to current crimes.

Now, I also think, as a woman from the generation born in the 1980s, that Anielle Franco as Minister of Racial Equality also means renewal. Yes, the renewal of the Black Movement and the social movements saying that we’re not going to die, that we are seeds, that we’re going to continue fighting for those who came before us, for ourselves, and for those yet to come. Anielle offers a connection between the elders, as we say, and the younger generation, and this temporality now crosses, transversalizes, into something very important for us: having a less unequal, more egalitarian country.” — Pâmella Passos

Amanda Mendonça: ‘Representative of a New Political Culture’

Amanda Mendonça is a professor at the Teacher Training College at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) and a feminist activist. She is one of the authors of the book Espaço Coruja: Pelo Direito das Crianças e das Mulheres (Owl Space: For the Rights of Children and Women). The formulation of the Owl Space Law Project was one of the activities which had the greatest emotional impact on Marielle Franco.

Professor Amanda Mendonça. Photo: personal arhive

“The moment we’re experiencing, this process of reclaiming our country—this alone carries a lot of emotion. It’s been a process of revisiting our histories, trajectories, and struggles. A painful process, but at the same time beautiful.

This takes on another dimension when it comes to considering the role that Marielle has in all this. Her execution and the fact that justice still hasn’t been carried out has made these last almost five years a kind of fuel that makes us keep going, a force that doesn’t let us give up. It might seem a bit cliché, but whenever I’ve been in the streets in recent years, I’ve seen it in the eyes of those who were also there: a shared sense that we will prevail, for us, for all of us, but especially for her. It’s something we feel and that doesn’t need to be said.

“And during this whole time, we hear the issue of legacy, the disputes around what this means, the idea of Marielle’s seeds. A lot of people have gone down the established and chosen paths to preserve this legacy. And for me, each one has its own value in its own way. I chose to write about the projects we developed together and about Marielle as a parliamentarian. I consider this a relevant contribution for future generations.

“With regard to the paths chosen to preserve her memory and legacy (which for me also constitutes a way of enacting justice), I believe Anielle Franco has chosen the most beautiful way of doing this. She chose to better understand the basis of the system and country which executed her sister in order to change it, just like Marielle did during a large part of her life. Anielle has studied, read, and produced a lot. It’s very impressive how she’s created a frontline political framework with an enormous capacity for formulation and dialogue. A young, Black mother—for me she’s one of the main figures I consider representative of a new political culture. And seeing all this potential become a minister makes that initial moment I mentioned even more moving. Because, in some way, it brings a feeling of victory, as much for the symbolism of seeing the last name Franco announced as having a woman like her becoming a minister.” — Amanda Mendonça

Camila Moradia: ‘A Fight Worth Fighting’

Anielle receives a hug from Camila Moradia at her inauguration. Photo: Reproduction

Born and raised in the favelas of Complexo do Alemão, Camila Moradia is a community leader in the fight for housing. She was invited to introduce and announce Anielle Franco’s inauguration during the ceremony.

“Watching and taking part in the inauguration was the materialization of the struggles I believe in. When you really want something and really fight for it and it’s actually happening, there are no words. I feel very honored and fulfilled not just for having taken part in the inauguration, having been invited to be part of Anielle’s introduction… but as a Black woman from a favela on the frontlines, like those heading up many movements which support other women. As Anielle put it so well: we don’t get to these spaces on our own: we build this together. I saw the snapshot of [what] power [looks like] change, like so many people wanted. When we talk about occupying spaces of power, this is what we mean: the real spaces of power, but also other spaces. Of how important it was for us to have Ani as a minister, of how important it is to have a Black woman a minister. I received a lot of messages from many women saying they felt represented there when I spoke and introduced Ani. So, in this way, we have to understand what these spaces of power are and occupy these spaces.” — Camila Moradia

Flávia Cândido: ‘She’s the Minister from Maré’

Flavinha Cândido is a mother, teacher, Maré resident and coordinator of the Maré 0800 project. She’s a human rights defender and was an assistant to Councilor Marielle Franco. She’s currently a parliamentary assistant to State Deputy Renata Souza (PSOL).

Flavinha Cândido. Photo: personal archive

“In three months’ time it’ll be five years since Marielle was executed. And when Lula won the election… it gave us a breath of hope of discovering who ordered Marielle’s murder, of finding out who ordered Marielle’s political femicide.

When Lula began announcing the transition team and mentioned the names of Black women, including Anielle, I posted online and a lot of people [from Maré] came to speak with me. I see and saw the recognition of people in Maré. The joy is huge. They say: ‘look at Mari’s legacy,’ because Anielle is part of this legacy.

But that’s not all. I was Marielle’s assistant and there’s a speech of hers that left a huge mark on me: when she stated that ten years before she was elected councilor, the only Black woman [in power] had been Benedita da Silva, and before Benedita there had been Jurema Batista, also ten years prior… It’s good to know that other women—whether they’re my age or from the generation of the 1980s like Marielle, Renata Souza, and Anielle—can see themselves reflected in the women who are leaping forward and arriving in these spaces of power. I’m not just speaking of myself, but also my five-year-old niece. She’ll be able to talk about Marielle’s legacy, and also about Anielle, our minister: the Minister from Maré. It’s a very strong representation. She will be, in fact already is, the reference for other older Black women who opened the doors so that now we can have Anielle as minister.

It’s very important we give this a standing ovation because having a Black woman from a favela in this role is to know that we will truly combat racism. In particular, the racism which assassinates all the time. That kills all the time. It kills a man in Rio de Janeiro due to a piece of wood being confused for a rifle. We’re going to have someone who we can depend on doing something about this and not putting a veil on racism. We can count on her to build a real political structure.

In these five years without Mari’s physical presence, but of grief turned into struggle, the inauguration day brought me hope… I’m really happy. Anielle is super prepared. What pride that she’s accepted this trench of the fight.” — Flávia Cândido

Always remembered and mentioned by Anielle and the women interviewed for this report, Benedita da Silva was the first woman from a favela to become minister--pictured here at the Congress Plenary. Photo: Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado
Always remembered and mentioned by Anielle and the women interviewed for this report, Benedita da Silva was the first woman from a favela to become minister–pictured here at the Congress Plenary. Photo: Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado

Pâmela Carvalho: ‘Perspective on the Present and the Future’

Historian Pâmela Carvalho. Photo: Douglas Lopes

Pâmela Carvalho is a historian and coordinator of Redes da Maré. She’s a researcher of Black culture, communicator and cultural producer who was born, raised, and lives in Maré. She describes:

“For me, there’s an immense significance in seeing Anielle Franco lead an important ministry like the Ministry of Racial Equality. There’s an objective and symbolic value in this representation, as I’m a Black woman resident of Maré like her.

Seeing Anielle there as a Black woman, researcher, and knowledge producer who was born and raised in Maré brings me a vision of the present… of building a series of public policies in the present which consider the guarantee of rights for Black people.

It also brings a vision of the future in which the recognition of Black women—especially Black, indigenous, racialized women in favela territories—and their output, work, identities, and importance are essential. Because we know it is these territories and women that are socially marginalized, vulnerable, and placed to one side in times of decision-making. So, seeing Anielle Franco, a Black woman with an academic background who has long been dedicated to producing knowledge for Brazilian society, in particular considering Black women’s experiences through the Marielle Franco Institute [where she works with a view to developing public policies for Black women… producing working methodologies, trajectories, and the valuing of work]… is seeing the materialization of the future.”

Carvalho continues:

“This is inspirational to me! It shows what we always say about ‘our steps come from afar.’ We have a perspective of the past, of building, and of a path that’s been planted by many Black women. We have this perspective of the present, of building this now and that it’s this now which will open up paths to a future where many other Black women will finally occupy their due spaces of power. We should have been in this space long ago, because we’ve been fighting for a long time for this path to really open up and be occupied by us. So, seeing Anielle Franco as a minister inspires me and is another point, another line in the history of struggle and achievements of Black women in Brazil.”

About the author: Tatiana Lima is a journalist and popular communicator at heart. A Black feminist, member of Complexo do Alemão’s Researchers in Movement Study Group, she is currently special reporter with RioOnWatch. A fair-skinned Black woman, born and raised in a favela, Lima currently lives in Rio’s periphery and is a doctoral student at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

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