She Changed Her Destiny
And Shes Changing Her Nations
Benedita da Silva is a remarkable, courageous individual; born and
raised in extreme poverty, she emerged as a community leader, became a founder of
Brazils Workers Party and the first black woman in Brazils National Assembly
Benedita da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Womans Story of Politics
and Love, tells her remarkable story, in her own words. The book is based on extensive
interviews with da Silva by Medea Benjamin and Maisa Mendonca.
Da Silva speaks openly and forthrightly about love and heartbreak, the
strengths and weaknesses of the Workers Party, her religious convictions, a
childhood rape, a life-threatening abortion and her daily confrontations with racism and
"My life story is like a samba," she says at the outset, quoting
the lines, "If I could change my destiny I wouldnt be a wanderer in this harsh
world." She adds, "Tocar no meu destino change my destiny
thats exactly what I did."
Da Silva was born nearly 55 years ago in one of the hillside slum
neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro known as favelas, in the neighborhood where she was
raised and still lives. Her father worked in construction and washed cars; her mother took
in washing. Many of her 12 siblings succumbed to diseases like measles and tuberculosis.
As a child, da Silva would rise at 5 oclock to go to the well for
the familys water; at 6:30, she would go to work in the market, selling candy,
peanuts and fruit; at 12 noon she would go to school. Her mothers death when
Benedita was only 15 was not only a terrible personal loss; it was also an economic blow.
Although limited, da Silvas education proved an asset when she
became involved in the neighborhood association at age 16, helping to organize literacy
classes and trying to improve health conditions.
Married to a handyman/painter at 16, she lost her first child at 17. Born
at home, the child died eight days later of an infected umbilical cord. "If I
hadnt been so poor, he wouldnt have died."
Her third child, born prematurely at home, died within two days. "We
didnt even have money to give him a proper burial. I thought I would go crazy; it
was more than I could bear."
Her first home was a small one-room shack, its roof made out of old tin
cans, walls made from wooden boxes. There was not always food in the house. And yet da
Silva and her husband worked constantly to provide for their two children.
She worked as a maid. (Years later, at a posh dinner, she overheard an
ambassador comment on how elegantly she ate. And she thought, "Of course. I learned
from serving your food!") She worked as a street vendor, a factory worker and a
In her early thirties, she got a job as a government clerk; a few years
later, she took a nurses aide course and got a part-time hospital job. Studying at
home, da Silva earned a high school equivalency degree. At age 40, she started college on
the same day as her 20-year-old daughter.
But just as their lives were starting to improve, her husband of 22 years
suffered a fatal stroke. "From one day to the next my world started to fall
apart." Following his death, da Silva became more deeply involved in her work with
the Neighborhood Association.
Meanwhile, Brazil was beginning to emerge from years of military
The U.S.-backed coup in 1964 had dire consequences for residents of the favelas.
Some shantytowns were physically destroyed by the military, forcing people to move far
from where they worked and where their children went to school. "We couldnt
keep minutes of our meetings because it was considered subversive to demand better living
conditions like electricity, plumbing or paved roads."
But the persecution of the male organizers allowed a generation of female
leaders to emerge in the shanytowns, da Silva among them. She was elected president of her
neighborhood association in 1978 and led successful campaigns for electricity, better
housing and basic social services.
Backed by the metalworkers and other unions representing some one million
workers, the Workers Party (PT) came into existence in 1980. The labor party immediately
began seeking allies like the neighborhood associations; da Silva soon became a strong
In 1982, the PT asked the favela associations to come up with a
slate of candidates for city and state offices in the first free elections. Benedita da
Silva was the associations choice for Rio city council. She was certain she
wouldnt win. "I belonged to a new party, with a new political platform and I
was an unknown. Plus, wed hardly any money."
As a grassroots candidate, Da Silva ran a grassroots campaign, going
door-to-door, speaking in public squares. When the election results were announced, she
had received more votes than any other city council candidate. But to her dismay, she was
the only PT candidate elected to the council; she alone faced the paternalism and racism
of the city councillors as she fought for the poor and underprivileged.
In 1986, da Silva was elected to Congress and participated in the creation
of a new constitution which certified the transition to democracy but a democracy
with a distance yet to travel. Out of 599 deputies, she was one of 26 women and only seven
blacks even though blacks represented 56 percent of Brazils population. She
was re-elected to a second term four years later, narrowly lost the Rio mayoral election
in 1992 and was elected to the Senate in 1994.
Although candid about her partys shortcomings and the sacrifices of
public life, da Silva speaks with pride of the PTs role. "Despite our
limitations, its amazing how the PT has managed to have such an impact on the
political process in such a short time," she says. Workers Party deputies in Congress
have proposed innovative projects in education, health care and agrarian reform; the many
cities governed by the PT have gained reputations for popular participation,
accountability, ending illiteracy and achieving major improvements in health.
FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY
But, she says, "In Congress were fighting an uphill battle
against policies that place the interests of the international market above the public
good. These policies continue to make the rich richer and the poor poorer." Due to
globalization, policies made by banks thousands of miles away have a greater impact than
the deputies elected by the Brazilian people, da Silva says.
The grandmother and poet continues to fight for a democracy which is more
than an elected government and freedom of speech. Democracy, da Silva argues, is also
"a job at a decent wage, the right to a clean environment."
Government should do more to end hunger and improve health care, so others
do not suffer as she has, da Silva says. She dreams of a society in which "human
relations take precedence over material things;" a society that recognizes the worth
of her neighbors in the favelas.
"The people who come down from the favelas are the ones who
supply the cheap labor that builds this marvelous city its mansions, its
high-rises, its luxury restaurants. They are the bricklayers, the plumbers, the
firefighters, the humble factory workers who help make the profits for the big companies.
They are the maids and the waiters, the people who serve the privileged classes. They are
hard-working people, people who are proud of their culture. But cast aside by the very
people they serve, they cant even enjoy the fruits of their labor."
A better society will be achieved only if the people build stronger
neighborhood associations, stronger unions, a stronger labor party, she says:
"Thats the only way to have political clout."
Benedita da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Womans Story of Politics and
Love, A First Food Book, a project of Global Exchange. $15.95 (paperback).