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She Changed Her Destiny —
And She’s Changing Her Nation’s

Benedita da Silva

Benedita da Silva is a remarkable, courageous individual; born and raised in extreme poverty, she emerged as a community leader, became a founder of Brazil’s Workers Party and the first black woman in Brazil’s National Assembly and Senate.

Benedita da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Woman’s 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 sexism.

"My life story is like a samba," she says at the outset, quoting the lines, "If I could change my destiny I wouldn’t be a wanderer in this harsh world." She adds, "Tocar no meu destino — change my destiny — that’s exactly what I did."

EXTREME POVERTY

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 o’clock to go to the well for the family’s 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 mother’s death when Benedita was only 15 was not only a terrible personal loss; it was also an economic blow.

Although limited, da Silva’s 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 hadn’t been so poor, he wouldn’t have died."

Her third child, born prematurely at home, died within two days. "We didn’t 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 school janitor.

In her early thirties, she got a job as a government clerk; a few years later, she took a nurse’s 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 dictatorship.

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 couldn’t 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 supporter.

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 wouldn’t win. "I belonged to a new party, with a new political platform and I was an unknown. Plus, we’d 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 Brazil’s 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 party’s shortcomings and the sacrifices of public life, da Silva speaks with pride of the PT’s role. "Despite our limitations, it’s 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 we’re 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 can’t 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: "That’s the only way to have political clout."

—PETER GILMORE

Benedita da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Woman’s Story of Politics and Love, A First Food Book, a project of Global Exchange. $15.95 (paperback).


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