Benedita da Silva
da Silva, Benedita 1942–
Benedita da Silva 1942–
“Three times a minority” in a country where people are only beginning to admit racism is a force to be reckoned with, Benedita da Silva came from the bottom of society to assume a position of leadership in Brazilian politics.
Brazil is an ethnically diverse country in eastern central South America. An estimated 10 percent of its 150 million people are of African descent, and an additional third of the population is racially mixed. Yet in a nation with more blacks than any other except Nigeria, only nine elected members of Brazil’s congress, the Chamber of Deputies, are black. Of the chamber’s 569 members, only 25 are women. In addition, blacks and people of mixed racial descent make up a disproportionate percentage of the country’s lower class population.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1987, da Silva called herself “three times a minority”: black, a woman, and poor. Many city dwelling people of color like da Silva, who is the granddaughter of a slave, grow up and live out their lives as squatters in shantytowns called favelas. Da Silva is from Chapeu Mangueira, one of several hundred favelas that surround Rio de Janeiro, built on the steep cliffs that overhang Rio’s Copacabana Beach.
The youngest of 12 children, da Silva was born to a priestess of the Umbanda Afro-Brazilian religion who worked as a laundress; her father was a carwasher. By the time she was five, da Silva had her first job, delivering laundry for her mother and other Chapeu Mangueira laundresses. She started working at a belt and pocketbook factory when she was just 11. Five years later, shortly after her mother died, da Silva’s family married her off to her first husband. The couple held a variety of jobs: she worked as a maid, a cook, and a street vendor, and he peddled biscuits and painted houses. Occasionally they would be homeless for several days with their five children, only two of whom survived.
In the 1960s, da Silva became a community activist, fighting to get Rio’s city government to provide the area with basic services such as electricity, running water, and a primary school—all at a time when few people spoke out on any controversial issues. Brazil was then ruled by an oppressive military government that even burned down Rio’s Praia do Pinto favela in 1971.
By the 1970s, da Silva had joined the Brazilian Democratic Movement, an opposition political party formed to seek
Born in 1942 in Chapeu Mangueira, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; married in 1958 (husband died, 1980); married Aguinaldo Bezerra dos Santos; children (first marriage) Nilcea (daughter), Pedro Paulo (son).
Member of Brazilian Democratic Movement briefly in the early 1970s; cofounder and member of Worker’s party of Brazil, beginning 1980; served on Rio de Janeiro City Council, 1982–87; elected to Chamber of Deputies, Brasilia, 1987—; ran for mayor of Rio de Janeiro, 1992.
Addresses: Office —Camera dos Deputados, Praca dos 3 Poderes, Anexo No. 2, Brasilia DF 70000.
protection from the country’s strong-armed government, but she soon left the party because its leaders were uninterested in grassroots community activism. She continued to fight for her community, winning a municipal health center for Chapeu Mangueira, and at the end of the decade, although she had sworn never to rejoin a political organization, she helped found the leftist Worker’s party when the government relaxed political controls. In 1982, da Silva won an election to Rio’s city council in the first free election following the end of military rule; before her term was up, the party slated her for a seat on congress. She has since served two terms as a deputy in the Brasilia, the nation’s capital, and in 1992 she ran for mayor of Rio de Janeiro.
“I am the exception to every established rule in this country,” da Silva told a Christian Science Monitor reporter in September of 1987, shortly after her election to the congressional Chamber of Deputies. Religion is a case in point. Brazil is the largest Catholic nation in the world, and the man da Silva names as one of her most important influences is Dom Helder Camara, the Auxiliary Bishop of Rio and later Archbishop of Recife and Olinda. But da Silva converted to the pentecostal Apostolic Church of God at the age of 26. Since then she has ceased to smoke, drink, or dance—a sharp contrast to her role as Carnival samba queen in her youth in a country where Carnival, the celebration of Fat Tuesday during Lent, is a national event.
Da Silva was also influenced by her family’s slave heritage. Her grandmother, Maria Rosa, was a former slave in Brazil’s mining and farming state of Minas Gerais. Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, who sent slaves there from Africa during the 16th and 17th centuries. The country gained independence in 1822 but didn’t abolish slavery until 1888, becoming the last country in the Americas to do so. On Brazilian Abolition Day, celebrated every May 13, da Silva’s whole family would gather and “speak of the importance of our being Black, of the need to go forward and never to be turned around,” she recounted in Essence magazine.
Da Silva was plagued by blatant racism both as a young girl and as an adult, but having hailed from a family known for its pride and determination in the face of adversity, she was able to cope with the various indignities she endured in her time. As a child, for instance, her teachers actually told her that her hair was ugly and that she would never be as intelligent as her white classmates; later in life, she became a victim of discrimination in the workplace when, after responding to an advertisement for an “administrative job,” in a Catholic high school, she was told that she would have to wash the school’s floors.
Da Silva ventured into politics, since the political forum offered her the greatest chance to improve conditions for her people. “The worst thing I could do is run away from [my blackness],” she told the Washington Post. The Worker’s party she helped form in 1980 rejected military rule for the country but stopped short of endorsing Soviet-style Communism for Brazil. In the first round of free elections in nearly 20 years, she became a member of Rio’s city council in 1982. Several years later, federal elections for deputy were held. She ran for office as a representative from the state of Rio de Janeiro in a campaign that relied more on word of mouth than on an elaborate campaign organization or television promotions—she was on the air once for only 30 seconds. Still, da Silva’s appeal as a candidate was remarkable, and her supporters in the favelas and around the city came to know her as “Bene,” a familiar version of her given name.
In 1987 the Worker’s party won 285,000 votes, giving da Silva and one other Worker’s party candidate seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Da Silva was the first elected black woman deputy in Brazil. Ironically, one of her fellow freshman deputies, Marcia Kubitschek, had been a former laundry client of da Silva’s mother 25 years before.
Da Silva arrived in the congress just in time to take part in the drafting of a new constitution for Brazil. She was instrumental in adding to the 1988 constitution a section codifying the rights and benefits due to domestic workers. Unlike provisions for other employees in the Brazilian economy, previous laws had extended little or no coverage to maids and other domestics. Da Silva also headed a commission of inquiry into the heated debate over women’s sterilization and investigated the murder of some seven thousand street children a year in Brazil—out of an estimated seven million children with no permanent home. Other causes she championed included land reform, the restructuring of public education, and limitations on the role of multinational corporations in Brazilian policymaking. In addition, da Silva was one of the first to call for the impeachment of former President Fernando Collor de Mello on corruption charges. Collor was eventually ousted for taking millions of dollars in personal profits from the Brazilian government.
In 1991 da Silva was part of a committee that invited African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela to visit Brazil. Mandela began a one-day visit to the country believing that people of color had achieved an enviable level of equality in Brazil. After he talked with da Silva—who had not been invited to any of the ANC leader’s official activities—Mandela reevaluated his understanding of Brazilian racial policies. By the end of the visit, he was telling Brazilian blacks to take their share of political power in the country.
Acting on Mandela’s advice, da Silva ran for mayor of Rio de Janeiro in 1992. From a slow start with four percent of the vote, she swept the primaries in October of 1992, defeating six other candidates with 800,000 votes. Her opponent in a November 15th run-off was Cesar Maia, a white university professor and businessman of the Democratic Movement party. Shortly before the election, six polls were taken; three pegged Maia as the winner, and the other three reported da Silva in the lead.
Race became an important issue in the campaign, and the mayoral election brought to the fore racial prejudices that had previously lurked in the background of Brazilian life. Voters debated whether da Silva, a deputy and former councilwoman, would be capable of managing the city’s 130,000 employees. The country’s largest newspaper, O Globo, accused her of nepotism, revealing that she had her two children and a stepdaughter transferred from other city jobs to the permanent staff of the city council while she was an elected member of the group. And her son admitted to falsifying a high school diploma in order to get a better salary.
The key issue in the election for a majority of voters was security. Maia waged a war on crime, saying he would call out federal troops to keep beaches secure. Rio’s solid citizens were unconvinced by da Silva, who called for more jobs and other opportunities for the gang members who frightened the city. The perception of Rio’s favelas as havens of crime often run by drug lords also hurt her campaign. In the end she lost with 38 percent of the vote to Maia’s 48 percent.
Although she lost the election, da Silva retained her deputy’s seat. It is unlikely that she will stop fighting any time soon. During the mayoral campaign, she visited Washington, D.C. to meet with Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and U.S. congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Washington Post columnist Donna Britt wrote in August of 1992 that the forces of racism against which da Silva was struggling were nearly overwhelming. But da Silva claims that “those forces are simply not that strong. If they were,” she concluded, “we would not be here after 500 years of oppression.”
Baer, Werner, The Brazilian Economy: Growth and Development, 2nd edition, Greenwood, 1983.
Chacel, Julian, Brazil’s Economic and Political Future, Westview, 1988.
Conniff, Michael L., and Frank D. McCann, Modern Brazil: Elites and Masses in Historical Perspective, University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
Perlman, Janice E., The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro, University of California Press, 1976.
Wesson, Robert, and David Fleischer, editors, Brazil in Transiton, Greenwood, 1983.
Chicago Tribune, December 28, 1990, sec. 1A, p. 19.
Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 1987, p. 1.
Essence, June 1991, p. 36.
New York Times, February 17, 1987, p. A4; November 14, 1992, p. A3.
Washington Post, August 4, 1992, p. B1; November 15, 1992, p. F1.
Da Silva, Benedita
da Silva, Benedita
Benedita da Silva was born in the favela (shantytown) Praia do Pinto in the barrio of Leblon in the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She moved with her family a few months later to another favela, Chapéu Mangueira, situated on a hill overlooking Copacabana Beach. Her adopted father, José Tobias de Sousa, worked in construction, and her mother, Maria da Conceiçao de Sousa, washed clothes. The de Sousas had thirteen children, only eight of whom survived infancy, and Benedita was the only one who learned how to read and write. Because the family lived in poverty, Benedita was forced to earn money starting at age seven. She shined shoes, sold candies in the streets, and worked as a live-in maid, as a school janitor, and in a leather factory. In her thirties, she worked as a clerk in the Department of Transportation of Rio de Janeiro and supplemented her income as a nurse's aid at the Miguel Couto Hospital. In 1980 Benedita earned her high school degree, and only a year later she graduated from the State University of Rio with a degree in social work.
Benedita married three times. She married her first husband, Nilton Aldano da Silva, at age sixteen; he was ten years older than her. The couple had four children, two of whom died within days of their birth. After Nilton's death in 1981, she married Aguinaldo Bezerra dos Santos, a community leader in Chapéu Mangueira. In 1988, however, Aguinaldo died suddenly. Benedita married again in October 1993. Her third husband was Antônio Pitanga, a popular actor and city councilor in Rio de Janeiro.
Benedita's experiences as a black child, a wife, and a mother shaped her political activism. Elected president of the community association for Chapeu Mangueira in 1978, she was the first female to hold the position. Influenced by the ideas of liberation theology and the progressive ideas of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, she became a vigorous proponent of educational opportunity for all Brazilians. During her political career, Benedita has led efforts to assure that domestic workers receive a minimum wage, to make gender discrimination illegal, to end mass
sterilization of women, to defend female prisoners from violent abuse, to provide access tohealthcare, and to protect the reproductive rights of women.
In 1980 Benedita helped found the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores ). Two years later, campaigning with the slogan "I am [proud to be] black, a woman, and from the favela," she was elected to the City Council of Rio de Janeiro, the first black woman to attain this position in the history of Brazil. This success was followed by a series of stunning electoral victories as a representative of the state of Rio de Janeiro. In 1986, she was elected to the Federal Chamber of Deputies, and she was re-elected in 1990. Four years later she won election as Brazil's first black female senator. Then, in 1998, she became vice-governor (deputy governor) of the state of Rio de Janeiro.
When Governor Anthony Garotinho ran for the presidency of Brazil in March 2002, Benedita took up the governorship. Although she was defeated in the gubernatorial election of October 2002, she was soon after appointed Minister of Social Welfare by Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. She headed this ministry until January 2004. Since her resignation, Benedita has spoken on behalf of women's rights and human rights around the world. In February 2005, she visited Atlanta, Georgia, to establish the Benedita da Silva Foundation in that city. The foundation seeks improve social conditions and increase educational opportunities for Afro-Brazilians, particularly women marginalized children, and the poor.
In a nation that has been portrayed as a "racial democracy," Benedita's career has vividly shown the harsh struggles faced by Afro-Brazilians. Although she has endured racist slander and discrimination, she has been unceasing in her defense of the rights of Afro-Brazilians (estimated to number more than half of Brazil's 186 million inhabitants), women, and native people (estimated at 734,000 in the 2000 census). Benedita's extraordinary journey and contributions are a testament to her determination to survive and succeed in spite of the desperate circumstances into which she was born.
City of God. DVD. Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. Miramax Films, 2002.
Da Silva, Benedita, with Medea Benjamin and Maisa Mendonça. Benedita da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Woman's Story of Politics and Love. Oakland, Calif.: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1997.
dale torston graden (2005)