This story was in the news and showed a tremendous strength of character in a victim who has climbed high. Now that's resolve.
From Maid to Rio Governor, and Still Fighting
August 17, 2002
By LARRY ROHTER
RIO DE JANEIRO - Just before Benedita da Silva was
as the new governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro a few
months ago, a political rival accused her of being
excessively fond of the luxuries of office. As Brazil's
first black woman governor, he argued, she had an
obligation to remain true to her origins in the slums here
and shun all pomp and privilege.
"I have no problem whatsoever in walking
on red carpets,"
she immediately retorted, "because I've certainly washed
enough of them in my life."
As chief executive of a state of 14 million
people, Ms. da
Silva insists on exercising her right to live in the
governor's mansion. But she makes a point of reminding
Brazil's almost exclusively white political establishment
that her long and arduous journey to power began in maid's
quarters and that she speaks for millions of black
Brazilians who remain poor and disenfranchised.
"We may be a majority,
but blacks are invisible in this
country, and I want to make them visible," Ms. da Silva
said recently. "But at the same time, I want my mistakes
and my achievements to be attributed to the person I am,
and not to the color of my skin or my gender. That's what I
am fighting for."
Officially, less than half of Brazil's 175 million people
are classified as black. But in a nation that likes to
consider itself a racial democracy, 70 percent of those
living below the poverty line are black, as are 80 percent
of those who are illiterate, and some studies indicate that
on average, whites live longer than blacks and earn twice
As a political leader, Ms. da Silva owes much of her
popularity and her credibility among voters here to the
powerful symbolism of her rise to power from poverty, which
kindles hope that others can do the same.
But on a personal level, that
background remains extremely
painful to her.
"To experience misery, discrimination, prejudice and social
exclusion in one's own skin, the truth is that's a memory I
don't like to dwell on very much," she said.
Born in one of Rio's innumerable
favelas, or squatter
slums, Ms. da Silva, now 60, was one of 13 children, only 8
of whom survived to adulthood. Her mother, a priestess in
the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé, was a washerwoman
for the family of Juscelino Kubitschek, who was Brazil's
president from 1956 through 1960.
Her first toys, she recalls, were hand-me-downs
future president's daughter Márcia, with whom Ms. da Silva
would later serve in Congress.
Eventually, Ms. da Silva would also work
for years as a
maid and cleaning lady. But even as a child, she shined
shoes, sewed and sold fruits and candy because her father,
who washed cars and worked in construction, could not make
enough money to support his family.
The family was so poor that Ms. da
Silva had only one set
of clothes to wear to school, and the temptations and
dangers of the street were many. A sister drifted into
prostitution, one of her brothers became a pickpocket, and
Ms. da Silva herself was molested during her childhood by a
boarder her parents had taken in to earn a little extra
"One reason I don't like to remember what I went through is
that it takes me to one of the things that has most marked
my life, which is sexual violence," she said. "I was raped
at the age of 7, and it took decades and decades of my life
for me to recompose myself."
At 16, she married a heavy-drinking house
painter 10 years
her elder, and her life became even more difficult. Two of
her four children died as infants, one of whom was buried
in a pauper's grave. After being widowed at the age of 38
she married again, only to have her second husband die six
All the while, though, Ms. da Silva, or Bené, as she is
widely known here, was working in community groups in the
favela, where she had lived since she was an infant, and
was continuing to study, eventually earning a degree as a
social worker. When the left-wing Workers' Party was
founded two decades ago and came looking for candidates
with grass-roots credentials, she was an obvious choice.
"I will never
forget that first election, when I ran for
the City Council in 1982," she said. "I was trembling with
fear from all the misery and atrocities that I had been
through, but I knew that I had to crack the code, that if I
didn't figure out the code, I would be eternally
subjugated. And there is nothing worse than that, than
feeling you are imprisoned."
Initially, she was the only Workers' Party
on the Council here, but other firsts followed quickly: the
first black woman to serve as a congressional deputy, the
first black woman to be a senator. Elected lieutenant
governor here in 1998 on a multiparty slate, she became
governor in April when her predecessor, Anthony Garotinho,
stepped down nine months early to run for president.
But Mr. Garotinho,
anticipating an early departure, had
already spent nearly the entire budget for the year, she
complains, making it almost impossible for her to
strengthen the social programs that are her trademark.
There has also been a surge in violent crime and attacks on
police officers, as the drug lords who now control the
favelas openly challenge her authority.
In the most recent polls leading
up to October's election
for a full four-year term, Ms. da Silva is running a strong
third in a field of eight. Two of her strongest rivals are
also women, one of them Mr. Garotinho's wife, but both are
white, and Ms. da Silva argues that she continues to face
an uphill climb because of the color of her skin.
"Just because I am the
governor of the state of Rio de
Janeiro doesn't mean that racial prejudice has been done
away with," she said. "The favelas are still there, their
residents still encounter the same problems of racism and
class prejudice, and only a black person who isn't awake
doesn't see what is going on around him."
Unusually for a left-wing politician
in Brazil, the world's
most populous Roman Catholic nation, Ms. da Silva is also a
member of an evangelical Protestant religious group, which
she joined in her mid-20's. She admits that her colleagues
in the Workers' Party find that odd, but she argues that
"Christ was the greatest revolutionary" and that the Gospel
and the fellowship of believers has helped make her whole
and has brought her peace.
"I've been through my ugly duckling phase,
of not liking my
kinky hair and big feet," she said. "But the church taught
me that I need not be ashamed of that."
For the past decade, Ms. da Silva
has been married to
Antônio Pitanga, a popular television soap opera star whom
she met when both were campaigning for office. Three years
ago, the couple left the Chapéu Mangueira favela, where Ms.
da Silva had spent virtually her entire life and
reluctantly moved into a middle-class neighborhood close to
the studio where Mr. Pitanga often works.
Ms. da Silva continues to worry
about those left behind in
the favelas. Everywhere she goes, she is reminded that hers
is an exceptional case.
"I go into a five-star hotel and they address
English," she said. "That's because a well-dressed black
woman simply isn't within the standard model for black
Brazilians, and they assume she has to be a foreigner. So I
have to tell them, `No. I am a Brazilian.' "