On Wednesday, July 25, a different type of fight took place in the martial arts gym of the nonprofit organization Fight for Peace: a fight against violence and discrimination against Afro-Brazilian women. In a seminar entitled “Marielle Franco, Afro-Brazilian Women: Representation and Resistance,” residents of Complexo da Maré in Rio’s North Zone gathered to discuss female Afro-Brazilian identity and the diverse struggles that black women face. The seminar concluded a two-day series of events sponsored by Fight for Peace, reflecting on Marielle’s legacy and celebrating Afro-Brazilian culture.
“Why today?” moderator Juh Machado began the seminar. “[Because] July 25 celebrates the International Day of Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Women, which commemorates black women’s international struggle and resistance against gender oppression.”
The day of celebration was established 26 years ago (in 1992) by the Afro-Latin American and African-Caribbean Women’s Network. The multinational group of women activists gathered in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and created the holiday to bring attention to the unique intersectionality of sexism and racism faced by Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean women. Fight for Peace chose to hold the seminar on this specific date as a way of standing in solidarity with social movements across the region fighting against the same systems of oppression against black women.
Like the intentional choice to hold the seminar on this date, Machado explained that the title of the seminar was no coincidence. “The seminar is named after Marielle because she is a force here in our community.” Marielle Franco’s enduring legacy as a black feminist and champion for favela communities was honored at the seminar with a brief compilation of some of her most fiery speeches about issues of police brutality, public security in favelas, and sexual violence against women. Her campaign slogan “I Am Because We Are” lingered on the screen after the video concluded as seminar attendees shouted together: “Marielle, presente!”
Following the video, Marielle Franco’s partner Mônica Benício was invited to the front to give a short speech. Benício thanked Fight for Peace for honoring Marielle with the title of the seminar and also thanked the residents of Maré for their efforts to further the political movements for which Marielle fought. “It is beautiful to see the posters in the street in response to the act of violence that happened to Marielle,” she stated. Benício stressed the power of activism and hope for political progress in spite of the many dangers involved. She held back tears while giving her final remarks, emphasizing to the group that in terms of “resistance, it is very important that you continue.”
The proceeding discussion was as eclectic and inspiring as the women leading it. With perspectives ranging in age, profession and national origin, the seven panelists discussed challenges they have faced because of their gender and race.
Dr. Cíntia Mariano, born in the favela of Nova Holanda in Maré, detailed how she was always told that academic spaces were not for people like her—women from favelas. “I grew up saying, ‘No, this space is for me,’” recounted Mariano, who now holds three degrees. She furthered this sentiment by voicing her frustrations with the structural inequality perpetuated by racist attitudes: “My son and I do not have the opportunity to change our story because we live in this racist country.”
Capoeira instructor Cristina Nascimento reiterated the message that black women—especially those from favelas—are denied opportunities because society leads them to believe they are not capable of activities outside of traditional domestic roles. When asked to give an example of an Afro-Brazilian woman that inspires her, she spoke about the lack of representation of black women in her capoeira classes. “There are few women, even fewer black women… always fewer opportunities to achieve.”
One of the most moving anecdotes of the night was that told by 32-year-old Julia, a current biology student who immigrated to Brazil. When asked to identify a black female role model in her life, she chose herself. She explained that she could have chosen her grandmother or mother—both of whom overcame challenges of their own—but that she is truly her own greatest role model. She came to Brazil without any knowledge of Portuguese and with no friends or family in the country. Over the years, she overcame numerous obstacles before arriving at the university. “I have a story, I have a name.”
In the spirit of Marielle’s life, these women are challenging the notion that there is a single space, occupation, skin color, or narrative that collectively defines them. They are as diverse as they are capable.