Alzeni Barreto, 58, left the city of Santo Amaro, in the Recôncavo region in the northeastern state of Bahia, to pursue her dream: to be a judge. She began as an elementary school teacher in the city, took courses to work for the state, served as municipal prosecutor and then made the judiciary. Today, she has accumulated 23 years of experience and 40 years of public service.
Aware that she is an example of success for the black race, she defends the quota system (provisionally), believes that the law against racism is still “not widely used because they’re not claimed by the people, these same people accommodate themselves.”
Alzeni Barreto says she hasn’t been the victim of prejudice in her performance in the judiciary; her friendly attitude and following what the law demands, makes everyone maintain respect.
Reverso – What are your memories of Santo Amaro and Recôncavo?
Alzeni – I have vivid memories of festivals. My parents and uncles took me to participate in the prayers of Santo Antônio in the homes of friends…Funny that, since childhood, our family would put us in the cultural atmosphere of the city. I even remember the last outfit I wore in these parties, it was a blue dress with white balls. I also went to the feast of Cachoeira (city in Bahia), the feast of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte (Our Lady of Good Death). I had a very close relationship with the work staff as soon as I graduated, in the attorneyship at the Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage – IPHAN).
Were you the first black woman to become a judge in Valença? What is the impact of this in your life and profession?
Alzeni – I can’t even tell you for sure about this, but I believe so, the first black woman. But when it comes to race, I was not the first, before me there was Ivanilton the judge, who was also black and everyone loved him. There was no impact on me, before coming to Valença, I spent seven years in the district of the city Camamu, where customs are similar to my hometown, Santo Amaro, ie fishing, of life itself.
Do you think the law that punishes racism is well applied in Brazil?
Alzeni – The law against racism is not utilized for lack of opportunity of people having the courage to make denouncements. So it is not applied on that basis, not that the law enforcers, us magistrates, refuse to enforce the law, is that these cases are minimal. It is not used because it is not claimed by people, these same people accommodate themselves. For example, I never judged a case of denunciation of racism and it is not possible that people have not experienced it (1).
We know that the country is marked by strong prejudices against blacks. Do you consider yourself a symbol or an example to the black movement?
Alzeni – Every time a person with black skin, manage to stand in this sense of reaching a goal, it is a reference to the community – it is a symbol. It’s like an incentive for other blacks to realize that it is possible to reach a high position, breaking the idea that only whites can get there. It is in this sense that I’m an example: a woman who left a district of Santo Amaro – a place that has more difficulty than the municipal headquarters, the daughter of a fisherman and housewife going through all the difficulties I faced, and ultimately succeeding in life.
The Brazilian judiciary is biased? Why?
Alzeni – I don’t see it that way. I, for one, spent all this time in the judiciary and I do what every white judge does, my superiors had never had retaliatory attitudes with me, never because of color. Now, what I see exists, at least in my view, everywhere, are professional prejudices, but not the judiciary.
Have you, personally, faced prejudice in the exercise of magistracy on account of being female and black? How do you deal with it?
Alzeni – No, I never faced any prejudice. At the beginning of the judiciary, I worried a lot much about it, but then I realized that it depends on the culture of each. I remember when I went to the district of Itarantim, located in southwest Bahia, a region of the very rich, of people with white skin, my colleague Luislinda Valois, who was the first black judge in Brazil, warned me to be careful since I am woman and black. She had this concern, but we must be prepared for it and not let things happen. I always guided my actions in mutual respect and it happens that many people retract themselves because of my posture.
It is known that the majority of the Brazilian prison population consists of young and poor blacks. What do you have to say about it?
Alzeni – Certainly. This is a sadness that I experience every day when I’m in my office and I always see black and poor defendants. What we see is a picture of the lack of educational opportunities, jobs and especially public policy, serious, focused on this segment of the population. I believe that only through family counseling and equal opportunities for all Brazilians will we overcome this barrier.
Should the judge take into consideration historical-social-racial issues at the time issuing a sentence in which the defendant is black?
Alzeni – Well, not in a direct way. The application of penalty has several steps. And these steps are considered in different ways: first comes the application of a basic sentence, and then one looks at what is the qualifying, aggravating and mitigating circumstances. So, when we reach that end, we analyze the whole context, but not directly because he has black skin. What is examined are the conditions in which he lived and what led the person to engage in that crime. For example: a child who was raised under these conditions, the father had no job, that we consider, not now, specifically, whether the person was black. Decrease or increase the penalty because the person is black, it doesn’t exist. The application of the penalty is a whole range of situations at the time of the crime. There isn’t one specific thing.
Are you in favor of the quota system in higher education?
Alzeni – I believe, tentatively, yes. As we had no equal opportunity, I think that quotas are a good start for this purpose. Since this has to be worked on so that we can compete on equal terms, because with this quota system, in principle, it makes us feel inferior. We need education in public schools to reach the same level of private schools.
In your opinion, what is the best way to cope with the consequent reduction of discrimination and prejudice in Brazilian society?
Alzeni – Everything is a matter of education; development on all levels until we create a consciousness that we are all equal.
What message can you leave for students and young professionals of all races of the 21st century?
Alzeni – The path that we should tread is education. We need it to perform our job with love and do justice to so many people still living on the margins of society. Let’s direct our lives with ethics, responsibility, and especially honesty. Only then can we build a fairer Brazil for all Brazilians.
1. Similarly, according to the coordinator for the Promotion of Racial Equality in Contagem (state of Minas Gerais) Maria Luz Heredia Costa Goreth, racism happens almost everyday, but people keep quiet and don’t complain for fear of reprisal or embarrassment. “They suffer in silence,” said Maria Goreth, who is promoting the campaign “For a childhood without racism” in public schools, private schools and the Movimento Negro (black rights organizations) of Contagem. Full story here.