Note from BW of Brazil: You have to love this type of story. A black woman who started off in a ‘place’ traditionally set aside by Brazilian society for black women, domestic work, learning another language (every though her boss didn’t believe she could do it), taking the chance of moving to another country and managing to succeed against the odds. Similar to the story of another Brazilian immigrant (featured here) who started in domestic service, and millions of other Brazilians, she found took advantage of an opportunity in another country that she may never have gotten in Brazil. In reality, there are plenty of stories out there like this and it’s always nice to be able to present them here.
Brazilian woman who was employed as a maid in childhood leads social enterprise in London
By Mariana Schreiber
Rosa Gonçalves’s work as a maid in Santos (SP) in the late 1970s was packaged with the hits coming out of a transistor radio, leaning on the kitchen window. One day, she asked her boss what “She’s My Girl”, the name of the song by Morris Albert that was part of the soundtrack of the novela Anjo Mau in 1976 meant.
“When I got here (London) I cried for six months,” says Rosa. “Ela é minha namorada” (in Portuguese), was the answer. “Oh, one day I’ll learn to speak English,” Rose said. “Imagine, English is for studied people. You will never learn English,” hissed her boss. Rosa lets out a laugh when telling the story, at her home in London. In the city where she has lived since 1978, she became a community leader and social entrepreneur. “Look where I got. And I speak English better than many in Brazil today.”
The account of her life was recorded this year by Brasiliance, an appreciation project in the history of the Brazilian community in London that collected testimonies of eleven people who emigrated from Brazil between the years 1960 and 1980.
Between the garden and the kitchen
Rose grew up in Amparo, in the interior of São Paulo. She says that at age six she was trained to be a maid. “Because until then I knew how to do the work at home but not in the houses of others,” she says. At that time, she cooked and served her first lunch – killed a chicken, cut it into pieces and braised with chayote.
She then spent years alternating between working on the farm and as a domestic. At 18, she went to work for a family in Santos. The shift was almost uninterrupted – she had one day off, sometimes just one afternoon per week.
On one occasion, the children called her “King Kong”, imitating monkey gestures (1). “When I got up to run after them, they ran and called their uncle, who wanted to beat me,” she says.
About two years later, in 1978, she was invited by another family to move to London, where she would work as a maid for two years. Even faced with the challenge of migrating to an entirely different and distant country, Rose thought it was a chance to “move forward”.
The beginning was very difficult, but she had no desire to return.
“When I arrived here I cried for six months, such great pain. I would write a letter every day. I didn’t send them every day, so the cards were all numbered. But I thought if I went back life could be worse,” she said.
After a year, Rose left domestic employment and became a housekeeper at a hotel, where she earned 35 pounds a week to work from 7am to 2pm every day of the week. In the afternoon, she did dailies in hotels for 5 pounds. Updated for inflation, that would be the equivalent of a weekly income of about £225 pounds or $850 (US$348) today. Her two year visa expired and the Brazilian continued illegally in London. When she refused to go out with a man, a friend of the owner of the inn where she rented a room, reported her to immigration.
Rosa spent the afternoon in the cell of a police station, but was eventually released. It was the early 80s, a time of riots in Brixton, a neighborhood with a strong Afro-Caribbean migration in south London. The racial tension was high at the time and there were more serious problems for the police to worry about, she says. After that, she managed to regularize her situation.
Rose spent years living in small rented rooms until, in 1984, she moved to a flat in Ferrier Estate, a kind of housing in Greenwich, in south London, with concrete buildings where there were about 5,000 people. She liked the place and its diversity – there were people from the most diverse places in the world, she recalls. But Ferrier Estate was considered decadent and dangerous and the local government decided to demolish it to make way for a mega real estate project.
Controversial, the process dragged on for more than a decade. The idea was first discussed in 1999, after a few years the evictions began and in 2010 the process of demolitionstarted. The new condo is still being erected. The prospect of the demolition of her house led Rose to participate in negotiations about how people would be removed, where they would be taken and what their rights were. Eventually she became a leader of the neighborhood.
Today, at age 57, she lives in another house in Greenwich with her three children, fruits of two marriages, and runs a social enterprise, Guarida Community Café.
Currently, the company is in the process of raising funds to open a cafe in the community in January, in a space provided by the local government. The goal is to provide training and jobs for young people from Greenwich, both in management and administration like in the kitchen and in serving the public.
Later on, Rosa also wants to do an exchange with poor Brazilian communities – take young people participating in Guarida Community Café to live and work in the slums of Brazil and bring young people of that community to learn about the project in Greenwich. She believes this will be an important experience for young people of the lower classes of London to value what they have.
“They have everything, but think that they are poor things. Exchanges will show that there are other young people like themselves, experiencing more difficult realities. Experience will serve so that, instead of continuing to whine, they grow up,” she believes.
The project is also a way to reconnect with the country. 36 years in London, she has only returned three times to Brazil. The plan is to celebrate her 60th year there. “I’m dying of saudades (longings),” she sighs.
The Brasiliance project was funded with British lottery funds intended to preserve the history of different communities in Britain.
The interviews of eleven Brazilians will be available at the Instituto de Estudos Latino Americanos (The Institute of Latin American Studies). They were the inspiration for the piece Kitchen, of the Brazilian Gaël Le Cornec, one of the people who were trained to collect the testimonials. The show should start playing in London in May 2015.
“Oral history is a fundamental thing. A way to see the story differently, through what people live and not only through books,” says Gael. The reasons that brought them the Brazilian respondents to London were varied – some came to study, others to work and some emigrated because of the military dictatorship (1964-1985).
None had plans to settle permanently, but ended up staying. “I saw that these people have integrated into the English community and with the local community in which they live,” she says.
The Brasiliance project also gave origin to a book and a children’s DVD that was distributed in schools in London.
1. As this type of racial insult is commonly covered here on the blog, it is still sometimes surprising to realize just how many black Brazilians have experienced this humiliating, dehumanizing insult. And these are only people who actually share their experiences and it makes it to the press. One can only imagine how often this happens everyday in Brazil.