In 1945, in a field dominated by white men, Enedina Marques became the first black woman to earn an engineering degree in Brazil
By Marques Travae
Still today in Brazil, it remains the norm that we recognize when a black Brazilian manages to achieve something that is out of the norm or something that is the first such accomplishment for anyone in this group. It would be impossible to name them all, but I’ve shined the spotlight on a number of the “first black” woman or man to do something in Brazil.
The fact that we can still introduce an Afro-Brazilian with such a title reminds us of how far behind Brazil made sure its black population remained for centuries. So while I DO understand when some people say we stop highlighting when a black person accomplishes something, at the same time, I still like to divulge these stories because I’ve read a number of stories of everyday black people who mentioned how seeing someone that looked like them in a certain field, usually dominated by white people, gave them the encouragement to push forward against the odds and achieve certain goals.
Today, in 2020, Brazilians are still surprised when they see black doctors, architects and judges which demonstrates why affirmative action policies were and continue to be necessary in a society that practiced a type of white superiority that was just as efficient as that that existed in other countries, even while denying it to the whole time. But even with the important advances made with such policies in the past decade and a half, still today we can still see that the black presence remains an absolute minority in numerous areas, and even with the recent declaration that black Brazilians are the majority in universities, that figure remains highly questionable.
If seeing black people reach certain heights in 2020 is still met with a certain strangeness, imagine what this must have been like in the year 1940. Slavery had been abolished just a mere five decades before, and women gained the right the vote only 8 years prior, in 1932. As such, the very idea that a woman, much less a black woman, could graduate in such an exclusive area as engineering from a Brazilian university was considered absurd, unrealistic and delusional thinking. But that is exactly what Enedina Alves Marques, a black woman from the southern state of Paraná, did. In 1940, she entered the Department of Engineering at the Federal University of Paraná and, within a period of five years, graduated, becoming as the first woman engineer in Paraná, and the first black woman to earn a degree in the area of engineering in Brazil.
Like most black Brazilians of the time, Marques came a humble background. Born in 1913, one of six children, Enedina grew up in the home of major Domingos Nascimento Sobrinho, where her mother worked. Sobrinho paid for her to attend a private school, so that her mother could keep her company. Having graduated high school in 1931, Enedina took on a job as a teacher but had dreams of having the opportunity to study engineering at a prestigious university. The funny thing is, having gone to a private school and graduated high school, Enedina had already accomplished things that were just a dream for most black Brazilians of her era. But she wanted more.
In 1940, she managed to enroll in an engineering course formed by only white men, where, as a woman and black, she had to face all kinds of persecution and prejudice. This prejudice came from many teachers as well as from fellow students. But with a will to succeed and an intelligence that most believed wasn’t possible for someone like her, she pressed on until, in 1945, she finally earned a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Paraná. Before her, only two blacks had graduated as engineers from the same educational institution.
The year after her graduation, Enedina started working as an assistant engineering at the State Department of Transportation and Public Works, and then she was transferred to the State Department of Water and Electricity of Paraná. She worked on exciting, demanding projects such as the development of the Paraná Hydroelectric Plan for several rivers in the state, with special focus on the Capivari-Cachoeira Plant project. A competent engineer and with a commitment to her job, Enedina led many other technicians and engineers throughout her stellar engineering career.
Even so, being a black woman, she surely experienced the harassment and disrespect targeted at black women of the time. Some legends posit that Enedina used to pack heat under her waist to deal with men who got out of line and to demand respect from those around her on construction sites. We don’t know if she had to actually stretch anybody out, but legend also has it that she would fire shots into the air just let folks where she was coming from.
Between the 1950s and 1960s, with a well-organized career, Enedina decided to travel the world to get to know other cultures. In 1958, Major Domingos Nascimento died and included Enedina in his will as a beneficiary. She would retire in 1962 with numerous accolades she earned as a great engineer. Her story would gain even more recognition when the sociologist Octávio Ianni interviewed her for his research project that would eventually become the book Metamorfoses do escravo (Metamorphoses of the slave).
More recognition would come when the then Governor of the State of Paraná, Ney Braga, recognized her work as an engineer and guaranteed that her income would be equal to the salary of a judge at the time.
Single and with no children, Eneida Alves Marques passed away in 1981 from a heart attack, at the age of 68, leaving an important legacy for Brazilian engineering, as well as an inspiring story for other black women.
In recognition of her many accomplishments, in 1988, a street in her hometown was named after her in the neighborhood of Cajuru, 4 miles from downtown of the capital city of Curitiba. In 2000, she was recognized in the Memorial à Mulher (Memorial to the Woman) monument located in Praça Soroptimismo International (square) in Curitiba in which her name appeared among 53 other pioneering women in Brazil in various areas of knowledge. Then, in 2006, the Instituto de Mulheres Negras Enedina Alves Marques (Enedina Alves Marques Institute of Black Women) was founded in Maringá, in the interior of the state of Paraná.
Memorial à Mulher in Curitiba
Enedina’s life is another testament as to what someone can achieve if given an opportunity and access. Of course, quotas didn’t exist in Enedina’s day, but she may not have made it to where she ended up without the head start afforded her by Major Domingos Nascimento. Today, there are millions of black women living in Brazil, any one of whom could become another Enedina and the country owes it to its future to help its potential talent and leaders become the best they can be. Eneida Alves Marques is a shining example of this.
With information courtesy of Hypeness and Building