Four powerful black women discuss racism, determination and professional success

black Brazilian women
Neusa, Raquel, Regina and Vanda

Black Women in Brazil are usually situated at the bottom of the pole socially, economically and professionally. These four black women managed reach the top of the social ladder and claim their piece of the pie. Learn the struggles and victories of four powerful black Brazilian women: Neuza, Vanda, Rachel and Regina 

Black Women come to power

by Fernanda Cirenza in collaboration with Marina Morena Costa
Neuza Maria Alves da Silva, 61, is federal judge of the Federal Court of the First Region, the largest in the country. She is the first black woman to take up the position

Have you ever been a victim of racism?

Neuza Maria Alves da Silva Even though it was covertly, yes I have experienced situations of racial prejudice. I, for example, was forgotten for invitations to social gatherings or ignored in commemorations of which there was no way of being left out. But I took faith in my actions and did almost everything that I planned to do.

What advice would you give to a young black woman to succeed?

NMAS: My children always remember that we are responsible for the choices we make [Neuza has two daughters, ages 27 and 25, and a son, 21] and that professional success cannot be measured only on the financial side. It is essential to set goals for life and make periodic reevaluations-sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back in order move forward later. Furthermore, serenity is a person’s best friend. Whoever reflects before acting comes out in front and gets there.

What were your challenges?

NMAS: I am a simple person, the same as many others who face adverse situations linked to racism, poverty, social prejudice, lack of opportunity, to being discredited for being a woman, from Northeastern Brazil and being raised without a father. But I learned to say no to pain and the feeling of revenge. I’m always exercising the task of overcoming the resentments, the signs of superiority and attempts of humiliation that come my way.

If you become president one day, what would be your plans for the black population?

NMAS: I would be everybody’s president, but I have no doubt that would prioritize the poor and, thus, the black population would attract my attention. Anyway, this is the time for blacks to organize and say what they want, what they need, where the callus hurts. Stop asking dominant groups what is best for us.

Vanda Ferreira, 65, is the ombudsman of Petros. This position coordinates the pension fund for employees of Petrobras, a large Brazilian multinational energy corporation with headquarters in Rio de Janeiro.

Have you ever been the victim of racism?


Vanda Ferreira: Every day since I was born. Our apparent racial democracy does not allow blacks the opportunity to participate in social standards, which ends up pushing us into pockets of poverty.

What advice would you give to a young black woman to succeed?

VF: I would say to this young woman to stay attentive to the struggle of the Movimento Negro (black movement), seek to extend their conquests. But I would really like to give advice to managers of public policies to ensure access for all to an inclusive education of quality. It is only in this way that a young black woman will have the ability to become a successful professional.

What were your challenges?

VF: I come from a lower middle class family, and my grandfather had a mindset that was this: to win freedom, you had to marry whites. This thinking reflected the ideology of embranquecimento (whitening) (1). Not that I don’t like whites, I have fallen in love with many. It’s only that to be raised in that atmosphere is complicated. But most of the difficulty was financial. For much of my life I worked in the morning, afternoon and evening to live up to expectations.

If you one day become president, what would be your plans for the black population?

VF: I would have plans for all of Brazilian society. I desire a Brazil without ghettos and equal conditions for all. I would not invent anything. The Movimento Negro (black movement), the progressive forces and the current government have already dictated the rules. It’s enough to just apply them.

Raquel Fonseca, 60, is the commercial director of Golden Cross, a 37-year pioneering Brazilian company of health care plans. She is the only woman on the board at the company where she made a career that started 31 years ago as a manager, leaving her former job as a secretary in another company.

Have you ever been the victim of racism?

Raquel Fonseca: Once, the Superintendent of Human Resources at Golden told me: “You will not reach a high position only for two reasons: you are a woman and you are black.” The comment did not offend me because, in fact, he thought I was competent, but that I had no chance to grow. He helped me a lot by saying this, it made me more aware. But, in a way, I always got that message. When I was a kid, I competed with other students from the school in the presentation of a play. It was a graceful, blond girl that was chosen. I was sad and I heard someone say: “You have talent, but you were not chosen because of your color.” If I were to worry about the color of my skin I wouldn’t get anywhere.

What advice would you give to a young black woman to succeed?

RF: Work, dedication, integrity, empowerment, determination and love for what she does. Two things kept me strong in life: faith and hope. People need to understand who they are in order to impose a way of life and know that it is always possible to react to obstacles that appear.

What were your challenges?

RF: I went through a lot of problems; my family had a very difficult life. We are four daughters, you can imagine. When I was a law student, often went to college with the sole of the shoe worn out. I had trouble paying for school in order to have a college degree. At that time, I was a secretary. That’s how I was able to finance college. Later, I separated from my daughters’ father [Rachel has two, 25 and 23], which was a major difficulty. But I retraced my life, my home, I married again and I’m happy. Despite the barriers, I never felt defeated.

If you one day become president, what would be your plans for the black population?

RF: That’s difficult question…I would not have a program just for blacks. Our country has huge poverty that must be fought in every way possible. I think my first investment would be in the areas of education and health, so that everyone had full access to both.

Regina Zacarias, 58, is director of Human Resources of the Silvio Santos Group, which brings together more than 30 companies from different areas – trade, hotel, bank and SBT (television station), among other things.

Have you ever been the victim of racism? 

Regina Zechariah: Nobody has ever shown me the service door (2), but I’ve heard suspect comments like, “a black with a white soul” (3) or “she’s a pretty black woman.” What’s also happened is waiters ignoring my table. But what bothers me most is go into a store and hearing the saleswoman “say: “It’s expensive.” This type of disrespect happens, and I have no hope that it will one day change.

What advice would you give to a young black woman to succeed? 

RZ: In the first place, recognize yourself as black, remove the prejudice from your own head. Only then will she be able to show her ability to compete for opportunities as an equal. And of course, always battle and keep in mind that this battle is a life mission. That’s what I teach to my children [Regina has three, 25, 23 and 18].

What were your challenges? 

RZ: I have no father, my mother is a seamstress and I had the help of my sister and mother in raising me. The three women are very strong and united. I never went without anything in our house, although nothing went to waste. I went to a private school my whole life and completed college [Regina studied business administration]. I learned early on that it is a waste of time having impossible desires to accomplish. So I never step higher than my leg. But I cannot complain about anything. Life has been good to me.

If you one day become president, what would be your plans for the black population? 

RZ: There is plenty to do, but I believe that I would occupy myself in realizing a work in combating racism, which is a cultural problem both for whites as well as for blacks. It’s just that it’s very difficult to change the mind (and) a person’s thinking. And we, blacks, have been considered submissive for years. So, it’s both whites and blacks who have to firmly believe in this.

Source: Marie Claire: Part 1Part 2


1. Embranquecimento or whitening was an ideology of white Brazilian elites in the 19th century to whiten the population through the mass immigration of white European immigrants and the promotion of interracial unions that is still common in the minds of many Afro-Brazilians today. For more on embranquecimento see the “Embranquecimento: An ideology for the whitening of the Brazilian population” section of this article.

2. Service elevators is a common location of Brazilian racism. In apartments/condominiums there are usually a social elevator for residents and guests of residents and there is a service elevators that employees of the building are expected to use. The assumption is often that any black person in a middle class apartment/condo must work there and thus must use the service elevator. For more on elevators and racism, see this article.

3. “Negro de alma branca”, or a black with a white soul, is a popular, everyday phase similar to the African-American usage of the term “oreo cookie” defining a black person who is accused of being/acting/wanting to be white because of professional or academic success and or mannerisms that are associated with whites.

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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