“I want to stop being the exception”: Seven Afro-Brazilians share how they overcame poverty, racial prejudice & sexism to become leaders in their fields



Note from BW of Brazil: In our ongoing goal of presenting a more balanced portrait of  the situation of black Brazilians, particularly black women, today we bring you the stories of seven Afro-Brazilians who share with you their overcoming humble origins, financial adversities, racial prejudice, sexism and the idea that, as successful black people in important, influential positions, they are somehow ‘out of their place.’ As one woman put it, we too strive to present enough of these success stories (the black Brazilians who are part of Brazil’s richest 1%, for example) so that they are not seen as “being the exception”. 

“I want to stop being the exception,” says black judge; see hers and other stories

Courtesy of UOL Estilo

They had to overcome unfavorable socioeconomic conditions, and circumvent prejudice, but they went forward in their convictions and prospered, occupying prominent positions in various areas. Check out seven stories of overcoming.


Mylene Brasil, 51, judge

“I was born and raised on the outskirts of zona sul (south zone) of São Paulo and, until finishing high school, I studied in public schools, with a very deficient education. Nevertheless, I always allowed myself to dream of a better life and, above all, believe that I could be able to achieve what I wanted, as I was preparing myself for this. I entered a public career in 1990 and started on the magistracy in the Tribunal Regional do Trabalho (Regional Labor Court of Paraná state) in 1994, after being approved in a public competition. While some candidates had financial conditions to leave their jobs and study full time, I couldn’t do it. I depended on my job as a legal technician in the Federal Court and only after working all day, did I manage to study. All my weekends were also devoted to studies. Even today, I call attention for where I go because I’m a woman and black, in a conservative environment. All I desire is to stop being the exception one day. “


Rachel Maia, 45, CEO of Pandora jewelry in Brazil

Latin America is a completely sexist place. And the positions of CEO and chairman are predominantly held by men. Moreover, it’s only been 120 years of the abolition of slavery in the country. I’ve had, have and I know I will have problems for a long time in relation to prejudice, but I defined that my place is this. I also know that every opportunity comes with responsibilities and challenges, and I am willing to accept them. I decided to give importance to that that adds to me and not to what puts me down. It doesn’t mean I will ignore the prejudice, but give less value to it. Often a discriminatory look is enough to undermine self-esteem, so you have to prepare yourself emotionally to deal with this kind of approach and move forward to achieve the goal that you mapped out.”


Paulo Rangel, 54, chief judge and associate professor of UERJ (State University of Rio de Janeiro)

“I was a building doorman and department store salesman until deciding to take a course for investigator of the Civil Police of Rio de Janeiro. I passed and soon after decided to do take up Law. I became prosecutor and as a result, a Judge. I had to study hard and had financial difficulties in buying books and paying for registrations in courses. Prior to testing for prosecutor, I remember that a work colleague told me, ‘Neguinho (little black man), don’t you think you’re taking a step longer than your legs?’. I ignored the comment and passed. I’ve been stopped by police on the street, because of driving expensive cars. I came from the periphery, where the opportunities are little and the pressure for you to not reach where you want to go is great, but I won all of this. I took an English class at 32, when I was prosecutor. My happiness is that today my five year old daughter can study another language.”


Douglas Santos, 38, IT manager at Bayer

“In my professional career of 20 years, I’ve gone through large companies, but when I was young, my mother couldn’t afford to pay for an English course for me. With a lot of effort, she got a scholarship for me to learn the language and today, I’m sure that’s what opened many doors. The company that I’ve worked for for more than six years has a very inclusive and active diversity program, so I have no problems with prejudice. But it already happened in an elevator; they asked me to push button for the fourth floor, confusing me with the attendant. Also, when I take clients to lunch, waiters never give me the bill. Sometimes people ask me, for me, not believing that I can coordinate a team of 30 people in a large company. Everything I did was because of believing in my potential. “


Ana Ribeiro, 47, chef at Le Canton, Teresopolis (RJ)

“I grew up in the house where my mother worked as a maid and ended up occupying the same position as her. In 1987, I left Minas Gerais (state) and went to Rio de Janeiro to college. I took three vestibulars (college entrance exams) and passed all of them, so I decided to study hospitality. To maintain myself, I worked as a babá (nanny) and sold frozen goods, until getting a chance in a recognized carioca (Rio) restaurant, where I stayed for ten years. Following that, I got an internship at Le Saint Honoré, a French cuisine restaurant of the famous chef Paul Bocuse, who worked in a hotel. There he called me to join the staff, but the manager didn’t let me because he said it was forbidden women to work in the kitchen. Almost a year passed and I ended up being hired as ‘sous chef’ [French for sub chef], the first woman in the second highest position in the restaurant. After that I won a contest among employees and spent 40 days in France, where I worked directly with Bocuse. I was the first Brazilian to achieve this. Today, I coordinate a team of 60 people in a hotel in Teresópolis. If being a woman is difficult, being a mulher negra (black woman) is even more. If the others had to kill a lion a day, I had to kill two or three to win. “


Adna Thaysa Marcial da Silva, 34, nurse at Sepaco Hospital in São Paulo

“During high school, was a clerk in a bakery and at 17, I took a nursing assistant course. Soon I started my career in a hospital. On this path, I faced a lot of prejudice. A person in my neighborhood, for example, when learning that I would work in a hospital, asked if I was as responsible for the cleaning. But I never clung to that sort of thing. I’ve been in the same hospital for eight and a half years and, thanks to the policy of preserving talent, I was ascending in positions. Of course, I also kept studying to get where I am today. Today, I coordinate a team of 80 employees, including nurses, nursing assistants and technicians, and I have the respect of all.”


Geraldo Rufino, 57, founder JR Diesel

“I lost my mother when I was seven; we lived in a favela (slum) in São Paulo. I started working at the landfill at eight, picking up cans. I put together some money and invested in a football field. Hence, I started to charge others to use the space. I also charged to carry the purchases of people at the fair. At 13, I started working as an office boy and, at 22, I held the position of director in the same company, Grupo Playcenter. Shortly after, I managed to buy two trucks for my brothers, who suffered an accident almost simultaneously and lost everything. I decided to sell the parts and try to recover some of what was invested. Then came the idea of mounting an automotive recycler. Today, the company earns 50 million a year and I have a hundred employees. I always I worked more than 12 hours a day and kept studying. The doors opened because of this. I think the most important thing is blacks know their own power.”

Source: UOL Estilo

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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