Last week on December 19th, the struggle for black liberation lost a great warriors: Thereza Santos. Because she was Brazilian from a Portuguese-speaking country, the vast majority of people who are part “the struggle” and that help spread the knowledge of great leaders, intellectuals, militants, etc. of African descent have most likely never heard of her. In fact, outside of Movimento Negro circles, I would say that probably 98% of Brazilians have never heard of her! Her works, along with those of the great Lelia Gonzalez and Sueli Carneiro were and continue to be instrumental in bringing issues that specifically affect black Brazilian women to the forefront. But Thereza Santos contributed so much more. From creating revolutionary theater works that addressed the condition and invisibility of Afro-Brazilians, to taking part in the armed struggle for African colonial liberation, I don’t use the word “warrior” simply for complimentary purposes. Read and learn more about Thereza Santos below. Thereza Santos was a black woman, born in Rio de Janeiro on July 7, 1930, a former Communist Party activist, playwright, actress, teacher, philosopher and activist for the causes of African people in the Diaspora and on the continent, and mainly Afro-Brazilians.
She wrote and staged one of the first plays for a group formed exclusively by Brazilian blacks. In 1973, during the military dictatorship, actress Thereza Santos in partnership with the sociologist Eduardo de Oliveira premiered E, agora, falamos nós (And now we speak) at the Teatro Masp (Museu de Arte de São Paulo – São Paulo Museum of Art). A title that summarizes the opening added by Thereza to give voice, speech and visibility to black men and women, projecting their faces, bodies and desires in the “abertura (political opening)” (1) being experienced by Brazil.
The piece was one of the main works of the actress’s career, who was an activist in the Movimento Negro (Black Movement) for over 50 years. From Rio de Janeiro, based in São Paulo, exiled in Africa, Thereza Santos was also a philosopher and educator. The professor was affiliated with the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party) and joined the Teatro Experimental Negro (Black Experimental Theater) of Rio and then in São Paulo.
Being black makes a difference, and its history is still ongoing, Thereza opted for the discourse of the recognition of difference as a path for construction reparative practices from the inequalities that were always denied by the discourse of the Brazilian “racial democracy”. Born in social conditions better than most black Brazilians, Thereza attended college when there were few black Brazilians.
As a philosopher, educator, actress and writer, Thereza observed Brazilian society from different angles, always maintaining the point of view of black women, in which oppressions were always addressed and tackled in a militant discourse of this attentive observer of Brazilian territory and of established ethnic-racial relations:
“We have difficulty realizing that this society threw us in a hole, first in the name of “cordial servitude” and then of the “racial democracy” and it still lives to seek ways to oppress us. Additionally, it took from us the most basic right, which is life, not only by the brutality of police violence, but also by the lack of employment, right to health, school and housing. Many blacks have difficulty seeing this reality, because they prefer to survive, being blind, deaf and dumb. It may be easier, but it is a profound act of cowardice in this deeply unequal country. Therefore, courage is necessary to see this country forward. It’s painful, but we must preserve the only thing we have: our dignity and respect.” (p. 134).
Because of this passage for the “partidão” (Communist Party) and her relationship with the party, she was arrested and, on being set free, had the choice between exile in the Europe, Chile or the Soviet Union or Africa. Consistent with her option to discover herself as a black woman, she opted for immersion in African culture and knowledge of the matrices of Brazilian culture and black history started in that continent and unknown in Brazil. In Africa, the actress participated as a guerrilla of the liberation movement of Guinea-Bissau and Angola. There, she also worked as an educator.
On the African continent, she divided herself between training classes for young Angolans and Guineans. The experience as an educator in Guinea brought Thereza close to the local reality and of the still inconceivable colonial condition imposed on African countries in the twentieth century. The freedom sought by African countries in the years 1960-70 was always a priority for Thereza, a supporter of local struggles and marked by a new detention in Angola. Released from prison, Thereza moved to Guinea and, as an educator, collaborated on a libertarian project designed by Guinea-Bissauan/Cape Verdean nationalist, Amilcar Cabral, in which education was a central point. On Guinean soil, Thereza lived the experience of participation in warfare, also registering her presence in the armed struggle against the oppression in that context exercised by the colonial enterprise.
Back in Brazil, Thereza brought many stories to tell and a great desire to make more history from the formation of black Brazilian men and women cognizant of black history. In returning to Brazil, she affiliated herself with the Communist Party for which militated until her last days. In 1984, the government of São Paulo created the State Council of the Condition of Women. Alerted by black radio host Marta Arruda that there were no black women among the 32 invited councilors, the board invited Tereza Santos, who was an activist in the Movimento Negro (Black Movement) and alongside Sueli Carneiro, explored the theoretical question of black women.
She authored several articles on culture and the woman, and served as Advisor of Afro-Brazilian of the Secretary of Culture of the State of São Paulo from 1986-2002. A scholar of racial and gender issues, she lived for five years on the African Continent, contributing to the cultural reconstruction of Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau.
For aficionados of the novela (soap opera), Teresa Santos played opposite Adoniran Barbosa in the first version of the novela Mulheres de Areia(Women of Sand). Adoniran was a fisherman and Thereza his wife. She participated in the first piece of the TEN of the late, great Abdias do Nascimento, staged at the Teatro Municipal in Rio and was a friend of all-time great Samba composer, Nelson Cavaquinho. In Rio she was part of the Mangueira Samba school and in São Paulo she was part of the Vai Vai Samba school. Besides all that, it made an excellent pasta and smoked incessantly.
The book Malunga Thereza Santos – a história de vida de uma guerreira (Malunga Thereza Santos – the life story of a warrior), authored by Thereza Santos, presents aspects of the story of her life: childhood, construction of black consciousness, participation in Brazilian student and political movements, exile in Africa and political participation in African liberation struggles, militancy on behalf of the black community in Brazil, discriminations suffered, and theater and Carnival as instruments of struggle. Experiences that transformed her into a black warrior. Black woman, revolutionary of an unparalleled history and her book is a testimony from a chapter that the right wants to blur: the historical relationship between sectors of the Movimento Negro and the revolutionary left. A beautiful gift to be read today and to give us examples of resistance perpetrated by this woman who fought adversity in frail health, demonstrating an exemplary force for us than white or black, we believe and we fight for equality, respect and appreciation for human beings respected in their specificities.
On the morning of the December 19th, Thereza died in Rio, where she lived for nearly three years. She had been battling bladder cancer and chronic renal failure. Santos died at 82 years of age and was buried on December 20th at 9am in the Cemitério do Caju (Caju Cemetary).
1) A series of reforms in the 1970s that gradually allowed limited political organization and elections that would pave the way for Brazil’s return to democratic rule after a the brutal years of a dictatorship that began in 1964. Source: SEPPIR, Folha, Difusora de Pirassununga, Ciranda