Olívia Santana, elected the 1st black state congresswoman from Bahia – Will her presence in the state assembly mean anything significant for the black population?

Olívia Santana
Olívia Santana
Olívia Santana
Olívia Santana

Note from BW of Brazil: The state of Bahia leaves quite an impression on first time visitors from the African Diaspora for a number of reasons. The historical architecture, the historically important locations, the cultural aspects and the black population itself being some of the reasons I became enthralled with the state for a number of years. Unfortunately, Bahia also has a side that can also be very depressing. I for one don’t see it as coincidence that Bahia has the largest population of African descendants in the country and also has such active death squads and extermination groups that eliminate an enormous number of young black people every year.

Another thing that anyone who is interested in race relations will notice about Brazil is the fact that it has such little black political representation. I remember back in the late 1990s, Raça Brasil magazine ran a story entitled “Apartheid Baiano”, meaning ‘Bahian apartheid’, to bring light to the fact that Bahia has such a large population of black people that is being ruled by a white minority. This apartheid can also be noted in the demographics of the neighborhoods of its largest and capital city, Salvador, in which you see the white minority being the majority of the more upper crust neighborhoods while non-whites make up the vast majority of the poorer neighborhoods.

But politically speaking, perhaps the most glaring example of the lack of political power Afro-Brazilians have in the capital city that has been nicknamed “Black Rome” is the fact that it has only had one black mayor in its history. Evaldo Brito was the mayor of the city for only an eight-month period from August 1978 to March of 1979, a so-called “prefeito biônico” meaning he was selected rather than elected by the population.

In recent years the clamor for more black political representation has been bubbling up among residents of the city and it has led to a sort of recognition on the part of the white power structure that perhaps they should include some black faces in their campaigns as running mates. In the 2012 mayoral race, for example, three candidates entered the race with blacks as their representatives for vice-mayor. Mário Kertész of the PMDB party had Nestor Neto, the PT’s Nélson Pelegrino had Olívia Santana and ACM Neto of the DEM chose Célia Sacramento.

In another interesting development, in the 2016 mayoral race, we saw fair-skinned/white/nearly white candidates attempting to appeal to the black masses by defining themselves as “pardos”, meaning “brown” or “mixed”.

But these developments, regardless of whether the power structure blatantly puts forth all white candidates or attempts to appease the black masses by implementing the aforementioned tactics, cannot circumvent the obvious question: Does electing black politicians really change the situation of the black masses? Well, perhaps the Evaldo Brito appointment will answer that question.

Evaldo Brito
Evaldo Brito served as mayor of Salvador, Bahia for less than a year between 1978 and 1979. He is the only black mayor in Salvador’s history.

Sponsored by arguably the most powerful man in the state of Bahia at the time, Antônio Carlos Magalhães, Brito may have been black but his candidacy had no intention of reaching out to the progressive sectors of Salvador’s population but instead upholding the conservative nature of the state’s political structure. And whether it was 40-50 years ago that we speak of, the situation invariably changes very little.

ACM Neto (left) is the current mayor of Salvador, Bahia and the the neto (grandson) of one most powerful figures in Bahian history, Senator Antônio Carlos Magalhães (ACM) (1927-2007)

Often times, when we have black political figures that appear as running mates, they simply represent mere symbols rather than real change in the political trajectory. And upholding this practice often times are the black masses who are happy just to see representatives who look like them. As well-known Bahian political activist Hamilton Borges put it:

“On the one hand, it may seem like an advance (such quantity of candidates), but on the other, we see that most of them are as vice, serving as only accessories of the image of the white.”

Speaking on that same 2012 election, of which Santana was a candidate for vice-mayor, Lázaro Cunha, project director of the Instituto Cultural Steve Biko (Steve Biko Cultural Institute) in Salvador, the presence of black candidates on the mayoral tickets did reveal a certain discomfort of presenting 100% white slate candidates in a city with a black majority. The very fact that white politicians feel the need to at least present an image of more diversity shows that there is a growing consciousness of regular citizens in terms of understanding the importance of race and representation in many important areas of society.

But white supremacy always remains two steps ahead of the game. In this case, if placing a few black faces in the halls of power will appease the masses while not structurally changing its strangle hold on control, so be it. And we’ve seen this same game play out time and time again for decades, particularly in a country like the United States where the black population faces a similar exclusion from the power structure.

And speaking of the United States, we should consider one glaring figure that perhaps drives my point home more than anything else. In 1964, there were only 100 elected black elected officials in the whole country. By 1978, that total had reached 4,300. In fact, between 1970 and 2010, black elected officials in that country rose from 1,500 to more than 10,000. Among these elected officials included several black mayors of small and large cities, black governors and members of city councils. But even with these political advances, in little more than 30 years between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of first few years of the 1990s, poor whites in the US declined by 4 million while the numbers of poor blacks increased by nearly 700,000. So much for equating political representation with economic advances for minority groups.

With this in mind, I stress that although it’s great to see Santana elected to Bahia’s state Assembly, economic and political power in Bahia still remains in the hands of the white power structure and history tells us that having more black representation in these situations usually leads to very little change. Perhaps reviewing what the most celebrated and recognized black symbol of the push for integration wrote over five decades ago will remind us of this:

“Although popular Negro leaders are now emerging, most of them are still selected by white leadership, elevated to positions, supplied with resources and inevitably subjected to white control. The masses of Negros are suspicious toward this manufactured leader. We have to create leaders that have virtues that we can respect, who have moral and ethical principles that we can applaud. We have to refuse crumbs from the big city machine, and demand a fair share of the loaf.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.


Olívia Santana, the 1st black state congresswoman from Bahia, wants to ‘widen the door’ of power

By Andréa Martinelli

At 51, she won more than 57,000 votes and will be the first black woman to occupy one of the 63 seats in the Legislative Assembly of Bahia.

The state with the largest number of people declaring themselves black or brown had never elected a black woman to the Assembly.

More than 80% of the population of Bahia is declares itself preto (black) or pardo (brown), but only starting in 2019 will the State Legislative Assembly have a black woman occupying one of its 63 seats.

Professor Olívia Santana (PCdoB), the daughter of a maid and a carpenter and with a trajectory of more than 30 years in the universe of politics, was elected deputada estadual (state deputy or congresswoman) with more than 57 thousand votes on October 7 and defines her victory as “a very magical moment.”

“We managed to cast my name and there will be a black woman in the assembly, yes,” Santana said in an interview with HuffPost Brasil.

In the last IBGE Census of 2010, about 80.2% of the population of Bahia declared themselves to be preta or parda. Today, the Legislative Assembly of Bahia (Alba) has only 2 representatives who identify themselves as black: Pastor Sargento Isidório (Avante) and Zé Raimundo (PT), according to data from the Tribunal Superior Electoral  (Superior Electoral Court) (TSE).

“Although a lot of people receive this joyfully, ‘wow, the first black woman to come to the assembly,’ I think we have to have a vision of how shocking it is in a state like ours,” she says.

For Santana, 51, what explains the late election of a black woman to the Assembly precisely in the blackest state of Brazil is that “the population was historically educated to think that spaces of power, like politics, belong exclusively to men.” According to data from the TSE, women represent only 11% of the vacancies in the current composition of Alba.

“I think I need to use my presence to widen the door, you know? Get other black women to believe. Let them look and say, ‘If Olivia got there, I can too,'” she says. For her, it is necessary to “deconstruct this idea that it is commonplace for the black woman to be that of the domestic worker, the manual worker, underemployed, being behind the scenes, always serving.”

A decade as a city councilor

A black woman, a feminist, Santana has worked as a servant and a lunch server in the past. A militant of the black movement for more than 30 years, in 2019 the teacher will take office as state deputy after 3 frustrating attempts to be elected for the position: in 2002, 2010 and 2014.

However, Santana’s involvement with politics began in 1988, when she was president of the Diretório Acadêmico de Pedagogia (Academic Directory of Pedagogy) – a specialty in which she graduated – and secretary of Education and Culture of the Central Directory of Students of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). Since then, she has held the positions of Secretary of Education and Culture of Salvador and Secretary of Labor in the state government. She was also a city councilor for 10 years.

Santana, who has also headed the Secretariat for Policies for Women under the government of Rui Costa (PT), says that actions to reduce levels of violence against women in the state and also female empowerment will be priorities in her mandate – besides watching over black youth. “Today the agenda of violence against women, blacks and poor people is set. And my fight is anti-racist. Feminism and the fight for human rights come with me through the front door of the Assembly,” she says.

For the future congresswoman, “there is no emancipation of women, blacks and the poor, without economic empowerment” of each. She states that many of the projects that will be presented by her will have to do with the so-called solidarity economy. “We have to have creative ways to create jobs. But not only that, it is a matter of valuing the entrepreneurial capacity of the population.”

Black women and black men in the space of power

In these elections, Brazil advanced in the representation of women. In addition to the election of Olívia Santana in Bahia, there was an increase in the female counterparts in the lower house, the election of the first trans state deputy in São Paulo and the first indigenous woman to the Legislative, as well as the victory in the allied ballot boxes of councilwoman Marielle Franco, murdered in March of 2018, such as Mônica Francisco and Talíria Petrone.

For Santana, the result is positive, but more is needed. “Democracy will never be full if it does not have the diversity of the people reflected in the structures, and this necessarily passes through black women and black men sharing spaces of power,” she says. “I assume the position with a huge responsibility and also with what Paulo Freire taught us: we cannot lose our capacity of astonishment. If it’s not like this, we don’t change reality.”

Source: CEERT

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


  1. Same can be said of Ferguson, Missouri all black town with all white officials before and after the Mike Brown incident. But some things are starting change, it’s a slow process for us black people in terms of establishing a position in law ranking fields. However, here in the United States we have plenty of examples of top blacks in high level position but they aren’t likely to help black people because of fear of not getting the white vote and money. You see,when a white candidate decides to run for top level career he or she have their white constituents that back them with finances. That endorsement leads to certain laws being signed in favor of those who put money on the candidate of choice and that person speaks the language of his voter’s. Case in point, take the Donald Trump presidency he was supported and backed by those who feel he thinks the way they think about certain ethnic groups and this president is something else. Lastly, I am glad Bahia has elected its first but it’s still work to be done and we must continue to elect more qualifying candidates. Come on Brazil.

  2. Unless she has a specific Black agenda for the Black people there, my answer is no, her presence won’t mean anything. What are her objectives concerning Black people? What are her long term and short term plans for Black people? If she has none then she’ll be useless. I hope the Black people in Bahia are aware of this.

  3. Based on what she says i am not hopeful.
    She sounds like one of these confused ‘activist’ types. She has no understanding that the primary issue in Brazil. ANTIBLACK racism. And nothing else…….

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