Overcoming racism, poverty and low self-esteem, former cleaning woman Luana Tolentino becomes a teacher and now positively affects the lives of students with her unique teaching style


1Note from BW of Brazil: It’s always great to read stories of people finding ways to overcome adversity, excel in life and do exactly what they love to do. The problem with this, as always, is that people shouldn’t have to go through pain and social inequality in order to make positive contributions to society. It’s difficult to imagine how many people out there could be doing amazing things for the benefit of our world if only they had equal access to education and opportunities that others seem to get with hardly any effort. As I read today’s story, I wondered how different (easier) the life of today’s feature, Luana, would have been had she and her family had blond hair, blue eyes and a more European appearance. Of course, we’ll never know, but we DO know how whiteness provides immeasurable advantages in a country like Brazil. But as Afro-Brazilians continue the struggle, we hope to see more Luanas accomplishing their goals in the future!

Called “teacher who teaches in a different way,” Luana Tolentino promotes exchanges with other students and encourages her students

Courtesy of Terra

A simple house on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte without walls and a yard full of animals such as a dog, a cat, a rabbit, a turtle, a chicken, a duck and a quail. It was where all the street children liked to play. And that’s where Luana Tolentino grew up. In the past of today a teacher, researcher, feminist and activist of the Movimento Negro (black movement), there are painful stories, but of overcoming and conquest.

Her parents, Nicholas and Nelita, had four children: Luana, Camila (twin sister of Luana), Dennis and Miriam. Camila died of a heart condition soon after birth, and Miriam, due to cancer in 2013. Today, at age 31, Luana lives with her parents and brother in the same place where she grew up.

With little study, Luana’s parents always worked in trade. Financial difficulties prevented the children from having toys, but Nicolau used to take books home. “I remember the day my father arrived with brand new Aurélio dictionary. Every day when I woke up, the first thing I did was open it up at random to discover learn words.”

Luana started school early at age four. With her parents´ effort, her early childhood education was in a private school. But for elementary and high school she was routed to public schools. She says she has always been passionate about books and a student with good grades.

If in childhood she lacked toys, in adolescence, with an unemployed parent, a lack of water, electricity and food was frequent. “Sometimes we spent days brushing our teeth with baking soda because there was no money to even buy toothpaste,” she recalls. To help at home, at 13, Luana babysat two children. Then, already at 15, she worked as a maid, an experience she classifies as “extremely painful” because of the humiliation to which she was inflicted.

Luana also worked as a telemarketing operator, but resigned and denounced the company after the manager ordered her to clean the bathroom. She says it was then that the desire to study became even stronger. “I was sure that if I had knowledge, I would be saved, I would have a much better life.”

The studious girl soon realized she wanted to be a teacher. Even without the support of her mother – who still thinks the profession is very undervalued – Luana never wanted to be anything else and, at 18, she decided take the vestibular (college entrance exam) for the area of History. “Being a teacher is what I love most in this life. I have a romanticized view of my profession. I know that everything should be different, I know of the problems. But teaching, being in the classroom is … I can´t explain it right. It´s wonderful for me.”

Luana studied in History at the Centro Universitário de Belo Horizonte between 2002 and 2006. “At the time, student benefits such as Prouni and Fies were not as accessible. So I went back to do cleaning to pay for college,” she recalls.

“Ser negro é maravilhoso” (Being black is wonderful)

Black, Luana suffered racism since childhood. “I remember the kids from school rejecting my participation in the games, jokes and the indifference of some teachers.” (1) For her, having grown up with no positive reference of blacks in children’s and educational books or television programs interfering with her self-esteem, autonomy and in her romantic relationships. It took many therapy sessions until Luana finally felt “secure and strong.”

The meetings promoted by the Affirmative Action project of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), were also important for her training as an activist in the black movement. “I was really thrilled. I thought, being black is wonderful! It was the first time I had this feeling,” she recalls. For Luana, it is undeniable that Brazil is experiencing a new era, with more achievements by the black population. “But we still need more black men and women occupying important positions and prestige,” she defends.

It was also at UFMG that Luana met Constancia Lima Duarte, a woman she claims to be the “blamed” for her becoming a feminist. Today, Luana works in research about women and feminist press and coordinated by Constancia.

Rethinking education

Education was the stepping stone for the change of Luana´s life. And that’s how she sees it has to be for her students. The teacher criticizes the current way of educating and says that the school is an “extremely conservative and prejudiced” space, a reflection of society, she says. “We are experiencing a terrible crisis in education, which is reflected in the emptying of the undergraduate courses, in the migration of teachers to other professions and unmotivated students. If we are to actually reverse this terrifying picture, everyone must shoulder their share of this cake,” she says.

While teaching courses of 7th to 9th graders in state school Alizon Themóter Costa, Luana was known as “the teacher who teaches in a different way.” That’s because she planned innovative activities and that involved the students. She explains that she cares for the individual trajectory of each student and thinks that her role is to organize the teaching process and make room to learn with the students.

One of the projects of which she prides herself happened last year, when she managed to make an exchange of letters between her students and a school in Mozambique. “I got the Mozambican embassy to send the cards, since the system of the post office there is extremely precarious. The Consul of Mozambique went to our school. Students loved!” She also promoted a personal contact between the students and African students. “I organized a game between my students and Africans studying at UFMG. It was an event. They were ecstatic.”

The Consul of Mozambique went to the school where Luana teaches after the teacher organized an exchange of letters between her students and students of a school from the African country – Photo: Cartola - Agência de Conteúdo
The Consul of Mozambique went to the school where Luana teaches after the teacher organized an exchange of letters between her students and students of a school from the African country – Photo: Cartola – Agência de Conteúdo

Talita Amorim, 20, remembers that day very well. At the time she was studying in the third year of high school and says that the whole class loved the experience of playing and talking to foreigners. Talita highlights how Luana relates to students. “Besides her caring way, she encourages students a lot. She also always leads questions about prejudice and feminism inside the class. I think that’s important, especially for younger students,” she says.

The girl, who now taking a technical course in graphic design at the Centro Universitário of Belo Horizonte, says that Luana was a great motivator in ther professional choice. Even after she graduated from school, they remain in touch and Talita was invited to make a graphic art of Luana´s school project Lumiar, which addresses the inclusion of people with disabilities. “It was great for me to gain experience. She even called my mother to congratulate me,” says Talita. The project is being developed at the public school where, since the beginning of the year, Luana has been a teacher in eight classes, from 7th to 9th grade.

Invited by Luana, a former student Talita Amorim made the graphic design “Lumiar” - Foto: Cartola - Agência de Conteúdo
Invited by Luana, a former student Talita Amorim made the graphic design “Lumiar” – Foto: Cartola – Agência de Conteúdo

Luana also did an activity inspired by the experience of an American educator. She asked some of her students what they would like the teacher to know. Between compliments for the teacher and concerns with difficulty in the classroom, dreams and family stories of joy and other violence. “The answers only reinforce my belief that we need to rethink the school and propose something that goes beyond the current homogenizing model that disregards the knowledge, the skills and the trajectory of each student.”

Proposing new activities and being attentive to the history of each student requires more effort than following the playbook of traditional classes. But Luana believes it’s worth it when you see a difference in student learning and the ability to change lives, just as hers changed. “The engagement, the struggle for education, the respect for my students: I think that all this was still being constructed in my childhood,” she says.

Source: Terra


  1. As we’ve seen in numerous reports of racism in Brazilian schools, teachers are notorious for ignoring or doing nothing when black children experience racist comments, jokes or assaults at the hands of classmates.
About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

1 Comment

  1. Luana is an EXCELLENT example of the phenomenon that I have observed in Brazil since I arrived: people who come from humble beginnings and find their way out of them (usually through academia) make great leaders in virtually every area in this country! One of the greatest problems that I never see discussed in the media is that the majority of the people in powerful or influential positions are upperclass white people who have never had to think or solve a problem or be creative in their lives! They are also somewhat sociopathic in how work and relate to the masses. They also tend to be overly obsessed with getting MORE money (I have see several of them actually be deluded enough to think that receiving R$ 15k – 30k PER MONTH isn’t a lot of money!!!!)

    Joaquim Barbosa and Lula (though controversial, he was a dynamic problem solver who did great things for the country during his time in office) are excellent examples of what happens when you have people in positions of power who were not born with a silver spoon in their mouths. They look for solutions to problems and are often innovative in their approach to life. I suspect and hope that we will see more people like Luana emerging in Brazil, as white-flight continues to take hold in the wake of the current economic recession in Brazil.

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