Note from BW of Brazil: Theodosina Ribeiro is an important reference for black women in the political struggle in Brazil. She was the first black woman elected to São Paulo’s city council and in 1974, she was elected the first black member of the Legislative Assembly of the State, where she also held the position of vice president. She has a degree in philosophy from the Faculdade (Faculty) of Philosophy, Sciences and Letters, of the University of Mogi das Cruzes, and is a lawyer from FMU (Faculdades Metropolitanas Unidas or Metropolitan Colleges Nations). After her, other black women became engaged in public life. In the interview below, Ribeiro shares a little of her important history and shows that even in her 80s, she is still in tuned to the social and political needs of the Afro-Brazilian population.
The first black woman city councilor of the the city of São Paulo talks about her struggles, victories and frustrations
Interview with Rodrigo Garcia and Maurício Pestana
With a rare name (“My name was supposed to be Theodora, but Dad thought it was too serious for a child and chose this”), Theodosina Rosário Ribeiro was born in 1930 when women had not yet conquered all their rights. And, in her various decades of life, she’s been a teacher, school principal, lawyer, the first black woman to be elected city councilor in the city of São Paulo and also state representative with the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB or Brazilian Democratic Movement). Today, Theodosina no longer fills any public office, but continues to act politically, especially giving lectures on the importance of political activity. She is also a member of the Comissão da Igualdade Racial da Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil (Commission for Racial Equality of the Bar Association of Brazil (OAB or Ordem dos Advogados) of São Paulo.
The daughter of the captain of the Força Pública, José Ignácio do Rosário and housewife Rosa Rosário, Theodosina was born in Barretos, São Paulo, studied Literature at the University of Mogi das Cruzes and went on to be a teacher in São Paulo, where she also became a school principal. In the capital, she also earned a Law degree. In 1968, she began her electoral life. She was elected councilor, with the second most votes in the city. In 1970, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly, where he stayed until 1983. A widow for four years with a son and two adult grandchildren (“I don’t see the time to be a great-grandmother, fortunately God has given me this grace”), Theodosina currently divides her time between weight training exercises and the computer, where she is writing a memoir. She also goes to many events in the black community, which admires and recognizes her importance in the political struggle of Afro-Brazilians. In this interview conceded Revista do Parlamento Paulistano, the former councilor and deputy recalled various stages of her life.
And she made an appeal to her colleagues: “It would be nice if more teachers would follow a political career, since they have a good sense of reality of the country.”
What is the importance of your family in your political struggle?
Theodosina Rosario Ribeiro: In my family I always had examples of effort and policy. My father, being in the military, was very politicized, despite never having exercised public office. He was a “getulista” and “ademarista” [supporter of former Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas (1882-1954) and former governor de São Paulo Ademar deBarros (1901-1969]. He also passed on a love of effort and education, dedication. So much so that my sister, Maria de Lourdes do Rosário, was the first black teacher in the city of Pirassununga. My husband also gave me a lot of support when I decided to become a candidate in 1968. And in other elections also.
How was your experience as an educator?
Theodosina: It was excellent. I taught all subjects in primary school and then went on to teach history in high school. I took an exam and became principal that I consider a political office as the principals make a lot of policies in the best sense of the word “politics.” In my day, school principals struggled a lot so that the teachers had better working conditions. To be a teacher had status, being considered an authority. We won and we struggled on. There was even the figure of the “husband of a teacher” who was that man who lived at the expense of the woman’s work.
How was his performance at Câmara Municipal (City Hall) and the Assembleia Legislativa (Legislative Assembly)?
Theodosina: I went to the parliamentary at arbitrary times, in which councilors and deputies could do little. Even so, I participated in many committees, always concerned with social issues such as the situation of women and blacks. Mainly of the black woman, since she is discriminated against for being a woman and for being black and earns less than men and less than white women.
Have you ever experienced prejudice?
Theodosina: Explicit, no. Racism in Brazil is veiled, but is much greater than in the United States, which has elected a black president, Barack Obama.
What do you think of quotas for blacks entering the universities?
Theodosina: I’m totally in favor ot it. The country has a huge historical debt to blacks, that after “abolition” – this abolition should be in quotes – from slavery they were abandoned. And the experience of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where the quota students are doing very well, proves that this is an initiative that works. Blacks must prepare themselves to succeed in life.
Currently, what is your political activity?
Theodosina: My phase of elective office is over, so I give talks to young people, especially black women, about the importance of political and social mobilization. The woman has more sensitivity than the man, she should participate more in politics. Blacks need to show they are not only present in the data of the IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística or Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), in which we are 53% of the population. Blacks, and black women in particular, have to occupy every space in society. Things are improving. Already we see black engineers, black doctors, black lawyers.
How do you position yourself ideologically?
Theodosina: The division between left and right has changed a lot with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism. I prefer to say I’m a Democrat, against cheap populism and against radicalism. I believe in a full democracy, respecting social values , especially those inserted in the Constitution, that all men are equal before the law.
What politician do you most admire?
Theodosina: I can not stop praising President Dilma Rousseff, who has stood out for the bold decisions she is making. One of the most important was the inclusion of nine women in the Ministries, one of them black (Luiza Bairros), increasingly contributing to the empowerment of Brazilian women.
Theodosina (after a long silence): It’s a very difficult question, this one. It was a big shock. I was sad and frustrated, frustrated at not being able to continue with my projects. But I didn’t abandon public life.
Why is the presence of black women so rare in politics? You are the only black woman deputy in the entire history of the Legislative Assembly of São Paulo after you no one else appeared.
It is a very complicated process , we cannot forget slavery because looking at the hisstory, just after abolition, the black community wasn’t unable to enter the labor market, did not enter the educational process, so that there was through education, an ascension, then we find that blacks didn’t have the opportunity of power over the years, and consequently that of social equality, and you know very well that we have very serious problems still today, inequality has delayed very black very much so and the black woman even worse, few managed to free themselves.
You are the last of a generation that achieved an historic feat, having a congressman, two councilors and a state representative for São Paulo all with an attuned discourse about the racial question during the military regime, which propagated the Brazilian racial democracy to the world, how was that moment?
Back then one would hear a commotion in the regime, we knew that they were concerned, to the point of having been investigated by SNI – Serviço Nacional de Informação or National Information Service), who feared that we were developing something that was contrary to the political current of that time (1). And that was very important because we united more, and the four of us went on to transmit to our community the importance of our participation in the political process.
The election platform of that group was all directed toward garnering votes in the black community, which responded overwhelmingly. What happened that today that we can’t succeed in the racial vote?
I can’t say, but I think the earlier bi partisanship helped us unite the most, it was relatively easier for the black electorate, having a greater consciousness in relation to our participation. With several parties that came after splitting us into parties and black groups of the parties, to also be candidates, so there is a very large number of candidates and parties are very divided unable to win an election.
Former Congressman Adalberto Camargo said you were the only ones in the country to think of a political project for blacks. Do you agree with this statement?
Yes, we were the only political project and to date another one hasn’t appeared. We note that blacks are growing, really seeking to unite, looking to pass more into the social part, but specifically in the political process until today we don’t have a single political project in mind, so much that I’ve been insisting to speak in this debate, so that we can really get together mainly to bring the black woman into this discussion, because if we don’t start discussing it in society, we won’t get anywhere. And we have to become conscious that blacks have to participate, and must participate in power, because being in power the vision will broaden itself and it will be give conditions so that the youth also become conscious and appreciate us as well.
What was the mistake, if it existed, for that group not to leave political heirs?
There were several candidates nominated and supported by the group unfortunately the candidates that we support, the black community, were not elected, also, I ask myself this question, why? I often say that if the majority of the black community had become conscious, and had absorbed our political behavior, and our objective really wanted to increase black presence in politics, we would have a very big success, but since that time, we have supported several black candidates, but unfortunately they were not elected.
Do you think Barack Obama’s victory can be reflected on black candidates here?
Yes he can, although being different candidacies, being different countries the position of the black American is another, there they are only 13%, but are educated, and throughout all this trajectory of Barack Obama we feel that he raised the self-esteem of all blacks and everybody was very excited, the next elections will have far greater results, regardless of his performance as president going forward, he has moved into the subconscious of the people and it will be reflected here, yes, besides the entire world became sensitized.
For over 30 years you have followed the development of the black community in Brazil, where have we most advanced and where was there more regression?
Advances were many, but unfortunately in isolated cases, there is an age range of several blacks, which are emerging in several segments, but not coming out in the media so the majority is not aware of this isolated ascension that is happening, today as I had said, we already have several doctors, several engineers, accountants, blacks in all areas of society, even as your case is a success in relation to the activity that you exercise, but when we have no disclosure in the media it hinders our ascent because as we have conditions of power, like Raça (2) magazine, this wonderful work that it’s exercising, now looking for other themes and not only fashion and beauty, realizing that this also increasing the number of subscribers, because it’s Raça magazine, it gives visibility for all to see, if it was capable, I’ll also be capable, then to the extent that we’re projecting, and they appreciate us to be able to show the world who we are, we will have much more success, but it’s making an advancement, yes this means a lot of advancement.
Of the blacks elected in the last elections on the national scene, what do you think they can inherit from the historic achievement of that group from the 1970s?
Look at all blacks who were elected, to me it’s very valuable, I will not name names because nationally there are many, but I believe they are are thinking the same way, but the magic word that is called consciousness raising to the extent that blacks were made conscious, and can really respect their community, and they support that we have to be in power, then we will have conditions to be able to make an even greater platform than that that was done.
1. While Ribeiro here speaks of her experiences with Brazil’s Military Dictatorship of 1964-1985, Afro-Brazilian movements have always been closely monitored and harrassed by Brazilian authorities. See for example the experiences of the first widespread Afro-Brazilian civil rights organization, the Frente Negra Brasileira, which was actually outlawed during Brazil’s first Military Dictatorship of the 20th century in the 1930s.
2. Revista Raça Brasil is the country’s only and most successful magazine targeted at the Afro-Brazilian community. It has published monthly since 1996 and Maurício Pestana, with whom Ribeiro directed this response, is the executive director and popular cartoonist.