From Brazil with Love: The Power and Danger of the Orishas in the Lives of Black Brazilian Women Pt 2
Back again, and here to tell you that African spiritualism (worship of traditional African spirit culture) is ever present and an integral part of everyday life in Brazil, especially for women who are viewed as keepers of these spirits. Beliefs in the power of the Orishas can be found in the cultural practices of the Terreiros, Candomblé, drumming, Capoeira, the playing of the berimbau (the main string instrument in Capoeira), cooking Acarajé by Baianas, and even contemporary Hip Hop music and among Hip Hop cultural practitioners.
Black American women on the Brazil Cultural Immersion Experience (BCIE; see my first Bahia article https://bit.ly/bahia1 ) had many opportunities to engage with Afro-Brazilian women, and discovered how they are claiming their power through matriarchal (women-centered) associations.
Regardless of their activities, level of education, or professions, the Black women we met all testified that their Orishas prepared them to meet the world, follow their creative spirits, enroll in college, overcome personal and social trauma, become resilient, advocate for their people, and find communities of belonging — a sistahhood of like-minded, spiritually-guided Black women.
For the Baianas, such spiritualism translates into articulated values centered on “solidarity, respect, sisterhood, and loyalty.”
Indeed, every organization, community, and spiritual center the BCIE visited had these same values embedded in the fabric of their organization and in their relationships with each other as Black women, and with their communities.
Apoderamento (Taking power forcefully ) and Telling Herstory
There are many historical figures who influence and inspire the lives of Afro-Brazilian women today; many of them are now revered in spaces that honor their contributions. Places like the Memorial of Baianas, Terreiro de Casa Branca, and the Nzingha Institute of Capoeira Angola Studies (one of the oldest women-led Capoeira schools) build upon and preserve traditions that are over 100 years old.
Younger women, like the African Matrix Terreiro as well as the contemporary young women of Hip Hop culture, like the Women Pelourinho Project and Colectivo Fruicoes, are forging new traditions that embrace popular culture and African spiritualism.
Another example are the young women of the Instituto da Mulher Negra Mãe Hilda Jitolu, a Black Feminist organization since 2023 (https://www.instagram.com/institutomaehildajitolu/) who are are carrying forth the legacy of Mãe Hilda Jitolu, a Black Brazilian woman noted for her support of the Black community.
Among the historical figures we learned about, the story of Maria Felipa, born on the island of Vera Cruz, stands out the most. She is a larger-than-life freed slave, believed to have origins in Sudan, and a practitioner of Capoeira. Felipa is known for her audacious rebellion techniques that terrorized Portuguese sailors (https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-62353785 ).
Felipa is considered a significant figure in Brazil’s liberation from Portugal, but only made visible until recently, through the concerted efforts of Afro-Brazilian women activists who carry on the tradition of fighting hard against oppression.
According to the women of the Maria Felipa Project (MFP), now a museum and organization situated in the home belonging to one of the followers, Maria Felipa de Oliveira, was a tall Black woman measuring over six feet tall, and considered one of the greatest slavery resistance leaders; the MFP have advocated to get her the recognition she deserves as a significant player in Brazil’s independence from Portugal.
Felipa is said to have used the gifts with which she was born, and that she and her women followers seduced their oppressors; once the men were undressed, they poisoned them by beating their nude bodies with the leaves of a poisonous plant. She and her followers are credited with setting fire to over 40 Portuguese colonial ships. Clearly, a Black Brazilian “Badass” woman!
The Ongoing Oppression of Black Brazilian Women
But being a Mãe, Terreiro, or spiritual leader and advocate for marginalized rural Quilombo communities and urban communidades (https://rioonwatch.org/?p=63779 ), is also a dangerous and deadly business for Black women.
The precariousness of being a Black women spiritual leader was brought to our attention by our tour guide, on the second day of our visit. Rita arrived early, and visibly shaken by the news of the murderous and audacious assassination of a 72-year-old Quilombo leader, Mãe Bernadete, in her own home, with the killer sending her grandchildren to wait in the next room. For Rita, and many Afro-Brazilians, it was an unmistakable warning.
The day after the murder, only the online agênciaBrazil reported, “Maria Bernadete Pacífico, the leader of the quilombo Pitanga dos Palmares, a priestess of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, and the former Secretary for Racial Equality of Simões Filho, in Bahia state, was assassinated Thursday night (Aug. 17)” (https://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/en/direitos-humanos/noticia/2023-08/quilombo-leader-mae-bernadete-shot-dead-six-years-after-son-was-killed ).
A few days later, the Guardian, which described Bernadete as a “Black community activist,” also published an article (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/21/black-community-activist-maria-bernadete-pacifico-killing-brazil#:~:text=Maria%20Bernadete%20Pac%C3%ADfico%2C%20a%20community,was%20killed%20on%20Thursday%20evening.) But nothing appeared in U.S. papers.
We mentioned her heinous death on our live broadcast for “The Conversation with Al McFarlane” from Brazil on Insight News MN YouTube, August 21, 2023, to bring attention to the activist, Maria Bernadete Pacífico’s sacrifice, by highlighting “The Power and Oppression of Black Women in Brazil” (https://www.youtube.com/live/dJU2PgzFUh4?si=3JpT8rk4VWpUKP-7).
Mãe Bernadette’s death was not a simple robbery, but rather an execution. At the center of her tragic demise is not only her spiritual beliefs, but the elimination of her as a strong Quilombo advocate. And she is not alone. Bernadete’s son, a teacher, was murdered six years earlier. No culprits have been found, and Bernadete was supposed to be under police protection.
The land that the Quilombos and communidades sit on today, was once isolated and hid the misery of poverty high in the hills and out of the city’s sight in rural locales; now it is prime real estate, and developers want to secure it by any means necessary, including murder, according to those who follow current events in Brazil.
For Black women in Brazil, “Apoderamento” or taking power forcefully ( as the Maria Felipa group articulated it) in order to practice your spiritual beliefs and advocate for your people’s liberation, is to be commended and celebrated. The women of Maria reject the idea that they need to be “empowered” by someone else, but rather that they take their own power — so apoderamento!
But it does come with a heavy price.
From Brazil with Love,
©2023 Irma McClaurin
Irma McClaurin (https://linktr.ee/dr.irma/ @mcclaurintweets) is the Culture and Education Editor for Insight News and founder of the Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive at UMass. An activist Black Feminist anthropologist, she is a past president of Shaw University, founding Executive Director of the University of Minnesota’s UROC, and has held numerous other leadership positions. McClaurin completed the MFA in English and PhD in Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and in 2023 was awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Social Studies by her alma mater, Grinnell College. Her book Black Feminist Anthropology: Theory, Politics, Praxis and Poetics was named an “Outstanding Academic Title” in 2002 and the Black Press of America selected her as “Best in the Nation Columnist” in 2015. She is a consultant and coach and is on the Advisory Board of the newly established Center for Diaspora and Migration Studies (CDMS) at the University of Liberia. A collection of her columns, Justspeak: Reflections on Race, Culture &Politics in America, is forthcoming in 2023, and she working on a book-length mss about Zora Neale Hurston as an anthropologist.