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When I talk with Black people in the United States about Brazil, the most poignant moment usually occurs when I point out that Salvador, the Blackest city, in the Blackest country- has never had a Black mayor in all of its history. This irony is the case in most Brazilian cities, states and municipalities.
Brazil is the largest democracy in Latin America and the country with the highest percentage of people of African descent outside of Africa. Despite the fact that Afro-Brazilians make up the majority of the Brazilian population, they only hold fewer than 10% of the elected positions.
The historic campaign of Marielle Franco for city council in Rio De Janeiro in 2017, and her tragic assassination a year later, galvanized a generation of Black, women, queer and poor Brazilians to run and win various political positions since.
Among these political hopefuls is Vilma Reis, from Salvador, who is campaigning to be the Workers Party candidate for Federal Deputy. I had the pleasure of attending her campaign launch which occurred in the same community center where my studio is.
Vilma, 53, began her life of activism in the Student Movement at the age of 15. Following a brutal military dictatorship, it was an extremely difficult time in Brazil.
She observed the difficult work of her father and uncles, who were all trade unionists in the railway network. And her grandmother, a woman who emphasized that her work as a maid was a sacrifice so that her grandchildren would have a better life.
Vilma channeled this motivation into her education and career. She went on to become a professor, with a Ph.D. in African Studies at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), a researcher at the Ceafro Institute of Education for Racial and Gender Equality, and author.
She is one of the most important intellectuals in the construction of feminist and Black thoughts in contemporary Brazil and a major role model for young Afro Brazilians from many backgrounds and orientations.
The obstacles to Black achieving elected office are tedious. Every candidate in Brazilian elections must be nominated by a political party. Political parties are permitted to propose just one candidate for mayor.
Many party leaders refuse to promote Afro-Brazilian candidates due to anti-Black prejudice or pandering to white voters with the same biases. Many believe this was the reason Reis failed to secure the nomination for Mayor for her party two years ago.
Additionally, a tremendous amount of financial resources are necessary for candidates to execute a successful campaign. For a variety of reasons, Afro-Brazilian candidates are likely to find it more difficult to raise campaign cash than white candidates. Because they are typically poorer than White Brazilians, Afro-Brazilians lack the resources to underwrite their own campaigns.
In an interview with a local paper, Reis explains,
In Brazil we have a white left… which governs the parties with iron hands. White, older men, from the middle class and upper middle class, suffering class amnesia and even saying that the most powerful struggles we have (Black, feminist and trans) are nothing more than identity politics.
To refute this, we relied on Anibal Quijano and Lélia Gonzalez to say that race is at the center of the Brazilian political agenda. Class discourse alone does not answer the Brazilian question.
The white man in Brazilian politics, when he tires of his first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth term, passes this political legacy to another white man, younger.
The Vilma Reis campaign is underway with pre-elections occurring in September-October.
In a recent Twitter post Vilma makes plain the need for the Left to earn the vote of the people of Brazil who are mostly Black women:
“That’s it my people, there is no being on the left and not walking with feminists, there is no being left and not being anti-racist!”
If you would like to support Vilma Reis’ campaign, you can do so by clicking the links below or by contacting her through her social media channels: