Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

To be a Congolese woman in Brazil

Nine women lay bare why they went to Brazil and what they experienced once they got there. Not all migration stories are the same.

Missão Paz Angelo Martins Junior Julia O'Connell Davidson
18 March 2021, 12.00am
Photo provided by Missão Paz. All rights reserved.

Stories matter. They matter to us as individuals. As the poet and literary scholar Barbara Hardy once wrote, “we dream, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative. In order to really live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social past and future.” They also matter socially and politically, because stories are not only acts of the mind. They also work to shape cognition and generate the mindsets that inform different kinds of public policies, social actions and interventions.

Stories told about migrants, asylum seekers and refugees by academic researchers, as well as policymakers, politicians, filmmakers, campaigners and journalists, are a case in point. Narratives that stereotype migrants and refugees as tricksters and criminals have serious, sometimes lethal, consequences. Actors seeking to defend the rights of migrants and/or to reform or abolish state controls over human mobility therefore contest them by telling very different stories. These alternative versions often portray ‘the migrant’ as a victim to be pitied rather than as a villain to be punished, or as a heroic subaltern with much to teach about human solidarity, resistance and resilience.

But even researchers wishing to avoid these simple inversions and substitutions do not necessarily tell the stories that their research subjects would want to tell about their own lives. And in the struggle over which narrative takes precedence, the stories that individuals themselves tell are often eclipsed or ignored.

African migrants and refugees in Brazil

This series features life stories written by nine Congolese women living in Brazil. Some might imagine that Brazil is a welcoming country for them. The myth of Brazil as a culturally and racially hybrid and harmonious society, a ‘racial democracy’, which was so important to nation-building and national identity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, still carries force. It has helped create a perception of Brazil as a rainbow nation that readily embraces migrants from all regions of the globe. This rosy view is lent support by Brazil’s 2017 Migration Law (13.445/2017) that shifted migration policy towards a focus on human rights, fraternity, non-discrimination and solidarity. As a result, asylum claims stand a much greater chance of success in Brazil than in Europe.

Yet behind the positive emphasis on racial hybridity in Brazil’s national mythology, the unstated ambition of ‘whitening’ the population to create a ‘Brazilian race’ in which African and Indigenous ancestry would be less visible has always been at play. In the 19th and early 20th century, it influenced Brazilian immigration policies that privileged the arrival of white European migrants while discouraging or prohibiting the entry of black African (and also Asian) migrants.

All the women in this series have been touched by violence, sexism, racism, and xenophobia, by bordering practices and immigration systems, and by forces of exploitation and marginalisation.

At the same time, after the abolition of slavery in 1888, Africans and their descendants who were already living in Brazil were socially, economically and politically marginalised. Neighbourhoods with high concentrations of formerly enslaved people were referred to by the authorities as ‘urban quilombos’ (quilombos being the communities formed by enslaved people who managed to escape during the time of slavery), and characterised as morally impure, dirty, and dangerous places where ‘people of colour’ practiced their ‘uncivilised’ religion and other habits labelled as ‘African’. These neighbourhoods were constantly investigated, controlled and repressed by the police as part of the Brazilian authorities’ moral/racial ‘civilising’ project.

In the 21st century, despite the revocation of expressly racist immigration policies and the more inclusive and rights-based aspects of the new 2017 immigration law, racism persists and strongly affects the lives of African migrants and refugees in Brazil (approximately 35,000 people at present). Migrants from the Global North, especially those racialised as white, are welcomed, treated preferentially, and often positively portrayed in the media due to their supposedly positive cultural and economic contributions to Brazil. Africans, Haitians and Bolivians, by contrast, are depicted by journalists and politicians as a ‘problem’ and their presence a ‘crisis’. As will be seen in the contributions to this series, they face discrimination in all walks of life, and the neighbourhoods they inhabit are regarded today much as ‘urban quilombos’ were in the past.

Background to the series

Part of our European Research Council-funded research project ‘Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World’ involves a collaboration with Missão Paz, a philanthropic institution that supports and welcomes migrants and refugees in São Paulo, the largest city in Brazil. The staff at Missão Paz introduced us to the contributing authors of this series, who were already working together on a writing project to address the experiences of Congolese women in Brazil. Their project seeks to counter dominant media and policy narratives about sub-Saharan African people living in Brazil, narratives that erase their human particularities and characterise them simply as ‘migrants’, ‘refugees’, ‘Africans’, ‘victims’ or ‘villains’. They want to take advantage of what one contributor calls the ‘space of speech’ that Brazil offers to tell their own stories.

With this in mind, we asked the women if they would like to recount short life stories, on the theme of freedom, for publication on openDemocracy. They said yes, and the Missão Paz team worked with them to record, transcribe, edit and translate their narratives. This collection is the result.

Telling Stories Against a Dehumanising Grain

The women recounting their stories have much in common: they are all African, Congolese women racialised as black. They all made journeys to Brazil and all currently live in Brazil. All of their lives have been touched in one way or another by violence, sexism, racism, and xenophobia, by bordering practices and immigration systems designed to restrict certain groups’ freedom of movement, by forces of exploitation and marginalisation. They are all people that journalists, human rights campaigners, and academics (including us) could portray as ‘migrants’, ‘refugees’, ‘victims’ or ‘heroes’ in narratives about social and political inequalities. But what actually comes through from the texts is their individuality.

Left to narrate their own lives, our contributors make their difference visible. There is diversity in the experiences they choose to recount, and in the narratives they use to make sense of themselves and others, and of their pasts, presents and futures. This individuality and diversity should not be surprising. What else would we expect from nine different humans? But ‘migrants’ are so often imagined and represented as homogeneous beings, defined above all by their migrancy, that the range and uniqueness of these stories cuts against the grain. In publicly telling them, our contributors continue their active, at times collective efforts to resist all forms of violence against them, including the violence of dehumanising stereotypes and one-dimensional narratives.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.


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