January 14, 2014, I was in Brazil for what was the first J-Term I co-led at Luther College. That day I had to leave the group unexpectedly when I received the news that my mom had passed away. After the funeral, I returned to our J-Term group and learned about their trip to a favela in Rio, on a tour organized by a member of the community they visited. It was especially after that trip that they started asking me questions about race and inequality in Brazil.
The 2014 course was focused on the politics of the World Cup, so even though race and inequality were parts of the discussion, these were not the main themes. So we discussed those issues superficially and hoped the connections we were making would help students also understand some basic ideas about race relations and inequality in Brazil. While I was satisfied with what we learned about the World Cup’s impact in Brazil, I ended the course feeling I had not addressed issues of race and inequality adequately.
This is not just a pedagogical qualm. At a personal level, I felt I needed to change the focus of a course about Brazil in Brazil, especially after January 14, 2014. My mother's death was not just a personal loss to me, as devastating as that was. That day I lost a lot more, but also gained new perspective. I lost the person who inspired me to study the role of women in politics, my own research informant and reviewer, the person who made me aware of race-related issues in Brazil and beyond, and the person who taught me to be proud of my African heritage. After her funeral, seeing the impact she had in so many people in the feminist movement and black movement in Brazil, I gained even more perspective about what it means to be a change agent in the world.
Oraida Maria de Abreu, my mother, grew up in Rio where she started teaching in a poor community at the age of 16. In Rio, she also completed her psychology degree and worked in the public health sector. After moving to Goiânia, in the Center-West region of Brazil, she became deeply involved in causes ranging to mental health advocacy, women's health issues, fighting against racism, and empowering black and poor women in the region. Between 2003 and her death in 2014 she worked for the federal government in Brasília, dealing with racial equality issues and the promotion, maintenance, and curation of black culture in the country. She also managed to finish a Master's in Environmental Science, writing a thesis on a Quilombola community (black community) in the outskirts of Brasília. She did much more than that, and impacted literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives.
Her funeral marked a turning point for me. There I heard dozens of people share how my mother’s work influenced their lives, how her relentless fight for human rights was a part of her everyday life. It made me feel proud of my mother and made me feel that I needed to do more to honor her legacy.
I knew that next time I taught a J-Term in Brazil I would focus on the issues my mother held close to her heart. With the help of Germano Streese, my co-instructor, we developed a course that focuses on the issue of race and racism in Brazil, while also addressing development and inequality. It has been great to see the students make connections with the readings, comparing Brazil's issues with those we face in the United States, and seeing the complexities of the reality of race and race relations.
This J-Term is one of the ways I found to honor my mother's legacy. Working with the Just Action Group at Luther College has been another. I decided very soon after my mother's death that I would not mourn her death, but always celebrate her life and her life's work. Seeing Luther students dancing to the “bateria” of Unidos da Tijuca this week made me happy because I know my mother loved Carnaval and would have loved to see my students dancing in Rio. She would appreciate our upcoming visit (in Salvador) to a Candomblé temple, the African-based religion she practiced and helped protect when working in Brasília. She would enjoyed the meal we will share with quilombolas in Brasília, the same people she spent months researching and years fighting for their rights.
So, when January 14 rolls around and I am in Salvador, I will go to a church and light a candle for my mother. I will probably shed a tear or two. But I will also smile, because I will be able to celebrate my mother's life in a city she cherished, with students who are learning about the issues she cared so deeply about, and knowing that her legacy fighting for human rights is alive a well at Luther College and in Brazil.