From slums of Rio to halls of power

TO find Benedita da Silva, ask the barefoot urchins begging along Copacabana Beach. Almost all of them know Brazil's first black congresswoman and can point out the cobblestone road that climbs the hill above the hotels into the favela, or shantytown, where Ms. da Silva was born 45 years ago.

The road bears right around a vacant lot that serves as a makeshift soccer field, then it peters out into a maze of broken concrete stairways. Up and to the left is the whitewashed two-story house that belongs to Ben'e, as the favelados (slum-dwellers) call her.

The only problem is finding her at home. Since last November, when 28,000 voters sent her to the congressional palace in Brasilia, Ms. da Silva has had little time for visits to Rio.

Not that she wants to escape the filth and misery of the favela. ``This is where my heart is, and my roots,'' she said in a recent interview.

But Congress has been particularly busy this year, drafting a new constitution to replace the one imposed by the military two decades ago. And it often seems as if da Silva has to work twice as hard as white male legislators when she wants her voice heard.

Still, she's used to hard work. One of 13 children, mother of six, and grandmother of nine, she had her first job at the age of five, delivering laundry for neighborhood washerwomen. In her spare time, she begged at street markets for fish heads, scraps of meat, and other handouts.

A grandao, big-boned and tall for her age, da Silva was considered too strong for mere childhood fun and games. Hence, she grew up working as hard as her grandmother, who was born a slave.

At 11, da Silva took a job in a belt and pocketbook factory. Her first paycheck paid for a new dress, after other workers teased her about wearing the only one she had, day after day. In subsequent years, she worked as a maid, a cook, and a hawker - like her first husband who peddled biscuits. As a young couple, they were homeless at various times with nothing but newspapers to cover their children with at night.

``Society turns us almost immediately into mini-adults, with a responsibility to produce and earn a living,'' she said. ``I am the exception to every established rule in this country. In reality, there's no opportunity for people like me.''

Nonetheless, one of da Silva's most profound achievements has been to give other favelados hope. ``The election of Benedita represents a qualitative advance in terms of the options these people can envision,'' said Bishop Mauro Morelli, whose diocese lies in another Rio slum.

Of Brazil's 135 million citizens, more than a third are black or dark-skinned, and half are women. Yet, da Silva is one of only nine blacks and 25 women in the 559-member Congress.

Though there is no legal discrimination against nonwhites, the country's reputation as a place where the races mix harmoniously is only partly true. True, they mix on the beaches, the sidewalks, the buses and subways, and a rapport exists between blacks and whites that rarely is equaled elsewhere. But slum-dwellers, migrant farm workers, and unskilled laborers are largely dark-skinned, while politicians, bankers, doctors, and lawyers are almost all white. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888.

For black women, the inequality is compounded by the traditional culture of machismo. As in most countries, women are paid unequally for the work they do and are considered unfit for many jobs.

``I never desired to be a politician for its own sake,'' da Silva recalled, as a rooster crowed from a nearby roof. ``I just wanted to be a woman, a black woman, a favelada, who didn't end up inanimate like so many others. I wanted to do something to improve this community.''

Her first step was to pass with honors a public servant's exam that led to a job as a nurse's assistant. Meanwhile, she became active in the favela's neighborhood association and joined the newly formed left-wing Workers' Party. Her first husband died, and she married Aguinaldo Bezerra dos Santos, who retired and devoted himself to her political career.

``The favelas have always been used by politicians, by the so-called intelligentsia, who have turned them into a giant laboratory. They do their research and then go away. The moment came when we couldn't accept this situation any longer. We felt we had to organize, and did.''

In 1982, the Workers' Party asked her to run for Rio's city council. She was the only member of the party elected. Before she could finish her term, party leaders placed her name on the national docket. She won, this time a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, Congress's lower house.

``It's impossible for me to say that my presence in Congress means that Brazil is on its way forward. But it does mean that there's some small change. And this is what I'm trying to take advantage of.''

Her timing couldn't be better. Embroiled in their debate over the new constitution, legislators are reconsidering virtually every law, governing Brazilian society. Da Silva has championed such causes as land reform, the rights of women and minorities, restructuring the public education system, and limiting the role of multinational corporations.

She is a powerful speaker, not one to soothe the conscience, but a provoker who often leaves her listeners uncomfortable. At a recent rally protesting racist policies in South Africa, da Silva launched an attack on ``Brazilian apartheid,'' which she said has separated blacks and ``put them into jails, insane asylums, and favelas.''

She also has another side which makes many of her liberal colleagues uneasy, she said. She is an active member of the Assembly of God Church, an evangelical Christian who believes God has given her ``a mission.''

``My faith has led me to comprehend that God created all things for all people. So how can I accept so much inequality?''

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