RIO DE JANEIRO — Benedita da Silva stands outside her home in one of Rio's infamous favelas and points to a police all-terrain vehicle perched on a hillside corner at the foot of her steps.
"Here for my protection?" laughs Brazil's only black woman senator, responding to an assumption voiced by a white foreign visitor. "No, they're here to protect you from me," she says. "The black, the poor - we're a threat to the world; we have to be kept in our place."
If Senator da Silva - who prefers to be addressed by her first name, Benedita - is today a star in glittery Rio, it is because she has done what few have: She has pulled herself up from her "place" as a poor black girl from the favela, ghetto, to become a voice for the poor and marginalized.
Since being elected a Labor Party senator in 1994, Benedita has become an eloquent and visible reminder that the country's least favored cannot be forgotten as Brazil pursues economic reforms and opens to the globalization process sweeping Latin America.
Brazil, which received more African slaves than any other New World country, is about half black, constituting the world's second-largest black population after Nigeria.
Currently on a book tour in the United States, Benedita has risen as far as she has in large part because she is seen as genuine, a favela black who has moved up but not out.
"Even people like me who don't agree with her politics admire her for staying with the favela and the people living there," says one Rio official, who asked not to be named. "People will at least listen to her because there's this feeling she's sincere and speaks from experience."
In the US, her reception so far has been enthusiastic. At the University of California at Berkeley last week she drew an overflow crowd; and at Stanford University, the English edition of her life story sold out. Today she will be in North Carolina speaking at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.
"In the US, there is little knowledge of Brazil compared with other Latin American countries, but her way of bringing together issues of race and gender is something both Brazilians and Americans can relate to," says Maisa Mendona, a Brazilian writer, co-author of "Benedita da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Woman's Story of Politics and Love."
Moving up, but not out
Benedita still lives on the hillside plot above tony Copacabana Beach that her family moved into 55 years ago, the year she was born. And her conversation, like her book, is full of her experiences - "my happinesses and my sadnesses," she says - as a poor black girl in Rio.
"It was working in the street as a young girl, selling what I could, that I discovered the cause of the treatment of women," she says. From seven years old on, Benedita sold fruit, nuts, and shoes before school and on weekends to contribute to her family's survival.
There she learned that girls and women were particularly susceptible to a lack of enforced civil and labor rights. She also learned the bitter lesson of sexual abuse when she was molested at age 7 by a boarder in her family's house.
On a recent Sunday morning in her comfortable multifamily home, Benedita at first glance seems more the typical mother and grandmother than politician and social crusader. The house is littered with balloons, hula hoops, and a giant cake, in preparation for a granddaughter's birthday party. A younger grandson tries to sneak by with a bulky bag of candy, but despite the distraction of her conversation with visitors, Benedita doesn't miss a trick.
"Put that back!" she cries without disturbing the flow of her conversation. "I've learned what the favela woman has always had to know," she says to her visitors, "which is to handle a number of demands - work, family, survival - all at once."
Bridging gap between rich, poor
But when she is told that one Rio woman referred to her as "part of a political party that is backward and trying uselessly to go against the world current," she fires up.
"My guess is that she is a woman who has never suffered, who isn't suffering now, and has always had us [black women domestics] to keep her life removed not just from the traditional hardships, but from the new challenges accompanying economic reform and globalization," Benedita says with sudden passion. "We, too, want a Brazil that is growing economically, but for all, not the few," she adds, referring to international studies that show Brazil has the world's largest income gap between rich and poor.
Benedita knows that gap well. She recalls afternoons spent delivering the laundry her mother washed to homes, in some cases those of Rio's wealthy. One home she delivered to was that of Juscelino Kubitcheck, who later became president of Brazil. Benedita recalls that her first doll was a castoff from Mr. Kubitcheck's daughter - who would meet Benedita again when both served in the Brazilian Congress.
Brazil's only black senator credits her family, public education, religion, and the example of other favela women as the influences that "changed my destiny." But clearly her own determination played an important part. Unlike many working children who simply give up on school, Benedita worked in the morning to be able to attend school in the afternoon.
And although she finished elementary school before working full time, getting married, and having children, it was not until she was 40 that she returned to finish high school. She then entered university - the same year her daughter did - where she went on to earn a degree in social work.
Exacerbating Brazil's poverty is the factor of race, which Benedita says has long been left unaddressed by simply treating blacks as "invisible."
Brazilian society has registered some progress, she says, to which her own rise from a city councilor in 1982 attests.
"There is a consciousness about rights, the rights of the poor to improve and the rights of women to equality, that is important," she says. "There is greater self-esteem among blacks that is progress." She also singles out the religious freedom that allowed her to move from the childhood experience of her mother's Afro-Brazilian faith, Umbanda, to Roman Catholicism, and on to the evangelical Presbyterian church she now attends, as a central factor in her personal growth.
But she laments what she considers backsliding as well. Most threatening to the poor's social mobility, she says, is a steep decline in the quality of Brazil's public education.
"The public schools were for me my way out of poverty and limitation," says Benedita, noting that her older siblings had less opportunity because, having grown up mostly on the farms where her parents worked, they did not have access to schools.
Importance of education
"My parents considered education very important, and the schools I attended for free were generally very good schools, with the same or better teachers and materials as private schools," she says.
"The difference today, unfortunately, is that while most poor parents still consider education very important, the schools their children attend are now often far from the best."
Today, she puts her grandchildren in private schools.
Benedita has her eye on Rio's mayoral office - a post she failed to capture in a 1992 race - with elections set for next year. Rio political analysts acknowledge the political niche the eloquent black senator has carved for herself.
"She has made it fashionable to look differently on the favelas, to want to address issues of poverty and race," says one observer, "and she is helped by a certain part of the middle and intellectual classes who believe it reflects well on Rio and Brazil to have a black woman senator."
But others doubt she can go much farther. "The poor want to be rich," which is not an option Benedita's politics offer, says Rio political analyst Claudio Contador. "And the need for better education, health, and economic opportunity is not the monopoly of the Labor Party."
Opposing Brazil's privatizations and market-oriented reforms marginalizes her, he adds. "She may run, but I don't believe she can win," Mr. Contador says.
Benedita is accustomed to poor odds. And besides, as she tells the audiences she now speaks to in the US, both the stereotype of the Brazilian black woman who cooks and dances and that of the white man as the best leader have to be challenged.
"If white men are so capable as leaders," she says, "then why do we still have so many hungry children on Brazil's streets?"