Thaiana Rodrigues, the daughter of an esthetician in Rio de Janeiro, tried to get into college three times. But having spent most of her childhood in poor public schools – her anatomy teacher in seventh grade never showed up to class so she simply never learned the subject – Ms. Rodrigues was unable to pass the entrance exam.
It was not until her fourth try, when she applied as a quota recipient based on her race and socioeconomic status, that she won a spot at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), a public university that pioneered a quota system for public school students.
Rodrigues graduated in August 2011 with a degree in social sciences and now has a job working as an administrative assistant in an educational exhibit in the state legislature. Although only in her first year, already she is earning what her mother makes and is positioning herself for a career in public policy.
Now, many more marginalized Brazilians may be able to reap the same benefit. A system that was an experiment at scores of universities like UERJ over the past decade has become law: public federal universities must reserve half of their spots for underprivileged students hailing from public schools, disproportionately attended by minorities.
The law, signed in August and set to be completely implemented within four years, will have the widest impact on Afro-Brazilians, who make up more than half of the nation's population.
"Without the law, many black students could not get into the system," says Rodrigues, who is Afro-Brazilian.
With its new law, Brazil has gone the furthest in the Americas in attempting race-based equality. Not only is the law a state-mandated program, it also attempts to open up the traditional bastions of the elite to all. Quotas are strictly prohibited in the United States, but they have been implemented for race, ethnicity, and gender from the Americas to Europe, from legislatures to corporate boardrooms. But Brazil's move does not just secure certain spots for minorities: It moves to reflect the racial and socioeconomic reality of the country, and it could ultimately have a major impact on Afro-Latino movements across the Americas.
"Brazil wants its leadership to truly reflect its constituents," says Tanya Hernandez, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York and author of "Racial Subordination in Latin America."
"[Brazil believes] the way to have full democracy is to have everyone included, and properly educated," Ms. Hernandez says.
Afro-Latinos making strides
The Afro-Latino movement has made strides in the region in the past two decades. In Brazil, a black judge, Joaquim Barbosa, was recently appointed as president of the country's supreme court. Ecuador and Bolivia codified the rights of minorities in recent constitutions. Peru appointed its first Afro-Peruvian to a ministerial position in 2011, though she has since stepped down.
In Colombia, which has the second-highest percentage of Afro-Latinos behind Brazil, Afro-Colombians are guaranteed two seats in Congress.
But many consider Brazil's quota law for public universities a game changer because it opens up the bastions of social opportunity to previously excluded populations, says Christopher Sabatini, editor in chief of Americas Quarterly (AQ).
Last year AQ published a study on the impact of minority political representation and quotas in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Guatemala. It found that representation by the indigenous and Afro-Latinos did not lead to a dramatic uptick in legislation or constitutional reforms in their favor.
But gaining access to what are considered the "Ivies" of Brazil could change the currents of social opportunity.
In Brazil, and throughout most of Latin America, public universities, which are free, are among the best in the country. But they are often filled with middle- and upper-class families who could afford tuition at private elementary and secondary schools that prepare their children for college. Meanwhile, those from public high schools usually have to attend private, often inferior, universities.
"Public schools are in most cases a no-choice option," says Joao Feres, an expert on social quotas at UERJ. "The whole system privileges the already privileged."
Are quotas also discriminatory?
The new Law of Social Quotas in Brazil, which received near unanimous support from lawmakers, came after an earlier supreme court decision in April that upheld quotas at the University of Brasília. The new law is still controversial.
Mariana Vilanova sits eating rice and beef in UERJ's airy cafeteria on a fall afternoon. She is a first-year student in visual arts who entered the university through the general admissions process. The quota system, she says, gives the government an easy out.
"What they should do is invest in better public [elementary and high schools]," Ms. Vilanova says.
Vilanova says she considers quotas based on race to be reverse discrimination. "I understand there is discrimination in the world," she says, "but racial quotas are also discrimination."
The law mandates that half of those admitted into the nation's federal universities come from public schools and, among those, the spots will reflect the racial makeup of each state.
It's unique because it is based on local demography, says Hernandez. "It also seeks to combine considerations of race and social class together," she says
Affirmative action has long been resisted in Latin America, which considered it an import of the US, where it was first tried. After abolishing slavery, Latin America never implemented the segregation policies of its neighbor to the north, and has intermixed racially and ethnically far more than has the US. But fuzzy definitions of race don't preclude racism.
"The main problem is this idea that this is a mestizo country where mixed-blood people are the majority, and mixing bloods gave us democracy," says Jaime Arocha, an anthropologist and expert on Afro-Colombians.
"This is the founding myth in most Latin America countries. [Many believe] that our systems are not as segregationist as those in the north," Mr. Arocha says. "But if you go to a national university in Colombia, the amount of professors of African descent is not more than 2 percent. In terms of students, we do not have more than 5 percent. [Universities] should reflect the demographic profiles of the country." (Some 10 percent of Colombia's population is of African descent.)
The quotas now in place in Brazil are controversial in countries like Colombia. Last year, when the nation was debating issuing certificates to prove ethnic and racial descent – arguably a huge practical problem given the mixing of races – columnist Hector Abad wrote in the daily El Spectador that doling out a "black certificate" would be lambasted as overt racism if the same certificates proving "Aryan" descent were distributed.
Access to universities to grow
But Arocha says he hopes the Brazilian law pushes the debate forward in Colombia. Already, visiting professors who were quota recipients in Brazil have influenced university thinking in Colombia.
"It is really fantastic. You see the realization of something that is very important, the opening of the universities, both to black professors and to students," he says.
In Brazil, the number of people with access to higher education is expected to grow substantially. Right now the ratio of students in public universities hailing from private versus public secondary schools is 3 to 1, Mr. Feres says. The new law is expected to ultimately boost an already growing black middle class.
According to the Baoba Fund for Racial Equality, in 2004 the largest percentage of Brazilians who identified as black were categorized as poor. By 2009, the largest percentage had moved to the middle class. Today they are part of Brazil's booming consumer class, spending about $331 billion per year.
Fifty-one percent of Brazilians identify as black or mixed, according to the 2010 Brazilian Census. It was considered a landmark because prior to that Brazilians tended to self-identify as white.
With a growing black population, policies to make the country more fair and equitable to all racial groups are good policies, says Judith Morrison of the Inter-American Development Bank.
"The idea behind the quota system is to promote equality of opportunity," Ms. Morrison says. In enacting the new law, she says Brazil has become a global leader.
With a large Afro-Brazilian population – compared with the 14 percent in the US that identify as African-American – Brazil could be poised to pioneer even more policies on equality.