Jill Langlois is an independent journalist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She is a 2018 Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grantee for her project, The Prison Next Door, published on The Lily.
SAO PAULO, Brazil — When Brazilians went to the polls on Sunday, they came close to electing outright a man known for being a supporter of a military dictatorship and the violation of the rights of several minority groups.
Over his 27 years as a congressman representing Rio de Janeiro and during his campaign for the presidency, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro — who almost avoided a runoff with Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad when Bolsonaro brought in just over 46 percent of the vote — has spewed visceral comments about everyone from women and members of the LGBTQ community to black people and indigenous people.
Women, he said, should earn less because they get pregnant. If he were to have a gay son, it would be better that he died in an accident because he would never be able to love him. As for black people living in traditional communities started by escaped slaves called quilombos? The would-be president said they weren’t even good for procreating anymore. He has said that if elected on Oct. 28, he plans to do away with protected indigenous lands.
Becoming a congresswoman isn’t the only first Joênia Wapichana has achieved in her career. The 43-year-old from the northern state of Roraima is also the first indigenous woman in Brazil to become an attorney, studying at both the Federal University of Roraima and the University of Arizona.
Her plan to defend indigenous rights, and particularly the demarcation of the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous reserve, would have already been an uphill battle in Brazil, one of the deadliest countries in the world for environmental activists and land defenders, but with the possibility of Bolsonaro being elected president and his party taking 52 of the 513 seats in the Lower House, it will be an even more difficult task for Wapichana as the only representative of her party, Sustainability Network, founded in 2013 by environmentalist and presidential candidate Marina Silva.
“We all have a mission in life,” Wapichana wrote in an Instragram post the day before the vote. “Mine is defending the collective rights of indigenous people.”
Erica Malunguinho won’t have an easy job either. As the first trans woman to be elected state representative in São Paulo, she is up against a country that fails her both for her gender identity and the color of her skin. Despite being part of the majority of the population, black women are severely underrepresented in Brazil’s government. The country is also the deadliest in the world for trans people, with 179 murders last year alone, the highest number in a decade.
Malunguinho plans to combat racism with social tourism in quilombos and indigenous territories, and focus on the institutional rights of trans people and their inclusion in the workforce. Without a doubt, she will struggle to put those issues on the agenda.
“We won a great battle in an organic way, without money and facing the denial of political party structures that always take their chances on whiteness,” she wrote in a post on Facebook in the days after the election. “We were armed with only our principles, foundations, dreams and indignation in the face of 500 years of domination, genocide and epistemicide. Let’s join together to face the hatred and establish black social technology in institutional politics.”
While women in general are still struggling for better representation in Brazil’s government — it remained flat in the Senate at 12 of 81 seats and received a slight boost from 10 percent to 15 percent in the Lower House, now with 77 seats — it is women such as Wapichana and Malunguinho who give the country hope in a time that seems bleak. Brazil might look like a sinking ship right now, but at least it still has strong, fearless women to help hold everyone’s heads above water.