On the Run from Rio

The opening chapter of On the Run from Rio

Chapter 1: On the Run from Rio

As I sat at the café with my friends, they had no idea that they’d never see me again. But I knew.

That summer night the gang had gathered as usual—arguing, laughing, and sipping beers around tables on the cobblestone patio of Amarelinho da Cinelandia. While my chums chatted I found it difficult to concentrate, instead trying to fix the scene in my mind, memorizing my friends’ faces and the Praça Floriano—something to hold on to for the future. I stared up at the café, the graceful ochre building which curved around the corner of the block. It had been the setting of a half century’s worth of political and intellectual debate—talk of revolution, talk of dreams.

My compatriots were college students with grand dreams of their own for Brazil’s future and I was their young protégé. As a teenager I had big dreams, too, but mine were tempered with a harsh dose of reality, as I arose each morning at four and took two busses to reach my job at the purse factory. This difference between our lives had recently become quite clear to me when we were hauled off to jail after another day here at Amarelinho when we had gathered to hear Lula speak.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was then an activist who was gaining quite a following amongst the leftists. Although later he would become the nation’s thirty-fifth president, he was just a young man when he began organizing the trade unions here in Brazil. When the Steel Workers’ leader came to my factory in Rio de Janeiro, he told us it was inhumane that besides lunch, the workers’ only breaks consisted of three minutes in the morning and three minutes in the afternoon—our only opportunity to go the bathroom. He didn’t mention the thing about that break I found the most degrading: the factory restroom had only a partial swinging door and everybody could see you when you went in to do your business.

When I heard Lula speak I was so proud to learn that I had rights—certainly it was the first time anyone had brought this notion to my young mind—and he encouraged the workers to strike to gain those rights. My naive enthusiasm led me to want to support the movement in any way I could as we prepared for a protest. But ill-equipped for any kind of confrontation, I offered up the idea that when we workers united with the students we should all bring marbles to the demonstration. After all, I was still a kid and the idea seemed amusing. Besides, I knew just the place to get these marbles.

That evening we assembled in the plaza in front of Amarelinho, even though we knew any type of demonstration was illegal under the military dictatorship. But Lula was a man of the people, someone to whom I could relate, because we had much in common: like me he had worked as a street vendor, and like me he began toiling in a factory at fourteen. When he lost his finger manning the assembly line in an auto parts plant, he had to run to several hospitals before anyone would give him medical attention, a sobering experience which pushed him to become involved with the Workers’ Party. Unfortunately another trait the activist and I shared was our lack of education, a luxury for which poor Brazilians had no time. Yet he encouraged all of us to learn to read and write so that we could vote and take part in the future governance of the country.

When we heard Lula was scheduled to speak in Rio’s city center, my friends and I planned to gather in solidarity. On my way there I paraded through the streets chanting my slogan of the time, “O povo unido jamais serà vencido” (People united, will never be defeated). At eighteen, I wore my uniform of the era, a t-shirt and voluminous bell-bottom jeans covering my long skinny black legs. Swinging my sack of marbles to the beat, I performed in my solo marching band.

The combination of politics and public performance was not new to me. I had joined a street theater group where I met my rich student friends; our activities and conversations focused on making Brazil a better place, and I loved my amigos for their vision and enthusiasm. Our group acted out little skits with the moral of the story geared to encourage literacy: you have to learn to read and write so that you have rights. We ended our act with the message: “Sponsored by da Silveira.” So it was philanthropy with a motive.

Our community operated together on the campaign to elect Antonio Modesto da Silveira as a federal deputy. He would later go on to risk his life as a courageous attorney defending Brazil’s countless political prisoners, but like Lula, his humble roots made me feel connected to him emotionally. At age nine da Silveira was a quarry worker, then later a shoe shiner (another high-paying career shared by me), a woodsman, and a guide for the blind before he later attended law school. He was one of the leftist leaders trying to galvanize the poor and uneducated in Brazil, a nation where a small elite band of wealthy conservatives treated the workers like slaves, allowed the military to run the country, and destroyed any dissent by brutal force. Anyone taking a stand against the ruling class knew the stakes.

Da Silveira turned to the unions asking for help in putting up political posters and we were glad to oblige. My mother even got into the act. Mama invited all the people from the campaign to the house and cooked lunch for the volunteers to help the cause. But she was embarrassed and shy that Antonio da Silveira, this important white man, came to our modest shack in Maringá, one of Rio’s many favelas. Unlike Mama, my father wasn’t shy! I could tell Pa was proud of me and received these people with pleasure; still he cracked jokes about his crazy daughter “who is mixed up in all these activities.”

And indeed, the activities continued to multiply. My comrades and I called ourselves brothers and sisters as we worked to teach Cariocas, the citizens of Rio, how to read and write. I also participated in the black power movement, but there were many other political factions. Interestingly, all the undertakings were organized by the sons from rich families, whom we called “daddy’s boys.”

While I liked the political demonstrations, I did not accept the movement’s extreme positions, which they started to push, especially the frequent disputes about race. I maintained that my paternal grandmother was white, my grandfather was black, and my mother was an Indian. In fact at my home there were people of all colors—Indians, Asians, whites, blacks. Over time I started to get fed up with the group’s antics, concluding that we talked a lot but didn’t achieve much. At least every day we went into the shantytowns to teach people to read and bring them some food. These efforts were important, I felt, and I had decided that soon I’d leave the purse factory altogether to look for work which would allow me more time to be politically active.

Certainly leaving that sweatshop would be no loss. I dreaded getting up in the dark to head to this pointless job—as I had since I was fourteen—but for now I needed the money to survive as I had left home and was on my own. The plant, located on the Avenida Brasil in the center of Rio, employed 3000 people; we all worked in one big room, where in the summer we sweated and in the winter we wrapped our feet in newspapers to keep warm. The assembly-line chores were divided by groups: first the men cut the leather for the purses; then the pieces passed on down the conveyor belt to the women who sewed them; lastly us kids used scissors to clip the loose threads from the expensive handbags.

When the workers arrived in the morning we left our lunch on a shelf next to the time clock and the guards patted us down to be sure we weren’t carrying any food. What they didn’t know was we stashed sweets in our panties. My favorite part of the day was when I heard the lunch whistle blow because that meant the thundering noise of the machinery would immediately cease and I had one hour of quiet. This was when I went to retrieve my marmita, the lunch box I had brought from home. At the beginning of the month when my father had just been paid, my marmita included meat; by the end of the month, it carried only rice, beans and farofa, a dish of toasted manioc flour.

Sometimes I would swap my food from home with a friend; I especially liked to trade with my pal Benedetta because her dad was a fisherman and she’d bring shrimp. On one sweltering day, Bene took my marmita featuring a tasty pig’s ear. Unfortunately when she cracked the lid the container exploded and the ear flew across the lunch room. There was some sort of chemical accident there, with the result being I didn’t eat any more shrimp.

But I had developed a taste for this treat, so I slyly asked my mother—who had no idea I’d been trading my lunches—“Why don’t you ever buy shrimp for us?” She didn’t want to say, we are too poor for shrimp you fool! so instead she said “No! You can’t eat shrimp because you’ll have an allergic reaction and break out in hives!” I just opened my eyes innocently wide and nodded.


On the night I arrived to hear Lula at Amarelinho, people stood on the cobblestones waiting to hear this union leader speak from the second-story of the city council chambers, a majestic building next door to our café. I was sure the sight of Lula speaking from this balcony on high—surrounded by the white marble pillars and bathed in the golden spotlight—would incite the crowd, seeing that this man from such a humble beginning had risen to political power. However, the military had caught wind of this demonstration, and before any momentum could build, they came out in force to break it up, pressing in from the opposite side of the plaza. As they marched in with their billy clubs, I caught sight of my brother, Felipe, who had been drafted into the army, as all Brazilian men were at eighteen. The soldiers pushed toward us and the fighting began, hand to hand. We opened fire with our childlike weapon, hurling marbles at the troops, and when I hit my own brother in the forehead, I felt a pang of guilt at his startled expression. As the glass balls rained down, the soldiers rushing toward us slid around on the cobblestones.

The night did not end well. The military retaliated by spraying tear gas into the crowd. Protesters ran in every direction, and some escaped but many were caught and taken to jail, myself included. Our daddy’s boys were set free within half an hour; a telephone call from their parents worked wonders. We, the poor ones, had to stay for three days and were obliged to wash dishes and clean cells. When I came out of that prison, I decided that from now on I shall do my own revolution. Yet I was much luckier than the truly damned ones because no one knows what happened to them. Till this day they have disappeared without even a tombstone to mark their whereabouts. In that era I saw many families all around me crying daily, not knowing what had happened to a loved one. Was their son moaning in a coma from a hospital bed, held a prisoner to be tortured by the Death Squads, or lying in a shallow grave with a bullet hole in his back?


As a teenage girl the love of my life was not a boyfriend, but rather my older brother Ricardo, who was twenty. He was a comic, always joking around, and from the time I could first remember we had our fantasy life together; whether in the countryside of Minas Gerais or later when we moved to the slums of Maringá, our make-believe world continued. In this latter location all the neighborhood children gathered in front of an old man’s house. He was the only one who could afford a television, and he placed his black and white set in an open window framed by almedoera, umbrella-like trees which were covered with vines. This was the ideal setting to watch our favorite show, Tarzan, and we reenacted the episodes every chance we got.

My brother Ricardo organized this game, so naturally he was always Tarzan, and my sister Flor became Jane. I was always the chimpanzee. I would cry because I wished to be Jane, but my sister told me that if I wanted to play I had to be Cheetah. When I asked her why, she told me that all day long I was laughing like a monkey, therefore this was my perfect part. My brother tried to console me by saying it was Cheetah who crossed the river with Tarzan. So I held onto his neck as he grabbed a vine and together we swung across the river.

We expanded our make-believe world to include Jerônimo, o herói do sertão, a popular radio program in Brazil. This show featured a cowboy who—like Robin Hood—stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In this drama I always played the part of the Indian, which I didn’t mind; I ran around with a broom between my legs pretending I was galloping on a horse. My brother and I were joined by our whole family as we sat for hours listening to these soap operas on the radio each night, dreaming of lives so very different from our own. It was no coincidence that many of these stories focused on the difference between the rich and poor in Brazil, a popular theme in the 1970s.

Ricardo and I put our dramatic skills to work at the local puppet theatre. The maestro there was a lady who created all types of puppets for her production and the children acted on stage alongside them. The whole neighborhood turned out to see Ricardo perform as a poor old man dressed in rags, and myself starring in one of my more important theatrical roles, the part of a butterfly. The play’s rhetorical theme was that the poor people on the left had many children; on the right side of the stage were the rich people who had none. They adopted all the kids from the poor family, and without the burden and expense of raising their flock, the poor became happy. Clearly these stories had an agenda, teaching the community about the price to be paid for babies.

And certainly their were plenty of babies at our house. My family lived in a small handmade shack which kept expanding with each new arrival—whether baby, relative, or friend. In my household were Pa, Mama and seven of us children. But Ricardo was always my favorite. He was tall, skinny and all the girls thought he was so handsome; like me he wore bell bottoms, platform shoes, and he sported an Afro comb in his hair, the defining accessory of the 1970s. He worked with Pa on construction sites when he could land a spot. Other days he sold ice cream on the streets. But he made the most money with his amazing ability as a hustler shooting marbles with the neighborhood kids. He wound up with sacks and sacks of these after claiming his winnings, and sold them on the street as well. Of course he was happy to donate some of his stash to his sister’s cause when I went down to the demonstration.

At night Ricardo and I would dress up like the Jackson 5, our favorite band, and imitate their songs. On Saturdays we were joined by my other brother as we headed off to dance at our local hangout, a nightclub where live bands played Brazilian music, and of course songs by the Jackson 5. While our existence in Maringá was always a struggle, we would never stop dancing. It was something basic, like having to eat to live. In no other country have I found anything similar to the capacity of the Brazilian people to make a day of it under any circumstances.

However at the same time in this period, it seemed as if the Brazilian police started going around killing people they ran into just by chance. Organized by the military dictatorship to intimidate and scare the poor, the Death Squads would arrive in our area randomly shooting at anyone. Brazil has never declared war on another nation, but now it waged a war against its own citizens. In those days everyone talked about the squatters in the shantytowns in the city center, but it was people on the periphery who were dying daily. Even if the criminals killed someone in Rio itself, they brought the body to the outskirts and dumped it. Everyday I heard a mother crying over a murdered son. It was a primitive and sadistic type of population control, kill the poor to stop them from reproducing so they wouldn’t be a drain on the Brazilian economy. The Death Squads, killers who were secretly on the dictatorship’s payroll, did the dirty work and the police came around and picked up the corpses.

About four months after I was arrested at the Lula demonstration, I went out one evening with my brothers. We were leaving our regular dance club when suddenly everyone started to run. I heard people screaming that the Death Squad was approaching. We had learned to recognize them in their black wagons with the smoked windows, darkened so no one could identify the murderers inside.

I crouched down behind a wall and from there I listened to the shots. I was terrified to even look, but when the shooting stopped, I dared to raise my head and saw policemen loading the lifeless boys into a black van. In the dark I couldn’t see well, but the van was leaving, its tires burning rubber. Then I started to look for my brother Ricardo.

Asking around, somebody told me that he had been shot. The only thing I could manage to do was to run home to my mother and tell her what had happened. She didn’t waste any time and quickly set off together with other women to look for their sons. They went to the police station and to the hospital, but in my mother’s case, she had no luck. She refused to believe my brother was dead and kept on searching for her first-born son, but from that moment on, Mama changed. While she was still able to smile, it was an extinct smile; it was no longer the smile of my mother.

My father was in despair. According to his reasoning, if the dictatorship wanted to get rid of the poor people, on a Sunday they should just go to Maracanã, the soccer stadium, close the gates and set it on fire.

After about three months went by, with no joy in my life and barely able to function, I decided that there was no reason to stay in Rio anymore. I never wanted to even hear the Portuguese language spoken again. So I went to find my mother to talk about it. That morning she was working as a cleaner at a hospital and when I told the receptionist it was urgent for me to come inside to see my mother. I was told it was impossible. But the woman at the front desk must have passed word that I was waiting outside, because the ramshackle building had one large window in a tower, and soon I saw Mama’s worried brown face framed by the white plaster. She looked down at me standing on the sidewalk of the busy street, the busses roaring past behind me. I called up to her, “Mama, I am ready to leave.” When she asked me where I would go, I told her the truth: “I have no idea.”

To my surprise she said: “Go Denilda. We won’t see each other again in this lifetime, but always remember that although I gave birth to you, your real mother is life itself.” And she stood there waving slowly as I backed away, tears blurring my image of her at the window, until I turned to run down the hill.

After I said goodbye to Mama, I went to my favorite cafe, Amarelinho, to see the old gang one last time. While I drank my beer, I did not mention my plan to anyone, because it would be useless. What advice could these other young people—who had lives so different from mine—offer me? Instead I sat there among them as if it were any other normal night, and toasted to the revolution.

Your Woman on the Scene

Women’s Advocate: Hillary Clinton

hillary on stage


Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Hillary Clinton speak at the San José State University Event Center on my campus, and I must say the experienced politica—a former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state for Obama—possesses quite the presidential presence.

While researching Champion of Choice, the biography of Dr. Nafis Sadik, I interviewed Nafis about her work at the UN Population Fund and her collaborations with Hillary. Nafis talked about her admiration of Clinton’s speaking ability as the two women both headlined at the Beijing Women’s Conference. Nafis said to Hillary, “I notice that you never look at your notes.” And Hillary replied, “Yes, after a time, one does develop a knack.”

That knack was clearly in effect last night as Clinton spoke extemporaneously with nary a note in sight. In fact I will go so far as to say that she is the best public speaker I’ve ever encountered, including her hubby, who while President Bill Clinton, gave a phenomenal commencement address when I graduated from Penn State. For those of us who speak for a living, like any craft, its practitioners analyze the skills of others and Hillary ruled the packed 7000-seat auditorium, receiving two standing ovations.

When her host, Santa Clara County tax assessor Larry Stone, (described as an old friend of the Clintons), asked if Hillary had any announcements to make—i.e. that she was running for president in 2016—the crowd roared.

I was curious about Hillary’s choice of theme last night: women’s rights. But she was no doubt speaking to her base, as the crowd was predominantly female. Accommodating her message for her Silicon Valley audience, she made note of the enormous gender disparity in high tech, noting that only 20% of the workers are female. That disparity exacerbates as the stakes rise, with only 11% on the boards of technology firms being women.

Last night Clinton seemed intent on establishing her long-standing record as a women’s advocate—showing she’s not a newcomer to the game—as she continuously referred to her participation at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. While everything Clinton said about her participation there is true, she didn’t mention that all the work she and the U.S. team did at Beijing was based on the diplomatic successes of the previous year at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where 179 governments reached an agreement on females’ rights to education and reproductive health. In Beijing the Americans’ greatest goal was simply to protect the advancements for women made the previous year.

Actually Hillary was not well-received by the Chinese in Beijing in 1995. Then First Lady, she arrived at the conference hall to great fanfare, wearing a pink suit, her shoulder-length blonde hair styled into a smooth wave framing her face. In her address Clinton touched on many of the human rights abuses for which the Chinese had been excoriated in recent years; her comments clearly disparaging them were not well received, considered improper behavior for a guest in their country. Yet Clinton boldly addressed the issues head on at this global summit—with the international press corps recording. She referenced China’s one-child policy and their coercive tactics toward women to enforce it. That takes real guts when you’re on stage under the spotlight of the nation’s capital.

Last night, Hillary quoted her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt’s line: “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as a rhinoceros’s hide.” That trait will no doubt serve Secretary Clinton well if folks continue to lob shoes at her—as they did in Las Vegas last week. But she just ducked, cracked a joke, and carried on…acting very presidential indeed.


Champion of Choice

A true story of fistula in Ethiopia

Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa

Excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik
by Cathleen Miller

Zadia Birru*
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

[*A pseudonym has been used to protect this girl’s privacy.]

Probably no other rite of passage is capable of changing a woman’s life like giving birth–an event that can alternately propel her into the joys of motherhood, provide caretakers for her old age, earn her the respect of a community, ensure her place on a nation’s throne, offer undeniable proof of an illicit affair, trap her in a miserable marriage, maim her for life, or kill her.

No group knows this better than the patients lying here in the hospital ward in Addis Ababa, a room that is so clean that upon entry, the viewer has the momentary feeling of being snow-blinded. The whitewashed walls and ceiling gleam, reflecting the sparkling sunshine that flows through polished windows. Two facing rows of hospital beds covered in sky blue blankets line either side of a central divider. This hygienic atmosphere presents a refreshing contrast to the patients lying in those beds, all of whom have dwelled–some for as many as fifty years–in the constant filth of their own bodily waste as a result of giving birth.

I see them recovering in the ward and walking around the lovely parklike grounds, all draped in handknit shawls, the contribution of a ladies’ church group from Australia. Most of the patients are mere girls, like Zadia Birru. She doesn’t know her age, but she looks about thirteen or fourteen. If she had been born in different circumstances, this classic beauty could have easily been a model. With her dark wavy hair pulled into a French braid, her face possesses an elfin charm, a gracefully curving jaw line, large expressive dark eyes, a full-lipped heart-shaped mouth and a beauty mark that highlights her café-au-lait colored skin. Her smile sparkles, transforming her face like sun bursting through clouds.

Zadia’s tiny frame measures around four foot eight; draped in a pale blue cotton nightgown and a handknit shawl of primary-colored squares, her body hunches with pain. Through the opening of her gown I can see that her breasts have stretch marks, a detail that seems strangely out of place on such a waif-like girl. But when I hear her story, I learn the reason for the telltale puckered lines.

Zadia had never been to school when her parents arranged her marriage to a farmer from their community. She doesn’t know how old she was when she wed her husband, but they had been married for three years before she started her period. In the beginning their relationship was good, but during the fourth year–with no access to birth control–she learned she was going to have a baby. This was when her husband began seeing someone else. The couple quarreled constantly, and when Zadia was four months pregnant, he left her.

The child bride returned to live with her parents in the village of Aju. When it came time for her delivery, she was in labor for two days at home with unbearable back pain because the baby was unable to pass through her tiny pelvis. When she started getting weak, her father decided to take her to the hospital. The family loaded her onto a bench and walked two hours, carrying the child to a district health center. Precariously balanced aboard the plank, she thrashed about in labor.

At the health center Zadia finally gave birth to a stillborn son. Later she learned that ironically his death had allowed him to be born. The fetus, which cannot withstand the rigors of days of obstructed labor, detaches from the placenta and dies. At this point the bones soften, and the baby shrinks enough so that it can pass through the birth canal.

Zadia herself nearly died and was unconscious in the hospital for fifteen days. When she came to, she learned that the stressful delivery had ripped a hole between her vagina and bladder, a condition called obstetric fistula, which permits waste to leak uncontrollably into the vagina. Like an infant herself, she was constantly soiled and reeked with the stench of urine. At this point her doctor referred her to the Fistula Hospital.

Unfortunately Zadia’s experience is not a rare occurrence in Africa, where one in twelve births results in the mother’s death. Although the choice to marry has been enshrined as a human right since 1948, in much of Africa half-starved girls as young as six are married off by their families. The poverty-stricken parents look at them as a commodity to be traded for livestock or other goods. In most cases they feel they’re doing their daughters a favor to try and place them in stable homes where they’ll be provided for. And when these girls become pregnant–as they immediately do without birth control–their young bodies are too small and frail to withstand the rigors of childbirth.

This combination of events results in an untold number of cases of obstetric fistula per year, but thousands and thousands of victims have come forward for treatment. The force of delivery on these slight, malnourished bodies can rip the fragile birth canal and tear holes between the girls’ rectum or bladder, allowing feces and urine to flow uncontrollably into their vagina. In the vast majority of cases the husband divorces the girl because she is unclean and unfit for sex. Zadia was one of the lucky ones whose family was willing to take her back. In many instances the family refuses, and the girl–whose only crime was obeying her parents and then her husband–is turned out into the street with no home, left to live in daily humiliation as a social outcast who scavenges for food like an animal.

I hear similar stories to Zadia’s from the other patients: a childhood marriage, an early pregnancy that results in a fistula and stillborn delivery, followed by divorce….

© Cathleen Miller, 2013