In Moinho Velho, a neighborhood in the North Zone of São Paulo, there is a paper goods store that functions as an internet café, bank, community center, and convenience store. They send emails for customers, stock the most popular snacks and popsicles, sell school uniforms, accept payments for utility bills and pre-paid cellular phones. For the ladies of the old guard in the neighborhood, the store also serves as an oasis, an unhurried space, where they are recognized and respected as the queens of the block. It’s no surprise that a woman, Fatima, directs such a multi-functional space.
Fatima is from Ibiquera, a small town about 400 kilometers west of Salvador, in the state of Bahia. The strongest memory she has of her childhood in Bahia is water, and to this day she has a special relationship with water. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother sold the family’s property and set off for São Paulo, with the same motivation as millions of other Bahianos—to “try for better life conditions (study, work). I wouldn’t say quality (of life) because quality we had there.”
It was not the intention of Fatima to own a store. Her desire since childhood was simply to maintain her independence. When she was a child, she saw the oppression that women around her suffered and attributed it to their marital status. In her youth, she decided that wasn’t what she wanted. Despite believing she wouldn’t marry, she found love young. However, she never lost touch with her individuality. For her, it was always important to work and have her own source of income, her own activity. “Work is something I like. Being a typical domestic person doesn’t suit me. I like my house, I like things organized, but I couldn’t live just for that. ”
She wanted to be a historian, but people said that if she studied history she could only be a teacher, so she studied three years of interior design (at that time, there was no degree offered in the area). After her marriage, she worked with decoration until her first pregnancy, which was complicated by extreme nauseu and discomfort. When her daughter was born, she had additional difficulties with breast feeding. Fatima was very disappointed with her own body. Like many women, she felt guilty for not being able to provide for her daughter. She identifies this time as one of the biggest challenges in her life. She was only able overcome it when her second daughter breastfed for two years and a half. Even with the work of two girls, she felt idle. “I had a physical and mental need to work outside the home, to not be dependent on my husband for money, to have my own money to do what I wanted.”
Her mother-in-law had previously owned a paper goods store and Fatima decided to open a new store. There are sacrifices in being a mother and small business owner. When she first opened, she worked thirteen hours a day. Now she works less, but still has little free time. The interview took place on a Sunday, the only day she has “available”, but even her free time is busy. During the conversation, she washed laundry, her three dogs barked for attention, and she was preparing to receive friends for lunch later in the afternoon.
During the week, she works Monday to Saturday. She is responsible for purchasing, payments, market research and customer service. Alongside the responsibilities in the store, she answers her family’s questions and coordinates what needs to happen in the home. “Most women go through all this, I think it’s the culture. Everything dependent on the mother, she’s the one who has to coordinate. This passes from mother to daughter, and so it was with my mother and my grandmother.”
She sees her biggest sacrifice as the quality of life she had in her childhood in Bahia. Nonetheless, she identifies her work as the greatest success in her life. Years ago, she took a course that encouraged her to put her dreams to paper. Classmates dreamed of cars, weddings, etc. She dreamt of having a larger store and that’s what she drew. She has since realized her dream and the current store is an exact replica of what she drew all those years ago.
Her advice to other women considering opening their own business is, “do something that gives you pleasure. Taking care of a home and taking care of a family is not a useless thing, but a woman is capable of more. We were raised to serve (others), this is the real culture (in Brazil), but that, thank God, is changing. In my opinion, if a woman feels useless, do something, create something.”