The interview with Raquel, thirty-five year old native of São Paulo, took place at SESC (a local cultural center) on a cold Sunday in June. Our conversation was marked by cries of babies, echoing xylophone notes and older children screaming with excitement. The most distinctive sound was Raquel’s laughter as she reflected on her life. It is a contagious sound that invites you to share her joy of life. Her happiness is not the result of a lack of challenges in life, but rather from hard won wisdom.
Raquel was born to a fiercely independent mother who taught her to break paradigms. Her mother, Marinalva Freire de Abreu, was born in Alagoas, the oldest of fourteen children. She started sewing at seven years old to help the family. Marinalva’s parents (Raquel’s grandparents) were married, but that did not guarantee love or financial support. Marinalva saw her mother suffer with her father, an abusive husband in every way. When Marinalva had Raquel, she made a point to teach her daughter to have confidence in being a woman. “Never bend down to put shoes on the feet of a man, for him to give you a kick in the face is easy as one, two,” Marinalva would say to her. Marinalva’s actions were as powerful a model as her words. At a time when women were tethered to domestic spaces, Marinalva ran marathons and traveled to compete. During her travels, Raquel’s father took care of her. When she told this to her school classmates they called her father “gay”.
External stereotypes and prejudices about gender roles didn’t detract from her parents’ message for her to be free. “I asked my parents (as a child) how old they were when they married—my mother was about to turn 21 and my father was 27—and then I asked ‘how old do you want me to be when I marry?’ And they said ‘marriage is a result of good relationship. We don’t care about you getting married, we care about you studying and getting a good job to support yourself’.” This stimulus to be an independent woman formed who she is today.
From the time she was a teenager, her dream was to be a journalist because it was a profession that “always had the air of freedom, freedom to explore and investigate, to discover other things, see more than you know exists, escape more bureaucratic service.” After high school she earned a certificate to teach, in order to work and to pay for college, but it was not possible—the cost of tuition was greater than her salary. She passed the entrance exam at a private university, but the need to help with household expenses and work did not allow her to study full-time to pass the entrance exam? in a public university (which are tuition free in Brazil). It was very frustrating to have a dream and not be able to achieve it. Even after many years, she isn’t willing to say that she has given up. “I’ve left it there in the corner, quiet. What drives us are dreams. I love exploring and still want to, but I don’t know if it will be as a journalist. ”
Today she works as an early education teacher in public schools (currently on leave in order to work in an administrative sector). She loves to teach children, but it is not who she is. Raquel defines herself as a “woman, political activist since 16 years of age, a solo mother—by choice, not accident—and dreamer.”
Raquel has endometriosis and had no hope of getting pregnant, but did not give up her dream. Her daughter is the greatest achievement in life, which makes how she identifies even more significant: solo mother. “Solo mother” is an expression that she uses to combat prejudice against women who deliberately choose to live outside of society’s norms. “To me, the term single mother carries the connotation of abandoned mother, a woman who didn’t take care of herself (because society always sees it as the mother who doesn’t take precaution, and not the father). The term single mother never sounded right to me. Even today, although much has changed culturally, people still don’t look at you with the same eyes. Some people look at me as ‘you poor thing’. I’m not to be pitied. Today people are self identifying more, are exposing themselves more, and “society” is obliged to live with it. I could just as easily say, ‘I lived with her father, but we are separated because the relationship didn’t work out’ and that would be much more acceptable, people wouldn’t pity me.”
She believes that the biggest challenge for Brazilian women is to break paradigms, especially in politics. “The woman who is dedicated to politics and has children is abandoning them; the woman who does not engage in politics has settled and isn’t engaging in her civic duty. It’s difficult to reconcile this. (Women’s) limits aren’t respected and they aren’t offered opportunities. I think the biggest challenge is occupying more spaces of real power. So women can have real voices, position themselves and not be a mouthpiece for men.”