SALVADOR, Brazil — For the first time in its 132-year history, the Brazilian census now underway includes a question counting members of the “quilombo” communities founded by runaway enslaved people.
On Ilha de Mare, an island with several quilombos off the coast of Salvador, in northeast Brazil, this chance to be counted is one step in a political transformation for which local organizers have long been fighting.
“Being part of the census is a strategy for us, a strategy for resistance and change,” says 52-year-old Marizelha Carlos Lopes, a local activist and fisherwoman on the island, where 93% of people identify as Black. “One of our objectives is to escape an intentional invisibility.”
Her friend Eliete Paraguassu, 42, is mounting another front in the strategy. She is the first woman from the island campaigning for a spot in the Bahia state legislature — one of a record number of Black candidates running for state and federal office in Brazil in this October’s elections.
Together, Brazil’s updated census and the rising number of Black candidates are part of a slow reckoning with centuries of slavery that ended only in 1888, making Brazil the last country in the world to abolish the practice.
Quilombos were formed over centuries by enslaved people who escaped forced labor to create isolated, self-subsistence communities in remote forests and mountain ranges or on islands like Ilha de Mare.
Quilombo residents now hope that a proper count of their numbers and more elected voices will open the door to improved social services and guarantees of rights for people and places long left off official maps.
National quilombo association CONAQ has identified nearly 6,000 quilombo territories. CONAQ head Antonio Joao Mendes said government recognition of the communities gained steam under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva two decades ago, when the communities won more formal land rights and support for cultural programs.
Lula’s presidential candidacy this year presents a stark contrast, Mendes said, with incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismantled many of those programs and slowed the recognition of additional quilombos.
Bolsonaro was fined 50,000 reais ($10,000) in 2017 for insulting quilombo residents, saying that “they do nothing” and are “not even good for procreating.” An appeals court threw out the case because he was a federal lawmaker at the time.
On Ilha de Mare, quilombo residents have for generations survived on the hard work of artisanal fishermen and fisherwomen.
Marizelha’s 26-year-old nephew, Uine Lopes, who wakes at 3 a.m. to fish in the crystalline waters surrounding his community of Bananeiras, has proudly memorialized their tradition with a tattoo on his left arm of his grandfather casting a net.
In a city, livelihoods threatened by pollution
With no bridges to the mainland about a kilometer away, residents on the car-free Ilha de Mare get around like their ancestors: on foot, horseback and small boats. Uine Lopes says it feels like an island of calm away from the bustle and violence of the big city.
In the afternoons, women gather to scrape meat from crabs and clams caught that day, while others weave traditional straw baskets. In the evenings, neighbors often gather for dance or gymnastics classes by the seashore.
Yet the fishing communities say their livelihoods are threatened by pollution from a nearby petrochemical port across the bay, where a boat carrying propane gas exploded in 2013.
An industry group responsible for cleaning up the spill said it was monitoring the bay to protect surrounding communities, but Marizelha Lopes recalls losing an entire season of fishing and tourism due to contamination.
“There are still no specific studies or public policies that will guarantee our safety,” her nephew said. “We have no escape route.”
The port authority did not respond to requests for comment.
Frustrated by a lack of answers to what she calls “environmental racism” against her island community, Eliete Paraguassu, who like Marizelha collects shellfish, is making the leap into politics.
In the run-up to the Oct. 2 vote, she has traveled to nearby cities to drum up support for her candidacy to the state legislature, with stickers declaring “My vote will be antiracist” and “Justice for Marielle.”
The latter is a reference to Marielle Franco, a Black city councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro who fought for racial justice and was shot dead in 2018, in what some have called a political assassination.
Her legacy has been a rallying cry for Black women like Paraguassu. Of the 513 lawmakers elected to the lower house of Congress in 2018, just under a quarter identified as Black — and only 12 of those were women.
By contrast, 50.7% of Brazilians in the 2010 census identified in the two racial categories that the government statistics agency combines in its definition of “negro,” or Black.
Alternating his time between fishing on Ilha de Mare and studying rural education at university, Uine Lopes is one of a handful of students determined to bring the fruits of their research back to the island.
“We need to be aware, to vote for as many Black people as possible who are committed to the fight, who have specific visions for Indigenous communities, quilombolas, fishermen, riverside residents and so many other communities that experience a lack of state support,” he says.
Marizelha did not attend school past fifth grade. But watching her nephew combine academic pursuits with service to the community has inspired her.
“I am increasingly convinced that universities are important,” she said. “But our resistance and fight are what equips and prepares us for the confrontation.”