Talíria Petrone, a black deputy against the white domination of power in Brazil | International

One in four Brazilians is a mestizo or black woman. But anyone who looks at the plenary sessions of Congress in Brasilia will have to scrutinize well to find one among so many white men in suits and ties. Talíria Petrone, 37, is a deputy and a rarity in the temple of popular sovereignty. Because of her color and because of her gender. Three and a half years after that day in 2019 when a Chamber of Deputies security guard almost barred him from entering her own inauguration, her mere presence still shocks. There are many centuries of white monopoly of power. “That woman did not understand. Although I showed her her credential, she had a hard time convincing her of it. Later, she apologized to me, ”recalls the leftist parliamentarian in her official office. Comrade and friend of the murdered Marielle Franco, Petrone takes stock of her experience at the top level of Brazilian politics. She is not the first nor the only black in Parliament. They are 2% here, while blacks and mestizos account for 51% of Brazilians.

The Brazilian Congress experienced an authentic landing of rookies, including Petrone, in the last elections, but it maintained its hallmarks. Three out of four parliamentarians declare themselves white, businessmen (133 of 513) are not so far from being twice as many as women (77). This is how she describes her workplace: “Just take a look. All in suits, almost all white, representatives of sectors of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, of agribusiness. There is a man who wears a huge hat, we have an Orleans and Bragança, a relative of Princess Isabel… It is a National Congress that does not represent the photograph of the Brazilian population. It’s totally different”.

At this point, Petrone deftly navigates the modernist corridors designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, like all of Brasilia. She comes and goes quickly, from one meeting of the parliamentary group to another with indigenists after the murder of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips, she eats with another deputy to discuss urgent matters. She arrives at the hemicycle to speak with the only indigenous parliamentarian, Joenia Wapichana, for a speech protesting Petrobras’ pricing policy… Along the way, she chats amicably with various colleagues and some admirer asks her for a selfie. Her elaborate braids or her colorful dresses draw attention in an environment marked by the gray of the jacket suits.

Petrone, a tall, freckled woman, didn’t always feel black, it was a process. “I felt like a mulatto, a jambo-colored brunette… she No, she had dark skin, but I always knew she wasn’t part of the whites,” she recalls. As a child she used to lick her hair to straighten it.

During her first year in office, she was constantly stopped — at the entrance to Congress, the elevator, the hemicycle — despite wearing the pin that identifies their lordships. It stopped happening when she was given an escort after police discovered a plan by a white supremacist group to kill her. She no longer takes a step alone, not even inside the Chamber. A woman with flat shoes, blonde hair and a discreet dark pantsuit is her shadow through the endless corridors of these modernist buildings. She moves in an armored car. Three months after the birth of her daughter, in the midst of a pandemic, the head of the legislative police called her. “He told me: ‘We have received information about a meeting of militiamen (retired or active policemen turned criminals) in Rio de Janeiro demanding her execution. They recommended that she leave the State of Rio de Janeiro”.

Two military policemen, accused of killing their party colleague Marielle Franco – ‘a political execution’ – have been imprisoned for three years awaiting trial.

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She is also fed up with “symbolic violence”. “Because what is it if not that they interrupt you, that they call you crazy or an idiot in a committee, that deputies who cannot string an argument with the next tell you: ‘I don’t understand what you are talking about’, that they ridicule your hair or your clothing”.

Petrone, deputy of the leftist PSOL, during the interview in her office at the Chamber, on the 14th.
Petrone, deputy of the leftist PSOL, during the interview in her office at the Chamber, on the 14th. Paula Cinquetti

Petrone is part of a movement that has set out to promote Black candidates for the next general election. Now it is not even clear how many parliamentarians are mestizo or black. Officially, they are around 20%, but the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper recently confirmed that the figure is inflated. The matter is so fluid that, from one election to another, thousands of candidates change their race, whiten or black in search of political support or public funds via quotas.

The arrival of women in spaces of power monopolized by men has involved practical issues in Brazil, such as building services for women alongside those for men, but above all new issues in the political debate.

“We have to be there to defend parental leave, motherhood, to talk about the massacres that victimize the mothers of murdered young black men, to say that hunger is black and female…”, he declares. He considers that breastfeeding her daughter in the hemicycle is inevitable as well as a political statement. Sessions often end at so many. “Then I look around me and ask myself, where are the children of these 500 deputies? Nobody has children? The issue is that there is always a woman taking care of these children, be it a wife, a grandmother or a domestic worker.

Although Brazil had a president of the Republic and has quotas for candidates 15 years ago, they represent only 15% in Parliament and city councils. The 27 states add a female governor. Regrettable numbers, according to Petrone. In her parliamentary group (of the Socialism and Freedom Party, PSOL) men are a minority, three against six. But it is an exception resulting from a systematic internal battle given by them and others. The day Luiz Inácio da Silva presented his candidacy together with his vice president, there was not a single black person in the group photo. One of the two women was the president of the Workers’ Party, the other, Lula’s girlfriend at the time.

The deputy Talíria Petrone is photographed with a follower in front of the door of her office.  The tagline reads: Who ordered Marielle to be killed?, referring to her partner and friend, the Rio councilwoman murdered in 2018.
The deputy Talíria Petrone is photographed with a follower in front of the door of her office. The tagline reads: Who ordered Marielle to be killed?, referring to her partner and friend, the Rio councilwoman murdered in 2018.Paula Cinquetti

She considers it very important to have a female parliamentary caucus as part of the structure of the institution. But he adds that the room for maneuver is not great with a president of the House, Arthur Lira, who represents “the old patriarchal, sexist, misogynist, elitist policy and is aligning Jair Bolsonaro.”

While congratulating himself on the women’s caucus, he regrets that “there is no official structure in the Chamber that deals with the racial issue.” Very thorny topic. The most palpable legacy of three centuries of slavery is an inequality among the largest in the world that places black Brazilians at the head of the rates of hunger, poverty, unemployment, violent deaths. They also live less than their white compatriots.

Soon, Congress will go into recess so that their honorable members embark on the campaign for the October elections to elect the president —Lula is the clear favorite—, the Congress, the Senate and the governors. Petrone, who with her party supports Lula, hopes to be re-elected deputy for Rio de Janeiro.

She came to the Chamber of Deputies after a brief period as a councilor in Rio de Janeiro and a decade as a history teacher in the Maré favela of Rio de Janeiro. During her college career, she was a telemarketer to help her mother pay the bills. “For me, the classroom is like a combat trench. When I decided to mobilize my discomfort with the world, I chose the classroom as an instrument”. Over time, she joined the PSOL, a split to the left of the Workers’ Party, the same as Marielle Franco, assassinated in 2018. They and other left-wing activists entered the institutions as councilors, state or federal parliamentarians during the years of Political effervescence that culminated in the abrupt departure from power of the PT (with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff) and the unexpected entry of the far right embodied in the far right Jair Bolsonaro.

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