“I am because we are”: Marielle Franco’s Mighty Legacy

May 20, 2019

On March 14th, exactly a year after her assassination, the Brazil LAB organized a tribute to councilwoman and political activist Marielle Franco, known for defending women’s rights and black, LGBT+ and favela communities in Rio de Janeiro. “Black Feminisms across the Americas” started off with the screening of the documentary “I Will Not Be Interrupted,” by Débora McDowell and Jamille Pinheiro Dias. The powerful short film is based on testimonies from women who knew and worked with Marielle in the Maré community and beyond.

Marielle’s widow, the Brazilian architect Mônica Benício, delivered a moving account of their life together and called us all to transform Marielle’s execution into a struggle to change the status quo. She herself became an activist after Marielle’s tragic death. Benício mentioned the presence of the legendary scholar and activist Angela Davis and acknowledged Davisas being Marielle’s “greatest inspiration.” She also urged women to continue to “build bridges across borders,” and “humanizing politics.”

In the symposium’s first panel, “Women, Race, Class and Rights in Brazil,” Giovana Xavier, Professor of Education at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), pondered on how Marielle Franco’s legacy can remain connected to the communities she embodied, while UC Berkeley Professor Tianna S. Paschel situated Marielle’s work within a longer trajectory of black women organizing in Brazil since colonial times. Paschel highlighted women’s longstanding role within the history of black emancipation and how Marielle was able to tackle various forms of violence that black people and particularly women are subjected to in contemporary Brazil. 

The second panel, “Horizons of Black Feminism in the United States,” brought together Princeton Professors Imani Perry, Carolyn Rouse, and Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús. Perry stressed that violence against black people goes beyond nation-states, thus the importance of internationalist black feminisms. The historian and legal scholar discussed differences between racism in the U.S. and Brazil, speculating how the struggle against systems of domination could go beyond identity categories that are so important for politics. Rouse pondered about the limits of the activist idea of “dismantling the master’s house.” The anthropologist argued that President Donald Trump’s commitment to dismantling institutions, for instance, only serves white and privileged people and that in her anthropological work she has chronicled the importance of institutions to the underrepresented. The anthropologist and religion scholar De Jesús shared her investigations of ritual feminisms of Afro diasporic groups and proposed a queering of languages and public spaces to challenge discriminatory normativeness.

The following day, “Black Feminisms across the Americas” concluded with a lively conversation about Marielle Franco’s legacy, particularly her “politics of listening.” Brazilian journalist Fernanda Chaves, who coordinated Marielle’s political campaign and served as an advisor at the Municipal Chamber of Rio de Janeiro, mentioned the impact that Angela Davis’s books, only recently translated into Portuguese, had in Marielle’s thought and work “so deeply based on escuta and acolhimento” (listening and embracing). Chaves was in the car when Marielle was killed and had to leave Rio de Janeiro for security reasons. This was the first time she could take part in a tribute to her beloved friend and inspiration. Unicamp Professor Mário Augusto Medeiros da Silva established a parallel between Marielle and Brazilian writer Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977), who coincidentally was born on the same day—March 14th—Franco was assassinated. Princeton Professors Marília Librandi and Pedro Meira Monteiro and USP Postdoctoral Fellow Jamille Pinheiro Dias moderated the discussion on the intellectual and political implications of Marielle’s insurgent life and work. All participants reiterated the centrality of Marielle Franco’s legacy for new social justice movements in the face of the country’s eroding democracy.