Racism in Brazil: The death of a 5-year-old reveals societal cleavages | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 06.06.2020
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Racism in Brazil: The death of a 5-year-old reveals societal cleavages

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic and global anti-racism protests, the death of a 5-year-old black boy in Recife has rocked Brazil. The case has sparked discussion about deeply ingrained societal racism in the country.

"While the #blacklivesmatter hashtag does the rounds of social media, here in Brazil we've lost another black child because of the deeply rooted racism in our society," writes the historian Larissa Ibumi. "These are still the same colonial structures that degrade black women to the servants of white mistresses."

Ibumi was responding to the death of Miguel Otavio Santana da Silva, a tragic incident that occurred on June 3 in Recife, capital of the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. Mirtes Renata Souza, a domestic servant, arrived for work on the fifth floor of a luxurious condominium. Schools were closed due to coronavirus measures, so she brought her 5-year-old son Miguel Otavio Santana da Silva with her.

Souza then took the dog out for a walk, as instructed by her employer, Sari Gaspar Corte Real, leaving her son behind in the apartment. But the boy wanted to follow his mother, and Corte Real let him take the elevator by himself.

Read more: Brazil headed for coronavirus catastrophe 

Brazilian rapper and activist Joyce Fernandes

Rapper Joyce Fernandes has started a campaign for housemaids to report employers' abuse

Accusation of manslaughter

The condominium's security camera footage shows that the boy got out of the elevator on the ninth floor, and climbed through a window onto a balcony railing. Shortly afterwards, he fell to his death. His mother's employer has been charged with manslaughter by criminal negligence — and is already free on bail of €3,450 ($3,900).

In an interview with Brazilian TV station Globo, Miguel's mother said, "My employer often entrusted her children to me. Unfortunately, in the moment when I entrusted her with my son, she didn't have the patience to look after him and get him out of the elevator."

Miguel was Mirtes Renata Souza's only child. After his death, social networks were flooded with expressions not only of grief and shock but also of hatred and anger. Politicians and activists from all over Brazil posted comments with the hashtag #justicapormiguel (Justice for Miguel). An online petition got more than 680,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.

The pop singer IZA commented on her Twitter account, which has 2.5 million followers: "Unfortunately, the story of Miguel is a real-life tragedy. While Mirtes, his mother, endures the worst possible pain, Sari, the boss, pays bail and is free to return home. What if it were the other way around?"

'Cursed upper class'

The rapper, writer and activist Joyce Fernandes wrote on Facebook and Instagram: "A young life was ended by this cursed elitist white and decadent upper class that buys everything with money they inherited from the masters who enslaved my ancestors."

Fernandes, who performs in Brazil under the stage name "Preta rara" (Rare Black), is revered by millions of black Brazilian women. Until 2009, she too was a domestic worker. She started the Facebook page "Eu, empregada doméstica" (I, a domestic worker), wrote a book of the same name, and the activist is now a frequent guest on TV shows.

Meanwhile, a statement from the National Federation of Domestic Workers (FENATRAD) emphasized the negligence of the employer, Corte Real: "It is typical of the contempt for and objectification of the lives of black Brazilians. This says a lot about our country, the legacy of slavery, and the racism that has not been overcome."

Only seven years ago, on June 1, 2013, a law came into force in Brazil that put domestic workers on the same legal footing as other employees for the first time: the so-called "PEC das empregadas." Until then, domestic workers were considered "second-class" employees, who could not, for example, claim overtime or unemployment benefits.

Read more: Opinion: White privilege and the responsibility to enact change

Coronavirus and Brazil's class-based society

Yet despite achieving equality in law, discrimination against domestic workers in Brazil continues in practice. That has become particularly apparent during the coronavirus crisis.

The first victim of COVID-19 in Rio de Janeiro was a domestic worker: The 63-year-old diabetic Cleonice Goncalves, who caught the virus from her employer, who had become infected on holiday in Italy in March. The employer was tested after her return, but she did not tell her housekeeper that the test had been positive. Goncalves died on March 19 in hospital in a suburb of Rio.

Mirtes Renata Souza's employers also caught the coronavirus. Sergio Hacker, Corte Real's husband, is the mayor of a town near Recife. In a selfie video recorded on April 22, he explained that he and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. Yet, despite this, their housekeeper was still required to come in for work.

Many Brazilians doubt that the couple will really be held accountable. "We should be under no illusions," tweeted Tulio Gadelha, a lawyer and federal deputy for the state of Pernambuco, representing the Democratic Labour Party (PDT) in the national parliament in Brasília. "The Corte Real/Hacker family have a lot of political power and influence in Pernambuco. It will become clear that Pernambuco is still ruled by oligarchs."

For Marcos Garcia, a reader of the daily newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, the tragedy of Miguel reveals Brazil's latent racism: "If the son of a white employer had died, the domestic worker would already be behind bars and reviled online," he said. "What a brutal country!"

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