Hidden Sensations of Strength in Afro-Brazilian Writings:

A Look at Esmeralda Ribeiro's Malungos e Milongas,

"A Vingança de Dona Léia" and "Guarde Segredo."


Dawn Duke

University of Pittsburgh


Esmeralda Ribeiro writes out of a world whose existence is not always and justly acknowledged. She writes as a black Brazilian woman whose major concern for others like herself is clearly expressed in all three of her works - the novel Malungos e Milongas and her short stories "A Vingança de Dona Léia" and "Guarde Segredo". In Brazil, the black literary canon is still largely ignored except for limited readership among militants of the black movements. Originally from Sao Paulo, Ribeiro is a journalist and a member of the publishing group of militant writers and poets called Quilombohoje Literatura. She has produced more than thirty poems, has several short stories and one short novel, Malungos e Milongas. She has also several essays on children's literature, women writers and politics. Her own works express sentiments coming out of an urban, southern existence as a black woman. In many ways, her voice is silent; if you search in the bookstores of São Paulo, Ribeiro's writing will not be found and this in itself further accentuates the difficulties a writer like herself, whose dominant theme is racism, suffers. Ribeiro is described as an Afro-Brazilian writer, which means that the themes, issues, form and content mirror a different perspective of reality, of life in Brazil. This literature is produced independent of, and external to, Brazil's official, traditional publishing houses. This apparent disinterest in their literature by the existing establishment is a form of institutional discrimination, a silencing, since their writings inevitably deal with issues that foreground their lives.

It is important to locate a writer like Ribeiro within the general context of Brazilian women writers since this would help one appreciate of her literary focus as well as the style and content of her writing. Presently, we can identify several groups of women writers in Brazil. The most prominent of these includes middle and upper class writers, generally not colored, who embrace the more universal Western trends that are affecting feminine writing and criticism. As in the Caribbean, the expansion of this group occurred in the 1970s. As Luiza Lobo (1993) puts it:

O Brasil sem dúvida é um dos países onde é mais divulgada a psicanálise entre as classes média e alta - da qual faz parte a esmagadora maioria das escritoras brasileiras. (251)

Brazil is, without a doubt, one of the countries where psychoanalysis is most divulged among the middle and upper classes - where the vast majority of Brazilian women writers are found. (1)

Thus Clarice Lispector, Helena Parente Cunha, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Nélida Piñon, Lya Luft, Rachel de Queiroz among others have been influenced by thinkers like Adrienne Rich, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva and their writings portray their predominantly Euro-Brazilian formation as well as their social status. Their works point to particular philosophical and psychological perspectives of what the Brazilian woman is like. For these writers the cruelty of reality leads to introspection where the mirror becomes symbol of individualism, self-reflection, a centering on the female self in an attempt to read and interpret that "I".

Luiza Lobo (1993:253) describes that other writer in Brazil: "a outra face da mulher, (a face da sombra)" (The other face of woman, the shadowed face), who embraces another literary reality, one arising out of Afro-Brazilian femininity. Gatherings, like the one created by Quilombohoje, a publishing house of black writers, provide solace, an escape from solitude and, more importantly, they provide a chance for these writers to focus on their issues. At the same time that these groups offer this opening, however, they do represent a separatist form of expression, but that seems the only possible means of survival right now. Miriam Alves, one of today's leading black Brazilian writers, discusses this separation from the official literary canon. She prefers not to see this segregation or turning inwards in a negative light since it provides writers with the opportunity to build strength from within first, to perceive the inner self as valuable and not negative and so construct a more powerful social image:

"o que nós poetas negros vivemos hoje nao é um gueto. Gueto é quando se é segregado pelos outros. Hoje nós vivemos um quilombo; a revolta que nós mesmos provocamos: Quilombohoje". (In: Lobo :162)

"What we black poets are living today is not a ghetto. Ghetto is when you are segregated by others. Today we are living a quilombo (settlement of runaway slaves); a revolt we ourselves provoked: Quilombohoje (quilombo today)

It is a posture of positiveness that Ribeiro also adopts. Today, she writes out of Quilombohoje, the name for one of the three leading publishing groups of black writers (the other two are Negrícia of Rio de Janeiro and Gens of Bahia). These three groups are located in the three cities considered the cultural centers of Brazil. Their literature is characterized by their regional differences (and conflicts). Brookshaw (1983) discusses this issue:

Na verdade não é apenas uma questão de região, mas a incompatibilidade básica entre heranças culturais regionais que separa os afro-brasileiros culturais de Salvador e do Rio dos afro-brasileiros raciais de São Paulo. Analisando-se em termos de linha de comportamento, torna-se evidente que o intelectual negro paulista identifica-se culturalmente acima da linha, enquanto o carioca e o nordestino tendem mais a identificar-se abaixo dela. (202-203)

In fact it is not just a question of the region, but the basic incompatibility among regional cultural heritages which separates cultural Afro-Brazilians of Salvador and of Rio from the Afro-Brazilians of São Paulo. Analyzing it in terms of a line of behavior, it becomes evident that the black intellectual of São Paulo identifies himself culturally above the line while the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro and of the Northeast tend to more identify themselves below it.

This is very important, for when people discuss Afro-Brazilian literature there is a tendency to visualize a homogeneous production. Such a concept is geographically impossible, since the concept of being black in Brazil is one built not only on the dichotomy of the black and white race, but is also built on a combination of differences in region, class, wealth, skin color and physical features. Personal and political affiliations are also factors to consider.

Through collaborative effort and the desire to be published and read, a few writers came together, creating Quilombohoje in 1978, out of which came the famous series Cadernos Negros. Every year a publication of either poetry or prose is done of works written by authors from the whole of Brazil. Such collections published authors like Esmeralda Ribeiro, Sônia Fátima da Conceiçao, Lia Vieira, Marta Monteiro André and Miriam Alves, today considered some of the leading women writers of the 1970s, a generation of affirmation and struggle through writing and militancy. As a vehicle for introducing new authors while reaffirming the existence of writers of a black literature, there is no doubt that Quilombohoje has fostered a literary environment in which these writers were able to develop. Today, many of those who started writing through them now have their own independent publications and are points of reference for all students doing research on black literature coming out of Brazil.

David Brookshaw (1983:202) made the following comment: "os romancistas negros são tão difíceis de classificar como os poetas negros." (Black novelists are as difficult to classify as black poets). At the time, he was attempting to describe contemporary literary production among Afro-Brazilian writers by using the same contexts as those used to describe any other literature, i.e. the context of genres. In so doing, he tended to make comparisons between black contemporary fiction and the already established Brazilian (Europeanized) canon which obviously displayed the black Brazilian production in a poor light, given the limited number of works available. Strictly speaking, Brookshaw could only include Lima Barreto and Oswaldo de Camargo. Significantly, he makes no mention of Afro-Brazilian women writers.

This is an important issue, for it emphasizes that literary development is dependent on the socio-economic prosperity of a people. Given the low level of prosperity, it is not likely that there will be a drastic increase in the quantity and quality of literature being produced by black Brazilian women. This, if anything, highlights the isolating effect Brazilian society today has on them still. If there is one group of people who, through their literary production, illustrate just how they have been allowed to prosper it is the Afro-Brazilian women writers. There is no doubt that the presence of women's groups and the black publishing houses have had a tremendous impact in terms of offering opportunities for publication. However, as long as these opportunities continue to depend on the collaborative efforts of writers, as long as such publications survive without the financial and prestigious link with the big publishing houses, then, as a body of literature, it will continue to be restricted to a particular audience defined by its immediate academic and political interests and other factors such as social status and color.

There is no doubt that literary groups of writers like Quilombohoje have been largely responsible for portraying the existence of the Afro-Brazilian woman. Literary critique in Brazil highlights contemporary figures like Clarice Lispector, Ana Cristina Cesar and Lygia Fagundes Telles whose realities as women contrast with that other vision produced by the Brazilian woman writer who is black, a descendent of slaves, forced to live with racial and class discrimination. For someone like Ribeiro, writing is a great achievement. An assessment of her work needs to be done within her background of struggle and survival.

Like other writers of her group, Esmeralda Ribeiro writes short stories, a very compact form of prose writing, in her stories she revisits African themes, but within the new anthropological and sociological context that Brazil provides. The experience of being, black, of being a woman and of overcoming all the odds to find something positive in this is what preoccupies her in these narratives. Common to all of her writings is that profound sense of suffering out of which woman always has to rise. The black Brazilian woman is not born into joy, she has to learn to become political and create joy in her life. In all the stories examined here, Ribeiro is bent on creating a black female subjectivity and through it attributing a positive value to the existence of her female protagonists. In all cases, strength comes from mechanisms closely associated with that uniqueness of existence that it is felt only black Brazilians possess. That uniqueness is never stated always implied in words like a or Olodum, it is placed beyond physical being and is made out to be more of a spiritual sensation which gives Ribeiro's characters the strength and wisdom they need. Ribeiro never describes it openly in her writing; rather she leaves the reader to contemplate the actions of her protagonists which point to its presence in them.

In the works focused on here, Ribeiro's protagonists are all very poor and underprivileged. Existence is depressive for them; their surroundings, family members, co-workers do not offer solace or refuge. There is a huge sense of isolation. Any positive sense of self, therefore, is not constructed from external elements, but from internal convictions. Underlying this is a natural awareness of being black and of expecting nothing from society as a result. There can be no aspirations, for Brazilian society does not have a plan for these descendents of slaves. Their fate is to be domestic servants and factory workers. The author creates upon experiences of actual life. Her urban background, being born in Sao Paulo, is evident in the descriptions of the places where these women work and live.

The roles she gives her protagonists in these three stories - a domestic servant, a factory worker and a poor unwanted young girl who eventually commits murder and must flee - point out that, at least now, economic circumstance is in part responsible for these women's strengths and weaknesses. All three protagonists display preoccupation with money, given their lack of it, and they all resort to uncommon means to acquire it. They learn very early that the traditional male-dominated system is not in their favor so they need to challenge, and if possible, subvert it. Only then will they personally benefit. In Malungos e Milongas Ruth discovers adventure and freedom when she is fired and firmly goes after a totally new experience, one that will force her to travel far away from her family that is disintegrating anyway. In "A Vingança de Dona Léia", Dona Léia uses her African-based religious beliefs and traditional "medicine" to kill the man who burnt her daughter, sink her mistress into madness, appropriate the wealth of her mistress's lover and so spend the rest of her days in comfort, appropriately attired in an African kaftan. In "Guarde Segredo", after the young protagonist stabs the man who deflowered her she flees. We never know her name, or where she goes, for now she is on the run from the law and must therefore not reveal her identity to anyone. She escapes physically, but not mentally for she is now a fugitive and suffers as a result. Her strength is in her act of vengeance.

All three protagonists strike out against men who have done them wrong. Indeed, while the women in Ribeiro's works are strong figures with decisive actions and decisions, the men seem weak. They tend to fade into the background given the women's strong presence combined with the injustices of a white male dominated system which obviously has no place for them other than one in which they only serve to highlight the superiority of the other. Their weakness is not tolerated here: Dona Léia, in "A Vingança de Dona Léia", and the young protagonist in "Guarde Segredo" kill the men who have done them wrong. Ruth, the young protagonist in Malungos e Milongas, however, does not strike out physically against her aggressor who is white, rather, she attacks his pride by rejecting his sexual advances. When he fires her she does not plead, instead, she turns her back on a way of life and sets off towards the unknown. It is a fierce display of freedom and independence.


Ribeiro's first individual work Malungos e Milongas reveals a keen awareness of the kinds of challenges a black woman must face in the world of work. The text proves classical for it succeeds in working out simply, yet sincerely, a mechanism for survival. Ribeiro's technique is successful because her portrayal of her protagonist is appropriate, touching on some of the most sensitive socio-economic issues concerning the Afro-Brazilian woman - her abuse as a sex object within unfair and unequal conditions of work. Ribeiro creates a shift away from the paradigm of woman as victim of circumstance to one in which she maps out her own destiny. Ruth does not allow circumstance to overwhelm her rather, she guarantees a triumphant redemption and a recapturing of self-esteem and dignity simply by refusing to let others determine her future for her.

Malungos e Milongas takes us into a family of two brothers and two sisters living together, a veritable sisterhood and brotherhood of love and wellbeing. Peace and harmony reign among them, symbolizing what is perhaps a unique situation given the fact that poverty and strife often go hand in hand. At no time does Ribeiro does not allow us to forget that she is writing about as Afro-Brazilian family. As with other women writers ethnically conscious like herself, she shifts her writing back and forth between portraying Ruth as a woman and as part of a black family and community:

No amálgama de peles pretas, eles nasceram da cor do mel. (9)
(In the merging of black skins, they were born the color of honey.)

*                   *                   *                   *                   *                  

Eles eram muito ligados, como se fossem filhos de um mesmo orixá. (14)
(They were very close, it was as if they were children of the same Orisha).

*                   *                   *                   *                   *                  

Ruth poderia continuar com a idéia de formar uma poupança escolar para o negro. (15)
(Ruth could continue with her idea of opening an education savings account for the Negro).

In this work, strength and wisdom are attributes given to Ruth. Even though other women are mentioned, they are not central; Marta is there as her sister while Dona Irina represents the mysticism and spirituality Ruth uses to strengthen herself. The idea of family is reinforced by the presence of her two brothers - Mauro (who is described as a womanizer) and Carlos Gabriel, (a father figure). Their participation is fundamental only in so far as they emphasize Ruth's own strength of will and purpose. The difference in their personalities also helps to set the stage for the dismantling of this unity by outside forces.

The action takes place within the racist reality of a Brazilian factory or industrial site. Ruth describes the signs of discrimination shown by the President and the Manager. Unhappy with the way this black family is harmonious, they plan to use the one tool they know will cause friction among them - ambition. The President, almost naturally, without necessarily having a logical reason, orders his Manager to separate them. The victims are employees and therefore, totally dependent. At this point, Carlos Gabriel, Marta, Mauro and Ruth are not allowed to control their destiny since they are at the mercy of their white overlords. The novel thus describes how the Manager successfully maneuvers and manipulates them, entrapping them in a web of deceit and lies that guarantees their final separation. Ribeiro seems to be highlighting how easy it is for external forces to fracture that already fragile union among blacks. Rather than believe in each other, they allow their personal ambitions to be fed by the lies and deceit of the Manager. In the end they lose their trust of each other and are separated physically and mentally forever. They are the only ones who suffer in the end, for the harmony and trust they once had are lost. In this way, Ribeiro reaffirms that ancient theme arising out of the perpetuation of racism, of the systematic undermining of black unity as the fundamental means of maintaining white supremacy. Discord and mistrust are instilled among the ranks; one individual is removed from his group and privileged above the others, in order to create the false impression that there is equality and that it is possible for blacks to gain promotion. The principal of divide and rule wins again. But does it? Ribeiro unravels this intrigue by simply undermining the underlying principle here - that black people are stupid and uneducated - by using as her weapon a woman, Ruth.

Ribeiro's choice of Ruth is no accident. She represents youth, inexperience, beauty and therefore the one member of this family who is most likely to suffer for being black and a woman, especially in the work environment. In Brazil, these characteristics are not associated with intelligence and astuteness, which is the reason why Ruth's character highlights these very qualities; the Manager's oppression and trickery stimulate the fighting spirit in her and inspire her to save at least a part of her family from being totally engulfed by the psychological manipulations suffered at work. Determination and an unwillingness to be kept down produce a reaction, unexpected but surprisingly successful. Through Ruth, the rather dim future of a life of subjugation is transformed into one of resistance and adventure. Courage and self-esteem, together with intelligence transform Ruth into a woman who resists sexual abuse and manipulation by her male superiors.

As is observed in Ribeiro's works, however, this inner strength does not suddenly appear out of the blue; rather Ruth develops it. All indications are that Ruth is being advised and influenced by hidden forces which point to an Afro-Brazilian reality and African-originated beliefs. This hidden source of strength, totally alien to the white Brazilian world, is personified in the figure of the cleaner, Dona Irina:

Dona Irina, a faxineira da empresa, dava consulta espirituais para Ruth [...] A faxineira colocava um vental vermelho-sangue, trinta pulseiras - quinze em cada braço - e um anel de ouro maciço, para receber o espírito da cigana Ina. (19)

Dona Irina, the cleaner at the firm, gave spiritual counseling to Ruth [...] The cleaner put on a blood-red apron, thirty bracelets - fifteen on each arm - and an enormous gold ring in order to receive the spirit of the gypsy Ina.

Her warnings are clear, representing spiritual protection and visions of the future:

- Cuidado filha, tem um homem castanho-claro te perseguindo. Este aviso foi-se persistindo em todas as consultas... (20)

- "Careful child, there is a fair-skinned man after you." This warning was given at every session.

Here, Ribeiro seems to be pointing towards the existence of another kind of knowledge and wisdom, one arising not out of materialism or education, but one that is associated with heritage and cultural and spiritual beliefs. This spiritual awareness, together with her own reality as a black woman, prepares Ruth for the steps she must take to control her own destiny.

The black/white dichotomy dominates in this work, as does the male/female dichotomy. Here, there is no blending of elements. There is a clear division, a dichotomy of the exploiters and the exploited that is directly linked to the environment of work and the economic power structure. It is from this that Ribeiro will build on the theme of resistance that permeates her texts. Sex is used to subjugate Ruth, but she resists, openly, bravely: "O senhor para mim é um verme" (13) - (Sir, to me you are vermin). Attacking racism so openly proves more difficult, for it is never so blatant, it comes shrouded in explanations of bureaucracy and institutional organization. Ruth's display of hate and pride, however, attack not only the sexism, but also the racism here. This unexpected display of pride is surprising, for it reveals to the Manager her courage, independence and intelligence. She is the one endowed with black consciousness; she is a spiritualist, following the religious beliefs of her African ancestors, with the aid of the cleaner, Dona Irina. The latter forewarns her the danger and this together with the nightmares Ruth suffers prepares her for a disaster. The final confrontation among the family members is terrible. Carlos Gabriel and Marta, the two eldest fight using a fierce display of sexist and racist verbal attacks that cut through the harmony like a knife, concrete symbols of the hate they were taught to bear against each other, and it destroys them. Afterwards, Ruth reflects, identifying the source of their misery:

--Pessoas como o Sr. Eduardo infestam nossas vidas. Parece que o fantasma do sinhozinho está sentado no centro do mundo. [...] Quem é o nosso inimigo? Quem???!!! [...] A gente vira as costas e eles rezam e nos entregam na primeira encruzilhada. (42-43)

"People like Sr. Eduardo infest our lives. It's as if "Massa" ghost is sitting at the center of the world. [...] Who is our enemy? Who???!!! We turn our backs and they plan and turn us in at the first opportunity."

Astutely, Ruth perceives their manipulation, but she does not accept a position of helplessness for herself and the others. Her displays of strength frighten Carlos Gabriel: "Ruth, você nem parece mulher!?"943) (Ruth, you're not behaving like a woman!?). Ruth takes her destiny into her own hands for she realizes that they are all at the crossroads. They all have nothing more to lose. The boss's final declarations confirm what Ruth said; Mauro is promoted, she is fired and. Marta and Carlos Gabriel will never work together again. And Ruth's reaction? She leaves smiling. It is a departure symbolic of relief and freedom. She has her humanity restored to her and is now free to make her own decisions, no more a slave to a job, to a system, to "white" Brazilians. She was a slave only to that sense of victimization instilled in her for so long. When we hear from her again there is a sense of transformation. She calls Carlos Gabriel from the airport - she has a new job and with it a new sense of worth. She is moving into the unknown as her response to him indicates:

-- Ruth??????? Aonde você estava?
-- Resolvendo as nossas vidas.(53)

"Ruth??????? Where have you been?
"Resolving our lives."

This taking control of her destiny is what most of all characterizes Ribeiro's writing. It moves against the current of reality in a way only possible through literature and it sends a clear message, especially to the Afro-Brazilian woman: "You, no one else, are in control of your destiny".


In many ways the theme of woman being in control of her own destiny is also visible here. Themes of racial discrimination, poverty and opportunism permeate this short story. In a rather indirect style of writing, we uncover the difficulties of Dona Leia's life and the people with whom she lives and works. Poverty and need bring her into close contact with violence and the kind of unfair, undeserved punishment which comes with it. Her lovely little daughter's face is deliberately set on fire by her nephew, Milton because he is jealous of her Europeanized features. Milton's anguish at the apparent unfairness of life is made clear in the letter he leaves behind before fleeing:

Saiba agora que eu sempre odiei a prima Anita, pelos seus cabelos lisos, pela boca e nariz afiliados. Tia, porque eu nao nasci com esses traços da prima? A vida seria mais fácil para mim. Eu nao teria que provar aos meus amigos que eu nao ligo para o preconceito de cor, fazendo brincadeiras como: eu nao faço serviço de preto e por aí afora. Mas nao, eu nasci Mulato claro. Cabelos crespos, boca bem canuda e nariz chato. (46)

Know now that I always hated my cousin Anita because of her straight hair, thin lips and pointed nose. Auntie, why wasn't I born with those features of my cousin? Life would be easier for me. I wouldn't have to prove to my friends that I don't mind the color prejudice, cracking jokes like: I don't do black people work and things like that; But no, I was born mulatto, fair. Hard hair, broad mouth, flat nose.

An important point here is that facial features, not skin color, are resented, for Milton is fair with Negroid features while Anita is black-skinned with Caucasoid features. Of course little Anita is scarred for life. The community turns up to hang Milton while condemning Dona Léia for keeping him in her house in the first place. So, with this, the scene is set. At the forefront of the story is race and the way issues of color and color complex mar people's lives on a daily basis. From the very beginning, indications of how color dominates these people's lives are seen in their daily language: "Vamos linchar o Milton! Vamos linchar o negrao! Vamos acabar com essa raça!" (45) (Hang Milton! Hang the nigger! Destroy that breed!). There is also the question of appearances; Ribeiro visualizes them first as in this description of Anita: "Negra. Boca e nariz afiliados. Cabelos bem retintos e lisos, lisos." (45) (Black. Pointed nose, thin lips. Hair smooth and straight, straight.) And then there is Milton's hatred of himself which he takes to the extreme, for later on we learn that he commits racial suicide through whitening. He submits himself to plastic surgery just to change his unwanted features.

At the center of all this is Dona Léia, poverty-stricken, a domestic servant living in a shack which barely separates her and her seven children from the street dwellers. She is a problem for her neighborhood for her shack is an eyesore among the more noble residences. Her presence irritates her neighbors, making them feel uncomfortable and insecure. She must slave daily to earn a pittance. While she works, her children go to the marketplace to collect scrapes of greens and fruits from the ground. Pain and despair are her daily companions.

Ribeiro's protagonist is quite a mystery in the work, in many ways representing hardship, but in other ways, the wisdom and deeper knowledge that comes from this very hardship. Even though she features as the main protagonist, her presence is marked by her silence and almost total non-participation in the action - she is the "passive obedient servant". Such a technique ensures her continued participation as the apparent "victim" in all the events even though her silent observations and hidden cultural knowledge ensure her victory at the end. She remains in the background, the silent, disapproving presence, witnessing tragedy, despair, and unscrupulous behavior from Roseli and her lovers.

Roseli, the young white mistress whom Dona Léia works for, prostitutes herself to her boss, Dr. Milton, for financial purposes, much to the disgust of Dona Léia who condemns her lack of scruples: "Ela é uma sem vergonha, ela não presta mesmo, sabendo que ele é um homem casado e avô!" (48) "She is shameless, worthless, knowing that he is married and a grandfather!" Silently disapproving, Dona Léia's social status and economic dependency do not permit her to give her opinion here. She must silently tolerate such behavior, further evidence of her social voicelessness and inferior position. Yet, this physical backgrounding of the protagonist contrasts with her own astuteness and awareness of everything that is happening. This hidden knowledge of people and events will give her the power she later has; in the end, this old, apparently helpless woman is made strong by circumstance and that powerful desire for revenge for her daughter. In a vague kind of way we are told that she mixes a "magic" potion which in the end signifies their destruction and her prosperity.

Roseli and Dona Léia present a contrast. Roseli is white, young, pretty, a secretary, not wealthy, but prepared to sell herself to become rich. She seems ambitious and unscrupulous, and quite prepared to be kept by lovers especially if they will give her that economic comfort she so much desires. She has absolutely no qualms about having two lovers at the same time. Mentally, she fiercely rejects that psychological prison of belonging to someone and the psychological invasion of sexual penetration by someone she abhors, yet she submits, giving in to her own materialistic ambitions and satisfying male chauvinism. She chooses to maintain that despised link to the older Dr. Milton. She hates the thought of being sexually abused but prefers it to the life of difficulty which is all Milton, her young, handsome and penniless lover, has to offer her. She cannot turn down Dr. Milton's offer of wealth and comfort. He is definitely the answer to her prayers. And Milton? Well, he only satisfies her sexual desires. None of them suspect the disaster in the making and it is precisely in this well of manipulation and deceit that Dona Léia makes use of her strength.

Among themes discussed by Ribeiro is the fixation black men have for white women. Milton comes back into Dona Léia's life through his obsession with Roseli and they have an affair even though she is still with Dr. Milton. Once again, through this affair, we are made aware of Miltan's obsessions with whiteness. He is portrayed as a gigolo but it seems that the sensation of sexual domination of this white woman is greater than any feelings of indignity or inferiority. Rather than viewing it as an undignified position to be in, he sees it as symbolizing economic and ethnic prosperity. Milton has had plastic surgery to straighten his nose in order to be more acceptable. His association with Roseli offers him the solace he needs to forget his own blackness.

But this is the crucial moment, for Dona Léia's silent observation comes to an end when she recognizes that Milton is in fact her nephew who destroyed her daughter's beauty. Her silence and distant disapproval take on another dimension, an ominous one:

[...] no canto da sala, Dona Léia depositou um alguidar com pedaços de cobra cascavel, óleo de dendê, misturados com 1888 nomes do Dr. Milton, o chefe da Secretária e da faxineira, e uma vel acesa por 13 dias [...] pegou um sapo, jogou 3 vezes o nome do sobrinho e costurou com 1988 pontos. O sapo inchou e o rapaz imitou o sapo. O rapaz explodiu junto com o sapo. Que eficácia ... Vingança mais eficaz que a dos homens. (51-52)

[...] in a corner of the room Dona Léia set down a vase with pieces of rattlesnake, palm oil, mixed with 1888 names of Dr. Milton, boss to the secretary and the maid, and a lit candle for 13 days [...] she took a frog, called her nephew's name 3 times and stitched it with 1988 stitches. The frog bloated up and the young man imitated the frog. The young man exploded together with the frog. How efficient ... A vengeance more effective than that of men.

With her deeper wisdom and knowledge of the occult, Dona Léia is responsible for Milton's death. She then makes Dr. Milton extremely ill; on his deathbed he writes his will, leaving everything to her, his apartment, car and the savings account which were to go to Roseli. Today, Roseli is in a sanatorium and Dona Léia is comfortable for life.

Ribeiro seems to be saying that one should not underrate the strength and wisdom of the Afro-Brazilian woman. Oppressed by society, deemed a natural loser this is the position she will always occupy within the eyes of social convention. She must look elsewhere for strength and so she turns towards her heritage and her inner strength. This turning inwards is typical of Ribeiro's work. Strength comes not from external forces, for these seem to favor only whites and men. Being black and a woman, she doesn't stand a chance if she has to use the world's weapons to get justice. Heritage and inner wisdom are closely linked with mystical belief, with a kind of traditional wisdom rooted in African heritage. Ribeiro makes a natural association between this reverence and prosperity:

E, para comemorar a sua sorte, Dona Léia trançou seus cabelos em labirinto. Mandou a costureira fazer uma bata africana. Comprou uma esteira e foi passar longas férias no Guarujá. (52)

And to commemorate her luck, Dona Léia braided her hair in the style of a labyrinth. She ordered the seamstress to make an African gown. She bought a woven mat and went off to spend long holidays in Guarujá.

African heritage and (mystical) traditional knowledge are two components that form the basis for this kind of literature, for they are projected as strengths whose consequences are visible to all but whose manipulations are only accessible to those like Dona Léia who activates them in her time of need. This story is loaded with mysticism, with suggestions that there is another reality beyond the one in which we all operate, one that can be manipulated to achieve certain results. There is also a suggestion that it is a black reality, inaccessible to those who are not black or those who have distanced themselves from this heritage and become controlled by the concrete, visible and westernized world. Further, it is a woman's reality, a black woman's reality, for as we see, even Roseli's participation in it is minimal. Strength comes from need; in Dona Léia's case she was in desperate need of economic relief and revenge. Through this "silent" protagonist we have a sense of strength. Not an aggressive, violent open display of strength, but a hidden, controlled and powerful force which is deadly is unleashed. Milton suffers the consequences of challenging her; he pays with his life.


The sensation of hidden strength and purpose is also present in "Guarde Segredo", a story in which a young girl's anger turns her into a murderer, a fugitive from the law. The short story is a parody of Lima Barreto's Clara dos Anjos. In Lima Barreto's work the antagonist, Cassi, seduces and then abandons Clara leaving her pregnant to suffer social disgrace. In "Guarde Segredo" the young girl, on discovering Cassi's insincerity, does not lament the betrayal, nor does she assume the position of the victim as Clara does in Lima Barreto's work. Instead, she turns around and stabs him to death. Even though both works focus on young black women and the discrimination they suffer, they contrast in terms of how the women are portrayed and this is a direct reflection of their authors and of the times in which they wrote.

Ribeiro's story comes in the form of an anonymous letter written by the young nameless girl who is hiding from the law. It is thus a retrospective account of the events in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. The narrator is a mere child when the story begins. At eleven years old she is forced very quickly to come to grips with her life as an unwanted girl for she is sent off to dwell with her rather eccentric grandmother who offers none of the loving care she needs, but proves distant and cold. An atmosphere of mystery and silence permeates the house large old house occupied only by Grandmother Olivia and a strange man who lives there, and who always appears occasionally to play with her. Her grandmother always seems to know everything; she seems to exist beyond what is real and visible. Later we learn that the mysterious man is none other than Lima Barreto, back from the dead to rewrite the ending of his novel.

The story focuses on the theme of abandonment of children, especially by parents financially incapable of raising them. The protagonist is a typical case, forced on a grandmother who doesn't really want her. However, it is either her grandmother or the streets. Her life changes when, at seventeen, she finds a boyfriend and has what she thinks is a secret love affair until her grandmother reveals she knows exactly what is taking place. The sensation of doom builds up when on her way to school she is stopped by Cassi's mother who, in a vicious rage verbally insults her, calling her black and revealing her son's promiscuity: "Você é a quinta negra que meu filho deflorou e também não vai ficar com ele." (28) "You are the fifth nigger my son has deflowered and you too will not have him." Our protagonist reacts immediately, refusing to submit to the traditional role of passive victim; furious, she immediately seeks redress:

Além de outros absurdos cuspiu em mim e eu também cuspi nela. Odiei aquela mulher e seu querido filho. Todos saberiam que eu não poderia olhar mais para a minha família. Não iria deixar por menos. Então fui ao mercado e comprei uma faca. (28)

Besides other absurdities she spit on me and I also spit on her. I hated that woman and her beloved son. Everyone would know that I could not face my family anymore. I would not let it pass. So I went to the market and bought a knife.

What was amazing was the viciousness of her actions. Here was no gentle sweet figure like the one Lima Barreto painted. She was like an animal, but endowed with that human quest for revenge:

Foram tantas facadas!... Parei quando caiu aos meus pés. Também arranquei de seu pescoço um cordão de ouro. Guardei a faca no pacote da roupa e saí tranqüilamente. (28)

I stabbed him so many times! I stopped when he fell at my feet. I also yanked a gold chain from his neck. I put the knife away in my bundle of clothes and left peacefully.

As she commits the murder, Lima Barreto resumes the typing of his literary work appending the end. When she arrives home he and her grandmother already know what she did. Here, Lima Barreto congratulates her: "Esse era o outro final que queria para o cafajeste do Cassi Jones." (29) "That was the other ending I wanted for that unscrupulous Cassi Jones". Likewise, her grandmother praises her for taking the initiative: "Nós não devemos aceitar o destino com resignação." (29) "We should not resign ourselves to destiny." Shortly afterwards we learn that the man is in fact dead but, as a ghost had returned to rewrite this episode. Now she must flee, while Lima Barreto vanishes and her grandmother buries herself into her madness and old age. Our protagonist will never find peace for she is afraid. Her retelling of these events is the revelation of a secret (and we too) must keep forever, as the title says - "Guarde Segredo" (Keep the Secret).


While Ribeiro's themes highlight what is ridiculous and corrupt in society, they simultaneously unmask various levels of discrimination suffered by black women. She deals with several issues: race and ethnicity; the dilemma of skin color and of facial features; female molestation; the fascination with white women; "ethnic suicide" through whitening; the ferociousness of life in the Brazilian urban suburbs; the fragility of family and community relationships; white male domination and exploitation at work; spiritualism and the black woman; and finally, child abuse. Ribeiro presents these social issues as doors through which women pass and which provoke their assertive spirit and will to survive. She endows her characters with ambition, with desires for adventure, prosperity and revenge even though their socio-economic position is not a favorable one. By putting her characters in charge of their own destiny she makes it possible for them to transform their situations by rejecting social oppression using their keen sense of self-esteem in order to come up with forms of resistance. Her protagonists, not afraid to use extreme measures to overcome oppression, use the tools of emotion and mysticism. A combination of personality and strength gained out of existence as a discriminated person reinforces the fact that they are forced to seek other means of moving against the downtrodden status society has imposed on them.

According to Luiza Lobo (1993), black feminine literature of today is primarily concerned with woman's ability to occupy a place within the dominant white, capitalist class: "é preciso ascender socialmente e discutir a própria identidade em relação a uma imagem social e psicológica" (239) (it is necessary to rise socially and discuss identity in relation to a social and psychological image). However, if we examine Ribeiro's work, as well as other such writings characterized by that keen sense of black consciousness and femininity, there is not so much the desire to belong to the white capitalist world as there is a desire for prosperity, without losing touch with that spiritual and ethnic heritage. Authors like Miriam Alves, Sônia Fátima da Conceição and Ribeiro are part of a larger drive for the construction of self-esteem, a drive reflected in the way they present issues of racism and female exploitation. In many ways Ribeiro's concern with these override the desire for economic prosperity. Her presentation of woman as a political figure comes through not in the form of contact with social institutions for these are largely closed to the Afro-Brazilian woman. Ribeiro describes woman as a political being simply by showing her capable of defending what she believes in. The methods she uses to show this are those available from her own existence; they come out of her own personal repertoire of defense systems.

The mood of Ribeiro's writings is not predominantly light. Her themes make reference to hardship and need, both physical and emotional. Her protagonists are exploited, dwelling in contexts that are harsh, therefore, the solutions they find to escape the conditions life imposes on them are extreme ones. For Ribeiro, there is separation between her world as a writer and creator and her reality; her choice of female characters proves her intense empathy with the lot of Brazilian woman and awareness of her powerlessness against institutions that make it practically impossible for her to improve her life.

Ribeiro's development as a writer is inextricably linked to the rise of her literary group, Quilombohoje, a group primarily concerned with a re-reading of the cultural, historical, social, ethical and ethnic space of the Afro-Brazilian (Somerlate Barbosa 1997:19). Ribeiro utilizes her urban experiences to undermine the often superficial public concern for the Brazilian racial reality. Her works are an alternative reading that is black-centered and woman-centered. It analyses the voices, pauses, silences and shouts of a people whose marginalization is mirrored in the literature produced about them. What dominates is the silence of the Brazilian woman, a silence that comes from a profound inner sense of inferiority and lack of value, together with a socially imposed position of indignity and unimportance. Ribeiro's works subverts these negative perceptions by attributing ambition and creativity to the black woman. In order to do this she uses her reality, her personal capabilities and her knowledge as building blocks. Rather than try to insert her female characters within that other dominant Brazilian context (which causes her so much difficulty), Ribeiro's literature affirms that it is up to them to discover the hidden strengths which they already historically and psychologically possess, but which they have just not explored to their fullest advantage.

Black, urban regionalism combines with a woman-centered reality to make this literature exist as doubly marginalized art. This marginalization must be fought, and what better way to do it than in writing the problem. Womanhood and blackness are epitomized to give strength to their possessors, but also to fiercely condemn the fanatic preoccupation with stating negativisms about them. The black woman historically has been made to symbolize impurity, chaos and death; she is night, the subconscious, sexuality, fertility, procreation (Brookshaw 1983:218). Her literary usefulness is measured by her ability to display these and so contrast with the white otherness and the accompanying symbols of purity and beauty.

Ribeiro's works inverts the situation as corruption, evil and human indignity are blamed on elements and subjects outside of woman. The belief that whiteness represents purity and beauty is shown to be the cause of all the problems. The men in the novel, white and black, fall prey to the false analogy of white as beauty, wealth and power. The black women only find redemption and escape from disaster by using their own reality to combat this misapprehension and turn it in their favor. In the end they must turn against whiteness if they are to survive.


  1. All translations are done by the author.
  2. Malungo- camarada, companheiro; título que os escravos africanos davam aos que tinham vindo da África no mesmo navio; irmão de criaçao. (malungo-comrade, companion; title which the African slaves gave to those who had come from Africa on the same ship; adopted brother.


BERND, Zila. Introdução À Literatura Negra. São Paulo. Brasiliense, 1988.

BROOKSHAW, David. Raça & Cor Na Literatuta Brasileira. Porto Alegre. Mercado Aberto, 1983.

CADERNOS NEGROS 19. São Paulo. Quilombohoje, 1996.

LOBO, Luiza. Crítica Sem Juízo. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves, 1993.

RIBEIRO, Esmeralda. Malungos e Milongas. São Paulo. Quilombohoje. 1988.

__________________ " A Vingança de Dona Léia"CADERNOS NEGROS 10. São Paulo.

Quilombohoje, 1987. 44-52

__________________ "Guarde Segredo". CADERNOS NEGROS 14. São Paulo.

Quilombohoje, 1991. 23-29

SOMERLATE BARBOSA, Maria José. "Adao Ventura e o (Con)texto Afro-brasileiro". Afro- Hispanic Review. Fall 1997, 16, 2. 19-25.