Editors’ Note:  Helena Silvestre is the National Coordinator of the Luta Popular Movement in Brazil and one of the signatories of a recent statement by a group of international socialist feminists in solidarity with Iranian women(see link below).   She was inspired to write this short biography to further express her solidarity with Iranian women.   The Spanish original is also included.  

By Helena Silvestre

May 2018

Translated by Elizabeth Juarez

Editors’ Note:  Helena Silvestre is the National Coordinator of the Luta Popular Movement in Brazil and one of the signatories of a recent statement by a group of international socialist feminists in solidarity with Iranian women.  She was inspired to write this short biography to further express her solidarity with Iranian women.   

To tell the story of how I became a feminist, I need to explain how I used to be and how I was shaping myself and the reasons.

I became a militant at a very young age, I was only thirteen years old. Like all working people or daughters of working people, I did not decide to become a militant because I had a well-defined critique of the world or because I had affinity with some political plan to build a new society. I started to become a militant because I needed to.

My life pushed me to it; my economic conditions, my social and political context. Finally, I became a militant because I was the oldest daughter among six children, because as I – was the oldest – I could only acquire new experiences with my parents or by meeting new people, because my neighborhood was a huge favela stuck in the metropolitan region of São Paulo which offered nothing to anyone who was young.

Truly, it did not offer much to anyone, it was one of these neighborhoods that we call
bedroom-neighborhoods: they are the place where you sleep, eat and survive – going to work
always in another place and going to study further and further away as you attend a higher grade in school.   In the place where I grew up – even if there were no public, cultural and sport facilities, even if there were no good public schools and good jobs – there was a lot of life; thousands of female and male workers fighting fiercely to earn the basics and keep on living. In that sense, the place where I grew up offered me a lot.

In the mid nineties, a decade that was very hard for the people of Latin America – when neoliberal measures of capitalist modernization were being implemented which generated the deepening of exploitation and plunder – my neighborhood offered nothing and it was, at the same time, a metaphor for many places out there.

Then I became a militant, that was my way to become acquainted with other things, other people, it was my path to learn to play the guitar and get acquainted with music from other countries; it was my path to learn a different language and to learn my ancestor’s history; it was my path to understand what it was like to be a worker and be poor and to understand the world through my appreciation of this.

It just had not become yet – for a long time – my path to understand myself as a female worker, to understand the dimension of capitalist exploitation, plunder and oppression in my body and in my way of being and living. The vast majority of the militants we know are men, when it comes  to the unions – which are still an organizational form that is important in Brazil – in addition to being male, they are older and somewhat [disenchanted] when reading the changes of our times. I learned a lot from them and I admire how courageous and important they were and are, but I cannot afford not to say that I did not have the smallest desire to understand myself as a woman when  left in front of the enormous contempt that they make (us) believe that politics have for us; as if we are superfluous, accessories, struggle decorators or bodies to stare at or to try to sensually dominate.

I was a sexist many times to myself and with all the charges that I made as one of the few female leaders, young and of poor origin. I was a sexist many times to other women, behind sophisticated elaborations that in the end were a way of hiding from my own contradictions.
I watched the white feminism that was offered to me and I found in it all the faults that
justify the fact that I did not take on the feminist struggle as strongly as I assumed my people’s class struggle.

I lived like this for a long time, always militating in the movements that are organized in the
territory, looking straight ahead – in the most unusual or trivial situations of my political activity

– the enormous opportunities to advance that occur in the struggle when women access a place of respect where they can discuss politics in a familiar way and express their needs. But even when living those experiences, I still had not understood bourgeois feminism, community, peripheral, afro-indigenous and libertarian feminism.

Then I went through some very hard moments in my personal life and I saw myself at a given moment as a young woman, a leader, who, by getting divorced , takes by herself full responsibility for the aim, which introjects the Christian guilt that clouds the view and judgment of things.  I saw myself as a woman with an exposed life who needed to remain quiet because in the end my former partner was a militant and a leader and silence was the price of stability in militance.

And after I was violent to myself for a long time, I perceived that I was a woman; and I perceived that in these hours “the string gets severed on our side”; and I perceived that the sacrifice for stability was only on my behalf, because the other side didn’t give a thought for that kind of respect. Thus, I came to look with different eyes at the women who live and militate  around me; I started perceiving the oppressed force that they are and imagining what force they could become if they were free!

Then, some Marxist women with whom I had many clashes and divergences, reluctantly taught me issues that I needed to know. And every time I pointed out that their feminism did not apply to black and poor women like me, they also pointed out to me that I, as a woman and leader,  could not avoid to actively fight by my struggle comrades against sexism.

I discovered that what I went through to learn the importance of feminism could have been easier and less painful if I had known the formulations of black women like Angela Davis and others. I discovered that after learning that, it is my responsibility to never be silent again, never again silence in payment of stability because there is no good stability that relies on relationships of oppression. And the struggles we want to build, even if they are not and will not be islands, need to be spaces where oppression is restricted. I discovered that it is part of my militance to contribute so that other young, Black, indigenous and poor militant women, may be strengthened to always speak out, so that they have a faster and less painful path than mine, to make it simpler and less painful for us women, to share with men the struggles’ baton for our future as male and female workers.

May 2018

SPANISH VERSION

Bien, para contar la historia de cómo me hice feminista, yo necesito explicar cómo yo era o como yo venía siendo y sus porqués. Yo me hice militante muy joven, con sólo trece años de edad. Igual a todas las personas trabajadoras o hijas de personas trabajadoras, yo no decidí militar porque tuviera una crítica bien definida del mundo o porque tuviera afinidad con algún plan político para construir una nueva sociedad. Yo comencé a militar porque lo necesitaba. Mi vida me empujaba para eso; mis condiciones económicas, mi contexto social y político, finalmente, comencé a militar porque yo era la hija mayor de seis niños, porque yo – siendo la mayor – sólo podría tener experiencias nuevas con mis padres ó conociendo nuevas personas, porque mi barrio era una enorme favela clavada en la región metropolitana de São Paulo que no ofrecía nada a nadie que fuera joven. En verdad, no ofrecía mucha cosa a nadie, era uno de estos barrios que llamamos barrios-dormitorio: son el lugar donde se duerme, se come y se sobrevive – yendo a trabajar siempre en otro lugar y yendo a estudiar cada vez más lejos conforme se aumentaba el grado de estudio. En el lugar en que yo crecía – aunque no hubieran instalaciones públicas culturales y  deportivas, aunque no hubiera buenas escuelas públicas y buenos empleos – había mucha vida; miles de mujeres y hombres trabajadores luchando ferozmente para conseguir lo básico y seguir viviendo. En ese sentido, el lugar donde crecí me ofreció mucho. A mediados de los años noventa, una década que fue durísima para los pueblos de América Latina – donde se estaban implementando medidas neoliberales de modernización capitalista que generaban la profundización de la explotación y expoliación – mi barrio no ofrecía nada y era, a la vez, una metáfora de muchos lugares por ahí. Entonces yo me convertí en militante, que fue mi camino para conocer otras cosas, otras personas, mi camino para aprender a tocar la guitarra y para conocer la música de otros países; mi camino para aprender un idioma diferente y para conocer la historia de mis antepasados; mi camino para comprender lo que era ser trabajador y pobre y entender el mundo a través de la comprensión de eso. Sólo no había sido aún – durante mucho tiempo – mi camino para comprenderme como mujer trabajadora, para comprender la dimensión de la explotación, expoliación y opresión capitalistas en mi cuerpo y en mi manera de ser y vivir. La gran mayoría de los militantes que conocemos son hombres, si eso se aplica a los sindicatos – que son aún una forma organizativa que tiene su importancia en Brasil – además de hombres, ellos serán más viejos y un tanto ​[desencantados ​] al leer los cambios de nuestro tiempo.  Aprendí mucho con ellos y admiro cuán valerosos e importantes ellos fueron y son, pero no puedo dejar de decir que no daba la más pequeña gana de comprenderse como mujer cuando se queda delante del enorme desprecio que ellos hacen parecer que la política tiene por nosotros; como se fuéramos superfluas, accesorios, decoradoras de la lucha o cuerpos para quedar mirando o intentando sensualmente dominar. Yo fui machista muchas veces conmigo misma y con todos los cobros que me hacía como una de las pocas dirigentes mujer, joven y de origen pobre. Yo fui machista muchas veces con otras

mujeres, por detrás de elaboraciones sofisticadas que al final eran una manera de esconderme de mis propias contradicciones. Yo miraba el feminismo blanco que me ofrecían y encontraba en él todos los fallos que justificaran el hecho de que yo no asumía con tanta fuerza la lucha feminista como yo asumía la lucha de clases de mi pueblo. Así yo viví mucho tiempo, siempre militando en los movimientos que se organizan en el territorio, mirando de frente – en las más inusitadas o triviales situaciones de mi actividad política – las enormes oportunidades de avanzar que se dan en la lucha cuando las mujeres accesan un lugar de respeto donde tutear políticamente y expresar sus necesidades. Pero mientras iba viviendo esas experiencias, yo aún no había entendido el feminismo clasista, el feminismo comunitario, periférico, afro-indígena, libertario. Entonces yo atravesé momentos muy duros en mi vida personal y me vi en un momento dado como una joven mujer, dirigente, que al divorciarse agarra para sí toda la responsabilidad del fin, que introyecta la culpa cristiana que turbia la vista y el juicio de las cosas, me vi como una mujer de vida expuesta que necesitaba callar porque finalmente mi ex-compañero era militante, dirigente y el silencio era el precio de la estabilidad en la militancia. Y tras violentarme  por mucho tiempo, yo percibí que yo era una mujer; y percibí que en estas horas es para nuestro lado que la cuerda revienta; y percibí que el sacrificio por la estabilidad era sólo de mi parte, porque de la otra no había siquiera pensamiento a ese respeto. Así, pasé a mirar con otros ojos las mujeres que viven y militan a mi alrededor; fui percibiendo la fuerza oprimida que ellas son y imaginando ¡qué fuerza ellas serían se estuvieran libres! Entonces, algunas mujeres marxistas con quién tuve muchos embates y divergencias, me enseñaron a duras penas cuestiones que yo necesitaba saber. Y toda vez que yo les señalaba mostrando a ellas como el feminismo suyo no se aplicaba a la mujeres negras y pobres como yo, ellas también me apuntaban diciendo que yo como mujer y dirigente no podía evadirme a dar combate al lado de mis camaradas de lucha, activamente contra el machismo. Descubrí que lo que pasé para aprender la importancia del feminismo podría haber sido más fácil y menos doloroso si yo hubiera conocido antes las formulaciones de mujeres negras como Angela Davis y otras. Descubrí que tras haber aprendido eso, es mi responsabilidad nunca más callar, nunca más silenciar en pago de estabilidad porque no hay estabilidad buena que se apoye en relaciones de opresión. Y las luchas que queremos construir, aunque no sean  ni serán islas, necesitan ser espacios donde la opresión sea restringida . Descubrí que es parte de mi militancia contribuir para que otras jóvenes mujeres, negras, indígenas y pobres, militantes, puedan estar fortalecidas para hablar siempre, para que tengan un camino más rápido y menos doloroso que el mío, para que sea más simple y menos sufrido para nosotras las mujeres, compartir con los hombres la batuta de las luchas por nuestro futuro como trabajadores y trabajadoras.

May 2018

Also see

Statement from a group of international socialist feminists in solidarity with Iranian women

https://www.allianceofmesocialists.org/statement-group-international-socialist-feminists-solidarity-iranian-women/