Interview: the women of Maré facing the Covid 19 pandemic

The historian, Angélica Ferrarez articulates information about the pandemic in accounts of daily life during the pandemic in the Maré Favela Complex (Rio de Janeiro)

Angélica Ferrarez doutora em História Política e mestra em História Social da Cultura (Foto: Arquivo Pessoal) Angélica Ferrarez doutora em História Política e mestra em História Social da Cultura (Foto: Arquivo Pessoal)

For the most part, the response to the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in the favela came from within. In the Maré Favela Complex, in Rio de Janeiro, the creativity of the black women meant that life could go on in the communities. This is one of the observations made by the historian, Angélica Ferrarez in her essay “Voices of the Women of the Favelas: stories of everyday life in the Covid-19 pandemic in Rio de Janeiro”, published in issue 31 of the Sur Journal. 

Ferrarez holds a doctorate in Political History (UERJ) and a Masters in the Social History of Culture (PUC/RJ). She works as a researcher at the Centre for Memory and Identity in the Maré Networks. In her essay, she discusses the accounts of women based on the “Mapa Social do Corona”, a bulletin produced by Observatório de Favelas. She was one of four people who received a grant to write for Issue 31. She talked to Conectas about some aspects of her text. 

See the interview below: 

Conectas – at the very beginning of your essay, in the introduction, you ask how the Maré inhabitants responded to the worldwide destabilisation caused by the coronavirus pandemic?” How would you answer this question today, after writing the essay? 

Angélica Ferrarez – This was the question that underpinned my text and it is a question that we are still facing. I am from Rio de Janeiro and I spent the whole of that first difficult year of the pandemic in Salvador. I wanted to observe Rio de Janeiro from a different angle in order to see it better and I did. I also wanted to see the force Maré has in the city of Rio and wondered how Maré was handling the pandemic. Nobody followed the guidance to stay home in Maré. However, a great deal of creativity and flexibility emerged in daily life and in the way the inhabitants themselves responded to issues in which state participation is very ephemeral. I thought about daily life, life on the streets and sociability. [During the most critical period of the pandemic] in Maré, some aspects lost their meaning and the streets took on a different use. This is what I tried to unravel in my text, principally from the point of view of the women. 

Conectas – What is the meaning of “the quotation mark method” you use in the text?

Angélica Ferrarez – I wanted it to be a piece of writing that brought the voices of the women of the Maré complex of favelas, showing that there is a space for dialogue, in other words that dialogue was taking place and that these were not just the words of an ´expert´ (the person writing) and of a researcher who was observing. The methodology of quotation marks is in order to bring these voices because everything that is in quotation marks are the women´s thoughts. All the quotation marks belong to the women. The idea was to cross-reference these words in the first person with the bulletin about coronavirus, that was produced by the Observatório de Favelas. The methodology of the quotation marks is to allow the reader, the third person, to hear the voices of these women in the text they are reading. 

Conectas –  The text focuses on women´s stories during the pandemic. Based on this, what conclusions can be drawn linking gender issues and the pandemic?

Angélica Ferrarez – I think considering how these women organise things is the way rather than the conclusion. They organise their families and their territories. In the context of the favela, where it is more often the men who are shot, many women become the breadwinners of their families. Something that drew my attention during the pandemic was the work these women do.

In the text, there is an example of a woman who is a domestic worker in a house in the south zone of Rio de Janeiro during the week. With the pandemic, the family reduced her hours and wages. So, she started selling hot lunch boxes, which is nothing new in Maré, but she made healthy, low carb lunches, suitable for people who were dieting. More interestingly, she got her whole family involved in this: her nieces and nephews who were not having classes (because online classes did not always work out), delivered the lunch boxes by bicycle and her retired mother helped out with the cooking at home. There are many ways to creating and creativity. bell hooks, Grada Kilomba and other black intellectuals talk about how the mechanisms of oppression make the processes of creating and of creativity flourish. We create out of these places of repression and oppression. 

Conectas – When you listened to the words of the women of Maré for the article, which memories were the most poignant for you?

Angélica Ferrarez – Actually I wrote a very optimistic essay precisely because I come from a place of creating and creativity. But how do you create from the margins of society? I tried to weave a very positive text, recognising their hard work. It is not romantic, it is about the work black women do. I dedicate my essay to Dona Vitória, who I did not see again in the region [when I returned to Rio de Janeiro in 2021]. I was thinking about the griots in Maré, who are considered to be wise women. A griot is a storyteller in West Africa and is a wise person who holds a wisdom that is not found in books. In Maré there are faith healers and traditional midwives… I am talking about the type of older woman whose home people start to go to for healing and she will say “I don´t have the cure, but I have some herbal baths I can recommend, I have some bottled remedies.” In 2020 some of these women died and they were the ones – the griots, the older women, the wise women and the pretas velhas – who attracted me to take a closer look into the Maré territory. Then, you come across a lot of information that is associated with the image of the favela: images of violence, marginalisation and hunger.

When people went to the health centre during the pandemic and did not manage to get an appointment, they would go back to Maré and would knock on Dona Vitória´s door, for example. Dona Vitória does not have the cure, but she has many ways to support well-being. In fact, she actually has many ways of supporting care and self-care. She does not have the cure for Covid, but she prescribes lots of other things and people made good use of her presence while it was still visible. I am moved by these women. 

You can also read the interview Impact of Covid-19 on the indigenous peoples of the Boca da Mata village in Roraima, with Yara Pinho de Lima, an indigenous woman of the Macuxi people, an anthropologist and writer in Sur 31. 

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