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Brazzil - Violence - August 2003

Brazil: Guns Couldn't Silence Her

I found his body covered in blood. I took his hand, cleaned his
eyes covered with dirt and said, "João Pedro, yes, I will continue
your struggle, come what may." They used to go around my
house in the middle of the night, shooting to intimidate me
and get me to give up. But I was never afraid of dying.


Elizabeth Teixeira, 78 years old, widow of João Pedro Teixeira who was an activist in the state of Paraíba, took up the cause of her husband when he was assassinated in 1962. João Pedro was the president of a farm workers' federation when a group of factory owners ordered his death. Her story is just one example of the struggle of rural workers in Brazil.

How did you get to know João Pedro Teixeira?

I used to help my dad at his grocery store. He also had a piece of property in the countryside. João Pedro worked as a bricklayer on the farm next to my father's property. As with all the other workers, João Pedro would make purchases at the grocery store. That's where I met him, at the check-out counter. When we met, we both felt a tenderness for each other. I was 15 years old, and my dad was very upset when he found out we were seeing each other. He never accepted my husband because João Pedro was poor and a "black man."

You were pretty young, educated, what did you see in João Pedro?

The first time I saw him I fell in love. And the moment finally came to flee and get married. I saw in him a beautiful personality, and he always treated me with great care. We were married for almost 20 years and he never fought with me nor with our children. He always helped out at home. He was a very fine, well-mannered person.

And how was your life together?

I fled my father's house one year after I met João Pedro, and we stayed at his uncle's house until we got married in June of 1942. After being in Sapé for a time, we moved to Recife where we stayed for nine years. It was there that João Pedro began to get involved in construction workers' rights and later founded a union. He didn't know how to read, but I taught him how. He was very intelligent and loved to read.

He had many books which unfortunately were burned when the military dictatorship began. He joined the Communist Party, and from that time on things were difficult because nobody wanted to hire him. At that time we had 11 children to feed. So, in 1954, we decided to move back to Paraíba and live on a small farm next to my father, who helped us by sending some of his workers to plant crops.

For lunch, the workers used to only have manioc and rapadura (hardened molasses) to eat. João Pedro became indignant with this and began to investigate the working conditions of laborers in the region. From that point on he involved himself in the struggle for agrarian reform and a dignified life for rural workers.

He founded the Farm Workers' Union of Sapé in 1958. Large land owners and factory owners had him arrested several times, accusing him of inciting rural workers to riot against their bosses. In reality, all the workers wanted was to be treated as humans. The number of workers belonging to the union increased as did the hatred of the owners. João Pedro received various death threats until his assassination in 1962.

Did you participate in the various activities with him?

Not exactly. I always gave my support, but I mostly dedicated myself to raising the children. He was sure that he was going to be assassinated. He always used to come home and say, "My dear, they are going to take my life. Will you continue my struggle?" I kept quiet, not saying yes or no. But the moment when they told me João Pedro had been murdered on Café do Vento Highway at Sapé, I called my oldest son and said, "Let's go to Sapé."

When we arrived, I found his body covered in blood. I took his hand, cleaned his eyes covered with dirt and said, "João Pedro, yes, I will continue your struggle, come what may." From then on I continued his work in spite of all the shots, which weren't just a few—they used to go around my house in the middle of the night, shooting to intimidate me and get me to give up. But I was never afraid of dying.

And how was your struggle?

I became president of the Federation of Rural Workers of Paraíba, and went around preaching the rights of rural workers and agrarian reform. I used to get up on platforms and give speeches in the midst of shooting going on all around me, as happened in Mari at a rural workers' demonstration, bullets being shot near my feet.

They never shot directly at me to kill me, only around me to intimidate me. But it didn't work. Another time, at the Melancia factory, the owner was firing his workers, and I went there to tell him that the workers weren't going to leave the factory as they had no place to go. He called the police. The police arrived and made two lines. With every step I took, they fired off a shot. Pop! Pop! Pop!

I finally went up to the lieutenant and said, "Just one more piece of evidence of your cowardice. You ambushed and killed my João Pedro. Why don't you shoot and kill me?" He didn't respond, but made me enter the car and put me in prison. My oldest daughter, Marluce, who was 18 years old, committed suicide because she couldn't take the suffering anymore.

For how long did you continue?

Until the military coup in 1964, because I was in prison, and they took my children away from me. They burned my house and everything I had. [After prison] I had to hide in São Rafael, Rio Grande do Norte, under a false name. I took with me one of my sons, Carlos, who my father did not want to raise because he looked like that `black man' João Pedro. Those were very difficult years.

Do you regret anything?

I don't regret anything, and would do it all over again if I had to. Rural workers are suffering as much or even more as they did back then. Agrarian reform is necessary if the life of rural workers is to improve. I think that the MST (Movement of Rural Workers Without Land) is on the right track in working to better the lives of rural workers. I think that if the MST had existed in João Pedro's time, he would have had more support. I value the struggle of those without land and those who defend them. We must continue firm in the struggle.

Note: In 1986, filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho made a movie about the life of João Pedro entitled Cabra Marcado para Morrer (Marked for Death). The film had great impact both in Brazil and abroad.


This article appeared originally in Brasil de Fato www.brasildefato.com.br Material distributed by SEJUP (Serviço Brasileiro de Justiça e Paz).Their homepage: www.oneworld.net/sejup/




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