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
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 fewthey 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.
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