My pioneering grandmother

By Luiz Coelho

My grandmother’s family emigrated to Brazil on a cargo ship that took six months to arrive! She was raised at a coffee plantation in a region where every single white person was related to each other, and could trace their origins to the same pioneer who got rich in Brazil and brought most of the people from his village in Portugal.

When she was young, she couldn’t be friends with people of color. “It was a big transgression” – she said. Only when she went live in Rio (with my grandfather and their three girls), did they get in touch and develop friendships with black and mixed-race people. My mother was still an infant, and at first, she would cry every time a black person approached her. It was the very first time she saw them, in a country where about half of the population is not white! Eventually, she got used to seeing people who had dark skin tones, but just the fact that there are people even today who lived and can recall those events is very sad.

My grandmother had a conversion experience while reciting the Nicene Creed at her Catholic Church. Later, she became a Protestant, because “they also believed in the Creed, plus, they could read the Bible,” but she’s still fond of the Catholic Church “now that they can do those things as well.” She might be a crypto-Vatican II Catholic of sorts.

She had three girls. Only my mom and aunt survived childhood. My grandfather, who also was her cousin, didn’t care (or didn’t want to care) about birth control. But she knew that they couldn’t raise decently any more children, so, she prayed every day she wouldn’t get pregnant again – and she didn’t. That was her only choice of family planning. I wonder how many women still have to do that.

She worked overnight shifts at a sweatshop. My grandfather eventually got sick, and could not take care of the family by himself. Labor conditions in factories back in those days were deplorable, and my grandmother felt compelled to join a labor union and campaign for labor rights. Eventually, the government passed laws that forced factories to comply to a maximum of eight work hours per day. She still remembers how joyful she felt when that legislation became law.

Her multiple work shifts were not in vain. Thanks to her sacrifice, my mother and my aunt never had to work while at school. They passed the test to go to normal school, and eventually graduated and became elementary school teachers. Both went to college later. My grandmother also adopted an orphan teenager. This girl also went to college, and is now a retired federal judge.

Every time I think about women, and their achievements, I think about my grandmother and her life. Now she is 90, and many of the challenges she faced seem to be so far away from us. However, they are many women still face them. If it were not for my grandmother’s witness of life, maybe I would not pay as much attention to this fact as I should. She has been, however, my model and guide, and in her I see the work of all those wonderful women who work and pray next to me.

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines “Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view.”

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