The Life and Legacy of Thereza Santos

This post is part of our forum on “Race and Latin America.”

Recife, Brazil - February 8th, 2018: Portrait of a female dancer carnival parade. The comparsas and dancers parades from Av Rio Branco to the stage at the waterfront. (Shutterstock-Ruben M. Ramos)
Female dancer taking a selfie photo at a 2018 carnival parade in Recife, Brazil. (Ruben M. Ramos/Shutterstock)

Born Jaci dos Santos on July 7, 1938, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Thereza Santos adopted her new name as both nom de plume and nom de guerre as she pursued a life as a communist, feminist, pan-Africanist, actress, playwright, and educator. Moving in artist and organizing circles from a young age, Santos perpetually fashioned new ways to merge these interests. While the accomplishments in the incredible life of Thereza Santos are numerous, this essay briefly explores Thereza Santos’s Black feminist internationalism and its contribution toward understanding Blackness and racial politics in Brazil.

By the year 1974, Thereza Santos’s political activity as a member of the Brazilian Communist Party and cultural activism through her work in Samba schools had drawn the attention of the Brazilian military dictatorship’s repressive forces. She felt that her only option was to flee the country. Inspired by the emerging independence of African nations, Santos was animated by the opportunity to actively participate in the process of building a Black nation with a Marxist political orientation. With the help of Fidelis Cabral and Flávio Proença, comrades from Guinea-Bissau who she had met years earlier in Brazil, Santos became an exile and fled to support the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC)—the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde.

In March 1974, Santos arrived at the Senegalese-Guinean border to teach theater at the Escola de Terenga, a pilot school of the PAIGC that was built by UNICEF for children orphaned by the war or whose parents were engaged in the armed struggle. Despite insisting on receiving armed training and spending several days a month closer to the armed front, Santos’s primary day-to-day role was as a theater educator teaching over 400 students of all ages. For Santos this period was incredibly eye opening in terms of understanding the reality of the war for independence and the daily experiences of Guineans. “I learned more than I taught,” she recalled in an interview.1 Once Guinea-Bissau gained independence in September 1974, Santos moved to the capital, Bissau, where she worked in the Ministry of Youth and Sports, conducting cultural activities for the new Republic. In the Ministry, Santos created the Department of Culture, where she brought in art and dance programs, founded the Escola de Teatro, and organized several theater productions including original works. However, due to some discontent with her experiences within the PAIGC, in 1976 she decided to accept an offer to work for the government of Agostinho Neto in newly independent Angola within the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola).

On January 24, 1976, just two months after Angola gained independence, Thereza Santos flew to Luanda to work in the Ministry of Education and Culture. In this role Santos founded a music school, dance school, and theater school. She developed the logistics and research capacities of the Ministry and produced wildly successful theater productions that toured the country and appeared on national television in service of the newly established national party. One of her most successful theater productions, History of Angola, was created as a part of the first anniversary celebration of independence. This show was so popular that not only was it brought to the Second World Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ‘77), but Santos was named the cultural ambassador of the Angolan delegation to the festival.

Undeniably the years Santos spent in exile were professionally prolific and eye-opening. They were also full of interpersonal, intellectual, and political struggle. The limited records of her life during this period demonstrate that Santos experienced patriarchal and sexual violence, political disagreements over racial representation, famine, serious illness, gunfire, and even became a political prisoner. Ultimately, during her time in exile as an educational worker and cultural producer, Santos and her comrades were forced to find the limits of their solidarity. Santos learned that a commitment to Black internationalism would require much more than the “search for her African origins,” as she put it in a 1979 interview.

Santos returned to Brazil on June 25, 1978, changed by four tumultuous years of radical exchange. Her time in Guinea-Bissau and Angola influenced not only her understanding of Black transnational solidarity, but also her racial, gender, and class politics in ways that would mark the rest of her life in Brazil. The return of Thereza Santos and her subsequent denunciations of certain African leaders and political parties was surely difficult for many Black militants in Brazil to accept. In fact, she often found herself marginalized or out of place among the emerging leadership of the Contemporary Brazilian Black Movement because she broke from the romanticized notions of Africa and African independence that were becoming major symbols of Black Brazilian organizing in the 1970s and 80s. Santos took seriously her connection to Africa not just as one of historic, symbolic, or cultural connection, but also based on her understanding of what it meant to be in contemporary, material relation with Africa and Africans.

Neither Santos’s struggles in exile nor her ostracization in Brazil stopped her from continuing a life committed to activism, intellectual production, and the arts. One of her biggest changes upon returning to Brazil was her complete break from the Brazilian Communist Party. She continued “to be an ideologically left-wing person, however [she] no longer [had] dreams and illusions with the so-called left in Brazil, because, on the black issue, [she had] not yet discovered the difference between the left and the right.” While she doesn’t make the connection herself, perhaps it is the work of engaging in Marxist organizing with her Black African peers that finally emboldened her to seek organizing alternatives against a largely white communist party that refused to challenge Brazil’s myth of racial democracy. In addition to participating in the consolidation of the Unified Black Movement, she began more directly organizing in the Black Feminist Movement. Her experiences in exile ushered her further into feminist organizing in Brazil as she shared her story against gendered violence and discrimination. Her years in exile made clear that local and transnational struggles against racialized violence are inseparable from struggles against capitalist and gendered violence.

Despite the challenges she faced as an exile, Santos never gave up her interests in supporting African history, culture, and above all, independence. Guided by her broader commitments to the right to self-determination, Santos helped co-found the Cultural Association of Agostinho Neto, which was headquartered in São Paulo and had a branch in Luanda, Angola (led by his widow Eugenia Neto). Fittingly Santos was named the Director of Solidarity and Events, and led the organization’s support of Angola as well as advocating for Africans from varying nations living in São Paulo.

Santos’s major contributions to thinking transnationally and intersectionally in the Brazilian Black movement are largely underrecognized and understudied. Reflecting on these experiences near the end of her life, Santos notes that “in four and a half years in Africa I learned what I wouldn’t learn [in Brazil] in fifty years, and some think it’s absurd. I learned politics, I learned the true sense of solidarity, I learned about individual and collective love, I learned about human beings, so I gained a lot.” In turn, I’ve gained a lot from her life story and complex analyses. The cultural, intellectual, and political dimensions of the Black internationalism of Thereza Santos is a rich tapestry from which we still have much to learn if we want to continue to sharpen our understandings of racial politics in Brazil, Latin America, and the Black diaspora.

  1. Astrogildo Esteves Filho, “As Raízes de Tereza Santos,” Versus, Jan. 1979.
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C. Darius Gordon

C. Darius Gordon (they/them) is an interdisciplinary scholar and educator. They are currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley in the Critical Studies of Race, Class, & Gender program housed in the Graduate School of Education. Broadly, they study the intellectual histories of 20th-century Black liberation movements throughout the Atlantic world. Drawing on Black feminisms and Black Geographic thought, Darius’s dissertation project, ‘We on the Other Side’: Black Internationalism against the Lusophone World, 1950s-1980s," is a social and intellectual history of the relations forged between activist-intellectuals of Brazilian Black movements and the anti-colonial revolutions of Portuguese-speaking Africa. Their work has been published in Berkeley Review of Education, Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, Race Ethnicity and Education, and Comparative Education Review. Their research has been supported by several centers and departments at UC Berkeley including the Global, International, and Area Studies research hub; the Black Studies Collaboratory of the Department of African American Studies; the Center for Race and Gender; and the Center for Latin American Studies.