Using Courts in Brazil to Strengthen an Indian Identity
By Larry Rother
Boa Vista, Brazil
ON all her official papers, she is known as Joênia Batista de Carvalho. But that is not the real name of the first Indian woman to become a lawyer in Brazil, just a name a clerk randomly selected when her parents were first brought from their Amazon village to have their births registered.
Whether her preoccupation with issues of cultural identity and autonomy stems from that incident, Ms. Batista is not sure. Still, when she went to the United States earlier this year to receive a Reebok Prize for her human rights work, she chose to accept the award as Joênia Wapixana, using the name of the tribe to which she belongs.
"Everything I do is aimed at focusing attention on our community, so that others, outside, can see who we really are," explained Ms. Batista, staff attorney for the Roraima Indigenous Council here in Brazil's northernmost state. "Why have we as a people been able to continue to exist? Because we know where we come from. By having roots, you can see the direction in which you want to go."
Though only 31, Ms. Batista has emerged as one of the most effective advocates of the indigenous cause in Brazil, the bane of ranchers, miners and loggers who want to encroach on Indian land. But unlike the tribal chiefs and shamans with whom she works closely, her weapon is the white man's law, which she fights to have obeyed by all, including those who make it.
In Brasília, she is a familiar figure, filing for injunctions and arguing cases to learned judges twice her age. In Washington early this year, she presented a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to compel the Brazilian government to finish demarcation of the Raposa Serra do Sol Indigenous Reserve, set aside as a home for her people and a half-dozen other tribes.
Thanks in large part to Ms. Batista's persistence, that case is also before the Brazilian Supreme Court, with a landmark decision expected next year. Most recently, her legal team succeeded in suspending rulings by a judge sympathetic to rice farmers and ranchers that would have forced thousands of Indians to leave their lands.
ALL of that is a long way from the isolated Amazon villages of Truarú and Guariba, where Ms. Batista spent her first years immersed in a traditional culture that was just beginning to feel the full impact of the advance of the Amazon frontier. "My grandmother couldn't even speak Portuguese," she recalls, but "my mother and most people of her generation speak very little Wapixana, which means that something got lost there."
When Ms. Batista was 7 or 8, her parents separated. Her father, who she said "never felt comfortable staying in any one place for a long time," returned to the wilds to become a cowboy, while her mother came to this city of 200,000 and found work as a maid.
To earn some extra money, her children helped by selling fruit on the street and taking in laundry. There was also school, but Ms. Batista's three older brothers ran into problems there and eventually dropped out to become construction workers and day laborers.
"There was a lot of discrimination against Indians," and her brothers felt that keenly, she recalled. "You're always being told you are smelly, lazy, ugly and stupid, or they call you a caboclo," a Portuguese word used to describe native people who have lost their cultural identity and merged with ordinary peasants. "They felt blocked, and so they pulled back."
Joênia, in contrast, took immediately to the classroom, earning high grades and winning academic prizes and the notice and support of a few sympathetic teachers. But she, too, felt the sting of prejudice.
"Your identity is on your face and in your hair, you can't deny it," Ms. Batista said. "I was the only Indian in my class, so of course I felt different. Plus, we had very little money, which meant I didn't have proper
When she finished high school in the early 1990's, it was just assumed she would become a schoolteacher, the usual career for an educated Indian woman. "But I didn't want to be a teacher," she explained. "From the time I was little, I was always rebellious, always making trouble, and I thought I could contribute more than I would working as a teacher."
At first, Ms. Batista thought of becoming a doctor. But when she was 18, an older sister, who suffered from asthma and lung problems and had just had a baby, died when a piece of medical equipment malfunctioned after she was hospitalized.
"I had already suffered a lot, and seen a lot of injustice done to others," she explained. "I saw how my sister was treated, and I found myself wondering 'Could it be that they turned off the machine so as not to have to spend money on a poor Indian?' Her death had a big impact on me," especially since her other sister had earlier drowned in an accident.
To come up with money for her education, Ms. Batista worked in an accounting office. Her co-workers often scoffed at what they saw as her unrealistic ambitions, but though she knew no Brazilian Indian woman had ever become a lawyer, she ignored them. "My boss used to tell me I was wasting my time, that law school was only for people with money," she said. "But when the results of the entrance exam were announced, I finished second and he didn't qualify at all. He was annoyed."
During her four years in law school, Ms. Batista worked during the day and attended classes at night. At times she was discouraged and tempted to give up, she admits, but her relatives back in the village were having none of that. "They'd say, 'You better get that degree, because we are going to need your services,' " she said.
Those family connections proved crucial once she began to practice law. At the start, there was much skepticism of someone who was young, unproven and female, and it took her people's stamp of approval for her to win credibility.
WHEN you work with an indigenous group, you need to have the confidence of others," she said. "When I arrive to address a group, I explain who my parents are, who my brothers and sisters are and what community I belong to. Your roots are your identity."
In addition, the tribes Ms. Batista serves are hierarchical societies in which the chiefs and shamans are almost always men. So that was one more barrier.
"When you go to an assembly of the Yanomami, for instance, the women all stay in a corner and don't say anything," she said. "So naturally I worried at first whether the men would pay attention to what I had to say. But they've learned to listen to me."
These days, Ms. Batista is a mother herself, with two young children. She worries that despite her efforts to spare them what she experienced, the pace of change in Brazil is not fast enough.
"Here we are in 2004, and yet they still have to put up with taunts, the comments about their 'funny' hair and the notion that the Indian speaks badly and can't perform in the classroom," she said. "My parents had to tolerate that, but because I move between two worlds, I won't. I won't be submissive."
The New York Times, 13/11/2004
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