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trans activist érica malunguinho reps black brazil

October 4, 2018
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By Kiratiana Freelon, for AFROPUNK


On my first visit to Aparelha Luzia, an “urban quilombo” in São Paulo, I stumbled upon a late-night party where a newlywed Black couple was being serenaded by an Afro-Brazilian drum group. In a country that prides itself on racial mixing, where it’s rare to even see Black couples in advertisements, I was amazed to see a dark-skinned woman in a wedding dress, embracing her dark-skinned husband.  The couple had met at Aparelha a year earlier.

On that same night, Érica Malunguinho stepped into the same drum circle for an orisha-inspired performance. Her body oozed throughout the crowd, her arms swelling and cresting to the beat of the drum. With dreads that reached down her back and a long flowing skirt that accentuated her slim figure, Érica looked like Yemanjá, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the ocean.

This was the Blackest space I had encountered in my three years of living and reporting about Brazil. Although more than 50 percent of Brazil’s population are Afro-descendants, Black culture suffers from a pervasive preference for whitening.

But that night didn’t quite represent Aparelha in its totality.

“It’s not a space for just partying,” said Erica, who founded Aparelha Luzia. “It’s a place of constant production of Black intellectualism and militancy. It’s a center of black intelligence. It’s a place where all of the narratives of Blackness meet to think about everything in the world.”

Erica, a 36-year-old black trans woman, created and launched Aparelha Luzia two years ago, and since then it has become one of the most influential and powerful black cultural spaces in all of Brazil. Now she is running for political office in São Paulo. Many Afro-Brazilians think she has a good chance of winning.

To understand Erica and her impact, one first has to understand how glorious Aparelha Luzia is and why this space is so special for Afro-Brazilians. Quilombos are Brazilian “maroon” societies and represent the first act of resistance to slavery. Today, quilombos are typically rural Black communities that maintain their African heritage, strongholds in the fight against racism, cultural erasure and environmental destruction. As an urban quilombo, Aparelha Luzia unites Black people, shielding them from the everyday racism that they endure in the outside world, and elevates the longevity of Black culture.

“I think Aparelha is a reflection of Erica,” said Daniel Silva Carneiro, 29, an Afro-Brazilian man who is a regular at Aparelha. “It’s a place where you feel at home, it hugs you, welcomes you. But it also opens your eyes.”

Housed in a 10,000 square-foot warehouse on the edge of downtown São Paulo, Aparelha features live music, art, and intellectual get-togethers almost every day of the week.  There is no entrance fee, a testament to Erica’s commitment to making the space open to as many people as possible; it survives off beer and food sales. Inside, photos featuring a wide array of Black womanhood and girlhood, adorn the battered orange walls. Worn leather couches dot the room’s perimeter.  

Programming for the week of September 27 featured an indoor play session for young Black children, a chat on Black masculinity, a debate with artists and political candidates, a showcase of black women rappers, and an artist showcase of musicians from Cape Verde.

“Aparelha is a Black space created and nurtured by black people who focus on black issues,” Erica said. “So we name whiteness, we talk about affection, everything.”

While Aparelha Luzia is managed through a collective, it’s Erica’s vision that has attracted more than 200,000 people here over the last two years. Erica fights for Black people of all genders and sexual identities to feel included, welcomed and protected. To protect Aparelha when it first opened, Erica personally confronted white “colonizing hipsters” who had “discovered” the new, “cool” venue, almost overrunning it.

“It’s a place where I always feel welcome, and I don’t have to fight for space,” Daniel Silva Carneiro added. “I don’t feel invisible.”

Erica has come a long way from her roots in Recife, Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil. She was raised by a single mother in a humble, extended family household surrounded by Black and indigenous culture. Her mother was the only educated one in the family, working as a nurse to support her children as well as her siblings.

“We all knew we were Black, but when you’re Black in Brazil, you also suffer racism within the family,” Erica said. “We were always comparing who had the widest nose, or the nappiest hair.” Soon after high school, Erica, who still went by the name of Eric, moved to São Paulo. “I was always trans. I was living a gay life and a trans life at the same time.” Over the next decade, she racked up several degrees and married twice. Before she opened in 2016, she worked in education, and now she’s bringing her fight against racism into the political ring.

On October 7, more than 140 million Brazilians will vote not only for the next President of Brazil, but also for their national and state representatives. Erica is running for state congress in São Paulo, representing PSOL, one of Brazil’s most leftist parties. She’s part of a group of black women who were so impacted by the assassination of Rio de Janeiro politician Marielle Franco that they will risk their lives to march in her footsteps.

“I cried a lot when I heard about Marielle’s murder,” Erica said. “Her political project was just wiped out. It was a message to us that we should not be there fighting over our bodies and resisting genocide and racism. I had so much hate in me. At the same time, I knew I needed to take this hate and do something positive with it.”

Filmmaker Renata Martins said she plans to vote for Erica because of her race and gender militancy.  “She has done an incredible job with culture and she has succeeded in boosting the voices of Black people,” Renata said.