Irma Passoni talks about her personal history, the front-line politics of working hand-in-hand with the poorest of the poor, the struggle for democracy in Brazil in the past and now, as well as what she would like to leave behind as her legacy.
In the 1970s, a group of women from “Mother’s Club” based on the outskirts of São Paulo’s poor southern zone, dared to challenge the established order imposed by the military dictatorship, both in economic terms and in the way people "on the margins" understood their rights and place in the political life of the country.
These women, mostly worker’s wives, began to realise that the insufficiency of their husbands' wages was not the cause, but rather, the consequence of an ongoing historical process which followed a known established pattern: increase in the cost of living, worker’s wages squeeze and rising unemployment.
In 1973, this perception motivated the members of the “Mother’s Club'' to write a letter addressed to the authorities (in this instance, to the country’s President himself) denouncing the constant increase in the price of food items in the basic food basket and the stagnation of wages.
A month later, the text, known as the Letter from the mothers of the periphery, was read by representative Freitas Nobre, leader of the opposition in the country’s Chamber of Deputies, published by the newspaper O São Paulo and broadcast on radio stations.
Five years later, in 1978, the letter had been signed by more than 1.2 million individuals from all over the country. The letter became an iconic document leading to mobilisation of 20 thousand people in São Paulo’s central square, Praça da Sé, truly an act of defiance to the dictatorship. The government responded violently, and the demonstration was harshly repressed by the military police.
Despite the apparent setback, the women's movement on the outskirts of São Paulo had already created a crack within the silence imposed by the dictatorship. And when the ruling classes least expected, democracy broke out. This group of women created a substantive and participatory type of living democracy that went far beyond the formal principles of representative democracy.
They said that the movement they built was “from the price of bread to the mountaintop”. And "when they left home, the space on the street was too small for them."
In community meetings, they found a way of doing body-to-body politics: policies were decided horizontally, the movement had no rigid hierarchy, and was created and recreated daily as a collective experience, based on reciprocity, empowerment and solidarity.
And at the same time that they engendered the daily life of popular movements, they recreated and reconnected to their own desires, thus reinventing and broadening the possibilities of their femininity. It was a process derived from the contradictions and tensions experienced by these women at home, in church, on the street; accentuated by the reality of an authoritarian and sexist country.
Among these women, Irma Rossetto Passoni - who, in the 1970s, was being prepared to become a novice for her perpetual Christian vows. Irma, then a militant of the Catholic Church, soon emerged as one of the important voices of this movement. And together with other religious women, began a process of enlightenment, coalition-making and social action that has inspired Brazil and made history in Brazil’s struggle for democratic advances.
I believe that this story, which has been left out from traditional historic narratives of the time (which generally revolves around guerrilla actions against the regime, the student movement, the fight of intellectuals and workers against repression and censorship and the role of clandestine parties) is the story of the "people", and it still has a lot to do with us and our concerns surrounding the fate of democracy in our contemporary world, which seems to be heading towards an intensification of authoritarianism, racism and fascism.
Irma’s story does not only teach us about the past, it also needs to be understood within the context of what’s going on in Brazil and elsewhere right now.
Listening to Irma helps us to retrieve from the past and rewrite the history of these women and their way of doing politics. Women who occupied and politicized the public squares with courage, joy, celebration, and thus with the energy of the community, opposed and confronted by the brute force of the dictatorship.
It also clarifies what we call “personal people’s politics”. It exposes the challenging experience of being a mother of young children and, at the same time, actively participating in the country's political life, something that nourishes one’s spirit, but also, at times, is a source of great tension. It is exactly the dichotomy between issues of spirituality and her preoccupation with ways of ensuring a better future for the poor, particularly poor women and children that Irma became a novice in the first place.
In 1978, Irma Rossetto Passoni was one of three women elected State Representative for São Paulo with 32 thousand votes. She participated in the founding of the Workers' Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT) in 1980. She was one of 23 women to be elected Federal Representative at Brazil’s Parliament with more than 80 thousand votes in 1982, a position she held for three terms. She also helped draft the country’s new constitution in 1986.
Irma’s political engagement at Brazil’s Parliament received top marks by DIAP - (Interunion Department for Legislative Power) — a trustworthy independent institution that monitors and evaluates the performance of Brazil’s parliamentarians.
Are your surnames Rossetto and Passoni, originally Italian? How and why did your family come to Brazil?
My family's story is an immigrant story. Families such as the Rossetto, Slongo, Furlan, Michelin, among others, initially settled in Rio Grande do Sul and later immigrated to Santa Catarina, Paraná and other regions of southern Brazil. They are part of the families that, from around 1875 to 1914, left their homelands in exchange for land in Rio Grande do Sul. They came from Italy under incredibly difficult conditions because Italy in those days was an impoverished country and Brazil “promised” them land, work and a future for their children. Some of them escaped war and civil strife. When I was born, the signs of war persecution and Italian fascism were also present.
These immigrants arrived on ships with their whole families, including one of my great-grandparents, Epaminondas Rossetto. They started their activities in agriculture when they settled in the southern region of Brazil. This was very different from families who went elsewhere and faced far less favourable conditions to recreate life across the continent.
We work a lot in the field, music has always been our companion. In our family, we sang all the time. Brazilian music mixed with traditional Italian music formed our repertoire.
Did you grow up surrounded by strong women?
Yes, my mother built herself everything she owned with my father. My parents moved from Concordia (in Santa Catarina State) to a small town called Castelhano and years later we returned to Concordia. In Castelhano, they set up a business that sold many different types of items and my mother was the manager. We sold a little bit of everything, agricultural equipment, household items, food, among many other things.
Do you think this ended up influencing you?
I think so, I started working when I was 7 years old. My mother had 7 children. She had postpartum depression and I took care of my little sister who was called Maria de Lourdes. I was 10 years old, I took care of her and every day I took her to my aunt's house who breastfed her. My mother was depressed for over a year and a half. She was admitted to a hospital in Porto Alegre. When my father visited her, the greatest joy me and my brothers and sisters had at home was to hear from him: “I found your mother laughing, playing and singing!”. Hearing that was an immense joy, mixed with copious tears...
God doesn't write straight with crooked lines, he fixes them and rewrites them. Many are called, but few are chosen, you are certainly a chosen one.
I don't know if I'm chosen [laughs]. But I know that I have something very strong inside me, great faith and intuition, which has the force of a call. I think I have many “thank you” to say to many people. We can certainly plan and try to organise our lives, but it seems that there is a common thread that takes us along paths we didn't foresee. To understand this is to discover our individuality and the mission of why we came into this world.
What was your childhood like in the 1950s?
My childhood activities were studying, taking care of my siblings, doing all the housework and working in the store. I remember going to collect on horseback, alone on the roads, looking for residents to pay for their purchases at the store.
This was normal for women: working a lot, at home, in the fields, weeding, taking care of the pigs, cows, helping my parent’s business, taking care of the younger brothers and sisters, etc.
Our life was a day-to-day routine of doing any and all adult activities. But there were also many happy moments. We often played in a river that passed near the school, near our house. We hung from the branches of trees and jumped into the river. I have a memory of great joy, until the time of my mother's depression, which was very challenging and led to great suffering. It was a time of deep sadness and a challenging situation because there was me — at the time, I was 12 or 13 years old — and my older brother who was 15,16 years old and we had to solve all the family's problems, take care of my parents' store, make sure that my siblings went to school and take care of my newborn sister.
I remember vividly when I finally got over my mother's suffering. It was when she returned home that I felt my younger sister would be protected. From that moment on, things got back together again and my older sister went to São Paulo to study.
My brother went to Florianópolis, because in the region, in the 1950s, there was not much schooling available beyond fifth grade.
We lived in a small village. Before I was born, the languages taught in schools were German and Italian. In 1938, the Getúlio Vargas’ government issued a decree that prohibited classes in languages other than Portuguese. But the Portuguese language took a long time to reach our region. It was in the late 1940s that we had our first Portuguese teacher, who was called Prof. Piagentini.
How was your adolescence?
Loaded with many responsibilities. Work and schooling started around 7 and 8 years old. In 1960, at 13, I went to study at a religious institution: the Blessed Virgin School, known as the “English Ladies school” which is dedicated to educating young people in the city of São Paulo. To travel there we used the only means of transport available to us, which was the train from Sorocaba. It took 3 days and 3 nights to get to São Paulo.
At school we had an established routine: we would get up at 5 am, at 6 am we would go to mass, followed by meditation and breakfast, then we would prepare the classrooms, clean the whole school for the students who were going there, and we would pick them up ourselves — when their parents couldn't bring them. After two years, when I was already in the seventh grade, I was given the responsibility of working with kindergarten and preschool children. I started taking care of 40 children!
Well, you had the experience of looking after your brothers.
I was, still, a little unprepared for teaching, to deal with 40 children! At that moment, for example, I remember some Chinese, Korean and Japanese children, whose families were expelled from their countries and were received at school in Brazil.
There was a boy named Dewe from a foreign family who was persecuted and the school took him in. And I had to “improvise”, they were 5-year-old who spoke Japanese, English, etc. And I only spoke Portuguese by that time. That was one of my big dramas. I loved being an educator, I had to use all my creativity and imagination.
How was that?
Playing with children, creating ways for developing conversations and building relationships between them was a great challenge, as they came from such different cultures and backgrounds. Their parents helped a lot. It was really an immense challenge, but this work gave me a lot of joy.
When I understood that playing, socializing, singing and dancing were educational tools, my pedagogic work began to happen almost naturally. For me it was a joyful work. I worked with young people for several years, taught mathematics, humanities and religious education. The activities went well beyond the classroom... They included thinking and comprehending texts, retreats in farms where we spent days living together, lecturing, reading poetry, critical thinking and reflecting on our own lives, environment and the inequalities of our reality.
While talking to parents, we raised many subjects that were difficult or even prohibited such as dating, sex, fears about the future. They were openly discussed within groups or individually. And I managed to create ongoing dialogues with many of the parents. I think dialogue is one of the hallmarks of pedagogical training.
As a teacher, I have always tried to strengthen and empower the blossoming child, to reach the inner potential of each one of them, of each human being. Educating for me is that. At that time, I had already completed teacher training school, and later graduated from a Pedagogy College with a specialization in school administration.
I encouraged young people to be themselves and challenged them to chart their own paths in life, so as not to be dragged by others and, consequently, not to be happy. And somehow it seems that these messages were remembered, at least by some of them.
I remember a memorable occasion when I was on a flight and the airplane captain saw me and said with great joy: “You were my teacher!”. On another occasion, arriving in Moscow, then the Soviet Union, we were received at the Brazilian Embassy, as we were on an official mission. A young man in his 20s came to me and said: “You were my teacher, and I still remember what you used to say, ‘either we build our own path or others will do it for you and you go on the trail, without a personal identity’…"
It's a personal challenge to build your own path, because no one will build it for you! I think that was my mark as a teacher in high school, and later when I became a civil servant in the state of São Paulo.
When I studied pedagogy, I had a teacher named Flávio, and he used in his classes the book whose title was Teachers, What Are They For? This book had a huge impact on my life as an educator. And being a teacher for me had a lot to do with the Christian views and values: the teacher as the prophet.
The teacher cannot be just a teacher. He and she need to be a teacher and a prophet. They need to understand reality and point the way to the future. I think my pedagogical life followed this path: understanding the present, the reality of the moment and looking to the future. And the construction of one’s life is up to us. Start and do it. And always do as much as possible with more people, never alone, because you can't get there alone. Life and learning go together. “Faith without works is dead,” says St. James.
Why did you decide to become a nun?
Well, you know... I will be very honest with you. At first, I followed a spiritual and educational path. I had a lot of support and encouragement from my parents. My father used to say: “If you stay here, you will never leave, you will not grow”. In my family, it started with my sister who came to São Paulo before me to study. Basically, my original intention was to take the opportunity to study and go to high school.
It is evident that in this educational process the sisters (nuns) also encouraged us to learn about religion so much, so that I acquired the habit and made my first vows then. I also attended, in 1968, the Catechism Pastoral Institute. It was a time of great changes in the Church brought about by the Second Vatican Council. At that time, we had access to very important documents. Among them The Church in today's world, Gaudium et spes: “The joys and hopes of today's world are also the joys and hopes of the Church”. This new view of the Church led to a new practice: faith without deeds doesn’t exist. And it led us to understand that eternal salvation begins with the construction of salvation here and now, as the Gospel of St. Matthew says. And then we concluded, starting from the notion that it is very important to build paradise now (Frei Carlos Masters). In the period 1970-1971 — when I attended the Catechism Pastoral Institute, the challenge was to understand reality and its relationship with faith.
What is it like to build salvation in practice?
You start rescuing right here and now! This mission, as defined by the liberation theology, led me to the following thought: “What am I going to do at school? I'm going to teach the basics, but is this really enough? How and what exactly can I do to help these poor people?”
It was vital for me to find out what these people's lives were like. I was invited to work as a secretary at the headquarters of the Regional Episcopal Sul, coordinated by Monsignor Angelo Gianola. They were responsible for the following neighbourhoods: Ipiranga, Jabaquara, Capela do Socorro, M'Boi Mirim, Campo Limpo and Vila das Belezas. There were 80 parishes. I started by coordinating the formation of catechists with local teams and organizing the communities through a program called Missão Conciliar.
From this process, dozens of Ecclesial Base Communities were born, also under the guidance of each local Vicar and assisted by hundreds of participants. All the work was done voluntarily, with great commitment, with fraternal love, joy, always seeking justice for all.
Was this after the '68 Conference in Medellín?
Yes, in Medellín the bishops of Latin America created themselves a document that followed and applied the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in Latin America. This document, like hundreds of others and the Bible, were instruments for analysis, reflection, action, and self-development. What was being built was our own vision of liberation theology and how to apply it in practice.
Liberation theology was understood and inspired by the New Testament: and as James said in his letter “Faith without works is dead”, and it's true.
From then on, my place of work was located in Buraco Quente’s favela (shantytown), near Congonhas’s airport in São Paulo, Brazil. The activities, however, were carried out throughout the capital, extending to every state and in many regions of the country.
It is worth noting the arrival of a particular group of people in the Southern Episcopal Region. They came to ask Monsignor Angelo for support for the community of Santa Margarida, near Jardim Angela. It was a very nice group and concerned about improving the activities that were developed in the pastoral.
This group was part of Santo Dias, Ana Dias, Senerino, Dita, Carlos, Iraci, among many others. It was the people who collaborated with the community. They had built a parish and needed support for celebrations because they didn't have another priest to help Father Luiz, vicar of the parish at Vila Remo. Monsignor Angelo challenged me, saying: “You go there”.
I went to see Santo, Ana, Senerino, Carlos and many other participants in order to understand what their priorities were, as well as the needs of their own community. The first demand was that I speak in a language they understood. I felt firmness on their part and realized that they wanted a partnership, not a boss dictating what they should do.
Until that time, I lived in the neighbourhood of Brooklyn, in São Paulo, I was a teacher of middle class children and the outskirts were only about 20 km away, but the differences were striking due to the language itself. And I had to relearn how to speak their language in order to communicate with them.
The periphery “did not exist” for the City and State governmental authorities, much less for the Federal authorities. Everything was lacking there: schools, daycare, health centres, hospitals, public transport, water distribution systems, sewage, housing, asphalt, leisure and especially work for the entire population newly arrived from the interior of São Paulo, from Minas Gerais, and Brazil’s northeastern region.
On 3 October 1973, the first meeting with the community took place. In that first conversation, I soon realised and thought: I can't do anything here if I don't come to live in the neighbourhood and we build solutions together.
There were many activities that needed to be carried out. We organised workers' pastoral, popular education, literacy classes through the Paulo Freire method, etc. In the beginning, I taught literacy classes in Jardim Angela under a tree, the only available place where we could meet. Then we, also, organised dozens of Mothers' Clubs that met every Thursday in the afternoon.
Another group of 40 people met every Monday, where we together learnt how to apply the foundations of the Second Vatican Council; its relationship with the Bible, popular education, in the education of women, specifically in workers' pastoral and union organization.
About 30 groups-clubs were formed. It was later, in these groups of mothers, that the Movement Against the Cost of Living was born, later called the Movement Against High Prices. This movement, in the midst of the military dictatorship, collected more than one million and five hundred thousand signatures demanding lower cost of living, employment, salary increases and agrarian reform.
Although it was widespread throughout Brazil, this protest was just one of many that social movements organised. Why? Because at that time, people from the periphery were themselves migrants, they came from the interior of São Paulo, Brazil's northeast region and Minas Gerais. They were rural workers who, with the emptying of the rural area and the mechanisation of the land and planting of sugarcane, oranges, etc., left — or were expelled — and came to the outskirts of the city of São Paulo searching for work and opportunities for their children.
Families had a lot of kindness in their hearts, and they were very courageous. But the biggest challenge was: “Where am I going to live?”.
Most families could not afford to buy or rent a house. In the beginning, they were accommodated in small shacks forming the favelas. But there was also no school, no nursery, no hospital, no asphalt, no sewage, no water, the city’s periphery regions had no infrastructure at all.
With the organisation of communities focused on the biblical experience and looking at the socio-economic reality, the women started to talk in Mother’s Clubs about the major issues that afflicted them, in particular the cost of living and unemployment. For example: When I took a public examination and started working as a teacher in the public school on a very precarious basis, it was us, the teachers, who had the task of setting up the schools, with our salaries. There were no school supplies, or lunch. At the end of the school year, the children also had nowhere to go.
Santo Dias, who was Luciana's father (one of my students), organised a group of people, who came from 26 different neighbourhoods, to demand schools for the region. 500 people attended the church in the community of Jardim Alfredo, next to Guarapiranga’s Park. This movement frightened the government, politicians and other authorities.
Because at that time it was forbidden, by the dictatorship, to bring together two or more people in public. Imagine 500?! The result was that each neighbourhood organized a survey with a petition with thousands of signatures.
A commission was chosen to go to the State Legislative Assembly. There we were told to go to the State Fund for School Construction. A female engineer named Mayumi told us that the state had in fact the money available to meet our demands, but that it needed the community's help. She asked us to identify free land on which to build the schools.
As a result, a committee was created in each of the 26 districts to identify the name, age, address of each school-age child as well as possible spaces for building schools. Everything was achieved by the community putting pressure on the public authorities to fulfil the State's obligation.
It was the first successful experience in organized protests and it filled us with joy and certainty that the people have the right to organize and fight. I remember vividly what people said at the time: “If we don’t get our rights, everybody loses”.
The 26 schools were a major conquest, a great victory that gave us the certainty that the organized communities through political struggle can get their rights, yes! We now felt that we really belonged to a nation and that made us very proud.
But it was not enough just to fulfill that demand. The path to conquering these rights made us realize that we needed to engage in constant political and permanent action. One solution led to another and that required a new type of organization.
You need to understand that the State, the Federal and City Hall did not see us as full citizens. For example, another problem was the demand for a solution concerning the need for low-income housing.
In July 1979, the movement for low-income housing provoked a major confrontation with the federal and state government's repressive forces due to the people’s occupation of a large area, an INSS (National Social Security Institute) farm in the Guarapiranga neighbourhood, called the ITUPU’S farm.
The army went there with an immense arsenal: helicopters, cavalry and heavy weaponry. There were 5 thousand people at the housing assembly. We knew there would be strong repression and decided that in this instance resistance was impossible.
There was another very important issue that intersected with the demand for housing — the farm we occupied was located in a protected area — the springs of the Guarapiranga Reservoir (in the extreme of the South Zone of the city of São Paulo): “This is the dam of Guarapiranga. It's where the dam's water is born, and clean water is very important for the environment”. So there was also an environmental component in our struggles.
We started to discuss among ourselves the social importance of the environment and decided to leave. The retreat from that occupation was understood and agreed upon by everyone, but the struggle continued to demand from us a new way of organising ourselves to achieve success in our fight for low-income homes.
Another example of our struggle: The right to clean water. SABESP (the sanitation company of the city of São Paulo) hated our movement. They really hated it! We gathered 40 buses full of people (caravans) and went to their headquarters chanting: “We want water!”. And SABESP’s leadership left! They were scared of us. They said: “Look, here come Irma's people!”. It wasn't "my people." It was everyone and everybody.
Many caravans were organised during various previous municipal and state governments, during the tenure of Ademar de Barros, Jânio Quadros, Mário Covas, and later Luiza Erundina, during the period 1988-1992.
This is how we managed to obtain hospitals, health clinics, public transport, the construction of thousands of homes, and day care centres. We got more than 333 crèches! The city of São Paulo witnessed the popular mobilisation achieving many hard-won victories. We won right after right. The communities now had basic conditions to live in. The fight for rights was also our fight for dignity.
Housing was essential. We needed to remain organised to withstand the provocateurs agents who always infiltrated in order to cause riots leading to repression. This required a new type of organization which implied the thorough registration of all participants.
Once all the participants were registered, we went to the City Hall and the State Government Headquarters to demand a housing policy. As a result of our protests, we got a large housing development on Estrada de Itapecerica, near the Superbom supermarket.
Mayor Jânio Quadros ordered the construction of houses, but the construction was poor. They built flimsy houses that were unstable and prone to collapse!
When Mário Covas took over as mayor and then, later, Luiza Erundina, we fought for a different type of housing — construction in modules and self-construction (the families themselves helped to build their own houses). So it was a collective effort: a company built the foundations of housing and the family would complete the rest (walls, roof).
We also mobilised universities to help us select the best and most appropriate types of building materials, the best way to build structures, ensuring that the houses, even though they were small, had at least a little free space in front of them. We built 5,000 homes!
The struggle for decent housing encompassed all areas of the city: the East, North, etc. And the idea was spreading throughout Brazil. Every organised movement was replicating itself throughout the country. The experience of Sao Paulo was now the blueprint for the rest of the country. The need was there. And now there was also a successful political strategy that we, the people, had created.
Later, when I was State Representative we tried to improve the quality of the school meals. The State served terrible food for children in schools. For many of them it was the only meal they would have during the day. It was disgusting! “Things” (often we could not tell what the food was), were served in precarious and dirty aluminum pans and pots. What did the children do to deserve this?
For state authorities breakfast came with croissants, pastries, fruit, etc. But not for the children. One day we served, instead, the food they sent to the children. Of course, they refused to eat. It was a scandal. The state authorities went crazy.
They accused me of bringing an army of the poor and the “ragged ones” to the State Assembly. It was pretty demoralizing for all sides. It is regrettable that the right to decent food for students in schools has served as a mechanism for corruption and theft by sectors of the government.
We wanted, at that time, to connect school food to family farming. We started to offer food for school meals purchased directly from the hands of local producers. This feeding program created a bridge, a direct relationship between small local farmers and the school communities.
Quality food was offered, replacing processed food, which was similar to the feed offered to animals. Now the priority was fresh food: vegetables, fruits for the students. And, at the same time, it strengthened family farming with local purchases and the diversity of food in each region.
And this was during the period of the dictatorship?
Yes, indeed. The dictatorship’s period was the 60’s 70s and 80s. But that hasn't changed. The need for a struggle for basic rights continued into the 1990s and is now coming back with great force.
Were you still a nun at that time? Why did you give up being a nun? Was it a personal decision or a collective decision?
It was both things together. When I was about to take my perpetual vows, I asked myself: why am I going to take perpetual vows if that means I have to go back to College? This was an imposition of the Congregation. I thought: “How can I go back to school, if I'm more and more involved in the day-to-day life of the communities? They still don’t have any political support?”. That’s where I can be useful to people.
The decision to leave the church and continue the work with the community was also a collective decision and made in harmony with the communities themselves who had welcomed us in the first place. The Congregation understood and accepted my choice. Besides me, some other sisters had taken the same decision.
The Congregation - which at the time was coordinated by Sister Caetana - was very supportive and even helped us from very early on to rent a community house in the neighbourhood.
In any case, there was always a very important dialogue with the Congregation that did not stop there. Just a parenthesis, these women's groups, or Mothers' Clubs, had a strong bond with the Church, not just the Catholic, but also the Lutheran. And little by little others came in too. But it was not like the logic of monetarist churches. It was about human solidarity, not just salvation.
One night, we were washing clothes and Ana said: “Look Irma, the women in the neighbourhood ask us to write a letter to the government saying that survival is impossible! The cost of living is very high and the salary is low. I replied, "Okay, what would this letter look like?” Ana and I decided to draft it together: “The mothers from the poor outskirts of São Paulo, who feel the burden of the extremely high cost of living, have come together to ask you to take steps to lower the cost of living. Brazil is such a rich land. Why do mothers have to cry when it's time to put their pans on the fire to cook for the children? Where does the meat go? Beans? Milk? Until recently beans and rice were food for the poor but now not even the poor can eat it anymore…”
This draft was discussed with the group of mothers in Jardim Fujiara and later we took it to the general coordination of the groups of mothers who met once a month — for training and to share successful and unsuccessful experiences in their communities. And all of a sudden, all the moms’ clubs decided to take on the task of “writing the letter”. But for that, it was necessary to collect data. At the beginning of the movement, the government did not release real economic data. We felt prices increasing, but we didn't have the information — or the training — to understand the reason or the scale of the increase. We started to carry out price research of the items in the basic food basket. And we soon realized that there were items with a 200% price increase in the month!
We started to meet with economists and other experts in order to understand the reason for that dramatic price increase. We came to understand that prices had to do with economic decisions, with the government's economic policy. Therefore, preparing the letter became a process of consciousness raising, of understanding why the cost of living was unsustainable, and the root causes of the exorbitant prices of rice and beans. It led us to understand that it was the result of an economic policy incapable of seeing and taking into account the needs of the people.
We decided to write ‘a petition’ and went from house to house collecting signatures. We had to have as many signatures as possible, because the problem was not just ours, but of all Brazilians. Each group of women organised the visits. We explained what the cost of living was, why it was high, what the wage squeeze was, why there was unemployment, why workers were expelled from the countryside, etc. We knew we had to demand a different policy from the government. Living conditions were unsustainable.
The movement began to gain strength and spread to all areas of São Paulo: the south, east, west, north and, finally, the centre. With many signatures, we showed the letter to the journalist Freitas Nobres, leader of MDB, the opposition party, in the Federal Chamber. He read the letter in session. Little by little, the letter began to take on great political visibility and began to have a national character. We collected one million and two hundred thousand signatures. During that time, the military government was headed by general João Figueiredo. He said: "But who guarantees me that this is true, who guarantees me these 1.2 million people actually exist?”
Afterwards, they complained that we women made up people's names and that, therefore, the records were false. They could not understand that at that time 25.9% of the population was illiterate, according to data from the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), and what we were doing was helping those people register so they could sign the document. Our answer was: “No, it's not fake, we also have people’s ID numbers next to their names”. This issue triggered a national political debate, both in the press and in parliament. “We do have proof: one million and two hundred thousand signatures. It’s up to you to support us or not”.
We occupied Praça da Sé, right in the center of São Paulo, in August 1978. The authorities refused to receive us, to talk to us. They sent the military, horses and dogs. For a moment the police, seeing the housewives at the front, backed off. But soon a riot began — probably caused by government provocateurs. There were bombs going off everywhere. Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns opened the doors of the Sé Cathedral to the demonstrators. Those who were unable to enter had to run through the streets of the center, fleeing from the military.
Inside the Cathedral, an assembly of the movement began. It was decided that a commission would go to Brasília to try to deliver the undersigned petition to General Figueiredo, in charge of the presidency of the republic. The commission went to Brasília, but was not received by the president who refused to talk to us. But by this time, the message was already sent and was out in the public view and carried by the media.
The symbolic attempt to deliver the petition had become a major national issue, particularly within the social movements. Finance Minister Delfim Neto came up with an unforgettable sentence: “We will make the cake grow and then we will share it”. This was how economists justified the so-called “Economic Miracle” in the early 1970s: “If the economy grows, we can ‘distribute’ it”, but this thought, this type of economic policy, was a farce!
Then the well-known opposition politician Eduardo Suplicy joined the movement. And other economists and journalists began giving us support. We made thousands of pamphlets and newspapers started spreading the movement's agendas and platforms and helped us to keep the debate alive. The Folha de São Paulo newspaper helped us a lot. Realidade Magazine did the same. The newspaper Movimento, and other media throughout the country also reported on our struggles. And the Cost of Living Movement became a great banner — like a quilt really, not only for the poor communities, but for the entire Brazilian society. At the same time, the Diretas Já - which campaigned for free and fair presidential elections was rapidly gaining force. And the fight for a political Amnesty for political prisoners and Brazilians exiled abroad was happening as well as the movement for a new Constitution. The fight for democracy grew exponentially. The right to political representation was finally won. But economic democracy has not yet been achieved.
I believe that if we strengthen popular democracy, continue to encourage the people who fight for their rights, maybe we will be able to solidify and consolidate participatory democracy itself.
What transformations did these women go through during this period?
Look, the women arrived from the countryside, they were fearful of leaving their houses. You just could not imagine them being politically active, speaking in public. There was immense resistance from all sides. We said to each one of them: “Today you are going to read about the themes we’re going to discuss in the meeting, you are going to prepare a topic and debate it with us next week”. And we were distributing tasks, demystifying the women’s fear and strengthening everyone's self-esteem. Women began to “self-confront”, believing in their abilities and in their right to be able to speak in a public setting.
They faced not only their own personal fear, but also resistance from their husbands. They had to face several questions, like: "Where are you going? With whom? Why are you talking about the cost of living? Why are you saying we need schools? Why are you saying you need daycare centres and hospitals? Their response was, "It is the government who has to do this. When we speak these things will happen”.
In this way, certain conflicts also started in their families. Many had to renegotiate, reinvent their marriages. And many of them, after talking to their husbands, started to take over the movement. I remember one of our comrades told us that her husband had said to her: “It's either me or the movement”. She replied, "It's your decision, not mine. Either you stay with me and the movement or neither."
At the same time, the family pastoral, the workers' pastoral, the struggle for housing, the union struggles were going on together, at the same time. This encouraged more participation, and it helped to reaffirm with more certainty that these changes would only happen when organised people spoke themselves.
And how did you become a candidate?
By 1974 community leaders understood that political participation was necessary. The decision was to support certain candidates for councilor and in the following elections state representatives and senators.
In 1978, 120 communities decided together to support candidacies that represented our struggle. In São Paulo, they supported Aurélio Peres' candidacy for federal representative and me for state representative. And then my political career was launched. We were both elected. Of course, there were many discussions. I could not be a representative of certain parties that were clandestine or banned at the time. They tried to put another candidate in my place. But the communities asserted themselves and they stood with me.
Father Luiz, the parish priest of Vila Remo, gathered everyone together and “saved” my candidacy. He was in tune with the community, he knew what the community wanted. It was a beautiful process, very open and transparent. It was a victorious process. Then I was elected for three more terms and also helped draft a new constituent for the country in 1988.
How was life as a politician, living politics?
I think it was [pause]… funny, but it felt natural, organic. It was one thing after another, it wasn't only my choice, it was a collective decision. And this collective, the community members, gave me strength and guidance. We grew together, planned, transformed and learned together. We built a very collective process with the community.
I married Armelindo Passoni and we had two children, Paulo Thiago and later, Moara. Paulo felt alone and sometimes in despair because most of the days, I left our house in the morning and came back late at night. Saturday and Sunday we were not at home, neither me nor Armelindo. Of course, this was very heavy for me, in the sense of: “what do I do with my children?”.
On my daily routine as a state representative at the Legislative Assembly, in São Paulo, I carried Moara in a little basket. There was no daycare, there was only a clinic available. It was only after many negotiations with the Legislative Assembly’s administrators that we managed to lease a property close to the Assembly for the children of the Assembly’s employees and state representatives.
The movement for daycare grew; in public institutions, workplaces, and in neighbourhoods. It became a public policy. At the time, they wanted to make different daycare centres for the children of employees and the children of deputies. We didn't let them — we wanted daycare centres with the same assistance for all children, together, with the same pedagogical quality for the development of all, without distinction. Such discrimination was unacceptable! The daycare issue also has the dimension that the Legislative Assembly was made up of men, made and organised by and for men.
You have always taken care of children. As a child of your brothers, after other children when you were a teacher, in the communities as a catechist as well. Do you think that becoming a mother changed you as a woman? Or was it something that came normally because you were already taking care of children? Having your own children gave you more strength? Where does this strength come from?
I'll answer you with a question from Moara and Paulo: “Mom, when are you going to stay home? Why did you do that?". I used to say: “Look, you both will only have a school to go to when we fight for a school for everyone. And you will be healthy when we fight for health for everyone. All the good we are creating is for you too”.
That was my strength. It was the community’s strength. And also the strength that my children's and other women's children gave us. The strength of being sure that we were fighting for social justice and for the possibility of a future not only for the community, but also for an entire nation, which was beginning to dream of a future full of possibilities and opportunities.“ Let's go ahead because everything we build for the common good will serve us too”, I was sure. In fact, I was absolutely sure that our personal happiness was also related to the happiness of the community as a whole. Anyone who has experienced this knows what I am saying. And when struggle finds that place of joy, it becomes a very rewarding personal process. At the time, the amount of work needed was so great that one thing led to another, there was no way to stop.
The political choices and the role of an elected representative gave me even more responsibilities, because we were called to go to various places to help and also to speak. “Why did they fight for housing work out for you? Why did the struggle for public transport — which was chaotic — work out?" and so on? It was so important to share our experiences and focus on winning strategies. We were able to gather people who had the same needs and we said: “look, it's our problem, so let's get together and try to find a solution”. The government only respects the people when they are organised. When we organize they are afraid of us and they respect us.
Do you think it's more than a mission, a calling?
Yes, yes, I felt like an instrument, this was a calling, really. It was my mission, and I knew that this mission involved my son and my daughter, but it was much bigger than my own children. It was also related to the idea of salvation.
We always worked on this during our big meetings. We would go to the Paulo VI Institute (São Paulo) and spend the day reflecting on these questions, discussing all these issues. But it wasn’t all work. We would also go to a recreation center in the city hall for games and socialising, not just for reflection. It was a mix of meetings: the cost of living, unemployment, transport, housing, health, water and at the same time they need for coexistence, friendship and solidarity. It was so good, so nice. But I also need to say that immediately after entering politics, persecution and repression really began to be felt.
Aurélio Peres was arrested and tortured, as well as several workers. It was both physical but moral repression. Santo Dias was murdered in 1979. Santo, Ana and I worked a lot together. We supported each other. We were neighbours but our doors were always open. And Santo was an important union leader, of the Workers' Pastoral and of the Popular Community. He was murdered in front of the Sylvania light bulbs' factory, in the Campo Grande neighbourhood, in São Paulo, in October 1979. His murder was cruel, cowardly.
It was a day when we all got up at 5 am. We had a biblical meditation before leaving to join the 1979 strike movement in São Paulo. I left Santo in my office because we knew he was being threatened with death… And I went to follow the strike in the East side of the town, where they were suffering a lot of repressions. Coming back from there, I heard on the radio that Santo had been murdered.
He wanted to be with the workers, he was supposed to have stayed in my office giving support to the workers who were on strike, but the call to be present with his colleagues “spoke louder”, and he went to be with his comrades. There was intense police repression against workers, and when Santo arrived at the factory he was shot dead by the São Paulo Military Police. From the IML (Institute of Legal Medicine), he was taken and veiled in the Consolação church.
Tens of thousands of people followed, in a funeral procession, to the Cathedral of São Paulo, where Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns and I requested that the police were not present and that we would guarantee “peace” and safety until the burial that took place at Santo Amaro’s cemetery. Faced with the worker’s revolt, we negotiated with the police so that they would not be present.
We felt the oppression on our bodies, on our skin. When I was elected a representative, I said: “I feel like a leper! I am a communist for some and a terrorist for the military government”. And I was accused by some as being an instrument to manipulate the people.
My presence was always required at Pastoral da Terra, because I was a politician and was known to make combative statements to the Parliament. I started an investigation on violence in the countryside against small farmers and peasants, in Vale do Ribeira, in São Paulo.
I became a reference for popular politics both in São Paulo and elsewhere in Brazil. In Araguaia, in Bico do Papagaio, Vilhena and Chapada dos Guimarães (Mato Grosso), in Rondônia and in many other places where there was movement for agrarian reform and conflicts over land ownership. I became involved in all these struggles. I went to Mato Grosso, in the Chapada dos Guimarães, supporting the movement for agrarian reform on Farmer's Day at the invitation of Dante de Oliveira (later elected a member of the parliament) in 1979.
In the same year I went to Andradina and the region. I followed the struggle for regulation of the Primavera farm, in Pontal do Paranapanema (São Paulo), where there had been many armed conflicts. In 1989/90 I co-authored, together with deputy Antônio Resk, deputy Rubens Lara, the creation of a committee investigating rural violence, in Vale do Ribeira (São Paulo).
You were elected as a member of the MDB party and then you moved to PT (Workers Party)? Why PT?
I was elected as a member of MDB, and after 400 meetings with organised groups in different cities in the state of São Paulo and revisiting the campaign's supporters, we collectively decided our affiliation with the PT. In the party I was the secretary of the organization in the state of São Paulo and later in the PT's national organization in Brazil.
It was another struggle, it required a lot of effort because there was no infrastructure to organise the party. But crucially there was support from the local communities. And that support, in 123 municipalities, gave me the legal framework I needed to comply with the law, and thus consolidate the legal aspects of the new political party.
We were working 24 hours a day, just like little ants work. From organizing communities, meeting people, the party — to building a country. There were also people from the churches, Catholics and Protestants, who at the time joined the Cost of Living movement and, as a consequence, there were more people participating in all other activities. And the numbers increased daily.
Just like in the urban areas, the situation in the countryside was very precarious. The participation of bishops and priests in supporting the agrarian reform agenda was crucial. And in the same way that we had the immediate need for urban reform for people to obtain homes, there was a need for agrarian reform in the countryside. And resistance against that was very fierce indeed.
For example, I arrived in the north of the state of Goiás, which is now Palmas (Tocantins), and we went to a city that had a Pastoral da Terra. Manoel da Conceição had lost a leg in the struggle for land. We brought together a very large number of people. They were riverside people, who came mounted on horseback, others arrived in boats, some walked for days. We went to a small town called Agostinópolis.
There was only one church land there and the rest was all straw shacks. We held an assembly with thousands of people. There were 3 police officers that the government had sent to spy on us. And then a councilor arrived in a car, a red Chevette, and started to drive around the room where we were, honking, honking several times to disturb the assembly.
I got off the platform and went there to talk to him. He said: “I am a councilor”. Okay, I said: “I'm a deputy, you want to stand up at the platform we give to you, get up there and speak, it’s no use just protesting against the assembly”. He started the car, went down the street and went to a bar next door and began to provoke the people who were there, the workers had no doubt: they killed him on the spot. It was chaos. Because then, of course, the councilor's family started to react and everyone started to come against those people. I took the microphone and said: “For God's sake, each one of you, take the truck, the car, the horse, the boot, on foot, whatever and leave right now, because we're going to have a confrontation that we can't win”. There could have been a blood bath. And we managed to disassemble everything quickly. Things weren't easy. They were not… When I went to Vilhena, Mato Grosso, there was an eviction and the community members told me: “Irma, for God's sake, come here because we do not have anyone representing us”.
And how was it up to you, a mother of a 6-month-old baby, knowing that there were huge risks, having to say: “Mommy is going”. How is the mother's heart in this chaotic and violent scenario?
Anguish for leaving my daughter, to stop breastfeeding. “I'm not breastfeeding and I don't have anyone who can do this for me!”. I understood that this was my mission, that people were being evicted en masse. And the eviction was like this: they went to the settlement and caught people on a cold, freezing, raining day! They moved the people and left them in the dark, right in the middle of the road, in the mud during nighttime. The elderly, children, pregnant women, husbands and wives.
How did you feel as a mother in that situation?
There were times when I felt angry. And at times even with the leadership of my own party. “I stopped breastfeeding my daughter to go organise the communities, join the struggle, and I don't have any support from you?” But we had a greater mission. And the anger quickly dissolved. There was something that moved us, this internal feeling that made us risk everything, everything, including our own children. And I would say: let's go ahead.
In a way I had Armelindo [Irma and Armelindo have been married for 44 years] who provided great support for the family. He was also in politics, but stayed more in São Paulo. At the time he organised dozens of neighbourhood associations. And there was the community where we lived, which was also very supportive. When I went to work in institutional politics it was difficult. Why? Because in fact we started to get robbed a lot, there were lots of dirty tricks, something that didn't happen often before.
For example, once we got into a confrontation with a man who wanted to appropriate, illegally, a piece of land in the Santa Margarida neighbourhood to make a parking lot for stolen cargo loads and we were fighting for the place to become a day care centre. That man said: “We have to get Irma out of here, while Irma is here we won't be able to do the things we want to do in the neighbourhood”. We reached a point where we felt widespread anguish and decided to move to another neighbourhood, to Santo Amaro. In a sense it was a survival decision and we left.
Yesterday I received a phone call from a lady named Marlene, from the Campinas forum, a region that I helped a lot. And she asked me: “How can we build again, at this moment, something to react against the poverty and hunger that are devastating Brazil right now together with the pandemic? What should we do?”. I think about these questions all the time — and my response to Marlene's question was: “Political struggle”.
In what way do women do politics differently from men?
In my second, third week of office as a state representative, a group of people from the outskirts of the city brought me a petition. Then state representative Manoel Sala, took the microphone in the plenary and said: “Representative Irma Passoni is walking through these corridors with the ragged and “undressed” people who had never entered the Legislative Assembly”. And then they started to question me a lot and, always, and tried to demoralise me. I didn't care. More than being a woman, bringing the “shirtless” into politics, bothered them a lot. But being a woman helped to create empathy… The truth is that we were always hassled and bothered.
Why the emphasis in addressing science and technology?
When I was a federal deputy, a member of the federal parliament, I was also in these themes, I took care of the areas of science and technology. For me the importance of information technology was clear. In 1982, Cristina Tavares and I discussed how to regulate computer factories, and replace old huge supercomputers with minicomputers. We were called “Jurassic dinosaurs”, it was horrible, but we told our detractors: "We can also acquire this type of knowledge!
I developed my own career in the field of science and technology and proposed a CPMI (Mixed Parliamentary Inquiry Commission), which was known as “Causes and Dimensions of Brazilian Scientific and Technological Delay”, in 1991/1992. I was the Commission/s rapporteur. It was a milestone as this was the first time we set up a commission to deal with the country's strategic development issues. It involved analysing the major strategic areas that had the potential for Brazil's development, such as the aeronautical industry - with the manufacture of airplanes by Embraer and relying on the research of the CTA (Advanced Technology Center) and INPE (National Institute for Space Research), and on education at the ITA (Technological Institute of Aeronautics) for the technical training of professionals, aiming at generating knowledge of the entire aerospace industry complex.
Another example: we studied the agricultural sector. We already had Embrapa (Brazilian Company for Agricultural Research), as a body of excellence in agricultural research that developed major applied research in the production of agriculture, focusing on grain, pork, chicken and many other products. There was a great boom of development. The challenge was how to transform the entire production chain into agribusiness, family farming, guaranteeing food security, ensuring sustainable development and, at the same time, caring for the environment, thus avoiding waste, pollution, which impacted negatively on people’s health. These are just two examples.
We began to understand that development is a very complex issue. Brazil had an immense potential to be developed in an integrated and sustainable way with popular knowledge and scientific and technological knowledge working hand-in-hand. Small and large projects could be developed and Brazil really benefited from this strategy which was praised worldwide. But this process was interrupted and now everything has been dismantled again.
Because there is no concern for the development of Brazil. No strategy, Parliament and society had already warned the government of the need for a continuous and sustainable development process. There is no longer dialogue between the different sectors of our society.
What kind of legacy would you like to leave?
It’s not really a legacy, rather, an advice: we should listen more to our own hearts. If you ask yourself: Why was I born? What is my mission? What do I have to do to accomplish my own goals towards achieving the common good? What is the role of each citizen in a nation? We need to have a deep understanding of the role of citizens in a participatory democracy. We need to create a better environment so that we can develop as a whole. From the perspective of a political, social, human point of view, and, at the same time, also achieve full citizenship for each and everyone of Brazil’s citizens.
People value themselves, they are proud and believe in their own inner voices. I think we acquire a lot of strength when we reach around 7, 8 years of age. This is when we become aware of ourselves, of who we are. Another crucial moment in our lives, from my experience, is when we are between 20 to 30 years of age. We understand what freedom is, what it means to feel free and responsible for your own life. I want people to experience the wisdom of living everyday life, recognise themselves as fully functioning human beings and work towards achieving happiness. What makes a person happy? Happiness, I am pretty sure, appears when a person lives and works for the common good and for his or her own good, thus building a path to happiness.
I think that personal identity and public commitment to the common good make our lives meaningful. Every action that we undertake, every fight carried out as a team, with full participation and collective decision-making will, necessarily, be victorious. If each of us can look at each other and be happy with the happiness of our neighbour, have faith, knowledge and confidence in ourselves, our future is limitless. The rest we put in God's hands and He will complete our work.