Helena Silvestre: “Occupation enables us to take part in the birth of a neighbourhood and think about new ways of living together”

The favela of Cantagalo overlooks some of the highest price real estate in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro's famous south zone. Photo by Unequal Spaces

Helena Silvestre was born in 1984 in Mauá, in ‘ABC Paulista’, metropolitan region of São Paulo. She grew up in a favela, which led her to get involved, from a very young age, in the fight for the right to housing and, above all, in the land occupation movement. It was there that she acquired valuable political organisation tools that would enable her, years later, to set up the Abya Yala feminist school and the Revista Amazonas magazine, spaces where she remains active today, focusing on grassroots education from a feminist perspective. She has published several books, including Notas sobre a fome (Notes on Hunger), a finalist for the prestigious Jabuti Award for literature, and, more recently, Cochichos de amor e outras alquimias (Whispers of Love and Other Alchemies). Today, she talks to Equal Times about a hot topic, that of occupation, linked to the right to decent housing and the right to the city.

How did you become involved in the housing movements?

It was at the end of 2002. I was a member of a youth collective at the time, in ABC Paulista, a powerful industrial area in the metropolitan region of São Paulo that was very significant in the 1970s and 1980s because of the strikes – which helped consolidate the Workers’ Party [PT, led by Brazil’s current president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] and the trade unionism of the CUT [Central Única dos Trabalhadores].

At that time, a housing movement was emerging in São Paulo, on the periphery of the city, with the idea of ‘encircling the capital’. They established a base in the ABC region and began building alliances with local collectives. In 2003, the MTST [Homeless Workers’ Movement] organised a large-scale occupation in São Bernardo do Campo [in ABC]; that was when I approached the MTST. It was a controversial occupation: in January 2003, Lula had just become president and many left-wing groups were saying it was best not to take any action for the time being because it would strengthen the right. It’s crazy: when the right is in power, you can’t do anything because the repression is brutal; when it’s the left, you can’t do anything either as it might be detrimental to the government. In the meantime, people continue to live in miserable conditions. But, despite the reluctance, the number of occupations went through the roof and we saw the rise of a kind of cycle of pro-housing movements in São Paulo and all over Brazil. After taking part in that first occupation in San Bernardo, I was hooked.

Could you explain what occupation means, and why you were ‘hooked’?

Some people occupy empty buildings, but what I was most active in were occupations of vacant land, where nothing has been built, land that has been left to speculators for decades. Our fight for housing is based on the people settling on a piece of land, with very precarious plastic shacks, without electricity, water or toilets. Over time, we transform them into places where we can live and organise ourselves. What I’m saying with all this is, what got me ‘hooked’ was the possibility of seeing the birth of a neighbourhood.

I’m from the favela and I was active in neighbourhoods that emerged from past occupations that took root and went on to become urban peripheries. Occupations of this kind meant being involved in the birth of a neighbourhood and being able to think about new ways of living together, with a blank canvas, without the geography and its dynamic of precariousness imposing limits on us; and because the shacks are very precarious and very small places, and it’s sunny in Brazil, life goes on outside the shack. We had to organise to solve practical problems: installing toilets, septic tanks, communal kitchens capable of feeding the whole community, and so on. This all opens the way for a different kind of sociability, with the collective management of basic tasks such as producing food and taking care of the land. There is a different perception of time, there is no electricity and the collective work sets the pace of life. And I said to myself: “This is where the class struggle is happening.”

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What kind of political organisation enables such collective management of community life?

Building political organisation is one of the most difficult things there is. I was active in the MTST between 2003 and 2010. I then moved on to building Luta Popular [Popular Struggle], a movement that has given a great deal of through to organisational development. I think one of the key organisational tools was the working group in charge of the kitchen and supplies. They were mostly women, more than a hundred at times, and they would build a space where they would not only cook but would also discuss all kinds of issues that seem very philosophical but are also very relevant to everyday life.

Our division into working groups set the rhythm of the day: at six in the morning, there was reading for those unable to read; at seven o’clock, discussions with the people in the kitchen who then had to be free to take care of the food; and in the middle of the afternoon, discussions with the security people who had to be awake at night, and so on. By the time we held an assembly, the issues had already been widely discussed, everyone had been listened to and their proposals had been taken on board. It was a very good way of making the assemblies a real space for collective decision-making and not just a simulation. Because although assemblies are held to make certain decisions or discuss certain issues, they are not really a participatory space, especially when you have as many as 2,000 people in an occupation community. And so we realised that we needed smaller spaces for discussion.

What made you leave the MTST?

I didn’t identify with the hierarchical relationship between the active leadership and the rank and file of the traditional left, which considers itself the vanguard. I started to question it, because I am from a favela and the families that were occupying the land were the same as mine: so why was I coordinating and not the others?

This hierarchical format ends up instrumentalising a large number of people who are not provided with the tools to demand their rights. They speak out on your behalf, but they find it very hard to give up the leading role. That’s why, in Luta Popular, we develop different kinds of tools, with a special focus on women, based on permanent meeting spaces where all kinds of issues are discussed. And, above all, we learn how important it is for us [women] to meet among ourselves.

The housing movements put the issue of ‘the right to the city’ on the agenda. What is the idea behind this expression?

In Brazil, and I think in Latin America as a whole, the 1990s saw the devastating advance of neoliberalism: people became poorer and this led to a rise in the numbers living on the peripheries of cities. In São Paulo, this rise was the result of land being occupied not by organised movements but by people who had nowhere to live and were having to move further and further away from the centre and urban infrastructures. In the 2000s, movements like the MTST brought the issue of the right to the city to the fore. It was not only about infrastructure and services but also about taking part in decision making, being involved in and influencing the course of the city.

When we set up Luta Popular in 2011, the idea was that, in addition to the occupations, we needed to do work in the neighbourhoods and think about occupation in the same way as strike action was once thought of, as action not limited to securing the right to housing but also to create cultural or public health spaces. We also carried out rural occupations and we saw that the city was also in the countryside and that the rural-urban divide fell short of identifying the difference or the gap between these spaces.

I gradually moved away from the day-to-day life of the occupations. But I stayed in the favela movement and I started to think that, as people from the favelas or homeless people, we strive for the right to the city because it is something we have always been denied. The favelas were called ‘clandestine neighbourhoods’ for a long time, and we want to fight for what we are denied. But maybe it’s a colonised desire. Maybe it’s not the right to the city that we need. What I’ve been thinking is that the city itself seems to need these huge inequalities to exist; the city represents a form of accumulation that feeds on the extraction of everything around it: the favelas, the occupations and the countryside.

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In recent years, you have focused on spaces for activism with women, based on exchanges with feminisms. How have you found this path?

From 2008 onwards, I began to detect certain holes in the political workings of these movements and in myself. Feminism, as an instrument for reading reality, was slow to reach me, or I was slow to accept it because, being from the favela, I did not identify with the first ideas that came to me under that name. I saw it as an external debate that was trying to tell us how we should be and how we should live. But I came to realise that in the housing movement, although women are in the majority, not only the women involved in the occupations but also those taking part in the various work spaces, the leadership and coordination spaces are dominated by men.

I lived with that reality for a long time and the feminist reading came to me little by little, when I met feminists who were patient and open with me and brought me other possibilities. Then I saw the immense power of women’s organisation and I put my energy into building it.

In 2018, we created Revista Amazonas, a collective of women from various parts of the world, mainly in Latin America and Spain, which discusses the struggles in various countries based on the women who lead those struggles. That space strengthened me and I gradually took all that to the Abya Yala feminist school, a movement of women from the favelas and the peripheries in the southern region of São Paulo, bringing together occupation dwellers, nursery school teachers, domestic workers, transgender and transvestite comrades, Afro-Indigenous women, etc. It is also a place where we can think about our view on what is happening, what proposals to make and what we can contribute as feminists from the favelas and the popular or working classes.

Finally, I would like to ask you about your other passion, writing. You have published several books, including Notas sobre a fome. How did you come to literature?

I always wrote. I often say that activism robbed me of the possibility of the arts, because I always loved literature and music, but I became very dedicated to activism and I didn’t develop these other passions, although they were always part of my private life.

In 2018, Sarau de Binho, a cultural collective from the periphery of São Paulo, suggested that I publish a book and I accepted the challenge. This led to my first book, Do verbo que o amor não presta. In the process of writing that book, when revising the notes I already had, I saw that hunger, which accompanied me for many years, was a recurrent theme, and that is how Notas sobre a fome came into being.

I found that writing was not only a way for me to organise my own ideas but also to exchange life experiences with people. I discovered a form of activism, of teaching and learning in literature, a way of broadening the scope of the imagination that allows us to progress politically. My latest book is my first attempt at writing a novel. For a long time, I believed, and still believe, that love is a space of freedom: I was very poor and everything was determined by external adversities, but I had the naive impression that love was the last area of life where you are able to choose, and you fall in love with exactly that person. But love is not free from racism and machismo either, and I discovered that with the help of feminism, which has helped me review experiences that I thought were love but they were not.

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