by Meryleen Mena

“[O]ur stories are silenced too often. The struggles and trials that women anthropologists must endure and overcome to get access to some of the same field sites and data as our male counterparts are almost never discussed, leaving our graduate students unprepared to deal with these issues as they arise while on the frontlines of research.”
–Bianca Williams

Over the last decade, numerous ethnographic accounts have shed light on minoritized stories and have demystified the specific challenges that female-presenting people experience during their research. Still more work is needed to prepare students and junior scholars from marginalized identities for fieldwork research. We often access these narratives long after we have completed our data collection and analysis, not only due to conventions of what is acceptable knowledge to disseminate within the academy, but also because the assembly line from fieldwork to employment (precarious or otherwise) does not allow for the necessary pause, reflection, and exchange we need.

In what follows, I draw attention to my position as a working-class Black Dominican female-presenting person1 from New York City. I reflect on an accidental protest my friend and fellow researcher, Nelson Novaes Pedroso Jr., and I encountered during an “off” day from fieldwork research in São Paulo, Brazil, where I conducted research from February 2015 through March 2017 on the policing, criminalizing, and incarceration of women and gender non-conforming individuals.2 Though São Paulo is not a majority Black city, the demographics of the prison population are overwhelmingly preto, pobre, e períferico: Black, poor, and from the peripheral neighborhoods in and outside the city. This excerpted narrative is part of a larger argument I make regarding the need for Black diasporic feminist thought (Perry 2009), method, praxis, and the citing of Black women/femme (Smith and Garrett-Scott 2021) scholars for an “anthropology of liberation” (Harrison 1997).

This writing began as a necessary fieldnote entry in that I had recognized something threatening had happened to Nelson and to me. In addition to talking with friends, fellow researchers, and other confidants about the experience—and attempting to make sense of it on my own—I also chose to write it down. As colleagues who have lived through precarious fieldwork experiences have shared with me, at times not writing about these moments seems appropriate, especially as we grasp the privilege we embody as US ethnographers temporarily living in communities where there is no real pause from being the target of everyday and state violence. In other words, there is a recognition of the limits of what our discipline in its current state can do. At this point, we can then choose to harness our knowledge to help mitigate harm and to support our interlocutors. Despite the fact that this felt like a very personal story and one that I would not ordinarily share, there was no doubt in my mind that the stakes were too high to keep quiet about it.3

If they come for me in the morning…4

Fica ali, fica ali!” Nelson tells me at the sight of a doorway. It is late in the afternoon on January 12, 2016. We are just a few city blocks east of Avenida Paulista and less than a block away from Rua da Consolação in São Paulo, Brazil. These are highly trafficked streets that have historically served as sites of popular protests for democratic rights. They also mark the starting point of São Paulo’s financial and commercial hubs. Normally, we would have access to the yellow line of the metrô (subway), but today is different. In light of the militarized police’s forceful response to civilian protests, cafes and other businesses (which are typically open until late) have brought down their metal gates to protect their windows and merchandise. Upon encountering a bloodied white protester, we approach them to see if they need help. They decline and, along with their friends, explain to us that the military police (MP) were throwing stun grenades and tear gas, and closing off passages to streets. Moments later, we hear the sound of rocks hitting the pavement and see a stone, nearly brick-size, pound the street just a few feet from us. We both shriek. Nelson spots a closed shop and instructs me to stand there for cover against the frame of a doorway.

We stand there for a few minutes before Nelson approaches an MP walking by. Nelson explains to the MP that we are not protesters; rather, we are on our way home from the museum and simply trying to reach the subway. The MP sizes us up and down and responds by telling Nelson to be careful because we could be mistaken for protesters. It seems odd to me that he warns us about a future misidentification by other MPs, yet does very little to ensure our safety. Additionally, the tear gas thrown by the MPs has already begun to sting our eyes and scratch our throats. The MP, who was still standing nearby and was himself holding a tear gas bomb, turned to us and gave us instructions on how to best cover our faces before walking away.5

Moments later, a second set of young male-presenting protesters approach our street with their hands up, and to our dismay, a handful of MPs respond by drawing their weapons. A wave of fear comes over me. I remember Nelson and I exchanged words—though I can’t remember what was said—and that he was trying to calm me down because I was becoming visibly agitated. We both crouch down. I remember, too, that my ordinarily very cool and relaxed friend was starting to show signs of panic and that as I felt his and my own distress, I thought to myself: shit, really? This is how it ends? I freeze while the police shout and walk toward the protesters, who have stopped moving and still have their hands raised above their heads in surrender. The police eventually march them further east and out of sight.

After nearly another hour of waiting, taking cover underground in a parking garage, listening to the sounds of helicopters overhead and the weapons of war used against peaceful protesters, we finally did make it home, and debriefed over dinner with Nelson’s partner, Rogério. We had completely forgotten that Movimento Passe Livre (MPL) had called for a peaceful assembly that day to protest the recent increase in public transit fares. MPL is an anti-capitalist, autonomous, people-centered nation-wide social movement that has been growing in hundreds of cities throughout Brazil since 1999. Through collective action, MPL labors for the right to free, non-privatized, publicly funded, and high-quality mass transportation for all. While we both would ordinarily attend such an event, that day we had decided to take a break from our usual routine and spent the afternoon at the Museum of Art in São Paulo—another popular site where Leftist activists often congregate.

Military police (MP) lined up against protestors in São Paulo. Photo credit: Meryleen Mena.

When I got home that night, I turned to my field notebook to reflect on a lot of things. Even though protests from the Left did not always make local news in Brazil or internationally,6 they were not the only defining examples of civic engagement during my research. I had witnessed numerous protests during my fieldwork stay, organized by both the Left and the Right. I was grateful that I had not encountered the protest alone. While social protests are generally a sign of a healthy democracy, some of the more visible protests I observed shortly after my arrival in February 2015 left me ill-at-ease as they included calls to impeach then President Dilma Rousseff, to jail former President Inácio “Lula” da Silva, and to bring back military rule.7 This trifecta of political maneuverings has been largely successful so far. In April 2016, members of the Brazilian senate—many of whom were themselves under investigation for corruption and money laundering—illegally impeached President Rousseff. Then, beginning in April 2018, former President Lula was imprisoned for 580 days on trumped-up charges of corruption, to pave the way for the October 2018 election of far right-wing, pro-military politician, Jair Bolsonaro.8

The excessive displays of military power at pro-democracy protests, however, created a chaotic atmosphere that was deeply unnerving. In addition to the pungent fumes from the tear gas, the frequency and noise produced by stun grenades released by the MP added to the sense of danger imposed upon protesters and passersby. Tear gas, after all, is a chemical agent prohibited from being used in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997.9 Via the police, the government created a state of emergency because of the imagined threat of a collective that might expose the real threats of socio-economic injustices for an already exploited lower class. Under a truly democratic state, is it possible to imagine how that protest may have played out if participants had held their rallies and marched for a few hours without the presence of police? Or, at minimum, rather than be targeted by the police, what if they had been protected by them? What if they had been able to hold the protest without any bloodshed, intimidation, or exposure to toxic chemicals?

These same questions can be asked of protesters in the US. During the anti-police brutality protests of 2020, police also used excessive force, some of which was documented by protesters on social media and in news outlets that dared to discuss why yet another Black death in the midst of another public health nightmare had brought so many people to the streets. Yet these tactics, under a fascist administration, were not new. In 2014, under the Democratic Party’s administration, the police in Ferguson also bombarded protesters with tear gas and pepper spray during their public demonstrations against police violence.10 In addition to asking why these similar tactics are being used to disperse crowds transnationally—often before any actual “riot” ensues—anthropologists must be part of the political conversations and actions to impede these measures from being used in the US and elsewhere.

Concluding Thoughts

“I write to record what others erase when I speak, to re-write the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To discover myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit. And I will write about the unmentionables nevermind the outraged gasp of the censor and the audience. Finally, I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.”
–Gloria Anzaldúa

To say I felt ill-prepared for the turn of events during the Movimento Passe Livre protest is an understatement. Passe Livre means free fare, and it also means free pass. The military police were clearly blocking our movements—disrupting traffic on the street, and blocking access to the underground public transit system as well. In my notes, I also reflected on how the MP could have easily let us, and the other stranded commuters, access the street we needed to get on the metrô and leave what was the central location of the demonstrations that day. This moment solidified for me how much the silencing of Black Diasporic feminist voices—theory and methodology in particular—in anthropology had impacted my field research experience and how other marginalized and minoritized students may experience similar types of challenges during fieldwork. In the 21st century, the academic policing and gate-keeping that continues to uphold the white supremacist normative practices of excluding Black and Brown voices are just as dangerous.

In my fieldnotes from that time, I wondered what would have happened to me—a jeans-, t-shirt-, and sneaker-wearing, female-presenting Black Dominican American with African phenotypes11 had I not been accompanied by a light-skinned, middle-class Brazilian man? I certainly would not have had the gall to approach the police for help during a protest. What would it be like to share Nelson’s conviction that we had a right to walk on the streets, to peacefully assemble, and to dare approach law enforcement without reason to fear?12 In short, as a Black Dominican researcher, I understood that navigating the specific terrains of anti-Blackness that manifest in Brazil would present certain types of risks for me—an issue that other Black women ethnographers (past and present) have discussed in their work whether in their field sites, in academic settings, in sites of protest, or anywhere anti-Blackness exists (see Hurston 1979 [1928], 1942; Angel-Ajani 2004; Harrison 2008; Roland 2011; Tynes 2020; Williams 2009).

As Black Diasporic feminists/womanists, we negotiate these risks while attending to the practice of exchanging and producing knowledge in the service of Black life. The development of my doctoral fieldwork in Brazil, for example, was informed by the public mourning and activism of Coletivo Mães de Maio—Mothers of May Collective—led by Afro-Brazilian activist Débora da Silva. In the wake of the May 2006 police killings that left 400 youth from São Paulo’s periphery dead, the Mães have been laboring hard to expose and to end the excessive and lethal use of force by the police in Brazil. At the rallies and town halls where Débora da Silva spoke, she would often mention that the literal death in the aftermath of police violence and the civil death Black people experience through imprisonment were two sides of the same coin. Though scholarly and activist attention was rightly focused on the victims of police violence, detainees were not necessarily being framed as victims or survivors of police violence.13

In Brazil, attention to the experiences of incarcerated women, gender non-conforming individuals, and trans men, was also growing as Black prisoners’ rights activists, including formerly detained individuals, labored for their communities: participating in day-long seminars to educate law students, scholars, and the general public on the realities of prison life. Conducting fieldwork and writing fieldnotes in this context thus allowed me to contribute meaningfully to the work already laid out by Black Brazilian women organizers. I cannot overstate the critical significance of Black feminist praxis to understand how carceral states create anti-Black spaces and preclude any real possibilities for justice.

In addition to reflecting on my subject position vis-à-vis the limits of fieldwork in anti-Black spaces, I considered how Black feminists in the Diaspora negotiate these issues, and where anthropology had failed us. I wondered, too, what can we do to break the silence on policies that we know are inhumane within our own home communities and in our research sites? As anthropologists, how do we grapple with and analyze—in our writing and other activities—the specific aspects of white supremacy embedded in democratic states that keep “desirable” citizens safe at the expense of Black and Brown life? Spaces of protest—whether on the street, in the legal courts, or in the seminar room—require us to critically reflect on questions of citizenship and belonging, democracy, security, power, violence, inequality, and the human toll of chronic social ills, such as anti-Blackness.

We therefore cannot minimize the important role fieldnotes play for ethnographers, even if what we write is not initially intended for circulation within the academy or among larger publics, and even when it does not initially take center stage. Had I not recorded the incidents I described above, I would not have given myself the space to process what I had experienced on an intellectual level. I knew I was distraught and upset, but I also was keenly aware that these were not the things that emerging scholars, especially Black women who want to be taken seriously, were supposed to discuss. Writing it down in my fieldnotes made the experiences I had in Brazil real and helped me see how badly anthropology needs Black feminist theory. Engaging directly with Black feminist thought and methods provided me with a type of liberation that anthropology can make space for, much to the benefit of a discipline focused on documenting the complexity of human societies.

Notes

[1] My use of “female” here is to highlight that I am describing a gendered, race, and classed experience, specifically thinking of how Black women’s voices are excluded in academia prompting campaigns, such as Christen Smith’s Cite Black Women.

[2] Nelson is a biologist and human ecologist who has collaborated on projects with fishing communities in the Amazon, and Quilombolas and Indigenous communities throughout Brazil. Over the last five years he has worked to document the socio-economic impacts and human rights violations of the Samarco mine tailing collapse in 2015, the worst socio-environmental disaster in Brazilian history. See the report Nelson organized and co-authored with a team of researchers: Fundação Getúlio Vargas 2020.

[3] I began writing an article based on these fieldnotes while I was still in Brazil, and an early draft of this article was accepted by a recognized and respected journal. However, two days before the final submissions were due, the guest editors chose to cut a handful of articles and mine was among those. The positive side of having six years to revisit these incidents and having fieldnotes from this time, however, is being able to assess how different–and not so different–our world is presently. Since 2016, more BIPOC voices have addressed the issues I raise here—whether in anthropological journals, podcastsblogs, and other open source media. I echo some of these concerns, and provide one from my specific standpoint as well.

[4] This is a reference to James Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis in the aftermath of her incarceration. See Davis et al. 2016.

[5] There is a video that circulated through Facebook in 2016 of an MP becoming physically ill and throwing up as a result of having thrown tear gas to protesters.

[6] Years later, through conversations with an editor who worked with news media corporations from the Global north and the Global South, I came to learn that a pervasive bias remains that suggests that people from the U.S., in particular, will neither click on nor read news outside U.S. borders. Editors and journalists have to fight to get even a short article on current affairs happening overseas approved for publication. This is alarming considering how media technologies have facilitated communication and shortened time-space across distinct audiences. Movements, such as the Arab Spring, #BLM, #SayHerName, and more recent campaigns in support of Palestinians have been able to gain world-wide recognition due to social media.

[7] Throughout the 20th century, Brazil experienced a series of military dictatorships. The most recent and arguably most pernicious iteration of these occurred between 1964-1985. During this time, hundreds of Brazilians, including First Nations peoples, were disappeared and murdered by the state and thousands were detained and tortured for espousing Leftist beliefs. Former President Rousseff, for instance, was in custody and tortured for three years when she was a college student.

[8] Detaining Lula precluded him from running for, and most likely winning, the presidential elections of October 2018 against Bolsonaro. In power since then, Bolsonaro’s reign of terror has proven to be particularly catastrophic for under-resourced communities. His mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, including rejecting vaccines, for instance, has claimed over half a million lives in Brazil. Bolsonaro’s path of destruction is amplified by the pandemic’s collateral effects: famine, high rates of unemployment, and high rates of inflation. This is already in addition to ongoing assaults against Amazonian Indigenous communities threatened by landowners, corporations, and the impacts of global climate change. As opposition to Bolsonaro grows, and in anticipation of the upcoming October 2022 presidential elections, Bolsonaro has said that he predicts “three alternatives…being arrested, killed, or victory,” and has already declared that he will not accept election results if they are not in his favor. See No author, 2021, “Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro says he will be killed, arrested or re-elected.”

[9] See Feigenbaum 2017; Haar et al. 2017.

[10] For a collection of anthropology essays focused on the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the US, see Williams 2015.

[11] As Dr. Bailey Duhé argues (2022) in her dissertation about racial mixture in the U.S. among Creoles of Louisiana, race is fluid. I am a mixed-race Black Dominican with light brown skin in the northern colder climates. As with other melanated humans of the African Diaspora, my skin is never just one color. Indeed, when I lived in the more than a mile high town of Boulder, Colorado prior to fieldwork in Brazil, I had a nearly permanent tan that deepened to a brown-red as I approached the equator and/or was exposed to prolonged sunlight in the summer months. Beyond skin color, I have dark brown eyes and kinky dark brown hair that I typically wear natural in a simple updo or in braids. My choice to wear my hair naturally often excludes me from being identified as a Black Dominican American/Latinx in the U.S. In Brazil, however, unless I spoke Portuguese, regardless of how I wore my hair, I was assumed to be a local.

[12] This is not to say that Nelson did not experience fear. Brazil, after all, has one of the highest rates of violence against LGBT populations in the world. While from a privileged background, Nelson’s subject position as a gay man with Leftist politics has not protected him from the different types of policing these identities are usually subjected to. The main difference I assessed from our shared affect was that I understood and felt my foreignness/Blackness/cisgender female-presenting/working-class self as already violently excluded from state and/or police protection. Here, I echo the sentiments of one of São Paulo’s City Council members, Erika Hilton—a Black transgender woman originally from the periphery, who identifies the exclusionary practices against Black, poor, and trans bodies in particular as “marks of violence and dehumanization” from the state and from society (Hilton 2021). Though I do not share the same experience nor the same oppressions as Black trans women, I am also marked by anti-Black, anti-female/femme, and ‘foreignness/alien’ exclusionary practices. I also do not want to underplay the significance of light-skin/white privilege in the service of Black and Brown safety in the contexts of social protests. I recall one anti-war protest in NYC many years ago where police descended on a group of African American men who were participating in civil disobedience. I was not part of their group, but rather was in proximity simply observing what was going on and trying to locate the rallying point along with a friend of mine, a woman of South Asian descent. We were lucky that two fellow protesters, Minnie Bruce Pratt and the late Leslie Feinberg quickly stepped in front of us, allowing us to move away from what was becoming a tense situation between police and Black protestors and protesters of color. Neither Pratt nor Feinberg knew who we were—but as I was familiar with their work, I was both moved by the fearlessness and kindness they showed to us, and in awe that as white individuals their politics in their writings matched their activism in real life. Rest in power, Leslie!!!

[13] Despite understanding that structural and everyday violence had severely curtailed the freedom and agency of my system-involved family and community members long before incarceration, I had not thought of them as survivors of police and state violence. From an abolitionist understanding, when one family member is incarcerated, everyone in the family is incarcerated too. I extend this to community members too as an extended kinship of sorts. On a practical level, if your community is heavily policed and lots of people end up incarcerated, that marks your community and your identity in very particular ways.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Verónica Sousa and Magdalena Zegarra Chiappori for the invitation to contribute and Dr. Katie Kilroy-Marac and her editorial team at AES; Ruth Landes Memorial Research Fund for funding research in São Paulo, Brazil; and Sara Fall, Dr. Nelson Novaes Pedroso Junior, Dr. Kaifa Roland, Dr. Jason Scott, Mónica Perry for comments on earlier drafts of this article, and Dr. Amarilys Estrella, Aurora Ellis, and Alice Luu for their invaluable support, and on-going engagement with the lives of Black folk. Deep gratitude for Nelson for his generosity and trusting me to share this with the public.

 

References

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Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2015 [1981]. “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown: Persephone Press.

Davis, Angela, Ruchell Magee, and Julian Bond. 2016. If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance. London: Verso.

Duhé, Bailey. 2022 “Fluid: Creole Identity and Racial Mixture in the United States.” Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Colorado Boulder.

Feigenbaum, Anna. 2017. Tear Gas: From the battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today. London: Verso.

Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV). 2020. Parâmetros e Subsídios para a Reparação dos Danos Socioeconômicos dos Povos Tupiniquim e Guarani em Aracruz (ES). Rio de Janeiro; São Paulo: FGV.

Haar, Rohini J., Vincent Iacopino, Nikhil Ranadive, Sheri D. Weiser, and Madhavi Dandu. 2017. Health impacts of chemical irritants used for crowd control: a systematic review of the injuries and deaths caused by tear gas and pepper spray. BMC Public Health. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4814-6.

Harrison, Faye V. 1997. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Arlington, VA: Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association.

Harrison, Faye V. 2008. Outsider Within: Reworking Anthropology in the Global Age. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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No author. 2021. “Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro says he will be killed, arrested or re-elected” BBC website. 29 August 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-58372754.

Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. 2009. “The Groundings with my Sisters: Toward a Black Diasporic Feminist Agenda in the Americas.” The Scholar & Feminist Online Issue 7.2: Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies. http://sfonline.barnard.edu/africana/perry_01.htm

Roland, L. Kaifa. 2011. Cuban Color in Tourism and La Lucha: An Ethnography of Racial Meanings. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Christen A. and Dominique Garrett-Scott. 2021. “‘We Are Not Named’: Black Women and the Politics of Citation in Anthropology.” Feminist Anthropology 2 (1):18-37.

Tynes, Brendane. 2020. “How Do We Listen to the Living?” Anthropology News website, August 31. https://www.anthropology-news.org/articles/how-do-we-listen-to-the-living/

Williams, Bianca C. 2009. “‘DON’T RIDE THE BUS!’ AND OTHER WARNINGS WOMEN ANTHROPOLOGISTS ARE GIVEN DURING FIELDWORK.” Transforming Anthropology 17(2):155-158.

——— ed. 2015. “#BlackLivesMatter: Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, and Resistance.” Hot Spots series, Fieldsights, Cultural Anthropology, June 29. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/blacklivesmatter-anti-black-racism-police-violence-and-resistance

Dr. Meryleen Mena is an independent scholar and an incoming AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. She holds a Doctoral degree in Socio-cultural Anthropology, and a Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender Studies. Her writing has appeared in: The Scholar & Feminist OnlineFootnotes Blog (co-edited with Dr. Amarilys Estrella), as well as the Brazil-based Instituto Terra, Trabalho, e Cidadania (with Heloisa de Souza Dantas). Mena’s current book project builds from her doctoral research and draws from Black Diasporic Feminist Thought in the Americas, critical prison studies, and medical anthropology to examine the experience of Afro-Brazilian women and gender non-conforming individuals in the criminal justice system in São Paulo, Brazil.

Cite As: Mena, Meryleen. 2022. “To Be Black, Female, and Conscious: Reflections on Fieldwork in Pre-Impeachment Brazil ” In “Taking Note: Complexities and Ambiguities in Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes,” edited by Magdalena Zegarra Chiappori and Verónica Sousa, American Ethnologist website, 26 August 2022, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/collections/taking-note-complexities-and-ambiguities-in-writing-ethnographic-fieldnotes/to-be-black-female-and-conscious-reflections-on-fieldwork-in-pre-impeachment-brazil]