Paloma Silva, trans woman, a colored ray in rural Brasil

Strengthening the LGBT identity through collective action for access to water in the Coqueiro community, in Fortaleza
Paloma, a trans woman and activist of the Movement of Dam-Affected People, will participate in the 1st LGBTI Seminar of Via Campesina Brazil. Art: Gustavo Palermo

By Alessandra Monterastelli
From the MST webpage

Paloma went to live in the city of Caucaia, metropolitan region of Fortaleza, when her grandmother decided to return to the city where she grew up: “Where she went to live, I went too. The three women, grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter, moved to the Coqueiro community, next to the Industrial and Port Complex of Pecém and near the Lagamar do Cauípe.

A lagoon, by definition, is a “sea or river hole”. In the case of Cauípe, an elongated body of water supplied by the waters of the Cauípe River, thanks to the mobile dunes typical of the regional geography. The Lagamar o Cauípe is an area of environmental protection guaranteed by the State Decree Nº 24.957, of June 5th 1998, due to the rich biodiversity that shelters the fauna and flora of the region.

From an early age, Paloma participated in youth groups of the Catholic Church that were active within her community. “Our group was very up-to-date, and we had political debates about the region’s problems, although within the parameters of the church,” she says. Soon after, at the age of 19, she was indicated to participate in a meeting to introduce the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB). “I fell in love. I saw the seriousness and importance of the social movement and the cause. I think that every young person has a bit of the thirst to transform and fight for better days,” she says.

At that time, Paloma was already going through her transition. “I have a wonderful family that always welcomed me, so my transition process was a little more natural; I had big problems with myself, in terms of personal acceptance,” she declares. In church groups there was no opening for discussions about gender or sexuality. “The fear I had and have is the same as every transsexual woman’s fear: going out on the street and being murdered for the simple fact of being who you are. That made me very withdrawn. Joining the movement helped me to get out of the zone of limitation and fear in which I placed myself”, she explains. Strengthened, she started mobilizing herself to try to respond to the problems imposed on the community.

“Life in the community was very peaceful because it was more rural, but we never stopped experiencing injustices. I have lived here for 10 years, and I have seen how everything changed with the arrival of the companies,” says Paloma. The construction of the Pecém Industrial and Port Complex started in 1995, and was inaugurated in 2002. The area houses several companies and industrial enterprises, with foundations from wind energy bases to cement production. Paloma talks about the port cars, “big and heavy”, that cause accidents in the region because they transit close to the communities. “Recently, a young man died as a cause of this,” she informs. The pollution in the region is another factor that puts at risk the lives of those who live in Coqueiro, but also in other neighboring communities. It is common for dust from iron ore and coal to accumulate on the houses: “We put our hands on the furniture and see the dust”, he says.

Among all these issues, Paloma explains that the water supply is perhaps the most contradictory of all. “There is a whole system to supply the Industrial Park, but there is a lack of water for all the communities around the Lagamar do Cauípe. This area was supposed to be a reserve, and the community is also aware of the need to preserve the environment. The companies arrived and took the water, without any obstacle besides the organized communities. Our intention has always been to prioritize the human water supply”.

The militancy against the violations of the population’s rights in the region started for Paloma right after that meeting with MAB, when she was 19. From then on, she describes that she realized how the difficult situations imposed on her community daily should not be accepted and could be fought collectively. “They are the same violations that those affected by dams suffer all over Brazil; families are removed from their land to make way for construction and lose access to water,” she reports; added to this equation are the rupture of cultural ties and the obligatory coexistence with high levels of environmental pollution. According to Paloma, her community has the most developed water supply system when compared to neighboring areas, and even so, it is common to go weeks without tap water. “The other communities usually buy water from the water truck to be able to take a bath.  We have a well developed industrial area, with people coming from outside to work, but the youth and adults from the region are not employed; we are next to a lagoon, but we are denied access to water,” she says.  Once active in the social movement, the intention became to prioritize the human supply.

In 2017, together with the movement, Paloma occupied a construction site where a company was to be installed for which the state guaranteed the supply; the goal was to claim priority and humane access to water. “Peripheral urban areas are not exempt from many problems experienced by rural areas, such as, for example, water supply, or access to electricity,” she comments.

As the mobilizations to fight for rights in the region continue, she says that MAB has also helped her expand her view of the importance of organized struggle beyond the Coqueiro community. And it was there, too, that Paloma found a welcoming place as an LGBTQAI+ person. “I was very withdrawn, quiet, stayed in my corner; I didn’t get involved in community spaces. The movement allowed me to meet new people and places, encouraging my participation in collective spaces,” she says. She also explains that the debates about sexuality and gender promoted within the organization helped her to understand the violations that she herself suffered, not only due to her community’s situation, but also as an LGBT person. She started going to the homes of families affected by the local problems, to establish conversations between the Movement and the needs of the people in the region. “I sometimes get looks, but it is important to deconstruct and occupy these spaces of debate; to show our common interest with these families, who start to adapt a little to a reality that has always been diverse,” she explains. “I usually say that when we talk about LGBT, people who don’t understand much about it get a little lost, without understanding; but we have always been in these spaces. We, as LGBT people, need to contribute to this political formation and make others understand our problems. This way we can also help other LGBT people to find themselves”, she argues.

She is excited about the 1st Via Campesina-Brazil LGBTI Seminar. “We have always been in these rural spaces, fulfilling tasks in the organization. It is important that this debate occurs by Via Campesina, which includes several movements of rural, water and forest peoples, that often have more conservative ideas,” she says. Announcing the seminar, Dê Silva, from the Via Campesina-Brazil’s LGTBI Collective, told MST that to debate is to reaffirm the popular character of our organizations and of Via Campesina, demystifying this idea of the countryside as mostly male and cis. “We know that the countryside has historically been diverse” she claims. Paloma, in agreeing with Silva’s statement, seems to complete her speech: “there has always been a colored ray in the countryside”.

*Edited by Maiara Rauber