Madalena Gordiano was just eight years old when she knocked on Maria das Graças Milagres Rigueira’s door to beg for food in Minas Gerais, a state in southeastern Brazil. She was invited in and Maria, a white teacher, promised to adopt her. Gordiano’s mother, who had eight other children, one of whom was Madalena’s twin, agreed.
But Gordiano was never adopted or allowed to go to school. For the next 38 years, she cooked, washed, scrubbed bathrooms, dusted and tidied for Maria das Graças Milagres Rigueira’s family. A victim of racial exploitation, she became a 21st-century slave for a wealthy family in an apartment building in Patos de Minas, a town of 100,000 inhabitants. She was never paid nor allowed time off, according to prosecutors investigating the case. When Gordiano was rescued on November 27, she was 46 and had great difficulty in expressing herself.
“I went to ask for bread because I was hungry, but she told me she wouldn’t give me any if I didn’t come and live with her,” Gordiano told Fantástico, the Brazilian TV show that broke the story ahead of Christmas, while a news site called UOL revealed other alarming details of the story.
What Gordiano went through is an extreme example of the legacy of more than 300 years of slavery in Brazil. As one of the slave trade’s main destinations, it was the last American country to free the labor force forcibly brought from Africa; the so-called Golden Law forbade slavery in all its forms in 1888. Almost 133 years later, domestic work is still traditionally done by Black women.
I went to ask for bread because I was hungry, but she told me she wouldn’t give me any if I didn’t come and live with herMadalena Gordiano
The ostensibly respectable Milagres Rigueira family not only took advantage of Gordiano’s services, they also turned her into a source of income, arranging her marriage to an elderly relative when Gordiano was still in her twenties. The relative was 78 and had a military pension – one of the best pensions in Brazil – of more than 8,000 reais a month (€1,300). Gordiano, who never actually lived with the Second World War veteran, inherited this pension upon his death, but she saw hardly any of the money – it went almost entirely into the family’s coffers. According to UOL, the family used the pension to cover the costs of one daughter’s medical degree.
At one point, in the tradition of past slave owners, Gordiano was given as a gift to Maria das Graças Milagres Rigueira’s son, veterinary professor Dalton Milagres Rigueira. During the slavery era, it was common to donate slaves to children as a wedding gift or to include them in a will along with other assets. In fact, slaves were often the most valuable part of the estate.
Historian Claudielle Pavão considers the case of Gordiano to be “an extreme incidence of structural racism forged by a system of slavery that exposes in a very instructive way what it is to be white in Brazil. Many people will say that taking in a girl to do household chores in exchange for food and a place to sleep is much better than leaving her on the street,” adds Pavão. “It is a social pact that is so commonplace that people do not find it offensive.”
Investigative journalism has revealed that Gordiano’s twin sister, Filomena, also lived as a domestic worker with another branch of the same family, but received a salary. She left her employers 10 years ago.
After the abolition of slavery, the Brazilian state attracted European labor by granting land and promising other benefits with the explicit purpose of making Brazilian society whiter. Meanwhile, according to Pavão, the slaves who had been set free had no recourse to public aid and were left to fend for themselves. The deep-seated inequality that persists in Brazil in 2021 is a direct consequence of slavery and its aftermath.
Black and mixed-race Brazilians are far poorer than their white compatriots; while they make up 56% of the population, they account for 75% of those murdered, 64% of the unemployed, 60% of prisoners, but just 15% of judges and 1% of award-winning actors, according to data from fact-checking agency Lupa. Their families earn half as much money as their white counterparts and they have a shorter life expectancy.
Gordiano’s case has caused a stir in Brazil, as did the death of a Black supermarket customer a month earlier who was beaten by two white guards outside the shop’s doors.
More than 55,000 Brazilians working in slave-like conditions have been rescued in the last 25 years
The enslaved Gordiano was located by the authorities in the home that the professor of veterinary medicine Dalton Milagres Rigueira shared with his wife Valdirene Lopes in Patos de Minas. Gordiano had been kept in a small room with no window. She had no cell phone or television. Her only possessions were three T-shirts. Her only relief – going to Mass in a Catholic Church where apparently nobody suspected what she was going through. Her rescue was due to a complaint filed by a neighbor living in the same building with whom she was forbidden to speak but who knew of her situation from the papers she pushed under their door, asking for money to buy soap and other toiletries. Authorities suspected there was something suspect about Gordiano’s widow’s pension years earlier, but the matter was shelved due to lack of evidence.
When questioned, Professor Dalton Milagres Rigueira, blamed his mother, Maria das Graças, for keeping Gordiano in slave-like conditions. He then argued that she was like family, explaining that he had not encouraged her to study because he did not think it would be to her benefit, according to Fantástico. The professor has been suspended from his post at the university where he teaches. Meanwhile, the family’s lawyer considers the disclosure of the prosecutor’s case to be “premature and irresponsible” as there has been no conviction as yet and urges “cautious reflection.”
More than 55,000 Brazilians working in slave-like conditions have been rescued in the last 25 years, including 14 domestic workers last year.
Domestic workers, who are mostly Black women, are an integral part of Brazilian society. Recognition of their labor rights in 2013 was a celebrated milestone for millions but it provoked the indignation of a number of their employers. One of the first slaves known to denounce mistreatment was Esperança Garcia, who wrote in September 1770 to the governor of the Brazilian state Piauí. Having been taught illegally by the Jesuits to read and write, Garcia complained of physical abuse and begged to be allowed to join her husband and baptize her daughter. She is believed to have succeeded.
Gordiano’s captivity ended thanks to an anonymous neighbor, allowing her to enjoy Christmas in a women’s shelter while waiting to be reunited – coronavirus restrictions permitting – with some of the siblings she begged for something to eat with 38 years ago.
English version by Heather Galloway.