Brazilian activist takes humanitarian spirit from slum to world

Screams and the cracks of gunshots barged into the room where 10-year old Ana Barreto slept with her mother, sister and cousin, and she knew immediately: Someone had been shot, again. 

The next day, on her way to school in Jardim Ângela, Brazil, she would have to walk past the bodies.

As she did, she would avoid looking directly at the plastic covers hiding the corpses, but she couldn’t escape the mothers, sisters, and others crying together nearby, and she wondered who would be next. 

A quarter-century later, during a Zoom interview from her apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, she recalls the violence in a matter-of-fact way. 

Ana Barreto, who grew up on the outskirts of São Paulo, arrived in the United States five years ago. (Photo/Zach Rosen)

“There was a lot of tension, there was always a lot of tension….That was our reality. It was very difficult, it really created trauma,” she says in a silvery voice that seemed incapable of yelling or speeding up. Her perfectly combed curls framed by a golden headband match her unhurried delivery. 

She betrays no bitterness or self-pity when she explains the painful origins of her dream to work with international relations and help poor people around the world. Rather, there is an exuberance and excitement when she talks. She glows.

She glows when she describes  the fund she helped create for Black Latin women during the pandemic. She glows when she explains how she organized a Black Brazilian Film Festival in Ethiopia. She glows when she talks about the collective for Brazilian immigrant women she co-founded in New York, about being the only Black person working in one the largest United Nations’ agencies in Brazil, about the full scholarship for her undergraduate degree, her fellowship in Washington, D.C., her master’s degree from a New York university.  

Above all, she glows when she talks about racial and gender justice, human rights and the historical roots of the inequality that almost kept her from achieving her dream.

Barreto, 37, grew up with her parents, two siblings and a cousin in Jardim Ângela, a conglomerate of favelas, or slums, on the southern edge of São Paulo. There, a lack of opportunities, education, health and sanitation clashed with heavy drug trafficking. 

In 1996, when Barreto was 11, the United Nations ranked Jardim Ângela as the world’s most violent neighborhood.

No one around her had ever traveled outside Brazil. Few had even dreamed about going to college. But Barreto’s loving household contrasted with the violence of her neighborhood. With the encouraging words of her mother and grandmother, and with her diary as her confidante, she knew her life  would be different.

Today, far from her childhood favela, she is realizing her dream to help people around the globe, both in New York  and in countries like Ethiopia.

Ana Barreto speaks at a United Nations event in Costa Rica in 2019. (Photo/Lina Hurtado)

In New York, where she has been living for the past five years, she is the programs director at AfroResistance, a nonprofit organization tackling racial and economic injustice in the Americas. During the pandemic, the organization has been working on a fund to offer grants to Black Latin Women and girls, especially undocumented Immigrants. Their campaign raised $14,984 and had 233 supporters. 

Barreto also co-founded Kilomba, a collective of black Brazilian women in New York that engages around 100 women. They organize webinars to inform and ignite political participation on issues including police brutality, systemic racism, black history and human rights. 

After the pandemic hit, Barreto worked through Kilomba to create an emergency fund to support Brazilian immigrants in New York who were laid off, had little food or struggled with depression. The fund provided 50 families with food baskets and 50 sessions of therapy, as well as Portuguese-language information about public services and job opportunities.

Barreto is far from the favela and its violence, but in some ways, she never left.

Her passion for social justice, which was born in the favela, first brought her to the United States. 

In 2015, Barreto received an Atlas Corps fellowship in Washington and New York to work with the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s programs related to youth, gender-based violence and HIV/STIs.

One morning in Washington, while getting breakfast at her hostel, Barreto started up a conversation with a sloe-eyed woman whose friendly diamond face was framed by a hijab. The stranger, Asmaa AbuMezied, she learned, was from Gaza and also a fellow.

Their casual exchange quickly evolved into a deep conversation about the similarities between social issues in Palestine and Brazil. During the fellowship, they continued to explore the complex racial tensions in their regions, and the two women became close friends. The friendship was a turning point in Barreto’s understanding of international affairs, and she decided to visit Palestine in 2017 to see what her friend had described. 

“If I’d been able to forget they were speaking Arabic, I would have thought I was in a favela in Brazil,” Barreto said.

AbuMezied welcomed the chance to teach Barreto, as she had seen other activists come to Palestine and inadvertently provoke local retaliation because they were uninformed.

“People think that they understand everything, but Ana is different,” AbuMezied said. “Ana is the type of person who listens.”

In Brazil, Barreto sees her biggest challenge as inequality and structural injustice rooted in the country’s history of racism and oppression.

Around the year 2000, when Barreto was about 17, murder and other crimes in Jardim Ângela started to decline with the help of public safety investments as well as humanitarian groups. But Barreto could not ignore the violence and poverty she had witnessed. She knew that working in human rights was her life’s mission.   

After high school, Barreto aced the national university entry exam and received a full scholarship to study international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica of São Paulo (PUC), one of the country’s best schools for international relations.

Most of the renowned universities in Brazil – a country with  historically high wealth gaps – are filled with affluent students, and Barreto calls her success an “accident of history.”

Her class had only three Black students.

“The professors very often, when they would comment about Africa or slavery, would point at us,” said Barreto. She paused, looked toward her side and shook her head to imitate her instructors. “Because, you know all about it, right? Slavery. …” She laughed, rolling her eyes and resting her hands near her chin, revealing a deep purple nail polish that matched her lipstick. 

In 2012, two years after graduating, Barreto won a six-month internship as an aide at the UN in Brasilia, the country’s capital.  

The UN, Barreto said, “was like a bubble.” She had no Black coworkers in the United Nations Development Program, one the biggest UN agencies in Brazil.

“It’s a veiled apartheid,” she said, showing no more bitterness than if she were talking about the weather. 

Some co-workers told her that they were expecting someone “different.”

“I understand that the ‘different’ meant a white person,” Barreto said.

One co-worker even told her that she expected “a blonde person.”  Barreto looked away.  “Very well, at least she was being honest.” She laughed with her signature eyebrow squeeze. 

In 2017, Barreto started her master’s degree in international affairs at the New School in Manhattan.  

Manjari Mahajam, who teaches on global health and poverty, said Barreto stood out because of her sensitivity about how “economic inequalities in a society can really come in the way of democratic voices and democratic freedoms,” Mahajan said.

Even more striking, she said, was Barreto’s “deep commitment to social justice that was never expressed as anger or resentment. She was very thoughtful and kind in her interactions with her classmates, and it was interesting to see that her approach could sway more opinions and change more minds than a more aggressive declaration,” Mahajan said.

Barreto shies away from discussing her success. She is more interested in talking about the history behind her voyage, the structural issues that impede others from having the type of life she has today.

Her next goal is to live in South Africa to analyze Brazil’s lack of social mobility from a new angle. She would like to consider Brazil in terms of apartheid.

“I think if there were black Brazilians living in South Africa it would be a powerful combination,” Barreto said, snapping her fingers as the corners of her lips revealed a gentle smile.

She is just getting started.