Brazil's former first lady and life-long political activist, Marisa Leticia, has died. Orlando Hill takes a look at her life and contribution
1980 in Brazil was a time of intense labour militancy. The dictatorship was on its last legs and like a cornered beast trying to control history it lashed out. Lula was the president of the metalworkers’ trade union of São Bernando (an industrial town outside São Paulo). Since 1978 there had been two successful strikes which had spread across the country, mobilising millions of workers and students. The 1979 strike lasted 15 days. The largest one in 1980 lasted over 40 days. The dictatorship struck back. Lula and his fellow workers were arrested by the political police (DOPS) on 19 April.
Lula’s wife Marisa Leticia along with other women organised a march in protest on 8 May. Thousands of women and children arm in arm marched through the streets of São Bernardo carrying banners and flowers demanding habeas corpus, which had been denied, for their comrades. “The men wanted to be supportive, but we said no. We did it only with women, I held hands with my children at the front, " remembered Marisa years later in an interview.
Marisa Leticia Lula da Silva sadly passed away on Friday, 3 February at the age of 66, as a result of complications from a stroke. She had been hospitalised since January 24 at the Sírio-Libanês Hospital in São Paulo.
Marisa was born on April 7, 1950, in a family of Italian immigrants. When she was 9, she started work as a nanny for three younger children. At 13, she worked in a chocolate factory.
At 19, she married the taxi driver Marcos Cláudio da Silva, who was murdered when Marisa was pregnant with her first son, Marcos. She met Lula, also a widower, in the Union, in 1973, with whom she married a year later. Lula already had a daughter Lurian. His first wife had died in childbirth. Marisa and Lula would go on to have three children together: Fabio, Sandro and Luís Claudio.
The couple's home soon became a trench in the struggle for democracy and social justice, at a time when holding placards risked imprisonment, beatings and torture.
Marisa Leticia sewed the first flag for the Workers’ Party (PT). “I had a red cloth, Italian, a cutting that I had kept for a long time. I stitched the white star on the red background. It was beautiful,” she recalled.
She would print t-shirts with the star symbol of PT to raise funds for the Party. She campaigned hard registering people on the streets while seeking to convince them of the importance of setting up a party from below which could represent the working class and change Brazil.
Marisa Leticia’s wake was held at the Metalworkers’ Union in São Bernardo. Crowds packed the union’s hall to say their final farewell. Lula embraced each and every one that lined up to pay their respect and made a twenty-minute speech.
"Here I learned to speak. Here I lost my fear of the microphone. Here we decided to combat the military dictatorship. Here we created a new trade unionism. Here we thought about creating the CUT (Trade Union Confederation). Here we thought about creating the PT (Workers’ Party) - here we thought about organising all the strikes that built this category. Here I met Marisa. Here I married Marisa. Here we raised our children. Here Marisa stood by my side at the hardest time so that I could become what I became. Marisa would always say to me: 'Lula, never forget where you came from and where you're going to go back to’”.
Lula also pointed out that she died sad. "I want to prove that the criminals who raised untruths against Marisa will one day have the humility to apologise to her. Therefore, dear companion Marisa, rest in peace because your peace and love Lulinha will continue to fight hard to defend your honour and your image.”
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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