By Alba Santandreu
Sao Paulo, Nov 26 (efe-epa).- Erika Hilton said she was forced to make a living as a sex worker in her teenage years but managed to leverage that pain to fuel her success in politics.
Now aged 27, she garnered more votes than any other female city council candidate in Brazil’s recent municipal elections and has become the first transgender, Afro-Brazilian woman to secure a seat on the Municipal Chamber of Sao Paulo, that city’s unicameral legislative body.
Having obtained 50,508 votes in Latin America’s largest metropolis, Hilton attributes her resounding victory in the Nov. 15 first round of Brazil’s municipal elections to fears of social “regression” in the wake of rightist President Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018.
“We saw the need to organize politically to halt the regression and violence that the far-right political project represents and the fascism that made its way to the presidency of the republic,” the councilor-elect said in an interview with Efe.
Hilton earned her seat as a member of the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party, whose mayoral candidate, Guilherme Boulos, sprung a surprise by winning 20 percent of the vote in the first round and earning the chance to face off against incumbent, center-right Sao Paulo Mayor Bruno Covas in Sunday’s runoff.
Born and raised in the city’s impoverished outskirts, Hilton was kicked out of her home at the age of 14 by her mother, who at that time was regularly attending an evangelical church and was “blinded by a narrative of fundamentalist hate.”
“I spent my entire adolescence prostituting myself to survive. That’s the reality for trans women,” she lamented.
But while on the streets she felt an urgency to speak out on behalf of many other fellow female victims of “dehumanization,” racism and transphobia in a country that is the world’s deadliest place for transgender people and where a young Afro-Brazilian dies every 23 minutes.
“All of that fueled my struggle. My pain enabled me to understand what structural violence is and transform that pain into the strength to resist and fight. Not for myself, but for all of us,” Hilton said.
After she had lived on the street for several years, her mother welcomed her back home. No longer living hand to mouth, Hilton turned her attention once again to her studies and decided to enroll at a university, where she first became immersed in the human rights struggle and subsequently became a key figure in that movement in Brazil.
In 2018, she was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Sao Paulo as a member of a nine-woman “collective candidacy,” a recent innovation in Brazilian politics in which several candidates run together for the same seat.
After Hilton’s tenure as Sao Paulo city councilwoman expires, she is confident she will be elected to Brazil’s Congress and be able to change “laws and the constitution itself.”
“My election is a response to all that hate and that negation of our rights. We’re united in seeking social justice, equality and we’re not going to relent so long as our lives don’t matter, so long as they don’t stop killing us for our gender identity,” the politician said.
She said her election also is another step forward in the battle against structural and institutional racism in a country that is majority Afro-Brazilian yet “profoundly racist” and where 75 percent of homicide victims are black.
“Brazil is a profoundly racist country that denies its racism to keep the black population in a dehumanized state. That’s why it’s important for us to occupy spaces and become spokespersons for our struggles and our own grievances,” she said.
A clear example of that “structural racism,” she said, was the case of a 40-year-old Afro-Brazilian customer who died last Thursday in the southern city of Porto Alegre after being brutally beaten by two white security guards outside a Carrefour supermarket.
Joao Alberto Silveira Freitas’ death, however, is not an isolated case, according to Hilton, but rather “one of the millions of cases that happen every day in our country.”
“Black people are killed every day for the mere fact of being black,” she added.
Last week’s homicide, which occurred on the eve of Black Awareness Day in Brazil, triggered protests in several cities, although they proved to be short-lived.