Oral History and the Social Identity of Brazilian Women under Military Rule

By Ferreira, Elizabeth F. Xavier | The Oral History Review, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Oral History and the Social Identity of Brazilian Women under Military Rule


Ferreira, Elizabeth F. Xavier, The Oral History Review


Oral history and political contexts:

One of the most striking aspects of oral history is its democratic potential. This distinctive trait has been extensively analyzed in academic discussions about the method and in the literature that followed. There has been abundant evidence of the uses of oral history in capturing social narratives, and in the construction of collective memory, especially that of minority or suppressed groups. Nevertheless, it is still important to stress the extent of the application of this method and the intensity of its reach. I want to refer, in particular, to the impact of oral history in certain political contexts where societies face disruptive forces in the process of building and rebuilding their national and cultural identities. The use of this method in these political environments -- where democracy is only an intermittent political experience and not an established and existing political system -- is important for their democratization. It is important insofar as it represents a critical and fundamental breach in the ideological structures that fence off these political systems. By restoring and emancipating narratives within this type of historical framework, oral history can contribute to the elaboration of alternatives for the social and political dilemmas commonly created in authoritarian regimes and to the constitution of new social identities. In other words, this methodology is unquestionably an important instrument in any process of transformation of the status quo.

The suppression of democratic practices not only suspends the participation of certain historical agents in political life; it also transforms democracy into an unfamiliar and obscure nation for society. Democratic ideals gradually lose their efficacy both as a subversive and as a liberating force. The release of repressed democratic aspirations and the possibility of introducing them into a society are also a result of a diversified production of historical narratives, which, in turn, intensifies the social demand for action and change. It is precisely this potential to provoke the emergence of new historical subjects (new political agents) and new historical objects (democratic mobilization) that defines the pertinence of this methodology in the process of securing self-determination for these populations.

For more than two decades, Brazilian society lived under a military dictatorship. It lived under the suspension of democratic rights and was subjected to repressive practices. Many commentators interpreting the symbolic representations that circulated in Brazil during that historical moment are convinced that, in those circumstances, the country underwent a process of mystification and delusion. It is true that many segments of society believed in the intense economic development (known as the "economic miracle") that was undertaken by the military governments during the first decade of that period; but, at the same time, they did not know about its perverse effects. Many believed in an imminent communist takeover, but did not know about the torture and assassination of political activists. Most ignored the implications and effects of the authoritarian ideology on their daily lives and on the life of the country as a whole. The outcome of this situation was the gradual alienation of society from the underlying mechanisms that regulated its social and political processes.

However, at present, it has become evident that Brazilian society is remaking that past and that this reconstruction is under way. This effort dates back to the 1980s (especially to the middle of that decade with the campaign for direct democratic election for president -- the Diretas Ja movement -- during the transition to democratic rule). It gained substantial impetus in the beginning of the 1990 with the participation of many individuals and groups that had been silenced -- censored, imprisoned or exiled -- by the military governments or of those who had chosen to remain silent during those years. …

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