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Yvonne Maggie: An anthropologist of Afro-Brazilian religions

A researcher of race relations and education, this professor emeritus of UFRJ has been teaching and researching with the institution for over 50 years

Maggie in 2017: Her recent research is on the mothers of high school students who have upward social mobility

Domingos Guimaraens

The first woman in a family of scientists to complete post-secondary education, Rio de Janeiro anthropologist Yvonne Maggie’s history is intertwined with that of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Maggie began her undergraduate studies in social sciences in 1965; she then became a professor before even finishing graduate school, during the military dictatorship (1964–1985). Boasting a career of over 50 years at the institution, Maggie held management positions at the UFRJ publishing house and at the Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences (IFCS). She also established a scientific research program that reduced the dropout rate of social sciences students.

In the course of obtaining her master’s degree, in 1975, she uncovered the essential role of conflict in the interactions between the terreiros (worship spaces) of the Umbanda and Candomblé religions in Brazil. Later, during her PhD, Maggie described aspects that allowed for a better understanding of the relations between the federal government and Afro-Brazilian religions. From graduate school to the present day, studying the life path of the mothers of high school students who have upward social mobility, the issue of race remains central to her work.

In 2017, Maggie became a professor emeritus and was also inducted into the Brazilian Academy of Science (ABC). In this online interview for Pesquisa FAPESP from the Rio home she shares with her husband, artist Luiz Alphonsus, Maggie describes the impact of her father, physicist Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro (1906–1960), on her life, talks about her main research topics, and explains the relationship between her studies and her position on affirmative action.

Age 76
Field of expertise
Anthropology of Afro-Brazilian populations, religion, and education
Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)
Educational background
Undergraduate degree in social sciences from UFRJ, master’s and PhD in social anthropology from UFRJ
Published works and other achievements
72 articles and book chapters, 7 books, and advisory of 68 undergraduate students, 32 master’s dissertations, and 12 PhD theses

I would like to start by addressing your origins and relationship with your father.
My family background is intertwined with that of the former University of Brazil, now UFRJ. My father, Joaquim da Costa Ribeiro, was a physics professor and a founder of the University of Brazil. He graduated from the National School of Engineering, which is located at the Largo São Francisco campus and has been home to the UFRJ social sciences programs since the early 1970s. That was where I worked my whole life. I did not have my father for very long; he died young, at 54. But I remember afternoons spent with him in his laboratory at the National School of Philosophy, established within the University of Brazil to train their teachers. It was a research and teaching university, based on the premise that, without research, you cannot teach or train good teachers. My father knew scientists from Brazil and from all over the world and was part of the group that founded the CNPq [Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development], the CAPES [Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education], the CBPF [Brazilian Center for Physics Research], the CNEN [National Nuclear Energy Commission], and the International Atomic Energy Agency. These institutions are the result of the efforts of his generation, who greatly impacted me. Like myself, many of my siblings inherited this passion for knowledge and research.

Are there more scientists in your family?
Two of my siblings are physicists, one is a chemist, one is an economist, and one is a psychoanalyst. My eldest brother, Sergio, was a great physicist who became an important education researcher as his career progressed. He also died very young. Carlos is an environmental chemist, a physicist, and a professor emeritus at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro [PUC-RJ], while Jeanne Marie is a psychoanalyst. Two of my siblings are social scientists: Carlos and Joana, an anthropologist. I was the first woman in the family to study science. My mother had just started her fine arts education when she got married and had nine children. The fact that she simply abandoned her talent to care for her children has had a deep impact on me throughout my life. From an early age, my work at UFRJ was marked by an awareness of the importance of science and of the training of young female scientists. I began teaching in 1969. Many of my professors had been fired due to the military coup. It was difficult because I had not yet obtained my master’s degree. At that time, the graduate program at the National Museum was in its infancy. And there were no public competitions at the time. I was appointed by the head of the anthropology department, Marina de Vasconcelos [1912–1973], who had been fired by AI-5 [Institutional Act No. 5]. The start of my teaching career was troubled, with the political police controlling the classroom. The IFCS was heavily targeted by censorship. I was always confident that my role was not only to read books, do research, and teach, but also to build upon and improve the institutions in which I worked.

Why did you choose anthropology?
My generation was trained in a democratic environment. We had the view of taking positions of power that could transform Brazil—in every way. I was not a militant, but rather a leftist. With the [military] coup, we were greatly disappointed. We wanted to start a revolution, end poverty—at that time, there was no talk of inequality. It was something that came up later. We then began trying to understand the country from a different perspective; that was when I was introduced to anthropology, which provided me a way to survive in Brazil in times of censorship and hopelessness. Anthropology allows us to quit navel-gazing and try to understand how others think and feel.  So much so that, in my early years of research, I chose to study a religion that was not my own. Guerra de Orixá: Um Estudo de Ritual e Conflito [Orisha Wars: A Study of Ritual and Conflict; Zahar, 2001], my first book, which resulted from my master’s dissertation, was the study of a terreiro on the north side of Rio. At the same time, I began working to improve research and teaching at the university. In 1986, we established a program called the Social Research Laboratory, aiming to combine research and teaching beginning in the first year of undergraduate programs. Through CNPq scholarships, we aimed to support students who had a hard time staying in school due to lack of means. The program was started with the help of the CNPq, but it soon gained great support from the Ford Foundation. In 10 years, it helped us transform the social sciences program, significantly reducing the dropout rate and training a generation that would have been lost without this support.

What aspects of your master’s research were most innovative?
When I put together my research project, one of the professors of the graduate program at the National Museum said: “Yet another thesis on Umbanda.” This depressed me, but it also provoked me into doing something innovative. I had done extensive reading on Afro-Brazilian religions—today called African matrices—and found that most material on the topic tries to explain these religions through their African origins. It was circular, tautological thinking. I broke away from that. I began doing field research, because I find it impossible to study religions of African origin in Brazil without taking part in them in some way. The theoretical model that existed before was one of explanation by origin. I was trained to understand the structure of that social situation, so I tried to describe and understand the interpersonal relationships in the terreiro. I uncovered a fundamental aspect of these religions: alongside community life, there was conflict. The history of the most traditional terreiros in Brazil begins with rupture and war. The authors who had studied this process never went deeper into this—it was taboo. The terreiro has always been—and to me it continues to be—a place to find community, but also a place of conflict. I think my small contribution was describing the structure of these conflicts.

I wanted to uncover how such a persecuted religion as Umbanda grew so much as to transform Rio de Janeiro into one big terreiro

How did you accomplish that?
It was a mix of luck and good guidance. One day, I went to my advisor, anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, and cried: “My research is over, because the terreiro is over. They had a fight.” DaMatta replied: “Yvonne, your research is just beginning.” That inspired me to deepen my investigation into the aspect of conflict. I had a big gap between my master’s and PhD. I defended my dissertation in 1974 and my thesis in 1988. In the meantime, I continued to work and do research. However, like the lives of many women, mine was also marked by mishaps. My separation from my first husband, Gilberto Velho [1945–2012], also an anthropologist, hindered my career. We were known as the anthropology couple and seen as being very close. The separation was traumatic.

Did Umbanda remain an object of study for you during your PhD?
During my PhD, in addition to my studies of terreiros, I also developed research at the Civil Police Museum of the State of Rio de Janeiro. Today, the Police Museum and its “Black Magic Collection,” so called by the National Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage [IPHAN], and which was the first entry of the 1938 Book of Designated Historical Heritage, are at the center of the religious intolerance debate. Since the 1970s, there has been a fight to have the items forcefully taken from terreiros returned to their original owners. In 2017, a group of political and religious leaders organized the campaign Liberte Nosso Sagrado [Free Our Faith]. This group achieved a great victory: the collection will be transferred to the Museum of the Republic. I may have been the first researcher to conduct intensive research into this museum. I was extremely curious and wanted to understand the repression. I wanted to uncover how such a persecuted religion as Umbanda had grown to the point of transforming Rio de Janeiro into one big terreiro.

During the dictatorship, two types of stickers were commonly found on the windows of vehicles. One was the motto of the dictatorship: “Brazil, love it or leave it,” worn by those who supported the coup. The other was the number 7 in red, printed on a black background. It was the symbol of Seu Sete da Lira, the most famous exu [a type of Umbanda entity] from the 1970s. The terreiro visited by the entity, in the Baixada Fluminense region, welcomed thousands of people daily, to the point of requiring their mediums to punch in and out of work each day. The medium Dona Cacilda would incorporate this male entity, Seu Sete da Lira, before going on a kind of stage, shaped like a huge runway, and spraying cachaça on the querents. Hundreds claimed to have been cured by her. The terreiro was also frequented by the higher classes. In 1971, this exu, Seu Sete da Lira, appeared on the Sunday TV shows of Chacrinha [José Abelardo Barbosa de Medeiros, 1917–1988] and Flavio Cavalcanti [1923–1986]. Mass appeal TV shows were just starting to be produced on Brazilian television. The appearance of Seu Sete was bombastic, even impacting the implementation of early censorship on television programming.

I am a feminist in the sense of having a liberation project and fighting for the freedom of other women. Most of my students are women

What was the main discovery of your thesis?
I studied the relationship between the terreiros and the federal government of Brazil and published my thesis in the book Medo do Feitiço: Relações Entre Magia e Poder no Brasil [Fear of the Curse: The Relationship Between Magic and Power in Brazil; National Archive 1992]. The question I posed was this: how can such a repressed religion become so popular? In my view, Umbanda was not and is not a Black religion. It is a religion of African origin, but which welcomed people from all genders, races, and classes of Brazilian society. And that was its greatest draw. As in Candomblé, the terreiros functioned as a meeting place. I looked into criminal proceedings that were the result of repression, based on Articles 157 and 158 of the 1890 Criminal Code, which accused mediums, pais de santo, and mães de santo [priests and priestesses of Candomblé and Umbanda] of practicing magic, evil, or witchcraft. Witchcraft is the belief that mediums can use supernatural powers to consciously do evil. I discovered that, here, the Criminal Code article most often used to repress and punish, 157, was exactly the one that expressed the legislator’s belief in the existence of magic: “[…] practicing spiritualism, witchcraft, and spell casting; using talismans and fortune telling to arouse feelings of hatred or love; instilling the healing of curable or incurable diseases; in short, fascinating and subjugating public credulity: one to six months in prison and a fine.” Thus, the article assumed that magic could influence people. My advisor, anthropologist Peter Henry Fry, had conducted research in Africa, in Southern Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]. When I reported the first criminal proceedings and Article 157 of the Criminal Code, Peter Fry was astonished and said that, in Rhodesia, the law was just the opposite. He told me to read other authors who had studied charges of witchcraft in the region. I realized that English law, unlike Brazilian law, would punish the accusers, thus avoiding the creation of the figure of the sorcerer. In Brazil, however, the government itself was immersed in the belief, since it punished anyone accused of practicing evil or witchcraft. In other words, it believed in magic. If you forbid spiritualism and magic, it means you believe someone can have supernatural powers.

And what was that like in other countries?
The sorcerer only exists if someone accuses another, that is, for witchcraft to exist, an accusation must occur. For the British colonial enterprise, there was no such thing as African witchcraft. Thus, it did not hunt down sorcerers or meddle in matters of magic. In republican Brazil, however, accusers were validated and, thus, the federal government became an oracle, sorting the pais and mães de santo it considered to be “false” from the “real” ones and imprisoning those accused of practicing evil through spiritual powers. They are two different legislative models. The Brazilian one persecutes those accused of witchcraft, much like in the Inquisition, thus founding our belief in witchcraft. This was the topic of my PhD thesis, which I illustrated through the description and analysis of criminal cases involving terreiros from 1890 until the 1980s.

How do you view the relationship between faith and science?
This was a question I asked myself sometimes when living with my father—a great physicist who was also a fervent Catholic. Anthropology has shown me that they are two different forms of knowledge. Science asks “how,” while faith seeks to answer “why.” My parents died young. Many parents die young; science shows me that with statistics. But religion and magic answer another question: Why did I become an orphan so young and my neighbor did not? Therefore, they are two perspectives that exist in parallel, as put by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss [1908–2009].

Tema Pechman The anthropologist with her husband, Luiz Alphonsus, during the shooting of a documentary in one of the terreiros where she conducted research in 1978Tema Pechman

You have been with the UFRJ for half a century. What has your career been like at the institution? 
I was very dedicated, I think. I have always been aware of the legacy I inherited. I owe my life to the research institutes that my father helped establish. I have had a CNPq scholarship since I was a student and throughout my life as a professor at the university, and I still have one today. I actively participated in the internal processes of the institution, which are quite very painful—because, much like in the terreiros, life in the university is full of conflict. At the same time, the pain and suffering of university life are mitigated by the quest to bring together the best minds for the development of science. First, with my colleagues, I founded and coordinated a pioneering scientific research program—after much struggle. I also worked in the research group Núcleo da Cor [Center for Color], where we gathered intellectuals of all races to study the topic of Black people in Brazil. At that time, it was a discredited topic. People would research Black culture and religion, but hardly anyone studied race relations.

You were a pioneer.
Alongside other social scientists, such as Rosilene Alvim, Neide Esterci, Peter Fry, Marco Antonio Gonçalves, Mirian Goldenberg, Maria Laura Viveiros de Castro, Bila Sorj, Michel Misse, José Ricardo Ramalho, Glaucia Villas Bôas, Alice Rangel de Paiva Abreu, and other UFRJ professors. I believe we made our contribution. I can say that I played a role in the study of race relations in Brazil. I have been researching and writing on the subject since the 1970s. In 1988, with the support of the Ford Foundation, we carried out extensive research for the 100th anniversary of Abolition. Many of us anthropologists were women: Maria Laura Viveiros de Castro, from UFRJ, Caetana Damasceno, from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro [UFRRJ], Patrícia Birman, from UERJ, among others, working under the direction of Heloisa Buarque de Holanda at the Interdisciplinary Center for Contemporary Studies [CEIC], at UFRJ. We put together and organized the Abolition Archive, including works produced that year about the 100th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. We produced a catalog showing that the celebrations focused on Black culture, with few addressing racial relations and inequalities. In the early 1990s, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, I coordinated a three-year exchange program the Race and Ethnicity Program, which brought researchers from all over the world to work in Brazil. Brazilian students were also trained under the initiative, which gave rise to the book Raça como Retórica: A Construção da Diferença [Race as Rhetoric: The Construction of Difference; Civilização Brasileira, 2002]. Upon reflecting on race relations, I began studying preparatory courses for university entrance exams that focused on Black and lower-income populations. Brazil had changed its educational system and broadened access to secondary education. Thus, many wanted to attend university but could not get in. I began asking myself where the racism was. Everyone said we needed affirmative action at the university level because the school system was racist. So, in 2004, I created another research center called NaEscola [In School], and we began working on it. Our goal was understanding prejudice and racism in Rio de Janeiro secondary schools. We found that the most frequent issues faced by young people in schools were not exactly related to that. Until around 2014, they mainly revolved around subjects such as repeating grades, exams, and marks. The most dramatic accusation, in their view, was that of being or seeming homosexual. However, the dark-skinned students felt more slighted by teachers, although they did not consider color when choosing friends and partners.

How did this impact your research project?
We changed plans and went a different way. We began studying the ethos of these schools. During the research—perhaps due to my age and the fact that I am a mother and a grandmother—I became interested in the mothers of the students. As a result, my current research involves the life history of the mothers of students with upward social mobility.

After so many years of researching race relations, what is your position on affirmative action?
My argument about affirmative action has never been properly understood. I do not think it hinders the quality of the university. I have always fought for the inclusion of poor young people in higher education. Racism impacts our country and is a perverse and painful phenomenon. However, I believe it is impossible to fight racism by focusing on the idea of race, that is, by placing race at the center of a policy that aims to combat racism. It is incoherent because, instead of reducing racism, this policy exacerbates it. Our country has laws that fight racism; here, an “anti-racist manual” is necessary to teach people that racism exists. In a segregated society, such as the United States, such a manual would be unnecessary. This does not mean that people are not racist in Brazil, but that racism has been repressed by law since the Proclamation of the Republic. From 2001 to 2012, I took part in public hearings and wrote, alongside several other intellectuals, two letters addressed to Congress and the Federal Supreme Court to express our position on the dangers of affirmative action, which would legally divide Brazil between white and Black people. We were ignored. And today we see, especially in university environments, how commissions of racial hetero-identification exacerbate racism. Unlike racial-focused action, affirmative action focused on the poor would automatically include Black people, making it unnecessary to bring up race. The idea of race superiority is hateful. The racial courts organized at universities to determine which candidates are Black, and thus entitled to affirmative action, use racist techniques from the 19th century, such as measuring skin tone, nose size, and hair type. With this, they reinforce the idea of biological race, causing more injustice.

Why did you decide to lead the IFCS?
I decided to run for the management position, which I held from 1994 to 1997, in a highly politicized academic environment. I am not affiliated with any political party, but I wanted to make the institute stronger. When I was director, I helped solidify and improve the assessment of its three graduate programs and promoted competitions that resulted in the hiring of important professors. I renovated the front of the historic building—the same building where my father graduated and began teaching. The first Wi-Fi network was implemented under my management. This was during the first term of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso [1995–1998 and 1999–2003] and I had great support from the Ministry of Education [MEC]. During this period, I was also able to accomplish something I learned from my father: bringing people together for a common project. After 1997, I was director of the UFRJ publishing house for four years. During that time, I considered running for vice dean, but this ended up not working out. Running UFRJ is a challenge. The environment is highly political, and the dean is often stuck in the middle of it. More recently, my colleagues nominated me for two prestigious titles. In 2017, I joined the Brazilian Academy of Science and became a professor emeritus at UFRJ.

Yvonne Maggie archive Maggie and the mãe de santo Dona Conceição, in 1976, at Terreiro Ilê de Oxalá e Obaluaê, in Miguel Couto, Rio de JaneiroYvonne Maggie archive

How did being a woman impact your career?
My generation burned bras and fought to abolish submissive gender roles. I was the first woman in my family to obtain a degree and I now hold a prominent position in the academic world. I was always wary of the feminist movement of the 1970s. I believe we should not be placed in boxes. When I was young, I never submitted to the esthetic of academic women, who are often quite serious and wear formal clothing. I was a bit of a hippie, but I also came from a very Catholic family. Talking to my older sister, who is now 84, I see that my generation is completely different from hers. I am a feminist in the sense of having a liberation project and fighting for the freedom of other women. Most of my students are women.

What challenges does anthropology face today?
Anthropology is losing its foundation. It is a science that originally had the goal of putting oneself in the shoes of the other to understand them. Today, it seems that this premise has been abandoned. Anthropology is in crisis again because of a catchphrase that was created–the idea of the “place of speech,” that is, that one can only speak of matters relating to his or her experiences. In this perspective, there is no other. The anthropology that I value represented a revolution in the sense of trying to understand the other.

How have you been dealing with the pandemic?
My husband is Luiz Alphonsus, who is a visual artist of the conceptual generation. He is the father of my only child, Domingos Guimaraens, who is also a visual artist. I have a 3-year-old grandson. The pandemic kept me away from my son, grandson, and daughter-in-law for more than five months, during which time I was self-isolating at home. At the end of August, we decided to join our bubbles and they spent a few days with us. The world has already faced pandemics just as serious as this one—or even more serious. My son has just released a book of letters from his great-grandfather, the poet Alphonsus de Guimaraens [1870–1921], who lived through the Spanish flu and describes challenges like the ones we are currently facing. The flu was deadly, especially for mine workers, whose lungs were compromised. The poor are always the most affected in these catastrophes. But even though we have survived this before, today we need stronger, more sensitive, and less denialist leaders. Brazil was doubly affected by the pandemic. It is as if we were going through a war and, during wars, the cultural sector is always one of those hit the hardest. My hope is that people move toward introspection over the course of these months, perhaps years, until an effective vaccine is made. Some creative events have taken place during this period—such as seminars, theses being defended online, and meetings between friends over the Internet. But they clearly offer little relief for the tragedy we are facing. Anthropology was also severely affected, as it involves fieldwork and face-to-face conversations.