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Research Group Studies Forgotten Brazilian Abolitionist and Civil Rights Advocate

Maria Firmina dos Reis becomes the focus of Brazilian research trip led by Jordan Jones.

Statue of Maria Firmina dos Reis in the city square.
Photo by Jordan Jones

Maria Firmina dos Reis (1825–1917), Brazil’s first female novelist and first Afro-Brazilian female novelist, advocated for the civil rights of Brazilian enslaved people through her critically-acclaimed writing. As a mixed-race woman, she grew up facing racially-motivated persecution, which led her to write stories and poems about the injustices Black Brazilians suffered. One of her most revolutionary texts, the novel Ursula (1860), defied cultural norms through its inclusion of extended first-person narration by enslaved characters and through detailed portrayals of the atrocities enslaved people faced.

Yet, outside of her hometown, her historical impact and progressive writing faded into obscurity over the decades. A Brazilian researcher rediscovered her in the 1970s, and since then, Brazilian and US American scholars have attempted to popularize her writing again. A champion of Firmina dos Reis’ work, Assistant Professor Jordan B. Jones (Luso Brazilian Literature and Culture) recently returned from a research trip to São Luís and Guimarães, two cities in Northeastern Brazil where Maria Firmina dos Reis lived and worked. Jones, along with two undergraduate and two graduate students, researched the local archives for records of Firmina dos Reis’ life and connected with the local community. Jones and his team sought to learn more about Maria Firmina dos Reis’ life and the impact she had on her community as a teacher, historic writer, and pioneering Afro-Brazilian figure.

Jordan Jones and his research group posing in front of city.
Photo by Jordan Jones

Jones’ research group visited eight archives and institutions containing materials related to Firmina dos Reis’ life, even touring her birthplace, her old house, and the church she was baptized in. They also interacted with many local schools because, in addition to her writing, Firmina dos Reis taught in Guimarães for most of her life, even creating the region’s first mixed-gender school. Her refusal to yell at students or use corporal punishment, which was very common at the time, has made her legacy live on in residents’ memories. One of the local schools is named after her, and, in 2020, the city erected a monument in Luís Domingues Square to preserve her memory and impact.

Jones and his team also joined a community event in order to learn more about the culture that influenced Firmina dos Reis and her writing—they participated in a school-conducted poetry and music night in the town square (where her statue is located, and just feet from her house, where Firmina dos Reis herself regularly sang and recited poetry with other residents). Jones explains, “Talking with students and teachers from Guimarães helped my students and me to see how Firmina dos Reis’ legacy expands beyond the texts she wrote; it reverberates in the lives and aspirations of thousands who look to her for inspiration.” The student researchers also enjoyed and benefitted from the experience. Graduate student Xana Furtado (MA, Luso-Brazilian Literates ‘24) reflects, “I learned so much not only about Maria Firmina, but I also learned a ton about Maranhão and Northern/Northeastern Brazil.” Undergraduate student Elisabeth Morris (BA, Sociocultural Anthropology and Portuguese Studies ‘23) observes, “Traveling to Maranhão helped me see the importance of normal, unknown people and the impact their words can have a hundred years later.”

Jones expresses his gratitude for the support he received from the College of Humanities, the Women’s Research Initiative, and the Latin American Studies program that allowed him to travel to Brazil and research Maria Firmina dos Reis. He says, “Being with these students in São Luís and Guimarães, two Brazilian cities that are off the beaten path for tourists and scholars alike, was a tremendously rewarding experience. We ate new foods, explored historically and culturally significant sites, and learned about important traditional practices from Brazil’s Northeast region.”

This trip to São Luís gave Jones and his team first-hand experience studying Firmina dos Reis’ roots and culture. Maria Firmina dos Reis’ insights and writings undeniably impacted her society, and continue to affect those who learn about her today. Jones writes, “I’m grateful to benefit from Maria Firmina’s life and work, and I hope to help expand her influence so that others can benefit from her stories—the ones she wrote and the one she lived.”

Jordan Jones and his research team meeting a local school in Guimarães.
Photo by Jordan Jones