On Thursday, Maria Rosa Leite Guimarães, human rights activist and mother of Honestino Guimarães, a student leader and one of the many of the Brazilian dictatorship’s “disappeared” victims, passed away at the age of 84. A professor (like her husband) and mother of four, she relocated to Brasília in the early-1960s, shortly after the city was officially inaugurated. In Brasília, her oldest son, Honestino, whom she described as being political “since childhood,” became increasingly involved in the student movement after the military coup of 1964. He became active in his high school student movement , first in high school and then in college when he enrolled in the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). Honestino quickly became a leading figure in the student movement in Brasília, directly under the eyes of the military regime that resided in the country’s new capital. As student protests increased in the 1966-1968 period, he became a key actor in the student movement on the national level (he is believed to be the youth with glasses and a white shirt on the left in this famous image of students protesting military rule). At first, Maria Rosa and her family did not think much about this activism, seeing it as logical with whom Honestino was. As she herself said in an interview in 2005, “at first, we thought what was happening was natural: it was a student thing, there were demands that should have been met, there were people preparing for a better world.”
However, with growing repression throughout 1968, Honestino’s family, including Maria Rosa, became increasingly worried. When the military invaded the campus of UnB in June 1968, she said the experience was “horrible, it was terrible! It was a signal of war that the people saw: all of the streets to UnB were occupied by soldiers […] I passed by that line of soldiers, a crazy thing, knowing that all of that was in order to arrest, in order to liquidate Honestino. Thus, it was a terrible thing.” Honestino was arrested, but ultimately released. However, the sufferings were not his alone; the military monitored Maria Rosa’s apartment in Brasília, tapped the apartment’s phones, and made her family’s life increasingly unsafe. As the military regime entered its most repressive phase at the end of 1968, Honestino went underground. Nonetheless, Maria Rosa and her husband managed to occasionally visit Honestino, even under the threat of being discovered and arrested themselves or giving up the location of their son. When the president of the National Student Union, or UNE, was arrested in 1970, Honestino became interim president, being elected in 1971. He would be the last president of the organization until its semi-clandestine return in 1979. He continued to live in clandestinity, organizing protests and actions against the dictatorship, until 10 October 1972. On that date, he was arrested. It was the last anybody definitively heard from him.
With her son’s arrest, Maria Rosa began to try to find him. She went to visit him where she had been told he was held, but upon arriving, officials informed her he was not there. In a story all too common to mothers in Brazil and throughout South America in this period, she continued trying to track down the location of her son; every dead end only led to greater worry, panic, and uncertainty. By 1976, political prisoners familiar with the prisons and the regime’s repression were saying Honestino had been murdered and disappeared; only in 1996 was he finally declared officially dead. To this date, his fate and the location of his remains are unknown.
In the wake of the disappearance of her eldest son’s death, Maria Rosa became an important figure in the fight for human rights and a defender of the student movement in Brazil. Throughout the remainder of the military dictatorship, and up until the present, she was one of the more vocal critics of the regime’s use of repression, speaking out against human rights abuses it committed not only against her son, but against thousands of Brazilians, demanding information on the fate of her own son and the fates of hundreds of others “disappeared” during military rule. Although the regime ended and its horrors faded from public memory, she herself never stopped suffering the pain of her loss, and the loss of many other mothers like her, and she worked tirelessly to make sure Brazilians remembered the horrors and human rights violations under military rule. Her own observations on the event make clear just how deep the wound of a “disappeared” loved one was: in that 2005 interview, she commented, “I don’t think on these things, I don’t sit around remembering – I’m not a masochist…”.
She may not have been a masochist, but Maria Rosa Leite Guimarães was a crusader for human rights in Brazil, a woman who, like far too many other mothers and fathers, suffered the effects of military rule in Latin America. Her death is a major loss for activists in Brazil, but her activism itself will live on; as Daniel Iliescu, the current-president of the National Student Union that Honestino once presided over, said, “In this moment, we are all orphans“.
Que se descanse em paz, Dona Maria. May you finally be reunited with your long-lost son at last.