While the past two weeks have looked at student activists who challenged Brazil’s dictatorship, this week we turn to a more unlikely activist and opponent to the military regime: fashion designer Zuzu Angel.
Zuleika “Zuzu” Angel was born in the large interior state of Minas Gerais in the early 1920s (some source list her birth date as 1921, others as 1923). As a child, her family moved to the state capital of Belo Horizonte, where she attended school. Already as a young woman, she began making clothes for family members. In 1947, she relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where by the 1950s she was working as a seamstress. She married US citizen Norman Jones and had two children, Stuart, born in 1945, and Hildegard, born in 1949.
By the 1960s, Zuzu Angel was gaining an international audience in a fashion world dominated by European men like Yves Saint Laurent. Her style was unique, as she incorporated Brazilian materials, colors, and themes like tropical birds and flowers into her outfits. Her individual angel trademark signified something was a Zuzu Angel design. The bright colors and Brazilian-influenced patterns caught the eye of many in the international community; she even had a show featuring her work in the US. By 1970, she had opened her own store in the upscale Ipanema neighborhood, reflecting both her local success and international renown.
Even while her professional career was reaching new heights, her personal life suffered catastrophic loss. Stuart, her first-born child, had become an activist against Brazil’s military dictatorship, and by the end of the 1960s, he’d joined the MR-8 (the group responsible for the kidnapping of US Ambassador Charles Elbrick in 1969). However, by 1969, the military regime had escalated its use of repression, relying on torture, state-sponsored murders, and “disappearing” bodies in the hopes of stamping out all forms of resistance to military rule. Stuart Angel became a victim of such repression. The air force’s security apparatus arrested him in June of 1971, and shortly after his arrest, he was “missing.” A few days later, Zuzu Angel received a letter from Alex Polari de Alvegra, a political prisoner at the prison where Stuart had been taken. In the letter, he described Stuart’s fate, which he witnessed from his cell. Stuart had been brutally tortured, but had not provided the information the military was seeking; in the face of his silence, Polari reported, they bound Stuart and tied him to the back of a military jeep, attaching his mouth to the exhaust pipe. The jeep then proceeded to drive around the grounds of the prison, dragging Stuart behind the jeep while he was forced to inhale the exhaust coming from the jeep, which killed him. After that, the military disposed of his body; its whereabouts are still unknown, making Stuart one of the “disappeared” of the military regime. (Stuart’s wife, Sonia Maria de Moraes Angel Jones, would be arrested and killed after torture two years later, in 1973. Like her husband, her body was also “disappeared,” though her remains were ultimately found and identified decades later.) In a pattern typical of bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, the military denied they had even arrested Stuart. Ironically, by 1973, a secret session of the Military Supreme Court absolved Stuart of the alleged charge of violating the National Security Act, the original “cause” of his arrest.
With the horrific death of her son, Zuzu Angel became an activist and critic of the military regime. Using her international contacts, she denounced the torture, murder, and disappearance of her son both in Brazil and in the international community. At fashion shows in Europe and the US, Zuzu Angel, now dressed in all black to reflect her mourning, took every chance to tell the media what had happened to her son, in the hopes of drawing attention to the military regime’s brutal practices. Since Stuart’s father was a US citizen, Stuart was a dual-citizen of Brazil and the US, and Zuzu used this fact to try to pressure the US to act, lobbying politicians like Frank Church and Ted Kennedy. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had supported such regimes throughout South America, traveled to Rio in 1976, Zuzu Angel managed to give the dossier on her son to one of Kissinger’s aides. Nor did she rely simply on politicians to try to publicize her cause; her status as an internationally-renowned fashion designer gave her plenty of Hollywood contacts, and celebrities like Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, and Liza Minelli all came to Zuzu Angel’s and Stuart Angel’s defense. She even took her message to her medium, putting on “the first collection of political fashion in history,” replacing her traditional tropical images with military silhouettes, caged birds, and guns shooting at angels. Such efforts led the military to monitor her actions overseas, always aware of and bristling at her criticisms of torture and brutality under the dictatorship.
Zuzu Angel never learned the whereabouts of her son’s remains. While driving in Rio de Janeiro in March of 1976 (less than a month after passing her documents to Kissinger’s aides), she died in a car crash while exiting a tunnel. However, the crash appeared to perhaps be more than an accident. Eyewitnesses to the crash described a military jeep present briefly before and after the crash. The mystery surrounding the crash retroactively became more suspicious when in August of 1976, former president Juscelino Kubitschek, another outspoken critic of the regime, also died in a similar car crash under similarly mysterious circumstances, prompting some to argue that the military had found new ways to silence its critics (and leading to the Truth Commission re-investigating his death this year). However, even before the car crash, Angel knew she was a target of the military, prophetically declaring that, “If I appear dead, by accident or by other means, it will have been the work of the assassins of my beloved son.”
Zuzu Angel’s struggles serve as a powerful reminder that it was not just women students who fought against the military regime and who suffered at its hands. Her remarkable professional triumphs were met only with personal loss, and yet she persevered, and in 2006, her story was re-told and her message and suffering re-broadcast in the 2006 film Zuzu Angel. With the death of her son, she, like hundreds of other mothers, suffered the anguish of the loss of a child and of not knowing of the fate of his remains. She remained a tireless defender of human rights and critic of the regime, even while insisting that “I do not have courage, my son had courage. I have legitimacy.” In spite of her claims otherwise, Zuzu Angel was courageous, speaking out against the regime and becoming one of the more important voices in bringing international awareness to the brutality of its repression, even while suffering a mother’s loss.