When Domingas Mendes left her home in Guinea-Bissau, she was a nun heading for a mission in southern Brazil. A few years later, religious life no longer seemed like the right choice and she decided to pursue a degree in social services.
For months, her time was divided between work hours and the free course she attended at night to prepare for the tests to enter Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), one of Brazil's top schools, located in the city of Porto Alegre. As many black and poor applicants do, Domingas applied as a “quota candidate”.
The Brazilian quota system for high education, implemented as a law in 2012, reserves 50 percent of public universities’ vacancies for students coming from low-income families and public schools and who are of African or Indigenous descent.
Domingas passed the test and was approved. But then she learned the university wouldn't take her. As she wrote in a Facebook post:
O Edital e a lei de cotas exige que tem que ser preto e pobre. Sou preta, pobre, trabalhadora e comprovei isso! Outro elemento que quero chamar a atenção é a declaração do MEC sobre meu caso, também em entrevista para a rádio gaúcha. Conforme o Ministério da Educação as Universidades tem autonomia na definição do ingresso de seus estudantes em casos como o meu. Portanto, isso mostra que a alegação da UFRGS se trata de discriminação e segregação, pois não está previsto na lei nacional que escola pública precisa ser brasileira! Isso é uma política excludente da UFRGS para uma lei que se pretende o contrário: incluir e garantir cidadania!
The rules and the quota law require that you should be black and poor to apply to the quota vacancies. I am black, poor, a worker and I proved that! Another element that I would like to call attention to is the Ministry of Education's statement on my case, also in an interview to Radio Gaúcha. According to the ministry, the universities have autonomy to define the enrollment of students in cases such as mine. Therefore, this shows that UFRGS’ claim is discrimination and segregation, because it is not foreseen in national law that the public school needs to be a Brazilian one! UFRGS's policy is excluding me from a law that intends the exact opposite: to include and guarantee citizenship!
Rádio Gaúcha, a radio station from the city of Porto Alegre, had access to the document UFRGS issued confirming Domingas’ rejection. They published it in their website:
Ocorre que a reserva de vagas de que trata a Lei 12711/12 é destinada a estudantes egressos do sistema público de ensino do Brasil. O já mencionado decreto 7824/12, em seu artigo 2º, parágrafo único, determina que, para os fins a que se destina, consideram-se escolas públicas aquelas de que trata o artigo 19, I da Lei 9394/96. Este dispositivo, por sua vez, estabelece que são instituições públicas de ensino aquelas criadas ou incorporadas, mantidas e administradas pelo Poder Público.
What happens is that the reservation of vacancies established by the Law 12711/12 is reserved for students from the Brazilian public school system. The decree 7824/12, in its Article 2, says that for its intended purpose, public schools are considered those defined by article 19 of the Law 9394/96. This provision establishes that public schools are those created or incorporated, maintained and managed by the Public Power.
To date, the university hasn’t spoken publicly about the case.
After Domingas shared her story, hundreds of people started to engage in a campaign to demand the university allow her enrollment. On February 23, a protest organized inside the university’s campus by social services students gathered a hundred people and forced one of the vice deans to receive the Guinea-Bissauan.
But the resulting news wasn't good: as Domingas told Global Voices, the institution maintained its position, telling her to look for an alternative through “legal means”.
Journalist Thales Bouchaton said in his blog:
… em uma bizarra interpretação da Lei de Cotas, entendeu a instituição por não aceitar o ingresso da estudante porque ela não fez o ensino médio em uma escola do Brasil. Porém, fui dar uma olhada na referida lei e ela não fala em nada disso e sim em “escolas geridas pelo Poder Público”, não especificando se essa escola é brasileira ou não.
…in a bizarre interpretation of the quotas law, the institution understood it should not accept the student because she did not attend high school in Brazil. However, from what I've seen in the law, it doesn’t specify any of this, but mentions “schools managed by the Public Power”, not specifying whether or not it needs to be a Brazilian school.
There is another catch to the story. In an interview for TV Negração, published on YouTube, Domingas noted that the university exempted her from paying the entrance test fee, something only allowed for public school students. Also, after eight years living in Brazil, Domingas has a permanent visa. According to the country's laws, except for political rights as the right to vote, the visa gives immigrants the same rights regarding access to public health and education as it does to Brazilian citizens.
Para eu ser trabalhadora para vender minha força de trabalho a preço barato é permitido. Todavia, eu qualificar minha força de trabalho e, assim, poder ter uma vida um pouquinho melhor não pode!
When it comes to being a worker, selling my labor for a cheap price, it's allowed. However, when it comes to getting better qualifications, so I can have a life that's a little better, it's not!
The numbers of African immigrants in Brazil have increased 30 fold in the past decade. Even though most are able to find jobs and send money to their families back home, it is clear that society has a place reserved for them. And, as Domingas’ story shows, this place is rarely a spot in a university.
Domingas is currently following the institution's counseling and looking for a solution with the help of a public defender. In the video interview, she says she has presented all the requirements that UFRGS demands for quota students to enroll, and adds:
Eu acredito que não estão aceitando minha matrícula por racismo, xenofobia, preconceito e tratando o princípio da lei de forma contraditória mesmo. Porque uma lei que é para incluir, agora está me excluindo.
I believe they are not accepting my enrollment because of racism, xenophobia and prejudice and treating the law principle in a contradictory way. Because a law that is designed to include is now excluding me.
The students who organized the protest endorse this position. But the question of why a Brazilian university won't accept a Guinea-Bissau student remains to be answered.