Oral History Excerpts

Valdenora da Cruz Rodrigues
Brazil

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My name is Valdenora. I was born in 1960. At the age of 10, the first symptoms of Hanseniasis appeared. Fifteen days after my birth my mother died, leaving my biological father with two children. He gave me away to another family and this new family raised me. I had the opportunity to study, for my foster mother was the only local teacher. I stayed one year with this family and when the symptoms started to appear, my mother began to lose all her students because I, her daughter, had a skin disease. When my mother lost all her students, she decided to find me help and treatment. That’s when they took me to the Antonio Aleixo colony.

They took me in a covered canoe pulled by a boat on a 10 meter rope. Three days of travel and I used to get food by cans that the boat would leave in the water for me to catch from behind. I arrived at the Antonio Aleixo colony and did not yet understand what was really happening to me. I felt such pain, having to leave my family in order to be isolated. I missed them so much, especially when I used to see the people whose disease was advanced and some would tell me that I would someday be like them. I felt really desperate. I even thought about suicide.

My mother had a difficult life with a very poor family that lived only with her teaching wages. It was a big family – there were 14 of us. Sundays would come without visits and I missed them so much, and there was no prospect of seeing them again. I stayed at the colony from 1970 to 1976 for treatment. I was discharged from treatment and sent back to my family by the nuns, who were the directors of the colony at the time. I went back to my mother and stayed three years with her. That’s when I got married. Actually, they married me. I was 17 then and I began to experience another reality, a violent one, since my husband used to mistreat me a lot and that violence caused me the loss of my first son. I was a rural worker and worked a lot. I went to work at 5 o’clock and worked all day. That was my job. Back at the colony, people used to tell me that I shouldn’t do that kind of work because of my lack of sensation, foot problems, and how my wounds would never get better if I was walking a lot.

I used to think: “Will this be my life? Will I live like this forever?” Remembering what they told me, their orientation, that I’d damage myself by doing such work, I decided to leave that husband and go back to my parents. I asked them for two things: a hammock and their blessing. I had decided to get a boat and go back to the Antonio Aleixo colony, which was already deactivated at the time (i.e., people were living there as a community, but not with the health structure of a colony hospital). That’s when I got involved with their work. I became a sanitary assistant. I already had a notion of midwifery and was hired then as a midwife after getting two years’ experience at a public maternity hospital.

Well, in those past years at the colony, we were conditioned not to speak, only to say “amen” and never to question anything. Today we can actively participate. We can express our needs. This is the main difference between then and now.

I have a single son. I have the memories of those old days when we lived inside the colony, of what was beautiful. Today we have only the old structures, which with time have turned into ruins. I would like to preserve those structures, those buildings that were so important to us, and turn them into a historical site to commemorate the lives that we had there and we will never forget.

What we would like to do is to preserve our heritage so it won’t be forgotten, and that end is already beginning even in Antonio Aleixo colony, in Manaus (AM). The government itself is destroying this history, since for them there is no interest in preserving these ruins. We have to preserve this ourselves.

The moment when I left the colony was a really liberating moment for me because my family accepted me back when many others lost theirs. So many people lost their families. We would like to say: “When someone goes to war he comes back as a hero. What about us? How does society see us? Soldiers are seen as heroes and we are seen as disgraced and miserable.”

So today, before this society that is yet completely uninformed, we want to win back our dignity, our citizenship. Today, to face this society, we need people with courage, people that really passed through all these life experiences, so that we can seek and obtain the place that we deserve in this society.

-- Interview by MORHAN during the First National Seminar of Former Colony Hospitals, Rio de Janeiro, November 2004, which was videotaped by the Oral History Project. Transcribed and translated from Portuguese by Gabriel de Mesquita Faccini and Lavinia Schüler-Faccini. Copyright 2004 Valdenora da Cruz Rodrigues and MORHAN.

Valdenora da Cruz Rodrigues, being interviewed at the First National Seminar of Former Colony Hospitals, 2004.
Photo taken from video interview