Lèila Gonzalez: A Gender and Race Anthropologist and Activist

Lèila Gonzalez was an important activist and anthropologist. A fighter for equality in Brasil in the frames of gender, class and race. Her texts and speeches are an example of resistance and resilience. She was the voice of many people who didn’t have one. Today, her voice can still be heard.

“For Lèila, everything was knowledge.” – Flavia Rios

Leila Gonzalez, Río de Janeiro, 1968 (Personal Archive)
Leila Gonzalez, Río de Janeiro, 1968 (Personal Archive) (Image credits: https://blackbraziltoday.com/in-brazil-we-speak-pretogues/)


I had the opportunity to research the life of an amazing anthropologist and activist. Now, I will share with you my findings of Lèila Gonzalez, her academic, professional and political trajectory. Known for her focus on black feminism, Leila Gonzalez was a Latin American activist for ethnic and gender equality in Brasil. Let’s get to know her.

Photo of Leila Gonzalez Smiling


Leila Gonzalez was born in Belo Horizonte in 1935. She died in Rio de Janeiro in 1994. Second to last daughter of eighteen children, her dad was a black man who worked for the railway. Her mom was an indigenous domestic employee.

With a bachelors degree in History and Philosophy, she became a teacher in public schools. Then, she got a masters degree in Social Communication and a PhD in Political Anthropology. She worked at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Río de Janeiro as teacher and head of the Sociology and Politics department.

As an activist, she worked for several institutions. Some of them were: Movimiento Negro Unificado (MNU) (Unified Black Movement), Instituto de Investigación de las Culturas Negras (IPCN) (Research Institute of Black Cultures), Colectivo de Mujeres Negras N’Zinga (Black N’Zinga Women’s Colective) and Olodum group. Lèila wrote several important publications like books Festas populares no Brasil (1987) and Lugar de negro (1982). More than ten essays and articles focused on race, gender and class too. 


 Photo: Januário Garcia. Rio de Janeiro, 1983
Photo: Januário Garcia. Rio de Janeiro, 1983

MNU (Unified Black Movement) was an antiracist movement of national scope. They fought against police brutality, political manipulation on black culture, racial discrimination in media and sexual exploitation on black women. The movement survived Brasil’s dictatorship. So did Leila’s legacy up to our day.

Despite the dictatorship, the author and activist was able to travel worldwide. She spread her word next to other brilliant activists like Angela Davis. In her travels, she was able to expand her vision on racial and gender studies. Intelectual connections with activists from North America, the Caribbean and Africa resulted in text production with a transnational perspective. They explained how America’s conquest was achieved through racism. Gonzalez also began a severe critique against academic semantics (Acercándonos Cultura, 2018).

Recommended article on Black Lives Matter movement https://www.yoair.com/blog/black-lives-matter/

Quoting Lèila on as an Education Activist

“Estamos cansados de saber que nem na escola, nem nos livros onde mandam a gente estudar, não se fala da efetiva contribuição das classes populares, da mulher, do negro do índio na nossa formação histórica e cultural. Na verdade, o que se faz é folclorizar todos eles” – Lèila Gonzalez

“We are tired of knowing that there is no mention of an important social input from popular classes, women, indigenous and black people in our historical and cultural formation, in education nor the books we study from” – Lèila Gonzalez (translation by Milene Broche)


Linguistics & Racism

Lèila Gonzalez confronts the academic language in a lot of her texts. She challenged certain words from a linguistic perspective. An example of this is the word ladino. Ladino referred to slaves or indigenous people with a partial education. This term, however, is used to name bandidos or vándalos, which mean burglar or thief. Furthermore, she relates this term to the word latino. This emphasizes that the term reproduces latin repression and white academic superiority. Lèila Gonzalez had a decolonizing posture and was a pioneer antiracist in Brasil. It is demonstrated in her work, that Brasil was a nation built through violence by European domination. The author explains how racism, up to date, reproduces the colonizers superiority over the colonized. As a result, the colonized are still alienated and vulnerable. Gonzalez also fought for equality in education.

Lélia Gonzalez, 1979 (Personal Archive)
Lélia Gonzalez, 1979 (Personal Archive)


One of Lèila’ s most important inputs in the anthropology world was the concept of Amefricanidade. Certainly, this concept refers to black people’s experiences in America. It is defined as the historical process of resistance, accommodation and reinterpretation in a cultural dynamic in reference to African models of ethnic identity construction. The value of this concept lies in the rescue of specific units formed inside different societies in different parts of the world. Through this concept, Lèila denied latinity in the Americas. She recognizes Amerindian elements as well as African ones. Moreover, demonstrates the importance of African diaspora and black culture for Brazil. 

The center of Amefricanidade is black culture. A culture that is reproduced on a daily basis and unconsciously. We can see it in movement, language and gestures. An example of this is Pretoguês or black Portuguese, which derives from African languages.

“You want to know, black culture is not only samba, pagode and funk. It’s in the ‘pretuguês’ that we speak. It has transformed the language and our whole culture.” – Lélia González

“[…] what I call ‘pretoguês’ and which is nothing more than the mark of Africanization of Portuguese spoken in Brazil … is easily found especially in Spanish in the Caribbean region. The tonal and rhythmic character of the African languages brought to the Novo Mundo (New World), as well as the absence of certain consonants (such as the l or the r, for example) point to an little explored aspect of black influence in the historical and cultural formation of the continent as a whole (and not to mention the ‘Creole’ dialects of the Caribbean).” – Lèila Gonzalez, 1988

To conclude this idea, anthropologist and activist Lèila Gonzalez explains that exploitation toward Amefrican people in the Americas has always been justified through racism. Racism that accentuates white superiority and African inferiority, where Africa is seen as a dark continent with no history. In this context, she said, reason becomes white and emotion black (Gonzalez, 1988).

Photo of Leila Gonzalez Smiling
Image credits: https://www.quatrocincoum.com.br/br/resenhas/politica/a-forca-de-lelia

Quoting Léila on racism

“(…)racism in Latin America is sophisticated enough to keep blacks and Indians in the subordinate condition within the most exploited class, because its most effective form of ideology: the ideology of whitening, so well analyzed by Brazilian scientists. Transmitted by means of communication and the traditional ideological systems, it reproduces and perpetuates the belief that the ratings and values of white Western culture are the only true and universal. Once established, the myth of white superiority proves its efficiency and the effects of violent disintegration, fragmentation of ethnic identity produced by him, the desire to whiten (“cleaning the blood” as they say in Brazil), is internalized with the consequent denial of their own race and own culture.” – Lèila Gonzalez https://travellingwomanists.wordpress.com/2011/03/03/learning-with-lelia-gonzalez-in-defense-of-the-afro-latin-feminism/

Anthropologist & Feminist

Leila Gonzalez and Angela Davis, United States, 1984 (Personal Archive)
Leila Gonzalez and Angela Davis, United States, 1984 (Personal Archive)

“The roots of sexism and homophobia are found in the same economic and political institutions that serve as the foundation of racism in this country and, more often than not, the same extremist circles that inflict violence on people of color are responsible for the eruptions of violence inspired by sexist and homophobic biases. Our political activism must clearly manifest our understanding of these connections.” 
― Angela Y. Davis

(Quote taken from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/5863103.Angela_Y_Davis )

Feminist herself, Gonzalez judged the existent discrimination and inequality present in feminism. She stood up to white privileged feminists, and fought for a feminism where black vulnerable women could feel safe and vouched for as well. She believed that racism articulated with sexism too, had devastating consequences, specially on black women (Pons Cardoso, 2014).

Consequently, she studied the sexualization of the black women body in the context of the carnival of Brasil. She explained how Brazilian women at the carnival were seen, stereotypically, as this curvaceous bodies with big boobs and bums that announce a sex invitation (Acercándonos Ediciones, 2018). This, Lèila explained, is an outrageous form of symbolic violence towards black Brazilian women.

All of her studies in gender, race and class inequality in Brazil derived in her practice of an Afro-latin-american feminism.

Recommended article on feminism https://www.yoair.com/blog/decoding-the-origins-of-patriarchy-and-feminism/

Photo of Leila Gonzalez Smiling


Personally, Lèila Gonzalez has been an awakening. Reading her work and work about her, opened my eyes to the truth around feminism. Feminism’s history is also tinted with racism and discrimination. These discriminations still exist and collectives are still fighting against them. However, her posture against racism has been life changing to me. I too, live in a country that was founded as a nation through colonization. The treaty of slaves is no longer remembered for what it was. There is no mention of it’s repercussions in the present. It means diversity, a diversity that is often pushed aside and manipulated. 

One of the things I rescue the most from her work is white priviledge. She is constrantly confronting white colonial priviledge. This action gives valuable results, for it is not only the racialized black people that join the antiracist community., This posture starts a movement where white people may join this fight by consciously understanding their privileged position. Racism can only be fought if we all become aware of how strong, powerfull, sistematic and constantly reproduced it is. Not only racism victims need to fight against it, we all do. 

The importance of Amefricanidade

The concept of Amefricanidade presented by the anthropologist and activist, is an interesting approach to a lot of social problems happening in Latin America. This concept is of great value, for it contains a part of history that is usually hidden or not talked about: the slavery of African men and women, that were precariously brought to the americas by force. This people also built our nations, but they are never or almost never mentioned. We have the blood of the slaves that where able to scape and build their own communities, or survivors, running through our veins. Black people have always been erased or put aside in the historical construction of our nations.

This is, most certainly, because history itself has been written by the hand of white colonial privileged men. Amefrianidade, a concept created by the hands of a black vulnerable and educated Brazilian woman, is a concept that tries to shine a light over the African cultural heritage that exists in Latin America. 

Final messages

In conclusion, anthropologist and activist Lèila Gonzalez, throughout her life, achieved many great things. I have only presented in a basic manner, those that are related to racism and gender inequality. However, her academic trajectory is also highlighted by several analysis of Brazilian culture. I consider her a revolutionary. Her proposals united Brazil’s black communities, and allowed the visibilization of discriminatory phenomena that often occur in the Americas.

With proposals like Amefricanidade, politics of translations and afro-latinamerican feminism, Gonzalez achieved the political and social representation of the under privileged and gave them a voice of their own. They unified in their fight and resistance. We all know, union makes force. Her legacy can bring us to understand identities and respect. Understand we deserve respect as much as we have to give it. A lot of us still have to take a look at our privilege, understand it, and through it, support and accompany the fight of those who are not privileged in our societies.

Gonzalez showed the negative effects of racism and sexism, but she has also shown resilience and resistance towards them. Activism creates change. This woman was a true activist, for her fight was intersectional. Her daily life, education, profession and political roles were all connected to her beliefs that one day, we might live in a more equal and just world. She was and her memory is an incredible role model. 

As a finale to this article, here is a short biographic video you can watch about Léila Gonzalez.

Leave a Reply