Title: When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter
Author: Sona Rosa
Illustrator: Luciana Justiniani Hees
Date: Groundwood Books; 2015
picture book; nonfiction
Author Sonia Rose and illustrator Luciana Justiniani Hees created this non-fiction picture book to commemorate the life of Esperanca Garcia, the first enslaved Afro Brasilian to write a letter of petition for her freedom. The date of the writing of this letter, 6 September, has become Black Consciousness Day in Piauí state. The original letter was uncovered in 1979 and is now in a museum in Lisbon, Portugal. (Brasil was a Portuguese colony.)
Esperança’s story is a testament to the power of writing and the strength of hope.
Esperança wasn’t treated “so badly” by the priests who first owned her and who taught her to read and write but circumstances arose that caused her to be sold. While her children stayed with her, her husband did not. “Others who came with me to the captain’s house are also being badly treated. The captain seems to have a stone in place of a heart.” Esperança detailed her existence to the governor of the state of Piauí to ask that the beatings end, that her daughter be baptized and that she could live with her husband again. A portion of the original letter is in the book.
This book is an important addition to children’s literature for several reasons. Most important, it makes young people aware of the African diaspora by introducing them to enslaved Africans in Brasil. (More Africans were taken to Brazil than to any other country in the Americans during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.) Older readers can be made aware of the complexities of enslavement. When non Europeans were first enslaved, it was justified by saying they weren’t Christian,, another way of rationalizing that they were not equal to Europeans. (Somewhat related information can be found here.) We read that Esperança wants to receive the sacraments and to have her daughter baptized. Was her marriage also viewed as a saccrament? We see variations on inhumanity as enslavement locates in other cultures.
Hees’ artwork connects Esperança to this land and to this place. The striking use of colors, from pages fill with pinks, then greens and then blues and purple remind us of the passage of time.
Morning came softly, a timid sun graced the sky. Birds were
singing in the trees. It was time for
Esperança Garcia to get up. She rose from another sleepless night. She slowly fixed her hair and wiped away the tears that kept falling, even as she struggled to hold them back. Today was another day of waiting for the answer to her letter.
This story is uncomplicated, delivering a powerful messages of hope and resistance.
So many images of looking back remind me of ‘sankofa’.
We don’t know if she ever receives a response, but we know the tremendous courage that was enacted when Esperanca Garcia wrote that letter. First published in Brasil in 2012, When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter made its English debut in late 2015. Sonia Rosa is a teacher who specializes in reading, culture and African history. She’s written over 35 books. Luciana Justiniani Hees is a Brazilian illustrator who illustrates using African and Afro-Brasilian themes.