The first woman to become a capoeira mestre in Brazil, and the current president of the Rio de Janeiro Capoeira Federation, speaks about the difficulties she had to overcome to reach her goals.
Fatima Colombiana (43) was born in Rio de Janeiro and had appreciated capoeira rodas since childhood, but did not practice the art because her mother thought it wasn’t for girls. As a teenager, she went to Belem do Para and in 1970 she started capoeira with Mestre Bezerra, the only mestre in the city. She was baptized in 1971 and left Belem in 1973.
In 1975, she met Mestre Canjiquinha in Sao Paulo and went with him to Salvador. After 5 years of training, she became a mestra. It was published in the newspaper that Canjiquinha was about to graduate Fatima (her nickname of Cigana came later, in Rio de Janeiro, given by Mestre Leopoldina), his only female student. In 1980, Fatima formed the Mestre Canjiquinha Association in Volta Redonda, where she had more than 100 students. In 1983, she went to São Paulo, made friends with Mestre Silvestre and began to frequent the São Paulo Capoeira Federation.
Later, she founded the Cigana Capoeira Association, where she graduated approximately 20 instructors who have their own academies today. Cigana has degrees in Physical Education, Philosophy, and Pedagogy. She has been the President of the Rio de Janeiro Capoeira Federation for three years.
What is the current situation of women in capoeira?
Everything that women do is more beautiful. There is a Chinese proverb that says that when God created woman, he mixed everything good: the scent of roses, the heat of the sun, the softness of a rabbit… so when women are tossed into this world, which is ruled by violence and chaos, we suffer more than men because of our fragility. Martial arts are like a magical mirror for a woman because they reflect her inner strength. When you begin to train a martial art, you discover that you are capable – just as much as a man, or even more so than a man who doesn’t practice martial arts. Women need to train martial arts for self-defense much more than men do, because if the necessity arises, we will need to defend ourselves from a man, not a woman.
What was the situation of women in capoeira when you started to practice?
I was the only one. Until 1980, I never saw any other women in a capoeira roda anywhere. When I opened my academy in Volta Redonda in 1980, there were some guys who would drop by to watch and invite me to their group. I had 104 students and they had 300 – all male.
Canjiquinha had taught us maculele, puxada de rede, and those other folkloric arts. So I said to the guy, “Let’s do an exchange. I’ll teach you these folkloric arts, and I’ll come train with the graduated students.” Their academy was where I first saw cords. Canjiquinha didn’t use them – you were either a student or a teacher. So I asked him which cord I should use, and he responded, “You can use the green one.” Just look at the lack of respect – I was a mestra with 104 students, and he gave me a beginner’s cord.
I always experienced lots of discrimination. When I returned to Rio, no one believed I was a mestra. I have a certificate from Mestre Canjiquinha and I was the first mestra recognized by the Brazilian Fighting Federation. I did work in the São Paulo Capoeira Federation, I did work in the Rio de Janeiro Capoeira Fedration, I have a certificate from the Brazilian Fighting Federation. How could I not be a mestra? If you teach, you’re a mestre.
Do you think that women still suffer discrimination in capoeira?
Women suffer because men are very scared of being humiliated in public. The game of capoeira involves humiliation, not violence. The men are afraid of being humiliated by a woman, so they resort to violence before she can do so. But I think the discrimination is even worse among women. When I enter a roda, the people trying to take me down are women, not men.
Because men today – at least the true mestres – enjoy playing with women. So they give you the chance to develop the game, even pretending to be victims to encourage the women. And then the mestre’s wife, who is also a capoeirista, sees you playing with him and thinks, “Ah, he played with her… now I’ll show her.”
Talk a little bit about the work that you are doing in the Federation.
I’ve been working exclusively in the Federation for three years. When I stopped teaching to come work here, I had 1200 students in Angra. When I took the job at the Federation, the organization was completely abandoned. I’m trying to revive it again, but it’s very difficult. There are many people who don’t respect me as a mestra. There are many who only want to speak badly about others’ work. They tell lies, even saying that the Federation is closed. But I’m fighting, and I won’t give up.