It has been difficult for me to know how to make my personal connection to my work known. I research how mass bodily breakdown of São Paulo’s working class from 1976 to 2011 affected worker’s visions of their own bodies, their role in the medicine, and their possible connections to wider struggles for social rights like healthcare and disability rights. I also have Cerebral Palsy and other chronic illnesses. I had the opportunity to present some of my initial findings to community partners in the industrial, São Paulo suburb of Osasco at the end of my Tinker Grant. First, to the workers at the local Metalworkers’ Union—where I conducted archival and oral history research—and then the next day at a municipal employment fair in Osasco where I presented my work to disabled community members and their allies. Both discussions opened me up to the power of sharing my lived experience and delving into those of others as windows into to understanding the potential of radical pasts.
I revealed the deeper roots of this project that I seldom discussed in academic settings: my own pain in being an object of medical intervention with little agency during over a dozen orthopedic surgeries, the solidarity I felt during rehab stint where patients and parent from all over Latin America supported me, how my arrival in Brazil during the 2014 protest against the World Cup led to a realization the power that my body is a political and polemical object, and how pandemic work rhythms ironically provoked a repetitive strain injury as I researched disabling work accidents. My body as a site of contention has long been wrapped up in my inquiries.
I explained to both audiences that the idea of disability labor quotas—often touted as product of rising tide of multicultural protections resulting from Brazil’s long democratization in contact with Global North movements in the 2000s—echoed nearly exactly language used by the military regime to take advantage of the labor power of injured workers in 1971. I also emphasized that oral histories and legal documents reveal how workers whose bodies had been altered by industrial accidents used their job security afforded to them by collective bargaining in the New Union strikes in 1979—once re-employed after their accidents, their employment was legally protected—to organize other precarious workers in the factory against dangerous working conditions Although the changes in their bodies inspired these fights they did not identify as disabled, but clearly had a new consciousness of their bodies power and vulnerabilities.
After my presentation, I was struck by the reaction of an audience member. She ran up to me and asked, “So how are we all going to start the disabled union?” She had understood my presentation as advocating for new organizations. However, as my research suggests, shared experiences of bodily strain often created novel possibilities for activism, even if the shape and durability of these new identities remained contentious. In the current political climate where far right leaders malign the rights of marginalized people as recent creations of an overzealous left, we have much to gain by deepening our perspective of longer histories and the interconnections of various rights beyond their most obvious constituencies. As my personal connections and research also emphasize, a more detailed understanding of personal connections to wider social forces uncover insights and complications that are as enriching as they are challenging.