Sr Joana Aparecida Ortiz, who since 2010 has been living among the second largest population of Indigenous people in Brazil, in Mato Grosso do Sul, talks about her mission beside “her people”. The Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Aparecida turned her dream into a challenging reality: “I had no doubts that God’s categorical call to me at that time was to be a prophetic presence of solidarity and to join the missionaries”.
The suffering of the people is also our suffering. In 2010, as a Franciscan Sister of Our Lady of Aparecida, a daughter of Mato Grosso do Sul, in Brazil’s Central West region, where the country’s second largest Indigenous population lives — “where an ox is worth more than an Indigenous child, and soy is worth more than a cedar tree” — I felt called to stand beside these people, who are my people.
The inspiration that comes from a dream
I was feeling terrible distress without understanding what was happening to me, when I dreamed that Indigenous people came to our house, asking for help. The next day, the dream continued. In it, my mother (who definitely had Indigenous blood) appeared and handed me an envelope, asking me to deliver it to the Indigenous camp. The following day, the dream continued: I delivered the envelope to an elderly man in a village on the edge of a road. The Indigenous elder said, “We don’t want money, but presence”.
I woke up overwhelmed by that dream, wondering if I was losing my mind. How was I to accomplish such a mission, if we, as a Congregation, did not have a house in the village? It was then that, with the help of the Conference of Religious of Brazil (crb), I came to know the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (cimi), an organization of Brazil’s Catholic Church. I thus began my visits to the villages in the agricultural state, Mato Grosso do Sul.
The sad conditions of Indigenous people in Mato Grosso do Sul
My God, I have seen so much suffering! From village to village, from camp to camp, on the edges of roads, on Indigenous reservations and fazendas. I have seen many people’s huts set on fire, and malnourished children. And at that time, I also saw cimi missionaries care for a girl who was suffering from severe malnutrition, who despite the assistance, died the following day.
I found the congregational charism that spurred me towards that reality: “We praise the name Aparecida, we go out from the squares where many people transit, we go to the basements where no one is in a rush”, as our Foundress Mother Clara Maria de Azevedo e Souza used to say.
Eleven years later, the journey with God and Indigenous people
I finished cimi’s basic course in 2012, and as a missionary of that organization, I was able to see God’s face in the face of Indigenous people. As a member of the Congregation, I was able to join the missionary work and be a presence. In 2015, the organization was subjected to a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on its defence of the rights of communities. I was involved in that process and I was able to experience in part what Christ lived through when he faced false accusations before the Sanhedrin because he wanted the freedom of his people. We were persecuted, denigrated and slandered, but not defeated because we believe that the Lord walks with us. We won that battle.
I have been on this journey with Indigenous people for 11 years. I feel that there is still a lot to do. But the greatest joy is to see Indigenous people in the limelight, attaining their own spaces and rights. “Never again a Brazil without us!” said Sonia Guajajara when she took office as Minister of Indigenous Peoples at the beginning of this year. As a Congregation, we reaffirm our commitment to be of support and to be present, so that Indigenous peoples may have their territories demarcated and their rights respected.
Today, I consider this mission a strong calling from God in my life as a person with indigenous blood running through her veins. I came from those people and I returned to them, becoming a different person. Even though my people still do not have their lands demarcated and their rights guaranteed, they have become protagonists.
Sr Joana Aparecida Ortiz