RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Luakam Anambé wanted her newborn granddaughter to have a doll — something she never owned as a child working in slave-like conditions in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest . But she wanted the doll to share her native characteristics, and there was nothing like that in the stores. So she sewed one herself from fabric and stuffing.
The doll had brown skin, long black hair, and the same face and body paint used by the Anambe people. This delighted passers-by; while indigenous dolls can be found elsewhere in Latin America, they remain mostly absent in Brazil, home to nearly 900,000 people identified as indigenous in the last census.
A business idea was born and her modest house is now transformed into a workshop where she and her daughter make dolls for a growing clientele.
“Before, only the white dolls existed, then came the black ones, but the natives do not appear,” says Anambé, 53, wearing a pearl necklace and a headdress of delicate orange feathers. “When Native women see the dolls, they sometimes cry.”
Since 2013, Anambé has sold more than 5,000 dolls at local fairs and on social media, shipping them all over the country, and she is fundraising to participate in a German fair with the aim of exporting to Europe. His booming business in Rio de Janeiro is a world away from the Amazon state of Para, where his life of hardship began.
She was one of 15 children and Anambé’s parents sent her and her two sisters to live and work on a plantation. At just 7 years old, she was tasked with caring for the plantation owner’s toddler. She remembers being scolded after asking the owner’s wife for a doll; she should work, not play, recalls Anambé. And she received no sympathy when she told the woman she had been sexually abused. She never received a salary and the complaints often ended with the young Anambé locked in a dark tobacco warehouse, alone.
Anambé said she was 15 when the plantation owner forced her to marry his friend, a man two decades her senior, with whom she had a daughter. Anambé quickly fled her violent husband, leaving her baby with her family.
“We are fighters, in a fight to survive,” she said, referring to indigenous peoples who are regularly threatened by land grabbers, loggers, ranchers and miners in the Amazon. Before colonization, “there were millions of indigenous people in Brazil. Today, there are far fewer. And with each passing day, less and less.
Anambé worked for years as a cleaner in Belem, the capital of Para state. But she felt that life had more in store for her and that she had to look for opportunities in one of Brazil’s biggest cities. She hitchhiked for eight days to Rio with a long-haul trucker and considered him a godsend, mostly because he didn’t mistreat her.
Her native traits stood out in Rio and she suffered prejudice. Eventually, she landed a job at a bikini factory and was able to bring in her daughter, then in her twenties. Gradually, they saved enough money to move from their one-room shack to a small house, where she began making clothes for some of Rio’s fashionable brands. With the skills she developed sitting behind her sewing machine, she made her first doll.
“It’s like a mirror,” said her daughter, Atyna Porã, who now works with her mother. “Through the doll, we see each other, and we have to break the taboo behind it, because we have always been very discriminated against.”
Anambé and Porã have expanded their portfolio to include dolls with face and body paints from five other indigenous groups. Each is sewn by hand, dressed in traditional clothing and carefully painted with a sharpened branch from a tree in their backyard, according to native custom.
While they were the first to reach a large audience through social media, others have followed in their footsteps.
Indigenous fashion designer We’e’ena Tikuna, also born in the Amazon rainforest and now based in Rio, started making indigenous dolls to dress them in her designs. “I admire her work, like that of other indigenous women,” Tikuna said of Anambé. “We need that Indigenous representation.
Anambé named his first doll after Atyna’s daughter, Anaty, which became the name of his business. And 20% of the proceeds go to her non-profit organization, Maria Vicentina, named after her mother and grandmother. Based in Para, it will provide seamstress training to women under duress, expanding the Anaty doll operation while helping them secure financial independence.
“When I left Para State, I did not leave just for me. I went to look for other women too,” Anambé said. “Anaty came to give us this autonomy, us, the indigenous women.