RIO DE JANEIRO – One of the first shops in Brazil to exclusively stock black dolls launched over the weekend in a bid to combat racism and promote social inclusion in an increasingly polarized society.
In a country where 50 percent of the population is black or mixed race but where racism is rampant, Jaciana Melquiades’ shop, which targets lower-income families, has performed beyond all expectations selling out an entire collection of dolls – which the entrepreneur had stocked for her first month of trade – in just 1.5 hours.
Despite the enormous success, the shop has been the target of critics who have labeled it a “racist” enterprise that promotes discrimination between whites and blacks, “something that is totally false and out of proportion,” 35-year-old Melquides told EFE.
For Melquiades, the motivation to set up a shop for Brazil’s people of color was anchored in a desire she had to create a space that promotes equality and where black children can feel represented and identify with the toys.
She told EFE that, when she was a little girl, she never had a black doll because she couldn’t find it in the market.
This experience made a profound impression on Melquiades and remained a concern for her throughout her childhood and later during her academic years at university when reading History.
Melquiades came up with the idea whist giving inclusion workshops to doctors in a bid to help them understand some of the issues specifically endured by Brazil’s black community.
She thought then that, given stereotypes were rife among adults, the key would be target discrimination at its route: in childhood. And that was how Melquiades delved into the world of dolls.
Melquiades started delivering outreach programs in schools in order to raise awareness of racism and discrimination and, as she developed her practice, she started making materials such as dolls for the workshops. Her designs sparked great interest.
“I started creating things for my workshops and for the work I did in the municipality and the university,” Melquiades continued.
“I started selling without any long term goal, by commission. In 2013 I designed a website and started selling online. By 2017 I committed to the project,” the entrepreneur added.
The endeavor to find a physical space for her business was not easy.
As a black woman with a limited credit rating, she found it difficult to find funding to launch her dream.
She eventually raised the funds and found a venue for her business, “Era uma vez o mundo,” (It was once the world), which is located in the vibrant city center near the Saara market, one of the busiest commercial areas in Rio.
Melquiades, a slim woman with an infectious smile, was born in Baixada Fluminense, a deprived neighborhood in the metropolitan area of Rio where poverty and violence are part of the daily grind of life.
Melquiades is unsure what the future holds, but beyond her vision of seeing black dolls in big department stores, one thing she is certain of is that the most important thing for her is for children to feel connected with their heritage and culture.
The best selling doll is “Dandara,” a heroine and warrior who fought for equality and freedom in Brazil and ended up killing herself in 1694 refusing to return to a life of slavery and abuse.
Melquiades’ story is one of many attempts to address the complex social fabric of the culturally and economically diverse Latin American state.
In 2001, the Brazilian Congress approved a proposal to galvanize toy-makers to broaden their market to include black dolls. So far, the numbers are not promising.
A report by the Avante NGO, published in 2018, concluded that 7 percent of dolls manufactured in Brazil were black, a 4 percent rise on 2016 when the first study was conducted.
Melquiades is delighted with the figures: “That is double!” she said, visibly delighted.
“A great achievement and reason to continue with the work,” she concluded.