Five-year-old's fatal plunge provokes hard questions about Brazil's racism

By Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

Mirtes Santana weeps when she remembers finding her son dying on the pavement outside the luxury seaside apartment block where she worked in north-eastern Brazil.

“I can’t bear it,” said the 33-year-old domestic worker. “It breaks my heart.”

It was Tuesday 2 June, and Santana, who is black, had just returned from taking her wealthy white employer’s dog out for a walk when she saw her five-year-old on the ground.

Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva had plunged nine storeys after being left alone in a lift by his mother’s boss. He died soon after in hospital.

“She killed my dreams,” Santana said. “She ended my life.”

Miguel’s shocking, avoidable death in the city of Recife has stunned Brazil.

In widely aired CCTV footage of Sarí Gaspar leaving the boy alone in the lift, many saw not only the unacceptable neglect of a black child, but also an ugly reminder of Brazil’s deeply rooted racism and slave-owning past.

“The death of five-year-old Miguel could have been avoided if there had been empathy with a black child, which there wasn’t,” said the black rights activist Deise Benedito.

As anti-racism protests sweep the world following George Floyd’s killing, Brazilian protesters have also taken to the streets to demand justice for Miguel in a series of marches decrying racism and police violence against Brazil’s black youth.

“Brazil is unequal, totally unequal,” his mother said.

For four years, Santana worked for Gaspar, 29, and her politician husband Sérgio Hacker in their apartment, cleaning, cooking and taking care of their children, along with Miguel’s grandmother, Marta.

On the day of Miguel’s death, Mirtes was working alone and was asked to take Gaspar’s dog out, since her employer was having a manicure.

Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva.
Miguel Otávio Santana da Silva. Photograph: Mirte Santana

Exactly what happened in the minutes leading up to his death remains unclear. But CCTV footage shown on Brazilian television shows the boy in the lift outside the family’s fifth-floor apartment and Gaspar at its door.

She appears to try to persuade him to come back into the apartment before in exasperation either hitting or pretending to hit the button for an upper floor and walking away.

Other images show that Miguel pressed more lift buttons and got out on the ninth floor.

He seems to have clambered through a window, before plummeting 35 metres to the ground. His mother, like many Brazilians, blames Gaspar.

“She exposed my son to danger,” said Santana. “There is no excuse.”

Gaspar was arrested for culpable homicide, a crime similar to manslaughter, where there was no intention to kill, and released on 20,000 reais (£3,200/$4,000) bail.

“If it was the other way round, I wouldn’t be [bailed], because I’m poor,” said Santana. “I don’t have 20,000 reais.

In a letter published by Brazilian media, Gaspar asked Santana for forgiveness and said the courts would “clarify the truth”.

Her lawyer, Pedro Avelino, said she would explain her version of events to police when formally interviewed. “She did not imagine at any moment that this tragedy would happen. This is the key point.”

Luciana Brito, a history professor at the Federal University of Reconcâvo da Bahia who specializes in slavery, said the case exposed inequalities that have persisted since abolition in 1888.

Richer white Brazilians still employ black domestic workers. Mirtes worked six days a week. When Gaspar and her husband spent two months isolating from the pandemic in their beach house in nearby Tamandaré – where he is mayor – she and her mother lived there to serve them, and took Miguel with them.

“This is our form of white supremacy,” Brito said. “This is what made Sarí abandon Miguel in the lift. She did not see the boy as a person like her own children.”

On 5 June, demonstrators protested outside the building from which Miguel had fallen, lying face-down on the floor to remember the position in which he was found.

Santana said the rallies had given her strength.

“My pain is their pain,” she said. “The images and the impunity create this revulsion.”