Every day, at the Noir de Rio Museum, hundreds of people venerate an image of a Black woman wearing a mask and collar. They pray…
“Anastacia, holy Anastasia,
You who were borne by Yemenja, our mother,
Give us the strength to struggle each day
So we may never become slaves,
So that, like you, we may be rebellious creatures
May it be so. Amen”
Who is Anastacia?
Anastacia is a blue-eyed Black beauty, now revered as a saint, for her strength in enduring hardship. She is considered one of the most important woman in Black history within the culture of Rio de Janeiro. However, like all legends, mystery is part of her story, and nobody knows who Anastacia actually was. Her story has many beginnings but the same sad ending.
According to the oral tradition, from the late 19th and early 20th century, Black Brazilians have been venerating the image of a slave woman with piercing blue eyes and wearing an oppressive facemask. Then in 1968 she took on the status of a saint when the curators of the Museum of the Negro, located in the annex of the Church of the Rosary of the Brotherhood of St. Benedict in Rio, erected an exhibition to honor the 80th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. In the back of the church was found a portrait of her wearing a punishment facemask.
The image soon became the object of popular devotion and members of the Brotherhood began collecting Anastacia stories in the early 1970s.
In the 1980s, Aastacia became a mythic heroine, especially among Afro-Brazilian women, soon after her story was disseminated in church pamphlets. In 1984, an effort funded by the oil company Petrobras to officially canonize Anastacia brought her considerable attention. Seen as a symbol of racial harmony, her popularity expanded rapidly. There were radio dramatizations of her life and on television a popular miniseries and investigative reports were produced. She was also integrated into the Umbanda faith as one of the pretos velhos, “old black slaves”.
In 1987, the Catholic Church declared that Anastacia never existed and her image was removed from Church-owned properties. However, by this time, several independent shrines had been erected in Rio which exist to this day. Some continue today petitioning Rome, to have her canonized as St. Anastacia of Rio
Legend has it that she was the child of a Black female slave brought from the west coast of Africa to Brazil. Her mother had been raped by her white owner. Anastacia was conceived from this trauma and became the first Black child to be born with blue eyes in Brazil. The cruelty and guilt of this plantation owner drove him to have the baby sent far away, concealing from his white wife his indiscretion as well as his violence.
Another story linked Anastacia’s birth to the tale of Delminda. “Delminda was a daughter of royal birth of the Bantu people (originating in about 2,000 B.C.E. in southern Nigeria and Cameroon). She was brought to Brazil in 1740 with a cargo of 112 slaves. “One version of the story is as follows. Delminda was extremely pretty. She was sold in the harbour by Antonio Rodrigues Velho. She had been raped by a white man and was sold pregnant to Joaquina Pompeu. Delminda gave birth that same year on the 5th March to the blue eyed Anastacia. She was the first black girl with blue eyes in Brazil…
Whether or not she was separated from her mother or remained with Delminda, all seem to agree, that Anasatcia became the obsession of the owner’s son, Joaquin Antonio.”
Anastacia was so beautiful that all the white women around were jealous of her. This encouraged Joaquin to make her wear the slave mask, as a punishment for repeatedly refusing his advances. Anastacia suffered the same fate as her mother and was raped. After Joaquin raped her, he condemned her to wear the iron mask for the rest of her life, only removing it once a day for her to eat. She lived for some years before the toxicity of the metal from the mask became poisonous.
Another story tells a different tale. In this legend, Anastacia was an African tribal queen taken to Brazil as a slave in the 17th century. As a housekeeper on a sugar cane plantation, Anastacia taught her fellow slaves to worship their native African gods, a strictly forbidden practice, under the guise of Christianity. When her deception was discovered, Anastacia was forced to wear an iron mask to prevent her from speaking and became the concubine of a guard who secretly loved her. Soon after, Anastacia died of gangrene, but not before her powers healed the sick and inspired hope of freedom among her fellow captive Africans.
However, another story proposes that Anastacia was repeatedly raped by the guard, but was successful in fending off attacks by the master, thus inspiring women today to have strength against abusive husbands.
Apparently, the name Anastacia means “Resurrection” and was a common name given to slaves. Her legend has been considered an amalgam of the many female slaves who inspired healing, beauty and hope throughout the 300 years of slavery in Brazil. Whatever, the truth of her story, Anastacia is now revered as the Saint of the poor of Rio and the descendants of slaves. She is worshipped by nurses, who see in her an exemplar of selfless healing. Prisoners also became devotees, seeing in her an inspiration to patience in captivity. Her image began to proliferate in Black beauty salons, as a model of the beautiful Black woman. There is a statue and a place of worship in Vas Lobo, where pilgrims flock to worship her. She has more than twenty-eight million followers.