Lives Lost: Young Brazilian mom loved dance, jokes and work

April 15, 2020 GMT

From the time she was a young teenager, Rafaela de Jesus Silva had numerous jobs: selling fruit and clothes in the streets, pumping gas, working as a receptionist and walking the sands of Brazilian beaches in sweltering heat to sell homemade foods.

“She was always working somewhere, always looking for more jobs,” said sister Luana de Jesus Silva. “One way or another, she always found a way” to achieve things.

That hustle was in part because of necessity: Silva had grown up poor, raised by an aunt when her parents couldn’t provide for her. But friends and family say the passion for toil was more than just for material needs. The 28-year-old worked to be able to afford to attend university — she was just a year away from her teaching degree — and make sure her daughter, Alice, born on March 25, would have an easier upbringing than she did.

A week after giving birth, Silva died of complications related to the coronavirus.

“My heart is broken,” said Antonia Souza, her aunt. “Her child will never even sit on her lap.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from coronavirus around the world. ____

Less than a year after Rafaela de Jesus Silva was born, her mom had to find her another home. It was the late 1990s in Brazil, a time when Latin America’s most populous nation was experiencing rampant inflation, stagnant growth and political instability.

Silva’s father worked as a security guard for the postal company in Salvador, Bahia’s capital city. With one young child already at home, Luana, Rafaela’s parents sent her to Itaju do Colônia, a small city about 310 miles (500 kilometers) south.

There she grew up with “Tia Antonia,” who said her niece liked to dance to forró, a genre of music that originated in the northeast and accompanies a couples’ dance akin to the waltz, but with more exaggerated waist movements. She liked to laugh, make jokes and was always kind, drawing people in with a welcoming smile.

“Everybody loved her, everybody wanted to be around her,” said Souza, 59.

After high school, Silva began studying at the university in Itaju do Colônia. But a need to work meant that she took some semesters off completely, or just took a few classes at a time.

About seven years ago, while working as a gas attendant in the coastal city of Porto Seguro, famous for being where Portuguese navigators came to land for the first time in 1500, she met Erisvaldo Lopes dos Santos.

Full Coverage: Lives Lost

It wasn’t love at first sight; Dos Santos was nearly 20 years older and divorced with five children while Silva was just starting out. But Dos Santos was drawn to an easy-going, spontaneous way about Silva and convinced her to have lunch with him.

“You have to know how to woo a pretty girl, and she was a pretty girl,” said Dos Santos, recalling their first interactions.

That lunch led to more dates. Within a year, they had moved in. While studying part-time, Silva helped Dos Santos with his business shuttling travelers from airports to hotels and to tourist excursions.

“Now comes our baby to fill us with happiness. Our love has blossomed,” Silva wrote on Facebook Dec. 1, posting a photo of her and Dos Santos, both beaming, his hand touching her protruding stomach.

On March 25, Silva gave birth by caesarean. Mom and baby were released the next day. A few days later, Silva began vomiting, having fevers and struggling to breathe. She died a few days after being admitted.

Hugo Sousa, health secretary for the city of Itapetinga, where Silva gave birth, told Globo News that hospital workers immediately recognized Silva’s symptoms as coronavirus and a test confirmed she had it. He said Silva appeared to have chronic asthma.

Where Silva contracted the virus is unknown. Dos Santos said one possibility was on March 14, when his company provided transportation for a wedding of 280 guests. While Silva didn’t do any transfers that day, she did drive the vehicle Dos Santos had used.

“We were starting to accomplish things. Our business was growing, our daughter was born,” said Dos Santos. “And now she is gone.”


Peter Prengaman is a former AP Brazil bureau chief. He can be followed here: