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It is sad to report, just before Mother’s Day and Pride, the demise of the great queer Brazilian comedian Paulo Gustavo Amaral Monteiro de Barros, known professionally by his first names, Paulo Gustavo. Paulo Gustavo died of Covid on May 4, 2021, at the age of 42.
Paulo Gustavo made his career with a love letter to his mother, first as a play, then a blockbuster movie, sequel and threequel, “Minha Mãe É Uma Peça” (“My Mother is a Character”), parts 1, 2 and 3.
In the titular role as the film’s Dona (Miss) Hermínia, Paulo Gustavo embodies the Brazilian bourgeoise, her hair perpetually in curlers for some formal event that never happens. More importantly, he plays her as the fierce matriarch who will fight for her gay son and curvy daughter’s dignity and acceptance no matter what the world deems proper, at the expense of her mental health and to great hilarity.
Paulo became sick with Covid in March of this year, and finally succombed to the illness on May 4. He leaves behind, besides his mother and sister, his father and stepmother, his husband and two infant children who were recently born via surrogates in the United States.
The energetic Paulo Gustavo extended his success to share the limelight with members of other marginalized communities. A self-described “super fan” of Beyoncé, Paulo wanted to support young Black female artists in Brazil. Singer IZA recalls how Paulo Gustavo promoted her on his social media and fronted her money to appear at Rock in Rio. “It was the first time I ever did anything of the sort. I was very nervous, I was desperate…. And then Paulo paid me in advance. Do you all know what this means for a new, independent artist…. Paulo changed my life.”
Paulo also lent his star power to 15 year old singer Mariah Nala, who sang at his funeral mass. “You are synonymous with joy,” she wrote on her Instagram, “and all of Brazil cries over your passing! You have left a legacy… You taught us that smiling is an act of resistance and that love must be practiced. Thank you for existing, thank you for everything! I love you!”
The actor was remembered in mass protests in 24 states and the capital district on May 29 against the Bolsonaro government’s inaction in the face of Covid, which has so far claimed at least 460,000 Brazilian lives and has now spread into Argentina, Uruguay and other Latin American countries. President Jair Bolsonaro, a vocal homophobe who declared he would kill his son if he were gay, sneered “Stop being a country of faggots” in the face of the disease and has refused to supply the nation with vaccines.
Bolsonaro is an avid supporter of cheap and unproven remedies like the parasitic invermectin and antimalarial hydroxychloroquine. The proof of their ineffectiveness lies in Brazil’s astounding death rate and the emergence of at least one virulent variant that attacks and kills a younger and wider segment of the population.
Paulo Gustavo’s sister Juliana Amaral wrote an open letter to the president on Saturday 29 May:
“The least I can say to him, for the sake of consistency, is to never again let us hear my brother’s name come out of his mouth.
“The mouth that said no to the vaccine and condemned so many to death, the same mouth that ridiculed and imitated people who couldn’t breathe, people going through the horror that my brother went through. I also wish that the president would stop sending my family his sincerest thoughts because I do not accept them.”
In a television interview on Brazilian show Fantástico, mother Déa Lúcia Vieira Amaral said she was trying to control her emotions “because he hated to see me cry. So I have to be strong.” She recounted how her son had been expelled from two schools before he told her, “ ‘I am going to write a play about you, about all the strong women in our family, you’ll see.’ ”
Deflecting the interviewer’s assertion that Dona Déa herself has been an example for mothers of gay children, she replied, “I am very sad. But my son was a marvelous example against prejudice. My son got married, my son had a family, my son was loved, I have two wonderful children….Homophobia is a crime! Corruption kills! And the pandemic is murder! I have cried with every mother, and cry now, and will continue to cry. This struggle will be mine. I will fight now and will always continue to speak out…. During the pandemic, I cried for every mother with each child’s death, not knowing that the same would happen to my own son.”
In a moment that clarified the inspiration that she provided her son, Dona Déa went on to say what she thought her son would be telling her now. “ ‘Mom, you’re going to be interviewed on Fantástico. Be careful what you say so you don’t ruin my career!’ “
Paulo Gustavo preached that “Smiling is an act of resistance.” In a video message he sent out for the New Year, he said, “Love transforms, love saves, love cures and gives us hope in this time of pandemic. And so does art…. I’m funny, you laugh, and my heart is full…. Laughter is an act of resistance. Right now we need to wear these masks to protect our faces from the pandemic, and they unfortunately hide something very precious for us Brazilians, our smiles. We need to keep them covered, but they are still there and will continue to be there. We’re not going to stop smiling and we’re not going to lose hope. “The New Year is here with new challenges but also with the promise that we’ll be able to go out again. I can’t wait to go to the theater and travel around Brazil meeting all of you. In the meantime, we’re all going to take care of ourselves, take care of our families, friends and neighbors, those close and far away, everyone. Until this much awaited vaccine reaches everyone, it’s good to remember that a vaccine against prejudice, intolerance, lies, and sadness already exists, and that is affection and love. So tell the people you love that you love them, and don’t just say it. Practice it. Do it. With love, see you soon!”
Danica Jorden is a writer and translator of Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian and other languages.