Marina Neto is a Portuguese woman of African ancestry. She was born in Portugal to immigrant parents from Sao Tome, and their family lived in Angola while she was a teenager. After returning to Portugal, she served a full-time mission for the Church in Cape Verde. She shares her perspective of racial injustice and micro-aggressions in Portugal. Although Portuguese is Marina’s first language, she has become fluent in English. This interview was conducted in English.
I’m excited to hear your thoughts about being a Latter-day Saint in this time of social unrest around the world. Starting with the positive, what are some of the blessings that come with being Black and a Latter-day Saint?
I love it because I went to church and I met the missionaries here in Portugal but my spiritual growth was all in Angola. Africa was amazing because I was surrounded by the culture and I got to see and understand the differences between church in Europe and church in Africa. When I got back to Portugal, it was amazing because I could share my culture in church. We do activities about African customs or things are just blended in because of my regular patterns of behavior. It never mattered whether I was Black and in the church, or if it did, it was always a positive thing because I always had something to bring to the table with knowledge of things that are done in a different way. Serving a mission in Cape Verde helped me learn even more cultural knowledge, such as how to wash clothing by hand and stuff that I didn’t know before. It’s all this learned and shared experience about African culture. It was always a good thing growing up in church and sharing it in church. It’s something that is valued and cherished by my peers, especially here in Lisbon, because people always ask me to cook, people always ask me how this is done or why this is done. It’s very good. I love it.
Is your ward or stake in Portugal racially diverse?
Yes, it is. There’s white people, there’s Black people. There’s a fair amount of each. It’s not just white people, it’s all of us.
I’m glad that you’ve had such a positive experience, both in Angola and Portugal, even though those experiences were different. What are some of the challenges that come with being Black and Mormon?
I really thought about this, and this is something I discussed with my sister because she doesn’t have the same experience as me. She grew up in Angola – her whole spiritual growth was in Angola. She didn’t see the difference, because it was always Black people around her until she came to Portugal and there was a difference because there were white people around. She started noticing – it wasn’t even blatant racism because here in Portugal, there is racism but it’s more micro-aggression because people are very passive. So the first time that she realized that she was getting these micro-aggressions – and I’m speaking about her because it ties in with my own experience – when we started talking about it, she would actually be very upset because our mom said, “Just think of it as Christ would. He wouldn’t see it this way. It’s not something that you need to get upset about, it’s not something that you need to get mad about because it’s not about skin color or race. These are things that you get to rise above and be a better person and learn from.”
And while that is true, it did take me awhile to get there. I felt very upset that my mom never let me or my sister be upset over this, because it’s things like sitting in a bus and realizing that people won’t sit next to you because of your skin color. Sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, but it does when you look around and every other person that is not Black has someone sitting next to them, and people would rather stand than sit by me. So it does feel a little bit like paranoia, but then you start noticing little comments here and there that people are comfortable with making that you feel uncomfortable with but you laugh at anyway because you don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable. So it’s a little bit challenging. We can definitely be upset about all these things that are happening in the world, and still understand that we need to rise above it if we want to stay sane. Otherwise, we would be angry all the time, which is something that happens at some point.
So that was a struggle for us because I was always, “Mom, why can’t I be upset about this? Let me be upset, this is not fair. Not here, not in the USA, not anywhere. It just doesn’t make sense.” But then I started understanding and I think that was the biggest struggle for me – trying to see it as Christ would instead of me, Marina, who gets upset very easily about things like this.
I imagine it’s so hard to control your temper and keep silent when things are unjust or when people say or do racist things. Not that you always should keep silent but that there’s a time and a place to respond, and you have to learn that time and place. Is that what I’m hearing you say?
Yes. And also, at the end of the day, I would much rather help people understand that what they did hurt me or hurts the whole community, rather than just lashing out at them and allowing them to become defensive over it. I can sometimes be very harsh with words, so this is something that takes a lot of practice – not saying anything at the time, pondering, and going back to the person, because it’s usually people that we deal with every day. I try to explain my point of view so that it doesn’t become a heated exchange of ideas. I would rather people understand that it bothers me but that I’m delivering the message the right way. Yes, this is something I struggle with, but I have some very aware friends who help me in this. It’s always good to have allies. If I’m speaking up, someone helps me – that’s always good. That’s also something positive– people who help me deliver the message better. I prefer to be educating correctly.
What has helped you overcome these challenges and maintain your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ? You mention having friends and allies, and learning to think of what Christ would do and be more like Him, but that’s still hard sometimes. What makes that worth it? Why do you stay and continue to be part of the gospel when you experience injustices like this, even at church?
What mainly helps me stay is knowing that none of us is really perfect. The good thing about my relationship with Christ is that if I feel that I’m going through something I shouldn’t be experiencing – like if I felt offended by something that someone said or did – I can always find comfort in Him, knowing He would never see me that way. He would never make that something important about me or judge me because of that. He will judge me because of my actions. It’s very cliché, but Christ won’t judge me because of the color of my skin or where I was born or who my parents are, where I should be, or if this is my country or not. So it’s always very good to know that, first of all, He would never do that to me. Second, He understands me because He suffered for everything, not just my sins, and He knows exactly what I’m going through. So I find comfort in that because it really is hard to go through these things. It’s very frustrating, but at the end of the day, I can go back to Him and find comfort. That helps me a lot.
That’s beautifully said. I’m curious if you had any thoughts and impressions about President Oaks’ or President Nelson’s remarks on racism in the October 2020 General Conference. How do you feel about Church leaders speaking out more directly toward the whole Church than they’ve done before?
I was going through my Instagram feed months ago when the Black Lives Matter movement was at a height because of George Floyd. The Church actually released a statement and I thought that was very well put. I was not expecting racism to be mentioned. When we were watching Conference, my sister paused it and went back to replay, I think it was President Nelson’s remarks on racism. I really loved it. I just felt seen and heard. He did speak about the way that protests are being handled, but he also did speak about racial injustice. I really loved it, and President Oaks’s remarks as well. I really like that the Church is taking this stand and making people aware that this is where we stand, and racial injustice shouldn’t be a thing. It’s kind of awesome. I really like it.
I do too. And calling every member to do better, basically. Will you talk a little about how you have been involved in either protests or advocacy or just the social justice movement where you are? The United States has this horrible history of slavery and segregation, and then the George Floyd murder was here in the United States. So from my American perspective, I sometimes forget that this affects the whole world, and it affects race relations everywhere. Can you talk about what is going on in Portugal and how you’ve been involved?
When this all started – I don’t post on social media, ever – but I did use Instagram a little bit. We did have a Black Lives Matter protest. There were two but then they merged into one, and it was beautiful. This is going to get into politics, but anyway – one of the political parties here in Portugal started another protest saying that Portugal is not racist. It made me very upset because the racism here is not blatant or always visible, but it’s there. That’s why I said micro-aggressions – people are very, very passive. They want to make sure it looks as though there is no racism in Portugal when that’s not even true because this is where all the colonizing started. This is kind of where all the racism stuff started, with differentiating by skin colors and going out to Africa and slavery and everything else.
Sharing my knowledge with my friends was the best that I could do. I was posting on WhatsApp, I was signing petitions and everything. It actually affects Portugal a lot and Europe in general. But, as I said, in Europe, people want to make sure that they keep things under wraps. That’s something I really don’t like because Portugal does have racism. It’s just that the people who don’t suffer from it don’t know about it, but they speak over other people, which makes it worse for me. It’s worse in Portugal than in the US, just because in the US, racism is acknowledged – people know. Here, we just try to hide it, which is not ideal when we’re trying to fight it. To some extent, at least in my line of work, there is no inequality, you don’t get any injustice because you’re Black. Your appearance really does not matter, but that’s because I work in a call center. But still, there are things that we need to fight off and they’re never talked about. If they’re talked about at all, they’re pushed to the side because Portugal is not racist, or so they say.
The most social activism I do is on social media with my friends. I do try to make them aware because yeah, some people really think that racism is not a thing here. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It happens every day with micro-aggressions – comments about hairstyle, jokes about skin color and other things like that. There have been some murders but they’re just not acknowledged. Sometimes they’re not even classified as hate crimes when they blatantly are hate crimes because everything is being stuffed under the rug.
That’s really informative. In the US, too, there are people who deny that racism still exists and say that it’s a thing of the past. So the more we talk about it, the better, I think. The more that people share their experiences and point out, “Hey, this racist thing happened to me last week,” the more people will realize that there’s still stuff going on even if it’s not just murders and employment discrimination. It’s still out there.
Definitely. Some people say, “Well, yeah, but racism in Europe or Portugal is not the same as in the US… it’s so different.” Are you serious? In Portugal, we should have the same hysteria after a murder that people have in the US. These things happen everywhere and we need to acknowledge it and not fight the current. We definitely need to not speak over the people that are coming forward to let you know that something is wrong.
How did your time in Angola shape your experience, as opposed to another Portuguese person who is Black who has never lived in another country?
Living in Angola opened my eyes to how I feel in an environment where I am the same as everybody else. Coming back to Portugal helped me realize that I get two sides of the coin. I can tell the difference much better when there are micro-aggressions that shouldn’t be said and are offensive and damaging. I lived here [Portugal] until I was 13, went to Angola until 17 and then came back. When I was 13, I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t see anything said to me as bad really, because I didn’t know anything different. It was just what it always was – I was Marina, I was Black and the majority is white. Sometimes there was this joke, or there was this thing said, or this situation happened, and I thought, “Well, okay, it’s something probably everybody experiences.” Then I went to Angola and I experienced nothing of the sort. And I remember realizing, “Hmm. I think I see it, or I think I understand what that is now.”
So I think for people who have lived in Portugal their whole lives, it might be harder to tell at first, unless some other people start sharing with them. Then they can understand, if this a known pattern for people who are Black living among white people or just somewhere they’re not the majority, maybe this is a micro-aggression. So it did help me realize what was offensive or not. It was two different environments. I was baffled when I started realizing things, and then my sister actually came to the same realization because she lived in Angola and then she came here. Because it’s two different experiences, it helps you understand what should and should not be said to you, or the differences and the discrimination.
What do you want your fellow sisters and brothers in the gospel to know about your experience as a Black Latter-day Saint?
Sometimes I can be very pessimistic, but about racial justice issues, I have to keep positive. Some things we can’t change – people have agency. We can’t just make people change, so if I’m going to become frustrated about that, then … yeah, I would be very, very sad. So that’s why I try to keep positive.
Being a Latter-day Saint helps me handle things much better, any situation. When I feel offended, I can realize, yeah, it’s okay to be offended by that but try to see the other person’s side and understand that being mad hurts only me. I’m very, very happy that I am a Black woman and that I’m a member of the Church because my Savior has so much love for me. I would never be able to go through all these things feeling insecure, feeling unsafe, feeling sometimes physically bad because of news that we hear every day. I wouldn’t be able to go through it if it wasn’t for the hope that the Savior gives me. It can be the same for all of us. I would say to my fellow Black Latter-day Saints, that still we should keep our hope because even if we feel unsafe, or we feel the injustice and we feel very, very angry, it’s not how the Savior would want us to feel unless we’re using that to better ourselves, to learn how to control that, to learn how to be socially aware and help other people to understand our struggles as well. We can’t really ask other people to be better if we don’t better ourselves. That’s mainly what I would like to say about my experience as a Latter-day Saint.
At A Glance
Location:: Lisbon, Portugal
Marital History:: Single
Occupation: : Technical Support Advisor at a call center
Convert to Church?: August 12, 2006
Education:: High school graduate
Languages Spoken at Home:: Portuguese and English
Interview produced by Allie Bradford Brown