Larissa Pacheco is a minority. The 2022 PFL women’s lightweight champion is an openly gay, married fighter who never tried to hide her sexual orientation or her beliefs. Coming from Northern Brazil, just like my previous guest, Antonio Arroyo, it should not surprise most fans that Larissa holds strong feelings against former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
For that reason and many others that will be shown in this story, Pacheco is the third guest of the ‘Not All Brazilian’ series, where I interview fighters to discuss their antifascist political views, their backstories and the reasons behind those beliefs.
This time around, I took advantage of the fact that I was in Larissa’s hometown of Belem, Brazil, and was welcomed to her home to ask a few tough questions.
Before we got into the planned questions, Pacheco — who calls herself a leftist — wanted to make it clear that just because she does not support Bolsonaro, it does not mean she is a devoted supporter of current president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, from PT (the Brazilian Worker’s Party).
Nonetheless, Larissa explained she voted for the left-wing candidate because Bolsonaro’s politics go beyond a mere political rivalry.
“I want to make it clear I’m not a petista (Worker’s Party supporter). But I’d rather support Lula than Bolsonaro a million times. First because of my sexual orientation, then because of the people. Bolsonaro says there’s no hunger in Brazil. He’s completely wrong about that. For environmental reasons, too. For everything, really. All you have to do is look at it. The only ones who can’t see the problems are the ones who don’t want to face reality. How can you say that guy was a good president?”
Once Larissa’s stance had been defined, we carried on with the planned interview. As usual, I started by asking if her political views had ever affected her life at the gym and how was it like to work around people who defend a president who has made so many offensive statements in the past.
Before she could give me a clear answer, though, Larissa delved into a rather interesting topic that has always surrounded Bolsonaro’s discourse. Three little words that Jair took as his motto ever since his 2018 campaign: “Deus, Patria e Familia” (God, Homeland and Family).
Though this slogan may just seem like a populist chant to earn some easy votes, the words are actually rooted in fascism, popularized by former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who used the very same saying in the 1930s. Most recently, far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni parroted the slogan during her successful 2022 election campaign.
In fact, the motto was also echoed by Acao Integralista Brasileira (Brazilian Integralist Action), a fascist Brazilian political movement from the 1930s that was inspired by Mussolini’s regime.
“Deus, Pátria, Família”.
O candidato bolsonaro termina o debate com o lema criado pelo fascismo e usado pelo integralismo no Brasil.#DebateNaBand pic.twitter.com/Si6Dl22uWU
— Judeus pela Democracia – Oficial (@jpdoficial1) August 29, 2022
Larissa took this opportunity to question the meaning of a traditional family nowadays. Though Bolsonaro has always been a fierce supporter of the heterossexual nuclear family model, Pacheco shared her origins as an example of why such beliefs cannot be set as the norm in 2023.
From being raised by a single mother, to being supported by grandparents until she became the biggest earner in her family when her fighting career took off, Pacheco emphasized how it is mostly the privileged families that tend to share Bolsonaro’s views.
“Politics is a social issue. It affects everyone’s lives directly. People who come from a traditional family, with a father and a mother, they tend to have this more conservative way of thinking. They want to protect the Brazilian family. What is a traditional family, though? Those of us who are at the bottom, who work hard, we know families are plural. Especially now when everything’s so out in the open. I see the way some of the people who are more well off think. They’re completely different. They think Brazil is this perfect place. They’re like ‘Everyone has the same opportunities, but some people want to steal’. They think everyone can be whatever they want. I’ve had those arguments at the gym. This is what I try to tell people. I’m in a better situation now, I have a house and I can buy things because of my hard work, but I came from a different reality. My life wasn’t full of opportunities.”
“I gained this awareness because it’s something I experienced,” she said. “What I experienced made me understand some political issues. I don’t know everything about politics, just like many fighters, but I lived it. I saw the change in administrations. I lived the struggle of being accepted by my family for being homossexual. I lived in poverty. I saw how the government influenced directly and indirectly in my family’s life. My grandparents benefited from the PT (Brazilian Worker’s Party) government. They were able to retire due to family agriculture incentives. My grandfather worked at a street market selling (manioc) flour. My grandmother was a housemaid. So I’m not speaking for me, but for my family. My grandmother used her retirement money to buy food for my house. That’s three kids and the rest of the family. She and my grandpa supported the house,”
Since she lived the struggle of growing up in poverty in one of the poorest regions of Brazil, Larissa is saddened to see so many fighters with similar origins defend a politician who was not interested in helping those with less. Furthermore, Pacheco also questioned why so many fighters did support Bolsonaro, as his administration did nothing to help mixed martial artists, especially the ones most in need.
“It’s so complicated for me to see so many famous athletes defending a guy who never helped (us) in any way whatsoever. He did nothing in the last four years. What did he do for athletes? I received no incentives, nothing. No support, no promoting. I saw lots of MMA fighters repeating that “real fighters vote Bolsonaro” speech. Who are those guys, though? Maybe the government helped those elite fighters. But they did nothing for the fighters at the bottom. Not long ago, I wasn’t a successful fighter and I never got anything. I didn’t see the government do anything for us. I’m part of a social program called ‘JB jiu-jitsu’. It’s a program my master, Joao Bastos, started where poor kids can train jiu-jitsu, muay thai, wrestling. The money for this project comes straight out of our pockets. We get some help from the Marituba City Hall, but it’s not enough to run the program on its own. There are lots of expenses,”
“It seems to me that they have forgotten where they came from,” She said. “Jose Aldo, for instance, he has such an awesome life story. Then he gets to the top and he starts to sound like he’s always been a part of the elite. So when I make a lot of money I’ll have to forget my past? I’d be forgetting who I once was. I’m not saying that’s how he thinks, but it’s how I see it. I’ll never be able to look at those fighters (who support Bolsonaro) and say I’m one of them. How could I forget everything I’ve been through? My struggles. I can’t do that,”
“Some people tell me, ‘Hey, now you get paid in dollars. If Brazil sinks, it’s going to be good for you’. I tell them ‘I can’t only think about myself. I have a family. Everyone lives here. My wife’s family lives here. What happens if I only think about myself?’. You’re going to lose either way. We already consume products as if they were in dollars here,”
When questioned why she thinks so many mixed martial artists tend to share far-right views, Larissa had to pause before giving me an answer. Although she could not narrow her reasoning down to a single topic, Pacheco listed a series of reasons, ranging from religion to manipulation by way of fake news.
“Maybe it’s because some of them are evangelical and they believe that only families composed of a heterossexual couple are actual families. We know how Bolsonaro always used religion in his speech. His famous motto was ‘Brazil above everything. God above everyone’. Sometimes people who support him don’t even know why they support him. People believe in so much fake news. The fighters who live in the United States, especially. All they get is information from the internet,”
“This government was so manipulative with fake news,” she said. “My manager (Alex Davis), is a Bolsonaro supporter. I give him my opinion, he gives me his and we respect each other. We never fought about it because I think it’s pointless. I tell him what I experience. If the person who’s listening to me tries to see it my way, that’s great. If not, it’s their right. We have a great relationship, we just don’t talk about politics. I was at his house last month and he started to read a lot of fake news about people invading the favelas and killing PT supporters. I told him it wasn’t true because if it were, it would be on the biggest news websites and it wasn’t. Since he doesn’t live here (in Brazil) anymore, he ends up believing it. It’s a herd effect, people forward fake news to each other. That’s how they work. So I believe it has to do with losing touch with reality,”
The saying ‘Brazil above everything. God above everyone’, Bolsonaro’s main slogan during his 2018 presidential campaign, also hides strong Nazi connotations, rooted in Germany’s anthem ‘Deutschlandlied’ (Song of Germany), which contains the verse ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ (Germany Above All).
Though originally meant to be interpreted as a chant to unify the country, the verse was twisted by the Nazi regime to justify their expansion and superiority over other races during the Holocaust. In fact, the anthem was banned after the end of World War II and only restored in 1951.
In the past, Bolsonaro has claimed that his great-grandfather (Carl Hintze) was a Nazi soldier during the war. However, Brazilian news outlet Globo discovered the former-president’s German relative was over 60 years old during the war and living in Brazil.
Per Globo’s investigation, Hintze actually worked at a newspaper that fought against racism in the town of Campinas, Brazil, after slavery was abolished in 1888. Jair’s lie was deemed as Nazi dog-whistling by many.
Lastly, Pacheco approached the most controversial topic of Bolsonaro’s administration, his tragic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. With an aunt that came close to dying from lack of medical equipment during the height of the crisis, Larissa explained how sad and angry she was to see Bolsonaro first deny the dangers of the virus, the effectiveness of the vaccines and his inhumane statements regarding the thousands of deaths in Brazil.
Additionally, Larissa detailed the dangers of Bolsonaro being re-elected in the case of another pandemic emerging. To her mind, all the people who still supported and campaigned for Jair in 2022 – following all the deaths that resulted directly from the former president’s criminal handling of the crisis – should also be held accountable for voting for Jair once again.
“He could’ve changed the whole game and the way the whole country saw him, even the ones who opposed him, during the pandemic. He could’ve saved thousands of lives. That was the worst part of his government. The bizarre things he said. Like, “I’m not a grave-digger” (when a reporter asked Bolsonaro about the COVID-19 deaths under his government). It’s inhumane. Can you imagine if your mother or your father were dying at the hospital, not being able to breathe and the president imitated them? I’d be furious. I’d be like ‘he’s the one who should die’. People were dying because there no respirators at the hospitals. He could’ve spent the country’s whole budget to help those people. It wasn’t about money. He just denied it. He didn’t give a fuck about the people. A lot of people were saved because we had field hospitals. I have an aunt who only survived because of that. I had to buy boxes and boxes of medicine from my own pocket because the hospital didn’t have them. She’s only alive today because I had the privilege of being an athlete and I knew the mayor at the time. I told the mayor ‘My aunt is going to die, I need a hospital bed’. He was able to sit her on a broken chair and give her oxygen. The doctor said that if she had gotten there five minutes later, she’d be dead. 70% of her lungs was compromised. The pandemic devastated the world. We could have fought it. There was so much denial. I took my first two vaccine shots out of the country and I saw people say the vaccines didn’t work. I was like ‘You’re alive, aren’t you?’. If you get COVID while being vaccinated, it’s already bad, imagine what it’s like without it. It didn’t matter if you were rich, in good shape or healthy. Lots of people like that still died,”
“A lot of people voted for Lula because of his previous administrations,” she added. “He helped the poor, he invested in education and all of that. But a lot of that could’ve changed if Bolsonaro had just done the bare minimum. Can you imagine if he had done it differently and people were like ‘Bolsonaro saved the lives of so many people’. None of the other things he did would’ve mattered. It wouldn’t have mattered that he was sexist or homophobic because he would’ve saved lives. Instead of that, he was trying to find a way to make money off the vaccines he bought. It’s absurd. And yet there are people who lost relatives and still defend him. They must be crazy or sedated. And the problem isn’t that he did it for the money. The problem is that he’s stupid. If I can’t think about only myself now that I’m getting paid in dollars and able to help my family, how can a guy who’s sitting on top of the money machine not help the people? It’s just what he is. He’s a bad person. He can be classified as genocidal for this action alone, because he didn’t help his people at that moment. What if the pandemic came back? It could come back five or ten times worse. A new pandemic could emerge. Imagine the risks of that happening while he is still in charge or if he had gotten re-elected. How many more people would die? I couldn’t stand being responsible for that by voting for him. It’s not just the government’s fault. It’s the people’s fault for putting him there, too.”
Pacheco (19-4) became the PFL’s women’s lightweight champion by beating Kayla Harrison in the 2022’s tournament finals, in November of that year. Though she is currently nursing a herniated disc, the 28-year-old fully expects to compete in this year’s featherweight grand prix as well, whose season starts in March 2023.
About the author: Lucas Rezende is a Brazilian journalist who has been covering MMA since 2012 and contributing with Bloody Elbow since March 2015. (full bio)
About the author