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Undergraduate Researchers

Christine Briscoe

Christina Briscoe,

Interdisciplinary Studies

“Adolescent Mothers In a Quilombo Community: Praia Grande, Brazil”

This exploratory, ethnographic study addressed the characteristics and meanings of adolescent motherhood in Praia Grande in Bahia, Brazil. Praia Grande is a quilombo, or community descended from escaped slaves in an isolated location. The participants were the twenty women of the 161 Praia Grande women between the ages of twelve to twenty who had at least one child (11 percent). Results derived from participant observation, Programa da Saúde da Família (Family Health Program) documents, surveys, a life history and interviews. During this research, lack of employment opportunities, importance of the family support, and confusion about birth control emerged as central themes. In addition, infrastructural inadequacies, from lack of public sanitation or police to timely medical care to the practical inaccessibility of education, were commonly mentioned by these young women as impediments to achieving desires for themselves and their children, pointing to the structural violence experienced in the quilombo population. The study highlights the need to assess cultural contexts of adolescent motherhood before implementing public policies for quilombo reproductive health programs.

When and how did you learn that you could do research abroad as a UMBC undergraduate?

After my sophomore year, I went to Peru to take a class in medical Spanish and indigenous medicine in Cusco, Peru. When I returned, I knew I wanted to go back to South America to pursue studies in medical anthropology with the marginalized groups there in order to better understand them.
With this goal in mind, I went to Dr. Brian Souders, the director of the UMBC Study Abroad office, to see if UMBC could help me make it a reality. Sure enough, he was aware of a study-abroad program that included a heavy focus in hands-on research in my area of research interest (Brazil: Public Health, Race, and Human Rights) Dr. Souders helped me to apply and enroll. The director of the program in Brazil was even a physician-anthropologist, who helped to orient my research.

How did you decide on your research project and methods?

I went to Brazil with the intention of studying HIV/AIDS and the universal health care system. However, in the first days of the program, the director mentioned quilombos. Before arriving in Brazil, I had never heard the word before. But as she began to describe the origins of the isolated groups of the escaped slaves’ descendants, my interest was automatically piqued. Two weeks later, when the program took us to quilombo communities on the island Ilha de Maré, I fell in love with the people and the place. Moreover, the inequalities and structural violence that I saw there inspired me to use the research as a catalyst to increase the understanding and awareness of others back in the United States of quilombosand the difficulties they continue to face.
The topic of my research, adolescent motherhood, was chosen after I read the description of one of the graduate student researchers working on the island, Jovânia de Silva. She was working to construct an ethnographic account of the experiences of pregnant adolescent women. However, I wondered about the characteristics and experiences of adolescent mothers themselves on the island.

Who were they? What did they think about motherhood?

My methodology was chosen after deliberations with the community health worker. She was absolutely fundamental to everything I did there: finding the documents of the island families to have a full count of the adolescent mothers there, earning the trust of the women to do interviews, aiding in the creation of surveys, guiding the life history, and baking the cake for the group meeting of the mothers. Her advice and deep knowledge of the community dynamics guided the methods I used and my ability to carry them out.

Who was your faculty mentor? How did you find him/her? What help did he/she give you?

My first semester of freshman year, I took Dr. Bambi Chapin’s Anthropology 211 course. Often after class, I found myself speaking with her about topics and readings of the class. When I decided to change my major from Biology to Interdisciplinary Studies, I asked her to be one of my two faculty advisers. Throughout my time at UMBC, she was a tremendous source of support and mentorship. Among other things, Dr. Chapin wrote me a countless number of letters of recommendation and mentored me through an independent study my senior year. The independent study familiarized me with the anthropological literature I needed to write about my Capstone and that I will use in my Fulbright research in 2012. I found my faculty mentor in Brazil (Dr. Climene de Camargo) through my study abroad director, who knew her personally and professionally through the Afro-Brazilian movement.

What was the most interesting or exciting thing that happened in your research? What about the most frustrating or disappointing?

I think it’s easiest to begin with the most frustrating. In the beginning of my research, I expected to have many participants in my research. I had estimated 50 to 60 young women (community size was 1200). Everyone had hinted or directly stated to me that there were a large number of adolescent mothers in the community; yet, in my first weeks of research, I had only encountered fifteen. The problem was not their willingness to participate but the apparent lack of women under 20 years old with children. Given the study I had designed with my research mentor, which was primarily epidemiological in nature, I was worried that I would not be able to find the minimum of 30 research subjects necessary to do statistical analysis.


What became most interesting and exciting to me was how the study evolved to fit the reality of the community. Although I had originally constructed the epidemiological methodology in order to avoid communication errors in Portuguese, I quickly found myself having conversations with the young women without difficulty. As the study progressed and I verified through documentation that there were only 19 adolescent women in the community who fit the study criteria, these informal interviews and conversations became the basis of my research. In particular, the group encounter of the young mothers was particularly successful, as it brought out subjects from informal abortions to their views on public transportation.


Though the content and nature of the study results differed greatly from what I had originally hoped and expected, the ultimately ethnographic character of the study taught me much more than the simple enumeration of number of children and first menarche.

When did you realize that you could apply for a Fulbright award to continue your research after graduating from UMBC? How did you learn about this?

I learned about the Fulbright award from my faculty mentor, Dr. Bambi Chapin, in an advising encounter. During the time I spoke with her, I was struggling with my life-long dream of becoming a doctor in face of the realities of poverty that I had seen in Guatemala and Peru. She herself had won the award as a graduate student. She suggested that I apply to the program in order to explore some of the themes about poverty and marginalization around which my questions revolved in greater detail.

Was the application difficult? How long did it take you?

The application is not long, but it certainly involved. It requires only two two-page essays: one a personal statement and the other a proposal for research. I began to work on both statements in June 2010 in order to turn in by October. The most grueling part of the process for me was waiting from October until April to hear if I had been accepted!

Did you have help from people at UMBC while you were applying? How did they help you?

UMBC faculty and staff undoubtedly helped me a great deal. For example, in September, I was ready to desist from the process as a result of frustrations in trying to obtain a form from the university in Brazil. Dr. Souders helped me to think of another route to obtaining the necessary documentation and convinced me to “hang in” the process. In addition, a panel of UMBC professors interviewed me and turned my essays upside down. Their critical commentary and suggestions fundamentally changed and refined much of my grant proposal and personal statement.

What does the Fulbright award mean? How does the Fulbright program support your research?

The Fulbright Award is a research grant to conduct an overseas study for nine months to a year. While most of the research is done independently, the Fulbright supports visa, living, travelling, and study expenses in order to enable the student to conduct the project. Most of the academic work is done between the research adviser at the university and the student.

Equally important, Fulbright provides a community of scholars interested in the same region or country with whom it is possible to network and learn. The other Brazil 2012 scholars and I have already connected through Facebook (cliché I know); three of the other scholars are also studying aspects of the African diaspora communities and slavery in Brazil and have recommended some books for me to read!

How is your research going now?

I graduated from UMBC in May 2011. During the summer, I have been taking time to spend time with my friends and family, who I had left a little on the wayside during my travels, volunteer work, and packed academic schedule. They have been infinitely supportive of all of my efforts, and I could not have accomplished anything without them. My research through the Fulbright begins in March 2012.

What will happen next for you?

I am in the process of applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs, with the Ph.D. in anthropology. If accepted, I will begin the program in 2013 after my Fulbright grant ends.