Bolsonaro sign-language interpreter launches own campaign

·3-min read

Few people know his name, but as President Jair Bolsonaro's ever-present sign-language interpreter, Fabiano Guimaraes is a familiar face to millions of Brazilians -- fame he now hopes will help him win a seat in Congress.

After three years at Bolsonaro's side, putting the president's words into Brazilian Sign Language, Guimaraes is jumping into politics himself, running in the October elections to represent Brasilia in the lower house as a member of the Bolsonaro-allied Republicanos party.

Guimaraes, 42, who is not deaf himself, started learning sign language at 18, when a pastor at the Evangelical church he attended in the northern suburbs of Rio de Janeiro paid for him to take a course.

He found he had a knack for "libras," as sign language is known in Brazil, and started serving as an interpreter for the church's deaf attendees.

But that was nothing compared to what he calls the "technical challenge" of interpreting for the far-right president, whose trademark linguistic sauce is heavy on folksy style, anti-establishment diatribes and occasional obscenities.

- 'You can talk?' -

Guimaraes has at times gone viral on social media for his rapid-fire gesticulations at Bolsonaro's side, especially during the weekly Facebook live videos where the president, who is up for reelection in October, speaks directly to his base.

In one, Guimaraes gestures effusively with an exasperated face mirroring Bolsonaro's own as the president unleashes a torrent of swear words aimed at his critics.

In another, he discreetly whispers the name of Agriculture Minister Marcos Montes when Bolsonaro forgets it.

"You can talk?" Bolsonaro asks him, surprised.

"I can talk!" he answers, and both burst out laughing.

"Appearing at the president's side has put me in the spotlight," Guimaraes, a diminutive man with a receding hairline and an animated face, told AFP in an interview at his home in Brasilia, where a cup with Bolsonaro's image is proudly displayed along with a carved wood sign reading "Jesus."

"I'm just a regular person who got where I am because God brought me here, improbably enough," he says.

- 'Democratic service' -

Bolsonaro has prominently featured interpreters at his public appearances from day one.

At his presidential inauguration in 2019, his wife, Michelle, who is fluent in sign language, gave a speech in it.

Guimaraes, a Portuguese and Spanish teacher by training, joined the president's sign language team later that year, after taking the official exam for what he thought would be an interpreting job at the education ministry.

Instead, he was assigned to the presidential palace.

He says the job for him is a "democratic service."

"I bring the deaf community into the national political debate," he adds.

"Having an interpreter by the president's side, the two languages (speech and sign language) treated with equal importance, has given tremendous visibility to the deaf community in Brazil" -- about 10 million people in this country of 213 million.

Guimaraes is a big fan of Bolsonaro and his communication style.

The president "uses informal, colloquial language, but full of content," he says.

"It speaks to the Brazilian people. He brings them into the political debate. My mother-in-law, who left school after fourth grade, always said, 'The only politician I can understand is Bolsonaro.'"

He also admires the first lady, a fellow Evangelical Christian who has played a key role in encouraging him to run for Congress.

Guimaraes is campaigning on a platform of social inclusion and defense of family values.

He says he embraces both Bolsonaro's mottos of "God, nation, family and freedom" and the first lady's support of "sensitivity and inclusion."

"I want to make the connection between both those agendas," he says.

He is unconcerned that few people know his name.

"A lot of times people ask, 'Who's Fabiano?'"

So he will appear on the ballot on October 2 as "Fabiano, Bolsonaro's interpreter" -- a practice allowed under Brazilian election law.

"It's fantastic to be able to call myself that," he says.

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