Unsung Heroines: Gabriela Brimmer

Gabriela Brimmer, a Mexican woman of Jewish descent, was born with cerebral palsy in 1947 when there was little concrete knowledge of the condition. Her family was told she would categorically not live past the age of ten and would likely never manage to communicate. In fact, Gaby lived until fifty-two, published numerous poems, and co-wrote an autobiography and a film about her life. With support from her life-long caregiver Florencia Sanchez Morales, Gaby learnt to point to letters on an ‘alphabet board’ and eventually type on a typewriter (which she nicknamed ‘Che’ after Che Guevara) with her left foot- her only mobile body part. She received only a limited education from an elementary school for disabled pupils- a marked disadvantage considering the stigma around disabilities in the 1950s which caused under-funding and few appropriate resources. However, Gabriela and her family soon began to campaign for public high schools to accommodate Gaby, who passed their entrance exams with almost no suitable teaching. To overcome stubborn school authorities who initially rejected Gaby, her mother Sari shared works of Gaby’s poetry until they grudgingly admitted her as a student. After graduating high school, she was accepted into the National Autonomous University- easily one of the most selective and respected universities in Mexico, to study sociology on a social and political sciences course. Florencia accompanied her loyally, interpreting her communication during lectures and helping her move around campus, even carrying her and her wheelchair up flights of stairs.

After leaving NAU, she founded the Asociación para los Derechos de Personas con Alteraciones Motoras (association for the rights of people with motor disabilities), usually known as ADEPAM or the Gabriela Brimmer Foundation. Her autobiography describes the focuses of the organization as

  1. We shouldn’t be isolated or marginalized from the ‘normal’ world
  2. Sources of work should be opened up for us so we can be financially independent, at least partly
  3. The issue of Cerebral Palsy should be publicized, so we can demand our rights from authorities like any other citizen can.

Gaby also fulfilled her ambition of parenthood, adopting a daughter Alma Florencia Brimmer, named after Florencia who continued to care for Gabriela and her child. Alma and Florencia formed such a strong relationship that they continued living together in Mexico City after Gaby’s death due to a stroke in 2000.

The reason I find Gabriela Brimmer so inspirational is her refusal to compromise. She never settled for less. Whether it was a personal fight, like demanding her education; or an endeavour to fight the exclusion and alienation of an entire group of disabled people across her country, Gaby succeeded against adversity unthinkable to many of us. Furthermore, she never allowed her voice to be hindered, remaining vivaciously human through the writing in her poetry and autobiography, even though the brutally ableist society of the mid-20th century underestimated and objectified her. Her voice is gloriously cutting and unapologetic, but she also communicates hope and optimism that many in her situation would find impossible.

                ‘Accept for once

                 that life is harsh but beautiful

                 and that the sun is shining

                 for you.’

                ‘Accept for once

                 that life is harsh but beautiful

                 and that the sun is shining

                 for you.’

                ‘What do you know of yourself?

                 I only know one thing

                 but I know it well.

                What?

                I am alive.