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Emília Viotti da Costa was born in São Paulo, Brazil. In 1954, she graduated with a degree in history from the University of São Paulo, and later earned a doctoral degree there. She joined the university's Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences in 1964, and taught there until 1969.

From 1973, she began teaching in the USA, where she became a professor of Latin American history at Yale University. She was the author of several books, including Da Senzala a Colônia (From Senzala to Cologne), which deals with the transition from slave labor to free workers in the São Paulo coffee region, a standard reference work for scholars of the period; and Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (1994).
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