Gusmão was born in Manatuto, in what was then Portuguese Timor, to parents of mixed Portuguese-Timorese ancestry, both of whom were school teachers. He attended a Jesuit high school just outside Dili. After leaving high-school for financial reasons at the age of fifteen, he held a variety of unskilled jobs, while continuing his education at night school. In 1965, at the age of 19, he met Emilia Batista, who was later to become his wife. His nickname, "Xanana", was taken from the name of the American rock and roll band Sha Na Na, who in turn were named after a lyric from a doo-wop song of 1957 by the Silhouettes.
In 1966, Gusmão obtained a position with the public service, which allowed him to continue his education. This was interrupted in 1968 when Gusmão was recruited by the Portuguese Army for national service. He served for three years, rising to the rank of corporal. During this time, he married Emilia Batista, with whom he had a son Eugenio, and a daughter Zenilda. He has since divorced Emilia, and in 2000, he married Australian Kirsty Sword, with whom he had three sons: Alexandre, Kay Olok and Daniel. In 1971, Gusmão completed his national service, his son was born, and he became involved with a nationalist organisation headed by José Ramos-Horta. For the next three years he was actively involved in peaceful protests directed at the colonial system.
It was in 1974 that a coup in Portugal resulted in the beginning of decolonisation for Portuguese Timor, and shortly afterwards the Governor Mário Lemos Pires announced plans to grant the colony independence. Plans were drawn up to hold general elections with a view to independence in 1978. During most of 1975 a bitter internal struggle occurred between two rival factions in Portuguese Timor. Gusmão became deeply involved with the FRETILIN faction, and as a result he was arrested and imprisoned by the rival faction the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) in mid-1975. Taking advantage of the internal disorder, and with an eye to absorbing the colony, Indonesia immediately began a campaign of destabilisation, and frequent raids into Portuguese Timor were staged from Indonesian West Timor. By late 1975 the Fretilin faction had gained control of Portuguese Timor and Gusmão was released from prison. He was given the position of Press Secretary within the FRETILIN organisation. On 28 November 1975, Fretilin declared the independence of Portuguese Timor as "The Democratic Republic of East Timor", and Gusmão was responsible for filming the ceremony. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded East Timor. At the time Gusmão was visiting friends outside of Dili and he witnessed the invasion from the hills. For the next few days he searched for his family.
Come visit the Xanana Gusmão Reading Room to find out more.