Paulo Freire in Bolivia: reminiscences

Image: Paulinho Fluxuz


Memories of the Brazilian educator who was able to envision a world in which it was less difficult to love

“If nothing is left of these pages, something, at least, we hope will remain: Our trust in the people. Our faith in men and in the creation of a world where it is less difficult to love” (FREIRE, 1988, p. 184).

In the year 2021 we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Paulo Réglus Neves Freire, known worldwide as Paulo Freire.

Paulo is one of the most widely read and cited educators and philosophers of Brazilian education in the world. Author of a vast work, he has in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed his best known book and translated into about 40 languages. In it, it is possible to identify a method of adult literacy that understands that reading the world precedes reading the word, a dialogic methodology that explores culture circles as a horizontal work dynamic between educator and students in which everyone has something to teach and much to learn and several teaching and learning techniques that, through multiple languages, capture, classify, sensitize, problematize and represent the concrete reality of students aiming at awareness, literacy, post-literacy, collective political action and change towards minimizing the conditions of poverty, misery and oppression and expanding the processes of inclusion, access and participation of all in socially produced material and immaterial goods.

Paulo Freire's work goes beyond disciplinary boundaries and his way of thinking casts light and shadow on concepts such as: banking education, castrating education, pedagogy of the oppressed, education as a practice of freedom, extension or communication, contact and interaction, feasible possible, participation engaged, vocabulary universe, generative words, awareness-raising education, cultural action for freedom, disembodied rationality, dialogue as a political and pedagogical principle, hope, etc. They are handled by professionals in administration, agronomy, economics, education, publicity and propaganda, social service, journalism, environment, public and international relations, etc. (COWDEN, YU, ROBLES & MAZZA, 2020).

It is not my intention, in this text, to place the author and his work (BEISIEGEL, 2002, 2010; GADOTTI,1996) nor to describe his trajectory as a citizen of the world (MAZZA and SPIGOLON, 2018), nor to address specific aspects of his work (MAZZA , 2019). I simply want to describe an experience that I lived alongside Paulo Freire and that lingers in my memory without ever having made it public.

In early 1987, Paulo Freire, then a professor at the Faculty of Education (FE) at UNICAMP, was invited by several Bolivian institutions to receive public recognition titles and participate in seminars to update his work organized by groups from the university, from popular education, basic education and non-formal education and institutions in tune with liberation theology.

I was doing my master's degree at FE/UNICAMP, supervised by Professor Paulo Freire. My partner at the time, Adriano Nogueira, worked in the area of ​​popular education with groups of young people and adults on the outskirts of Campinas-SP, had completed his master's degree with Paulo and continued as his pedagogical assistant in the subjects that the professor taught at the university.

Paulo was in mourning and depressed, he presented us with the invitation and said: – If you accompany me, I will accept this job!

On May 28, 1987, we left São Paulo for La Paz and then on to Cochabamba. Along with us were Professor Jose Lima (Philosophy/UNIMEP-SP) and Luís Longuini (CEBEP Campinas, SP coordinator). We were all well received and called "Team Pablo Freire”.

On the 29th and 30th of May, Paulo took on an intense work schedule that included activities in the three periods and involved very different and unequal social and professional groups. At Major University of San Simón, Paulo dialogued with professors, managers and university authorities and received the title of From the Doctor of Honoris de la Causa. At the Baptist Seminary, he held culture circles with groups from basic education, popular education and institutions promoting non-formal education. At Colégio Metodista, he met with Christian groups and sectors of the church that, based on liberation theology, developed projects of ecumenical Christian popular education.

Faced with this whole movement and the importance of the guest, municipal political sectors, both progressive and reactionary, organized themselves to grant Paulo the title of: “Illustrious Huesped of the City of Cochabamba”. It is clear that this initiative generated rearrangements in the agenda and constraints for the progressive groups that had organized and financed the educator's arrival.

I confess that it seemed difficult for me to understand Paulo's ability to equate groups and agendas of such a diverse, and often conflicting nature, in two intense days of work. I think that the Brazilian university was also embarrassed to accept the centrality that extension had achieved in Paulo's professional path and its implications for teaching and research activities. He prioritized extension as an active participation in building social awareness, deepening democracy, fighting social exclusion and environmental degradation, and defending cultural diversity (SANTOS, 2004).

We were in different territories on the outskirts of Cochabamba: in the university facilities located in the privileged area, in the institutions that promote popular education that were located on the outskirts of the city, in the municipal hall auditorium located in the political center, in the indigenous communities circumscribed to the department of Cochabamba and that persist with ancestral customs such as: houses built of mud and wattle and daub without roofs because they coexist with a dry climate; ground fire covered with earth used to cook meat and various vegetables wrapped in banana leaves, sustained planting of corn and other cereals for the production of chicha (fermented drink based on corn and other cereals).

We learned to appreciate and use the coca leaf as a digestive tea after meals or as a remedy for stomach pain and “soroche”, the body discomfort caused by altitude.

Below I transcribe some excerpts from Paulo Freire's interventions in Bolivia that were published in a local magazine with little circulation among us.

How to express my pleasure of being here?

In November of this year it will be twenty years since I set foot on this land, in 1964. It was the first foreign land I set foot on and the first night I spent the night outside Brazil, in Santa Cruz, and then I went to La Paz.

I couldn't stay for two reasons: the unease at the time and the political and social uneasiness: two days after my arrival came the coup d'état [...]. I couldn't stay. […]. Today for me it is a joy to be in your land because I have affective things to talk about (FREIRE, 1987, p. 12).

I come open, I never go to a meeting closed in my certainties. In exile I learned that the only way to feel safe is to abandon my certainties.

At the age of 65, I'm still awake, I'm still standing and I feel like I'm 22 years old. Full of hope in a certain despair. Full of strength in a certain weakness. I don't allow my weakness to take away my strength, but I accept both and give myself to the fight. What we have to do is clearly and lucidly establish a relationship with the destiny of Latin America. Region that will only be enabled by ourselves, fighting for our independence, affirmations, security and coherence with our past, transforming the present to be able to create and invent a better future (FREIRE, 1987, p. 6).

At 65 years old, my word is not one of discouragement, nor of naive optimism. Outside of an organized, clear and lucid struggle, we will not win. And education, even if it is not the springboard for transforming social reality, has something to do with this, because it has a task and as educators we cannot give up the fight.

I tell you sincerely and with emotion. Now, particularly, emotion takes me more than before because I always shared the honor of these titles with Elza.

I have not the slightest doubt that I did a little for Elza, but she did much more for me. These are things that cannot be measured or weighed, but sometimes in the silence of my room, reading, I stop and try to understand this and seek the intelligence of the mystery of being made and remade with the making of someone else and I discover that Elza made me too much. Today is the second university festival that I have participated without her … the first time I couldn't speak, but today she gives me the strength to speak. Much of this tribute belongs to him.

I believe that this testimony of saying that I was made by a woman, but of what I did for her, is fundamental in Latin America so that men reach the moment of real honesty and love and say: – my wife made me (FREIRE, 1987, p. 7).

The people have the right to have joy, enjoy beauty and express their suffering. There are economic and social rights that are being stolen from our people [...] I lost my wife seven months ago and I suffered and I suffer immensely, but I was able to express my pain [...] I was able to stay at home with my solitude, I could not read, no writing, not answering the phone, not going to the university and not teaching (FREIRE, 1987, p. 7).

There are many ways to understand and fight for social change. Some advocate partial changes and inhibit deeper changes [...] my conception is profound and dreams of transforming the perverse structures of society [..] that is why I lived in exile. […]

It is a subversive conception of change that seeks to reinvent society and power.

However, [...] it is necessary that the change takes place historically and socially through praxis and not in heads.

It is necessary to make this clear because there are many people in Latin America who decree that the popular classes have already gained power and that they only need the government and that this can be achieved in one night. That is not true! […] no revolution in the world arrived on Wednesday at 4 pm. This has never happened in history (FREIRE, 1987, p. 7).

Change is a political act that sometimes becomes an armed act. But it is not an armed act that has a political moment, this is an ideological illusion [...] Change implies the science of society. I cannot transform if I don't have knowledge about the structure, functioning, purpose of society. I have to know how society works, how the system is intelligent, how the power structure works, what are its spaces and how I can undermine them. Therefore, changes generate and demand knowledge. Don't move without knowing.

The political act is also an artistic act because there is a certain beauty in the process of change and struggle. On the other hand, there is also an ethical implication: it is not possible to change something without respecting the ethical component of the intervention itself; politics cannot be done without ethics; they are interrelated, it is necessary to know in favor of whom I have a certain ethics [...] in the process of change there is seriousness, responsibility and a whole series of virtues that are not received for free as a gift, but are created in practice.

Another virtue is born from the dialectic relationship between strategy and tactics. There is no political act outside these relationships. The strategy is the knowledge of the political scene where the dreams are inserted, it is the objective. Tactics have their methods, techniques, means, procedures and ways of walking to put the strategy into practice and make it viable.

However, there are crazy situations in which you have an “A” strategy but you work with a tactic that is the opposite of this strategy; in other words, it is said that you have a strategy of liberation but you work with a tactic of domination. It cannot! There has to be coherence between both and from there a set of other virtues is built that is created politically [...].

Sincerity implies courage, which is not a feeling foreign to fear, but which implies correcting our way of approaching fear.

Then you ask me: – What does education have to do with all this?

I answer: – Education is just that…an ethical-political problem […]. I would love for the profound change in societies to take place at a round table where Brazilian cachaça, Peruvian pisco and mate de coca could be drunk. Gosh! I have the right to think this is beautiful, but there has never been a ruling class in history that renounced power and committed class suicide; there were individuals, but not classes. What is my pedagogical position regarding this? My pedagogical position is political pedagogical. It is a position that bets on history knowing that we make it and it makes us (FREIRE, 1987, p. 8).

On May 31st, we returned to Brazil taking the same route: Cochabamba, La Paz and São Paulo. The stop in La Paz raised concerns because Paulo's blood pressure skyrocketed due to the altitude of the Andes Altiplano. Everything went without major complications. On the flight from La Paz to São Paulo, I sat next to Paulo and asked him about mourning, sadness and perspectives for the future.

He affectionately placed his hand on my arm and began to sing the song by Angenor de Oliveira recorded in Cartola's unmistakable voice:

Knock again
With hopes my heart
Well, the summer is coming to an end

I go back to the garden
I sure must cry
Well, I know you don't want to go back
For me

I complain to the roses
How silly roses don't talk
Simply the roses exude
The perfume they steal from you, oh

you should come
To see my sad eyes
And, who knows, you dreamed my dreams

I accompanied him in the singing and replied a little stunned: – Paulo, dear, I think I understand!

For the less informed, Paulo was born in Pernambuco in 1921, married Elza in 1944, lived with her and had 5 children: Maria Madalena, Maria Cristina, Maria de Fátima, Joaquim and Lutgarde. In 1986 he was widowed, in 1988 he married Nita and in 1997 he died. At the age of 87, Nita continues to take care of Paulo Freire's legacy.

Paradoxical as it may seem, at this moment when the Covid-19 pandemic accumulates around 2.800.000 deaths in the world and in Brazil almost 300.000, the Paulo who appears in the reminiscences is that educator who was able to envision a world in which there was less hard to love.

* Deborah Mazza is a professor at the Faculty of Education at UNICAMP.


BEISIEGEL, Celso de Rui. Entry Paulo Réglus Neves Freire. In FAVERO, Maria de Lourdes de A. and BRITO, Jader de M. Dictionary of Educators in Brazil. 2nd ed. Augmented, RJ: Editora da UFRJ/MEC-INEP-COMPED, 2002, p. 893-899.

BEISIEGEL, Celso de Rui. Paulo Freire. Recife: Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Editora Massangana, 2010.

COWDEN, Stephen; YU, Nilan; ROBLES, Wilder & MAZZA, Deborah. Paulo Freire´s critical pedagogy for critical consciousness and practice. MORLEY, Christine; ABLETT, Phillip; NOBLE, Carolyn & COWDEN, Stephen (edited). The Routledge Handbook of Critical Pedagogies for Social Work. New York, NY: Routledge, 2020, p. 120-130.

FREIRE, Paul. Intervention. Fe y Pueblo. Pablo Freire in Bolivia. Ecumenical Journal of Theological Reflection. Year IV, nos. 16 and 17, October, (p. 1-64), 1987.

FREIRE, Paul. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 18th.ed, RJ: Paz e Terra, 1988.

GADOTTI, Moacir. Paulo Freire. A biobibliography. SP: Cortez: Paulo Freire Institute: Brasília, DF, UNESCO, 1996.

MAZZA, Deborah; SPIGOLON, Nima I. Education, exile and revolution: comrade Paulo Freire. in Brazilian Journal of (Auto) Biographical Research. Vol. 3, no. 7, Jan/Apr 2018, p. 203-220.

MAZZA, Deborah. Paulo Freire's contribution to Education and the counterpoint of the Projeto Escola sem Partido. in Jornal Adunicamp, Dossier The neoliberal project and the attacks on the public university, science and education. November, (p.22-24), 2019.

SANTOS, Boaventura S. The University in the XNUMXst century: towards a democratic and emancipatory reform of the University. São Paulo

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