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Paulo Freire 100 Series! Tribute to Paulo Freire on His Centenary of Birth

Updated: Sep 23, 2021

By Frei Betto*

Paulo Freire is an inspiration and his method of dialogical learning is a framework for Polis & Hope as a project for mutual learning. As Freire, we believe: “Nobody educates anybody else, nobody educates himself, people educate among themselves mediated by the world.” In 2021, we celebrate the 100th year of Paulo Reglus Neves Freire’s birth, who was born on September 19, 1921 in the city of Recife, located in Brazilian Northeast. To celebrate this date and the gift that was his life for the world, Polis & Hope is promoting a series Paulo Freire 100!! The first text is this powerful tribute written by Frei Betto and translated by Team P&H. Betto knows Freire deeply. Besides being one of his close friends, Frei Betto also has used Freire’s method in his work with social movements and grassroots communities.

Acesse aqui para ler em português

[Translator’s Note: There are some Portuguese words and expressions that were kept in their original form because we didn’t find equivalent English words able to express the same meaning. Although they could be translated, we think literal translations of these expressions could mislead the understanding of the reader. Therefore, we opted to keep the original Portuguese in Italics and have endnotes explaining their meaning.]

Without fear of exaggerating, I affirm that Paulo Freire is the root of the history of popular[1]power in Brazil for 50 years from 1966 to 2016. Like a leafy tree, this power emerged from an active Brazilian left in the second half of the twentieth century: groups that fought against the military dictatorship (1964-1985); the Base Ecclesial Communities of Christian Churches; the comprehensive network of popular and social movements that emerged in the 1970s; a combative unionism; and, in the 1980s, the foundation of the CUT (Unified Center of Workers); ANAMPOS (National Articulation of Popular and Union Movements) and then CMP (Center for Popular Movements); PT (Workers' Party); and the MST (Movement of Landless Rural Workers)[2]; and many other movements, NGOs and institutions.

If I had to respond to the following question: "Can you point to one person who was the cause of all this?" I would say, without any doubt: Paulo Freire. Without Paulo Freire's methodology of educação popular,[3] these movements would not exist. He taught us something very important: see history through the eyes of the oppressed and make them agents of social change.

The Marginalized as Political Agents

When I left the political prison at the end of 1973, my impression was that every struggle in Brazil had ended due to the repression of the military dictatorship. The reason for this impression was that we – those who believed to be the only experts in promoting a movement capable of restoring democracy – were in jail, dead, or in exile. What a surprise when I found an immense network of movimentos populares[4] spread throughout the country.

In 1980, when the PT was founded, I saw comrades from the left react: “Workers? No. The workers’ attempt to be the vanguard of the proletariat is beyond their capacity! We are this vanguard. We are the theoretical intellectuals and Marxists who have the capacity to lead the working class”. However, in Brazil, the oppressed began to become not only historical agents, but also political leaders, thanks to the Paulo Freire’s method.

Once Mexico, comrades from the left asked me:

– How can we develop something like your process in Brazil? Why do you have a leftist branch in the Church, a combative unionism, the Workers’ Party and so on? How is it possible to achieve this popular political force?

– Begin doing educação popular – I answered – and in about thirty years…

– They interrupted me:

– Thirty years is a lot! We want a suggestion for three years.

– I don’t know how to do in three years – I stressed – but I know a way for thirty years.

In short, the entire process of accumulation of popular political forces that resulted in Lula's election as president of Brazil in 2002 and kept the PT in the federal government for thirteen years did not fall from the sky. This process was built with great persistence from the organization and mobilization of bases populares[5] through the application of Freire’s method.

Paulo Freire’s Method

I learned about the Paulo Freire’s method in 1963. I lived in Rio de Janeiro, where I was part of the national coordination of [Brazilian] Catholic Action. When the first working groups of Freire’s method emerged, I joined a team that, on Saturdays, would go up to Petrópolis, 70km away from Rio, to teach workers how to read and write at the National Factory of Motors. There I discovered that nobody teaches anybody anything, people help each other to learn.

What did we do with the workers at that truck factory? We photographed facilities, gathered the workers in a church hall, projected slides, and asked them a very simple question:

– What didn’t you make in this picture?

– Well, we didn’t make the trees, the forest, the road, the water…

– What you didn’t make is part of the nature, we affirmed.

– What was made by the human work? – we asked.

– The human work made the bricks, the factory, the bridge, the fence…

– This is culture – we said. – And how were these things made?

– They talked among themselves and answered: They were made when human beings transformed nature in culture.

Then there was a photo of the yard of the National Factory of Motors with many trucks and the workers' bicycles. We simply asked:

– What did you make in this picture?

– The trucks.

– And what do you have?

– The bikes

– Are you sure about that?

– Yes. We only made the trucks

– Why don’t you go home by truck? Why do you go by bike?

– Because a truck is very expensive and none of them belong to us.

– How much does a truck cost?

– About 40,000 dollars

– How much do you make per month?

– Well, we make about 200 dollars

– How long each of you need to work, without eating, drinking, paying rent, and saving all of your wages to, one day, own one of the trucks you make?

Then they started to calculate and become aware of the essence of the capital x labor relationship, which is surplus value, exploitation, etc.

The most elementary concepts of Marxism, as a critique of capitalism, came through the Paulo Freire’s method. Differently than one might think, we weren't teaching. We weren't doing what Paulo Freire called “banking education,” that is, sticking political concepts inside a worker's mind. The method was inductive. As Paulo said, we teachers did not teach, but rather we helped students to learn.

Distinct and Complementary Cultures

In 1980, when I arrived in São Bernardo do Campo (São Paulo State), I found leftist activists who distributed newspapers among the workers' families. One day, Dona Marta asked me:

– What is “class contradiction?

– Dona Marta, forget that.

– I don’t read much – explained her to me – because my vision is poor, and the letters are small.

– Forget this – I said again – The leftist writes these texts for the left itself to read and be happy, believing to be revolutionary action.

Paulo Freire taught us not only to speak in popular, artistically visible, and non-academically conceptual language, but also to learn from the people. He taught the people to restore their self-esteem.

Upon leaving prison, I lived for five years in a favela in the state of Espírito Santo, where I worked with educação popular using Paulo Freire’s method. When I returned to São Paulo, in the late 1970s, Paulo Freire proposed to me to review our experience in education and, thanks to the mediation of journalist Ricardo Kotscho, we wrote a book called Essa escola chamada vida (This school called life). This book is about his account as an educator and creator of a method, and my experience as an Educador de base.[6]

In this book, I share an experience in the favela where I lived. There, I met a group of women who were pregnant with their first child, assisted by physicians from the Municipal Health Department. I asked the doctors why they only worked with women who were pregnant with their first child.

– We don’t want to work with women who have maternal vices – they said and added: We want to teach everything.

Okay. A few months later, I heard a knock in the door of my shack.

– Betto, we need your help!

– There is a failure of connection between the women and us. They do not understand what we say. You, who have experience working with these people, could advise us.

I went to observe their work. Upon entering the Health Center on a morro,[7] I was scared. Here were very poor women in a Center decorated with posters of blue-eyed blondes, Johnson & Johnson babies, Nestle advertising, and so on. Looking that around, I reacted:

– Everything is wrong. When these women come here and see these babies, they realize that this is another world that has nothing to do with the babies from the morro.

Observing physicians’ work, I noticed that they were talking on FM while the women were tuned to AM. Communication didn't really work. In a session, Dr. Raul explained, in scientific language, the importance of breastfeeding and, therefore, of proteins, for the formation of the human brain. When he finished the lecture, the women stared at him as I do when opening a text in Mandarin or Arabic: I don't understand anything.

– Dona Maria, did you understand anything said by Dr. Raul? – I asked.

– No, I didn’t. I only understood when he talked that people’s milk is good for children’s head.

– Why didn’t you understand?

– Because I don’t have education. I attend very little school. I was born poor na roça.[8]

– Why does Dr. Raul know how to explain all of this?

– Because he is a doctor, has education. He knows and I don’t.

– Dr. Raul, can you cook? – I inquired.

– I can’t make even a simple coffee.

– Dona Maria, can you cook?

– Yes, I can.

– Can you cook frango ao molho pardo (a traditional dish with chicken from Espírito Santo and also in some parts of Brazilian Northeast known as galinha de cabidela)?[9]

– Yes, I can.

– Please, stand up – I requested – and tell us how to make a frango ao molho pardo.

Dona Maria offered a cooking lesson: how to kill a chicken, the best way to pluck the feathers, and how to prepare the meat and the sauce, etc.

– When she sat down, I said:

– Dr. Raul, can you cook a dish like this one?

– Never. I love it, but I can’t cook.

– Dona Maria, imagine you and Dr. Raul lost in a forest. Both are hungry and then find a chicken. He, with all his education, would die hungry and you wouldn’t.

This woman smiled from ear to ear. At that moment, she discovered a fundamental principle of Paulo Freire: there is no one more cultured than another, there are distinct cultures, socially complementary. If we compare all my knowledge in philosophy and theology, and the culinary skills of the cook of my monastery, she can live without my knowledge, but I can’t without her culture. Here's the difference. The culture of a cook is essential for all of us.

Paulo Freire and Future Challenges

Given the emergence of so many authoritarian governments and the spread of anti-democratic, racist, homophobic, sexist, and negationist messages on social media, it seems to me that Paulo Freire’s work is still extremely important on the centenary of his birth.

The crise of progressive forces in Latin America in recent years, and the rise of neo-fascist figures like Bolsonaro in Brazil, force us to recognize that we have abandoned the grassroots work of popular organization and mobilization for decades. This void left within populations of the periphery, slums, poor rural areas, has been occupied by religious fundamentalism, drug trafficking, and armed militias.

Freire's book "Pedagogy of the Oppressed": 2nd edition published in Brazil in 1975 and 30th Anniversary edition published in the USA. Freire's books have been translated in many languages.

In his work, Paulo Freire teaches us that there is no mobilization without prior conscientization.[10] People needs a "clothesline" to hang political concepts and frameworks to analyze reality. The “clothesline” is the perception of time as history.

There are civilizations, tribes, groups, which have no perception of time as history. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that time was cyclical. Today, cyclical time returns through esotericism, denial, fatalism, and religious fundamentalism. But above all, it returns, through neoliberalism.

The essence of neoliberalism is the de-historicization of time. When Fukuyama declared that “history is over,” he expressed the belief that neoliberalism wants us to have: We have arrived at the fullness of time! The neoliberal mode of capitalist production, based on market supremacy, is definitive! Only a few are chosen, and many are excluded. And all fights for an alternative society, an “another possible world,” are in vain.

In fact, it is difficult to talk about an alternative society in our current time. Socialism then, no way! Somehow it created fear, and intellectual and emotional blocks. “Socialism ended, fell, collapsed, and was buried!” boast the pythonesses. In general, the alternatives that arise are intra-systemic.

The notion that time is history came from the Persians, passed on to the Hebrews and was accentuated by the Jewish tradition. Three great paradigms of our culture have Jewish origin – Jesus, Marx, and Freud – and, therefore, they work with the category of time as history.

It is impossible to study Marxism without also deepening the previous systems of production, in order to understand how we arrived at the capitalist system of production. And then, we understand how their contradictions could lead to socialist and communist systems of production. Marxist analysis, therefore, presupposes the rescue of time as history.

If someone undergoes analysis or therapy, the psychoanalyst immediately asks about patient’s past, childhood, upbringing. If the patient can talk about his intrauterine life, it is even better… All Freud's psychology is a recovery of our temporality as individuals.

Jesus' perspective was historical. The God of Jesus presents himself with a curriculum vitae: he is not just any god – he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – that is, a God who makes history. The main category of Jesus' preaching is historical: the Kingdom of God.

Although the ecclesiastical discourse places it in the heaven, theologically it is not up there. The Kingdom is something up ahead, the culmination of a historical process. Curiously, history in the Bible, as a factor for identifying time, is so strong that the Genesis account on the Creation of the world is already marked by the historicity of time before the appearance of human beings.

For many, history is what men and women do. So, there would be no history before the rise of men and women. There is even a common acceptable concept of prehistory. For the Bible, history is already there before the appearance of the human being. Even the Greeks considered the god of the Hebrews a very incompetent entity. A true god creates like Nescafé: instantaneous and there is no length, as the biblical account shows. Now, in the account of Creation, God creates in seven days, there is already historicity. Paulo Freire, a man with a Christian background and an activist adherent to the foundations of Marxism, knew how to perceive the importance of reading the world as a condition for reading a text.

This perspective does not suit neoliberalism. Therefore, popular education cannot be done without having a “line” to hang clothes… This “clothesline” – time as history – is fundamental for visualizing the social and political process. This also happens in the micro dimension of our lives. Why, today, many find it difficult to have life projects? Why do young people reach their 20s with no idea what they want to be or do with their own lives? For many of them, everything is here and now.

Therefore, if we want to rescue Paulo Freire's legacy, the way is to return to the grassroots work with the popular classes, adopting his method in a historical perspective, opening for liberating utopias with a democratic horizon. Outside the people there is no salvation. If we believe that democracy must, in fact, be the government of the people for the people and with the people, there is no alternative but adopting the educational process suggested by Freire that places the oppressed as political and historical agents.

When Paulo Freire returned from 15 years of exile, in August 1979, we met in São Paulo. We were neighbors and I often visited him. We became very close in our personal relationships.

Thus, I end this tribute with this text I wrote on May 2, 1997, the date of Paulo Freire's transvivenciação:[11]

“Ivo saw the grape” is how literacy manuals teach. But Professor Paulo Freire, with his method of raising awareness, made adults and children – in Brazil, Guinea-Bissau, India, Nicaragua and so many other places – to discover that Ivo did not only see with his eyes. He also saw with his mind and questioned if grapes were nature or culture.

Ivo saw that fruits are not the result of human work. It's Creation, it's nature. Paulo Freire taught Ivo that sowing grapes is human action in and on nature. And the hand, a multitool, awakens the potential of the fruit. Just as the human being was sown by nature in years and years of evolution in the Universe.

Harvesting the grape, crushing it, and turning it into wine are culture, noted Paulo Freire. Work humanizes nature and, by doing it, men and women become more human. Work establishes a web of relationships, social life. Thanks to the professor, who started his revolutionary pedagogy with workers from SESI in Pernambuco,[12] Ivo also saw that the grapes were harvested by boias-frias,[13] who earned little, and were sold by middlemen, who earned much more.

Even without knowing how to read, Ivo learned from Paulo that he is not an ignorant person. Before learning the letters, Ivo knew how to build a house, brick by brick. A doctor, a lawyer, or a dentist, with all their education, cannot build like Ivo. Paulo Freire taught Ivo that there is no one more cultured person than another, there are parallel, distinct cultures that complement each other in social life.

Ivo saw the grape and Paulo Freire showed him the bunches, the vine, the entire plantation. He taught Ivo that reading a text is better understood the more a text is placed in the context of the author and the reader. It is from this dialogical relationship between text and context that Ivo extracts the pre-text to act. At the beginning and at the end of learning, Ivo's praxis is what matters. Praxis-theory-praxis relates in an inductive process that makes the student a historical agent.

Ivo saw the grape and didn't see the bird that, from above, sees the vine and doesn't see the grape. What Ivo sees is different from what the bird sees. Thus, Paulo Freire taught Ivo a fundamental principle of epistemology: the head thinks where the feet tread. The unequal world can be read from the perspective of the oppressor or from the perspective of the oppressed. The result of each reading is as different from each other as the vision of Ptolemy, observing the solar system with his feet on earth, and that of Copernicus, imagining himself with his feet on the sun.

Ivo now sees the grape, the vine, and all the social relationships that make the fruit a feast in a glass of wine, but he no longer sees Paulo Freire, who immersed himself in Love on the morning of May 2, 1997. He leaves us an invaluable work and an admirable testimony of competence and consistency.

Paulo was supposed to be in Cuba, where he would receive the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Havana. When his heart, which loved so much, was aching, he asked me to represent him. With tickets to Palestine because of a previous commitment, I could not help him. However, before boarding, I went to pray with Nita, his wife, and the children, around his calm face: Paulo saw God.

*Frei Betto is a writer and an author of many books, including Por uma educação crítica e participativa (Rocco) and Essa escola chamada vida (Ártica) with Paulo Freire and Ricardo Kotscho. His personal website is:

[1] Every time you read the word “popular” in this essay means something that come from the people who are the base of Brazilian society, that is, the poor and law-income families. Popular power mains poder popular, that is, the force that come from the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. [2] All acronymous refer to the original names in Portuguese, as all these groups and organizations are known. in CUT - Central Única dos Trabalhadores; ANAMPOS - Articulação Nacional dos Movimentos Populares e Sindicais; CMP (Central de Movimentos Populares); PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores; MST - Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra. [3] Educação Popular literally means “popular education.” Both Portuguese and English versions are similar because of their Latin root. However, the meaning of popular is very different. In Portuguese, popular means something that is for and from the poor. In the Brazilian context, popular education is exercised by the popular educator, the one who teaches the poor, especially those who don’t have an opportunity to go to school and are illiterate. In addition, a popular educator provides political education in order to create an environment, in which people can develop a critical consciousness. Popular education is a method of education of the poor that was developed by the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire. See: Paulo Freire, Educating for Critical Consciousness (New York: Continuum, 1987). [4] Movimentos populares are social grassroots movements organized by the poor and the oppressed (including also partners from different social groups) in order to act for social justice. [5] Bases populares refers to the basis of a people, that is, the poor and the oppressed of a people. Mobilization of bases populares means organized the poor and the oppressed in the way they become agents of social transformation. [6] Educador de base is a person who work with the poor and the oppressed in an educational method, particularly using Freire’s method of educação popular. [7] Morro is a hill where poor people went to live, and one slum as created. Many metropolitan cities in Brazil were built in a law-land, usually near a river or/and the Atlantic Ocean, with hills around. Poor people marginalized form these areas went to these hills and begin to build very poor house to live, while to go to the law-land to work. [8] Na roça refers to the countryside. In this case, roça refers to people from rural areas who are poor and had to work for famer to survive in very poor working conditions, or to people who has a very small farm and a challenges location because, for example, lack of water, and don't’ have resource to invest in their property and are far from urban areas. [9] Explanation be the author, included in the original in Portuguese. [10] The original in Portuguese is Conscientização, a neologism created by Freire to express a process of critical thinking and social awareness. Freire says: “Conscientização represents the development of the awakening of critical awareness.” Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Continuum, 2005), 15. [11] Transvivenciação refers to a passage of living, from a life in the earth to another life. [12] SESI – Serviço Social da Indústria (Social Service of Industry) are center for professional education present in deferent par of Brazil. SESI Pernambuco refers to one campus in the Northeast state of Pernambuco. [13] Bioas-frias, laterally means “cold-meal.” Bioas-frias refers to poor rural workers who served in big farms, particularly in the sugar-cane fields. They left home before sunrise and return after sunset, spending all day working under a hot sun for a big farmer. They make very little money and don’t have any labor right or benefit. Because their working day is so long and they don’t have a good break to eat, they will bring their lunch from home in a small container. When it is time to eat, this food is cold, and they don’t have a place they can worm it. Bioas-frias are poor people who never had an opportunity to go to school, so they never learned how to read and write.

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