Guiomar’s story: Putting Paulo Freire’s philosophy of literacy into practice
Paulo Freire |

(Editor’s note: The year 2021 marks the centennial of radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921-1997), whose theories about literacy revolutionized the globe. We anticipate further commentary on Freire as the year continues.)

When Guiomar Albuquerque was 13 years old, she began to teach fishermen in the Ilha do Maruim (Mosquito Island) favela of Olinda how to read and write. A top student in the seventh grade of the local parochial school, Guiomar already understood that literacy is a passport, not a birthright. It was 1984. She had watched her father struggle to sign his name so he could vote in the upcoming elections, the first in twenty years. The generals who had ruled Brazil since 1964 were still in power. Guiomar got a monitor’s job in the Brazilian Literacy Movement (MOBRAL), the dictatorship’s answer to the exiled Paulo Freire’s attempt to include the voiceless masses in the political life of the country. She also volunteered in the Baptist Community Action Center where needy children, many of them the fishermen’s sons and daughters, were looked after, taught and fed.

The fishermen wanted to start a cooperative. Guiomar conducted a survey to determine how many of them would be interested in learning to read. “No one taught me to teach. MOBRAL didn’t train teachers. They gave us children’s books, primers, that had nothing to do with the daily struggles of adults.”

One day a group of researchers from the Josué de Castro Foundation came to work with the fishermen. Like Paulo Freire, whose Reading Circles had been popular in Olinda before the generals took charge in 1964, they proposed to study the fishermen’s world before suggesting any changes. As a teacher, Guiomar was invited to join them. They asked Guiomar to pay particular attention to the men’s language, determining which words were used most. The men wanted to learn to read, to write and to calculate because they were being exploited by atravessadores who advanced them money to mend their nets and bought their fish for a pittance, reselling them to markets in Recife at a handsome profit.

The men wanted to negotiate with the markets directly. They needed to read and calculate. From the start, they challenged her. “Who do you think you are? You’re just a kid!” One man tried to steal her watch. They said she didn’t know what it was to go hungry, to be part of the unceasing battle they waged with life. They were embarrassed to be taught by a 13-year-old girl. Being part of the MOBRAL program was shameful too. They insisted Guiomar close the classroom door so they would not be heard struggling with words that everyone knew. But there was a wall nearby that children climbed to taunt them: “Mobral! Mobral!”

By the time Guiomar left the Ilha at 16, the fishermen had produced two books under her tutelage: one about their lives and work and another about how it felt to go to school. She brought newspapers to class and they learned to decipher political cartoons. In the cartoonists’ critique of the 20th year of the dictatorship, the men encountered what Paulo Freire called “generative themes,” how they had been objectified and dehumanized. As they learned to read and write they saw they felt less like objects and more resolute. To Guiomar, decoding the cartoons was essential to their progress.

When the men told Guiomar they would be absent for a few days because the moon was right and the tides were good for fishing, she suggested she accompany them: We’ll have class in the boat.”

“No, no, there’s no way. It’s dark. The boat could spring a leak.”

“Yes, there is a way. We’re going to do this. We don’t need light to have dialogue. Besides, I’m not going to be your monitor. This time you’ll monitor me.”

It was pitch black and raining. This was Guiomar’s first real experience of the fishermen’s world, an opportunity to watch them work. Beyond the reef that gives Recife its name, the swells made her queasy. Adrift on stormy seas in a small boat with no land in sight, nauseated, surrounded by men on whom her life depended, she discovered her vocation.

The accumulated experiences of that night supplied enough material for three weeks of study. When she suggested they list “key words,” the fishermen resisted. “Why do we have to study the word pesca (fishing) when it’s all we talk about?” They wanted to make sentences with words unrelated to their daily life. Guiomar pointed out that while the pelicans, cormorants and dolphins fished instinctively, men used strategies and tools: weaving nets and traps, building boats, using landmarks to locate their spiny lobster pots.

They began to see themselves as producers of culture. Forming a cooperative was good business. It could put food on their tables, buy shoes for their children and prevent having to purchase everything on credit. They realized that pesca was a word that defined their profession. They felt proud to be fishermen.

When I interviewed Guiomar in 2002, she was the head of a public school that occupies the same building as the Youth and Adult Education Center (CEJA), where I first met her in 1999. “When we met, we had the best structure you can imagine. Since most of the teachers were working on their monographs, we were enthusiastic about your studying us. Everything was new: the computer library, the equipment, everything. Then the directors of this building, which belongs to the municipal government of Olinda, decided to use it for professional training courses for which people paid. There were elections that year and a conservative party replaced the PT (Workers’ Party) in Olinda. “When we got back in, we found the building totally empty. They stole everything! We had fifty computers at CEJA. When we came back, we found only two! Before we left, we had a science lab with microscopes. We left this equipment there and that was the last we saw of it. We lodged a complaint and it will be heard in court.”

During the day the school functioned but conditions were chaotic. In addition to 1500 children from the immediate neighborhood, 400 more had recently been added from the Lixão, the municipal dump, where their families lived, sifting through the garbage for comestibles. Guiomar is one of a group of volunteers who started a school at the dump. “Now they take 400 kids out of the Lixão and deposit them here. All the classrooms are completely filled. Where do we put them? In the schoolyard, the hallways, the cafeteria. The teachers are upstairs giving classes, and the kids from the dump are lounging in the halls.”

Luciana Santos, mayor of Olinda from the Communist Party of Brazil, asked Guiomar to substitute for the daytime principal, who was on sick leave. “I teach classes two mornings and three afternoons a week, from pre-school through eighth grade.” The first day as temporary director, Guiomar’s car was attacked: “‘That’s the principal’s car!’ That’s all they had to say. The kids ran over, picked up rocks, and scraped off the paint. By the time I got there, the car was a wreck. The absentee principal is a political appointee. They took out their rage on my car, thinking it was hers. Yesterday, one of the students threw a rock at a teacher who went to the ER with a head wound. The public competitions for prospective teachers rely solely on written tests. None of the winners are interviewed beforehand. I’ve been in the private instruction business myself for 7 years. Until now, I have not had to deal with teachers who lack any kind of sensitivity. They take an hour to return to the classroom after a twenty-minute break.

“Yesterday, I met with parents: ‘So you’re the principal. You decided to show up. You remembered the school exists?’ This is Olinda’s ‘model school.’ It doesn’t look like a school. It’s a manicômio, a complete madhouse, at the moment. But you know, I’m glad that Luciana asked me to take the job. I’m up for it because if I’m not and I don’t find other people who are, the whole thing is going to collapse. There are fifteen hundred children here. Fifteen hundred abandoned children being left to God knows what.”

It was two years before I saw Guiomar again. “When you were last here, the CEJA was being restructured,” she told me. “Today it has a better structure because the school has resumed its partnership with the University. The CEJA used to be a project—today it is a school.” We are using all the classroom spaces here plus the cafeteria and the library because of the number of students enrolled.”

I asked her about the 400 students from the Lixão for whom there was no room two years before. “Olinda came through. Today, all those students are in classes. If not here, then in other schools within the municipality. Other pupils are in other schools nearby. These students receive subsidies from Lula’s government and stay in school all day. I stay informed about the CEJA because adult education is in my blood.” Even as a school director and a 17-year employee of the Olinda Municipality, Guiomar makes less than $500 per month. Talk turned to politics. Guiomar will vote for Lula and for Luciana, Olinda’s Communist mayor, whose participative budget initiative she extols. Education is, as Freire never tired of reminding us, inextricably political.


Peter Lownds
Peter Lownds

Peter Lownds is an author and translator living in Los Angeles.