Review by Laura Lopez-Torres (UCLA)
Letters to Cristina is a type of chronicle of Paulo Freire's life. It especially highlights
his childhood and youth, but also includes some of his adulthood's experiences which illuminated
his thought and practice as philosopher and critical educator. The book introduces the roots of
the critical and reflexive features that would later characterize Freire's work and pedagogical
In the introduction, Freire talks about his experiences during his fifteen years exile in Chile, the United States and Switzerland. This exilic period was marked by a frequent exchange of letters with friends, students, teachers and family. In the early 1970s, he received the first of many letters form his niece, Cristina, who was curious about his life in Geneva. For years, Cristina continued writing to her uncle in order to satisfy her lively curiosity about his life and work. One day, Freire received a letter from her stating: "I would like for you to write me letters about your life, your childhood and, little by little, about the trajectory that led you to become the educator you are now" (11).
Letters to Cristina is, literally, the response to his niece's request, a pending family debt that results in a thorough reflection of his life and work. The first letters are written in a literary style that resembles the autobiographical novel. Having to (re)think and (re)write his life at seventy-two suggest that the narrative combines early memories that can possibly be read as fictional elements with real characters and historical moments of Brazil. The Freirean narrative uses literary tropes such as icons and metaphors to represent and analyze both the problems of Northeast Brazil, as well as particular issues about authority and domination that marked his life; the Lourde's German piano, his father's neckties, the theft of the papaya, and "Mr." Armada exemplify some of these tropes/images. In the notes to book's foreword, Araujo emphasizes that through the use of these literary tropes/images "to talk about the experiences and frustrated dreams of the people, Paulo talks about distinct facets of Brazilian reality: the lack of hope, the presence of oppression, authoritarianism, exploitation, and domination, the dreams of what is possible, hunger, unemployment; and finally the deprivation of the many and the opulence of the few" (192).
Letters to Cristina constitutes a collection of memories, a text of reminiscence. Freire organized his observations in files and (re)collected data from his remembrances by placing his life in the Brazilian historical context. This anecdotal narrative is not only a look back of recognition, but also a recollection of people and experiences that marked his life: his first teachers, the tree of Recife's house, the big clock in the living room, and the move to Jaboatao, among others. Sometimes the narrative might seem melancholic; but, at the same time, Freire makes it clear he has attempted to take a step back from everything in order to try to be more objective (14).
The book makes visible the development of Freire, the educator. The concreteness of his experiences, such as his life in Recife and Jaboatoa, provides an understanding of Freire's approach both to a body of assumptions and apprehension of the world. Through these letters, readers can explore the genesis of his epistemological curiosity, the dialectic understanding of reality, the inclination toward justice, his ethical position as human being and educator rooted in a democratic sense. These letters make recognizable Freire's positions in terms of "how I think, how I always subject my practice to theoretical reflection, how, without martyring or punishing myself, I consistently try to shorten the distance between what I say and what I do" (143). The contemplative introspection, the retrospective search and the reflexive dialogue that characterize this work, provide an insightful understanding and a better comprehension of Freire's thoughts and the evolution of his epistemological and political positions.
Letters to Cristina
In the thirteenth letter, Freire exposes that this work is divided in two parts. In the first twelve responses to Cristina's request, he talks about himself as a boy, a teenager and a man. These letters present a type of chronological evolution of his life that highlights the most relevant moments, persons and learning processes of these periods. The second part of the book, letters fourteenth to eighteenth, are written in a essay/narrative style, and discuss basic topics relevant to his pedagogical work: democracy, progressive education, domination, and concientization, among others .
From my perspective, the first part of the book provides the opportunity to weave through the connections between some of Freire's life experiences with his philosophy and educational ideas. The first ten letters describe the context of Freire's family, the environment of Recife and Jaboatoa, and how these experiences marked his life with a deep sense of solidarity and human respect, and helped to develop a critical and humanistic perception of world. The eleventh and twelfth letters are very significant because these represented the formation time in Freire as educator (82). In the eleventh letter, Freire describes his ten years of experience (from 1947-57) at the Social Service of Industry (SESI) as "the most important political-pedagogical practice of my life" (81). During the period of 1961-1964, he worked at the Department of Cultural Extension CEC, MPC and the Adult Literacy Experience in Angicos, R’o Grande do Norte. Some of the learning advantages of this period include the critical reflection, the dialogical and participatory educational practices, autonomy, democracy, problematization of education and the intrinsic relation between theory and praxis.
In letters fourteenth to eleventh, Freire focuses in the development of relevant topics in his work, topics that he developed in seminars, interviews, and publishing both inside and outside of Brazil (143). In letters fourteenth to fifteenth, he discusses topics related to the relationship between education and democracy, the dialectic relationship between authority and freedom, as well as the role of progressive and critical educators. As he suggests, if the ontological vocation of human being is being more, democracy should be the way and form of struggle to realize this goal (146).
The sixteenth letter is one devoted to consecrate the advisor's role at university settings. He presents a critical-humanistic and powerful reflection concerning the role of advisors in relation to their advisees. Freire responds some questions posed to him in seminars in seventeenth letter. This discussion includes topics and concerns about both domination (class, race or gender), and liberation as a contradictory, non-mechanical process (174). In the last letter, the eighteenth, Freire discusses some critical topics still relevant at the end of the century: North-South relations, the issue of hunger, the issue of violence, the rebirth of the Nazi-fascist threat and, finally, the role of subjectivity in history.
Letters to Cristina is a complementary reading to Pedagogy of Hope (Freire, 1994), where he revisited his book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and analyzed the topics that framed his critical and liberatory pedagogy. Letters to Cristina accommodates in an intimate space the evolution of the man and thinker. The book's personal and honest retrospection provides a better understanding of Freire's thought and educational practice. From my perspective, one of the book's strengths is his personal reflections on the working experiences and learning process of the twenty years before the 1964 military coup; it becomes clear that these experiences are the foundation of his later publications. Thanks to Letters to Cristina, I have a better understanding of his first book, Education as Practice of Freedom, as well as of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, since these letters provide the real references (people, Brazilian context, work experience) of his writing. Letters to Cristina is an excellent introduction to understand the Freirean dialectic thought, as well as the genesis of his political and epistemological positions and the roots of the humanistic approach of his pedagogy.
Letters to Cristina: A chronological view
On September 19, 1921, Paulo Reglus Neves Freire was born in Recife, State of Pernambuco at the Northeast of Brazil. He died in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on May 2, 1997. His father, Joaqu’m Temeistocles Freire, was military police official and his mother, Edeltrudis Neves Freire, was a catholic woman. First to Third Letters
In the first three letters, he talks about his family and his life in Recife. He describes dealing with hunger and poverty, and how "I never allowed myself to fall into fatalism" (14). His upbringing is framed in a deeply Christian value's family, "I never accepted our precarious situation as an expression of God's wishes" (14). In Freire's introspection of the first years of his life, he explains his curiosity and hopeful openness toward the world. As a child, he resisted accepting reality as it was; he began to think that the world needs to be changed (13). He experienced the cruel reality of how some children are prematurely forced into adulthood (19). In the Third letter, Freire talks about an important value he learned from his family, dialogue. He also shares some experiences about how he began his first critical reflections. Freire emphasizes the importance of the natural and affective environment of his first learning lessons both at home and with his teacher Eunice. This background fostered his curiosity and inquisitive spirit, making him feel happy, "I had my backyard as my first primer, my first world, my first school"(29). He remembers some of the figures that impacted his life such as Adelino, Martins and teacher Eunice.
The economic depression: (1929)
At age eight his middle class family suffered the impact of the 1930s economic crisis. The family lived the contradiction between being hunger and not sacrificing his father's necktie. "The piano in our home was like the tie around my father's neck. In spite of all difficulties, we did not get rid of the piano, nor did my father do away with his necktie" (21).
The move to Jaboatoa: (1932)
At ten, his family moved to Jaboatoa, in search of a better life. Moving away from the house where he was born was a sad moment impossible to forget. "More than anything else, I felt like I was being expelled, thrown out of my sense of security. I experienced a fear that I had not felt before. It was as if I had died a little" (36).
Sixth to Eight Letters
Reliving Jaboatoa: (1932-1941)
In these letters, he remembers Jaboatoa, especially those teachers who were a significant influence in his life: Eunice Vasconcelos, Cec’lia Brandao, Josˇ Pessoa and Moacir de Albuquerque. He also relives the stories of "Mr." Armada, an authoritarian teacher. Freire also describes the town's life: the Duas Unas river, the ghost stories, the movie house, the two musical bands of Jaboatoa, as well as his life as student at Osvaldo Cruz High School. The eight letter is the voice of a son remembering an abandoned hope of his mother (69), and the lost opportunity to get a job as secretary of a high school.
His father's death: (1934)
In fifth letter he stresses out the importance of his father's presence in the home and his influence in Freire's personal formation. From his father's conversations Freire learned for the first time about Brazil's political crisis and its social injustices, among other things. The ninth letter is a brief and intimate narrative about the loss of his father, "No one who suffers a substantive loss continues the same. Reinvention is a requirement for life"(75).
The return to Recife: (1941)
"The informal knowledge that was born of my life experience in Jaboatao yielded to more critical reflection born on my return to Recife"(80). In 1941, he returned to Recife where he worked as a Portuguese instructor in Osvaldo Cruz High School and, later, in others schools (77). In 1944 Freire married Elza Mar’a Costa Oliviera, a teacher and later a school director. This period represented a time of academic formation, "I was intensely dedicated to reading, as critically as possible, the Portuguese and Brazilian grammarians" (77). He devoted most of his time at bookstores meeting other intellectuals and exchanging ideas with them. "At that time, I mostly threw myself into the study of grammar, punctuated by readings in the philosophy of language and introductory linguistics essays. These books eventually led me to education" (79).
During the years 1947-57, Freire worked at Social Service of Industry in the Pernambuco State. This letter is very descriptive about his ten years at SESI, first as director of the Education Department (1947-54) and, eventually, as superintendent (1954-57). About this time he argues, "I was involved in the most political-pedagogical practice of my life" (81). This period offered the opportunity of visiting rural schools, and working with teachers and parents in these communities, making possible to re-encounter a working-class reality (81). Freire describes the development of two projects--the first one as director and the second one as superintendent of SESI--that reflected both his political and pedagogical beliefs. "We wanted to democratize the relation among educators, learners, parents, custodians, school, and community. We want to democratize schools by understanding the patterns in the act of teaching. We want to put our efforts towards overcoming the mechanical transference of content so that we could embrace a critical way of teaching. We wanted to respect the knowledge that learners brought to school as well as their cultural identity" (90). When Freire became Superintendent, he also tried to democratize the administration of SESI (94). During his administration, he emphasized personnel training seminars informed by serious studies. Freire and his team developed a change in the culture of work. This period was characterized by democratic dialogues, reflections and research in the practice, reading the contexts to intervene in them. Freire claims that through his time in SESI he learned "how to deal with the tense relationship between practice and theory" (108).
In 1959 Freire completed his doctoral thesis at University of Recife with the academic thesis "Education and Present-Day Brazil." It reflected his experiences at SESI. Later, he incorporated part of this thesis into his first book, Education as Practice of Freedom (87).
SEC, MCP, and Adult Literacy in Angico: (1961-1964)
Starting in 1960 until 1964, Freire was involved in the Movement for Popular Culture (MCP), the Cultural Extension Service (SE) at the Federal University of Pernambuco and the Adult Literacy in Angicos, Rio Grande do Norte. The MCP was a political-educational movement focused on popular culture. Freire developed adult literacy initiatives within this movement. The experience in the Cultural Extension Service SE at Federal University of Pernambuco provided him with the tools to design his method of teaching adult literacy. The Adult Literacy Program began in Angicos in 1962; through this initiative three hundred rural workers learned how to read and write in forty-five days. The military coup to Goulart 'a government in 1964 interrupted and canceled all these literacy projects.
Other episodes in the life of Paulo Freire that are relevant to put this book in to context:
1964 Military coup/70 days in jail
1964-1979 Fifteen years in exile
1964-1970 Chile/Christian Democratic Agrarian Reform
1969-1970 Cambridge, Mass./Harvard University
1970-1979 Geneva/World Council of Churches, Angola, Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, Cabo Verde, Granada, Nicaragua and others
1979 Return to Brazil
1986 Elza's dead
1988 Married with Ana Maria Araujo
1989-1991 Secretary of Education of Sao Paulo