Aerial Photo of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons

...It's Happening Now

There are continual surprises in the experience of Cleuza and her husband, Marcos, founders of the Movement of Landless Workers, who have discovered in their encounter with CL the reason for their passion for man in his totality.
Paolo Perego and Paola Ronconi

During a meeting at the International Assembly of CL Responsibles in La Thuile, in late August of 2005, Cleuza stood up to ask a question about Fr. Carrón’s invitation to do and propose School of Community: “If only 10% of our friends accept the invitation, how can my husband and I do School of Community with 10,000 people?” Ten thousand, yes. Cleuza Ramos and her husband, Marcos Zerbini, are the founders of the Movement of Landless Workers, an association of about 100,000 men and women of São Paolo, Brazil, that has enabled people living in the favelas to acquire land and build respectable homes that they own themselves (see Traces, Vol. 7, No. 6 (June), 2005). “You’ll find an answer,” was Cesana’s reply.

We met Cleuza and Marcos, accompanied by Alexandre, a São Paolo physician and Memores Domini member, at the Pope’s meeting in Italy with the movements and new communities. They told us about the incredible developments in their history, and their new School of Community group.

Let’s start with that question in La Thuile...
Cleuza: We believe that our work is a mission, and if we were invited to the Assembly of Responsibles in La Thuile, it wasn’t for tourism, but for an exchange of experiences. I was really struck by that gathering. I am anxious to bring to everyone the beauty of what I have encountered. Reading a book by Fr. Giussani, Traces of Christian Experience, which I like a lot, I asked myself how I could bring this to all the people. In the book, it says that all Christians have the duty to communicate the message in the simplest form. In our association, when we get together in an assembly, we use an informative flyer that moves around quickly. Everyone has to pass it on to his neighbor, and in this way everybody reads it. So, we tried to prepare one of these flyers on a certain theme with a popular Brazilian song and a passage from Giussani taken from Traces of Christian Experience.

But how did this School of Community group get started?
Marcos: Well, we have to take a step back in time to explain. This group of people [the Movement of Landless Workers] has obtained land and homes, and now new needs are beginning to arise. One of them is that young people finish high school but can’t go to the university. In Brazil, public universities have enrollment limits, and since there’s a very difficult admission examination, only candidates who were able to pay for good private schools manage to pass. For a poor person, the only option is to pay for a private university. Public education in Brazil is of low quality, and doesn’t prepare you to pass the university admission examination. Here, we have the contradiction that free university is available for those who have the money to afford a good private high school, not those who truly are poor. So we began thinking of an alternative. At that time, we went to the Company of Works conference for Latin America in Rio, and listened to the educative experience of Tista about the University of Lima in Peru (see Traces, Vol. 5, No. 9 (October), 2003). The initial idea was to build our own faculty in São Paolo, but we soon set that aside because the bureaucracy and difficulties in obtaining Ministry approval were prohibitive. However, we discovered that the private universities in São Paolo had many openings. They, too, have admission exams and limited enrollment, but there’s also less demand for them because they’re expensive.

So what did you do?
Marcos: We began to negotiate. “Will you give us a discount if we bring you a lot of students?” They said, “Bring at least 1,000 students, and we’ll give you a tuition discount of between 30% and 60%.” We brought 1,800 students, children of families from the Movement of Landless Workers. Then these young people came to us, saying, “There’s a friend of mine…,” or, “I have a relative who would like to attend the university, but he can’t afford it.” Maybe some of them aren’t in the Movement, or don’t live in our neighborhoods, but they would like to attend the university. Today, in two and a half years, there are 10,000 young people who are already enrolled. Another 3,000 who are in the Movement will begin their studies in August. We began having meetings with these young people. By now, they’ve become Schools of Community, with about 15,000 participants. They’re held monthly, in groups of 600 people.

This is how they run: at the beginning, we distribute a flyer with a passage from Traces of Christian Experience and a song from Brazilian musical tradition expressing the theme from Fr. Giussani’s book. Then one of us helps with reading the text. At this point, the 600 divide into many groups of 10 with a few CLU university students who go around among the little groups to help the discussion. Each little group formulates a question and nominates a spokesperson. Then a rapid-fire series of 60 questions is read or recounted to the entire assembly. It’s an occasion of responsibility for many people who have to get up the courage to speak in front of everyone. The person leading the assembly then responds to 3 or 4 of the questions in a deeper way, trying to embrace as much as possible the heart of the questions formulated. It’s impressive to see the level of attention that’s created; and it’s even more surprising how the tension and silence grow as the time passes.

Monthly School of Community for 15,000? Where do you meet?
Cleuza: In a big warehouse-showroom that can hold precisely 600 people. The meetings last two and a half hours. When one meeting ends, everyone exits, and the other 600 enter. They’re monthly meetings, and during the month, everyone works on that text. There are 29 gatherings like these and, in addition, there are other gatherings of the association, so, between Marcos and I, we hold 132 gatherings a month.

Alexandre: It’s a gesture of belonging to a people, because it’s always clear that the interest is to formulate a different person, starting out from the needs, but not stopping there.
Cleuza: When people come to us, we tell them, “You come to us looking for a piece of land for building yourself a house, or looking for a way to get into the university; we’re interested in discussing life. If you want to participate and discuss life, you’re welcome to come, but if not, look for another alternative.”

It seems like blackmail...
Cleuza: In the beginning, they come against their will, but over time, they begin to understand that it is an interesting proposal for their life. The normality for young people is just to take care of their own interests. When someone begins to understand that his happiness depends on the happiness of the other, the road gets easier and it makes more sense to stay together. A lot of young people have come to us and said, “I came here looking for a discount at the university, but today it’s the least important thing”–because, in the end, a companionship is born among them. They understand that what interests us is the best for them, and that they can live the best thing.

How does this reality of young people influence the universities?
Alexandre: Just one example: these flyers. The people take them with them and the discussion often continues at work or at home, or a professor uses them during lessons as a stimulus for reflection. One of the texts even became an essay topic on the entrance exam for one of the faculties we work with! In one of the universities, out of 50,000 students, 5,000 are “ours,” in the association, and in the end, the work on the text has an impact on the entire institution.

Marcos: The university Presidents tell us, “Your young people are different.” Now, our next project is to be able to build our own humanities department–since it wouldn’t need laboratories, it would be less expensive–so we can offer even more accessible courses to young people.

Why do you do all this?
Cleuza: I had never left Brazil before. The first time, I came to Italy, to La Thuile last year; as I said, I didn’t come for tourism, but to exchange experiences. You people from rich countries have a mistaken idea of poverty, as if the only thing we lack is food. That’s not true. We are hungry and thirsty for beautiful things, for art, history, experiences that have succeeded. So for us, this exchange of experiences is very important. For example, today we learned about the experience of the CUSL [University Cooperative for Studies and Work]. For us, this will be very important when we return to Brazil, because books and didactic material are very expensive there. Our government worries about giving “alms” to the people, but young people don’t need this; rather, they need modern technology, communications, information, and art. Our greatest need today is “knowing things.” When I return, my people will ask, “What’s Rome like? What’s a museum like? What’s that Madonna like?”

The “oldest” things we have are 200–300 years old, and they’ve been destroyed. Young people ask about museums because they want to understand what it’s like here in Italy. Do you think our government people have the idea that the youth from the poor periphery think about museums, classical music, or Leonardo da Vinci? “This is for the rich,” they say. For them, poor people don’t need these things! I was really impressed when Giorgio Vittadini told the story of when the first people who went for charitable work in Bassa gave a poor old woman some money, and then discovered that she had bought herself lipstick. They went to Fr. Giussani and complained, “How can it be? She doesn’t have anything, and she uses the money we gave her to buy lipstick!” He said, “You’re so presumptuous! Who are you to say what that woman’s true needs are?”

I had been working 30 years for the poor, and I concentrated on a house, and land, and I had never asked myself that question. Now in our community centers in our 25 neighborhoods we have begun beautician services for women, like hairdressing, manicures, and pedicures, as well as exercise classes and dance.

How did you do that?
Cleuza: We convinced some hairdressers and beauticians from the salons in the rich neighborhoods to come to our neighborhoods and donate their services to our people. For our women, some of whom are depressed, something like this can have a bigger impact than finding a house. A woman said to us, full of emotion, “I’m 60 years old, and this is the first time in my life that I’ve been to a hairdresser.” The experience we bring is what changes the life of people, so much so that many have begun caring for their homes differently, making them more beautiful, and also, there’s a big development of artisan work, especially textiles of excellent quality.

Has your life changed too?
Cleuza: A few days ago, a journalist who’s writing a book on popular movements interviewed me and asked, “You continue to say that in the past five years you’ve changed, after having encountered CL. What has changed?” I answered that at first, we did a work “out of compassion;” we felt badly for the poor. Today, we do it out of love for them, because they have the same desires, the same exigencies as everyone.

Marcos: People tell us: you’re changed, we don’t know why exactly, but you’re different. I would say that today the same passion we had in the beginning of our work has returned to us.

Cleuza: And every day, I discover a bit more. People often ask me, “What’s the difference between being Catholic and being in CL?” Being Catholic for me meant going to Mass and praying at home. Today, for me it means being Catholic in all the places I am: at work, on the train, talking to everyone about Jesus Christ alive. Speaking about our movement or CL is like speaking about a passion–it’s almost dangerous! It’s like speaking about a great love; it seems like he’s got no faults. I have discovered in myself a desire for the Infinite, and the task of saying to everyone, “Come!”