The 1988 Brazilian constitution recognizes the right to a public and
free education of youths and adults and sets 1998 as the year for the country to
"universalize basic education and eradicate illiteracy." Yet among the
industrialized countries, Brazil has the dubious distinction of having one of the highest
illiteracy rates at 20 percent.
By Nelly P Stromquist
Brazil, the largest of the Latin American countries, in many ways reads like the Guinness
Book of World Records. Brazil accounts for about 45 percent of all industrial
production in Latin America. It is recognized as one of the strongest economies in the
world, producing a GNP of $467 billion in 1990 (in 1980 US dollars) and a per capita
income of $3,102, considerably larger than that of many developing countries (SMP 1992a).
In the last fifty years Brazil has shifted from being a mostly rural population to
becoming an urban society. This was fueled by a tremendous industrial growth, which took
the country from 49th place among the world economies in 1945 to between 10th and 8th
place in 1980. An important segment of its industrial profile is comprised of production
for export. This, in turn, is based on an antiquated system of landholding that promotes
not social development but merely economic growth. Reflecting this imbalance, Brazil is
the world’s fourth largest exporter of food but occupies 49th place in health provision.
Industrialization, which has been praised particularly in Brazil, is capital
intensive now. The splendid factories employ fewer and fewer workers. This reality partly
accounts for the maldistribution of the wealth created through industrialization (Burns
1993, p. 3).
With greater wealth, Brazil has experienced an increase in the concentration of income.
According to Tourain (1988), 1 percent of the economically active population received 11.9
of the GNP in 1960, a percentage which increased to 14.7 percent in 1970, and further
increased to 16.9 percent in 1980. The severe disparity in the country’s income
distribution has resulted in the top 20 percent of the population earning 26 times as much
as the bottom 20 percent. Tourain also observes that threefourths of the rural inhabitants
live below the poverty line. In the city, poverty is also present, if in less visible
ways. According to one GRG (grassroots group) and labor leader, "The number of favelados
(slum dwellers) grows all the time. We have a great deal of misinformation. Lots of
people do not believe the economic situation of the poor. Sixtyeight percent of the
popular classes in Brazil live with less than three minimum salaries." Official
statistics corroborate this assessment: thirty million Brazilians live below the minimum
wage (about $70 a month in July 1993 and $65 in August 1994). Data from household surveys
found that in 1981 the poorer 50 percent of the population received 4.5 percent of the
national income, a figure that was further reduced to 3.5 percent in 1989 (PNAD/89).
It is estimated that about 32 million people suffer from hunger. Cynical observers
maintain that the market economy caters to some 40 million consumers in the nation and
forgets the rest. Poverty is not always visible to those in other walks of life. And yet
conditions may be extremely dismal. At a Catholic church meeting on hunger I attended in
São Paulo, one of the priests mentioned that people who retrieve food from garbage cans
during the day are finding it increasingly difficult to find it because someone else is
picking the leftovers at night.
Poverty breeds corruption. It is estimated that of the 80 million Brazilian voters,
only 8 million earn enough to pay income taxes. This particular feature places immense
social pressure on the political system and leads politicians to engage in unrealistic
promises to "save the country." It both fosters and maintains clientelism in the
performance of political actions.
The constitution recognizes the right to a public and free education of youths and
adults, thus modifying the previous inclusive age of 714 years of age. It sets 1998 as the
year for the country to "universalize basic education and eradicate illiteracy."
The constitution calls for a minimum of 18 percent of federal funds and 25 percent of
state and municipality revenues to be allocated to educational expenses and states that 50
percent of these resources are to be allocated to literacy and basic education. The
constitution also increases the revenues of municipalities by 30 percent through revenues
from their own taxes or through tax transfers, thus increasing their capacity to invest in
education if they so wished (Haddad et al. 1993, p. 3).
Among the industrialized countries, Brazil has the dubious distinction of having one of
the highest illiteracy rates at 20 percent. Educational statistics indicate almost 100
percent in the gross enrollment rate in primary schooling and an equally high rate for
secondary schooling. But these statistics also indicate that about 60 percent of those who
enter school do not finish the primary cycle. Also, gross enrollment statistics mask a
large number of children of school age who never enter the educational system. In 1980,
approximately 80 percent of the Brazilian population 15 years old or more did not have
complete basic education (eight years of primary schooling), which according to the
current Brazilian constitution (enacted in 1988) is the right of every citizen (SME
Brazil, as most Latin American countries, shows a very small gap between male and
female enrollment in primary and secondary school. In fact, at the secondary level there
are slightly more women enrolled, a phenomenon derived from women’s being
"tracked" into secondary vocational schools offering teaching degrees and
reflected in the large number of women teachers (Fort et al. 1994, p. 143). The gender gap
in literacy is very small.
It favors men, as the percentage of illiterates for the country as a whole is 19.84
percent for men and 20.27 percent for women. A similar pattern characterizes the focus of
our study, the municipality of São Paulo, where the illiteracy rate is 6.36 for men and
8.56 for women (Census 1991). Given the imprecision of the definition of literacy, the
decimals in these proportions are misleading. The best conclusion is that illiteracy rates
in Brazil are about the same for men and women. But, as we will see in this study, the
dynamics that affect women’s literacy seem to be quite different from those constraining
men’s access to literacy.
Illiteracy in Brazil has a number of historical roots. A large proportion of its
population only six generations ago were slaves and thus faced an existence of
exploitation. As noted above, the country also has a very uneven income distribution.
Further, the country ranks very high among the nations of the world for concentration of
land ownership. It is estimated that less than 2 percent of the people control 50 percent
of the land. In the Brazilian context, the existence of many small lots has created a
population of peasant families who eke out a demanding and meager living from their
physical work, leaving little time for other endeavors, including education.
Progressive educators attribute illiteracy in Brazil to the poor’s need to work from
childhood to help the family, to the lack of schools in rural areas and lack of spaces in
rural and urban schools, to the authoritarianism and elitism in public schools that
rejects children from lowincome sectors, and to the inability of parents to send children
to private schools (MOVA October 1989). Illiteracy is also attributed to the poor coverage
by the public educational system. It is estimated that about 7.5 million children were out
of school in the 714 age group in 1989 (Santos 1993). Not only are many children of
compulsory attendance age not in school, but the investment in these schools is low, which
results in a constant shortage of qualified teachers, scarcity of textbooks and
instructional materials, short school days, administrative inefficiencies, and curricular
and pedagogical rigidities that produce extremely high rates of grade repetition and
dropout (Plank et al. 1994). Regional differences in educational investment persist, as
the gap between enrollment rates in northeastern and southeastern states in 1980 was found
to be larger than in 1940 (Plank 1987, cited in Plank et al. 1994).
The serious interregional differences in wealth and access to schooling are reflected
in enormous differences in literacy rates. A nationwide household survey conducted in 1990
found that only 7.6 percent of population ten years old or older in the state of São
Paulo had less than one year of schooling or no schooling at all, in contrast with states
in the northeast such as Alagoas and Ceará, whose corresponding percentages were 29.3 and
29.1 percent (cited in Haddad et al. 1993, p. 15). Rosemberg (1994) calculated that
according to the 1991 census data, illiteracy rates can be as low as 0.4 percent among
those in 1519 years of age whose families earn more than two minimum salaries in Rio
Grande do Sul and as high as 84.3 percent among those in ages 79 living in the Northeast
and in families with incomes equivalent to onefourth of the minimum wage.
Education in Brazil is divided into federal, state, and municipal responsibilities. The
assignments correspond to the prestige of educational levels: the universities depend on
the federal government (except for the state of São Paulo which, being wealthier than
other states, has assumed a leading role for its universities), secondary education
depends on the state government, and primary education is shared by the state and the
local government or municipality. Occasionally, both state and federal governments run
literacy programs. Municipalities with the largest resources and the more progressive
governments tend to invest more in literacy. This is the case for programs in cities such
as Diadema, Santo André, and São Bernardo (comprising some of the most active industrial
sectors of São Paulo), which serve working populations that tend to identify with
political parties having a socialist agenda.
The federal government has had periods of varying interest in literacy. When the
military took power in 1964, it destroyed a literacy movement using the ideas of Paulo
Freire that was to have been implemented nationwide by the ousted civilian regime. The
military replaced it with another program, more suitable to their
"modernization" objectives. This was MOBRAL (19681986), which was a massive
campaign lasting about eighteen years. When Brazil entered a period of democratic
transition, MOBRAL was replaced by EDUCAR (19861990). This program did not possess its own
implementing machinery; rather, it funded directly agencies and groups implementing
literacy programs and provided them with no technical assistance. EDUCAR ended in March
1990, at the beginning of the Collor administration, with no explanation.
In August 1990, the federal government under Collor announced the National Program for
Literacy and Citizenship (Programa Nacional de Alfabetização e Cidadania; PNAC). Its
objective was to reduce the number of illiterates in Brazil by 70 percent within five
years (i.e., to render literate 6 million youths in ages 714 and 25 million adults older
than fifteen years of age). This program was to have wide citizen participation and
national mobilization. Substantial funds were to come through loans from the World Bank ($
350 million) and the InterAmerican Bank (Boletim do GETA June 1991). Some funds
apparently were released, following the pronouncement of criteria that seemed to pave the
way for future votes rather than respond to literacy needs. In November 1990, there was an
agreement between the federal Ministry of Education and the 69member Council of Rectors of
Brazilian Universities (Conselho de Reitores das Universidades Brasileiras) concerning the
implementation of PNAC. Reportedly this agreement involved 850 million cruzeiros (Haddad
et al. 1993, p. 6). When Collor’s government became mired under impeachment procedures and
the president resigned, the PNAC program faded away. It is not known what was implemented
through the agreement of November 1990. The federal government had promised $1 billion to
finance internships of youngsters and literacy programs, but "very little of that
money has reached its destination" (Time August 9, 1993, p. 37). The same
journal quotes community activists as saying, "There is no respect for these
[literacy and related] programs because they don’t bring votes for anyone." Official
but rhetorical interest in literacy continues to be present in educational policies. A
content analysis by Haddad and Di Pierro (1994) of national plans and special commission
reports during the past decade found that these documents reaffirmed basic education as a
right of youth and adults and a state duty. Contradictorily, very little was identified in
these plans at the operational level for the implementation of basic education programs.
In 1985, 0.16 percent of the federal education budget was allotted to adult education.
Coverage of adult education by state budgets is not much better, as their total average is
0.79 percent, reaching, at most 5 percent in states where it is truly needed, such as
Maranhão (SME 1989c).
Despite statelevel responsibilities for education, many states give little attention to
literacy. For instance, in 1991 the state of São Paulo decided not to expand places for supletivo
(as evening primary and secondary education programs are called, which serve older
children and adults) due to its concern for universalizing basic education for children.
This policy of non-expansion, when there is practically no regular basic education at
night time in the state networks, was considered to affect negatively the educational
opportunities of some 7.5 million young and adult workers living in the state who have
little or no schooling (Haddad et al. 1993, p. 4). It can be asserted that in many cases
literacy programs emerge today from pressure by people in need rather than through
Parallel to the lack of interest and support for adult literacy in the public education
system is the sparse literacy research that goes on in universities. This is also a
function of the low importance given to adult education as a field of study. Only three
universities in Brazil offer specializations in adult education (the federal universities
of Paraíba, Rio Grande do Sul, and Rio Grande do Norte), and only one university
(Espírito Santo) offers a course to train teachers in literacy using Freire’s method
(Haddad 1989). At present there is no curriculum area in normal schools (which train
primary school teachers) to develop teachers with competencies in adult literacy.
The daily circulation of newspapers in Brazil gives an insight into access and use of
print. Table 1 shows the number of daily newspapers in the country, their daily
circulation, and the estimated newspaper circulation per 1000 inhabitants. It can be
observed that in terms of individual readership, few newspapers are available to
Brazilians as only 55 per 1000 persons may read/buy them on a given day. The number, which
has increased only slightly between 1975 and 1992, compares unfavorably to that of
Argentinawhich has a circulation rate of 144/1000 (1992 data) and a literacy rate of
94 percent (1980 data). The Brazilian rate compares most negatively with Finland, the
country with the largest readership in the world (which has a circulation rate of
515/1000), and US (circulation rate of 240/1000). Presenting complementary statistics,
Tourain affirms that in 1980 fewer than 4 percent of the Brazilian population read a daily
Number and Circulation of
Daily Newspapers in Brazil
Year …………# of Newsp……….Circ. in 1000s ……..Circ. per 1000
1975 ………….289 …………………4653 …………………..43
1980…………. 343 …………………5482………………….. 45
1985 ………….322 …………………6534………………….. 48
1992 ………….373 …………………8500………………….. 55
Source: UNESCO Statistical Yearbook 1994, pp. 782 and 783.
Illiteracy in Brazil is particularly dramatic when we consider that Brazil also has
many educated people. Employers are constantly asking for higher levels of education. It
is unclear whether these demands have increased because the uses of reading and writing
are more needed in the performance of previous manual tasks or because employers, having
access to individuals with greater levels of education, want to use the more qualified
labor force (Haddad 1992a). Whatever reason may be at work, persons with low reading and
writing skills become easy targets for lowpaid jobs with no social security or workers’
GRGs in Brazil, which are large in number because of their previous work of resistance
during the military dictatorship and their close affiliation with numerous Catholic
community groups (particularly the Comunidades Eclesiais de Base), have mobilized
themselves for education in the past. Usually their struggle has sought the expansion of
primary schooling. In other cases they have aimed at the expansion of secondary schools
and the creation of supletivo classes so that overage students may complete their
education. This is discussed further in the next chapter.
MOVA as a StateCivil
We must systematize our experience so that others in this country may take our
experience as a point of departure, benefit from our testimony, and move forward (R
Freire, statement in a MOVA video program, 1991).
One literacy program of particular interest from a pedagogical and political
perspective is MOVA (Movimento de Alfabetização de Jovens e Adultos), implemented in the
city of São Paulo from January 1989 to December 1993.
I "discovered" the existence of the MOVA initiative during a visit to Brazil
in 1989. At that time I was conducting a feasibility study for the creation of an
international literacy center and contacted numerous literacy programs, both in
governmental agencies and in NGOs, to gain an appreciation of the types of functions they
performed and their needs. MOVA impressed me with its innovative features, especially its
"emancipatory literacy" objectives and the ample participation of grassroots
groups. The fact that Paulo Freirethe architect of "emancipatory
literacy"was the secretary of education for the municipality of São Paulo,
where MOVA was taking place, further added interest to MOVA as a case study.
Given my longstanding interest in gender issues, my original research questions about
MOVA revolved around two key issues: (a) how does an emancipatory literacy program treat
womenthat is to say, what mechanisms are put in place for issues of attendance,
retention, content of materials, and instructional methodologies; and (b) how does
emancipatory literacy benefit women? Specifically, how do women renegotiate relations
within household and community? What changes take place in their lives following a greater
The first research visit to the program, in MayJune 1991, revealed that nothing had
been designed or was in place with the specific aim of addressing women’s conditions or
needs. The program, however, had a number of characteristics that appealed to women
My research questions then underwent change to focus instead on gaining an
understanding of the factors that made it possible for women to participate in MOVA, the
type of experience they had in literacy classes, and the uses and meanings they had for
the literacy skills they developed through MOVA participation. While my focus was narrow,
i.e., centered only on the women’s experience and emphasizing the women’s perspective, it
became clear over time that I could not treat participation in MOVA without understanding
MOVA’s existence and its insertion in the public sphere of the city of São Paulo itself.
This focus, of a larger scope, was further reinforced by the grassroots groups themselves,
who in frequent exchanges with this researcher would mention important dynamics affecting
program functioning that lay beyond the perceptions of the literacy learners but which in
various ways affected them. The research process, therefore, has been one of progressive
unfolding and unveiling of actors, events, and experiences.
1. MOVA Features
From an analytical perspective, MOVA offers high promise for the understanding of
literacy programs for adults because of the following features:
(a) its massive nature, affecting the entire city of São Pauloa rather unusual
feature in literacy programs conducted under nonrevolutionary conditions;
(b) the strong role of grassroots organizations in the design and implementation of the
program, making MOVA an instance of change using the partnership principle between state
and civil society, and thus evincing greater and more extensive levels of participation
than in other literacy programs;
(c) reasonable financial and technical support by the government (in this case the
(d) the presence of emancipatory objectives for literacy, as the key aim of the project
was the creation of new citizens for the "construction of a democratic and popular
alternative, the radical transformation of political structures and social
(e) a relatively sustained effort, as the program was conceived from the time the
Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores; PT) administration governed the city of São
Paulo and its classes were offered for three years; and
(f) MOVA enjoyed the intellectual support of Paulo Freire, a renowned educator who
served as the city’s secretary of education during the first two years of the MOVA
As a result of an evolution in my thinking, this study seeks two objectives. At one
level, it aims to understand how gender shapes the acquisition and use of literacy
knowledge. Gender may express itself through the factors that promote or deter women from
participating in literacy programs, the objectives the women seek through literacy, the
meanings they see in the instructional practice, and the way the literacy knowledge
contributes to changes in selfimage and relations with others in the household and the
At another level, the study provides a case study of a grassroots literacy movement in
a process that bears promise for the expansion of education and the reduction of
illiteracy. The need for the participation of organized citizens in the provision of
education has become increasingly real, particularly now that not only are governments
beleaguered by demands to expand the educational system but situations of financial crisis
confront many developing nations. This study describes the way in which a major literacy
movement implemented its literacy program, its relations with the government that
sponsored it, and its efforts to ensure satisfactory performance and survival.
I should make it clear that this study is not an evaluation of the MOVA program. My
interest is not to judge MOVA’s success or failure in attaining its stated objectives, but
rather to use the program as a terrain from which to examine social and political dynamics
that impinge on literacy. While I do refer to the entire program at the level of
governance and management and review various links between the program and the educational
bureaucracy, my study covers only one of the six urban regions in which MOVA operated; it
is based on the experience of four of the seventyfive grassroots groups that took part in
MOVA; and the emphasis is on the program impact on women, not on program impact on
multiple actors and institutions, as a conventional evaluation would have been.
2. The Context
The city of São Paulo is surprisingly orderly for its size and constant motion. What
is known as the metropolitan region of São Paulo comprises thirty-eight municipalities
and is home to between fifteen and eighteen million inhabitants. The municipality of São
Paulo proper had ten million inhabitants according to the 1990 census. In the daytime,
with the influx of workers, it swells to thirteen million.
Large as it is, the city gains 300,000 inhabitants per year. About forty-six percent of
São Paulo’s residents come from other states, and eighteen percent of its inhabitants
come from the Northeast, many of them dislodged from the fields by the expansion of
agroindustries and their insatiable claim for land.
While getting a factory job is increasingly difficult in São Paulo, those who join the
labor market are paid wages considerably higher than those in other sectors.
Inflationwhich hovered at 2025 percent per month until mid1994created the "favelization"
of many in the working class. It is estimated that about eight percent of the city of
São Paulo lived in favelas by 1987. And even the former working class
elitethe automobile assembly workersare poor today: a recent publication found
that 2500 of the 9800 Ford factory workers in São Paulo (26 percent of the total) lived
in favelas (Notícias Populares June 15, 1992).
As a city, São Paulo is awesome on many counts. With large avenues and gigantic parks,
numerous highrise buildings, and an intense pace, São Paulo goes to sleep late and wakes
up early in the morning with the sounds of building construction and remodeling. Hard
statistics indicate that the city occupies 0.1 percent of the Brazilian territory but that
it comprises ten percent of its population and generates twentyfive percent of its
revenues (Prefeitura do Município de São Paulo 1992). Its budget is the fourth largest
in Latin Americalarger than that of many countries in the region. Wealthy by most
standards, the municipal government has a diversified source of income, with 35.9 percent
of its revenues originating in the municipality itself, fortyone percent coming from state
transfers, and 3.6 percent from federal sources. For all its size and power, São Paulo is
vulnerable to external politics since the substantial state revenues are oftentimes
manipulated by state authorities (delays in remittances is a common tactic) whenever they
want to exert pressure or express displeasure with events and conditions in the city.
A modern and vibrant city, São Paulo has all the features associated with urban
living: a large network of public transportation, many newspapers, numerous jobs in
manufacturing and service, a strong presence of TV and radio programming, abundant print
messages in posters, street and traffic signs, store names, and electronic billboards. It
possesses two of the best universities in the country, the University of São Paulo (USP)
and the Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC)both institutions of high
intellectual display and productivity. It also has a good network of public schools,
certainly more schools and better teachers than other parts of the country.
Current observers of the city as an educating setting have (see, for instance,
Ajuntamento de Barcelona 1990) remarked that the city has become the central hub of all
types of communications but note also that "the most anguished solitude" is to
be found in cities because modern mass media promote unidirectional messages while making
it difficult for individuals to transmit messages of their own (Moles Batllori 1990, p.
In terms of exposure to print, written messages are inescapable. Posters and brochures
proliferate in the commercial areas. In residential neighborhoods, bannersa
widespread custom in Brazilian cultureannounce all kinds of information: from a
special sale of Tshirts, to the schedule for registration in a vocational school, to a
missing dog for which a good reward is available. There are 89 publications in the
Municipality of São Paulo, 14 percent of these appear daily and 36 percent weekly (SME
Despite the omnipresent print, according to the 1991 census data, there are about one
million illiterates in São Paulo, which translates into an official illiteracy rate of 14
percent for those aged five or older. Those without access to print cope with an uncertain
world, relying on colors and shapes, and a few isolated letters for recognition of buses
and streets. Illiteracy exists because there is a large segment of people who are poor,
used by the economic system and unattended by the political system. Another reason is the
insufficient schools and educational programs for younger people. The steady migration
from poorer and less educated regions of the country to the industrial magnet of São
Paulo further compounds the problem.
For many of those who work in an urban setting, access to knowledge is tantalizingly
close yet prohibitive. For those who work, distances tend to be considerable and the time
spent going from home to work is often measured in hours. The municipality is about fifty
km. from east to west and seventy km. from north to south. There is a lively public
transportation system with a dense network of buses, trains, and subways. But while
everybody is served and one can go practically anywhere using public transportation, the
main cost is that of time. The city has about 10,000 buses and many of them connect in
ingenious ways with metro stations. But there are only forty km. of metro, so many people
(about 71 percent) must take buses or make timeconsuming busmetro connections (Rolnik et
al. 1990, pp. 156 and 199; SMP 1992b).
While people from diverse statuses and job positionscorporations, banks,
factories, domestic service, and street marketscross paths everyday, this proximity
is superficial. People with low skills and low salaries live in different worlds from
those of middle and upper classes. The access to print is like the access to
schoolpossible but highly unlikely. Not all of those living in the peripheral areas
of the city have access to education. Approximately 300,000 of the children in São Paulo
are not enrolled in school, most often not because they do not want schooling but because
the system has no place for them. For adults, the situation is worse since most resources
go to serve primary schooling. Even young adults seeking to complete secondary education
have problems finding schools that will accept them.
Different illiteracy rates have been attached to the Municipality of São Paulo.
Statistical data for 1980 indicate that the city had 645,100 illiterates, producing a rate
of 9.6 percent (using the definition of those who are five years or older and cannot read
or write; cited in Haddad et al. 1993, p. 17). Ten years later, the Municipal Secretary of
Education (Secretaria Municipal de Educacão; SME) reported 1.5 million illiterates for
the metropolitan region of São Paulo (SME 1990a). Other estimates for 1989 report 1
million of adults without schooling and 2.5 million youths and adults with less than four
years of schooling (SME 1989a).
The problem of illiteracy is not limited to those who have never been to school. Many
of those who have attended public school for a few years sometimes read as poorly as those
who, without schooling, have nevertheless managed to make sense of a few printed signs in
their everyday life.
The fate of those in literacy programs is usually negative in that many drop out. Data
on dropouts for Supletivo I (the basic literacy classes, equivalent to grades 14 of
primary schooling, offered by either the municipality or the state) for the state of São
Paulo indicate rates ranging from 39 to 34 percent for the years 19881991 (cited in Haddad
et al. 1993, p. 31). This high dropout rate must be considered in light of the very low
enrollment in literacy programs. According to a household survey conducted in 1990, the
enrollment in the three networks providing literacy programs (state, municipal, and
private) in the state of São Paulo covered only 4.9 percent of the illiterate persons age
fifteen and over.
As in other parts of the world, São Paulo is experiencing an increasingly strong
educational devaluation. Whereas a decade ago manual service jobs could be obtained
without formal education, today large firms and even middleclass homes require workers
with several years of formal education. In this land of coffee, it is very common for
companies to have a person invariably a womanwho prepares and serves coffee
for visitors or during break times. She is the copeira. Today, some large companies
require complete primary education to be a copeira.
2.1. Zona Leste
Because São Paulo is immense, this study zeroed in on one area of the city, the
Eastern Zone (Zona Leste; pronounced zonah leschay). Formal studies identify this
area as being inhabited predominantly by lowincome people (Secretaria Municipal do
Planejamento 1990), although the southern sector of the city appears to be poorer. Zona
Leste has 3.2 million inhabitants or about thirty percent of the city’s population.
It also has more than one hundred favelas, where approximately twelve percent of
its population lives. According to studies by local groups, Zona Leste has a
population estimated to be about thirtyfive percent illiterate and fiftyfive percent
The inhabitants of Zona Leste are mostly immigrants from the Northeast.
Conditions in this area are better than in their former rural and semi-rural environments,
yet many residents face serious subsistence problems, including poor conditions in
housing, sanitation, electricity, health, and transportation. The majority of its working
population works in other parts of the city. This produces a substantial displacement of
people everyday, a dependency on and crowding of public transportation, and an isolation
of many neighborhoods, which because of the limited jobs in their area, also have few
The majority of people in Zona Leste are unskilled workers (general assistants,
maids, construction workers), lowlevel government workers, and people in the informal
sector of the economy. Seventy percent of its residents are estimated to earn a monthly
salary lower than two minimum salaries, which enables people to live only if they consume
within the informal sector of the economy. (One minimum salary was approximately $ 65 in
1994. Curiously, a "minimum wage" has become a unit of reference in reporting
salaries in Brazil.) People near the center of Zona Leste have incomes ranging from
0 to 8 minimum wages, those farther away have incomes between 0 to 4 minimum wages (SMP
As is true for the city of São Paulo as a whole, the periphery also has uneven
terrain. From a distance, the houses in Zona Leste look charming clustered on
rolling hills against a constantly blue Brazilian sky. From up close, the streets are not
always paved and some have big holes. All the houses are of brick, some covered with
plaster, and built, or mostly being built, by the owners themselves. One and twostories
high, the houses grow to accommodate emerging needs. A few houses are completethey
have painted walls and iron fences to protect residents. Most houses are at some stage of
construction, with rooms being added as incomes allow. Since they tend to be painted on
their final day of construction, most houses exhibit the concrete gray of the plaster.
Empty lots dot the neighborhoods, full of weeds and sometimes garbage. Most houses have
electricity and water and less often sewage. Open trenches, narrow and shallow, border
many of the housing blocks. In them, dirty water and human refuse flows, giving some
streets a Medieval look and smell.
Yet, the streets are not chaotic. While some are paved and some are not, they have been
clearly established with consideration of a larger urban design. The houses, though
selfbuilt, follow standards of construction and design that reveal a desire to live
decently. Looking at these houses, most of them the product of hard labor on weekend time,
one can feel the energy of people attempting to better their life. Among the stores of Zona
Leste, there are many that sell construction materials: bags of cement, bricks, doors,
windows, paint. People buy these materials in small increments, whatever they can afford
at the time. They do know that they should get what they can as soon as possible because
with inflation rates about 1500 percent a year, increases in the price of products of 10
to 20 percent per month are common, and these are not matched by increases in wages.
Judging from several houses under construction, the initial steps are to build a fence and
accumulate construction materials behind it.
Many children roam the streets. Boys play with soccer balls of all types and sizes;
they also fly very spirited kites. Some of these kites are serious fighters, carrying
broken glass in their whipping tails and able to cut rival kites to the ground. Remnants
of many kites tangled tails resembling bird nests on electrical wiresare testimony
to fights and to long hours of kite flying.
Zona Leste has been the site of many mobilization efforts by its
inhabitantsa mobilization to demand social services in areas such as land for
housing, health, and education. The inhabitants have been successful in their demands;
today these services exist even if still at precarious levels. It is estimated that
perhaps more than 85 percent of the people active in these efforts have been women, even
though the coordination of the various popular movements is in the hands of men.
According to several of the most tenured and important leaders of Zona Leste,
the community began to mobilize itself in 1984 around demands for land for housing.
During this mobilization they realized that illiterates would not be able to obtain land
because they were not able to sign a property title. Also, the mobilization found that
many families had been evicted from their lands because they had signed the wrong papers.
Literacy demands thus emerged in connection with land acquisition, as a means to cope with
governmental rules. The Literacy Movement of Zona Leste gained literacy
experience when it signed an agreement with the thenexisting federal literacy program,
EDUCAR, for running twentyfive nuclei. EDUCAR provided only funds, not training. The
movement trained its own teachers.
Zona Leste’s mobilization in education has focused on the demand for more
primary schools, the expansion of high school classes, and the provision of preschool
services for children. The women have never mobilized to demand literacy training for
themselves, although obviously there is a need for this.
Excerpted from Literacy for CitizenshipGender and Grassroots
Dynamics in Brazil by Nelly P. Stromquist, State University of New York Press, 1997,
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