Two brothers were close companions throughout their lives. Only a few years apart in age, they were abandoned by their illiterate father and raised by their heroic single mother. The older brother became active in leftist politics as a young worker, joining the Communist Party in 1971, but he could never persuade his younger brother to join any political groups.
The younger brother was mostly interested in earning a living and building a family. He reluctantly acceded to his brothers’ urgings to join the metalworkers union, and later became involved in the union’s social services department.
His contacts with workers persuaded him that the time was ripe for a mass movement operating in the public. He urged his brother to join him in open confrontation with the authorities, but his senior brother remained loyal to the Party’s strategy of building a clandestine organization.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the younger brother, became a public figure as a non-political union leader from the working class. He focused on the workers’ concerns, not on political ideology, and led a series of massive strikes.
He only became openly political when the Workers’ Party was formed in 1980. He went on to become a national political leader and to serve two years as President of Brazil. Frei Chico, his older brother, remained loyal to the Communist Party which did not permit its activists to join the Workers’ Party.
It wasn’t the Workers’ Party that kept him out; it was the Communists who believed that the democratization movement would be crushed and that only a clandestine network would survive.
Frei Chico wasn’t so sure that the Party was right, but he was loyal to his comrades who had supported him through many difficult times. Later in life, he regretted this decision, believing that if he had joined the Workers’ Party in 1980 he might well have had a career in politics, perhaps serving as a federal deputy.
But he doesn’t think he could have rivaled Lula’s career. Frei Chico was the first to recognize Lula’s tremendous personal charisma and gift for leadership, and to urge him to run for the governing board of the metalworkers union when the union needed someone from his factory. Lula wasn’t much interested, but Frei Chico and his friends talked him into it.
Lula found the acrimony of union politics disquieting at first, but with time he was drawn into it. Frei Chico kept dragging him to union meetings and encouraging him to take courses. After Lula’s wife’s death in childbirth, union activities were something to distract him and get him out of the house.
The union offered short courses on topics such as labor law, leadership skills and workers’ rights. Lula signed up for just about every course that was offered, and read heavily in union newspapers and pamphlets.
He also took courses on marriage enrichment through the union’s social services department. With all these courses, he was gradually filling in the gap he felt from not having had more schooling.
Lula had a knack for making friends on both sides of factional disputes within the union. There were important strategic issues. The more conservative leaders were focused on getting benefits from the system without antagonizing the authorities. The more radical ones wanted to confront the system and demand change.
Lula saw merit on both sides, and was often able to get both sides to endorse him in union elections, or at least not to oppose him vigorously. He was naturally gregarious and always focused on practical matters rather than arguments over principle.
There are many reasons why two brothers may go in different directions. Frei Chico was a few years younger and his father was in the home when he was very small. He may have identified more closely with his father’s view of the world, while Lula was unabashedly a mother’s boy.
Their father left just before Lula was born. Lula absorbed his mother’s religious values, while Frei Chico was and remains more secular despite his nickname. Frei means Friar in Portuguese, but he got that name because of his bald spot when he was a young man, not for religious reasons.
It stuck for life, despite losing much of the rest of his hair as he got older. Both Lula and Frei Chico are devoted family men and husbands. Lula was more pragmatic as a young man, Frei Chico has become more so over the years.
For more on Lula, Frei Chico and the rest of the family, as well as Lula’s associates and opponents, see my biography Brazil’s Lula: The World’s Most Popular Politician, published by BrownWalker Press, and “The Lula Paradox,” in Brazzil.com, January 2011.