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Peter Lownds: Co-Founder of Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA Translates Recent Brazilian Novel of Youthful Rebellion

By Joanie Harmon

SSCE alumnus contributed chapter on formative years of the Brazilian educator and activist to “The Wiley Handbook of Paulo Freire.” 

When Peter Lownds joined the Peace Corps after graduating from Yale with his bachelor’s degree in English, little did he know that his time in Pernambuco would lead to a lifelong love of the Brazilian culture and literary tradition. Recently, the UCLA alumnus (’06, Ph.D., Social Sciences and Comparative Education; ’97, M.A., Latin American Studies) translated a novel, “Never-Ending Youth,” (A Mais Longa Duração Da Juventude) by Brazilian journalist and novelist Urariano Mota, who looks back on his youth and those of a half dozen close friends and comrades who go underground in Recife and Olinda to fight the last Brazilian dictatorship from 1969-1972. “Never-Ending Youth” was released this summer by International Publishers. 

Lownds was 56 when he decided to go back to college and earn his master’s degree in Latin American studies at UCLA, which was when he met Professor of Education Carlos Alberto Torres, who was at that time a Freirian scholar in the UCLA Department of Education and director of the university’s Latin American Center. Under Torres’ leadership, Lownds’ interest in Brazilian history and the teachings of Paulo Freire led him to become one of the graduate student founders and first program officer of the Paulo Freire Institute at UCLA. 

Lownds contributed a chapter on Freire’s early life and translated three other chapters in “The Wiley Handbook of Paulo Freire,” which was released in 2019. He currently contributes articles and translates articles and op-eds from the Brazilian press about the large-scale destruction of the Brazilian equatorial forest under the Bolsonaro government to People’s World.  

Lownds’ most recent publications include “Art in the Moment: Life and Times of Adger Cowans,” an autobiography of the African American fine art photographer, as told to Lownds. Cowans is a member of the Kamoinge Workshop, an artists’ collective dedicated to showing the African Diaspora though photography, which was established in 1963. 

What led to your interest in Latin American studies?

I went to Yale during the Vietnam War. Then I enlisted for what was called “alternative service” in the U.S. Peace Corps. We trained in Chicago, intensive language studies. I knew when I wrote my first poem in Portuguese that [it] was the language of my heart.

I went to Pernambuco. I lived in a community of 5,000 people in a mangrove swamp favela near Olinda, where Paulo Freire had been thrown in jail after the U.S.-backed military coup in 1964. 

Catholic worker priests and a liberatory Archbishop of Recife and Olinda, Dom Helder Câmara, were among the few remaining resistors to the conservative generals. This was around the time of the 1968 Medellín Conference when the progressive, community-based views of Câmara and Paulo Arns in São Paulo [took hold] and the Latin America Catholic Church became the shepherd of the fruit workers and peasants who were suffering grievously not only in Brazil but in most of Central and South America.

Brazil at that time had 70 million people – it now has 210 million, so the population has tripled in the last half century. There was no birth control available to the women apart from keeping track of their menses and many of the poorest people had never been to school and could not do that. Women were having having 8, 10, or 12 children and the men who sired them were itinerant peddlers, sugarcane cutters, fishermen. They begged us Peace Corps workers for any kind of contraception but when someone provided it they were considered ‘foreign agitators’ trying to depopulate the largest country in Latin America which had hardly enough people to open up its vast hinterlands—this was the view of the military “stewards” of Brazil who had assumed power in what seemed, at first, a “bloodless” coup d’état but later used torture, exile and assassination to keep their most vehement critics at bay.

Living through some of this with people who had to reinvent themselves every morning opened my eyes, my ears, and my heart. I said to myself, I've got to do something with this language, with this culture, with this feeling I have so I can contribute to the betterment and the welfare of people I learned to love. I have two large and growing families in Brazil, one in the northeast and one in the south, but I haven’t been back in over a decade. This is partly due to the growth of my own family, as I now have teenage grandchildren. 

But I write and translate in English, Spanish and Portuguese and that has helped me stay in touch with what’s happening. I translate from Spanish and Portuguese into English, and I'm working to the point now where I think I can take an English text and translate it into Portuguese which may increase my reach. 

How was your graduate student experience at UCLA?

UCLA opened a door for me that I could not have imagined. I applied for admission to the Latin American Studies M.A. program in 1996 because some of my friends knew I was writing a novel with a Brazilian background – and doing a lot of research so it would bear the mark of authenticity. “Why don’t you go back to school?” they asked. It was a very good question and they wrote me letters of recommendation, apparently convincing, on my behalf. 

I enjoyed my years in Westwood. It took me almost eight to get my M.A. and my doctorate. I was in the SSCE program from 1998 to 2006. My dissertation was published in 2006. I was the School of Education’s valedictory speaker for the Commencement exercises in Spring, 2005. 

I went back to Olinda, my Peace Corps site, and did a total of five months total of data collection, travelling around the green sea of sugarcane in what they call the agreste with a group of teacher-trainers from the Federal University of Pernambuco, trained by Professor João Francisco de Souza, a man very close to my age who had worked in the People’s Culture Movement as a teenager and who was a dyed-in-the wool-Freirian. With João Francisco’s help, I was able to complete my field work and write a 450-page qualitative dissertation based on interviews that needed to be translated and transcribed from dozens of interviews. It is based on portraiture, interviews with teachers who sometimes worked at three schools because they made so little money - the equivalent of $60 a month - at each. But they believed in something. 

Freire, who died in May of 1997, didn’t want acolytes – “Don’t try to continue my work” was the gist of it. “Reinvent me in a neoliberal context.” And that’s what this special group of teacher/activists was struggling to do under João Francisco’s tutelage. I was fascinated with them and felt very close to them. I traveled with them and watched them teach other teachers to teach unlettered canecutters between harvests.

What was your contribution to “The Wiley Handbook of Paulo Freire”?

My dissertation committee was comprised of Patricia McDonough, Peter McLaren, Robert Rhoads, my “outside scholar,” Edward Telles (from Sociology) and my chair, Carlos A. Torres. They gave me a great boost when they recognized that this was not something I was writing so I could get a tenure track position at a university at the age of 62. It was my non-fictional Brazil book and I still use it in all kinds of way and for all kinds of reasons. 

The chapter I wrote is called, “Wake Up and Dream: A Polyphonic Contextualization of Paulo Freire.” It’s the one chapter in the book that goes back into his childhood, exploring Freire’s roots. He was born and raised in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco. He was very thin as a young adolescent, looked neurasthenic. They had to move after the crash in sugar prices that accompanied the worldwide depression of 1929-30, to what was then a distant suburb, Jaboatão dos Guararapes, where there was a famous factory where they made simple cotton clothes. Paulo was a twelve-year-old when he suffered twin traumas: his father’s death and the family’s subsequent fall from the middle and exile from the capital to the agreste. His father was a policeman and a spiritist, a follower of the French Rosicrucian, Auguste Comte. His mother was a homemaker and a Roman Catholic. He was also a mestiço, as people of mixed race were called in Brazil – it’s an interesting thing to know about Freire who is generally seen as white but, in the meridional sun of his native city, turned cocoa brown within days.

I was introduced to Freire in Brazil, because people were still talking about him – I got there in 1966 and he was exiled in 1964. When I got to my first year in the Latin American studies program at UCLA in 1997, Carlos made an announcement that [he had] 600 pages of the unpublished writings of Paulo Freire who had died that year. 

I made a point of going over to Carlos, who was then the director of the Latin American studies program. I knocked on his door, and I said, “Listen, I speak and write Portuguese, and I believe I can translate. I would like to help you put some of those pages into English.” He said, “Give me a sample.”

I gave him a sample, and he said okay, and then handed me a book of 25 chapters that he and Moacir Gadotti, the head of the Paulo Freire Institute of São Paulo, had put together after the First Paulo Freire biannual Forum in São Paulo in 1997. The third one was here at UCLA in 2001 and, as program officer of the just-founded PFI, which was midwifed into being by Professor Daniel Solórzano, I was able to play a key epistolary role, corresponding with all the South American conferees in Spanish and Portuguese. The last, Forum XII, was in 2021 in Paris. 

Studying at UCLA, I was in touch with a lot of wonderful Brazilian scholars, most [of them] invited by Carlos to come and speak to our RAC, the Research Apprenticeship Course, as “exemplary scholars.” It was a way for grad students to play an important part in a scholarly event: plan it, produce it, get to know people from other departments and cultures, and also, once the guests had spoken to us, to keep track of where we were and where we needed to go with our dissertations.

It is a great honor to be one of an international group of Freirian historians, many of whom are represented as chapter authors in the Wiley Handbook. Intellectuals are human beings first and I tried to look at the most human and fallible side of Paulo Freire in Chapter 4—the traumatized youth about to become a nascent intellectual. It’s an interesting story. As an undergraduate at Yale, I had met the exiled Black Brazilian intellectual Abdias Nascimento and translated and interpreted for him. Abdias, who was born and raised in Franca, Minas Gerais and Paulo were friends-in-exile, both poets and educators. They met in New York and again in Guinea-Bissau, Africa when Freire was sent there as a roving ambassador of literacy by the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

How has the value your father placed on education shaped you?

I wasn’t an industrious undergraduate. I knew I was meant to be an artist and didn't have a scholarly focus. But I managed to get into Yale and that was enough for my immigrant father.

I had been on the waiting list and my father, who was a German Jewish refugee, always said, “You can go any place you want, son, but I’ll only pay for Yale or Harvard.” 

I was working at a summer job in Grand Central Station, as a salesperson at Doubleday bookshop. I took the train in from Long Island every morning. I was behind the counter when the phone rang. I picked it up, and it was my father. He was very excited, more excited than I’d ever heard him. 

“We got in, we got in!” he exulted. 

“Where did we get in?”

“To Yale! You got in to Yale. This is a sure sign of my success in America.”

When I got my diploma from Yale, I had it framed. I presented it to my father. He put it over his bed, and it hung there until he died, in 1995. I went to his home after he passed and reclaimed it. He didn't much care what I did [at Yale]. He was skeptical when I told him I wanted to act. But he was the one who knew it was important to get a good education. Yale and UCLA are top-of-the-line schools. I’ve been fortunate enough study in both. The difference is that, by the time I got to UCLA, I was ready, willing, and able to focus on what I loved, Popular Education and Afro-Atlantic Lusophone literature. 

It takes a long time to inculcate and use information gathered from books, life experience and contact with extraordinary people of all races, classes and cultures. It takes even longer to do what Paulo Freire thought was so important—to be able to enter into meaningful dialogues with people, where the heart and the mind coalesce and you're really talking from what we sometimes call “the soul.” Because you're talking from where the head and the heart and the gut coalesce—a place of intellect, yes, but also one of insight, intuition, and the need to serve others. You’re collaborating with a group of people, not necessarily like-minded but open to the world and interested in learning more about how it works and how you can change it.

Something is born which you may or may not even realize. But it’s only possible through collaboration, through friendship. Eventually, your courage and your ability make a deal. Both will be available to you for the rest of your life if you take the time to test them, weekly, daily, hourly.

Contact Peter Lownds for more information or to purchase copies of  “Never-Ending Youth” and “Art in the Moment: Life and Times of Adger Cowans.”

The opinions and viewpoints in this article are those of the interview subject(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and viewpoints of the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies or of the UCLA's faculty, staff, students, and alumni.


Photo by Jorge Vismara