Monday, May 30, 2011

I know a man...

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

A slender, elegant figure, always smoking his straw cigar, he was a pioneer. When the Italian settlers had no land to farm in the Sierra Gaúcha, they migrated in groups towards the interior of Santa Catarina, to the lands of Concórdia, known as the home of the most famous meat companies in the country, Sadia and Perdigão. There was nothing there except some mestizos, survivors of the Contestado War and the Kaingang indigenous groups. The pines ruled, sovereign, as far as the eye could see.

The Italian settlers came organized in convoys. They brought their teacher, their prayer leader and an immense desire to work and build a life from nothing. He had studied several years with the Jesuits in São Leopoldo, and had accumulated a broad humanistic knowledge. He knew Latin and Greek and read in foreign languages. He came to animate the life of that poor people. He was a school teacher and a highly respected figure of reference. He taught classes in the morning and afternoon. In the evening, he taught Portuguese to the settlers who spoke only Italian and German at home. Besides this, he opened a school for the most advanced, to train them as bookkeepers, to do the accounting for warehouses and sales in the region.

As the adults had particular difficulty in learning, he used a creative method. He became the representative of a distributor of radios and forced each family to have a radio at home, and so they learned "Brazilian" by listening to programs in Portuguese. He set up windmills and small dynamos where there was a waterfall so they could recharge their batteries. As a school teacher, he was a "Paulo Freire" before the term existed. He was able to put together a library of two thousand books. Each family would take a book home, read it, and on Sunday after the rosary in Latin, there was a circle where everyone spoke in Portuguese about what they had read and understood. We children laughed our heads off at the bad Portuguese they spoke. He taught not only the basics, but everything that a settler had to know: measuring land, how the roof of the barn should be, calculating interest, caring for the ciliary forest and treating land with steep slopes. He introduced us to the rudiments of philology, teaching us Latin and Greek words. As little ones, sitting by the fire because of the freezing cold, we had to recite the entire Greek alphabet -- alpha, beta, gamma, delta ... and later in school, it filled us with pride to show peers and teachers where words came from. He urged his eleven children to read a lot. I recited phrases of Hegel and Darwin from memory, without understanding them, to impress others.

He was a master in every sense of the word because he wasn't restricted to the four walls of the classroom. He went out with the students to contemplate nature, to explain the names of plants, the importance of water and fruit trees. In those parts of the interior, far from everything, he acted as a pharmacist. He saved dozens of lives using penicillin when they called him, often at night. He studied symptoms and how to treat diseases in technical books.

In those unknown depths of our father, there was a person distressed by political and metaphysical problems. He even created a small circle of friends who liked to discuss "serious matters", but most of all to listen to him. Without conversation partners, he read the classics of thought such as Espinoza, Hegel, Darwin, Ortega y Gasset. At night, he spent many hours glued to the radio listening to foreign programs and getting news on the Second World War.

He was critical of the Church of the priests, because they didn't respect the neighbors, all German Protestants, already doomed to the fires of Hell for not being Catholics. He sharply opposed those who discriminated against the "negriti" and the "spuzzetti" (those who smelled bad). He forced us, his children, to sit in school alongside them to learn to respect them and live with those who were different.

His piety was that of the interior. He transmitted to us a spiritual and ethical meaning of life: to be always honest, never cheat and unconditionally trust in divine Providence. So that his eleven children could study and go to university, he sold, in pieces, all the land he had or inherited. At last, he came to sell his home. His joy knew no bounds when we came home for vacation and he could debate for hours with us. And he won them all. He died young, at age 54, exhausted from so much work and service to all. He knew he would die. He dreamed about talking to Plato, arguing with St. Augustine, and being among the wise. At the same time and on the same day I left to study in Europe, his heart stopped beating. I only knew it once I was in Munich. My brothers and sisters wrote his life's motto on his tomb: "We heard it from his mouth, we learned it from his life: he who doesn't live to serve doesn't serve to live."

On May 25, 2011, he would have been one hundred years old. This school teacher, a wise man from the interior, was Mansueto Boff, my beloved and lamented father.

1 comment:

  1. As lovely a tribute to a father from a son as I have read.