In 1964, the year before Kathleen Swart Cadle ’65 traveled to Recife, Brazil, to help build schools and engage with the local community, the military overthrew the government with promises of restoring the country from a perceived drift toward communism. However, the new regime became repressive and implemented severe institutional acts that compromised the civil liberties of Brazilians.
Building schools and teaching literacy, then, became a radical act, Cadle says.
During her 50th reunion this past June, she shared with her classmates the details of this “small, but mighty” expedition and its lasting impact.
Jim Crouthamel, Cadle’s history and political science professor, had invited Cadle, along with a number of other HWS students, to join a group from Cornell United Religious Works to travel to Recife, a city in northeast Brazil two degrees south of the equator.
In June of 1965, after more than six months of instruction in Brazilian Portuguese — and trips in the Colleges’ station wagon to Ithaca to study — Cadle and the rest of the American students arrived in Brazil where they met their counterparts, 20 Brazilian university students, and saw the sites where they would work.
The students were divided into two groups, which worked in separate schools for Recife villages, Ponte Zinha and Ponte dos Carvalhos. Cadle’s group stayed at the home of a Roman Catholic priest, Padre Geraldo, who “led a torch-light parade up a steep dirt road to the top of the hill,” Cadle says, where Padre Geraldo “had claimed the land for his school.”
“He was the picture of piety,” Cadle says, recalling the priest digging a trench in a worn purple T-shirt. “He would bless babies and he wanted to teach his villagers literacy. His mother prepared all our meals, mostly beans and rice, and the priest had adopted a three year old boy, Reynaldo.”
The work was rigorous — loading bricks, hauling five-gallon pails of water from a well at the bottom of a hill to mix concrete, and building the curved walls for the school. And behind the construction, the specter of the Brazilian military government loomed, sometimes subtly, sometimes not.
“Sometimes our mail would arrive, having been opened, and not too surreptitiously either,” Cadle says. “Those in power might have well wondered what these North Americans were doing there.”
With little of their own autonomy, professors, priests, intellectuals and others were targeted by dictatorial reforms, and many were forced into exile or disappeared. After the HWS and Cornell groups returned to the United States, Cadle recalls, Padre Geraldo was forced to flee Brazil for France.
Cadle graduated from William Smith with a B.A. in English and, after her service in Brazil and a “life changing experience” living on a commune, went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Rochester. Her 35-year career as a high school teacher in Rochester, she says, was inspired by the Colleges, where she “had so many amazing teachers” and “developed a love of the language which I took with me afterwards.”
Decades later, when she and Josh Chasan ’66, who was also on the trip, reflected on their time in Brazil, Cadle discovered another layer to the experience, as Chasan recalled a New York Times article from 1965 that revealed the Central Intelligence Agency had played a role in such service efforts, slowly restoring the rights of the Brazilian citizens during a repressive military dictatorship, which fell in 1985.
“My hope,” Cadle says, “is that the building is still standing and in use these five decades later.”