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Priest Joseph Sands ’80 teaches students ranging from politicos to first-graders in Brazil

For Jesuit priest Joseph Sands ’80, navigating the educational system in Brazil can be as tricky as the Amazon itself.Sands’ experience with Brazil began with his doctoral dissertation at Princeton University. He studied the relationship between the federal and municipal governments, specifically the implementation of federal measures designed to reform the administration and financing of public primary education.

When the Jesuits invited Sands to teach in Manaus, capital city of Amazonas and home to 1.8 million people, he accepted. This is not his first experience teaching abroad; Sands taught high school in Osorno, Chile, during the last two years of the Pinochet regime. His time there introduced him to the political mechanization of education.

“The provision of education is highly political — it was in the military regime of Chile and it is so here in Brazil,” says the government and law graduate. “This country, one of the top ten economies in the world, just ten years ago had educational indicators comparable to those of Haiti. Enrollment numbers have increased but quality lags behind. The political elites resist the idea that public primary education is an investment in the future of the country. In a large part of the country, public schools serve only to provide jobs to electoral supporters and free meals to malnourished students.”

Despite the politically charged education system, Sands finds himself ministering to a variety of educational needs in Manaus. He teaches a postgraduate course in politics and ethics designed for political party leaders through the Catholic University of Pernambuco. He also teaches at the Federal University of Amazonas and local archdiocesan seminary and tutors first-grade public school students in Portuguese and math.

The Federal University of Amazonas illustrates the educational conundrum afflicting the region.

“The students in this state who score the highest on the nationwide university entrance exam attend this tuition-free university,” he explains. “Federal universities in each state are tuition-free and, of course, students from the wealthiest families attend them — one of the many ironies of the Brazilian political system.”

In an unpublished essay about his trip to the city of Sao Paulo Olivenca, a farming town of about 20,000 people, he highlights the dichotomy between the generosity of the people and dangerous political climate in which they live.

“The government, in this neck of the woods, is a predatory government,” he writes. “Money launderers for international drug traffickers, leaders of child prostitution rings, and hired assassins not only find a home in this town, they are among the town’s leading citizens. They tolerate little interference. One most unfortunate fellow was shot at point-blank range while he was on his knees in the town plaza and killed by the local magistrate. The judge-turned-defendant was found not guilty by reason of inebriation.

“On my last day in town I was welcomed at a festive Sunday dinner. The main dish was the local delicacy: turtle. The table was also crowded with servings of chicken, pasta, potatoes, rice, beans, and farinha. After a full week in town I returned to the airport grateful for the warm hospitality, for the powerful intercession of St. Paul, and for the opportunity to have watched the sun set over the Amazon River.”

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