Sometimes the truth hits so hard that it changes your life forever.
For the then 23-year-old Franciscan friar David Raimundo dos Santos, the exact day of truth was May 13, 1976—eighty-eight years after Brazil had become the last country in the Americas to abolish chattel slavery. Santos, popularly called “Frei David,” was attending a Catholic seminary in a small city outside of São Paulo.
At the time, Brazilians still “commemorated” emancipation, and Frei David’s Italian and German classmates decided to “honor” their Black peers with a lunchtime presentation. They labeled a table in the middle of the lunchroom “The Slave Ship” and forced their Black classmates to sit there. After everyone begrudgingly sat down, one seat remained empty.
Almost five decades later, Santos recounted to me what happened next: “Hey! Hey! There’s an empty chair there. Someone is missing. Who’s missing?”
Someone grabbed Santos and pushed him into his seat at the “Slave Ship.”
“Negro, this is your place.”
Negro is the Portuguese word for “black,” but in reference to a person, it has a negative connotation rooted in slavery. The darker your skin, the harder it is to escape a life of backbreaking manual labor, humiliation, and grueling poverty in Brazil—vestiges of the nation’s colonial slavocracy.
On that day in seminary, for the first time in his life, Santos had been publicly called Black, humiliating him. Enraged, he hit the table, knocking water all over it. Santos stormed out of the lunchroom and packed his clothes to leave the seminary.
Though Santos had a Black father and a White mother, his father had abandoned the family and his sister Lúcia dos Santos said their mother “raised [them] as White.” Caramel-colored skin aside, the young David didn’t see himself as Black—which is not uncommon in Brazil, a country long romanticized as a racial democracy and represented by mixed-race citizens. According to 2021 Brazil household survey estimates, 56% of Brazil’s 213 million people self-identified as brown or Black, and the number increases every year. But 50 years ago, few Brazilians dared to publicly refer to themselves as Black.
The bespectacled Santos, now 70 and a Franciscan priest, reflects on this story as he sits in the São Paulo headquarters of Educafro. He started the organization (literally “education” + “Afro”) in 1997 to increase the number of Afro-Brazilians attaining higher education in Brazil. The 1976 incident pushed him to step into his Blackness and spurred a 47-year-long fight for racial justice in South America’s most populous country.
“Some people discover Blackness in peace. Others only discover it in violence. That was my case,” Santos said.
“From there, the warrior Frei David was born.”
Since his painful moment of self-discovery, Santos’ work as a social justice activist has positively impacted millions of Afro-Brazilians. He started simply—teaching Afro-Brazilians about their own culture and history. He soon realized that the most direct way to overcome the poverty and racism experienced by Afro-Brazilians was through education.
When he and several volunteers launched Pré-Vestibular Para Negros e Carentes (PVNC) and subsequently Educafro, the work not only helped Black and poor students access college but also introduced the question of race into their lives. Over time, a simple education project became a grassroots social phenomenon that expanded the reach of Brazil’s Black Movement. Santos’s incessant and singular desire to eradicate structural racism has resulted in some of Brazil’s most successful public policies regarding education and income disparity—including a rigorous quota system that has broken historically insurmountable barriers for Black Brazilians to higher education and public sector employment. This quota system—Brazil’s version of affirmative action—sets aside university spots for Afro-Brazilian, underprivileged, indigenous, and disabled students, as well as public high school graduates.
To achieve this, Santos strategically used the media to spread local and national awareness of affirmative action in education among everyday people. Instead of waiting for the media to come to him, he pursued the media—a tactic that set him apart from other Black Movement leaders in Brazil. By the time the country’s supreme court approved the widespread use of quotas in federal universities for Black and Indigenous people in 2012, Santos had become the person most synonymous with the fight for their acceptance.
Santos also benefited from his stature as a priest and from the often reluctant support of the Catholic Church. As a friar, he didn’t have to worry about maintaining a livelihood or caring for a family, freeing him up to completely dedicate himself to his activism. Additionally, his identity as a friar in the world’s most populous Catholic country opened up doors to the offices of the elite—access he then used to benefit countless Afro-Brazilians.
“He’s been consistent and powerful by working at the grassroots level but being strong enough to talk to the elites in the country’s political, business, and educational sectors and tell them that they are not doing enough,” said Ollie A. Johnson, chair of the Department of African American Studies at Wayne State University and co-editor of the 2015 book “Race, Politics, and Education in Brazil: Affirmative Action in Higher Education.”
“He’s at or near the top of the list of the most effective Black activists and organizers in the country. No question about it.”
As a young person, Santos knew firsthand that many opportunities were closed to impoverished people. In his hometown of Vila Velha in the state of Espírito Santo, he noted the stark differences between the poor and the rich, the latter of whom owned huge farms outside the city. David’s family was so poor after his father left that his mother had to place him and his brother in an orphanage; he was one of 11 children. When he returned home as a pre-teen, he immediately started working. To help support his family, he sold popcorn and his mother’s sugary snacks to passersby every day before and after school. The school was so needy that elites would often visit to make donations.
Santos grew up during Brazil’s oppressive military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985, so he became fixated on helping to make the world a better and more peaceful place. For him, becoming an ambassador was the best way to contribute to world peace. This desire took him to Rio de Janeiro, where he visited the federal government’s Rio Branco Institute for diplomacy and told the staff of his aspirations. They laughed at him.
“He said that I had no chance of becoming an ambassador and said other things that made me very humiliated, very disconcerted,” Santos said.
The staff also told him he couldn’t possibly become an ambassador while only knowing one language—Portuguese. Santos had assumed they would teach him other languages.
Santos wasn’t aware of it at the time, but he was experiencing structural racism in Brazil that had long excluded Blacks from higher education and elite government jobs. In the 1960s, before widespread access to television and the internet, it was improbable that a young Black Brazilian from a low-income family would have been able to master multiple languages by the age of 21.
However, Santos soon became acquainted with someone who became an ambassador to the world without having to take any language courses: St. Francis of Assisi. One of the Catholic Church’s most recognizable saints, the 12th-century Italian had surrendered his worldly possessions and traveled the known world to preach the Word of God.
“That’s when I decided that my life would only make sense if I developed a spirituality of radical giving,” Santos said.
He found a shared commitment to that vision in the order of St. Francis of Assisi—the Order of Friars Minor— and started formation for the priesthood.
A Self-Education in Blacknessﾠ
Santos later completed his studies at the seminary, but not before delving into some serious self-education in Blackness. After the embarrassing confrontation at the seminary, the rector, a White man of German descent, called him into his office. Santos attempted to blame his appearance on the sun from the beach and his frizzy hair on saltwater he hadn’t yet washed out. The rector asked to see a photo of his parents.
“My father, his picture was in a suitcase, my mother, her picture was with me, in my wallet,” Santos recalled.
“So you see where I had placed Blackness in my life. There in the suitcase, hidden away.”
The rector then diagnosed David’s problem.
“David, you suffer from a serious disease. This disease catches a lot of people all over Brazil. It’s called whitening ideology,” Santos recalled the rector saying.
Branqueamento. The idea that Black people would only advance if they whitened their bloodlines. The rector then encouraged him to learn about his people—Black people. Until then, Santos had never read a book about Black people, so he proceeded to the seminary’s library. All the books were about Whites.
From that moment, Santos sought out any knowledge he could of Black people in Brazil, which was not an easy task in 1976. Few books about the history of Black people existed in Brazil. But he stumbled upon two: “The Negro in Brazil – From Senzala to the Paraguayan War” by Júlio José Chiavenato and “The Negro and the Church” by João Evangelista Martins Terra, SJ.
Chiavenato claimed that 60,000 to 100,000 Black men died in the Paraguay war won by Brazil’s enslaved men. The second book portrays in detail the cruelty of the Portuguese colonizers. Santos also talked to historians and traveled around Brazil, learning about quilombos, self-sustaining Black communities established in the country’s rural regions.
At the same time that Santos was finding his own Black roots, Brazil’s Black Movement was undergoing a renaissance. Brazil’s Black movement is the name of the fight Blacks take against racism and its resulting problems, whether it be in labor, education, politics, or culture. The phrase “Black Movement” is a catch-all term for anyone or group dedicated to fighting for Black people in Brazil. In the 1930s, the “Frente Negra Brasileira Popular” functioned as a political and social group that mobilized Black communities to fight against racism and inequality. Abdias do Nascimento used his art activism to dispute Brazil’s idea of a “racial democracy” in the 1950s. Dr. Lélia Gonzalez created the idea of amefricanidade in the 1980s, which insisted on the existence of an Afro-Latin American identity.
In 1978, with Brazil still languishing under a dictatorship that censored any dissension, Black activists in São Paulo formed the Unified Black Movement (Movimento Negro Unificado), or MNU. From then on, MNU chapters multiplied throughout the country, in cities big and small. Groups of Black Brazilians—whether intellectuals, quilombolas, or clergy—started to organize in their respective communities. Still, the average Black Brazilian had little notion of race, never mind a political racial movement.
The Frei and Spirituality
When asked to name his favorite passage in the Bible, one that continually inspires his work and energizes him, Santos named Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Christ had only just recently called his first disciples when he headed to the top of a hill and laid out how to be a righteous disciple.
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”
(Matthew 5 NLT)
“This passage has always caught my attention for the idea of simplicity, because it teaches you to take your focus off yourself and put it on others who need it and not be afraid,” Santos said.
“When he speaks to those persecuted for justice, he makes it very strong that you cannot be afraid. [You] have to be brave and actively dedicate yourself to the cause.”
By the time Frei completed seminary, he was already committed to his radical path, working on social justice issues in a diocese that didn’t quite welcome his work. Upon graduation, Santos proclaimed to his superiors that he wanted to become a priest because he wanted to dedicate himself exclusively to fighting for Black people. This wasn’t well received. To them, his proclamation was an act of insubordination. Franciscan priests do what the Church orders them to do.
“I understand that a Friar is someone who loves the poor,” Santos said, trying to explain himself to his superiors.
“I understand that in Brazil, the poorest of the poor are Black people. When I say that I want to serve the Black people, I understand that I am taking up the mission of Francisco de Assis.”
Despite his futile attempts to justify his desire, the Franciscan order made him sign a letter saying he would be subservient to the Church and to the order. He still became a priest, but the historically elite Archdiocese of Petrópolis expelled him for promoting human rights. The Church then sent him to one of the poorest (and therefore Blackest) areas outside of Rio de Janeiro: Campos Elíseos in the city of Duque de Caxias. In the 1980s, Rio de Janeiro’s periphery cities concentrated poverty, underdevelopment, and violence. The area’s bishop, Dom Mauro Morelli, followed liberation theology and was committed to social transformation.
By the time he had arrived in Campos Elíseos, Santos had developed a tireless work ethic. He fulfilled his priestly duties early in the day and then, in the afternoons and evenings, he visited shantytown communities (favelas) and gave presentations on Afro-Brazilian history. This was his way of trying to elevate the self-esteem of Black Brazilians.
“If six out of 10 Afro-Brazilians are scared to say they are Black now, back then it was nine out of 10,” Santos said.
The moment when a Black Brazilian abandons literally hundreds of Portuguese words that describe skin color and freely calls himself Black—in public, no less—is the moment they have reached a level of Black awareness that affirms their racial identity. This identity shift is one from color, a description of physical appearance, to race, a socio-political entity.
Even with this simple activity, Santos revealed his propensity for strategy in every action he took. Knowing that Afro-Brazilian history presentations would be a hard sell, he invested in a projector—still a technology wonder in the 1980s. People packed his presentations to see the projector, he laughingly recalled.
When Santos arrived at Igreja Matriz S￣o Jo￣o Meriti in 1986, the city’s Black Movement leaders welcomed him with open arms. The city of S￣o Jo￣o Meriti borders Rio de Janeiro City, and, like most poor suburban towns in Brazil’s southeast, its population is mostly poor, Black, and undereducated. The city’s young and relatively weak Black Movement had difficulty connecting with locals, who assumed the group just promoted Black folk arts like capoeira and jongo dance.
“We needed an authority to legitimize our work,” said Maria da Fé da Silva Viana, 77, a Black woman of the Methodist faith and longtime Black Movement leader in São João Meriti.
That authority was Santos. In S￣o Jo￣o de Meriti, he also found an archdiocese that was open to his progressive ideas and unceasing focus on racial justice. He introduced Missas Afros (“Afro Masses”), a form of the Catholic liturgy that validated Black culture by incorporating drumming and African dress. Santos certainly wasn’t the first priest to celebrate an Afro Mass, but he popularized it by attracting local, and even national media attention. He estimates he has officiated more than 500 Afro Masses in his life.
Santos also started an urban quilombo at the local parish, essentially bringing the race question inside the church. The first documented quilombo existed in the 17th century and had 20,000 members (many escaped enslaved Blacks) led by a man named Zumbi dos Palmares. Zumbi died protecting his quilombo on November 20, a day now celebrated in Brazil as Black Awareness Day. After slavery ended nationwide, newly freed Blacks in the countryside formed their own communities that often eluded White influence and modernity. Today those communities, also called quilombos, can legally request titles to their land.
In an urban setting, though, a quilombo could simply refer to a physical meeting place for Black people–a carved-out Black territory. A respite. The word connotes Black empowerment, Black community, and Black creativity—all misnomers in a country that historically promoted whitening. So this urban quilombo, a room filled with Black books and Black artwork, became a place where people, regardless of race or religion, could meet, discuss ideas, and learn about Black history.
In 1988, Brazil marked the 100th anniversary of the end of slavery in the country. Countless “celebrations” filled the calendars of governments, organizations, and schools. Mass media, still dominated by White Brazilians, flooded the airwaves with documentaries and interviews. Globo, Brazil’s most-watched television channel, even produced a mini-series called “Abolition” —directed by a White man, no less. Brazil’s Black Movement used this extra attention to protest against Brazil’s “false” abolition–wherein a princess signed a document, but precious little changed and business as usual was quickly reconstituted.
All around Brazil, Black Movement groups felt compelled to take action against racism and inequality. In the lead-up to the 1988 debut of a new constitution, Black Brazilian priests in the Catholic Church organized various meetings to formally take up the cause. Through the advocacy of Black politicians like Benedita da Silva and Carlos Alberto “Caó” de Oliveira, the constitution criminalized racism and recognized the land rights of quilombo communities.
Over time, local Black Movement members and Santos agreed that the main problem they needed to fix was improving Black Brazilians’ access to higher education.
“Certainly, as long as the Black people did not have access to education, to the university, these people would not break free,” Santos said.
“It was the only tool for liberating Black people: access to education.”
Santos had a unique ability to tap into the talent of young Black Brazilians for a greater cause—often at a moment’s notice. Three young Black public school teachers—Alexandre do Nascimento, Antonio Dourado, and Luciano Santano—had heard about the urban quilombo in São João Meriti and decided to visit in November of 1992. Santos happened to be there and they chatted, exchanging contact information. A few days later, Santos called Alexandre and requested a more formal meeting.
There, he presented the teachers with a proposal. He wanted them to start a free college entrance exam preparatory class for Blacks and the impoverished in Rio’s suburbs. At the time, every university required students to take its own unique entrance exam called the Vestibular. Only upper-class (i.e., usually White) students could afford good private schools or the requisite prep courses.
“We accepted his proposition immediately,” Nascimento said.
“We were three young people looking to do something. We wanted to do something concrete. We wanted to work with popular education.”
Before the course’s launch, a debate arose over what to name it. Nascimento wanted to emphasize that the course was open to all races, but especially intended for low-income students. Santos, even though he agreed, wanted the name to focus on Black Brazilians. So they compromised and named it Pré-Vestibular Para Negros e Carentes (“Pre-Vestibular for Blacks and the Needy”). Santos says that if he had gotten his way, it would have been named Pré-Vestibular Para Negros.
“Today, after studies and debates, I think the Frei was right, because the word ‘Blacks’ in the name helped bring the racial issue into debate,” Nascimento recalled.
“I was very young, just starting my militancy, and I didn’t have the vision I have today about racism in Brazil.”
To promote the new course, Santos announced it at an Afro Mass early in 1993. On June 5, 1993, three young Black Teachers and Santos formally launched PVNC. At first, they met on Saturdays and Sundays at São João Mereti’s mother church and then moved to a public school. A diverse group of men and women volunteered to teach prep courses in Portuguese, math, geography, chemistry, and literature. The roughly 80 students, aged 25 to 35, had attended under-resourced public schools, so this extra academic preparation was paramount to any future academic success. On average, the students were older because many had interrupted their studies (whether high school or college) to work or start a family.
Santos, always strategic and forward-thinking, had already secured 200 scholarships to the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) for the course’s participants, so that they would have further incentive to complete the program. He believed that the Catholic Church owed Afro-Brazilians reparations, so this was the small, nascent beginning of affirmative action in Brazil.
Jurema Elismar de Araujo, then 25, found out about the course at a July 1993 vigil concerning a massacre perpetrated on homeless people—including children—sleeping in front of the Candelária Church in downtown Rio. During the prayer service, held in front of the same church, she briefly spoke with a young White friar who mentioned the new pre-Vestibular course. The next Saturday, she caught a bus from her favela to the edge of Rio and arrived while the course was in session.
Now a public school teacher, she had longed to attend college and even tried to attend a prep course at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ).
“At the other pre-Vestibular, I felt so out of place, like I didn’t belong,” Jurema said.
With the PVNC, she found a course with people who looked like her, who grew up poor and had attended public schools but wanted to go to college.
However, the classes weren’t limited to studying for the Vestibular. Students also took a required weekly Cultura e Cidadania (“Culture and Citizenship”) class that included lessons on Black world history, politics, human rights, activism, religion, and—perhaps more importantly—racism. This course became a place where students could openly debate racism in Brazil.
“These were classes that were meant to encourage us to be proactive, rebellious, and conscious,” said Keite Mellos, a White student from a favela in São João Meriti who participated in the first PVNC class.
“My high school classes didn’t teach us any of this. My high school was training me to lower my head and be a servant. These citizenship classes shook us up, and showed us that we were being oppressed and that we have to run after opportunities.”
“This was our discussion class,” said Jurema.
“We talked a lot about the question of race. This is where we got our preparation to fight for causes. We were being prepared to go out into the world. We felt stronger. We would help each other when someone wanted to give up.”
The citizenship course was also the first time Jurema heard of anyone talking about affirmative action or quotas for Afro-Brazilians—a concept she was slow to warm up to.
“When I first heard Frei talking about it, I thought he was crazy because I wondered how you could have quotas when Afro-Brazilians were the majority of the country,” she said, noting that she didn’t dare to openly speak against the idea.
“I didn’t understand the strategy but I was also not the kind of person who would speak against it. I will believe in your fight. You are saying that this fight is important. So I will be with you. Just like you have been with me.”
The PVNC course, together with its citizenship classes, also allowed Jurema and Keite to access Brazil’s Black Movement. Ever the budding activist, Jurema had tried to attend Black Movement meetings in Rio but found them overly academic. She felt like she didn’t belong, and so never returned.
“When I began the PVNC pre-Vestibular, I had the greatest contact with people of the Black Movement that I had ever had,” Jurema said.
“This was my insertion into the racial question. This is where my activism started as a member of the Black Movement.”
The PVNC program quickly grew, with new branches popping up throughout the Rio suburbs. By 1997, the prep course program had developed into a social zeitgeist that would eventually become the focus of Brazil’s Black Movement.
“It became something greater than just preparing students for college entrance exams,” Nascimento said.
Think Big and Always Make News Headlines
Always moving, Santos soon set his sights on creating an institution that would relentlessly promote racial justice and education for Black Brazilians. Santos disagreed with his three younger co-founders on the direction of PVNC, so he launched Educafro (literally, “education” + “Afro”) in 1997, thus leaving the PVNC network. Santos also left the outskirts of Rio for São Paulo, expanding vestibular prep courses across Brazil under the new project.
Educafro also took on legal battles—big and small—to get its students into college. In the 1990s, Brazilian public colleges charged prohibitive exam fees for the Vestibular. In theory, low-income students could receive a fee waiver, but this required copious documentation that was costly in itself. Educafro activated a network of pro-bono lawyers to file lawsuits on behalf of low-income and Black students who hadn’t received the waiver. Out of the 10 students who filed lawsuits, one managed to win and not pay the fee.
Renato Ferreira, a volunteer lawyer with Educafro, felt excited about the win and immediately told Santos, knowing he would pass the news to the media.
“One person? We did all this work for just one person?” Ferreira recalls Santos asking.
“You haven’t filed a lawsuit to win the ability for all Black and poor students to pay nothing?”
Ferreira advised Educafro to seek out the Public Prosecutor’s Office to file on behalf of all poor and Black students (in Rio). Once the Public Prosecutor’s won the case, Educafro made a peculiar request to the judge to ensure students would understand their rights. The organization requested that the judge require the media to publish the details of the lawsuit so that Black and low-income students would know they now had a right to not pay for the Vestibular.
“This is Frei David,” said Ferreira.
“He always had the idea to impact a large number of people and then combine that with the media. I learned this from him. Don’t even ask the Frei if you want to work on something small that won’t be published in the media. He won’t be interested.”
By the late 90s, Santos had also perfected the use of his biggest trump card—being a Catholic priest. Even though Brazil’s Catholic Church continued to suffer from declining membership and political power (at least compared to 300 years prior), Catholic priests and friars still wielded immense respect in the still overwhelming Catholic country.
“To be a priest, he asks for big things, and sometimes he actually gets them. If you are Catholic, you will not reject a meeting with a priest. But the NGO activist might only get a meeting with your assistant. You won’t reject a meeting with a priest who is famous,” Ferreira said.
When the “priest” David requested a meeting with a councilperson, state representative, governor, mayor, the president, or even members of the Supreme Court, there was little chance that he would be denied or passed off to an assistant. And when he showed up to the meeting in his coarse, brown robe, with a rope wrapped around his waist, it made an even greater immediate impact.
Meanwhile, Santos and Educafro were intensely focused on their next challenge: getting public universities to accept the need for quotas, or affirmative action, to dramatically increase their representation of Black students and those who came from poverty.
“For me, [affirmative action] was to accelerate the process of access to education,” Santos said.
“Speed up. Speed up the process of access to education.”
But before he could convince university rectors and state governments, he briefly tried to convince Black Movement leaders in Rio that affirmative action was not an alma—a handout. It’s debatable as to what proportion of the movement’s leaders were against quotas, but at the bare minimum, the movement was divided on the issue.
One member of the Black Movement who originally had doubts was Carlos Alberto Ivanir dos Santos (no relation), a priest of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion. He was also a Black Movement leader, and later the president of the Center for the Mobilization of Marginalized Populations (CEAP).
“It’s true in the beginning that I had doubts, but it wasn’t about handouts. I had doubts that quotas would be efficient,” he said.
“But then I went to the United States, and then CEAP did the survey in Rio de Janeiro. We were even able to participate in a public hearing in front of President [Fernando Henrique Cardoso].”
The 2000 CEAP survey showed that most people in Rio had never heard of racial quotas for jobs or higher education. But those that had heard of the policy leaned toward approving it.
Drawn by the promise of a college scholarship, André Ras Guimarães attended his first PVNC general meeting in São João Meriti in the fall of 1998. Around the same time, he attended a general meeting regularly hosted by Santos. The Frei typically announced various scholarships and recent legal wins—one of which included the lifting of the Vestibular fee for poor students.
Guimaraes had grown up in an evangelical church with a majority Black congregation, but he had had little contact with Black religious leaders who dared to address the issue of race. His church didn’t even talk about race or racism, which, even today, is characteristic of Pentecostal evangelical churches in Brazil.
“Educafro was my school of faith and politics,” Guimarães said. “In the church where I grew up, it was as if my Blackness was invisible to God.”
“It was in Educafro where my racial awareness matured, my racial fight began to focus on religion, a Black God, and the anti-racist fight. I learned that God cared about the Black cause. Frei David was a mentor.”
By 2001, Guimarães had fulfilled his dream of attending college and was studying history at a private college in the suburbs. The previous year, Rio’s state assembly had passed a law requiring that 50% of the state’s public university students come from public schools, a legislative win that pushed the state ever closer to passing a law on racial affirmative action. But the rector of Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ), Nilcéa Freire, dragged her feet on implementing either.
Incensed that the new law was not being honored, Santos and some of the most involved students and professors of Educafro strategized on how to bring attention to the issue during a general meeting. The obvious option was a protest at UERJ.
“Let’s chain ourselves to UERJ and not leave until they agree to our demands,” recalled Guimarães about the idea proposed at the meeting.
“We will stay chained to UERJ.”
On July 11, 2011, around ten Educafro members attached themselves to the gates of UERJ, hungry to acquire the right to education for all Black people. For Santos, this type of protest—a student occupation of or chaining to a government building—was similar to the acts of Jesus on behalf of the poor and hungry. He likened these protests to when Jesus broke into the cornfields on the day of Sabbath in search of food for his hungry disciples.
The protest didn’t just call out UERJ’s failure to comply with quotas for public school students. It also firmly pushed for racial quotas. Guimarães appeared in the Globo newspaper holding a sign that read: “Blacks were just 2.2% of all college graduates in 2000, and whites made up at least 80%.”
Although the young Educafro protesters basked in the media attention, they (especially Santos) felt it wasn’t enough. They returned the following week for another even bolder protest.
On July 18, Guimarães dressed in Bermuda shorts and nothing else. He crowned his head with wooden thorns and attached himself to a makeshift cross with UERJ written on top of it. Dressed as a Black crucified Jesus, he stood at the entrance of UERJ for six hours, only drinking the water provided to him by his comrades, who shouted slogans.
Queremos cotas já! Cotas já! (“We want affirmative action now! Affirmative action now!”)
Once again, Guimarães appeared on television and in Brazil’s most-read newspapers.
“Inside UERJ, the debate caught fire,” said Guimarães, who years later became the leader of Educafro in Rio.
“The protests gave visibility to the cause of the quotas.”
In this seminal year of the fight for affirmative action, Santos and Educafro optimized their ability to provoke debate and attract attention to issues important to the future of Black people in Brazil. There were TV debates, public hearings, and countless government meetings. In late August of 2001, Brazil also sent the largest delegation to the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa. By the end of the conference, Brazil’s Black Movement had united behind affirmative action as the primary tool to uplift Black people in Brazil.
On November 9, Rio’s legislature approved a law requiring 40% of the state’s public universities to be reserved for Black students. With this law—introduced by a congressperson from São João Mereti, no less—UERJ (and its sister state universities) became the first colleges in Brazil to approve and subsequently adopt quotas for Black students.
Abdias do Nascimento, a long-time Brazil Black Movement leader and later a Rio state legislator, had proposed an affirmative action law 25 years earlier, in 1984. His proposal called for quotas of 20% Black women and 20% Black men in education, employment, and public service positions. Nascimento’s proposal never made it out of the congressional committee. In 2004, the capital city’s University of Brasília became the first federal institution of higher education to implement affirmative action, reserving 20% of its entry to Black, Brown, and Indigenous students.
On to Brasília
UERJ and the University of Brasília put Brazil on the path to widespread acceptance of affirmative action in federal universities. But, according to Santos, that policy wasn’t the one with the greatest impact on Black Brazilians’ access to education. That honor belongs to ProUni, Brazil’s “University for All” program.
Around 2003, Educafro and Santos sent multiple letters to the Ministry of Education asking for a government-funded scholarship program for low-income students to attend private universities. In general, Brazil’s private universities are less prestigious than public universities, but they offer three times as many spots. By 2003, the first PVNC students admitted to PUC-Rio had already graduated and entered graduate school or the workforce. Therefore, Santos already had proof that disadvantaged students could survive and thrive in private institutions of higher education.
As the idea gained fervor and worked its way through the government, Educafro started lobbying politicians. In a political strategy that would be repeated dozens of times in the years to come, Santos traveled to Brasília with busloads of Educafro students to show visible support for the measure and to pressure the lawmakers. Their demonstrations served two purposes: to allow Educafro members to interact with the mostly White lawmakers and to create a commotion that reverberated in the media. It worked.
On January 13, 2005, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva sanctioned the ProUni law, which provided public high school, low-income, Black, Indigenous, and disabled students scholarships to attend private universities. Within 10 years, 1.2 million students had benefited—just over half of them Black. Most didn’t have a direct connection to Educafro.
Evandro Luiz da Conçeição was among the first students to benefit from ProUni. After years of working as a call center attendant, the Afro-Brazilian received a scholarship in 2007 to study journalism at Estacio de Sá University.
“With the salary I was earning at the time, I could never afford college tuition and expenses,” said Conçeição, whose mother—then already deceased—had raised him alone and worked as a house servant.
“Until then, before I even thought of getting a ProUni scholarship, going to university was very far from my reality.”
Conçeição graduated in 2011 at 35, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college. He took up his chosen occupation and eventually became the public relations director of a prestigious samba school in Rio. In 2020, he graduated with a master’s in social communication from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Now he works at Globo TV as a content producer.
“Without ProUni, it would have been difficult to achieve what I have achieved,” said Conçeição.
“I would have never had this social mobility.”
In the early 2000s, Santos and Educafro students and leaders had become regulars in Brasília, attending public hearings and meetings with secretaries, congresspersons, and attorneys. He often brought younger members of Educafro to those meetings, so they saw Santos in action firsthand.
Danilo Lima, who has attended multiple meetings with Santos in recent years, describes him as always being “direct and propositional,” two qualities not often associated with Brazilians.
“Being strategic is in his blood. For him that is everything.”
By 2008, the debate over quotas and affirmative action had reached a national apex that touched every corner of Brazilian society. Over time, many federal and state universities across the country had adopted racial quotas out of their own volition. Several cases that questioned the constitutionality of racial quotas reached the Supreme Court in April of that year. This prompted 113 intellections, businesspeople, union members, and even Black activists to send a signed letter to Supreme Court president Gilmar Mendes denouncing racial quotas.
Brazil’s Black Movement responded swiftly, and on May 13, ten activists—including Santos—personally delivered a 46-page manifesto signed by 740 people, including Abdias do Nascimento and renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. It likened quotas to international reparations for ongoing racial inequality. It read:
“The greatest shame is denying that being white means an advantage in Brazilian life. As they do not want to admit the privileges of whiteness in a racist country, they invoke science to decree that “race does not exist;” therefore, there is no white race; therefore, nobody is white. Fortunately, this tergiversation is less and less convincing; so much so that quota policies for Blacks are a growing reality and have the approval of the majority of the Brazilian population.”
Educafro students joined Black Movement leaders for their in-person delivery of the manifesto to Mendes. Santos, one Educafro student, and several other Black Movement leaders then met with him. A photo from the meeting shows Santos in a suit and tie—a requirement when entering the offices of a Supreme Court justice.
On April 25, 2012, Brazil’s Supreme Court voted unanimously in favor of using race as a factor in affirmative action under reasonable circumstances. At its foundation, the ruling swung open the door to Brazil’s elite federal universities for Black Brazilians and other disadvantaged students. These educational spaces, where Brazil’s research and intellectuals are concentrated, had long been predominantly White in a Black-majority country. Those days were now numbered.
When the Supreme Court made its decision, Santos was present in the building. This time, he dressed in his brown Franciscan habit. He had become so well-known that he could now skirt certain rules.
Today, Educafro’s headquarters sit in the center of São Paulo, right down the street from the friary where Santos lives. The HQ’s colorful awning stands out among the gray towers of the city. It features photos of figures representing Black Brazilian resistance: Dandara and Zumbi dos Palmares, leaders of the Palmares quilombo. Marielle Franco, a Rio councilwoman whose 2018 assassination inspired a political movement to elect more Black women politicians. Luíz Gama, a lawyer who is considered the patron of abolitionism in Brazil. Esperança Garcia, an enslaved Black woman who in 1770 sent a legally perfect letter to a ruling governor describing the atrocities she experienced on a plantation; in 2022, she was recognized as the first woman lawyer in Brazil.
In August 2019, I arrived at the Educafro headquarters to speak for the first time in-depth with Santos. It had been five years since I first heard of him. Before moving to Brazil, I interviewed countless Brazilianists and asked them all one question: Who or what has done the most to help Afro-Brazilians advance in the last 50 years? The most cited policy was the racial quotas. The most cited person was Frei David.
I was excited to sit with him and ask about his fight to get Afro-Brazilians into college. But he had other plans.
“Kiratiana, I was expecting you, but we have some work to do before we start the interview,” said Santos, who was dressed in his habit.
After a curt introduction, he swept me into his office, and into a flurry of activity that I imagine never paused. At that very moment, Santos was trying to drastically impede the state-sanctioned genocide of young Black Brazilian men. Brazil’s congress had just approved a law limiting judicial and police power—potentially saving the lives of thousands.
Santos wanted to stop then-President Jair Bolsonaro from vetoing the law. He called a meeting with the staff of Educafro. Sitting at the head of the table, he searched for the contacts of influential politicians, Black Movement leaders, and journalists that filled his cell phone. Without hesitation, he called each person with special requests. Within an hour, Santos and his young staff of 10 had secured an editorial in Brazil’s second-largest newspaper, recruited a leader of Brazil’s Black Movement to help write it, and called up Brazil’s most powerful Black senator—Paulo Paim.
It was apparent to me that Educafro was no longer just a nonprofit focused on helping Black and impoverished people achieve higher education in Brazil. Santos had assembled a pro-bono legal team, a group of highly competent volunteer lawyers—some who had knowingly benefited from affirmative action—whom he could count on to quickly file lawsuits on Educafro’s behalf. It was a full-blown social justice agency that could be activated at a moment’s notice. Perhaps Santos wasn’t aware of it, but these lawyers and assistants were replicating the model of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRUL).
“I love when I see people being bold and using their positions in unexpected ways,” said Barbara Arnwine, the former longtime executive director of the LCCRUL who met Santos when he visited the United States last year as an Ashoka Fellow.
“He reminds me of the greatest minds of our times,” she said.
“When we look at the Kings, Mandelas, and other leaders of modern history, they think without borders.”
Even with its constant legal battles and cries for social justice, Educafro remains, at its roots, dedicated to education. Any disadvantaged person interested in attending college can walk into its headquarters and receive personalized guidance on signing up for Educafro college entrance exam classes, taking the ENEM (a nationalized college entrance exam), and finding available private university scholarships. There are 23 Educafro physical and online branches across the country and they operate similarly.
But before anyone can officially join Educafro, they must participate in a welcome meeting on a Thursday evening or Saturday morning that serves as an indoctrination into the Educafro philosophy. On the night I attended, a young Afro-Brazilian man, Thiago Braziel, told the history of Educafro, highlighted its accomplishments in affirmative action, guided attendees in a debate about racism and social justice, and shared scholarship, training, and job opportunities available through the organization.
Braziel was one of the dozens of young Black people helping to lead Educafro in its São Paulo headquarters. Each had unique stories of how they had arrived at Educafro, subsequently dedicating themselves to the education of Black people and Brazil’s Black Movement. Their backgrounds represent the diverse experiences of Black people across Brazil.
Samuel Emílio, 27, met Santos in 2016 when the priest gave a presentation to a group of college students in the interior of Brazil. In “Planned Marginalization: Seven Official Acts Against Black People,” Santos bombarded the attendees with facts and history that few Brazilians know:
- The Catholic Church allowed Portugal and Spain to implement chattel slavery in their New World colonies.
- In 1824, Brazil’s imperial constitution banned Black people from receiving free primary education.
- The 1850 Land Law formalized land ownership and allowed for the Brazilian military to remove coastal quilombo communities and return them to plantations.
- The 1864-1870 Paraguayan War was fought mainly by Black Brazilian men, 1 million of whom died.
- The Born Free Law of 1871 made every Black infant born free but separated the babies from their mothers.
- An 1885 law made all enslaved Blacks over the age of 60 free but condemned the elderly to the streets.
- An 1890 immigration law opened the doors to European immigration and served to prevent recently liberated Blacks from accessing better jobs.
“I spent 19 years of my life ignorant about all of this,” said Emílio, who even admitted to perming his hair in the period before attending the presentation. He was ashamed of his Afro-texture hair. Ashamed of his Blackness.
“In reality, I didn’t even know racial inequality existed.”
This presentation, which Santos has reproduced hundreds of times, honors a 2003 law that made it mandatory to teach Afro-Brazilian history in public schools. Even though his small town in Minas Gerais had an Educafro branch, Emílio had never heard of the organization or its work. In the middle of the presentation, Santos put him on the spot—a regular occurrence with the priest—in a room of 40 people and asked him one question:
“What are you doing at this very moment to help Black people in Brazil?”
Emilio knew he was not doing anything.
“At that moment, I wanted to have a similar impact [that] the Frei had with his work,” he told me.
Within a few months, Emílio had left college and—to the dismay of his parents—moved to São Paulo to join Educafro’s leadership program, where he lived with and worked with other young Black leaders. In 2018, he even ran for the aldership of São Paulo City, garnering over 4,000 votes. He finished his studies in São Paulo and today, he works for an international philanthropic organization.
Priscilla França found Educafro at one of the lowest moments in her life. She worked as a nurse in a hospital and experienced workplace racism so debilitating that she fell into depression, unable to work or care for her young son. França recalled that her Black mother never sat her down and explained racism. She felt blindsided when she knowingly experienced it. A friend suggested that she seek out Educafro to better understand what was happening to her.
“I arrived in Educafro totally destroyed psychologically,” she said.
After attending an Educafro welcome meeting run by Emílio, she quickly became one of its most involved members. Within a month, she had single-handedly started an Educafro college prep course near her house on the east side of São Paulo.
“I felt like I needed to stage a revolution in my own neighborhood,” said França.
Santos heard of “the crazy lady who started a course in a month” and invited her to work at the Educafro headquarters. Within months, she was leading a two-week occupation of a government building with seven other Educafro members, to force state government leaders to finally implement affirmative action for government jobs in São Paulo State. Although a law had passed reserving 20% of state government jobs for Blacks, officials had lagged in implementing the law. On the last day of the group’s occupation, Santos decided to take drastic measures. He chained himself to the occupied building, forcing government officials to officially implement the law with a signed document.
“Frei David is a revolutionary. He is like a Martin Luther King or a Nelson Mandela. He thinks in the macro, and he thinks of all Black people,” França said.
França, who practices the Candomblé religion, also admires how Santos is inclusive and respectful of all faiths.
“When you see the Frei ending a meeting and inviting a Catholic person, an evangelical person, a Buddhist person, a person of African religions to do their own prayer, it shocks you,” França said.
“So he breaks protocols. For him, the idea of being godly is believing in something.”
França and Emilio are just two of the millions of Afro-Brazilians, Indigenous, and disadvantaged Whites who have benefited directly and indirectly from the work of Educafro and Santos. Franco, the Black queer councilwoman who was assassinated in 2018, graduated from PUC-Rio with a scholarship secured by him. Luciana Barreto works for CNN Brazil as an anchor and is an alum of a PVNC course in Nova Iguaçu. Irapuã Santana studied law at UERJ in the first class of “cotistas” (the name given to people who enter college through affirmative action) and went on to clerk for a Supreme Court judge.
These are of course just a few who could be named. Simply put, Santos has seen his wildest dreams come true in his own lifetime.
A Legacy of Justice
Since Santos called on three young Black teachers to create the PVNC 30 years ago, higher education for Blacks and the poor in Brazil has dramatically expanded. Through its tutoring courses, Educafro is directly responsible for guaranteeing access to higher education to more than 100,000 students. Santos and Educafro have had an even more significant impact on education through public policies like 2001’s affirmative action law in Rio, 2005’s ProUni program, and 2012’s law sanctioning affirmative action in federal universities.
According to Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira, the percentage of Blacks in Brazil’s private and public universities tripled from 15% in 2001 to 46% in 2019. Within 10 years of ProUni’s implementation, more than 600,000 Blacks had benefited from the program. In 2018, for the first time ever, Blacks made up the largest proportion of Brazilians studying in Brazil’s federal universities and institutes.
Another unexpected data point also changed dramatically with the advent of affirmative action in Brazil. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people who identify as Black has risen from 51% to 56%. For once, there is a benefit to being Black in Brazil. And with this increased access to education through the internet and the university, students can more easily learn about Black history and develop Black awareness. In an indirect way, Santos and his work have led to greater Black awareness among all Black Brazilians.
Just 45 years ago, Santos himself didn’t even identify as Black, nor did he have any knowledge of Black history.
Following 20 years of Brazil’s Black Movement conquering access to higher education and government jobs, the movement’s focus has shifted to Black political representation, climate change, and Black women’s issues. In that regard, one could say that Santos’ direct influence on the movement has waned. Even so, he remains a national voice calling out racial injustices without fear of retribution from anyone, including the church, the media, and the Black Movement.
“Frei David is an extraordinary person, an owner of a rich history of struggle in favor of ethnic diversity, the rights of Black and Indigenous peoples and the creation of inclusive and anti-racist public policies,” said Benedita da Silva, a congresswoman from Rio and one of Brazil’s most distinguished politicians.
“Frei David is one of those essential people in the struggle of the poor and Black people of our Brazil.”
Today, Santos is retired from his duties as a priest. He also knows that he will have to pass over the leadership of Educafro when the time comes. He says the organization can now stand on its own, apart from the Catholic Church.
But, according to him, a man of God never really retires.
“From then to until today, I always thought my life would only make sense if I spoke openly with the world about the racism that I suffered in the Catholic Church,” Santos said.
Ever since that fateful moment in the seminary lunchroom, he has sought to address this issue. On September 21, 2022, lay members of Educafro personally handed Pope Francis a letter that highlighted structural racism in Brazil and questioned the underrepresentation of Afro-Brazilian students in Brazil’s Catholic schools. For Santos, the letter was just the beginning of a new movement, as its sole purpose was to provoke.
“In reality, it was more so that society would know what was happening than for the Church to do something,” Santos said.
“The Church will only do something when some cardinal takes on the cause of racism. Right now, there is no cardinal who has the courage to do this. Even the African cardinals, or the African-American cardinals, and the Brazilian cardinals. None of them have addressed the fight of Black people in a deep way. They fight superficially for the rights of Black people, but they don’t delve deep into the roots of the problems.”
As Santos enters his eighth decade of life, he says he is ready to take on this fight, which he’s been preparing for the past 50 years: pushing the Catholic Church to take on racism within and outside of its walls. He says he is preparing another letter for Brazilian bishops to deliver to Pope Francis later this year at the global Synod.
This time, however, he expects a response from His Holiness.
Kiratiana Freelon is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.