Christmas Cards In Brazil, For Those Who Can’t Write

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Brasilia: Roberia Lima dos Santos steps timidly up to the counter and asks in a tiny voice if this is the place where they write letters. “I want to wish my son a merry Christmas and tell him I won’t be able to visit him in prison,” says the functionally illiterate Brazilian woman.

Dos Santos, a 64-year-old cook, is one of thousands of Brazilians who have turned to this free service provided by the Sao Paulo state government since 2001 to write letters on behalf of those who cannot write their own.

“Tell him I send him kisses, to go with God and that his sisters are all well,” she tells one of the volunteers who work on the program. Her 38-year-old son is in jail for robbing banks. She isn’t able to visit him this Christmas, but wants him to know she is thinking of him.

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She tells that she does know how to write a little, but sought out the program to make it easier. When the volunteer asks if she wants to sign the letter, she takes the pen and slowly writes her name in big, round letters.

Fourteen million Brazilian adults are illiterate, according to UNESCO seven percent of the sprawling South American country’s population. It has the eighth-highest number of illiterate citizens in the world.

Millions more another 17.8 percent of the population are functionally illiterate. They know their letters and numbers but cannot fully read and write.

“I’m always surprised by the number of people who don’t know how to read and write, or who know how but can’t express themselves properly in writing,” said Vera Rocha, who has been volunteering with the program for the past two years.

A 71-year-old retired teacher, she loves her volunteer work, she says. “Sometimes people come and say, ‘Tell them I miss them and I love them.’ But you can’t fill a whole letter with that. So we ask them why they are nostalgic, who they miss, why they don’t see this person anymore, if there was a falling-out,” she told AFP.

And that becomes a full letter, she said. The program is reminiscent of the acclaimed Brazilian film “Central Station,” in which a cynical retired schoolteacher who writes letters for illiterate clients is befriended by a little boy who needs her help to find the father he has never met.

The volunteers have written love letters, hate mail, letters to long-lost relatives, letters “seeking someone to listen,” said Rocha.