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History

Historia, septiembre 2005

“Fe y Alegria was born to promote social change by means of Integral Popular Education.”

Fr Jose Maria Velaz, S.J.
Founder


There are men and women who sowed their lives in the fertile field of service.  For that reason they were able to reap abundant harvests in the heart of the multitudes.  One of those was Father Jose Maria Velaz, founder of Fe y Alegria, the educational movement which came to birth in a humble home in Caracas and has spread the banner of Integral Popular Education to city slums and rural regions of fourteen Latin American countries.


Father Jose Maria Velaz was born in Rancagua, Chile, on the December 4, 1910.  He was only 5 years old when his father died.  His mother had to devote all her energy to minding the family business and raising four very small children.  This fact profoundly affected young Jose Maria, who was always an ardent defender of the dignity, the ability and the reliability of women.


Five years after the death of his father the family returned to Spain, but Jose Maria carried still in his heart a deep feeling for Latin America.  He studied at the Jesuit boarding school in Tudela and in the University of Zaragoza.   Early on he was smitten with dreams of adventures and challenges, of serving in the apostolic mission of the Jesuits.  To realize this dream, he left his legal studies and entered the Society of Jesus in 1928.  His course of training and the political situation in Spain carried him through several European countries, and, as he was waiting to be sent to China, his superiors decided in 1946 to send him to Venezuela.  He arrived there somewhat disillusioned, but the country gradually won him over.


He worked a few years in the Colegio San Ignacio in Caracas and then returned to Europe to continue his theology studies and to be ordained a priest.  On returning to Venezuela he remained two years in Caracas and, in August 1948, was named rector of Colegio San Jose in Merida.  He played a vital role in the growth and the prestige of this institution of learning.  There he encountered again the Andes, which stirred in him once more a calling to greatness in service, a yearning for boldness and risk-taking.  He helped develop the college and other works in the zone.  Apart from his regular tasks he set about founding in several small Andean towns a network of schools which would depend on the Colegio San Jose of Merida, to enable them to attend to a greater number of students.  After finishing his period as rector of the college, he designed a network of rural schools in the plains of Barinas.  Superiors, however, did not approve this project, and in 1954 he was sent to Universidad Catolica Andres Bello in Caracas.  There, the following year, he founded Fe y Alegria in order to give full expression to his vocation of missionary.


In 1960 he left the Catholic University to dedicate himself full-time to Fe y Alegria, which by that time already had 6,000 students in the slum neighborhoods of Caracas and was beginning to grow in Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto and the eastern part of the country.


In 1964 Fe y Alegria had more than 10,000 students in Venezuela, and Fr Velaz decided to extend it to Ecuador.  In 1965 he founded the movement in Panama, and in 1966 in Peru.  Fe y Alegria successfully penetrated into Bolivia in 1966 and continued its growth throughout Central America and Colombia.  Thus Fr Velaz was able to extend the movement to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, pursuing his continental project of reaching all the Latin American countries.


Starting in 1974 he dedicated his time to fortifying the movement, to initiating the camping project and to founding the St Xavier School of Applied Arts in Valle Grande de Merida.  This last was a pilot project for all the rest of Fe y Alegria.


Fr Velaz then decided to take on a new challenge: the creation of a chain of agricultural school in the plains.  His first project was San Ignacio in Masparro.  He began working in Libertad district in the state of Barinas, about 10 kilometers from Dolores.  The other pole of the chain was the Fr Gumilla Agricultural School in San Fernando de Apure.  His final journey took him to Caicara, Puerto Ayacucho and Gran Sabana, with the aim of investigating the possibility of founding schools for Indians there.  In 1985, upon his return to the school in Masparro, death surprised him.


The birth of Fe y Alegria


While he was spiritual counselor for the young students of Catholic University, Fr Velaz wanted his charges to develop a profound social sensibility by experiencing first-hand the misery in which so many of their brothers and sisters were living.  On Sundays they used to go to the poor neighborhoods of Catia to teach catechism and to hand out bags of clothing and food.  They soon became aware, however, that Christian service, if it was to be effective, had to take the form of a broad network of schools, and these had to be part of a vast educational movement which would rescue poor people from the ignorance which was the root of their utter subjection.  Velaz, who considered education to be the major transformative force in the world, thought that lack of education was the principal cause of marginality and misery: “An uneducated people is a dominated people, a vulnerable people,  an oppressed people.  In contrast, an educated people is a free people, a transformed people and a people that controls its own destiny.”  (Discourse at the Catholic University on the occasion of awarding him a doctorate honoris causa in education.)


The first school arose from an act of great generosity: when the worker Abraham Reyes found out that Father Velaz and his little group of university students was looking for a place for their school, he offered them his house.  During eight years, working in their spare moments, Abraham and his wife had built the house; they had slowly fashioned it with their hands and their dreams.  They had to haul water to make cement for several kilometers, using large tin cans.  But once they finished the house, they offered it with sincerity and without regrets.   Thus was Fe y Alegria born: in a donated house with 100 children seated on cement blocks on the floor.  The gesture of Abraham and his wife was to stimulate in the course of time a great many spontaneous acts of generosity, such as have marked Fe y Alegria from its very start.  On one occasion a university co-ed donated her earrings to be raffled off; with the proceeds they bought the first desks and even managed to pay a little something to the first teachers.  This was the first raffle of Fe y Alegria.  Afterwards raffles would come to be a type of national crusade which brought together an infinity of anonymous donors and which for years was the principal source of funds for sustaining and expanding the work.


Fe y Alegria quickly began to germinate in the most unlikely conditions: under a tree, in rented shacks, in schools that grew up over precipices and creeks, in garbage dumps, on the ridges of hills, in any inhospitable place that nobody cared about.  In order to obtain resources beyond the raffle proceeds, daring promotion campaigns were undertaken, offices were set up, people with generous hearts were appealed to, and great creativity held sway.


The very name of Fe y Alegria was not chosen haphazardly.  It was meant to enunciate the very identity of the movement, to be at once a mirror and a goal: “Our name of Fe y Alegria is not a random choice; neither is it something of small consequence.  It is a name that has been seriously contemplated, as the goal to which our journey leads us.  It is our emblem and our banner, which has been pondered many times and for many hours.  It is ‘our saint and our sign’.


“We are messengers of the Faith and at the same time messengers of Joy.  We therefore should aspire to be teachers in Faith Education and teachers in Joy Education.  These two spiritual flights are so beautiful and radiant that they can make one fall in love with the vocation.  They are two powers and two gifts of God which can transform the world.” (J.M. Velaz, Pedagogy of Joy).


Fe y Alegria from the start intended to be a work of the church which would concentrate the generosity of many people around an educational project: the community would pitch in with its work, building walls, cleaning lots, painting buildings…; the more privileged would contribute with their economic resources, their influence, their ideas;  others would help out with their talents and their work.  And Fe y Alegria would give voice to the cry of the people for educative justice, in defense of the rights of the poorest to have a good education.  The Ministry of Education is not the owner, but simply the administrator of educational resources, which really belong to everybody.  Fe y Alegria needed to become strong in order to make its voice heard as “the strong roar of lions”. 


Velaz, the Educator


Fe y Alegria defines itself as a Movement for Integral Popular Education.  In these two words, popular and integral, so penetrated with meaning, is contained the essence of the movement’s educational proposition.  Phrases such as “Fe y Alegria begins where the asphalt ends, where there is no piped water, where the city loses its name” reflect the resolute decision to immerse the movement among the most dispossessed.  “We have not dared to lift up a banner,” writes Velaz, “since so many people disdain banners.  Our banner has simply been the integral education of the most poor, that is, of the most despised and uneducated.  Since these are many millions of people, we have dared to undertake the Education of Millions.  Or what comes to the same thing: the liberation of millions” (Fe y Alegria.  Principal Characteristics and Instruments of Action).


The education of Fe y Alegria should not be “a poor education for the poor”, but must be a quality education, “the best education for the poor”, an integral education which forms the person in his/her totality.


If education for Fr Jose Maria is an instrument of liberation and humanization, if by means of it we help carry on the salvific plan of God that seeks the full development of each person, then it will not be sufficient to educate all human beings; rather it will be necessary to educate the WHOLE human being.  We are obliged to rescue education from the empty and sterile academicism in which it is trapped, in order to make of it a means for personal and social growth.  Educating the whole person means taking into account the student in his/her totality as a person and as a member of a determined community, and not just as a simple head or receptacle to be filled with dead data.   It means attending to the students’ stomachs if they are hungry, to their broken health, to their hearts wounded by rejection.  It means making of them strong, generous persons with laboring hands and steadfast feet, with mature and responsible affective and sexual relations, with eyes that are critical and self-critical, capable of discovering and appreciating beauty, of admiring nature as a reflection of God. It means endowing students with a special sense for perceiving what is happening around them and the reasons why it is happening, with ears attentive to the cries of the people, and with a word which is at once an expression of life and a valiant voice for those who have no voice.


Velaz, the pionneer


An indefatigable front-line person, Father Jose Maria was never content with the achievements realized.  We could never become comfortable in Fe y Alegria while people experiences an ever greater degree of abandonment and distress.  Convinced that Fe y Alegria was running the risk of following into routine in a number of traditional urban schools, Fr Velaz dedicated the last years of his life to promoting education which took ever more seriously the world of work and prepared students to exercise with dignity a technical trade.


With all his energy he sought to move beyond the traditional schools, disconnected from life, where students learned useless facts.  He believed that these schools were of little use; for that reason students dropped out of them early or simply put up with them in a kind of ritual which left them feeling empty and defeated:  “If we want an education that does not create persons isolated and cut off from ordinary life, then our teaching must extend to those activities which provide people a dignified life, an adequate nutrition, a house worthy of humans and a cultural and spiritual level consonant with modernity and Christianity” (Letters from Masparro, p. 20).


To promote this type of education for productive labor Velaz first founded San Xavier del Valle, in Merida.  When he thought this work was well enough established, with a professional secondary school that graduated technicians in 13 specialties, he plunged into the plains to fulfill his old dream of setting up a network of agriculture and forestry schools for poor small farmers. 


Death took him by surprise while he was staying at San Ignacio of Masparro.  As always, his mind was afire with numerous ambitious projects.  He was trying to introduce Fe y Alegria to Africa, and he had just come from Gran Sabana, where he wanted to found a network of schools to attend to “the poorest of the poor”, the Indians.