In 2003, when the Bush administration began the drumbeat for war in Iraq, concerned residents of San Pedro, CA began to hold street corner vigils for peace. Their passion led them to create a nonprofit, San Pedro Neighbors for Peace and Justice
, and one of their first projects was to help young people start
peace clubs in local high schools as a response and act of resistance to the
pervasive military recruiting on-campus.
Every summer, the adult Neighbors take more than a dozen kids for a weeklong camping trip in the Santa Monica mountains. I was so happy when Kirstin Summers got in touch a couple of weeks ago to invite me to camp. Yesterday was my third trip up to the Circle X Ranch to offer a political theatre workshop to the high school and college age participants–some theatre games and exercises, a bit of Theater of the Oppressed, and a chance for them to play around with ideas for Flash Theater skits they can use to take political theater all over town.
I loved the kids’ lively imaginations (and the extra boost to their performances from Kirstin and Neighbor Chris Venn) and it’s always fascinating to find out what issues concern the young people most. This year, they raised LGBT rights–which I might have predicted, based on past workshops; and the evils of the tobacco industry, and whether Bible study clubs should be allowed in public schools–two subjects I had not expected.
During lunch, people wanted to hear about Bolivia and the political situation there. So I babbled on a bit, but only today heard from a friend there. I had written asking about the police strike in Cochabamba and Oruro, two places I had visited in February, as it’s so hard to get reliable info here. From what my friend said, the police are quite justified in asking for a raise as they are paid so
little, they can’t support their families (and, I would add, when you don’t pay your cops, you’re just asking for corruption, esp in a country where coca is grown but has tried to avoid being part of the trafficking economy). The difficulty is that any action, any criticism of the Evo Morales government ends up being used by the rightwing that has tried to undermine him and destroy the
socialist government ever since he was elected. While I was there, it was clear that many people in the traditional wealthy white elite can’t accept Morales or the new constitution that guarantees equal rights regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, or disability. With President Fernando Lugo just deposed in a bloodless coup in Paraguay, my friend is very nervous about social unrest giving ammunition to the right in Bolivia.
My thoughts are with Bolivia tonight. Paraguay, too, of course, but in Bolivia with much loved friends.
Doug Glover published this today in Numéro Cinq.
What does the survivor of violence need in order to heal?
Because I know many survivors of so many kinds of violence, it’s a question I often ask myself. I’ve begun asking it as well in the arts-based workshops I’ve developed to boost reading and writing skills while promoting social justice. In Colombia, a word that came up over and over again was “justice.” In the US, people often say “a voice.” In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the word was “love.”
And though I arrived in Cochabamba with some trepidation, I felt immediately loved and embraced. I’d been invited by Edson Quezada, the founder and director of the nonprofit organization Educar es fiesta, to share my techniques. But the invitation had come because I was supposed to be collaborating with Argentinean theatre artist Silvana Gariboldi. A dispute over gas fields closed the border between Argentina and Bolivia. Silvana couldn’t cross. I ended up in Bolivia alone.
Edson Quezada, known to all as Queso (or Cheese, from his last name, not because he’s the Big Cheese) founded Educar es fiesta just over ten years ago based on the conviction that training in the arts is training for life, that happiness is a child’s birthright and that learning must go hand-in-hand with joy.
The teaching artists and facilitators in the program have taught circus and theatre arts to hundreds of young people living in difficult circumstances while offering support to families in crisis. The organization earns money through sales of tickets to their shows and receives some grant support from Caritas, an Australian organization and — this blew my mind — the foreign aid program of
The children in the program get hugs and kisses too, something that is, unfortunately, forbidden in the United
Doña Ceci told me her brother lives in Miami which is where her niece and nephew have been raised. “They are very strange children. Very cold,” she said. “They don’t let you hug or kiss them.” When she asked her brother about it, he said, “It’s what they teach them in school.” Ceci works full-time as does her husband but they have trouble making ends meet. In spite of this, she said, “I’m glad my children are growing up here instead of there.”
It’s not that members of the Educar es fiesta team are unaware of the sexual abuse of children, and they know that some of the kids who come to them are survivors. They are never alone in a room with a child but there is no prohibition against warmth and affection.
When the children are gone, life in the office can become more . . . well, adult.
February 16 was Día de las comadres in Bolivia which meant that all over town, male workers had to celebrate their female colleagues. In the Educar es fiesta office, the men (some in drag) offered us serenades and humor raunchy enough to be considered sexual harassment in the US. They danced with us. Then they cooked and served a great lunch — and cleaned up afterwards.
Día de las comadres is also Girls Night Out. Jimena and Alejandra — two of the teaching artists — belong to an all-female folkloric group. They invited me along on their gig at a family restaurant which that night should have lost its presumed PG rating.
More than a dozen large women of a certain age (hmmm, like my age?) drank pitcher after pitcher of chibcha, the local alcohol. We danced in a circle and then snaked out into the pouring rain and back while the waitress circulated from table to table, flipping up her apron to reveal a mighty long strap-on. My friends sang in Spanish and in Quechua and played traditional music on drums and
sampoña pan-pipes. The restaurant owner sashayed through the crowd carrying a huge boy doll to which she had attached pubic hair, balls, a correspondingly huge dick complete with semen dribbling from the tip, and a sign reading 1 boliviano la tocadita. (14 cents for a little touch). She also put a male-organ-enhanced cap on my head. First time in my life I’ve danced the night away with a penis bobbing from my forehead.
Sorry, no one got photos. (At least none we are willing to share).
“Is Día de las comadres always observed this way?” I asked one of the musicians.
“It’s not my way,” she answered.
In the morning, back at the office, Hernán said it probably had more to do with the excesses and role reversals of Carnaval which was about to begin. “It’s an unfortunate part of our culture, of our machismo,” he said.
“But it makes fun of machismo,” I argued.
“Do you think a woman who’s been assaulted finds it funny?” he asked.
Much as I would like brutality to be rendered ridiculous — because looking ridiculous is surely something the ultra-macho will wish to avoid — and much as I had enjoyed laughing, I was confronted once again with my question: What does the survivor need?
“On our day — día de los compadres — I didn’t like what the women did to us either,” he added.
The whole city shut down tight for a two-day holiday so I holed up in the office with potatoes, hominy, cheese, bread, hot sauce, peaches, and about a pound of llama meat while I worked on the pedagogical guide the program requested — step-by-step instructions of everything I presented in the workshops and discussions, including Objectives, Methodology, and Outcomes for each
exercise. Yikes! just the kind of structure I´d managed to avoid all my life. (Though maybe once I translate it into English, I’ll actually find it useful at home). Willmer will have to correct the Spanish and add the accent marks I couldn’t seem to find on the keyboard, which presented its own challenge since the arrangement varies from the English keyboard and the letters were missing from several of the keys. And I imagine we’ll have some conversations via email when he discovers I couldn’t always distinguish between Objectives and Outcomes. (Willmer also tried to teach me how to eat a salteña without dripping gravy all
over myself and the immediate vicinity).
One of the women came to check up on me.
So I asked her, “Día de los compadres. What did you do to the men?”
“We made them drink from a pitcher.”
It took some prompting, but the pitcher came out of hiding.
“Can I take a picture?”
“OK. But I don’t want to be in it.”
“OK. But promise you’ll never show it to anyone.”
“Please. People will enjoy it.”
“OK. But you have to do something to block out my face.”
We laughed together.
But Hernán's objection wouldn't go away. Would this picture be amusing to someone who has lived through the horror of rape?
So I'm still asking what the survivor needs.
Maybe laughter isn't the answer. But surely the day when she's able to laugh again, she'll know how far she's traveled on the
road to healing.
Imagine working in an office where as people enter they hug and kiss all their co-workers every morning. You start the day with about a dozen hugs and kisses and of course more each time you leave and return. Here we might call it sexual harassment. But I loved these gestures of affection and solidarity while I was collaborating with Educar es fiesta, [www.educaresfiesta.org] a nonprofit organization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, serving young people living in difficult circumstances and families in crisis.
Edson Quezada, known to all as "Queso" -- Cheese (from his last name, not because he's the Big Cheese) founded the organization believing that training in the arts is also training for life, that children have an intrinsic natural right to joy, and learning must go hand-in-hand with happiness.
Educar es fiesta draws young people into the program by offering theatre and circus arts--trapeze, aerial dance, juggling, unicycles, gymnastics, even some tightrope-walking, to develop self-expression, self-confidence, and perseverance. The kids learn that to develop a new skill, they may fail many times till they achieve success. The traditional schoolroom is too often a site
of frustration, failure, and disrespect for Quechua-speaking indigenous migrants from the rural zones and for the poor, so Educar
es fiestateaches in environments as different from the classroom as possible--like with kids sprawled out on the floor of the circus tent. The team also offers workshops on health, sexual health, nutrition, nonviolence, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, tutoring, and more. And as children arrive for their workshops, every child gets a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
By contrast, when I worked with kids in Los Angeles, I had to sign a document agreeing I wouldn't allow any game--even tag, that required touch. If a child asked to be hugged, I was to acquiesce, squat down and allow the child to hold my side.
Of course I am cognizant of the realities of sexual abuse. In Bolivia, the children who are hugged also receive training in the campaign "My body is my territory: no one touches it without my permission." But touch is primary to human beings.
The baby knows touch before it can interpret visual signals or understand words. If children aren't hugged and held in healthy ways by responsible adults, surely that makes them prime targets for predators who will exploit their need. For children who've been abused or abandoned, hugs can heal.
Back in Los Angeles, I watch the local news and see that a prohibition against touching would not have prevented the abuse that recently came to light of an elementary school teacher allegedly feeding his bodily fluids to children in his class.
In the Andean nations, educators like Queso now talk about what Peruvian Alejandro Cussiánovich has termed La pedagogía de la ternura -- the Pedagogy of Tenderness. In Peru and Bolivia, with past histories of military dictatorship and violent repression, and Colombia with its elected civilian government and an ongoing armed conflict, the idea is that school needs to be a place of nurture,
not discipline, for people who've been silenced, hardened and traumatized by years of violence. Tenderness does not mean sheltering kids or being overprotective: the point of this education is not to indoctrinate, but to nurture children so they can become the protagonists of their own lives.
Tenderness. It's what I wish for American children who are growing up in some of our inner city neighborhoods where due to crime and gang violence kids show a higher rate of PTSD than their counterparts in Baghdad during the worst days of war there.
The Educar es fiesta staff also offers workshops to public school teachers to share the techniques of "buen trato"--techniques of classroom management based on mutual respect rather than the more military model of discipline and punishment. This
reminded me of a friend here in California who was so disgusted with her teaching job in an inner city elementary school, she talked about quitting. But when I visited the school a couple of years ago, the children seemed happy, bright, and eager to learn.
"Oh yes," said my friend. "We have a new principal and she's turned everything around." What did the miracle-worker do? "She called a meeting and told the teachers they could no longer yell at the children or insult them."
The children of Educar es fiesta know what it is to be disrespected. In its first year, a little more than ten years ago, Queso reached out to the kids who waited at the cemetery for mourners who might give them a tip for cleaning windshields. The
children were often abused by the cemetery guards. It was a great joke to take a little boy and throw him into a newly dug grave from which he would not be able to climb out. But when these same kids performed their plays in public, they were greeted with applause and cheers. Their status changed, not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of the larger community.
Poverty has led to the disintegration of many families as parents migrate in search of work to Argentina, Chile, Spain, and--most recently, Japan. The kids get left behind. There's Laura. She lives with her grandmother who can put a roof over the girl's head but has little to offer in the way of food or affection.
Laura goes to school in the morning. Then she goes to "work"--standing outside a modest restaurant where she'll guard cars for people as they eat in exchange for tips. Few people arrive in cars. Without tips, she goes hungry. While we in the US worry about
"boundaries," in Cochabamba, if Jimena Ari, teacher and facilitator with Educar es fiesta, is going home for lunch, she takes Laura along for a meal with her family--and to take chess lessons from niece Ceci who's already obsessed with the game.
In the afternoon, Laura's at the circus tent, eager to learn.
When the other kids have left, Laura hangs around the office. Until it's time to lock the doors, no one chases her away. If there's a project that can use an extra pair of willing hands, she helps out. Otherwise, she experiments with the computer. Maybe she'll get a glass of milk and some bread. She'll definitely be hugged. And someone will tell her how intelligent she is, and how beautiful, and that she is loved.
My article today in LA Progressive, the first of my reports from Bolivia.
You can find it in any market or supermarket. Under the brand name Windsor, it comes in boxes that look much like any box of Lipton tea in the US. I drank it in the morning instead of coffee. In the evening, I preferred trimate, the coca leaves mixed with chamomile and anise.
In Bolivia, as in much of the Andes, people understand that coca leaves are not the same as cocaine. The leaves, which are rich in vitamins and minerals, are used for tea, in candies, in flour for baking cakes, as an anaesthetic, and in beverages–as they still are in Coca-Cola, following a process that removes any detectable trace of drug so that only the sugar and nutrition-free caffeine remain as stimulants.
Bolivia’s socialist president, Evo Morales, who took office in 2006, was a coca grower and led the growers’ union. He’s also Aymara, in a country where the indigenous majority has been oppressed and discriminated against for centuries.
His election–like that of Barack Obama here–led to an often racially-based backlash revealing profound social rifts. To many people in the caste that used to run Bolivia, it’s disconcerting to see, just for one example, an indigenous woman take her place as a Cabinet minister wearing traditional garb. Morales has also lost some support among his one-time backers for promoting a new highway through the Tipnis National Park, home to three indigenous groups. But the opposition, encouraged no doubt by the US war on drugs, often uses the coca connection to demonize him. These critics don’t label the president as a socialist, or an Indian. They say, darkly, he’s a cocalero.
Bolivia’s Constitution guarantees equal rights regardless of race, language, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. There’s been backlash here too. While I was in Cochabamba offering my arts-based literacy and social justice workshops, the city lived through a Little Rock moment. Girls enrolled for the first time in the city’s most prestigious, previously all-male, public school and boys and their parents battled with police as they tried (in the end, unsuccessfully) to stop the girls from entering the building.
But coca, coca, I was talking about coca.
In the anti-Evo stronghold of Santa Cruz, coffee does seem to be the drink of choice. In the capital, La Paz, a taxi driver told me that because of Morales, the Mexican drug cartels are now slaughtering people in Bolivia–something I could not verify and does not appear to be true. What is true is that acreage under coca cultivation has expanded and the media warns of disastrous
consequences to Bolivian society if the nation were to become a cocaine producer–something that has not happened yet.
Another truth: coca is a hardy plant and can yield four harvests a year. If non-narcotic coca products could be exported to the US, imagine what a boost it would give the small farmers and the legal economies of Andean South America.
Banning coca. It’s as though a dry county in Texas banned potatoes because you can process them to get vodka. But when I said this to a Bolivian friend, she took offense: “Coca is not a potato. It’s medicine. And it’s sacred.”
I started drinking coca tea to prevent and alleviate high altitude sickness–el soroche–something that coca does more effectively and
without the inconvenient and at times life-threatening side effects of drugs like Diamox, prescribed in the US. Coca soothes the stomach and aids digestion. Not only did I stay healthy but I found I didn’t need coffee to start my day. I love coffee. But I’m an addict. At home in California, my head is foggy and pounding until I get my espresso fix in the morning.
Bolivians are not ignorant of the dangers of addiction or careless about health. While we in the US use tiny print on cigarette warning labels, in Bolivia the message comes through loud and clear, taking up half the space on the pack:
Cada seis minutos muere un fumador. (Every six minutes a smoker dies.)
On the cartons in duty-free airport shops, purchasers are warned in large capital letters in English that smoking can cause
And yes, coca leaves are sacred, as I learned when we offered them up in a ritual to la Pachamama, the divinity of Mother Earth.
Back home, my first cup of coffee in weeks upset my stomach, set my heart to pounding and my hands to shaking. I would still be drinking coca tea, if only I could.
For now, let's just say for learning, you need JOY.
Once I've recovered from wonderfulness, I'll be blogging about my time collaborating with the inspiring people of Educar es fiesta
in Cochabamba, Bolivia who use the arts--including circus arts--to bring education, life skills, and JOY to children in difficult situations and families in crisis. Viva Bolivia!