Doug Glover was good enough to publish this account of our work and my own uncertainties in the February 2014 issue of Numero Cinq. Which you can read here.
So here I am, all excited that the new book is available when I come across a review of The Blessing Next to the Wound, one I'd never seen before. And what makes me so happy with it is that the blogger wouldn't ordinarily read anything like our book. I love reaching people in this unexpected way. Here's what she wrote in the blog Gloria's Mind: About Everything, Nothing and Maybe a Few
Green BooksCampaign: The Blessing Next To The Wound
Posted on Wednesday,November 10, 2010 | 1 Comment
This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a
stand to support books printed in an eco-friendlymanner by simultaneously
publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled orFSC-certified paper. By
turning a spotlight on books printed using eco-friendly paper, we hope to raise
the awareness of book buyers and encourageeveryone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.
The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green
company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the
discussionon “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner!
A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.
The Review: I do not really enjoy reading books with political and historical themes. I find the text too cumbersome. I skip past it and read something that is more useful for me at the moment. So, I was surprised to see, The Blessing Next To The Wound, by Hector Aristizabal andDiane Lefer, when it arrived at my home.
I opened the package and I was sure I didn’t order it. I emailed Raz from Eco-Libris to let them him know I was either sent the wrong book or that I ordered a wrong book. Maybe it was a subconscious mistake. Hector Aristizabal taught me mistakes can turn out to be a good thing.
When it happened: I was making dinner one night, just a few days after receiving,The Blessing Next To The Wound. The food on the stove had a few minutes to siton the stove to finish cooking. My office is right next to the kitchen (makes for poor eating habits) and so; I noticed the book sitting there on my desk unopened. It wasn’t the authors’ fault a mistake was made and it takes
a lot of work to write a book. I kept looking at the book… The picture of the man with the blindfold over his eyes and the title really peaked my curiosity. Why was this book even on the Eco-libris list?
So,I turned the page to the introduction and began to read. When the timer on the stove beeped notifying me that dinner was ready to serve I looked the corner of the page to bookmark it and I realized I was several pages into reading this book by the time the timer on the stove went off. I was hooked and I knew I was. So, when Raz from Eco-libris returned my email, I let him know it wasn’t
a problem after all. This was turning out to be a good read. It was a good read.It was a very good read.
There is something humbling about reading about a man living through poverty,political crisis, torture, abortion of his own children, and deaths of two of his brothers that really make a book like this amazing and well worth the read.Though keeping the dates, times, and names of a few places took a lot of notetaking it was everything between the lines that I took in. This was truly and inspiring tale about taking something from the bad and using it to heal others as well as oneself. Hector did just that. He used his acting abilities and his psychotherapeutic know-how and then used it to help people heal. In the end he finally began to use these skills to help himself too.
The Blessing Next To The Wound is printed on recycled paper
Beneath the Blindfold
Protesting at the gates of Ft Benning in Georgia, November 2006, I met Kathy Berger and Ines Sommer, Chicago filmmakers, who were dedicating years of their lives to making a documentary about torture survivors. Instead on focusing on the horrific acts, on the scandals, the exposés, they wanted to show the aftermath in the lives of human beings. Hector was one of the survivors whose
lives they planned to film.
We’ve stayed in touch but Jan 18 was my first chance to see the finished product, Beneath the Blindfold, at a screening at International House, University of Chicago, organized to coincide with the events planned for Hector and me. It was extra exciting because the documentary had just had a sold-out screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which meant an extra encore show was quickly scheduled. And we were thrilled to see the work get attention from The Atlantic, even before its real release.
Besides Hector, they profile Matilde de la Sierra, a physician from Guatemala who made the mistake of trying to provide medical care to the indigenous; Blama Massaquoi, of Liberia, forced into service as a child soldier and then forced to drink a caustic substance that destroyed his esophagus; Mario Venegas of Chile; Donald Vance, the former Navy man who was detained and tortured by US forces at Camp Cropper (same facility that held Saddam Hussein) after he became a private contractor and blew the whistle on his employer selling US arms to insurgents.
We also got to have dinner with Sarah Moberg of the University's Human Rights Program. Sarah did a lot to make the screening possible. Thank you!
It was gratifying to see the audience response to these very human stories. And I very much enjoyed seeing Hector’s kids, Gabo and Camilla as they looked years ago. (They’re all grown up now and very sophisticated teens.) And his mother, who is usually so quiet being outspoken enough to loudly argue that Hector’s performances prove his masochism. Less pleasing, the footage of me — at Ft. Benning and at the Healing Club event at the Program for Torture Victims as we celebrated the grant of asylum to Meluleki, survivor from Zimbabwe.
I hope this film gets seen!
tatiana de la tierra is in Mexico now, celebrating the publication of her newest chapbook (which i can't wait to see), but while she's there, she posted on La Bloga the essay in form of a letter I sent her when I returned from Barrancabermeja in May.
In Barrancabermeja, Colombia you don't
have to moisturize, there's so much petroleum in the air. They bathed your brow
in oil... goes a line from the city's own anthem (to be sung at public events
following the national anthem, and the himno of the departmento de Santander)
and they say nothing happens here without the permission of Ecopetrol, the
state-controlled oil company, (though the degree of control can be questioned as
each aspect of oil extraction and refining and shipping in Colombia seems to
have its own financial structure with the Colombian government owning shares
here and there and transnational corporations controlling projects and then
there are the shares sold to the public so that it remains a great mystery who
is really in charge of anything). Nevertheless I guess I would not have found
myself in Barranca if Ecopetrol had not given its blessing to the Primer
Festival Internacional de Teatro por la Paz.
Tatiana, you wanted to know how it went for me in tu tierra, in a part of tu
tierra where you have never been, and still overwhelmed by everything I saw and
heard and experienced during the past two weeks (May 20-30, 2011), I am trying
to organize my thoughts enough to tell you.
Before I left for Colombia, all I knew (from the internet) was that Barrancabermeja was infamous for massacres, disappearances, street battles between guerrilla armies and rightwing paramilitaries, oppressive heat and humidity, characteristic odor, and
mosquitoes carrying chloroquine-resistant malaria. How did such a place--which
only recently got its first movie theatre open to the public--become the site of
an International Theatre Festival for Peace and where did I get the thoroughly
presumptuous idea I could lead writing workshops there in Spanish?
So let me introduce you to: Yolanda Consejo Vargas, dancer and theatre artist born
in Mexico, and her husband Italian-born director Guido Ripamonti. In 2007, they
found themselves in Barranca, in the low-income neighborhood, Comuna 7, and
there they found a community that had organized itself to resist violence and
oppression. They saw the people of Comuna 7 reweaving the social fabric that had
been shredded during years of terror and trauma, people committed to healing
social wounds, educating their children for social responsibility and for peace.
Inspired, Yolanda and Guido moved in and decided to stay. They began offering
classes in theatre and literature and dance and more as well as training their
students to go into primary schools to share what they'd learned.
A year ago, Yolanda had the idea that the Centro Cultural Horizonte
Ciudadela Educativa should organize an international festival. Artists from
around the world would present performances and also teach. There would be
activists and academics offering presentations and discussion groups, everything
open free to the public, everything aimed at advancing a culture of peace. Out
went the invitations, riding through the ether on little more than faith. The
acceptances came in: from all over Colombia, from Mexico (so many in fact that
some of us began to refer to Barrancaberméxico), from Venezuela, from Argentina
and Chile, from France and Italy and Germany and Israel, from an Iranian exile
in Canada, from my frequent collaborator Hector Aristizábal (Colombian living
here in the US), and from me. Hotels offered rooms for the international
visitors. Social organizations such as the Corporación de desarrollo y paz del
magdaleno medio and of course Ecopetrol pledged support. Lacking a theatre
space, Yolanda and Guido had a huge tent--one that could accommodate 800
people--set up on the lawn in between the city's one library and the university. The university, the policlínica, the teacher's college, the high school, the vocational training institute offered auditoriums and classrooms for the lectures, workshops and conferences.
Such an event had never before been seen in Barrancabermeja. Not that the city lacks culture. Barranca attracts people from all over the country who arrive seeking work and they bring their music--their cumbias and vallenatos--and cuisine and local traditions with them.
I've rarely met people as open and friendly and kind. All over town, people gave
us a warm welcome, delighted that foreigners would visit not for oil but for
art. Musicians from Atlántico invited me and Chilean performance artist Andrea
Lagos (one of my roommates) to ride with them on the back of their open truck as
they headed off to parade with other groups through town. The parade started off
from a spot near the monument to Padre Camilo Torres, the guerrilla priest who
fell in combat the first time he went into battle alongside the ELN. I read his
words: "LA CONSTANTE LUCHA REVOLUCIONARIA DEL PUEBLO, NOS LLEVARA A LA V... DE LA VICTORIA" as children played on the sloping metal of the sculpture and turned it into a slide, and I wondered at the tacit approval of Ecopetrol. Could the
monument stand without it?
Monument or no monument, the army and police are in firm control of Barrancabermeja. Security is tight. Tatiana, I know you don't like to hear about violence, but I need to refer to the killings that took place in Comuna 7, about the 20 families still waiting to know what happened to their loved ones who were taken away and disappeared in 1998, still waiting as a priest put it, to recover the "huesitos." And I refer to that and to the years of violence that followed because while I was in Comuna 7, I saw
people out strolling late at night, riding bicycles, sitting outside cooking, eating, drinking with friends, living normal lives, unafraid. Terror continues, however, in the countryside with car bombs and firefights and where small farmers and other civilians continue to be driven from their land and their homes.
But enough about violence. Do you know the slogan of the city that's posted
everywhere? Barrancabermeja--Donde el Amor es Clave.
And I was supposed to be writing about theatre. With 50 shows, I couldn't see them all and regret I don't have space to mention all I did see. Grupo Norte Sur from the Reynosa-Tamaulipas area of Mexico presented a stunning version of Macbeth--one of the most powerful productions I've ever seen. The opening and closing scenes were realistic
depictions of the terror now unfolding in those communities. Director Medardo
Treviño created indelible images, German Expressionism in style, for the rest of
the production. The play began at 1:00 AM and ended at 3:00 AM and was
absolutely worth staying up for. The young people from the Centro Cultural
Horizonte offered the premiere of Préludio, directed and choreographed by
Yolanda, an often breathtaking, intensely physical and imagistic vision of their
world. All week they'd been helping out, waiting on everyone hand and foot, and
suddenly they revealed themselves onstage as gods and goddesses, as did my
roommate Andrea. Another young group, Teatro Encarte from El Peñol outside of
Medellín, gave a performance--Voces del Barrio--with so much impact they were
almost immediately offered a booking in Mexico, the first time these kids will
travel outside of their own country.
Somehow, my workshops worked. For three hours every morning I had a
wonderful mix of children, college students, curious adults from the community,
and teachers all of whom had their own reasons for wanting to learn techniques
for getting people to write when they think they can't. Everyone was patient
with my bad Spanish and with my difficulties in understanding them, especially
when my ears were still clogged from the flight.
I had such a wonderful and inspiring time. Barranca's bad reputation is undeserved. The heat was not as oppressive and suffocating as the internet had me believe. The climate is tropical, but with compañer@s I walked comfortably for hours from one end of the city to another. I enjoyed the breeze that blew through the chalupa traveling the
Magdalena River up to Puerto Wilches and back. I had assumed that rooms would,
at best, have ceiling fans, but air conditioning was not uncommon. The smell
from the refinery seemed less noticeable than what we experience here in
Wilmington and parts of Long Beach. I was bitten by mosquitoes, but not plagued
"You've come at a good time," said the man at the hotel desk. "A few years ago,
the city was ugly and poor."
And yet, I'm sorry to say this, the city of more than 200,000 has no right to be as ugly and as poor as it is. Where do the riches from the oil industry go? I don't mind walking through rubble and wading through mud for a couple of weeks, but what about the people who live here? Why don't they have better? Why the hell is the infrastructure crumbling? Why are the sidewalks all broken and the roads torn up? Why have the doors fallen off the toilets in the university and the partitions between the stalls? Why do the benches in the parks lack seats? Ecopetrol boasts of having created the wire sculpture of the Cristo Petrolero that looms over La Ciénaga in front of the refinery, a pond that
shines a fluorescent chemical green, its surface opaque. As people say, Not even Christ can clean up this water.
The people of your tierra deserve better.
Tatiana, I loved being in Colombia but it's good to be home. I am still suffering from sleep deprivation. And I missed my cat. I know you love yours so you'll understand. Ethnocentric, I often assume that outside the US people aren't devoted to their animals but in the Escuela Normal Cristo Rey the patios and corridors were home to dozens of cats and kittens, strays that shelter there because the students are so dedicated to
feeding them and caring for them. All around the carpa and surrounding buildings
and streets stray dogs wandered at will, skinny creatures, but with healthy coats, calm and friendly as though they'd never been kicked or abused.
One night, Tatiana, the carpa was filled to capacity, standing room only, more than
800 people watching the show. When I spotted an empty seat, I headed for it,
making my way through the tight space between rows. I stopped short when I heard
a whimper. A little dog was curled up just at the foot of the chair and try as I might, I could see there was no way to maneuver myself into the space without stepping on the little animal. I resigned myself to standing. Throughout the evening I watched as one person after another headed for the empty seat only to turn around. In this country 5 million people have been violently displaced from their homes, many people in the audience among them. I marveled. No one in the carpa of peace had the heart to displace the little dog.
(to see the photos that accompanied the piece:
“Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in
Barrancabermeja,” by Diane Lefer
Friends and family expressed concern when I said I was going to Colombia. Isn’t it dangerous? So I got a kick out of the tourism video Avianca showed en route: Colombia! The risk is that you won’t want to leave!
Apparently something of the sort happened to Yolanda Consejo Vargas, dancer and theatre artist born in Mexico, and her husband Italian-born director Guido Ripamonti
when they found themselves in 2007 in Barrancabermeja, specifically in Comuna
7, which began as a neighborhood of squatters–people who’d been driven out of
the countryside by violence, had landed in the city and were struggling to get
by. The area was controlled by the guerrilla forces of the ELN. Then rightwing
paramilitary death squads swept in, disrupting a Mothers Day celebration in
1998, killing and disappearing civilians, including children, while the
Colombian military failed to intervene. The people of Comuna 7 organized, intent
on reweaving the social fabric and creating a culture of peace. They set up what
they termed an “educational citadel” to keep their kids in school and prepare
them for a socially responsible future. Impressed, Yolanda and Guido wanted to
be part of it. They moved in. As directors of the Centro Cultural Horizonte,
they offer classes in theatre, dance and creative writing. More, they train
their students who then go to the primary schools in the most marginalized
neighborhood of all as volunteer arts instructors. It was because of Yolanda
and Guido that I flew in May to Colombia.
Barrancabermeja, home to the country’s major oil refinery, a city of more than 200,000 that until recently didn’t have a movie theatre open to the public let alone a stage for live performance, may seem an unlikely location for an international theatre festival. But that was Yolanda’s dream, and from May 21-29 hundreds of international and national theatre artists along with muralists, musicians, human rights workers and scholars converged there to offer 50 shows, 20 arts workshops, and a range of lectures and discussions all open free to the public during the First International Theatre Festival for
I knew it would be a great trip from the moment in the airport in Bogotá when I met up with Claudia Santiago and her Mexico City-based theatre company, Espejo Mutable, all of us waiting for the connecting flight. Turned out Claudia is originally from
Juchitán, Oaxaca. Decades ago, I’d run away to Oaxaca and spent time in Juchitán
and it turned out she knew a family I’d stayed with. We sat together on the
flight and couldn’t stop talking. Claudia has been doing research and interviews
among Oaxaca’s migrant farm children inside Mexico. Kids who don’t go to school,
who are exposed to pesticides. She hopes to be in California soon to learn more
about their counterparts working the fields here. I couldn’t wait to see her
group’s production of Bidxaa, which turned out to be a visually engrossing
performance for both children and adults, drawn from a Zapotec myth about
In Barrancabermeja, local dance groups welcomed us with a carnival parade. Then, in a tent set up on the lawn between the city’s one library and the satellite campus of the state university, as many as 800 spectators each night enjoyed productions ranging
from breathtaking ensemble work from the youth of Comuna 7 to circus theatre
from the aerialists of Venezuela’s Circomediado.
Teatro Dell'Ecce from Italy, solved the language problem with a play without words while from Israel, Yoguev Itzhak projected subtitles for the story of a Palestinian Arab
boy in a Jewish hospital. Mexican companies Teatro Tequio and Norte Sur Teatro
from Tamaulipas presented uncompromising depictions of the violence now
troubling their homeland. Solo performers included my two wonderful roommates,
Andrea Lagos from Chile and Silvana Gariboldi from Argentina. And of course, my
frequent collaborator, Hector Aristizábal–Colombian now living the US–who would
perform Viento Nocturno, the Spanish-language version of our play, Nightwind, about his arrest and torture by the US-trained Colombian military, his brother’s murder, and how he transformed his desire for violent revenge into work for peace.
Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to noon, Claudia and Espejo Mutable were bussed to a nearby village to work with little children who usually have no access to arts
education. Andrea and Silvana were teaching street theatre and physical theatre
techniques. Hector was facilitating workshops using the techniques of Theatre of
the Oppressed, and I was given space in the national vocational and technical
training center where I led a series of writing workshops in Spanish–an
assignment I’d accepted, though the idea seemed just as improbable as the
theatre festival itself. Even more improbably, just like every aspect of this
improbably wonderful trip, it worked, and so I’d like to share some of what I
did in Barrancabermeja–workshops that were, as you might imagine, rather
different from those I used to co-facilitate in the MFA program at VCFA.
Different because my plan was to offer writing workshops for people who think
they can’t write–often because that’s what they’ve been told.
I’ve been experimenting with ways to demystify the act of writing, of getting words from
the brain through the hand to the page with people who’ve felt silenced by trauma or by marginalization, like some of the kids I’ve worked with in Los Angeles who’ve been labeled illiterate or stupid, whose experience of formal education is one of frustration, disrespect, and failure. In Barrancabermeja, my group of guinea pigs was a wonderful mix of young children, high school and college students, teachers looking for ideas to take to their classrooms, and adults from the city, curious enough to take time off from work and try something new.
The first day everyone got two narrow slips of colored paper. I invited them to write a
realistic compliment on one piece of paper, something like I love your smile. On the other slip, they wrote a fantastical compliment, something impossible that came from the imagination. They were free to ask any question or for help with spelling. We rolled the papers up small and tight and inserted them into balloons. (When I do this with gang members or emotionally disturbed kids, I don’t hand out the balloons till I’ve checked what they’ve written to be sure there are no insults or threats.) Once all the balloons were stuffed and inflated, we hit them around the room till everyone ended up with one. Now came the part that had me worried. The plan was to ask people to sit on their balloons and bounce up and down to burst them and then read the compliments
they’d received. But I wasn’t sure how people who were living through a civil war would react to the bang bang bang and beyond that I was nervous about the police and soldiers stationed in the building. Maybe balloons popping sound nothing like gunfire to people who are used to that sound in real life. In any event, the exercise went off without a hitch.
And yes, some days, security forces stood right in the room with us. Barrancabermeja is not at war these days but I’d say the city is in a state of security rather than peace.
Tourists to Colombia’s cities really need only take whatever precautions against
street crime you’d ordinarily take in an urban environment. But for many Colombians, the armed conflict still rages. Hundreds of participants in the festival came from rural areas where they are caught in the crossfire. The new president, Juan Manuel Santos, unlike his predecessor–rightwing Alvaro Uribe, who now teaches at Georgetown–doesn’t call people “terrorists” when they talk about peace and human rights, but death squads–some linked to politicians and to the army–still do their dirty work. After I returned to Los Angeles, Hector remained in Colombia working with a group of women trying to enforce their rights under the new “victims’ law”intended to help violently displaced people return to their stolen land. While they were meeting, a death threat was
delivered. Not some illiterate scrawl, either, but a typed warning with an official looking seal, stating that these community leaders would be “exterminated without pity.” This was not an idle threat: at about the same time, a woman named Ana Fabricia Córdoba who was demanding enforcement of the law was gunned down in Medellín.
The reality in Colombia is that activists are still being targeted for assassination. If you
gather to talk about peace and human rights, in the eyes of the death squads you are being subversive. But in Barrancabermeja, Yolanda and Guido had won for the festival the endorsement and support of the mayor’s office, the oil company, the Church, the television station, local and regional organizations, including those linked to European governments. With all this backing and good will we could speak openly and assume the security forces were there as protection rather than threat.
* * * *
I love to use Sandra Cisneros’s story “Eleven,” from the collection Woman Hollering Creek, and I took the Spanish translation “Once,” (from El Arroyo de la Llorona) to Colombia with me. The story is told in first person by Raquel, whose eleventh birthday is ruined when her teacher finds a ratty old sweater in the cloakroom, insists it’s hers and makes her wear it. Raquel tries to say the sweater isn’t hers, but she can’t make the words come out, and even when she does speak, she is ignored.
I read the story aloud, book in hand, because for people who may not have books at home or who know books as tasks they have to do for school, I want to instill the love of
the printed word. After reading, I ask, “Has this ever happened to you?” I ask everyone to write a paragraph explaining the untrue thing that was believed of them. On the back of the page, they write the words they wanted to say, the facts they wanted understood.
There’s always someone who insists they’ve never been misunderstood. So I ask them to write about it happening to someone else, and how they wanted to defend that person
but couldn’t find the words. Or to invent a situation. (Once in California, a little girl told me she never allowed anyone to say wrong things about her, but she admitted her brother had been unable to convince their mother of the truth when she lied about him.)
In our group, it was interesting to see how the experiences varied by age: the little boy blamed for a noisy classroom; the teenager whose mother was told she was hanging around with bad company, the college student accused of stealing someone’s notebook,
and the accountant who wasn’t paid the sum agreed on by people who denied making
the oral contract.
Participants created skits about their bad experiences, encouraged to portray the people
who’d hurt them in ridiculous, exaggerated fashion. Then they read aloud the words they’d wanted to say in their own defense and we all shouted We believe you! We support you!
* * * *
A women’s committee prepared hundreds of meals every day. The panel truck would pull up with stacks of plastic containers full of individual portions, everything tasty and fresh. The first day, volunteers set out tables and chairs under the trees, but it was
time-consuming and burdensome. Soon we learned to take our food and sit anywhere–on the grass, against the wall of the university building seeking shade. (On a previous visit to Colombia I’d missed having hot sauce for my meals so this time I brought my own bottle, happy to share it with the Mexicans.)
Afternoons, before the performances began, there were lectures and discussion groups. I was more interested in the sessions on current politics than the academic offerings. What was the point? I thought, until I saw how participants with limited education
felt honored to be included in conversations about Lacan and the unconscious, about brain evolution, and literary theory, to be able to ask“What does the word ‘intertextuality’ mean?” and be answered in a respectful way with no one talking down to them.
It made me wonder about our American penchant for dumbing down education. And, in making my workshops fun, was I condescending? I was reassured when two of the teachers asked for a copy of “Once.”
* * * *
Part of demystifying the act of writing is getting away from the idea that it has to
mean sitting still, staring at a blank page. It can become every bit as natural as moving around, talking, doodling.
I asked everyone to invent a new product that could magically solve a social problem, draw the advertisement for it, and write the advertising copy. An adult woman invented a chocolate bar that makes you lose weight. An activist drew an injection that keeps memory alive and puts an end to societal indifference. Twelve-year-old Julieth drew a pair of cheap but magnificent“anti-prostitution” shoes. Girls who wear them become incapable of selling their bodies, something I later learned one after another of her classmates has begun to do.
Some years back, VCFA graduate and professional storyteller Judy Witters sent chills up and down my spine with her rendition of the tale that served as the basis for Chaucer’s
Wife of Bath. A knight is condemned to death for raping a girl but his life will be spared if he finds the answer to the question What do women want? He is about to forfeit his head when a hideous crone gives him the answer: “sovereignty.” But he must marry her in return. On their wedding night, she tells him she is under a spell and he can break it. He can choose whether she is to be transformed into a beautiful young woman who will make his life miserable or she can remain old and hideous but will never betray him. When he allows her to make the choice–recognizes her sovereignty, she becomes both beautiful and good.
In my version, whether in English or Spanish, I try to keep the mood lighter. With children, I talk about attack or assault rather than rape. The knight gets silly answers on
his quest: the palace cat thinks women want a plate of tuna; the dog thinks women want a good master. Ultimately–I admit it’s less poetic than “sovereignty,”–the knight learns that “Women want the right and the power to make their own decisions about their own
After I finish telling the story, I point out that What do women want? is a big question. What does Diane want for lunch? is a small question. I divide our participants into groups and ask each group to agree on a big question for which they want to seek the answer. Then out come the long rolls of paper so they can create murals showing the quest, asking “experts” for answers, and finally writing out the best answer the group can devise. One group asked how to be a good parent. The tiger said, “Teach your children to hunt.” The tortoise said, “Bury them in the sand and let them fend for themselves.” The human grandfather’s advice filled the entire righthand panel. One group asked how to make children value books. The television, the radio, the computer all said, “I’ve got everything you need right here.” Disgraceful of me, really, but I don’t remember what the solution was.
* * * *
Local hotels donated rooms for the international artists, but apparently just one room per hotel, and so, early every morning, the Festival sent a bus which made the rounds to gather us all and to return us to our rooms at night. It was a chance to see more of the city, but after Andrea discovered our hotel was actually within walking distance, we sometimes headed out on foot. The community groups, the teachers and kids from different regions around the country, camped out on the floor of the cultural center in Comuna 7. One night we were all there for a startling performance by the Mexican group Norte Sur. It ended at 3:00 AM. Time to get to sleep. No…the kids were soon outside the building with their musical instruments. The dance party began.
* * * *
In Los Angeles, in getting a kid to write I sometimes have to convince him first that stuff in his head matters. I’ll spend an hour interviewing a young man. Then I write up the
story of his life, print it out on nice paper and give it to him. Then I ask him questions about himself and this time he has to write the answers. Very often, the kid’s mind works faster than his hand and he can’t remember his answer long enough to get it on the page. I make him repeat his answer aloud until he has it memorized and then writes it down word by word. Pretty quickly these kids develop the facility of transferring thought directly to paper.
The young people in Colombia were either a highly motivated group or else their confidence has not been crushed. Even the kids who struggled a bit with spelling and grammar wrote their exercises with enthusiasm and without hesitation. Because I didn’t need to interview anyone, I asked them to interview and write biographies of each
The next day we held a press conference. I told them they were all journalists and could
interview a Martian just arrived on earth as well as two more people of their choice, living or dead. The group chose Jesus and William Shakespeare. Three of them sat up front to play the subjects.
“But I don’t know anything about Shakespeare,” objected Izeth. Then she got the idea, “I get to make it up?” And she did. We learned Shakespeare’s first play, Hermosura,
was so bad, he threw it out. That there’s controversy about who wrote his plays because while he was living in a farmhouse in Scotland, a false friend stole his manuscripts and tried to pass them off as his own. Jesus hadn’t returned sooner because he couldn’t afford the airfare. Now he’d been able to hitch a ride with the Martian. And the Martian who, we learned had four wives and many children, spoke a language that consisted mostly of cak cak cak and relied on sign language to communicate along with the help of Jesus as interpreter.
The questions kept coming, the subjects kept improvising. We learned Jesus disapproves of gossip and doesn’t like fast food. The journalists took notes. When they wrote up their reports later–some for television broadcast, some intended for the radio, some for print–I was impressed at how accurate the accounts were not to mention well
written and very funny. I’d thought that coming up with questions and taking notes and–for the three subjects, doing all that while also improvising–might be asking too much. But now I think that being active, instead of passively listening to a presentation, kept them engaged and better able to concentrate later and quietly shape the material in their reports. The only errors I caught? Two people rendered Shakespeare’s discarded play as Hermoso (beautiful) rather than Hermosura(beauty). If NY Times were only as accurate as that, we’d all be better informed.
* * * *
The young people from Centro Cultural Horizonte were on hand every day as volunteers handing organizational and logistical support. They were great but I had no idea what we were in store for when they performed “Preludio,” an intensely physical, precisely choreographed story of their lives, juggling their bodies in and out of picture frames, heads thrust through rungs of a chair. Any misstep could have caused injury. We watched fights with machetes, we watched the struggle for dignity and identity, we saw violence, and death and the reconciliation of victims and perpetrators. I was left breathless, but some of the people in the audience truly couldn’t breathe. Because the performance was more abstract than realistic, I was not at first aware of the impact it had on people still traumatized by the violence in their own communities. “We were frozen,” a woman told me. “I didn’t know how we could stay here. How we could go on.” Then Hector performed and, as is his custom, followed the disturbing performance with
exercises for the audience: chaotic breathing, the releasing of sounds including shouts and screams. People reacted by making images with their bodies, by expressing what they wanted to see in the world instead of what they’d already seen. We moved. We shook ourselves. We shouted. “That saved us,” the woman told me.
Movement. That’s what I want. I reject it so completely–that whole educational model of people sitting motionless, silent, in chairs.
We did theatre exercises, moving around the room, making noise as we explored what makes us feel big, and small, generous, greedy. We entered the minds and bodies of people we don’t like and then wrote monologues in their voices.
We wrote dialogues. The group divided into pairs and I gave them a first line: “Where were you last night?” or “You’re not going to like what I have to say.” They passed the paper back and forth, creating the conversation one line at a time. Then it occurred
to me, what if a third person entered the scene? I interrupted some of the couples and sent them over to intervene in other conversations. But no one wanted to abandon their own entirely, so pretty soon, it was the controlled chaos of musical chairs as people ran from seat to seat, adding lines in one scene, then returning to another.
In LA, I’ve sometimes been accused (accurately) of allowing too much chaos in the room. As one employer pointed out, “These kids live in chaos. This is one place where
they should have the security of order.” Which was true. It’s not that I didn’t agree, but part of me wanted them to see they could concentrate, complete a project, and achieve in spite of chaos around them. Still, my Colombian participants seemed to have had a respect for orderliness instilled in them. What was controlled chaos in Barrancabermeja would likely have been total chaos at home.
Sunday morning I’m free and so I take a boat up to the next town, Puerto Wilches. The Magdalena River is a major transportation route in the region. Flooding this winter left
many people homeless. With road washed out and bridges down, some communities
remain cut off.
Colombians express shock at pictures of the tornado devastation in the US. “We thought American houses were built strong.”
And a teenager who recently survived a car bomb and being caught in the crossfire between soldiers and FARC guerrillas said “People may change, but Nature won’t.”
It’s hard to say goodbye. Yolanda and Guido are already planning for next year.
* * * *
Back home, after two weeks in the sweltering tropics, I walk outdoors and it feels like the world itself is air conditioned. For two weeks, I picked my way through rubble and mud
and now I look at our clean streets and paved roads and think how privileged we
are and wonder how long we will stay that way as we seem intent on restructuring
the economy to resemble, well, Colombia’s. I think how much we take for granted
and how we may lose it all thanks to a philosophy that sees the only legitimate
function for government is homeland security and waging war.
I think how hot and humid it was in Barrancabermeja and yet in the tent I never smelled sweaty bodies. There was a fragrance in the air, like church incense, and though I kept
asking, no one could tell me the source.
And I keep thinking about the tale I told and how dissatisfied I am in the end because of what’s missing from it. The knight learns his lesson. He reforms and lives happily ever
after. But Chaucer doesn’t tell us what happened to the victim. Her story is dropped. There’s the other big question. What does the survivor of violence want? (Justice? Revenge? A gun?) What does the survivor need? From now on, I’ll need to ask that question.
During the festival, sociologist and Catholic priest Father Leonel Narváez said we need to forgive. But he defined forgiveness in an unaccustomed way. It doesn’t mean reconciliation. It doesn’t mean taking the offender by the hand. Justice must still be done and perpetrators brought to account by the State (which becomes complicated when the State has been one of the perpetrators). Forgiveness is a transaction you do not with the perpetrator but with yourself, he said. It’s how you relieve yourself of bitter hatred and resentment and desire for revenge. Father Leonel talked about forgiveness as a political virtue and a necessary daily practice in order to put an end to Colombia’s six-decades long cycle of violence.
And I thought of Rita Chairez who coordinates the Victims of Violent Crime Ministry of the Los Angeles Archdiocese Office of Restorative Justice. She facilitates support
groups and accompanies the bereaved who are, in her words, “walking the path I’ve been walking for ten years now,” ever since the murders of her brothers. “We don’t encourage forgiveness,” Chairez has told me. “We encourage healing.”
But maybe in different words they are talking about the same thing.
What does it mean to hold a theatre festival “for peace”? Or to imagine that a writing workshop plays a role in the struggle for social justice?
As a writer, I know that words matter. Hector believes in the wisdom of the body, in spontaneity, but for me that’s only part of what we need. Visceral reactions can be
manipulated so easily. Words can also incite, can trigger the mob. But for me,
words–especially the written word–provide a gap, that space in which critical
analysis can occur. Once the words are on the page, they are apart from me, mine
and not-mine. I can look at them, read them. They let me think about my
thoughts. Maybe that’s why I so much want to see people develop their writing
abilities even if they aren’t “writers” and don’t want to be.
I think about violence in Colombia and in the streets of LA and in our extraordinarily punitive criminal justice system and how we believe in the efficacy of violence, that we can solve problems through the use of force and how the US has been the most powerful military force in the world for a decade longer than Colombia has been wracked by civil war. I think how even when my behavior was nonviolent, for the longest time my language was very angry and violent. When I began to control my words, I remained committed to social justice, but the rage dissipated. I began to think the rage was fueled by feelings of powerlessness, and when I controlled my own words, I didn’t feel quite as
In the workshop in Colombia, the participants spoke their own words and were heard. I have to believe that matters.
Bioethicist Sergio Osorio reminded us one afternoon in Colombia that the language we use will determine what sort of knowledge we gain. We can use language in an empirical,
logical, technical way, or in a fashion that’s symbolic, poetic, and creative. We need both.
I keep thinking about the word “forgiveness.” Once we use it evocatively in a new way, isn’t it possible that something new happens inside us?
After reading The Blessing Next to the Wound, Tatiana -- a wonderful poet/performer in her own right -- met us in Pasadena, bearing buñuelos fresh from her recent trip to Miami. Hector made coffee. We talked, and talked, and talked. Here's what she wrote:
(and if you'd rather see it with photos and correct layout, please click here
Sunday, November 28 The Blessing Next to the Wound JOURNEYING INTO THE JUNGLE
by tatiana de la tierra
Inside the psyche of a young man being tortured in that cell at the top of a hill there is a book that will one day tell his story: The Blessing Next to the Wound. A political memoir rife with intimate and harrowing details of fractured life, this book takes deeply personal wounds on a journey to global healing. This is the story of Hector Aristizábal, a Colombian theater artist, activist and psychologist. It is about some difficult issues—abortion, homophobia, drug addiction, racism, exile, prison, immigration, murder, torture, and the U.S. juvenile justice system. It is about the intersection of creativity, ruptured reality, ritual, and therapy. And it is about Colombia, where the story begins and returns to at critical junctures.
Co-written with Diane Lefer, The Blessing takes place in Medellín, Colombia and Los Angeles, California, with many stops throughout the world. Aristizábal hails from the low-income barrios on the outskirts of Medellín. Rounded up at four in the morning in 1982 by the army in search of guerrilleros, the twenty-two year old university student was taken to a compound where he underwent questioning along with beatings, waterboarding, electric shocks, mock executions, and psychological terror. Ten days later, thanks to pressure from human rights activists, he was released (and went into hiding). His brother Juan Fernando, who had also been arrested, was imprisoned for several months for carrying a machete. In 1999, when his brother was murdered by paramilitaries for his past ties to the Ejército de Liberación Nacional guerrilla group, the enraged Aristizábal demanded an autopsy of his brother’s corpse and photographed the event.
Out of this experience came “Nightwind,” a solo play that re-enacts Aristizábal’s torture and his brother’s autopsy. Co-created with author Diane Lefer and musician Enzo Fina, Aristizábal performs “Nightwind” in the U.S. and around the world.
“The play opened doors for me,” he says. Diane Lefer, Hector and I meet for coffee and conversation one morning in Pasadena. He’s recently returned from an ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon jungle, where he experienced the plant’s healing, illuminating, and maddening psychedelic “pintas” for the first time. Later tonight, he’s heading to Nepal to perform “Nightwind” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at the Kathmandu International Theatre Festival. “‘Nightwind’ opened the chamber of torture for people to see inside, opening the chamber for me to come out of it and not continue to live in it.”
The play also led to further collaboration between Lefer and Aristizábal, including writing and publishing magazine articles. The two joined political and artistic forces after people responded with suggestions that they write a book. Armed with Hector’s journal and his Masters thesis, Diane immersed herself in his voice and interviewed him, his family and others for further details. “Writing the book was harder on me than on him,” she says. “Telling your own story can be cathartic. Putting yourself in someone else’s head, that’s something else. Also I kind of lost track of myself for the years we worked on this, being so identified with his experience.”
Disgusted with U.S. politics and this country’s role in the world, Diane dropped out of college and ran away to Mexico years ago. She refers to herself as a “young idiot” for the time she took a bus through Guatemala and “got a guy with a motorcycle to take me into the United Fruit Company plantation,” where she marched to the manager’s house and demanded to see “the books.” Today, she is hooded and wears an orange Guantanamo outfit on her profile picture on Facebook. This was taken by Robin Lynne Gibson, a photographer who witnessed Lefer in street protest attire the day she was mistaken for a terrorist by the Los Angeles Police Department. The Facebook caption reads, “I thought I’d be able to change the photo by now.”
Lefer writes fiction, advocacy journalism, drama, and nonfiction. She avidly supports Duc Ta, a young man who’s been unjustly locked up in California prisons since 1999. Her activist affiliations include Witness for Peace, the Program for Torture Victims, and the Colombia Peace Project. As her “young idiot” spirit lives on, Diane Lefer is just about the perfect person to bring The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism and Transformation to light.
How did Hector like having his voice channeled by Diane? “It was fantastic. I didn’t have to sit,” he says. “The book exists thanks to Diane, her artistry. She forced me to go deeper… She provided the structure and made final decisions.” One decision she made was to cast the protagonist as truthfully as possible without glossing over his flaws. “When he does workshops, people come to him like he’s this great hero… I want people reading the book to feel like they can overcome anything that’s happened in their past. He’s not perfect. He has issues.”
A structural decision she made was to carry the story back and forth, from Colombia to the U.S. and beyond, out of chronological order, letting the themes drive the narrative. In twelve chapters, we are exposed to a man’s private life—a marriage that blooms and crumbles before our eyes, the lingering psychological effects of torture, a fetus pumping with life that falls into the palms of the hands, a group of men shedding tears for the grieving brother who is unable to cry for himself. Just as important are sociopolitical discussions about complex issues brought out from the personal, and abundant anecdotes and psychological perspectives about people healing through crisis.
With this approach, The Blessing transcends any one person’s experience. For example, “Life from Barren Rock” is a chapter about Hernán Dario, Hector’s thirty-one year old brother who is dying of AIDS after a lifetime of unacknowledged and unaccepted homosexuality. While the chapter centers on his dying brother’s life, it is also about homophobia, the sexilio of gay Latin Americans who leave their countries of birth to live freely as homosexuals, transgender mujeres in Los Angeles, and the power of ritual.
A lot happens in The Blessing, and it took me a bit to get accustomed to narrative jumping around—from personal voice to political discourse, from Medellín to Palestine to Passover dinner, from Hector being in one country, then another, on and on. The book is packed with so many references and information, I wish it had an index. And I appreciate how Colombia is represented here; I can see it vividly. This book is great for anyone who wants to understand the country’s complex history, with concise explanations of La Violencia, guerrilla groups, cocaine mafias, paramilitaries, and phenomena such as los gamines, los deshechables (the disposible ones), young hired killers known as sicarios, and much more.
With training in the performance arts in Colombia, Masters degrees in psychology and marriage and family counseling, twenty years of psychotherapy under his belt, serious personal drama and a penchant for mixing it all up, Aristizábal has developed, over time, a comprehensive and creative approach to healing. He travels the world now, teaching techniques inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. “I also bring psychodrama and the use of ritual, using theatre as a laboratory to explore alternatives to conflict, and theatre with community groups to reconnect with roots of where we come from.” He has offered his workshops all over, including Palestine, Afghanistan, Nepal, India, Northern Ireland, Israel, Canada, Spain, Colombia, Cuba, and the U.S. In Southern California, he has worked with marginalized communities—immigrants, gang members, torture survivors, pregnant teenagers, AIDS patients, “at risk” students and youth in juvenile detention centers.
His subject matter is heavy, I say. How can you focus so much energy on everything that’s painful and wrong in the world? “I hear you, I hear that from my family,” he says. “My sister says ‘you’re morboso’.”
But I won’t tag him as morbid. It’s just that he “goes there” to places that are ugly and uncomfortable. And he stays there long enough to recount, explore, bear witness, find the blessing, and transform.
“My wounds have informed my work,” he says. His brother’s homosexuality and struggle against homophobia inspired him to become a therapist. The time spent with his dying brother led to his work in hospice. He framed his experience with torture as an initiation that marked the beginning of a new life. The death of his murdered brother brought shamanism into his personal healing. When confronted with teenage peace activists from Colombia’s Red Juvenil, his internal terrorist shifted out of retaliation.
“The wound is a tomb for the things that need to die and for the things that are born out of the wound… Most traditional societies believe that when something happens to a person it is important to pay attention to it and find meaning in it, not pretend it didn’t happen.” He uses medical analogy to make his case: a physical wound requires cleaning and disinfecting before it can be sewn up. “In psychic wounds, the idea is not to wound ourselves but to look inside to see what happened to us. What are the internal resources that are awakened in us? … The idea is sufrimiento. To suffer is to bear it, to be able to understand what is in pain… to learn from the pain.”
I get it. A part of me wishes I had not read this book because there are things I’ve tucked away that I don’t want to feel or remember. Yet I am grateful that a book exists to take me there. “We have to do the soul’s work, which is going to the darkness to find the light,” says Hector. “That’s ayahuasca. You go to a dark place and see things; that’s where the light is. You go to the jungle to go into your own jungle. It is a paradox, but it is a beautiful one.”
The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation by Hector Aristizábal and Diane Lefer. Lantern Books, 2010. Available in paperback and e-book format for Amazon’s kindle. Labels: alternative healing, Colombia, Diane Lefer, Hector
Last night I had the pleasure of meeting with members of Group 22 to talk about The Blessing Next to the Wound. And this gives me a chance to congratulate them for an honor I didn't know about last night: they were named the Local Group of the Year at Amnesty International'sWestern Regional Conference in San Francisco due to their extraordinary level of commitment and action. Besides their letterwriting campaigns on behalf of political prisoners, and public outreach, members meet once a month at Vromans Bookstore to discuss a book about human rights and Hector and I were honored to be the November selection. Unfortunately, last night, as we gathered at 6:30 PM, we learned Vromans was closing at 7:00 for a special event they had forgotten to notify anyone about. We adjourned to El Portal for Mexican food and more conversation.
The group--especially Kathy Hansen-Adams--was also instrumental in getting Vromans to schedule an event for us on November 12 where a standing-room-only audience of about 50-60 people discovered we don't just talk about the ills of the world as Hector drummed, told a story, had people laughing and singing a song from Burkina Faso.
November 11 we were at Village Books in Pacific Palisades, thanks to Ulis and Sandra Sunshine Williams. (Seen below thanks to the camera of Carol Gomez.) And I just haven't had a chance to post anything about it. There we enjoyed debate, wine, fuji apples, and baked goodies and as a nice surprise my cousins -- Richard Reynolds and Michele Anderson--joined us.
"You Can Only Oppress People for So Long: -- the UAW's magazine, SOLIDARITY, writes about the School of the Americas, and Hector
'You can only oppress people for so long' How the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia uses your tax dollars to train soldiers who torture – and kill – organizers in Latin America
In an interrogation cell at the Medellin headquarters of the Colombian military in 1982, the guard covered Hector Aristizabal’s hands and arms with a wet sweatshirt, tied a lasso around his hands, threw the other end of the rope over a wood beam in the ceiling of the cell, drew Aristizabal’s arms above him and began to raise his bruised and battered body off the ground, held by nothing except his tired, bound hands and wrists squeezed tightly together by the taut rope. His blindfold meant he couldn’t see when the guard took the first swing at him. But he felt the pain soon enough. The guard began to beat Aristizabal as he swayed back and forth, hanging from the ceiling. The blows came steadily.
By that point, pain and fear were his constant companions.
He had his head submerged in a dirty bucket of water repeatedly until he felt as if he was drowning. Rivers of pain pulsed through his convulsing body with electroshock. He was denied water for days. He wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. He was starved, so much so that a guard who had a moment of pity once tossed a stripped meat bone from his dinner through the cell bars to a desperate Aristizabal. Aristizabal hungrily sucked the marrow from the bone. He remembers the taste of that marrow today, 28 years later. After 10 days he was released, but his brother and his companions were jailed, all because police found a book in their possession that police said made them suspected anti-government subversives, which they were not. Years later his brother would be murdered, Aristizabal says, by the Colombian paramilitary.
A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Aristizabal settled in California after moving to the United States in 1989. He had grown tired of watching a steady stream of people he loved tortured and killed by Colombian paramilitary death squads.
The same Colombian military that tortured Aristizabal – and those thought to have killed his brother, and tortured and murdered union organizers and other human rights advocates for decades – have been trained in counterinsurgence techniques with your federal tax dollars.
That training has taken place on U.S. soil since 1984.
Many members of the Colombian military, and paramilitary units from countries throughout Central and South America, are graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
SOA training facilities and personnel represent a small population at the huge Fort Benning base, where our honorable troops serve.
The base has an average daily population of more than 100,000 members of all the armed forces of the U.S. military and is the Army’s largest training installation. It’s capable of deploying units anywhere in the world.
In contrast, the SOA has roughly 700 to 1,000 students and represents a small portion of the distinguished base’s activity.
The combat training school for Latin American military members opened in Panama in 1946 at the beginning of the Cold War and the early stage of America’s post-war resurgence as an economic powerhouse. Fighting communism and protecting American natural resource interests in other countries were key, especially where our hemispheric neighbors in Central and South America were concerned.
Since its inception in 1946, the SOA has been heavily funded with U.S. tax dollars. When it moved to Fort Benning in 1984, however, Panamanians were happy to see it go. Said then-Panamanian President Jorge Illueca: “[SOA is the] biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”
Since 1946, School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), a group that has been fighting for years to close the SOA, estimates roughly 60,000 soldiers in Latin America have graduated from the school, learning psychological warfare, sniper training, counterinsurgency techniques and interrogation tactics.
Graduates typically go back to their home countries and join secret police units or death squads that target anyone the SOA has trained them to view as threats to their country. According to SOAW, suspects are defined as educators, religious workers, student leaders and anyone (including union organizers) working to decrease the poverty created by staggering income and land ownership disparities in Central and South American countries where SOA graduates operate. Countless Latin Americans have been targeted by SOA graduates with torture, rape, assassination and disappearance. The watch group says SOA’s graduates include notorious dictators such as Efraín Rios Montt of Guatemala and Hugo Banzer of Bolivia. They also say graduates were responsible for the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the 2005 killings of eight members of the San José de Apartadó peace community in Colombia, and the 2009 overthrow of the democratically elected president Zelaya in Honduras.
Union organizers in Colombia are particularly targeted by the country’s SOA-trained military with threats and violence, including murder. According to the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, the murder rate for union organizers in Colombia reached its peak of 275 in 1996. While the rate has decreased since then, SOAW reports that Colombia is still the most dangerous place for union organizing in the world. The International Federation of Free Trade Unions said trade union activists are being “systematically eliminated with most of the killings carried out by paramilitary groups which enjoy the tacit complicity of the SOA-trained security forces.”
Why is the United States training military members who later torture and kill to suppress union organizing and other social justice movements in Latin America? The answer is an old one: wealth, power and union-free labor.
“For the past several decades, the United States was allied with dictators in Latin America who helped that region’s small, elite group of wealthy landowners,” said SOAW founder Father Roy Bourgeois, a Louisiana native, who lives just outside the gates of the school in Fort Benning where he carries on his work.
“We got involved militarily with these countries because they were rich in natural resources, with coffee in Colombia, bananas in Central America, copper in Chile, petroleum in Venezuela and tin in Bolivia, for example. With their militaries, the U.S. joined with them to exploit those natural resources and to pay workers $1 a day and exploit cheap labor. There were no labor laws there,” said Bourgeois.
“We were like the new conquistadors. We enriched ourselves off the backs of the poor,” he added.
Lobbying Congress to cut aid to SOA is one approach Bourgeois and a growing anti-SOA grassroots movement uses to try to shut it down. Another is raising awareness among Americans that their federal tax dollars are funding the training of violent oppressors in Latin America who target union organizers working for the same rights for workers that many Americans have.
Besides educating the public about SOA and lobbying Congress to pull the plug on SOA funding, a third tactic began in the 1990s and has grown ever since.
“We decided to gather at Fort Benning each November around the time of a particularly vicious massacre perpetrated at the hands of SOA graduates. On Nov. 16, 1989, at Jesuit University in San Salvador, El Salvador, in Central America, military police entered the campus after midnight, dragged six priests, a young mother and her daughter out of their rooms and slaughtered them,” said Bourgeois.
“It made the front pages of the news worldwide. They were killed for trying to bring about dialog about the small elite that had most of the land and the wealth, speaking out against worship of wealth and power, and criticizing the suffering caused by U.S. foreign policy there,” he said.
The massacre sparked a congressional investigation, which concluded that those responsible were trained at the SOA.
“We wanted to express our solidarity with the people who are victims and to keep alive the memories of the thousands killed by these graduates,” said Bourgeois.
That first vigil in 1990 attracted about 100 people and grew each year. Now as many as 20,000 participate.
The SOA’s track record of targeting union organizers is especially poignant for those who care about the rights of workers everywhere to organize. UAW President Bob King started attending the November vigils in 2001.
“In our early organizing days the UAW would never have been successful without the support of other unions and people of conscience.We have a moral responsibility to support unionists, community activists and others in Central America working for democracy and justice,” King said.
SOAW says an SOA training manual the Pentagon released in 1996 stresses that graduates should go after union organizers for false imprisonment, torture and execution, and these tactics should be used against those who “support union organizing or recruiting; distribute propaganda in favor of the interests of workers; sympathize with demonstrators or strikes; or make accusations that the government has failed to meet the basic needs of the people.”
Bourgeois said that’s why a growing number of UAW members have been coming to the vigils. “The big word is solidarity. Union members and I are at the vigil to express our solidarity as workers,” he said.
Some union members have even made the sacrifice of being voluntarily arrested at the vigil and imprisoned.
“In 1997 I went to my first vigil,” said Rebecca Kanner, who helped organize workers at the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor (Mich.), members of UAW Local 174. She went back to the vigil year after year and saw a growing number of UAW members there. It made perfect sense to her.
“SOA graduates target anyone who wants change – especially union organizers,” said Kanner. “Organizers in Central and Latin America are trying to give a voice to the people, give them justice. People are barely paid anything down there and work long hours in unsafe conditions.”
At the 2000 vigil Kanner chose to make her powerful statement by being arrested when she crossed the main gate on the base at Fort Benning.
“When you cross into the base, it’s very spiritual,” said Kanner, adding she was inspired to direct action by early school teachings about the duty to speak out against injustice.
“I also was inspired by the Jewish concept of ‘tikkun olam.’ Translated from Hebrew, this means the just ordering of human society and the world or, more literally, the repair of the world,” she said. “And I was inspired by the Jewish prophetic tradition of social justice. As a Jew, I am moved to work to repair the tragic consequences of the SOA.”
She was arrested and stood trial in May 2001 with 25 co-defendants who also crossed the line that day in 2000. Kanner said the judge listened to each defendants’ statements with patience, then sentenced most of them to six months in prison.
“Bob King saw my story in a local newspaper, and when we talked he asked what he could do to support me,” said Kanner. She asked him to take her place at the November 2001 vigil, which she would miss because she’d still be in prison. So he did.
“We’re hoping to have more UAW members come to these vigils,” said Kanner. “That’s another reason I crossed the line.”
Kanner has been attending the vigils every year since she was released from prison in 2002.
Brian Schneck is president of 1,500-member UAW Local 259, based in Hicksville, N.Y., representing auto dealership workers. Schneck has attended all but one of the SOA vigils since 2003 with many of his brothers and sisters from the local.
“In 2003 my local president, Bill Pickering, attended a UAW Independents, Parts and Suppliers [IPS] Conference in Pittsburgh. At the time, Bob King was head of IPS, and he brought in Father Roy Bourgeois as a guest speaker. His presentation inspired me, so I’ve gone every year except for 2005 when we had difficult negotiations at the local,” said Schneck.
“The militaries in Central and South American nations are taught by the SOA to engage in terrorism, target union sympathizers, religious leaders and educators – all to keep people down. We believe that shouldn’t be happening,” Schneck added. “Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we’ve been told that terrorism is bad and we have to root it out across the globe. But every day our tax dollars fund the SOA’s teaching of terrorism.”
There has been a slow response from the U.S. military as public pressure to close the SOA has grown since the vigils began. Congress has voted regularly on SOA funding and, while it still passes, the margin of support for the SOA gets smaller with each year’s vote.
In 1996 the Pentagon reluctantly released some internal teaching documents from the SOA. And in 2001 it even changed the name of the School of the Americas to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) to improve the school’s public image, although SOA opponents said the name change was only a cosmetic diversion from a curriculam teaching the same core values. Graduates are still returning to their home countries to join secret police and death squad units.
But, Bourgeois said, every vigil makes a difference because attendance continues to grow, reaching 20,000 participants in recent years.
And he firmly believes they will reach their goal of closing the SOA thanks to a universal thirst for freedom from persecution.
“You can only oppress people for so long,” said Bourgeois.
'PROJECT X' MATERIALS Time line of SOA training manuals on ‘coercive techniques’ The origins of the counterintelligence training manuals used at the School of the Americas (SOA) have a strong tie to U.S. involvement in the Cold War battle against communism, which has long been prominent in the training manuals.
Here’s the time line of their development and later public exposure that has helped generate growing public interest in shutting down the SOA:
1960s: A CIA training Counterintelligence Interrogation document is put into use by U.S. agents against communist subversion. This manual is the source of much of the material in the CIA’s secret Human Resource Exploitation - 1983 (HRE) manual later used in Latin American military training by the U.S. military. The U.S. Army’s Project X begins counterinsurgency training for U.S. allies around the world based on anti-communism tactics used in Vietnam. Project X materials are later used to create training manuals for the School of the Americas.
1982: U.S. Department of Defense approves SOA training manuals based on Project X documents.
1982-1987: U.S. military trainers begin using HRE manual for training of Latin American militaries.
1987-1991: Counterinsurgency manuals based on SOA training materials are drafted by the U.S. Army and distributed to militaries throughout Latin America, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, and used at the SOA.
1988: The New York Times alleges the U.S. taught the Honduran military torture techniques. The HRE manual is made public during a subsequent congressional hearing.
1996: CIA training manuals are mentioned in a presidential report on intelligence oversight in Guatemala. The report is made public. After intense public pressure from human rights groups, the Pentagon publicly releases the SOA-based, U.S. training manuals distributed to Latin American militaries. The Washington Post later prints excerpts in its article “U.S. Instructed Latinos on Executions, Torture.”
1997: The manuals are finally declassified in response to 1994 Baltimore Sun FOIA request. The public can now verify that each has a chapter devoted to “coercive techniques.”
Sources: “Declassified Army and CIA Manuals Used in Latin America: An Analysis of Their Content” by Lisa Haugaard. Feb. 18, 1997. Latin America Working Group and soaw.org.
“Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past” by Thomas Blanton and Peter Kornbluh. May 12, 2004. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122 and soaw.org.
Department of Defense, “USSOUTHCOM CI Training-Supplemental Information,” (Confidential), July 31, 1991, and soaw.org.
Social Justice Theatre for Colombia
LA's Hector Aristizabal brings creative tools for healing back to the homeland he left after arrest and torture By Diane Lefer
Published on LatinoLA: August 19, 2010
When Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal returned to his homeland for the month of July 2010 to train peace and justice workers in social justice theatre techniques, in Cúcuta, he found the issue troubling the community was the border conflict between Colombia and Venezuela. Whenever the political rhetoric heats up, cross border trade is disrupted and soldiers on both sides of the border rough up and rob people carrying food and other merchandise.
In Barrancabermeja, it was worker demands for fair treatment by the oil extraction industry in a city where union membership can mean a death sentence.
In Medellín, it was the resurgence of the paramilitary death squads -- the "paracos"--who have taken armed control over the poorest barrios. They extort "vacunas"--vaccination against being killed--from public transport workers driving into the area. They enforce curfews and decide who enters and who leaves alive. They cleanse--i.e., kill--people they perceive as anti-social elements, including teenager punk rockers. They make death threats against a storyteller leading free writing workshops for kids in the public park that Juanes created as a gift to the city. They force out new arrivals from the countryside who are among the 4 million Colombians violently displaced when the rich and powerful grab their land.
At the same time, everywhere he went Aristizábal was deeply impressed that in the midst of so much terror, people also wanted help in ending the violence--especially gender-based violence--in their personal lives. He helped them address their concerns through Forum Theatre which was first developed by Augusto Boal, the Brazilian theatre artist and activist who died in May 2009,
As Aristizábal explained on his return to Los Angeles, "Forum Theatre is one of the techniques in Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed system for popular education and social action. In Colombia, I invited people to create scenes that showed the oppression they experience in their lives. We performed for the public and then invited audience members to intervene. They come up onstage and role-play to see if they can influence events in a different direction and change the negative outcome."
Again and again, Aristizábal saw the same series of scenes: A woman works hard at home preparing foods that her husband can take out to the street to sell. Then she asks his permission to go to a center where she can learn to read and write so she can help the kids with their homework. His response is, "What the hell are you talking about? Just stay home and take care of the four kids!" When he leaves, she asks the older kids to take care of things and she goes to class. Her husband tracks her down, pulls her out of the classroom and beats her.
When the audience was invited to intervene in the action, a woman took the stage and stood up to the husband. "Don't you hit me! I deserve to learn to read and write. This is what's best for our children, and I'm going to do it!"
"Do you think that would work?" Aristizábal asked the women present. "Is this possible?"
Before anyone could answer, the woman onstage began to tremble and cry. "I did it," she said. "This is exactly what I did. And today, here I am attending this training," she said, giving courage and hope to others. "And my husband is home watching the kids."
Men are changing behavior, too, said Aristizábal, noting the movement called La Nueva Masculinidad and even a group called El Machismo Mata, in which men try to end the ways in which violent behavior has become connected to the male identity.
"They did a scene in which one guy is knocked over during a soccer game. One member of his team just says, 'Get up, jerk,' and when another player asks instead if he's OK and tries to give him a hand, the others shout homophobic insults at him for being soft and showing concern. So what do you do in that moment? How do you respond to the situation?"
Aristizábal's workshops were sponsored by Cercapaz (Cooperation between State and Civil Society to Develop Peace), funded by the German government in cooperation with Colombia and, in Cúcuta, with support from Norway as well.
He pointed out that as the US continues the failed war on drugs, wasting billions of dollars through Plan Colombia, and will establish seven military bases in Colombia (unless that nation's Constitutional Court blocks the move) while turning a blind eye to repression, Cercapaz takes an entirely different approach. "They believe the way to bolster stable governance in Colombia is to empower civil society and encourage ordinary people to enter into dialogue with government institutions to secure their rights in a peaceful, democratic way." Cercapaz also provides funds to mayors of small towns who want to start projects to assist the displaced. "It is not a radical organization," Aristizábal explained. "They aren't supposed to trouble the waters, but because they work with the poorest and most marginalized people in the country they cannot avoid recognizing injustice and inequality."
Aristizábal has had firsthand knowledge of injustice. In 1982, falsely accused of guerrilla activity, he was arrested and tortured by the US-trained military and believes the only reason his life was spared was that an international human rights group came to the barracks looking for him. The story of his life in Colombia and subsequent social justice work in exile is told in The Blessing Next to the Wound, published in June by Lantern Books.
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker