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.
Reverend James Lawson and the Power of Nonviolent Action
March 2, 2013
I am more than thrilled that much of the extensive interview I did with
Reverend Lawson back in 2007-08 has finally seen print, in this month’s issue of
The Believer. Here’s the excerpt they put on their web page. I’m waiting for the
hard copy to give to Jim Lawson who may have forgotten by now that he ever
talked to me.
Here's a link to the excerpt The Believer posted at their website.
To read the full piece, if you're not a subscriber, the magazine is available from The McSweeney’s Store.
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:
as published today by New Clear Vision.
"Theatre Festival!” said the taxi driver. “Spending money on theatre when people
don’t have food to eat! What for?”
That’s what I hoped to find out from May 20-30 in
Barrancabermeja, Colombia where I would offer a series of writing workshops and
seek to answer questions of my own: How could theatre contribute to peace in a
country where the armed conflict has gone on for six decades? How did the
violence come to an end in this particular city — center of the country’s oil
industry, once the site of battles pitting guerrilla forces against the
Colombian army, and paramilitary death squads against civilians?
What did it mean to hold an International Theatre Festival for Peace when
till 2010, during the eight years of the Uribe administration, anyone who talked
about peace or a political solution to the country’s woes risked being called a
terrorist — a label that could target you for assassination?
When I visited Colombia in 2008, the human rights community in Bogotá seemed
demoralized and diminished. The only people I saw protesting openly in the
capital were those whose patriotism could not be questioned: family members of
soldiers and police held captive by the FARC guerrillas. What I did not realize
at the time was that in the most profound sense, peace is more than the
cessation of war. Though dissent was silenced in many ways, people were coming
together in nonviolent social movements to create and sustain a culture of
peace, one that would start at society’s roots, in the community and in the
In Barrancabermeja I would see how theatre and the arts are reweaving the
torn social fabric in communities traumatized by terror, violence, and social
* * *
Barrancabermeja is a city of contradictions, typified perhaps by two
monuments. One, the wire-sculpture of Cristo Petrolero that presides over the
contaminated pool in front of Colombia’s major oil refinery. (Not even Christ
can clean these waters, say the locals.) The other is the monument to Father
Camilo Torres, the guerrilla priest, who fell in battle during his first combat
experience alongside the fighters of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional, the
ELN. Today, while violence rages unabated in the rural districts nearby,
national police and soldiers are everywhere in Barrancabermeja, providing
security rather than peace, but in an unlikely show of coexistence, the monument
stands. Children slide on its sloping metal base, and the priest’s words are
memorialized: “The constant revolutionary struggle of the people will lead to
Another paradox: the Festival — the first major cultural event this city of
more than 200,000 had ever seen — was born in one of its most deprived and
stigmatized neighborhoods, Comuna 7, populated first by squatters, families
fleeing violence in the countryside only to find themselves again under attack.
The most painful and notorious incident took place during a Mother’s Day
celebration in 1998. Rightwing paramilitary death squads swept in killing some
young men on the spot and disappearing others while the Colombian military stood
by and failed to intervene. The community still waits for justice. Twenty
families still wait to recover the bodies of their children. But the community
organized itself to resist violence and oppression. People once perceived as
victims harnessed their own disciplined, principled, creative imagination to
present alternatives to the status quo. They created institutions to strengthen
community and civil society and to educate children for social responsibility by
claiming, using, and expanding cultural space.
In 2007, Yolanda Consejo Vargas, a dancer and theatre artist born in Mexico,
and her husband, Italian-born director Guido Ripamonti, brought their itinerant
theatre company to Colombia. Inspired by what they saw in Comuna 7, they decided
to stay. Yolanda and Guido began offering classes in theatre and literature and
dance 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 with the
entire city invited to attend all events for free. The logistics were daunting,
starting with how to feed and house the 400 participants who agreed to attend —
including, from Los Angeles, me and my Colombian-born collaborator, Hector
Aristizábal, who would perform our play, Viento Nocturno.
Comuna 7, this most marginalized of neighborhoods, reached out and formed
alliances and gained support from every sector: the oil company, the mayor’s
office, the church, the television station, regional peace and development
agencies, hotel owners, schools, and more. Not a single theatre exists in
Barrancabermeja so Yolanda and Guido got a tent large enough to seat 800 people
and up it went on the lawn between the city’s only library and its university.
Most nights, it was standing room only. A women’s committee cooked and delivered
hundreds of freshly prepared meals to the festival site every day. Yolanda’s
students rehearsed for the premiere of “Preludio,” an intensely physical,
imagistic, often abstract representation of what they and their families had
endured and how they had chosen the path to peace and reconciliation. Artists
arrived from 14 countries to present 50 performances and lead 20 different
workshops. Activists and academics offered presentations and discussion groups,
while community groups from all over Colombia presented their own plays and
shared experiences with each other and with the international guests — notably
the Mexican theatre companies coming from the borderlands of narco-wars and mass
graves, where, in the words of director Medardo Treviño, “violence, jaws
dripping blood, ran whipping through the streets of my town.” His troupe members
begged, borrowed, and pawned their possessions to finance the trip to Colombia,
intent on learning how Colombians hold onto a moral center and a vision of
humanity and keep on creating in spite of the conflict raging around them.
* * *
The young people of Teatro Encarte created Voces del Barrio, a play that
powerfully brings to life the world of sicarios, the teenage assassins who made
Medellín so notorious in the 1980s and 1990s. “Yes, there’s still violence in
some parts of town, including where my mother lives,” said Wilfer Giraldo, an
articulate and personable group member. “But Medellín is a beautiful city and
people shouldn’t be afraid to visit. The culture of the city has been
“Your play focuses on the violence,” I said.
“So people won’t forget how bad it used to be. If people remember, they won’t
let it happen again.”
Wilfer also told me that before he joined Teatro Encarte he was resentful and
anti-social. “Onstage, I like playing characters who are bitter and mean. I see
what they’re like, and then I can’t allow myself to be that way.” Like the city
itself, he said, “I’ve changed.”
* * *
“I don’t want to sound too optimistic,” said Carlos Lozano, director of the
leftwing weekly, Voz, as he spoke about the possibility of a political — rather
than military — solution to Colombia’s conflict. “Now we see some positive
spaces opening up, a moment in Colombian life [since the start of the Santos
administration] when grassroots organizations have a different relationship with
As he spoke, it sounded so familiar: a president who says good things while
old policies continue; a corrupt and recalcitrant Congress intent on blocking
real change; a government that spends six times as much on a soldier as on the
education of a child.
“The ruling classes of Colombia — both main parties — have refused to address
agrarian reform, hunger, poverty. For all the military force, and all the money
from the United States” — more than $6 billion, I’ll note — “the guerrilla
movement has not been crushed in 60 years of fighting because the causes still
Lozano sees government policy going off in all directions at once. Five
million Colombians have been violently driven from their land and their homes.
“The plan is to help people return to their property,” he said, “but at the same
time, the national plan for development is all about privatization, the
concentration of land in the hands of agribusiness and foreign transnational
investment. The way the government sees it, small farms don’t hire anyone and
plantations do. Self-sufficiency loses out to employment statistics. And if the
Free Trade Agreement goes through, the situation will get worse.
“What good does it do to reach a peace accord with the guerrilla if at the
same time you’re deepening the wretched poverty of the country?”
He urged people to take advantage of the lessening of repression. “The way to
go is people in the streets. Unity among the popular and social organizations
and the left. We have to get into the street with a platform. Peace won’t come
from the Casa de Nariño,” the presidential palace, he concluded.
* * *
Small farms taken over by African palm plantations for the production of
biofuels. That was the subject community members chose for their experiment with
Forum Theatre, a technique first developed by the late Brazilian theatre artist
and activist Augusto Boal. Hector, along with Till Bauman from Berlin, Germany
and members of Bogotá’s Corporación Otra Escuela, helped participants create a
play. At the end of the week, the group performed in the tent and then invited
the public to intervene in the drama. Spectators in the audience became
“spect-actors,” replacing cast members on the stage, replaying scenes,
rehearsing for real life as they tried out different ways of responding to the
situation: What could they say? What could they do? How could they offer
* * *
African palm is not the only reason Colombians have to leave their homes.
María Fernanda Medina Gutiérrez was three years old when the Colombian Air
Force, acting on behalf of Occidental Petroleum and with inaccurate information
provided by the US, dropped fragmentation bombs on her village. Hermelinda
Tulivila Díaz remembers what happened in 2003 when the army came to her
community on the indigenous Sicuane reservation and gave people 30 minutes to
get out or be killed.
Since then Hermelinda’s father was killed by guerrillas. Three of María
Fernanda’s brothers were killed: two by persons unknown, one — who was not
charged with anything — was taken away barefoot by Colombian soldiers and
executed outside of town without a trial. After eight years of displacement, her
family has returned to their village but they no longer own their land.
Today, both teens participate in a theatre program funded by the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees. According to Paul David Pinzón who leads the group
Routes of Orientation through Theatre (R.O.T.), there is an ongoing humanitarian
crisis in the Arauca region. Tensions reached a boiling point as displaced
communities of small farmers crowded into a zone populated by indigenous
peoples, and where soldiers now outnumber civilians. In 2007 and 2008, the UN
office offered training for community leaders, preparing them to demand their
rights be respected and enforced. The program backfired by making community
leaders easy to identify, marking them for assassination. The UN shifted gears
and began the R.O.T. program for young people to ease racial and cultural
tensions, strengthen the community to help youth resist forced recruitment into
the guerrilla ranks, and create a culture that rejects domestic and gender-based
“Theatre tries to get us to trust each other more,”
said Hermelinda. She speaks quietly, shyly, and I think I can hear Sicuane
sentence structure and accent in her Spanish. When she talks about the theatre
group, her first friendly connections ever with non-indigenous kids, and the
traditional dances she performs for them, her eyes light up and the words pour
out, sentences punctuated with lots of chévere! and bacán! (great, far out,
Hermelinda ran away from home to escape a forced marriage and took refuge
with a staff member at the school where she continues her studies. She gets up
at four to make breakfast and do chores. After class and every Saturday and
Sunday she goes to her job at a local store. When does she find time for the
theatre group? At night, she says. She wouldn’t miss it.
Rehearsing at night is not the problem, María Fernanda said. “The difficult
part is taking the road to get to the theatre. There was a car bomb in Caño
Limón the other day. The next day there was another attack on the army. I was
huddled against a car when the bullets were flying. The car turned out to be
full of explosives, but even so, I had to protect myself from the bullets.”
But “in the theatre, I feel free,” she said. “I express myself. It’s like
finding a sense of nobility after all the years of feeling unsheltered, not
knowing where to go or what to do.”
* * *
While the country waits for peace, Father Leonel Narváez is sowing the seeds.
Sociologist, Catholic priest, and founder of ES.PE.RE, Escuelas de Perdón y
Reconciliación (Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation) his talk was one of
the first events of the festival. “Forgiveness is a phenomenal religious
resource,” he began, “but it must also be a political virtue.” Without it, “the
moment comes when society is no longer viable.”
To people still traumatized, still grieving, he offers a new way of thinking
about forgiveness. “To forgive does not mean to forget. Justice must be done,
and reparations. That’s the duty of the Colombian government.” But too many of
us, he warned, are stuck with a tape repeating in our brains, playing over and
over, bitter hatred engendering rage and then revenge. That must change.
“Forgiveness can exist without reconciliation,” he said “Self-reparation, that’s
for us to do for ourselves. In forgiving, I give myself a wonderful gift. I
reconstitute my inner self.”
A woman named Doña Emilia stood with tears in her eyes. “Forgiveness? I don’t
know it. Tell me what color it is as I don’t see it anywhere.”
“We honor your grief,” he said. He explained that people come to his programs
for many hours as no one can be quickly or easily relieved of so much pain. “In
Colombia, we have suffered. We walk down the street and we see the people who’ve
killed our family members. But we need to do this.
“Think of it as personal aesthetics: People who don’t forgive are ugly and
wrinkled. Their hair falls out,” said the bald priest, aiming for and getting
A man stood, confused. “Father, I always thought forgiveness was me going to
that person and accepting him as my brother in spite of what he did.”
“Forgiveness is not about taking the offender by the hand.”
“So what you’re saying, do I understand this right? It’s a matter of personal
“It’s something we in Colombia have to work at every day,” said Father
Leonel. “If we don’t, the germs that breed violence will erupt again in a
perpetual cycle of bitterness and revenge. Besides the culture of peace, we need
a culture of forgiveness, a gift to pass down in families from parent to
* * *
None of this is easy.
“Forgive?” some people told me. “It’s too hard.”
María Fernanda admitted, “Deep inside, a person holds bitter feelings that
can turn to rage.”
But they came to Barrancabermeja anyway, intent on walking the road to
The First International Theatre Festival for Peace taught many lessons and
not the least was this: When Yolanda’s dream came true, we learned that
sometimes the difficult, the improbable, the quixotic can be realized. Through
ten days of laughter and tears and reflection and art, we were there: we
witnessed a utopian vision come vividly, vibrantly, to life.
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker