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.
Doug Glover published this today in Numéro Cinq.
What does the survivor of violence need in order to heal?
Because I know many survivors of so many kinds of violence, it’s a question I often ask myself. I’ve begun asking it as well in the arts-based workshops I’ve developed to boost reading and writing skills while promoting social justice. In Colombia, a word that came up over and over again was “justice.” In the US, people often say “a voice.” In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the word was “love.”
And though I arrived in Cochabamba with some trepidation, I felt immediately loved and embraced. I’d been invited by Edson Quezada, the founder and director of the nonprofit organization Educar es fiesta, to share my techniques. But the invitation had come because I was supposed to be collaborating with Argentinean theatre artist Silvana Gariboldi. A dispute over gas fields closed the border between Argentina and Bolivia. Silvana couldn’t cross. I ended up in Bolivia alone.
Edson Quezada, known to all as Queso (or Cheese, from his last name, not because he’s the Big Cheese) founded Educar es fiesta just over ten years ago based on the conviction that training in the arts is training for life, that happiness is a child’s birthright and that learning must go hand-in-hand with joy.
The teaching artists and facilitators in the program have taught circus and theatre arts to hundreds of young people living in difficult circumstances while offering support to families in crisis. The organization earns money through sales of tickets to their shows and receives some grant support from Caritas, an Australian organization and — this blew my mind — the foreign aid program of
The children in the program get hugs and kisses too, something that is, unfortunately, forbidden in the United
Doña Ceci told me her brother lives in Miami which is where her niece and nephew have been raised. “They are very strange children. Very cold,” she said. “They don’t let you hug or kiss them.” When she asked her brother about it, he said, “It’s what they teach them in school.” Ceci works full-time as does her husband but they have trouble making ends meet. In spite of this, she said, “I’m glad my children are growing up here instead of there.”
It’s not that members of the Educar es fiesta team are unaware of the sexual abuse of children, and they know that some of the kids who come to them are survivors. They are never alone in a room with a child but there is no prohibition against warmth and affection.
When the children are gone, life in the office can become more . . . well, adult.
February 16 was Día de las comadres in Bolivia which meant that all over town, male workers had to celebrate their female colleagues. In the Educar es fiesta office, the men (some in drag) offered us serenades and humor raunchy enough to be considered sexual harassment in the US. They danced with us. Then they cooked and served a great lunch — and cleaned up afterwards.
Día de las comadres is also Girls Night Out. Jimena and Alejandra — two of the teaching artists — belong to an all-female folkloric group. They invited me along on their gig at a family restaurant which that night should have lost its presumed PG rating.
More than a dozen large women of a certain age (hmmm, like my age?) drank pitcher after pitcher of chibcha, the local alcohol. We danced in a circle and then snaked out into the pouring rain and back while the waitress circulated from table to table, flipping up her apron to reveal a mighty long strap-on. My friends sang in Spanish and in Quechua and played traditional music on drums and
sampoña pan-pipes. The restaurant owner sashayed through the crowd carrying a huge boy doll to which she had attached pubic hair, balls, a correspondingly huge dick complete with semen dribbling from the tip, and a sign reading 1 boliviano la tocadita. (14 cents for a little touch). She also put a male-organ-enhanced cap on my head. First time in my life I’ve danced the night away with a penis bobbing from my forehead.
Sorry, no one got photos. (At least none we are willing to share).
“Is Día de las comadres always observed this way?” I asked one of the musicians.
“It’s not my way,” she answered.
In the morning, back at the office, Hernán said it probably had more to do with the excesses and role reversals of Carnaval which was about to begin. “It’s an unfortunate part of our culture, of our machismo,” he said.
“But it makes fun of machismo,” I argued.
“Do you think a woman who’s been assaulted finds it funny?” he asked.
Much as I would like brutality to be rendered ridiculous — because looking ridiculous is surely something the ultra-macho will wish to avoid — and much as I had enjoyed laughing, I was confronted once again with my question: What does the survivor need?
“On our day — día de los compadres — I didn’t like what the women did to us either,” he added.
The whole city shut down tight for a two-day holiday so I holed up in the office with potatoes, hominy, cheese, bread, hot sauce, peaches, and about a pound of llama meat while I worked on the pedagogical guide the program requested — step-by-step instructions of everything I presented in the workshops and discussions, including Objectives, Methodology, and Outcomes for each
exercise. Yikes! just the kind of structure I´d managed to avoid all my life. (Though maybe once I translate it into English, I’ll actually find it useful at home). Willmer will have to correct the Spanish and add the accent marks I couldn’t seem to find on the keyboard, which presented its own challenge since the arrangement varies from the English keyboard and the letters were missing from several of the keys. And I imagine we’ll have some conversations via email when he discovers I couldn’t always distinguish between Objectives and Outcomes. (Willmer also tried to teach me how to eat a salteña without dripping gravy all
over myself and the immediate vicinity).
One of the women came to check up on me.
So I asked her, “Día de los compadres. What did you do to the men?”
“We made them drink from a pitcher.”
It took some prompting, but the pitcher came out of hiding.
“Can I take a picture?”
“OK. But I don’t want to be in it.”
“OK. But promise you’ll never show it to anyone.”
“Please. People will enjoy it.”
“OK. But you have to do something to block out my face.”
We laughed together.
But Hernán's objection wouldn't go away. Would this picture be amusing to someone who has lived through the horror of rape?
So I'm still asking what the survivor needs.
Maybe laughter isn't the answer. But surely the day when she's able to laugh again, she'll know how far she's traveled on the
road to healing.
Here's the first of several reports from Barrancabermeja. This came out today in LA Progressive.
June 14, 2011 By Diane Lefer
Colombian Conflict: Three Young Women in the Crossfire
“When I was three years old, the
army bombed my village,” the girl told me. She was sixteen, which meant the
bombing happened in 1998.
“You’re from Santo Domingo?” I had
protested that very bombing in demonstrations in front of the Los Angeles
headquarters of Occidental Petroleum. The Colombian Air Force, intent on killing
guerrillas who threatened Oxy’s operations, had relied on inaccurate information
provided by the US. At least 17 civilians were killed and many others injured.
Now I was talking to one of the survivors. “You were so young,” I said. “Do you
“A little,” said María Fernanda. “I
remember my father lifting me onto his back. Like this, I crouched holding his
shoulders. And I remember the sounds, the shells coming through the palm
We met in Barrancabermeja, Colombia
where I was offering writing workshops and she was performing in the First
International Theatre Festival for Peace which from May 20-30 brought us
together with 400 artists and community members from different regions of
Colombia and from 14 countries around the world, everyone committed to social
Actress and activist Silvana Gariboldi from Argentina was impressed to see so many men involved. “In my country, it’s only women in the social movements.” I was impressed by the young man wearing a T-shirt denouncing the physical and mental abuse of women, and by the fact that many of Colombia’s broad-based programs for justice and human rights are focusing efforts today on the status of women.
Red Juvenil (Youth Network) of Medellín, for example, well known for encouraging young people to declare themselves conscientious objectors, has just initiated a three-year campaign linking women’s issues to all other campaigns. With a call to “Disobey and resist all forms of domination!”, the Network is organizing women (and men) to
oppose not just militarism, racism, and economic exploitation but also machismo,
seeing the evils as interconnected.
Women are not the only ones to suffer in six decades of armed conflict in Colombia but they, along with the children, have borne the brunt of displacement as some five million Colombians have been violently driven from their homes. Even where families remain intact, years of terror and trauma and social disorganization contribute to violence in
the home and have limited opportunities for girls.
When I read Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, Even Silence Has an End, about her years held captive by FARC guerrillas, it was clear she has no sympathy for their movement, but she couldn’t help but note the number of young girls in the guerrilla ranks who
chose the FARC seeing it as better than prostitution, the only other option they
thought open to them.
I thought of that in Barrancabermeja when I met 12-year-old Julieth. According to her teacher, she is the outstanding student in her entire rural school system. She is also outgoing, friendly and popular with everyone in town–including the classmates, some
younger than herself, who one after another have turned to prostitution. Julieth
is determined that will not be her life but I can’t help but worry. In her community, education goes only through middle school. Even if she finds a way to move to a city for high school, how will she support herself? Where will she live? What will she eat?
In my writing workshop Julieth invented a new consumer product: magnificient magical shoes, very pretty and very cheap. Any girl who wears them starts to think of love and not of money. She becomes incapable of selling her body.
Hermelinda ran away rather than accept the future that had been chosen for her. This teenager from the indigenous Sicuane community grew up on the resguardo (reservation). In 2003, he army came looking for guerrillas and gave people 30 minutes to get out or be killed. During the same military action, soldiers raped and killed indigenous people in settlements nearby.
“We lived somewhere for two years, then somewhere else for a year and a half,” Hermelinda said. Her education was interrupted until her people were able to return home. But then her family decided to marry her off.
“Girls get married at eleven or twelve years. At thirteen they have babies,”she told me. “I said no.”
Hermelinda took refuge with a staff member at the school where she wanted to continue her studies.
The festival drew participants from Canada and Chile and Cuba and France and Germany and Israel and Italy and Venezuela. Many came from Mexico, including theatre scholar Rocío Galicia who has been studying the narratives now coming out of the US-Mexico border areas plagued by violence. When asked who she thinks is murdering hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez, she offered her opinion: Impunity made the killings multiply. “People saw they can do it and get away with it.” Now there
are many different motives, different killers.“Because of impunity, the femicide has taken on a life of its own.”
Colombians know about impunity.
“We’re still waiting for justice in Arauca,” said María Fernanda as she told me about the little girl who was raped and killed by soldiers who then killed the witnesses, her two little brothers. Only one of the men believed to be involved was ever charged and even he has not been tried because the judge, a woman who was assigned to hear the case, was assassinated. (There are many women judges in Colombia; some say it’s because the job is too dangerous and men don’t want it.) “At the site of the burial, people came
carrying photos of 200 people who were killed by the army and there I saw the photo of my older brother.”
To explain what happened to him she had to go back to the bombing of Santo Domingo. “After that, we spent eight years as displaced people in the town of Filipinas. We got three months of assistance, just basically for food, and we weren’t used to being in a
town instead of the countryside. If we had for rent, we didn’t have for food, if we had for food, we didn’t have for clothing.” Two of her brothers crossed the border into Venezuela looking for work and were killed there by persons unknown. As for her older brother, “He had gone to a farm and asked if there were landmines on the property because he wanted to go down to the river to fish.”
She explained that landmines are planted throughout the area by the FARC “Now and then an army dog will sniff one out but there’s no campaign to get rid of them and we don’t really want that. If the mines are removed, the FARC will plant new ones and we might not know where. Right now, we walk on the highway or you can walk where the cows walk to be safe.”
Or, you do what her brother did, and ask around about the existence of mines because the guerrillas usually warn people. But the fact that FARC guerrillas communicate with local civilians makes noncombatants suspect.
“The Army heard him talking about mines. They came for him and took him and two others away barefoot and killed them.”
For civilians in the conflict zone, it’s equally dangerous to talk to the police or the Colombian army. “Seven girls were killed for talking to soldiers or flirting with them.
For this it was believed they were passing information,”she told me. “When the army is around I don’t leave the house even to go to the store. If there’s no toilet paper in the house, well, I just splash water on myself. You can’t go out.”
But she does go out at night, braving car bombs and dodging bullets in order to participate, as does Hermelinda, in a theatre program for youth sponsored by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Through the program, young people work and play together, dismantling cultural barriers, reinforcing respect for human rights,
specifically training youth to take a stand against gender-based discrimination and violence.
María Fernanda dreams of becoming “a professor or lawyer or someone who can help people but I’d also like to be a singer who sings about peace.” With her surviving family members, she has now returned to Santo Domingo but they no longer own their old farm. “It’s very hard. But I have to be strong. If my mother has to cope with their
having murdered three of her sons, the oldest, the ones that most helped her, we
the others have to be capable.”
I am haunted by these girls and by the role that we in the US have played–and still play–in their lives. The US has poured billions into military support for Colombia, ostensibly
to fight the war on drugs (and now repeats the same misguided policy in Mexico).
Germany has taken a different approach: the German federally owned enterprise
GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) helped support the theatre
festival as part of its ongoing work with Cercapaz, an organization dedicated to
strengthening civil society and developing nonviolent conflict-resolution strategies for government and community in the interest of sustainable development and peace.
“The fundamental problem isn’t the narcotraffic,” insisted speaker Carlos Lozano, director of the leftwing weekly, Voz. “It’s the hunger and misery.”
Not to mention that, as he pointed out, the Colombian government spends six times as much money on a soldier as on the education of a student. Students like María Fernanda, Hermelinda, Julieth.
In the meantime President Obama has abandoned a campaign pledge and thrown his support behind the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia which will only exacerbate conditions of inequality. He relied on agreements with Colombian president Santos that human rights would be respected and community leaders protected but little more than a week after I returned to Los Angeles, I received word that Ana Fabricia Córdoba
was assassinated in Medellín. She had continued, after the murders of both her activist husband and her son, to work on behalf of displaced families who wished to return to their land. Because of repeated death threats, she had requested protection from the government. She got none.
Julieth and Hermelinda and María Fernanda persevere, preparing themselves intellectually, ethically, and psychologically for an uncertain future.
The last day in my workshop, Julieth wrote, “I’m afraid of not knowing how to face situations that shake my sense of self, my emotional security. The worst that could happen would be if bad circumstances knock down my dreams like coconuts from the trees. I couldn’t stand it if all my efforts turned out to be useless.”
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker