Building Trust and Community Through Theatrical Programs
by Diane Lefer
“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 home.
In Barrancabermeja I would see how theatre and the arts are reweaving the torn social fabric in communities traumatized by terror, violence, and social disruption.
* * *
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 victory.”
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 transformed.”
“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 power.”
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 exist.”
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 resistance?
* * *
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 violence.
“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, fantastic!).
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 the laugh.
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 hygiene?”
“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 child.”
* * *
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 peace.
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.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. Her new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. More about her work can be found at: http://dianelefer.weebly.com/.