Posts Tagged ‘Educar es fiesta’

In Bolivia: Try a Little Tenderness

March 7, 2012

published today in New Clear Vision

Imagine working in an office where as people enter they hug and kiss all their co-workers every morning. You start the day with about a dozen hugs and kisses and of course more each time you leave and return. Here we might call it sexual harassment. But I loved these gestures of affection and solidarity while I was collaborating with Educar es fiesta, a nonprofit organization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, serving young people living in difficult circumstances and families in crisis.

Edson Quezada, known to all as “Queso” — Cheese (from his last name, not because he’s the Big Cheese) founded the organization believing that training in the arts is also training for life, that children have an intrinsic natural right to joy, and learning must go hand-in-hand with happiness.

Educar es fiesta draws young people into the program by offering theatre and circus arts–trapeze, aerial dance, juggling, unicycle riding, gymnastics, even some tightrope-walking, to develop self-expression, self-confidence, and perseverance. The kids learn that to develop a new skill, they may fail many times till they achieve success. The traditional schoolroom is too often a site of frustration, failure, and disrespect for Quechua-speaking indigenous migrants from the rural zones and for the poor, so Educar es fiesta teaches in environments as different from the classroom as possible — for example, with kids sprawled out on the floor of the circus tent. The team also offers workshops on health, sexual health, nutrition, nonviolence, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, tutoring, and more. And as children arrive for their workshops, every child gets a hug and a kiss on the cheek.


By contrast, when I worked with kids in Los Angeles, I had to sign a document agreeing I wouldn’t allow any game — even tag, that required touch. If a child asked to be hugged, I was to acquiesce, squat down and allow the child to hold my side.

Of course I am cognizant of the realities of sexual abuse. In Bolivia, the children who are hugged also receive training in the campaign “My body is my territory: no one touches it without my permission.” But touch is primary to human beings. The baby knows touch before it can interpret visual signals or understand words. If children aren’t hugged and held in healthy ways by responsible adults, surely that makes them prime targets for predators who will exploit their need. For children who’ve been abused or abandoned, hugs can heal.

Back in Los Angeles, I watch the local news and see that a prohibition against touching would not have prevented the abuse that recently came to light of an elementary school teacher allegedly feeding his bodily fluids to children in his class.

In the Andean nations, educators like Queso now talk about what Peruvian Alejandro Cussiánovich has termed La pedagogía de la ternura – the Pedagogy of Tenderness. In Peru and Bolivia, with past histories of military dictatorship and violent repression, and Colombia with its elected civilian government and an ongoing armed conflict, the idea is that school needs to be a place of nurture, not discipline, for people who’ve been silenced, hardened and traumatized by years of violence. Tenderness does not mean sheltering kids or being overprotective: the point of this education is not to indoctrinate, but to nurture children so they can become the protagonists of their own lives.

Tenderness. It’s what I wish for American children who are growing up in some of our inner-city neighborhoods where due to crime and gang violence kids show a higher rate of PTSD than their counterparts in Baghdad during the worst days of war there.

The Educar es fiesta staff also offers workshops to public school teachers to share the techniques of “buen trato” — techniques of classroom management based on mutual respect rather than the more military model of discipline and punishment. This reminded me of a friend here in California who was so disgusted with her teaching job in an inner-city elementary school, she talked about quitting. But when I visited the school a couple of years ago, the children seemed happy, bright, and eager to learn.

“Oh yes,” said my friend. “We have a new principal and she’s turned everything around.” What did the miracle-worker do? “She called a meeting and told the teachers they could no longer yell at the children or insult them.” Buen trato, no?

The children of Educar es fiesta know what it is to be disrespected. In its first year, a little more than ten years ago, Queso reached out to the kids who waited at the cemetery for mourners who might give them a tip for cleaning windshields. The children were often abused by the cemetery guards. It was a great joke to take a little boy and throw him into a newly dug grave from which he would not be able to climb out. But when these same kids performed their plays in public, they were greeted with applause and cheers. Their status changed, not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of the larger community.

But in many neighborhoods, community is broken by poverty. Families disintegrate as parents migrate in search of work to Argentina, Chile, Spain, and — most recently, Japan. The kids get left behind.

There’s Laura. She lives with her grandmother who can put a roof over the girl’s head but has little to offer in the way of food or affection.Laura goes to school in the morning. Then she goes to “work” — standing outside a modest restaurant where she’ll guard cars for people as they eat in exchange for tips. Few people arrive in cars. Without tips, she goes hungry. While we in the US worry about “boundaries,” in Cochabamba, if Jimena Ari, teacher and facilitator with Educar es fiesta, is going home for lunch, she takes Laura along for a meal with her family — and to take chess lessons from niece Ceci who’s already obsessed with the game.

In the afternoon, Laura’s at the circus tent, eager to learn.

When the other kids have left, Laura hangs around the office. Until it’s time to lock the doors, no one chases her away. If there’s a project that can use an extra pair of willing hands, she helps out. Otherwise, she experiments with the computer. Maybe she’ll get a glass of milk and some bread. She’ll definitely be hugged. And someone will tell her how intelligent she is, and how beautiful, and that she is loved.

Educar es fiesta in Cochabamba, Bolivia

February 29, 2012

Really, really, really, I will write soon at length about my collaboration with this wonderful nonprofit organization that teaches circus and theatre arts to young people in difficult circumstances and families in crisis. For now, I’ll just post a image that shows the joy that can be found in learning.

Peripecias: On unforeseen ups and downs ( Notes on Chicago, Latin America, snowstorms, border closings, aflatoxins, cars accidents, and AT&T)

January 30, 2012

Well, I did want to post more about Chicago, about the two-faced stop signs that had me totally confused. (Glad I wasn’t driving. Thank you again, Stephanie Friedman.)

About the pleasure of being in buildings that unlike my apartment are heated! Walking around naked in the hotel room, feeling the warm air–ah!–on my skin. About Hector Aristizábal’s performance of Nightwind. The grad student at the University of Chicago — I wish I knew her name — who talked about her work in Chile on theatre in Chile under Pinochet. We met at the brown bag lunch at the Center for Latin American Studies. One point she made struck me: she said during the repression, political statements were often made in theatre through very abstract devices and I wondered if that sort of experimental abstraction has carried over into the post-Pinochet era. Specifically, I’m thinking about Andrea Lagos and her solo show Un beso es un beso es un beso which I saw her perform at International Theatre Festival for Peace in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. Her performance was strange, startling and powerful, but I really didn’t understand what she meant in her commentary about it being a reflection of the continuing impact of the era of repression on her generation. Certainly, language in the piece is broken, partial, silenced. And her physicality at times grotesquely controlled. But maybe the abstract aspect is immediately understood as a political comment by people in Chile.

I want to write about the Friday snowstorm that made roads impassable so that I couldn’t make it to Or Chadash for my presentation there, and that left us all worried about whether Hector would get to O’Hare in time after his Awakening the Imagination for Social Justice workshop and whether his flight would get him to LAX for his connection for Guatemala. (I haven’t heard from him so I’m assuming he arrived OK. I think someone would have heard from him if he got stuck.) (And I guess snow disruptions in Chicago are not exactly unforeseen.)

I wanted to post about the writing for social justice workshop at the Graham School–such enthusiastic and willing participants (including Stephanie Friedman and Naty Vesga)


and the trip up to Barrington to work with the Barrington Writers Workshop thanks to Tamara Tabel whose work I was so happy to read and my friend, Natalie Pepa who recommended me. Someone take note and publish Natalie’s tango memoir! and her funny, sad, evocative short pieces about Buenos Aires.

Natalie’s pareja (we agreed English lacks a good word for in a couple regardless of marital status) is Dennis, a scientist who works with, among other things, toxin-binding clays that protect livestock from aflatoxins, fungal infections that grow on grains, especially corn. In the fields, the aflatoxins protect the plant from being eaten, but after harvest, especially if the corn is stored in a warm and humid area, the stuff grows and spreads and can make livestock sick. For animal feed, you add specific clay to the feed. It coats the toxins so the bad stuff passes right through the animal’s body and causes no harm. There are many kinds of toxins and a different kind of clay is best suited to deal with each. Even under a microscope, all clay crystals look alike, so you need more elaborate instrumentation to identify what you’ve got.

But right now, I’m not sure when any of this will be posted. It’s been crazy here. First, a minor car accident on Wednesday en route to Moorpark, dealing with insurance, etc.

Today, Saturday, turns out the border between Argentina and Bolivia is closed due to some controversy over the gas fields, so mi compa Silvana Gariboldi, with whom I was going to collaborate in Bolivia, can’t get there. Edson Quezada, of Educar es fiesta, the organization we–or now I–will work with warns me that as I’m arriving in Bolivia on Sunday, the buses may not keep to their schedule–which may affect my 8 or so hour ride from La Paz to Cochabamba. Arriving in Cochabamba, I’m to phone him. Apparently not a good safe idea to get into a taxi alone. And I’m bringing a sleeping bag and will sleep on the floor of the office. But maybe that will mean internet access which is more than what I’ve got now.

Phone line dead. Internet dead. Without phone or internet, I couldn’t call for service, but I saw the AT&T van in the street and spoke to the repairman. He was working in a neighbor’s apartment and agreed to see what my problem was when he finished with her. I kept going out to see how he was doing, and all of a sudden his ladder was gone and so was his van. Used neighbor Claudia’s cell phone to call AT&T and went through one of their ridiculous phone trees which required me to specify either landline or internet. Of course I’ve lost both. But I chose landline as the internet is accessed via the landline. But the phone tree switched me over to internet as a choice. Whatever. I had to leave Claudia’s as a contact # and the recorded message said a repair person would come by 6:00 on Monday.

What joy. The other party to the car accident thought I was lying about my phone number when she tried to call it and it didn’t ring in my pocketbook or car.  It’s ringing at home, I said. She wanted the number for my cell phone and didn’t want to believe I don’t have one. Well, if she tries to call my phone now, she’s not going to get through. I didn’t plan it this way!!!! (The people at Safeco, my insurance company, have been calm, friendly, reassuring, and very nice.)

And I commented on our “peripecias”* in an email to Bolivia and Argentina–the unforeseen sudden accidents or complications to our plans — but now it seems that’s a Mexican word and I’m not sure I was understood. Ah, one more unforeseen complication.

PS My cat, being female, I refer to her as “gata” but Natalie Pepa told me in some countries–and I can’t remember which–the word means “prostitute.” To avoid any misunderstanding and potential peripecias, I will transgender my Desi–mi gato–while traveling.

* Peripecias – it sounded familiar. It’s not in my standard Spanish dictionary, only in the Mexican dictionary. Then I realized, I know it from Oedipus. peripeteia — Greek word — reversal of fortune. Though I understand that today in Greek it means adventure. Appropriate?