Sunday, August 14, 2011

En la Gran Carpa de Paz - Barrancabermeja, Colombia

by Diane Lefer

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 by them.

"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.

Diane Lefer is an author, playwright and Los Angeles-based activist. She is co-author, with Hector Aristizabal, of The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation (Lantern Books, 2010). Her next stop is Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she will do creative writing workshops for children and families. Want to support her trip? You can make tax-deductible contributions: .

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