Sunday, October 12, 2008

My racism that allows new futures for Gabo.

Five days in the hot tropical city of Barranca Bermeja where spanish words are harder to catch - muffled by the constant whirl of fans hanging precariously above us. The smell of yet more roast chichen wafts from the Mac Pollo restaurant over the road yet different from Bogota - at 35degrees every breathe feels strained.

A pattern of breakfast, meetings, lunch, siesta, meetings, sitting around in the hotel reception, dinner, bed is quickly established . Nothing visibly powerful to do or see.

Gabriel's (Gabo) story - the warm, funny, dedicated man who I accompanied - assures me that my presence is powerful. Here is his story.

"We moved to Sur de Bolivar in 1971, when I was 21. Before that we lived in Calda but there was already many small scale farmers and not much land. We found land in an area that was not occupied and we settled there. We were looking for a place where we could have a better quality of life.

There were 10 families to begin with and many more people started arriving from different regions. By 1998 there was around 1000 people living in the community.

When our children started to grow up we built a school. We found teachers who had a high level of education that meant every child could get a good education. We also started building good paths, and later, roads (35km’s worth) around the community and to other villages.

A normal day for me was to work from 6am to 6pm. I grew yuca, plantain and rice. I also looked after the cows and pigs. This was my life, my passion, mi gusto. For me this proves that things that appear impossible can become real when we work communally.

Then the paramilitaries entered the region in February 1999, just one hours walks from my farm. Over the next few years we organised 8 marches - in the municiapl towns and the Capital of the region – demanding our rights were respected and that the paramilitaries leave the region. I was singled out as an organised and so had to leave the farm.

I stayed in the region until 2007, moving between different places, supported by different communities, with my wife and young daugher. At times we had to walk for 25 days in order to leave the region to report murders.

What I saw wasn’t fair, what was happening. They were killing the young people, old people. There was masacares all over the region. I was not going to work on the farm any more, instead dedicate myself to social work, building up people’s skills, organising.

When the paramilitaries were there I could hide but now the army have arrived I can’t hide in the region. One has to understand that within the army are the paramilitaries so the army does not mean you have security.

Before the arrival of the paramilitaries, the army already disappeared, tortured, killed. There was so many reports made about this that they had to change their strategy. And so the paramilitaries entered – they could do the brutal things.

What we now understand is that people were killed and disappeared because other interests appeared in the region, interests of multinationals.

They killed my son, they disappeared another. Brother of my wife was also disappeared. My son was killed on the 22 Sept 2002 in El Pairaiso, the army disappeared my second son in the middle of May 2005.

I’m not one to cry too much but everything that happens to you, your family or to your neighbour or friend, it reinforces your work. And you begin to understand who is the enemy.

The debate around the Law for Victims (that we went to on Thursday) to me is very dangerous as it supports impunity. It can’t ignore why we are victims, who benefitted from us becoming victims. The truth wil be when the state recognises that what has happened is a project of the state.

The land has to be taken away from the paramilitaries, from the multinationals and people can return to their territories. They must return my land, my house, and that they leave us in peace.

Those who are guilty must pay. But the guilty is not the person who shot, he is not the enemy, he probably didn’t know why, he was just ordered. Those who give the orders - they kill.

Now my wife and I live in the flat of my daughter in Bogota. We are looking for some land, as we are campesinos. I would like to live in the Sur de Bolivar but it is not possible. To go there I need to have accompaniment but this isn’t possible all the time so a bit of land near Bogota would be good."

The fact of my place of birth and my skin colour means that Gabo can return and work in his region. He knows that the political costs of disappearing him are raised higher with the presence of the likes of me.

I am strategically using racist structures - ones which make clear that my life as a white European is worth more than a brown Colombian. And as I do, I am complicit with racism. This is difficult. How do I ensure I don't reinforce a sense of European superiority over the Latin American's with the people I meet. Perhaps I can't - they will read my body as they choose.
But I can think about how my behaviour, mannerisms, ideas, words might be interpreted by the people I am with, and with this I can try to walk a sensitive path.


nursingphilosophy said...

how touching and how distant to recieve words and news from your blog this afternoon

Placement is going well: The nurses take on so many jobs on the ward, which i love- we clean the rooms, and the patients. we help them eat, we help organise their medicine, their families, their lives, their social workers.

so you have patterns...... how much are they laid out by the world around you? do people see you in your paterns, do you see other peoples' patterns?

thinking about what you say on racism, I think about a male friend offering to walk a woman home late at night in a city. maybe it is different. but along with registering the enqualities that force us to mediate our lives via threats, we also love the male friend for the solidarity- saying I am willing to undergo your experience too, even though it is not part of my everyday experience ( and I cannot understand the fear making constancy of it)- I will make it a apart of my experience. it kind of corrupts the binary of victim and abuser as well, in some ways.

you writing is growing to have such clarity, such presence and such collectedness with thoughtfulness now. i cherish it.

oh, ps... i send you the biggest most vast amount of hugs ever... and they last for hours. on a sunny autumn hill..

Troz said...

It's interesting that you explain this as racism. To a large degree I agree that you are exploiting this racism for positive social use.

In a way it is also exploiting a system. It is the system of national borders and passports that protects you, by the diplomatic 'problems' that would be created by further paramilitary threats or actions in your presence or against you.

But you're right in that the semiotic process happening on an interpersonal level is one of racism, prior to the diplomatic web.

If you can be humble in exploiting this power relation, as I'm sure you can, then I can only see good things happening.

croggy said...

this is an email comment i was sent and happy to be shared:

territories seep in to my reality,
i see the M32 the motorway that divides my community as a force to be reckoned with. Ray reminds me of the borderland i cross nearly daily. Just the other night 9
year olds said stop we want to search you (their own experiences played out of police oppression)

I read somewhere that theres a higher percentage of males are attacked in the uk but it is perceived as a woman you are more vulnerable.

Race is a key question I have in the communities I work. I as a white person am made to feel unwelcome by the young black boys who say this is a black area.
that if they found me needing help on the ground they would leave me. Last year I was mugged by two young
black males. And I wish I wasn't. Like your friend said he doesn't blame the ones who pull the trigger
but those that ordered it. In this case, poverty and discrimination caused by an unjust system inaugurated within the landscape and design of this city, is the

And yet I am building solidarity with these young people who feel alienated, one occasion the police
came in to the centre where I work and wanted to search the premises for drugs. The attitude of the
police was catch them out and get them, no concern that drug use may be harmful. A bust would mean the
centre would shut and then where would the kids go, further into the margins? Luckily i knew that we have rights, and they would need a warrant, yet they tried to tell me i didnt know my rights, the young people witnessed that i wasn't having any of it. Now we have
a common enemy, we stand together for a while.

When you write home i see how we are connected, through my experiences we can find common threads,and Rays, i laugh at myself, that we are so privileged
here that we don't have to deal with the same oppression, but it does seep through, there are
shadows and echo's and as you tell the story of your experience and share that of others, the bubble we are in is burst, leaving round marks of the essence of the truth upon ground.

Big big love to you wonderful woman and group hugs!
Tasha X