Math, Mac and Cheese in Colombia
Youth and Arts Action Delegation, March 2008
By Liza Maytok Smith
Hurricane Katrina was what did it for Escenthio. At his school in Oakland, he was enrolled in a JROTC program (an army prep course given in high schools) and would have been on his way to joining the military. But one of his teachers invited him to a benefit event about the victims of the hurricane and it made Escenthio question his involvement in the class and our country’s priorities in general. As he said, “why are we over there killing people in Iraq when there are people in need right here?” Soon afterwards, he decided to organize a debate in his school around these issues and invited the JROTC army officers to the table alongside Pablo Paredes, a well-known conscientious objector. The debates created quite a stir -- and Escenthio became one of the central youth activists of BayPeace, an Oakland-based organization doing counter-recruitment work in high schools.
“He’s one of the most amazing young activists I’ve met,” said Susan from BayPeace, when she was recommending that Escenthio join our Youth Arts and Action delegation traveling to Colombia at the end of March. At eighteen years of age, Escenthio had an important voice to bring: a young, African American man finishing his last year of high school, a spoken word artist and counter-recruitment activist. To say the least, I was quite excited about him joining us: a group of organizers, activists, artists and young leaders who would travel to Colombia to meet up with two youth based organizations working on the issues of conscientious objection and how militarism affects young people’s lives.
Everything was set for Escenthio to arrive in Bogota on March 21st -- until two days before the delegation when I received an email with the subject line “sorry.” My heart dropped, knowing that there was bad news. Sure enough, he had decided to cancel his participation in the delegation because of a high school exit exam that he would be taking place only two days after his scheduled return from Colombia. After talking on the phone with him, I got a better understanding of his situation – he had already taken the exam and passed the reading and writing sections, but failed the math sections twice. If he didn’t pass the exam, he wouldn’t graduate high school, which meant he couldn’t get into college. He said that he didn’t want to disrespect the delegation and the organizations we would be meeting with by having to take time out to study. After talking with Escenthio, I also talked to his aunt and Susan, the woman from BayPeace who had initially recommended him to come. I knew that pushing too hard wasn’t the right thing to do – there was no way that I could convince myself or anybody else that this delegation was more important than Escenthio’s academics and future.
But I was convinced that there was room and support to do both. And so I lobbied for that – I suggested that if Escenthio came we set up a study schedule. I asked his permission to share his situation with the group to find out if any of them had math/geometry skills and might be willing to tutor him while on the trip. He agreed. Within hours of writing an email to the other participants, almost everybody responded positively: “I am 100% confident that this group is very committed to each other, and specifically to helping you prepare for and pass your exam.” Another said, “I called Escenthio and left a message expressing support for whatever decision he makes. I told him that I’m pretty good at math and geometry was my favorite math... having said that, I would have to use his texts to remember a few formulas. I said I would be happy to help tutor as much as I could.” And again another expressed her support saying “I know if you decide to come along that this whole group will have your back.” We set up a study schedule in our itinerary and we had a commitment from a couple of people in the group to help as tutors. The general consensus was that his exit exam was just as important as any of the other activities we had scheduled for our time in Colombia. We had done our best to communicate to Escenthio that we were supporting him to do both, and at that point I knew that I’d best leave him alone to make his own decision and figure out what was best for him and his future.
The next day I got an email that he had decided: yes! He would join us and was scheduled to get on his plane within 24 hours.
Our first day in Colombia we began a conversation about the reality of international solidarity work. A number of people in the circle had (and continue to have) serious concerns about the nature of this work – why is that so many white, upper-middle class activists turn towards the romanticized struggles of the third world to “help” when we have our own atrocious situations to deal with at home? How can we justify solidarity work in Colombia when we have a prison population of African American men that equals the number of un-free African American men at the height of slavery? How can we go to a far away place to accompany threatened human rights leaders when 120 veterans commit suicide every week in the United States? How can we think about inequality elsewhere when young people in our own country have to offer themselves as cannon fodder in Iraq in order to get money for college? These issues merit our attention, hard work and passion.
I am a white activist, enamored with Colombia and its struggle. And I have to ask myself – is there racism and denial inherent in my willingness to be connected to the work “over there?” Because of the path and process of my life, I feel that I have reasons (or call them head tricks and justifications) to legitimize my international solidarity work.
On a personal level, I am deeply rooted to the culture, life and people of Latin America: my gringo grandparents lived in Puerto Rico for 30 years and had all three kids there. My dad was raised in Puerto Rico among the street dogs and the arroz con habituelas, speaking Spanish en la calle and English at home, until he left for college at the age of 18. He was the only one of three sons who left and is therefore referred to lovingly as “el gringo” by his two brothers, who stayed and are more Puertorriqueños than anything else: searching for words when they have to speak English, experts at roasting a pig Puerto Rican style and unwelcoming of the cold up north. Both of them married and raised their families there. As a kid, I went on family vacations and when I was sixteen, I lived there for a summer, working as a volunteer at the child care center in the hospital where my uncle is a doctor, and my grandfather before him. My memories of that summer are the morning struggles through the Spanish language newspaper with a sip of strong coffee before I went to “work” and felt alienated from the other girls who were also volunteering their time at the daycare (the first day we started the job, one of the older women pointed me out as different from the rest. I think none of us got over this “naming” for the rest of the summer). Nevertheless, I loved the time spent with my family in Puerto Rico. Something there felt like me, something “me” felt settled there… It was over that summer that I decided I wanted to learn how to speak Spanish fluently so that I could communicate with my cousins. And that became a plan to study in Latin America for a year and Latin America became Colombia and somehow Colombia shook me, captured my imagination, and snuck its way into my consciousness. In retrospect it became a before and after story: before I had hopes to be a social worker. After: Colombia blew open my understanding of social justice work and set it in a global context of imperialism and power. I began to see the production of that imperialism as creating the oppression we experienced at home and exported abroad. But Colombia wasn’t compelling because of some theoretical understanding of global politics: it was a thousand lived moments that were alive with the deepness of humanity, life that I didn’t experience (and still don’t) in our cyber-space coffee houses and ordered lives in the US.
So a part of me says, I had no choice, things just turned out this way. And another part says, I might have legitimate roots in Latin America, but I grew up in Boulder, Colorado and have just as much gringa culture running through my veins as anything else. Clearly my “choice” to be in solidarity with people far away was created by a situation of privilege to go to college in the first place and to study abroad for a year. And I admit that it feels more exciting, exotic and energizing to be connected to this “other” place where I experience the realities of life and death every day. Everything is more vivid there, vividness that makes the struggles here feel bleak: slogging through the sleepy-ness of capitalism, feeling alienated from my community and wondering where the breath of the movement can be found?
But this delegation felt like a glimmer, a hint at the possibility of challenging an either/or dichotomy of working on injustice here or being in solidarity with it there. Nuestras luchas pueden alimentar cada una a la otra.
Theoretically, we all know that our struggles to overcome oppression are deeply interconnected and that we must learn from one another’s struggles to make each stronger. This delegation felt like bringing theory to practice. We were not approaching Colombia as the problem and arriving as gringos with the helping hand. We were exchanging experiences of problems that are fundamentally linked and which manifest differently in our different contexts.
We spent our eight-day delegation with two organizations: ACOOC (Collective Action for Conscientious Objectors) and the Red Juvenil (Youth Network). We never made the assumption that after a quick round of names and a two-hour session on youth and conscientious objection that the delegates could go back and “speak” for Colombian youth. We spent time together over a period of days. We had a round of formal introductions and lots of informal ones. We played games together and taught each other the ice breakers we use in each of our own workshops. We heard about their lives, cases and campaigns as conscientious objectors and their organizations’ work. We gave them a presentation about the war abroad and at home in the United States. We told our stories: a conscientious objector discharged from the military, a Los Angeles born Salvadoreña direct action worker, a Chilean born dancer, a spiritually inspired facilitator and leader of workshops for young people, a DC-based Argentine graffiti artist and a youth worker indebted to Florida farm workers. We stayed at their houses and listened to music and danced and partied together. They cooked us traditional Colombian food (plantains, guacamole, hogao and rice) and we cooked them traditional gringo food (beans, mac and cheese, broccoli and corn bread). We talked about creating a network to support conscientious objectors in both places, sending letters of support and pressure for individual cases from Colombia to the United States and vice versa. We explored our multiple definitions of conscientious objection through theater, music and creative expression. We accompanied them as they exposed their definition of conscientious objection to soldiers at a military brigade. And for the first time many of us began to define ourselves as conscientious objectors: whether or not we had run the risk of being recruited by the military, whether or not we had been discharged from the military as such, whether or not we had escaped these risks through situations of privilege, all of us were objecting with our consciences to these endless wars.
And all the while, Escenthio studied math. Every single day we were there, he studied. He brought his math book with him on the bus, to lunch and to our workshops. Everybody checked in with him (or was it bothered him?!) on a daily basis, his self-appointed tutor worked with him in the mornings and evenings and Escenthio excused himself from some of our sessions, only after explaining to our parceros that it was because he had to pass this damn test when he got back! His math test became part and parcel of our work in Colombia because our work there is our work here, because we can’t claim to support anybody in solidarity “over there” if we’re not being in solidarity “right here.”
I can hardly claim that our delegation resolved any of the questions about international solidarity and I know I’m not off the hook as a white activist doing solidarity work with Colombia. But we did attempt to explore a different kind of model of transnational community building that deconstructs a traditional set up which assumes solidarity goes in one direction. Because our solidarity work there and here is to support each other in our collective development as activists, leaders and human beings.
Because our work here and there is to build a stronger global movement to end war…
…and part of ending war is doing math homework
and part of ending war is creating art to define conscientious objection
and part of ending war is eating mac and cheese
and part of ending war is protesting illegal recruitment in front of a military base in Colombia
and part of ending war is being back here and longing for there
and part of ending war is challenging our own work and definitions while we keep on…
To see pictures of the youth delegation: