Hector Aristizábal was born in Medellín, Colombia, a city plagued by violence from the drug trade and from the country’s decades-long civil war. His poverty-stricken neighborhood was a prime recruiting ground for what he calls the nation’s “four armies”: the Colombian military, the guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitaries, and the cocaine mafia. He recalls, “I buried most of the kids with whom I played soccer.” He assumed his own life would be short, too, but then he escaped into books and theater and “won the lottery”: a scholarship to Antioquia University in Medellín.
In 1982 Aristizábal was working as an actor-director and studying for his master’s degree in psychology when the family home was raided by soldiers. Under the Estatuto de Seguridad — Colombia’s version of the PATRIOT Act — citizens were encouraged to report any suspected subversive or terrorist activity by their neighbors. A priest had turned in Aristizábal’s younger brother after having overheard the boy talk politics. When soldiers found “subversive” literature in the home, both Aristizábal and his brother were taken into custody.
Aristizábal’s brother was sent to prison, but Aristizábal was eventually released after having been subjected to a mock execution; beatings; electric shock to the genitals; “el potro” (being hogtied, hung from a pole, and stretched); and “water boarding” (being held underwater again and again to the verge of drowning).
He remained in Colombia for another seven years and continued to work as a human-rights activist, psychologist, and actor. Many of his friends were killed, and his own life was repeatedly threatened until, in 1989, he escaped into exile in the U.S. He married an American and settled in Pasadena, California, where he earned his second master’s degree, in marriage-and-family therapy, from Pacific Oaks College. As a therapist he works with torture survivors, gang members, prisoners, AIDS patients, and low-income immigrant families. He is also a cofounder of the Colombia Peace Project, the Colombian Children’s Peace Fund, and the Los Angeles Center for Theater of the Oppressed.
Developed by Brazilian artist and activist Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed (TO) uses the techniques of theater to encourage creative thinking and action addressing economic and social problems. Boal worked with Brazil’s poor until 1971, when he was arrested by his country’s military dictatorship, tortured, and “encouraged” to go into exile. During his exile in Europe, Boal met people who struggled with internalized oppression, rather than direct repression by a military government, and he adapted his ideas to address their different needs.
It was through our mutual interest in Theater of the Oppressed that I first met Aristizábal a few years ago. There is much I’ve wanted to learn from him since then, but he is always in motion. Interviewing him meant chasing him around Los Angeles County and claiming whatever minutes I could. Our first meeting was at the Program for Torture Victims (PTV), where he is a board member and offers his own brand of nontraditional therapy. We continued during his lunch break in the spacious room at Cityscape, the arts-based therapy program he helped to start and for which he serves as clinical director. The walls there are covered with poems and drawings done by children and adolescents diagnosed with severe emotional disorders, many of whom were previously considered unreachable.
Our last interview took place on April 6 at his home. We were interrupted twice: once when he went to pick up his ten-year-old son from an after-school program, and again when a visitor arrived to tell of a shootout a few blocks away between gang members and police; he asked Aristizábal to talk to both sides in hopes of averting retaliation. At that point I figured he had better things to do than answer my questions.
Lefer: You often quote the African saying “The blessing is next to the wound.” What blessing can you possibly find in torture?
Aristizábal: That’s up to the person. Each of us who survives must create meaning from the experience: Why did this happen to me? Why did I survive when other people didn’t? We seek meaning by creating narratives about our lives. The dominant narrative for torture is about “victims.” But I don’t believe in victimhood. People have tried to place me in the category of victim, and I won’t allow it. Those of us who’ve been tortured need to see it as simply one more event in our lives, not a defining characteristic of who we are. And any time you go through a difficult ordeal, it can awaken inner resources. Instead of being a victim, each person can learn the lesson his or her spirit needs to learn. This is very hard to do, though, especially immediately after the traumatic event. First you need medical doctors who will treat you physically and psychologists who will help you find emotional release — the range of services provided here at PTV.
Lefer: After the military let you go, did you have any sort of therapy?
Aristizábal: No, no one thought to give me any, but I had people who listened to me, and friends who hid me, because we were afraid the army had let me go only in order to kill me; and I had people who protected me from myself, because I was capable then of doing something stupid. So I did have support.
Since then I have tried to recast the experience of being tortured as an initiation experience. In a traditional society, initiation marks the end of your old life and the beginning of something new. And when the initiation ordeal is over, if you survive, you are welcomed back into the community. Perhaps you come back with a gift of knowledge to share.
People undergo many ordeals — not only torture, but accidents, illness, depression, divorce, imprisonment, even adolescence. But in this country we don’t have ceremonies to reintegrate people back into society. For someone who has been tortured, this is very important, because you have been isolated, alone in that room with your torturer. PTV executive director Michael Nutkiewicz has written that torture undermines your belief in relationships and leaves you stranded in an inner wilderness. Maher Arar, the entirely innocent Canadian citizen whom the U.S. sent to Syria to be tortured, was quoted in the New Yorker: he said the pain was so great, it makes you forget the taste of your mother’s milk. You lose your community, your language, your relations. All these connections are broken. So we who have been tortured have to reconnect to the world outside. If we don’t, we replicate the isolation of the torture chamber over and over. We have to find the door and the key to unlock it. That’s how we heal. For me the most effective way to do this was to join with others to work for justice.
When I see the photographs from Abu Ghraib, or I read in the newspaper about this horrendous practice of “rendition,” in which the U.S. sends people to other countries to be tortured, I feel great anger. Right now, as we speak, the UN Commission on Human Rights is working to close legal loopholes in the Convention against Torture, but the U.S. delegation is busy in Geneva trying to keep those loopholes open. The Bush administration is shameless about this. But such news only reignites my passion to continue my work, to create awareness, and to unmask the rationales of those who would justify torture in any way.
Lefer: The U.S. has used many tools of repression against citizens of other countries. Do you see our government ever turning these tools against its own citizens?
Aristizábal: It would be very presumptuous of me to predict. I can say that, where I’m from, you grow up knowing that members of your military are being trained in the techniques of torture at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. In 2000 Congress came close to dismantling the school, so the Department of Defense came up with the ploy of changing its name. Now it’s the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but it continues training soldiers in so-called counterinsurgency. Colombia sends thousands of military officers there, and the Colombian police and military also train at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. We Colombians know all about this, but most Americans don’t, so the things your government is capable of doing may come as a surprise to you.
Lefer: Can we return for a moment to the notion of the blessing being next to the wound? I understand you’re saying that your experience of being tortured led you to commit yourself to this campaign to stop torture and help other survivors. But you were working for human rights and social justice before you were ever arrested. So I don’t see your work as entirely a result of your experience.
Aristizábal: Maybe it gave me a new focus, or a greater intensity of desire. For a long time, during the dirty war in Colombia, when my friends were being shot dead all around me, my goal was just to survive. But after I was tortured, my goal changed. It was not just to survive, but to live a meaningful life. Sometimes, in the ordeal, we find the seeds of our identity.
There’s a poem by Miguel de Unamuno, translated by Robert Bly: “Throw yourself like seed . . . From your work you will be able one day to gather yourself.” We can do that by recognizing our unique gift, and sometimes the gift is found through the wound. My youngest brother, Hernan Dario, was gay and grew up in a society that despised him for his sexuality. The love that was denied him caused him great pain, and he became a crack addict. But he also had a great love of gardening, of plants. He didn’t have any formal training as a botanist, but he had this natural ability. When a mafioso hired him as a landscape designer, my brother stopped using drugs and prostituting himself. He changed his life because he had the chance to use his gift.
Lefer: A little ironic that he was saved by the Colombian mafia.
Aristizábal: Not by the mafia: by his gift. Later this same mafioso paved over the gardens to make more room for his cars, and he cut down portions of the rain forest. He was a violent, ignorant man who ultimately destroyed what my brother cherished.
My brother later died of AIDS, but before his death he had the chance to realize his gift, and we all had the chance to recognize it. He was finally seen, and that is the real meaning of respect. It comes from the Latin respicere: “to look at again, to look back at.” Respect is the act of looking back at someone, of seeing him or her.
Lefer: It still seems ironic to me that a mafioso had such a positive influence on your brother’s life.
Aristizábal: The Colombian mafia came to influence almost every part of our lives: our politics, our economy, even our psyches. The Medellín cartel even offered to pay off Colombia’s external debt. That would have been great, a way to show the United States that we, too, have thieves who have made it. But of course our hypocritical political leaders wouldn’t allow it: they’ll take mafia money to run their political campaigns, but they say no to such an incredible possibility.
Instead the Colombian government obeys the International Monetary Fund. The IMF says, “Privatize!” and our government sells off our natural resources, putting them in the hands of transnational criminals. For example, the La Loma coal mines are now owned by the Drummond Company, based in Alabama, and this company is being sued in U.S. District Court for conspiracy in abduction, torture, and murder. It’s charged with having hired the paramilitaries who killed three union leaders in 2001. The working conditions in those mines would not be allowed in the U.S. The Drummond Company increased the weight allowance on the front-end loaders from twenty-two tons to thirty-two tons. These buckets, if you look at the manufacturer’s specs, are not built to accommodate that weight, so the whole machine shakes and vibrates. It does damage to the disks in the workers’ backs, and some of them are crippled. It vibrates their skulls until they get symptoms of Parkinson’s. I don’t know if this is better or worse than the mafia.
Lefer: The cocaine cartels are also the rationale for U.S. military aid.
Aristizábal: Plan Colombia was formulated to stop drug trafficking and eradicate the coca crops, but it’s accomplished nothing. Millions of your tax dollars have been wasted on interdiction. Has demand for the white powder gone down in the U.S? Has the supply disappeared or the price gone up? Plan Colombia pays for military training and equipment and chemical sprays — made by Monsanto — that have been used even in areas where there’s never been coca cultivation. They fumigated Departamento de Bolívar, where rich gold deposits have been mined for years in a very rustic way by the local people. Several towns were fumigated just to force the people to move.
And spraying destroys not only the coca plants but other flora and fauna. Bird-watchers know there is no place in the world like Colombia, with its rich biodiversity. It’s a paradise of birds. And these places are now being fumigated and the birds poisoned. And who gets displaced? Mostly poor peasants. There are more internally displaced people in Colombia than in any other country in the Western Hemisphere. Between 2.5 and 3 million people have been driven from their homes.
Lefer: Robin Kirk is an investigator with Human Rights Watch. She’s written extensively about the conflict and has spent a lot of time in Colombia at great personal risk. I’ve heard her say — and I don’t know if this is also the position of Human Rights Watch — that she’s not entirely against U.S. military aid to Colombia, because it may give us some leverage with the government.
Aristizábal: Leverage? When the appropriations are debated in Congress, no one debates whether military aid to Colombia is a good policy. It’s all about whether the contract for helicopters should go to Sikorsky in Connecticut or Bell in Texas. So they compromise and split it.
I would be very happy if Americans understood that they have an important role to play in history, and that it’s not the role of empire. But I hear myself starting to preach, and that’s not what I want to do. My work these days is about creating a space for imagination and conversation and listening. It’s not about telling people “the truth,” or telling anybody else what to do.
For a long time, during the dirty war in Colombia, when my friends were being shot dead all around me, my goal was just to survive. But after I was tortured, my goal changed. It was not just to survive, but to live a meaningful life. Sometimes, in the ordeal, we find the seeds of our identity.
Lefer: That sounds like the realization that inspired Augusto Boal to create Theater of the Oppressed.
Aristizábal: Yes, about thirty-five years ago Boal and his theater company traveled to the northeast of Brazil and performed an agitprop drama for peasants whose land was being taken away. The play ended with the actors raising their rifles in the air — they were just props, of course — and calling on everyone to “spill our blood for the land.” So the peasant leaders said, “OK, let’s do it, and you join us.” That’s when Boal realized he had no right to tell people to run risks he wasn’t willing to take himself. Instead of taking up arms, he began to use theater to help people articulate their own goals and strategies.
Boal saw how the improvisational games employed by actors can also be used to foster community and promote social justice. Sometimes he would get a group of oppressed peasants to write a play about a real problem that seemed insoluble. And then, as the play was performed, people would be invited to interrupt the action and improvise changes to the scene: if we say this or do that, how will it change the outcome? Maybe you don’t find a solution, but people begin to see that they don’t have to follow a predetermined script that’s imposed on them. You show them another possibility. If you can change the script, you can change your life.
Boal’s methods are always evolving and are now used by teachers, therapists, and a variety of social and community organizations.
In TO we don’t impose anything. We invite people to express ideas and feelings through their bodies, because a stance or gesture can have many meanings depending on your experience and who you are at a particular moment. If I stand like this, body rigid, glaring and pointing at you, you might say, “That’s a dictator,” but to me, it reminds me of my son when he was two years old. Then, if you take the time to reflect, you might ask what characteristics a two-year-old and a dictator share.
I was just in Ramallah doing a TO workshop that brought rabbinical students from the U.S. and Israel together with Palestinian activists and intellectuals, men and women. I said to them all, “We’re going to play some games.” I asked them to walk around the space and choose partners, but not to be with people they already knew. I played the drum, and they danced in groups of two, and then four, and then eight. I had them change partners again and again.
Lefer: Did you try to match Israelis up with Palestinians?
Aristizábal: No, it just happened naturally. When everyone is running around, it immediately democratizes a room. We were just playing. We were not Israelis and Palestinians, or men and women, or black and white. We touched each other, smelled each other.
Lefer: People were comfortable with touching?
Aristizábal: Oh, yes, because no one said, “Now we’re going to touch. If you have a problem with touching . . .” That only invites people to say, “I have a problem.” I don’t tell them, “We’re going to act,” so no one says, “I don’t know how to act.” I simply offer them an invitation to perform some action. Later on in the day, we played a game in which I invited people to turn around and hug the person behind them. The organizers looked at me like: Hector! What are you doing? That’s not possible! So I said, “Wait, let’s stop for a moment. My friends, I cannot pretend to know your culture. I have no idea what you can and cannot do. So remember: I’m just inviting. You do it your own way. When I work with seniors, maybe they can’t move so easily. Maybe they can’t bend down. But they do what they can. So you just figure out what you can do.”
And you know what happened? Everybody hugged. I do things in a playful, respectful way. I don’t force — although I do push, because life pushes us. Otherwise, as adults, we would be just the same as we were at the age of ten.
Lefer: Did you deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly?
Aristizábal: No, because I wasn’t going to be with them for a long time. It would have been irresponsible, like a surgeon opening someone up and walking away. But I did at one point ask two people to create an image of friendship or love. Then I asked them to transform that image into one of hate. Instead of saying hello, now they were strangling each other or showing their fists. Then I had everyone go back and forth: love, hate, love, hate! So now there was emotion in the room, but no one had to own it. Through the plasticity of theater, we could go in seconds from hate to love. You have an Israeli and a Palestinian, and they can show friendship, or they can show animosity. Either is possible.
After that I asked them to create an image of the world in which everyone is doing something different, and it’s total chaos. Then, on the count of three, I had them transform that chaotic world into an ideal world. People ended up in a circle, making eye contact. Some of them were hugging. That’s how we get people to work together without anyone saying, “Now you have to work together.” It just happens in front of our eyes. People are not forced to change who they are; they are invited to experience the other, the unknown, through creating something together. And we discover that we all have this incredible capacity to transform ourselves, and the world.
Traditional therapy can be important, but too often the goal is to help people cope with or adapt to that which sickens them. The courts mandate “anger management.” That’s an atrocity. We don’t honor our emotions.
Lefer: Is this the sort of work you do with your other clients?
Aristizábal: Sometimes. Say there’s someone who has been tortured and now is applying for political asylum in the U.S., but is still traumatized. Maybe he or she cannot meet your eye and is almost mute. How is this person going to go to a hearing and look at the immigration judge and the lawyers and answer questions about rape and torture? So we do theater games: nothing threatening, nothing at stake. No one is talking about torture or asylum. This allows people to come back into their bodies and take back their voices.
Most of the people I work with are so-called minorities — who together are the majority — and immigrants who don’t speak English. And I work with gang members no one else wants to deal with except to punish them or pathologize them. And I work in the Youth Authority, where many of the criminalized kids end up. I invite these people to see the social structures that are oppressing them.
In Los Angeles today, the schools are like prisons, and kids who get bad grades end up stigmatized as troublemakers, as rebels. Sometimes their parents are humiliated and blamed, or just disrespected and ignored. In my parenting groups, parents learn that the school is theirs — not the principal’s, and not the teachers’. Now these parents are writing letters and copying their letters to the LA Unified School District — and, “miraculously,” there are changes.
Instead of diagnosing and pathologizing poor people, why not connect them to their strengths? I listen to people, then help them tell their own stories of survival, stories that are distorted or ignored by the dominant culture, stories that too often end tragically inside our prison system.
For me, the American Dream belongs to the people who are crossing the border as we speak. I don’t see a lot of people who were born here who still honor the dream. There’s so much unhappiness along with all the comforts.
Lefer: This is not typical therapy.
Aristizábal: No, it isn’t. Traditional therapy can be important, but too often the goal is to help people cope with or adapt to that which sickens them. The courts mandate “anger management.” That’s an atrocity. We don’t honor our emotions.
Lefer: I see plenty of anger: domestic violence, road rage.
Aristizábal: When emotions are suppressed and “managed,” they will erupt somewhere. We should be outraged at all the wars going on in the world. I’m not advocating violence, but nonviolence isn’t about managing your rage. It’s an exercise in transforming these angry impulses into something productive that honors life.
In my work I don’t try to fix anyone. I try to create a space in which people can find their own inner strength. They can then use that strength to change the conditions of their lives, if that’s what they want. Collective action will arise from there, inspired by people’s strong emotions.
I don’t tell my clients they’re going to be cured. I don’t ask them to accept labels and embrace the status quo, because the status quo is horrendous. You have to think about all the dangers these kids face just walking home from junior high. Most of my clients live in gang-infested neighborhoods. I had two kids this week who witnessed a drive-by: someone got shot in the chest in front of them. When the police arrived, they handcuffed these two twelve-year-olds for having been witnesses and took them to the police station and showed them photographs of gang members and said, “Which one did it?” So now, of course, these kids are afraid that the gang that killed this kid will be gunning for them. These are the realities that they face every day. They don’t need therapy. They need to survive these incredibly dangerous conditions.
Lefer: Many of the kids you work with haven’t just been witnesses. They’re violent gang members.
Aristizábal: So what? Before I left Colombia, I was involved in a study of violence in Medellín. I interviewed many of the sicarios — the teenage hired assassins who were so notorious at the time. They carried out killings for the mafia and the paramilitaries — an extreme right-wing militia with ties to the official Colombian Army and access to U.S.-supplied weapons. (The government claims to be breaking those ties, but the latest report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says the relationship continues.) These teens were trained to fire machine guns from motorcycles traveling thirty-five kilo-meters per hour. I would interview these boys in the barrio, or in the hospital, because every weekend some of them got shot. One day I had just interviewed this kid named Chucho in his hospital room when I heard gunfire, right there in the hospital. I threw myself on the floor. Bullets came through the door, and when it was over, Chucho had forty or fifty bullets in him.
Most of the boys were killed during the course of the study. But their attitude was: So what if I live only another two years, or another two months? Right now I’ve got a Kawasaki, and I can buy a house for my mom and support the family. These were the same kids who had killed friends of mine. Hector Abad Gómez, an intellectual and a doctor, was shot standing next to me while we were attending a funeral. So was Leonardo Betancur, another doctor who worked in human rights. The thirteen-year-old kid who killed them both was shot a block away as he ran from the scene. You might think I would hate these kids for these senseless killings, but they were just like the boys I had grown up with. I’d seen how boys who turned to crime helped their families. In my neighborhood run-down houses had become three-story buildings filled with the latest gadgets. So I can’t just demonize them. In many ways I was once the same as them: My life, too, was a mess. I lived each day as if it were my last.
I saw an entire generation destroyed in the poor neighborhoods of Medellín, and I see the same thing happening here with this gang culture. They’re just kids, and no one has taught them to love life. They haven’t been initiated into life. Instead the gangs have initiations — or pseudoinitiations — into a culture of death.
I can relate this to my own experience. In 1999 my brother Juan Fernando was snatched off the street by the paramilitaries, and I went back to Colombia to search for him. After they had found his body, I witnessed the autopsy and saw with my own eyes the atrocities that had been done to him in the ten days before they’d finally killed him.
After I had buried my brother, I asked a close friend to take me to the place where my brother’s body had been found, in a ditch beside the highway in a town controlled by the paramilitaries. In my delusional state I wanted to find my brother’s killers and kill them. So here we were, headed into the lion’s den. My friend was driving, and we were drinking aguardiente. Halfway there he turned to me and said, “What are you doing? And what am I doing taking you there? I don’t want to die with you this way.” So we turned around and got drunk and ended up going to a strip bar, which was for me a way to touch bottom. I realized that I was wounded and out of my mind with pain. I had wanted to kill, but I knew I wasn’t a killer. So, instead, I had decided to be killed. It was a way to stop the suffering.
I think a lot of these kids who get involved in gangs don’t really want to hurt anyone. They just want it all to stop. They live in poisonous environments, war zones where the police are the biggest gang around. Many kids are terribly depressed because they cannot cope with their living conditions. One of my therapy clients, an eight-year-old boy, was recently diagnosed with a “conduct disorder,” a very serious label, and I went to visit him.
Lefer: Do you often visit clients at home?
Aristizábal: Yes, I never wait in an office with a potted plant and my diplomas on the wall for people to come and see me. I go out and find them.
Lefer: Do you arrange to meet them?
Aristizábal: No, I just figure out where they are. I don’t work with schedules. It’s ridiculous to expect people whose lives are disrupted to be able to keep appointments. Crisis doesn’t fit into a schedule, even for middle-class people.
So I went to this boy’s home. He lives with his pregnant mother and five siblings in a one-bedroom apartment. His mother sleeps in the bedroom with her latest boyfriend and the two youngest kids. There’s a thirteen-year-old with cerebral palsy, and the rest are all under nine years of age. So there are literally kids crying all day long. What had this boy with the “conduct disorder” done? He’d tried to burn the apartment down.
If you look just at what he did, you might see him as a monster. But if you go there, you understand that this kid is crying for help. I would want to burn that apartment down, too. Who would want to live there? How could you take it? And his mother has had six kids with six different men. Men come into her life, use her until she gets pregnant, and then leave. And yet that woman, who has been abandoned and betrayed so many times, still manages to feed her children. She doesn’t leave them. She goes out to sell bedspreads in the street and puts a roof over their heads, I don’t know how. I have two kids and many more resources, and I can hardly make it. This woman manages to raise her children — in conditions of great deprivation, yes, but who am I to judge her? I have to honor her strength and her resiliency and her incredible capacity to survive. I see her this way, and I hope to help her see herself this way, too.
Sometimes I sit at the computer and type my clients’ stories as they dictate them. Then I reflect their stories back to them in a mythical framework so they can see their strengths, so they can see themselves as heroes. I read back what they’ve written, and I ask them, “Would you watch this movie?” And they say yes, and I say, “That’s you! You crossed the Rio Grande when you were seven months pregnant. You didn’t know how to swim, and you saw two people drown in front of you, but you kept going. And you got to the desert, and you didn’t have water for three days, and you didn’t know where you were going, but you kept walking. Isn’t that a hero?”
Later, I’ll read the story to her kid, who’ll say, “My mom did that when she was pregnant with me?”
“Yeah,” I’ll say. “You were the kid in her belly. You helped her float across the river and make it to the other side.”
For me, the American Dream belongs to the people who are crossing the border as we speak. I don’t see a lot of people who were born here who still honor the dream. There’s so much unhappiness along with all the comforts. The inner wilderness, where we live in anguish because our connections are broken, comes in many forms. For many Americans, maybe it’s the isolation chamber of privilege, the emptiness we try to fill by buying things.
Lefer: You connect to many people, yet you’ve said you feel cut off and unhappy here in the U.S.
Aristizábal: It’s a struggle for me to learn to love being in this country. Colombia is in my veins. But if I went back there, I would be killed. Here I can work on campaigns to support and protect union leaders and teachers in Colombia and to raise awareness of what American businesses like Coca-Cola, Occidental Petroleum, and Drummond are doing there. For years I hated being in the U.S. This was the wolf’s mouth, the country I had fought against for my entire youth. Yet I’ve ended up falling in love with an American woman, having American children, becoming an American.
It would be easy for me to hate this place, but also very useless. Who cares? The entire world hates this place. I’m tired of hating Bush. I have realized there’s no point in simply acting in opposition to others. I have to live my own desires instead of just opposing theirs. This is what we all have to do: find our own style of living and working and making love, and do it, I hope, with some beauty and grace.
For me theater is both a way to express myself and a wonderful social and political tool. I once did a TO workshop in the largest men’s prison in India. The superintendent was the archetype of a despot, and he had barred the way to every organization that wanted to bring services to the prisoners. I don’t know why he let this crazy Colombian in. I worked with forty men, and for three hours they created images of the oppression they felt in their lives, and then imagined what liberation from this oppression would look like. The superintendent watched us, and afterward he asked me to his office. To my amazement, he invited me back to work with all of his four thousand inmates. Maybe what had happened was, for the first time, he’d really seen the prisoners. When he recognized their humanity, he himself became humanized.
Theater offers “at-risk” youth the opportunity to transform their view of the world, and of themselves. Some of these kids are trying to fulfill a need for belonging through gang involvement, and theater can bond them together in a productive way. There are all these creative seeds buried in people, no matter how oppressed they’ve been, and you can find these seeds in their stories. With the recent extreme rains here, seeds of plants that have been dormant for centuries are sprouting. They have somehow kept themselves alive for all that time. This same potential is always alive inside people.
When we do a youth performance, I invite the parents and the teachers and people from the community so that the kids can be seen by as many of them as possible. After the show, parents often ask how I got their “lazy” kids to memorize all those lines. I invite people to bring food, and there’s always more than we can eat. Remember, these are very poor people, but they feel honored that they were asked to bring something. And then we do a simple ritual, like create a tunnel with our hands for the kids to walk through as we say their names. A ritual doesn’t have to be elaborate and sophisticated.
What most helped me heal after Juan Fernando was killed was a ritual that I did with Michael Meade, the mythologist and storyteller, and Malidoma Somé, the shaman from Burkina Faso, and Luis Rodríguez, the poet from East LA. I’ve learned much from these three men. At the ritual a hundred men I didn’t know heard the story about Juan Fernando and saw the pictures that I’d taken at his autopsy. They did a symbolic burial of my brother, and then they cried for me, because I couldn’t cry. My eyes were dry. I was still in shock. These hundred men cried for me and created an incredible shrine, an entire room filled with nature, rocks, candles, and the tears of men.
With the recent extreme rains here, seeds of plants that have been dormant for centuries are sprouting. They have somehow kept themselves alive for all that time. This same potential is always alive inside people.
Lefer: You like to say that we need imagination, not fantasy. What’s the difference?
Aristizábal: Imagination connects to the deep self, which we can compare to the spirit, the psyche, the unconscious. It is that which moves you, the reason you get up every day. Fantasy connects to the ego. I see most kids today spending their time with fantasy: video games, television — images on a screen that don’t connect to anything. When people consume these products that do not connect to life, they consume themselves. When my son does a theater improvisation or is trying to learn his lines and discover a character, he’s connected to something. When he’s playing Gameboy, he can be absorbed for hours, and all I see afterward is an exhausted child with nothing to give back.
Lefer: I wonder if imagination is also more open-ended. You don’t know where it’s going. With fantasy you have your preset goal manufactured for you. You can’t change it; you can only participate in it.
Aristizábal: You cannot even participate in it. You can only consume it, and very little is asked of you, except that you pay with your time and your money. It’s an assassination of the spirit. Some of the kids I work with don’t talk. It’s not only because their parents speak a different language or don’t have time to talk with them, but also because they are always watching a screen rather than conversing with other people. Computers are wonderful tools, but you don’t speak back to them. We’re so invested in bringing computers into the classroom, but computers cannot teach, because they cannot love.
Lefer: You’ve said that you used to be very confrontational, but now you’d rather seduce than confront. Have you changed, or have you merely changed your tactics?
Aristizábal: In my own country the people I argued with the most were the people I loved. When you don’t have a lot materially, all you have is your ideas and your passion, and you don’t hold back. But here I find that argumentative mode becomes polarizing. So, yes, I go about things in a different way. And I’m not as naive. I used to think if I could just make people understand the history that I was reading, then we could all start the revolution and live in a peaceful and just society. Today I don’t force my ideas on anyone.
Lefer: But you do proselytize, and quite passionately.
Aristizábal: I am very clear about certain facts and where I stand, but I don’t demonize those who disagree with me. I do want to expose people to ideas that are not in the mainstream media. For this reason, in Pasadena, I help organize a political documentary series called Conscientious Projector, and I have watched some of these films with my kids. We watch, and sometimes we cry. Some people may think these films are not appropriate for children, but kids watch a thousand killings a year on television with no explanation, no truthfulness. They watch the protagonist get shot, but at the end his body looks perfect. That’s not how your back looks after you’ve been shot. I want kids to know that. So I show them videos in which gang members display their scars.
When the war started in Iraq, my daughter’s teacher called me and said she’d asked the students to draw a picture of how they were feeling about the war. Most of the kids drew images of the flag and airplanes dropping bombs, but my daughter wrote, “The war started,” and drew herself crying. She was five at the time. I didn’t tell her to draw that. But that made me feel very proud, that she is connected.
Lefer: But your kids know you’re a peace activist.
Aristizábal: I used to mock the peace movement. “Peace?” I’d say. “Without justice, there can be no peace. Without anger, there can be no peace. How can we have peace with all this oppression?” I was dealing with pain and anger and the desire for revenge, and I hated being in the U.S., knowing what my tax dollars support.
Then I met some kids from the Colombian Children’s Peace Movement. These were kids who had gone through situations similar to mine or worse; whose parents had been killed, kidnapped, or tortured; who had witnessed massacres, or their friends being killed by gangs. But they had pledged not to retaliate, not to take up weapons. None of them spoke in ideological terms, as my generation had. When I met these kids, I realized they had something I didn’t. The generations that had come before them were destroying the country, and these children understood that none of these groups, right-wing or left-wing, would bring justice and peace to Colombia. These thirteen-and fourteen-year-olds represented a whole new paradigm: their actions and their hearts were in complete accord.
Colombia held a referendum called the Children’s Mandate for Peace and Rights in which only children could vote, and they got millions of children to come out and vote for peace. Can you imagine? And here I was, forty years old and talking about violence. I wanted to think of myself as a warrior, and yes, I was full of rage, but the truth is I like beauty and dialogue. So that is the strength I need to build on. I stopped struggling with myself. No, that’s not true. The struggle is never over. But these kids allowed me to connect with my compassion and desire to create, not destroy; to love, not kill.
It’s still easier for me to sit in a room with Israelis and Palestinians and imagine nonviolence than to imagine peace in my own country. But I like to think the work I do now is preparing me to go back to Colombia one day and sit in the same room with a worker, a peasant, a military person whose institution tortured me, a paramilitary like the ones who killed my brother, a guerrilla who probably wants to kill me because of how I criticized his movement, and a CEO from a big company that I’ve called “evil,” and we will talk about how we can all work together to rebuild our country.