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Social Justice Theatre for Colombia

LA's Hector Aristizabal brings creative tools for healing back to the homeland he left after arrest and torture

By Diane Lefer
Published on LatinoLA: August 19, 2010


Social Justice Theatre for Colombia


When Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal returned to his homeland for the month of July 2010 to train peace and justice workers in social justice theatre techniques, in Cúcuta, he found the issue troubling the community was the border conflict between Colombia and Venezuela. Whenever the political rhetoric heats up, cross border trade is disrupted and soldiers on both sides of the border rough up and rob people carrying food and other merchandise.

In Barrancabermeja, it was worker demands for fair treatment by the oil extraction industry in a city where union membership can mean a death sentence.

In Medellín, it was the resurgence of the paramilitary death squads -- the "paracos"--who have taken armed control over the poorest barrios. They extort "vacunas"--vaccination against being killed--from public transport workers driving into the area. They enforce curfews and decide who enters and who leaves alive. They cleanse--i.e., kill--people they perceive as anti-social elements, including teenager punk rockers. They make death threats against a storyteller leading free writing workshops for kids in the public park that Juanes created as a gift to the city. They force out new arrivals from the countryside who are among the 4 million Colombians violently displaced when the rich and powerful grab their land.

At the same time, everywhere he went Aristizábal was deeply impressed that in the midst of so much terror, people also wanted help in ending the violence--especially gender-based violence--in their personal lives. He helped them address their concerns through Forum Theatre which was first developed by Augusto Boal, the Brazilian theatre artist and activist who died in May 2009,

As Aristizábal explained on his return to Los Angeles, "Forum Theatre is one of the techniques in Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed system for popular education and social action. In Colombia, I invited people to create scenes that showed the oppression they experience in their lives. We performed for the public and then invited audience members to intervene. They come up onstage and role-play to see if they can influence events in a different direction and change the negative outcome."

Again and again, Aristizábal saw the same series of scenes: A woman works hard at home preparing foods that her husband can take out to the street to sell. Then she asks his permission to go to a center where she can learn to read and write so she can help the kids with their homework. His response is, "What the hell are you talking about? Just stay home and take care of the four kids!" When he leaves, she asks the older kids to take care of things and she goes to class. Her husband tracks her down, pulls her out of the classroom and beats her.

When the audience was invited to intervene in the action, a woman took the stage and stood up to the husband. "Don't you hit me! I deserve to learn to read and write. This is what's best for our children, and I'm going to do it!"

"Do you think that would work?" Aristizábal asked the women present. "Is this possible?"

Before anyone could answer, the woman onstage began to tremble and cry. "I did it," she said. "This is exactly what I did. And today, here I am attending this training," she said, giving courage and hope to others. "And my husband is home watching the kids."

Men are changing behavior, too, said Aristizábal, noting the movement called La Nueva Masculinidad and even a group called El Machismo Mata, in which men try to end the ways in which violent behavior has become connected to the male identity.

"They did a scene in which one guy is knocked over during a soccer game. One member of his team just says, 'Get up, jerk,' and when another player asks instead if he's OK and tries to give him a hand, the others shout homophobic insults at him for being soft and showing concern. So what do you do in that moment? How do you respond to the situation?"

Aristizábal's workshops were sponsored by Cercapaz (Cooperation between State and Civil Society to Develop Peace), funded by the German government in cooperation with Colombia and, in Cúcuta, with support from Norway as well.

He pointed out that as the US continues the failed war on drugs, wasting billions of dollars through Plan Colombia, and will establish seven military bases in Colombia (unless that nation's Constitutional Court blocks the move) while turning a blind eye to repression, Cercapaz takes an entirely different approach. "They believe the way to bolster stable governance in Colombia is to empower civil society and encourage ordinary people to enter into dialogue with government institutions to secure their rights in a peaceful, democratic way." Cercapaz also provides funds to mayors of small towns who want to start projects to assist the displaced. "It is not a radical organization," Aristizábal explained. "They aren't supposed to trouble the waters, but because they work with the poorest and most marginalized people in the country they cannot avoid recognizing injustice and inequality."

Aristizábal has had firsthand knowledge of injustice. In 1982, falsely accused of guerrilla activity, he was arrested and tortured by the US-trained military and believes the only reason his life was spared was that an international human rights group came to the barracks looking for him. The story of his life in Colombia and subsequent social justice work in exile is told in The Blessing Next to the Wound, published in June by Lantern Books.

About Diane Lefer:
Diane Lefer's collaboration with Hector Aristizabal includes their play, Nightwind, which premiered in LA at REDCAT and has since toured the world for the anti-torture movement. She is co-author of their book, The Blessing Next to the Wound.
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