Wednesday, June 27, 2007

women's work

to create (ourselves)
A couple of weeks back, I got an email inviting me to meet Maria Galindo of the Bolivian women's organization, Mujeres Creando (Women Creating). Seven of us gathered Sunday evening in the elegant yet welcoming apartment of two of the women. Over coffee and occasionally distracted by the antics of a small black cat, we discussed support for prostitutes, anarchist graffiti, neoliberalism and it's impact on Bolivian migration, art exhibitions in Madrid, Evo Morales, radio access and more. This group were not afraid to work in new ways, to push boundaries and overturn ideas. In response to the sometimes forceful re-emergence of aymaran identity, Maria told us a phrase used by some women activists in Bolivia,'We are not original peoples, we are originals.'

to make truth
A few days later I found myself translating (after a fashion) for four North American visitors at the centre of Las Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo). Small, neat and silver-haired, Grandmother Alba talked with us about the thirty year search for four hundred children, taken with, or born in captivity to their 'disappeared' children. Imagine all your beliefs, your plans and dreams changing, in one moment of terror and grief. Imagine becoming detective, activist, court room witness, social organizer and economic protester. Imagine hearing about a strange, new technology that could prove links between grandchild and grandmother; and imagine orchestrating the use of pioneering DNA identification in trials to prove a child's true identity. Imagine finding 87 grandchildren, "unwrapping the bandages of lies formed around them". Imagine still searching for your own grandchild, thirty years on.

to survive
Last week I accompanied two workers from MEDH, the Ecumenical Human Rights Movement of Argentina, to the second meeting of a group of women in a poor district of the city. The women talked about survival despite lack of basic health care, uncollected rubbish, pollution from the disused lead factory, dealers and police positioning for control. They talked about control over their bodies, and violence endured, challenged, resisted.

A woman's work is never done.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

inti raymi

When I lived in Salisbury, the week leading up to midsummers day would see more and more people passing through on the way to Stonehenge. And although here in the southern hemisphere, Sunday marked the winter solstice, it was still all about the sun. The golden Inca mask of the Sun God (today housed in the Museo de Ecuador) may no longer be worn, yet across Peru, Bolivia, and migrant communities, people gathered to call on Inti, the Sun God, and ask that he would not leave them without light and warmth.

Thus Sunday morning's service at my local Methodist church was led by several Bolivian families and members of the congregation as they led us in the celebration of the Andean New Year and festival of Inti Raymi.

The church was dark and crowded, candles surrounded the altar and the smell of incense grew stronger. Musicians played the quena (flute), siku (panpipes), and charango (a small guitar or lute).

We heard the Genesis creation story and its interpretation amongst Andean Christians. Then the Wiphala, the traditional flag of the Andean people was brought in, waving and dancing. There are several versions of the flag, each representing different subregions. This version is from Qulla Suyu (or Collasuyu) which relates to the Aymara territories of northern Chile and Argentina, Peru and Bolivia.

We recognized God's presence in the sun, earth, and amongst us.
God without limits
As the desert sand falls between our fingers,
our time moves towards you.
As the snow blankets the mountains,
our years run towards you.
As a plumb of smoke is lost in the great blue emptyness,
our days return to you.
As a fire grows brighter,
our prayers rise up to you.

We turned to face the four points of the earth and to face the joys and sorrows of our lives. We ate sunflower seeds, seeds of hope, and received a coca leaf, sacred to many indigenous communities.

Around the table we gathered in peace, as the bread and wine were blessed in Spanish and Aymara. Together we said:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Cristo ha muerto, Cristo vive, Cristo volverá.
Tatituw jiwi, Tatituw jaki, Tatituw kutt'anini.

Monday, June 18, 2007

san antonio de areco

Saturday's outing, two hours from Bs As. Click on the photo to see more.

san antonio de areco

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

not overlooking the details

Medicine and BBC Radio Four are not amongst my common interests but I was very pleased to have heard Dr. Atual Gawande on last week's Start the Week, promoting his book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.

He began by observing that a patient's recovery depended on hundreds of people, from the engineer checking the oxygen pumps, to the cook monitoring allergies, 'all the way down to the doctor.' He talked about how introducing strategic systems for hand-washing could dramatically reduce the 90,000 deaths in the US per annum (10,000 in the UK) through hospital infections. Being great means not overlooking the basics.
Everyone, at every stage along the way, from the engineer and nurse all the way to the person running the hospital, saves lives…or loses lives.

The first point I'm still thinking about: Through simple, routine care and attention, we are life-givers or life-takers.

Dr. Gawande also spoke about interviewing doctors who were present to advise on the administration of lethal injections in US prisons. Some did so although against the death penalty, since they felt they should help the prisoner suffer as little as possible. But Gawande explained that last year in California, a group of anesthetists had refused to participate in administering lethal injections, the execution rate had dropped by over 60% since prisons had no choice but to stop killing people!

The second point I'm still thinking about: In seemingly unimportant ways, we can provoke great changes. In situations where we think we can only work to minimize harm, other possibilities can open up.

You may still be able to listen to the piece in full here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

la puta y la ballena

The Whore and the Whale, 2004 Spain/ Argentina.

Continuing the series of Argentine films showing at the South American Explorers Club, yesterday we watched this film spanning several generations from 1930s Patagonia, to the Spanish Civil War and modern day Spain and Argentina.

The key protagonists, Lola, a showgirl abandoned by her lover in a Patagonian brothel and tango theatre, and Vera, a writer investigating photographs of Lola, both struggle to gain control of their life and particularly their body. Although unsure about the sincerity of the film's feminist credentials, the women's longing for freedom was clear, particularly in their identification with the whale caught in the shallows. "Only you can wriggle out of this," they tell themselves and the whale.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Bartolomé de las Casas: I was wrong (twice)

Old Havana, La Habana Vieja, Cuba
On my first visit to Cuba, a fellow student from Puerto Rico and I stood looking at a portrait of Bartolomé de las Casas in the Roman Catholic Seminary in old Havana. His defense for the 'Indians' had come at a cost, she said. Intent on gaining liberty for the indigenous people of the Caribbean, las Casas went along with the call from landowners for recompense in the shape of slaves sent from Spain; slaves that he believed where the legitimate bounty of previous wars, both white and black slaves. One system of slavery replaced by another.

Standing in the sleepy afternoon light of the seminary, my image of Las Casas began to crack and peel like the cream courtyard walls.

Las Casas is remembered particularly through the efforts of Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who dedicated years of his life to writing a brick of a book about the Dominican friar. Gutierrez also helped found a centre for theological research and social action named for his hero. Christmas Eve night, while volunteering there, I gathered with my Peruvian family to give thanks and gifts. Into my lap was placed a copy of En Busca de los Pobres de Jesus Cristo.

Las Casas did not come to the new world as a missionary but a young man eager for adventure. Even after his ordination eight years later, he continued to keep natives to work his farm in Cuba and to wash for gold. Because of this, he was denied confession by the local Dominicans some of whom where already preaching against slavery, notably Antonio de Montesinos who preached a cracker of a sermon from the pulpit of Havana cathedral in 1511:
With what authority have you waged such hateful wars against these people, who lived quietly and peacefully on their lands, lands which you have now taken from them, and in doing so left behind such death and carnage? Are these not human beings? Do they not have the gift of reason? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?


Bartolomé's growing awareness of his sin culminated one day as he prepared to say Mass. The reading for that day was from the Apocrypha:
If one sacrifices ill-gotten goods, the offering is blemished;
the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable.
The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly,
nor for a multitude of sacrifices does he forgive sins.
Like one who kills a son before his father's eyes
is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor.
The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;
whoever deprives them of it is a murderer.
To take away a neighbour’s living is to commit murder;
to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood. (Sirach 34: 21 –27)


He freed his native slaves and spent the rest of his life campaigning for the rights of the indigenous people. For the cause, he journeyed back and forth across the ocean: lobbying members of the Spanish court; taking part in theological debates (the most famous being at Valladolid in 1550 with Juan Gines de Sepulveda); founding mixed communities of settlers and indigenous - some that worked, some that didn't; researching long histories of the Americas; presenting reports of mistreatment; and briefly acting as Bishiop of Chiapas in Mexico, before his support for the native peoples so angered the colonialists he had to flee.

Gutierrez reports that las Casas asked for slaves to be sent from Spain on four occasions: 1516, 1518, 1531, and 1543. He did not make the connection between his work on behalf of the indigenous peoples and the African slaves who were filling the need for labour across the Caribbean as the native communities were wiped out. But in 1547, his ship home docked at Lisbon, Portugal and he saw at first hand the magnitude of the slave trade and its brutality. Back in the Caribbean, he added a further eleven chapters to his History of the Indies denouncing the slavery of African and Canary Islanders, indeed of any group. Moreover, he recognized his own sin in buying slaves, stopped doing so, and said repeatedly, 'I was wrong.'

How are we converted to justice? Bartolomé learnt from experience, his own and others, and faithful reflection. Eyes wide open, he declared, "I was wrong. And here is what I will do to try to rectify my mistakes."

For that, his courage to say, "I was wrong." I continue to build on his example.

Friday, June 01, 2007

dazed and confused

Digbeth coach station, 2 am. A group of teenagers hustle round the coach driver as the bags are loaded. Distracted, one slips past and, hood up, slides into an empty seat. It's dark and most of the other passengers are asleep, muddled through tiredness or the effort of managing this journey in an alien language, through an alien landscape. The driver climbs the stairs slowly, examining each passenger, shining his torch into their faces. Tension. He reaches the boy and stands over him, waiting. 'Don't even think about it.' he says, and the boy gets up and leaves.

Milan airport, 1 pm. Two airport officials circle the departure lounge. 'India?!' they shriek, 'Passport!' The small group look up bemused from their conversations, fumbling in bags and pockets for their documents once again.

São Paulo airport, 7.30 am. Early morning passengers shuffle through security checks. Six Mormon boys, in identikit suits, with matching bags and metal name-badges identifying them as Elder Smith or Elder Sanchez, re-organise their luggage in the queue. Separated by the line, they wait quietly for each other, papers for the immigration crumpled in their hands.